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My name is Wayne Chamberlain and I'm a geek daddy who is into Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, books, movies, video games and talking to creative people about their work in these mediums. And that's what you'll find here, along with news, previews and reviews. I'm a journalist, an editor and co-host of the Star Wars Book Report podcast. So come on in and feel free to geek out in a fun, friendly environment.

Monday, May 28, 2012

3DS a welcome addition to gaming world

During my hiatus, a couple pieces of hardware debuted and while I’ve had a chance to play with them, I haven’t written much about them until recently.
I wrote about the PlayStation Vita a couple weeks ago and now it’s Nintendo’s 3DS handheld’s turn for its closeup.
For those who wonder if it’s possible to get a 3D viewing experience without the silly glasses, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, it’s only available on a very small screen at present. The screen is about 3 ½ inches wide and has a resolution of 800X240 (400X240 for each eye). The second touch screen, on the bottom panel, is not 3D.
It’s a light piece of hardware, quiet and easy to carry. It features three cameras, gyroscopes to allow you to play by moving the handheld around, as well as a slider that lets you adjust the amount of 3D effect to your liking. That’s a nice feature, in that if you’re not crazy about 3D, you can dial it completely back of 2D, or you can use it to varying degrees.
The unit comes with a 2-gigabyte SD memory card, but you can buy other larger cards if you desire.
The battery life is pretty solid, as well, clocking in anywhere up to five or six hours depending on how much 3D you use and how intense the game you’re playing is in terms of the graphics.
The 3DS is backwards compatible with DS games, as well as DSI titles.
Personally, I’m a big fan of this handheld. I like the power of having a 3D gaming experience in my hands without having to resort to wearing glasses. And while the images are a little dull in comparison to 2D games due to the 3D effect (anyone having watched a 3D movie at theatres and seeing how the image on the screen dims a bit when you put the glasses on understands this), it’s not a terribly distracting issue.
One of the newest titles for the 3DS is Mario Tennis Open, which is an easy, kid-friendly, accessible arcade sports title featuring the usual wacky powerups, crazy courts and characters of Nintendo’s iconic main character.
You can play solo, play versus or co-op with two to four players, the game supports download play, so others who don’t have the game can transfer a temporary version to their 3DS so they can play with or against you, as well as online play over a WiFi connection.
The gameplay is quite simple, such that any six year old could pick up and play this game. The use of 3D may take younger games a while to adjust to, but once they do they’ll be hitting the ball (or turtle shells) around with abandon.
Overall, the 3DS is a winner and appears to have a solid future in terms of advancing gaming technology.
The score: 4 stars out of 5.
As for MarioTennis Open, the score is 4 stars. Rated E.
* * *
Here’s a quick look at some other 3DS titles currently available:
*Kid Icarus Uprising (Nintendo): A long-awaited sequel featuring a popular character finally got its day in the sun, but it has been a bit divisive because of control issues that, depending on the player, either make the game or completely ruin it. I found it to be a challenge and didn’t stick with it too long, but others I know do enjoy it immensely. Try it at your own risk.

The score: 2.5 stars. Rated E-10+
* Tekken 3D Prime Edition (Bandai Namco Games): A good martial arts fighting game in which you can play solo, co-op or head to head featuring the usual Tekken roster.
The score: 3.5 stars. Rated T.
* Tales of the Abyss (Bandai Namco Games): The old PlayStation 2 Japanese role-playing game makes a slight makeover to move onto the 3DS. The result is an OK RPG, but it feels dated and really could have been an original title rather than a port.
The score 2.5 stars. Rated T.
* Nicktoons MLB 3D (2K Games): A solid into to virtual baseball for young gamers, thanks to licensed characters like SpongeBob, Stimpy, the Last Airbender and Jimmy Neutron, as well as some real major leaguers. 
The score 3 stars. Rated E.
* Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir (Tecmo): An interesting game in which you use the 3DS cameras to see a spirit in your environment, assisting her by solving a mystery involving a nasty woman. The game is incredibly short, though.
The score: 3 stars. Rated T.
* Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater (Konami): This is a game for the adult gamers to dive into, filled with spies, stealth combat and more Metal Gear plot developments for fans of the popular third-person action-shooter franchise. It doesn’t disappoint, with a deep story, excellent mechanics and all the twists and turns that make MGS one of the great story-based franchises.
The score: 4 stars. Rated M.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Zombie shooters invade consoles, handhelds

I admit, I’m a man with a broad scope when it comes to genre appreciation.
Entertainment-wise, I love a good zombie flick. Gaming-wise, shooters are my go-to choice for fun.
Combining the two should produce great results. But not always.
There have been some good ones – the Left 4 Dead franchise and even the old Resident Evil: Dead Aim PlayStation 2 title come to mind.
So, I had high hopes when I popped in Capcom’s latest zombie shooter, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. And things went south in a hurry.
Plot-wise is where ORC shines brightest. It’s September 1998 and you are a member of a four-person assault team working for the Umbrella Corporation. This is the group responsible for developing the zombie-creating T-Virus, which has turned the citizens of Raccoon City into brain-hungry creatures. The fact you’re working for the bad guys, blasting your way through seven co-op missions that can be played online or offline, is an interesting concept for the RE franchise. You’re tasked with eliminating key witnesses and evidence that tie Umbrella to the outbreak.
You’ll visit come iconic locations and meet up with some classic RE characters during the game, including a young male cop who you’re tasked with killing.
Where ORC falls apart is in telling the story and the actual gameplay itself. There’s not a huge amount of character development. Granted, you can play as one of six different agents who have special skills, but the storyline could have included more character revelation and moments. I know there’s not a lot of story and character development in Left 4 Dead, but a story-driven gaming nut can dream, right?
And the mechanics of playing ORC are cumbersome at best and downright frustrating at worst. Trying to manoeuvre and shoot in some of the locations is an exercise in patience. The aiming mechanics are awkward, as is the lack of precision targeting when chucking grenades. As such, the game feels sloppily designed when compared to other co-op shooters.
Offline play is also frustrated by the poor AI of your non-player-controlled squadmates. They lack tactics and basic intelligence. I know the bad guys are supposed to be stupid or clumsy or arrogant, but this is beyond frustrating given the fact not everyone wants to play online with other people.
Overall, the voice acting is solid, led by Nika Futterman, who is best known as the voice of Asajj Ventress on Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. But there’s a lot more that could have been done with the characters and the gameplay needed to be tightened up in a big way. Great concept. Poorly executed.
The score: 2.5 stars out of 5. Rated M.
Here’s a quick look at some other sports titles currently available:
* The Walking Dead: Episode One (360, PS3; Telltale Games): The first of a five-part series of downloadable titles based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, you play as Lee Everett, a convict who gets a second chance at life at the end of the world. The story and character development in this game is outstanding and the action, while occasionally uneven, is engaging as you battle zombies and deal with other characters and some truly emotional, almost gut-wrenching scenes. If you’re a fan of the graphic novels, the TV series or intelligent games featuring hordes of zombies, this is a no-brainer. Play it today.
The score: 5 stars. Rated M.
* Resident Evil: Revelations (Nintendo 3DS; Capcom): Set during the time between Resident Evil 4 and RE5, this story takes place on an abandoned cruise ship (remember Dead Aim?). It’s a good shooter that makes good use of the handheld’s 3D capabilities. It’s quite atmospheric, especially if you play in the dark with headphones on. Handheld games have certainly come a long way and this is one of the best genre titles you’ll find out there.
The score: 4 stars. Rated M.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Underworld Awakening takes series in new direction

Let’s climb into the Way Back Machine and head back to 2002, when the first Underworld film was being shot.
It was a cool concept: Vampires vs. Werewolves in modern times, featuring two up-and-coming hot leads in Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman.
Beckinsale had just come off the bomb that was Pearl Harbor, while Speedman, an English boy who grew up in Toronto, was considered a TV hunk, after his role on the cult hit Felicity.
The movie did well. It helped launch Beckinsale, who rocked a shiny black leather corset and is to blame for causing copious amounts of man drool, onto a modestly successful film career (including a bit role in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator).
Speedman, however, became something of a forgotten man. He was no longer the TV hunk of the moment and he was playing second fiddle to a hot English chick in a shiny corset.
Which brings me to this week’s feature DVD review: Underworld Awakening. For those keeping count, this is the fourth movie in the franchise. However, it’s only the third for Beckinsale and Speedman.  (The third film told the back story of Lucian and his vampire lover, which starred Michael Sheen and Bill NIghy and was actually a really cool little action flick.)
But if you’re a Speedman fan, don’t blink. He’s in it for a few seconds. He’s become like the Where’s Waldo of the Underworld universe.
Beckinsale, however, remains front and centre and she continues to rock that corset while mowing down baddies with dual machine pistols and a deadly serious, but oddly sexy grim countenance.
This time around, we pick up with Beckinsale’s Selene and Speedman’s Michael making plans to flee after the end of the second movie.
But they’re captured.
Fast forward many years and Selene wakes up, finding herself trapped in some lab where people have been studying her while she was in stasis. Turns out that the world has changed. Humans are now aware of the vampires and werewolves and humanity declared war on the two groups, killing them en masse and bringing both sides to the brink of extinction.
Both groups have been driven underground and scientists have been studying Selene and Michael, as well as a little girl, to see if they can’t figure out some sort of way to reverse their conditions.
Selene escapes and has visions seen through the eyes of another. She assumes it’s Michael as they share a telepathic connection. Turns out to be the little girl, who is more than meets the eye.
From that point on, it’s basically a chase movie, with Selene trying to protect the child from the scientists determined to capture them and experiment further on the little girl.
But the scientists have secrets of their own, including a giant werewolf who does their bidding in tracking down the remnants of vampires who live underground on the fringes of the city.
Selene gets wind of the scientists’ evil plan and is determined to stop them, save the girl and free Michael from their clutches.
Director Len Wiseman, who helmed the first two movies (which were the best films), has since moved on and is now working on the Total Recall reboot starring Colin Farrell and his main squeeze, Beckinsale. And his hand on this franchise is missed. While he helped write Awakening, it’s clear the franchise misses his hand because he had a real understanding of this unique genre and took it seriously enough that he kept it from becoming bizarre camp.
European directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein do a decent job of staging the gun fights and action sequences in Awakening, but the character development and sense of dark fun that permeated the first three films is decidedly missing from this one. And it suffers for it.
Sure, there are some great gun battles in Awakening. Sure, Beckinsale looks great kicking butt. And sure, the big werewolf is cool, menacing and leaves a satisfying amount of destruction in its wake. But the film feels flat.
Thankfully, the DVD version spares you from the hideous 3D screening that I paid to sit through in theatres earlier this year. It gave Clash of the Titans a run for worst looking 3D movie of the current era. But in 2D, the action is more palatable.
Overall, if you’re an Underworld fan, there’s enough here to keep you interested during the quick 89-minute flick. But it’s a pale imitation of what the first three movies represented.
The extras are limited to a filmmaker’s commentary track, which is disappointing, since I would have liked to gotten a lot more into the making of the movie in the hopes of understanding why they streamlined the story and took it in the direction they did.
* * *
Here’s a quick look at some other DVDs now available:
* John Wayne Film Collection: This 10-disc set features some of The Duke’s iconic flicks, including, for the first time on DVD, The Barbarian and The Geisha. Other flicks include The Undefeated, The Longest Day, The Comancheros, The Alamo, North to Alaska and The Big Trail. Longest Day and The Alamo are certainly iconic films, but be sure to check out Barbarian, which was directed by the legendary John Huston and sees Wayne playing an American diplomat who meets a beautiful Japanese Geisha girl.
* Frank Sinatra Film Collection: Ol’Blue Eyes may be best remembered by today’s middle agers and youth as an iconic singer, but he had serious acting aspirations in his younger days and made some interesting movies. This 10-film collection features Kings Go Forth (a WWII drama co-starring Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood), A Hole in the Head (directed by Frank Capra), Can-Can (with Shirley MacLaine), The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan’s Express, Cast a Giant Shadow (with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas), and two Tony Rome flicks, in which Sinatra plays a Miami private eye. The sequel co-starred Raquel Welch.
* Kojak: Season Four: Telly Savalas stars as the San Fran crime fighter in this six-disc set featuring 25 episodes. Highlights include Kojak tracking down a nut who kidnapped his niece, as well as hunting the serial killer known as the Grim Reaper.
* Fantasy Island: Season Two: Aaron Spelling’s cheesy but strangely addictive TV show about an island where people can find the happy endings they want for their lives. Overseeing the action is the host, Mr. Roarke, played by Ricardo Montalban, as well as his cohort Tattoo, the late Herve Villechaize.

The show’s hallmark was a roster of great guest stars and this season was no exception. Look for episodes featuring the likes of Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), Jonathan Frakes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mamie Van Doren, Don Knotts, Cesar Romero, Roddy McDowall, Regis Philbin, Annette Funicello, Leslie Nielsen, Cyd Charisse, John Astin, Sonny Bono and Janet Leigh.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Vita pricey, but mana for hardcore gamers

Being a single dad, I appreciate a good bargain. And let’s face it, in these days when salaries for most of us tend to be stagnant or falling behind the pace of the cost of living, bargains are important.
But as most shoppers realize, there’s a difference between buying product at your local dollar store or discount joint versus going to a store that sells quality goods.
Sadly, affordability and quality don’t always square in the early days of a product’s life cycle.
Which brings me to Sony’s handheld console, the Vita. At $250 before taxes (for the WiFi unit … there’s a more expensive device that has 3G connectivity), this piece of tech is pricy, no doubt about it. And it requires a memory card, which is sold separately.
But it also the most well-rounded, fully functional and gorgeous handheld created to date.
Launched in February, Vita sports a five-inch OLED touch screen that is brilliant and sharp, as well as a rear touchpad, front and rear cameras, a powerful engine that truly makes this a portable console and, for those of us who have long complained about the PlayStation Portable, the Vita sports dual analog sticks.
In short, Vita is not something you’re going to put into the hands of a seven year old, unless you are a member of the 1%. This is a hardcore gamer’s machine, with a price to match.
Bigger and heavier than a PSP, the Vita looks sharp and has power to burn. I like the solid feel. This unit fits well in your mitts and the front and rear touch sensitivity works well. I worry about people bouncing it off surfaces or dropping it and the long-term effects those will have, especially on the rear pad.
The graphics are stunning. It’s close to high-def, featuring bright colours, excellent contrast and a wide viewing spectrum, so you don’t have to worry about the angle at which you hold it.
The graphics and power do tend to be hard on the battery. Most people report they get about four hours of gameplay on a charge. I was averaging closer to five. But, again, this isn’t a casual gaming device. So, if you’re going on a long trip, be aware you’re not likely to play in fits and starts, so keep the battery life in mind.
Unfortunately, those who have loads of PSP games will find the Vita doesn’t support the format. Unless you have downloadable PSP titles, which it will play. Vita game cartridges are small. I get the feeling Sony would prefer gamers download titles from their online store. And that’s not a bad option if you’re into that (and have the memory card space to do it).
The games play extremely well on Vita. The dual sticks give this a true portable console feel. The front touch screen has excellent response and the rear screen, which isn’t required to use, can be used if you don’t want to block your view of the action. Just remember the rear screen does work on touch, so inadvertent touches do translate into in-game movement, which can be a real pain.
Tech geeks who want more from Vita than gaming will find a web browser and other apps that are built-in, as well as a host of downloadable do-dads. It’s not as user-friendly as an iPod or iPhone though.
All in all, Vita is a powerful piece of tech. It’s not as sleek as Nintendo’s 3DS, but it outperforms that unit in every way. You’ll be reminded of that when paying at the register.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
Here’s a quick look at what I consider to be the best games for the Vita at the moment:
* Rayman Origins (Ubisoft): A 2D platformer, this game showcases the graphics power of the Vita. It’s a great, fun pick-up-and-play title The score: 5 stars. Rated E-10+
* MLB 12 The Show (Sony): Love the graphics and the ability to continue my console seasons and modes by transferring files back and forth with the PS3. The score: 5 stars. Rated E.
* Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Sony): Proof that Vita is a portable console, Nathan Drake’s latest treasure hunting game is a visual treat and makes great use of the dual sticks and touch screens. Indy, eat your heart out. The score: 4.5 stars. Rated T.
* Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3(Capcom): Pit a roster of 50 gaming and super hero legends against one another in a martial arts showdown. The score 3.5 stars. Rated T.
* Hot Shots Golf World Invitational (Sony): Makes good use of the rear touch screen for a unique golf experience. The score: 3.5 stars. Rated E.
* Unit 13 (Sony): You wanted dual analog sticks for a shooter … well, Sony says play this. It’s a solid shooter, letting you blast baddies across 45 levels. The score: 3.5 stars. Rated T.