Fast & Furious 6: Film Review

Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Paul Walker return for the sixth installment in the Universal’s action franchise, which is already prepping a seventh film slated for next summer.

“So this is worth billions, huh?” queries Vin Diesel‘s big-muscled hotshot driver to Dwayne Johnson‘s even bigger-muscled federal agent as he delivers the object they’ve spent the bulk of Fast & Furiouslooking for. “Name your price,” Johnson replies to conclude what can only have been an in-joke by those responsible for a series that, through five films, has grossed $1.5 billion and still looks to be gaining speed globally. This new entry will only add mightily to the good fortunes of Universal’s biggest franchise; no matter how silly and outlandish the action gets — and it does become ridiculous — it also delivers the goods its audience expects, with the added bonus of the return of Michelle Rodriguez. In the spirit of striking while the iron’s hot, it’s no surprise that Fast & Furious 7 is already in pre-production with an announced released date of next July.

You’ve got to feel for screenwriter Chris Morgan and directorJustin Lin, who have been on board for the last four installments and each time are faced with the challenge of coming up with ever-bigger action set pieces comparable to those in Bond films and comic book spectaculars, but with the proviso that they must always feature cars. The vehicular cast is this time joined by an enormous army tank and a jet airplane that keeps charging down a runway for takeoff for what seems like seven or eight minutes, but no matter; if it stays on the ground, the F&F crew can deal with it.

The original characters in the 12-year-old franchise know about cars and not a whole lot else, although, based on their exploits in Rio two years ago, they and their newly acquired cohorts have become incredibly rich, able to live lives of leisure almost anywhere they wish around the world except the States, which would like to see them in the slammer.

Aside from money, what this band of SoCal misfits can claim (and does, repeatedly) is an ad hoc sense of family, and the easy familiarity among the cast members and between actors and audience plays an important part in the series’ success. Scruffily attractive at first and eventually more multi-cultural than Benetton, the clan immediately started breaking up — Diesel didn’t even return for 2 Fast 2 Furious, and it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to see the franchise just fold up after that series-worst entry. But the four original main leads — Diesel, Paul Walker, Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster — are finally all back for this one, along with numerous other latecomers, most notably Johnson, their lawman adversary in Rio who this time comes to them with a deal.

It seems a generic British mercenary terrorist named Shaw (Luke Evans) is one component away from completing a weapons arsenal that will threaten the world as we know it. So who’s at the top of the list among all international crime-fighters to bust this guy? No contest. Snatching up Diesel’s Dom from his love nest in the Canary Islands and Walker’s Brian from the domesticity of fatherhood with Brewster’s Mia, who’s sidelined most of the time here with a baby, Johnson’s blunt-spoken Luke Hobbs offers the team a deal they can’t refuse: Nail Shaw and they’re all pardoned.

Like many villains these days, Shaw’s skill-set embraces two realms, high-tech weaponry and martial arts. Far more importantly, however, he’s a great driver, escaping from his first encounter with the Americans in a military-style Formula 1 race car through the streets of London. To be sure, more high-speed chases follow, but they’re generally not top-grade; they’re cut too fast, the camera set-ups don’t provide a sense of maximum speed, the angles don’t always mesh well and the frequent nocturnal settings obscure the view. By contrast, some of the fighting and martial arts stuff featuring Diesel, Johnson, Shea Whigham as Shaw’s strongman and series newcomer Gina Carano(Haywire) aren’t bad.

Plot-wise, the main point of interest is how Rodriguez’s Letty, once thought dead, is worked back into the action. With no memory of her old friends or happened to her, she initially turns up as part of Shaw’s evil team and even shoots Dom, who endeavors to reawaken her to her past. This plot thread comes off well enough and sets the character up for future adventures along with the high-living Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Han (Sung Kang), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Gisele (Gal Gadot).

One new element in the series is its sense of high-living. These were low-end working-class characters to begin with but now, with $100 million socked away, they’ve entered the world of expensive electronics, private jets and fancy international destinations. The location of a quick street race epilogue is Tokyo, wherein the identity is revealed of the British action icon who will clearly be joining the series for the next installment.

Opens: May 17 (U.K.), May 24 (U.S.) (Universal)
Production: Original Film, One Race Films
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Elsa Pataky, David Ajala, Kim Kold
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel, Clayton Townsend
Executive producers: Justin Lin, Amanda Lewis, Samantha Vincent, Chris Morgan
Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Editors: Christian Wagner, Kelly Matsumoto
Music: Lucas Vidal
PG-13 rating, 130 minutes


StarDrive review (A failure to innovate)

Abandon all hope, those who have never played a 4X strategy game before. StarDrive is not the kind of experience that offers a welcoming introduction to the genre. Its only tutorials come in the forms of either pseudo-PowerPoint presentations or unfriendly blocks of text. The user interface does not work the way you want it to, and it’ll take you many hours (and an unholy amount of accidentally closed windows and misplaced spaceships) to get used to it. This is a game that’s as forbidding as the cold recesses of space it depicts, but once you get into it, you’ll find no shortage of enjoyable alien slaughter, spaceship destruction and planet terraforming – even if it all feels a little too familiar.

Currently, there’s only one game mode: Sandbox, where you’re plopped into a random map with a civilization of your choosing and told to conquer or assimilate all that you find. Each faction (“species” might be a more applicable term) can be played using preset traits–starting flagships, attack bonuses, etc.–or by picking your own from the game’s large lists. This allows for some very enjoyable tinkering, giving players a chance to optimize their civilization for the way they like to play. It’s also worth noting that the alien races employed in StarDrive are wonderfully weird and refreshing, from samurai bears (you read that right) to some kind of Portal-inspired AI that has a race of owls working for it (you read that right, too).

“StarDrive is not the kind of experience that offers a welcoming introduction to the genre.”

Then, with your civilization selected, it’s time go about the gruesome business of conquering the galaxy. It’s all standard 4X fare, and executed in a way that’s entirely inoffensive, but not great either. You construct ships, or custom build your own. You research technology. You conduct diplomacy, which is one area where StarDrive is behind the curve: Interstellar war negotiations are alarmingly simple, entirely unpredictable, and burdened by an especially difficult UI. You harvest resources. You colonize planets–which StarDrive is smart enough to make as simple as the click of a button, no unit-wrangling required. You invade enemy solar systems. There is nothing here that expands upon previous genre entries; it’s a paint-by-numbers 4X game with little to differentiate it from the pack.

Visually, it’s clean and crisp, with a variety of planets to stumble upon and pretty-enough space scenery to behold. But when zooming out to view a large chunk of the map, it can become hard to see much at all–units become very, very small dots–which can lead to much squinting and the occasional misplaced ship.

In addition to spacecraft, you control ground troops, which are used to take over planets or board enemy vessels. This section of the game comes off as half-baked, with planetary invasions often feeling like a crapshoot, and ships–regardless of their value–being laughably easy to take over. The first time a single space marine hops into your best frigate and goes speeding off to some corner of the galaxy, you’ll likely damn your entire intergalactic empire and close the game.

“The most fun you’re likely to have in StarDrive is the time you spend shipbuilding.”

The most fun you’re likely to have in StarDrive is the time you spend shipbuilding. You can custom-build ships from the ground up, placing bulkheads, weapons, power supplies, and command rooms on a grid system. Combined with StarDrive’s deep combat mechanics, which emphasize ship angles and weapon firing arcs, this feature becomes really fun. You’ll find great joy in fine-tuning your designs to counter your enemies’ custom units and tactics. You can also manually control ships’ movements and fire their weapons with your keyboard and mouse. While this might sound like your opportunity to slip into the cockpit of your recently invented 57-turret monstrosity and blast those samurai bears back where they come from, it’s really not. The controls are too awkward, making it maddeningly difficult to attempt anything even close to effective combat maneuvers.

Smartly, StarDrive includes robust automation features. You can have the AI take care of a lot of mundane tasks, such as managing and settling colonies, or the constructing of warp gates. This helps to lessen the overwhelming effect of StarDrive’s massive scope, letting you focus on important galaxy-conquering business.

“…it’s a paint-by-numbers 4X game with little to differentiate it from the pack.”

StarDrive is not a bad a game, per se–but it’s a lot like the games that came before it, and does little to differentiate itself from the pack. It has character, sure–what game with samurai bears wouldn’t? But when it comes time to get out there and explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate? You’ve played this before, and it was probably better. If you’re simply looking for a new game to dominate the universe in, StarDrive will serve you well enough, but those looking for a new and novel experience will need to set course for elsewhere.

Thomas Was Alone review

When given the right motivation, it’s easy to imagine a pile of polygons on a TV screen as an actual character. Indie title Thomas Was Alone takes that kind of projection to an experimental place, by asking players to identify with blank squares of basic color. Through a novel combination of puzzle-platformer gameplay and witty narration, the game makes you invested in the fate of a group of silent rectangles.

As the title would suggest, the game starts with Thomas all by himself. The small red rectangle is trapped within a defunct computer program, and he’s just starting to learn how to explore the 2D world in front of him, which gives him a feeling of nervous wonder. But how could you know what this blank red rectangle is feeling? The game imbues that empty vessel with a ton of personality, thanks to a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style British narrator.

“…your continually growing options keep the puzzles from getting too predictable.”

The unidentified speaker’s droll descriptions of Thomas’ inner thoughts immediately add depth to the character. The writing creates the same connection when you meet Chris, Laura and the rest of Thomas’ angular new pals, and that understanding is further enhanced by an engaging and fittingly minimalistic soundtrack. By the campaign’s end, the collection of disparate shapes is more memorable than many of the realistic looking humans we meet in most games.

These cubes’ quest for answers and self-discovery starts like a simple platformer, as Thomas learns to hop from one end of the stage to another. Over the next 10 chapters, the game gradually introduces new partners for Thomas’ journey, each with their own unique skills. Some jump higher, some are short enough to squeeze through certain passages, and one helpful fellow can float in water. If the writing didn’t already differentiate the characters, their separate skills keep the standard platforming gameplay fresh.

“…the collection of disparate shapes is more memorable than many of the realistic looking humans we meet in most games.”

A stage can only last a few minutes if you can think fast enough, but it isn’t complete until all characters reach their own exit, making Thomas Was Alone a single player co-op adventure to keep your party together. You’re swapping between characters constantly to find the correct path out of a stage. Sometimes the solution is as simple as creating a stairway for the weaker jumpers of the group to climb up to the top of platforms, but others are a multistage process to get each team member in the right space across a huge area. And as your team is continually adding new members, your continually growing options keep the puzzles from getting too predictable.

The variety of abilities keeps you on your toes, but none of the stages are too daunting. The game introduces you to your new teammates at a natural pace, so you never feel like a solution is out of your grasp. Some of the final stages might seem like they’ll twist your brain into knots, but as long as you remember all the tools at your disposal, the answer isn’t far away.

No one would mistake Thomas Was Alone for a AAA release, but don’t hold its relatively short length and abstract graphics against it. The game plays to its strength with clever puzzles and cleverer writing. Once you get to really know these mild-mannered cubes, you’ll want to follow their adventure all the way to the end.

This game was reviewed on the PS3.

Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon review(Acceptable in the 80s… terrific in 2013)

Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon is a gloriously silly game. It’s the kind of game you get when developers have a chance to really let their imagination run free. And while that zaniness could quite easily have gone awry, Blood Dragon remains a smart, violent action game that’s wholly worth its $15 / 1200 MS points price. And even better, it doesn’t require the original Far Cry 3 to play.

The story is wildly different to Jason Brody’s adventure. You play as Rex Colt, a cyber-soldier and all-American hero sent to an island to foil the world-domination plans of an ex-Colonel gone mad–think early Schwarzenegger films like Commando. Along the way you’ll battle cyborg soldiers, be horrified by mutated animals, meet a brilliant, sexy lady scientist, and disarm nukes to save the world. It’s classic ’80s stuff.

“It’s a collection of the best 80s action movie cliches, wrapped around Far Cry 3’s deliciously violent gameplay

However, in terms of gameplay, it’s virtually identical to Far Cry 3. Blade takedowns, scouting out locations, liberating garrisons, shooting wildlife, even realistic fire–it’s all here. If you haven’t played Far Cry 3, there’s a light-hearted tutorial to familiarise you with the controls and how to play the game. The tutorial actually makes fun of itself, referencing the fact that you probably just want to start blowing stuff up immediately and Rex, even grumbles about being constantly interrupted by instruction screens.

In fact, it’s Rex and his supporting cast that really make Blood Dragon. While the ’80s themes and early ’90s visual style make this game feel very different to Far Cry 3, it’s the smart, often satirical dialogue between characters that will put the smile on your face. “If guns make me safe, then big guns make me safer” growls Rex as he picks up the Terror 4000 mini-gun. “He got the point,” he puns while stabbing a man through the chest with his knife. It’s a collection of the best ’80s action movie clichés, wrapped around Far Cry 3’s deliciously violent gameplay, and finished off with an original, electro soundtrack that oozes retro cool.

Cut-scenes, done using Contra-style 2D character models, are incredibly well observed”

Cut-scenes, done using Contra-style 2D character models, are incredibly well observed, perfectly capturing the camp spirit and style of late 80s / early 90s action games. While the voice-work is crisp and clean, the dialogue intentionally sounds like it’s being read directly from a game like the original Bionic Commando (clunky writing and all).

In addition to the stylish new look, Blood Dragon does add a few new gameplay elements to the Far Cry 3 formula, the most significant of which are the titular Blood Dragons. These massive t-rex style beasts roam the island (which is about half the size of FC3’s first landmass) attacking anything they find with teeth or massive laser beams that shoot from their eyes. Oh yes! They glow a different neon colour dependent on their mood–green is passive, orange is curious, and red is angry. Early on, the Blood Dragons are intimidating, but they lose menace as you get hold of the game’s more powerful weaponry. If you don’t want to get into a fight, you can sneak past, or lob the hearts ripped out of your cyborg enemies to distract them. You’re encouraged to work out how to lure Blood Dragons into enemy outposts to do most of the murdering for you, although this can be more trouble than it’s worth, because you then need to kill or remove the Blood Dragon to claim the outpost.

“You need to kill or remove Blood Dragons to claim outposts”

The Blood Dragons are one of only a handful of genuinely new features. Sure, all the weapons are different, but they’re just futuristic versions of Far Cry 3’s armoury. Even jeeps and jet-skis are largely the same, and the wildlife is just cyber versions of their real-life counterparts. We appreciate the fact that Ubi have tweaked the gameplay slightly to make Blood Dragon more immediately fun than Far Cry 3–so Rex can run much faster than Jason, most abilities are unlocked from the start, and you can fall from pretty much any height without losing health. New side-missions include ‘scientist rescues’ (humorously called ‘Save a nerd’) but they feel very familiar. We’d like to have seen something else that’s genuinely new to freshen up the action a little.

Another potential bug-bear–although it didn’t bother us–is that the game takes place in a dark, post-apocalyptic future. While the neon of your cyborg enemies and the bases they patrol is bright, the island you explore is dark all the time, so you might find yourself craving some of the lush, tropical colours of the original Far Cry 3. Perhaps if Blood Dragon was longer than 6-10 hours–depending on how many side-missions you tackle–it’d start to grate. For us, though, the game feels the right size; it never outstays its welcome, the jokes never get stale, and it definitely goes out with a bang… although not quite the bang we were expecting.

“The jokes never get stale, and the game definitely goes out with a bang…”

Minor criticisms aside, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon does a fantastic job of servicing the demand for retro nostalgia, but inside the comfortable setting of a very modern, very well-made shooter. It’s the best of both worlds: it looks like a fun retro game, but plays like a properly modern one. What it lacks in genuinely new features it more than makes up for in pure style, and although it controls in exactly the same way as Far Cry 3 the setting makes the action feel fresh. The game itself may be gloriously silly, but we seriously advise you to give Blood Dragon a try.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.