Review: District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp)

It is a rare feat that an unknown filmmaker is first introduced to the public to take control of the reins to major motion picture with legions of fans. Fans who have both high expectations and also equally high trepidation about hwo their favorite intellectual property will be handled and adapted to the big-screen. The year was 2007 and Peter Jackson (who had been given producing duties by Microsoft, Fox and Universal Pictures) announced to the world that he had selected a young South African filmmaker by the name of Neill Blomkamp to direct the film adaptation of Microsoft’s hugely popular sci-fi action shooter, Halo. The reaction to this news was bewilderment, grumblings and major headscratching from fans and studio executives alike.

Who was Neill Blomkamp and what has he done of note to be given the reins to one of the largest and most popular video game franchises?

Peter Jackson definitely saw something in this young South African. While fans of the Halo game wanted Jackson himself to direct the film he decided to let this unknown take the job. To give a glimpse of what he was capable of and to prove to both fans and executives that he was the right man for the job, Blomkamp filmed three short films depicting live-action scenes of Halo to be released as part of the Halo 3 media ad-campaign blitz for its 2007 release. All three short films were dynamic and had a grittiness to it which definitely showed the young man had talent, but in the end it wasn’t enough to save the Halo film from being declared postponed then cancelled. Studio executives from both Fox and Universal (both had licensed the rights to release the Halo film for domestic and international release. They were also to help put up the $150million stated budget) wanted a higher percentage of gross profits from the film. Microsoft who was putting up a large share of the budget refused and studio politicking literally ended the film while pre-production by Blomkamp, Jackson and his WETA team were five months in.

What had become a major blow to the beginning of Blomkamp’s filmmaking career might be the very thing which puts him on the map as one of the brightest and most inventive filmmakers of his generation. With $30million dollars of his own money, Peter Jackson gave Blomkamp a second chance to make another sci-fi actioner, but this time do so independently and away from the control and interference of major studios from Hollywood. The film Neill Blomkamp ended up making after the cancellation of his Halo might just turn out to be the best film of the summer of 2009 and one of the best of the year. The film is District 9.

Born and raised in South Africa, Blomkamp’s experience growing up in the final throes of apartheid and the societal chaos which succeeded the end of minority white rule could be seen in the basic foundations of District 9‘s story (screenplay co-written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell). It is a story detailing an alternate historical event in world history when in the late 1980’s a massive alien spacecraft suddenly appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. This momentous event in human history soon turns into a worldwide “humanitarian” undertaking people soon discovered that the aliens who inhabited this spacecraft (numbering over a million) were not the all-conquering or benevolent beings as shown by Hollywood, but malnourish, sickly and aimless beings who appeared to be bipedal, barely humanoid looking crustaceans. Derogatively called “prawns” by the inhabitants of Johannesburg, these aliens spend the next 20 years of their existence on Earth housed in a heavily-policed and walled shanty tow and slum area in the city named District 9.

It is in this District 9 where most of the action of the film takes place as a plan by the government and it’s hired private corporation of Multi-National United to relocate these aliens to a more remote camp of District 10. A camp 200 kilometers away from the population center of the nation’s capital to the relief and delight of the population. In charge of this relocation program is one Wikus van der Merwe. A middling middle-manager within MNU who may have gotten this particular job for no reason other than being the husband to the daughter of MNU’s chief executive. Wikus van der Merwe appears in the early going of the film like a cross between Lumbergh of Office Space and Michael Scott of The Office. Wikus seems to relish and delight in his new-found authority leading MNU bureaucrats and their company private security teams in forcibly removing the aliens from their shanties. Wikus’ racist attitude towards the aliens is quite evident as he uses the derogatory name for the aliens (prawns) every chance he gets. It is during the inspection of a secret lab in one of the shanties where the film deftly switches from the first third of the film as a scifi allegorical study of South Africa’s (and most likely the world as a whole) racist apartheid past and into a Fugitive-like chase film which make’s up the middle third.

To say that what Wikus finds in the alien makeshift laboratory makes a profound impact on him is quite an understatement. Blomkamp shows not just Jackson’s influence as a director of horror, but also has quite a handle on the Cronenbergian aspects of the storyline. Blomkamp shows rather than tell through long-winded expositions what is happening to Wikus that suddenly made him the most wanted man in South Africa, if not the whole entirety of the planet. Wikus’ starts the final third of the film literally transforming from the nebbish and weasly character from the beginning into something of a reluctant hero, albeit for his own self-interest.

It is the final 20-30 minutes of the film where those audiences still on the fence about District 9 will probably end up finally getting hooked with the rest of the audience. Blomkamp has shown in the first two third of the film that he knows how to handle social commentary in a scifi story without being too heavy-handed and preachy. He’s also shown a knack for keeping a constant pace and adding to the tension which finally explodes in the last half hour of the film. It’s the pay off that action-flick fans had been waiting for and they won’t go away disappointed. Alien weaponry are finally put into play and we see just how effective they can be when used on humans. Bodies are literally blasted apart whether by lighting blasts or from high-powered rapid-fire guns.

Not lost from all the social and allegorical commentaries within the story and the rolelrcoaster ride of a finale is the fact that Neill Blomkamp has deft eye for creating a believable alternate reality for this film to inhabit. With the help of his cinematographer Trent Opaloch and a battery of Red One digital cameras, Blomkamp settles for a gritty and grainy look for the film. This gives the production a very documentary-like feel. They’ve also used to great effect the so-called “shaky-cam” technique to simulate a cinema verite look for the more chaotic scenes in the film. It is not a new way to film as films like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield plus the Bourne Trilogy. What this film was able to do which those films failed to some extent was to allow the shaky-cam effect not to distract too much. This is shaky-cam as if being handled by a professional combat filmmaker taking in a battlezone as it happens. While the first half of the film relies mostly on patched together scenes from news reports, official MNU company videos and video interviews of select individuals, the second half moves away from this mockumentary-style and into a more traditional narrative technique. It is easy to nitpick this change in techniques after the fact but Blomkamp’s chief editor in Julian Clarke makes it possible for a near-seamless transition from one film-style to the next without skipping a beat.

The peformances from a literal cast of unknowns (at least to Hollywood and those outside of South Africa) could easily have been the main weakpoint in District 9 but it turns out to not be the cast. Headed by first time lead actor, Sharlto Copley as Wikus, the film’s cast does a very good job of lending an air of realism and credibility to a fantastical story. Their performanaces are mostly understated except for the role of MNU security-team leader Koobus Venter as played by David James. While James played the role in its early stages as the usual no-nonsense military veteran the character soon turns into a major villain to hound Wikus in his flight. While this transformation wouldn’t be such a bad thing the overreaching and over-the-top performance by James turned Koobus into a caricature of a villain. One almost expected the man to cackle (at times he almost did) and bellow out the classic evil laugh. In the end, Copley’s performance as Wikus was the highlight of the film’s cast performance. In the beginning it is quite easy to detest this bookish and sycophantic functionary, but as we follow him throughout the film we see his transformation into something of a coward who must turn into a reluctant hero to serve his needs. Finally, we see him make a sacrifice which redeems him in the eyes of the audience.

It is not often that a film comes along which makes a major impact on a genre, especially from a filmmaker making his debut feature film. While not a huge blockbuster in terms of budget District 9 manages to outdo the usual tentpole event films from the major studios this summer. Budget constraints doesn’t keep the film from becoming a sweeping epic not seen since another low-to-midbudget R-rated scifi actioner that went by the title of Robocop. Like that film from the late 80’s, Blomkamp’s film manages to find a balance between saying something about his home country’s past racial and societal problems, but also give the scifi genre a frenetic, action-packed, kick-ass of an action film that doesn’t turn out to be silly, contrived or stale. Not everyone will enjoy this film as the best ever or even as the best of recent years, but it is hard to argue or dismiss the fact that District 9 is film which refuses to be pigeonholed into a particular type of film. It’s a message film and a scifi film. It’s also a film of body horror and a study of the human condition both its darker and better natures.

District 9 is a film that lived up to the hype surrounding it and surpassed expectations. This film also makes a star out of first-time director Neill Blomkamp. He will certainly be flooded by offers from the very major studios who doubted him during his aborted attempt to turn a major pop culture franchise into a film. It also validates the notion that a summer blockbuster doesn’t have to be dumbed down or stripped of its thrills to have both. Or that it has to have a budget in the hundreds of millions to make it look like one. A near-perfect film and one that should be the driving influence for the scifi genre for years to come.

20 Best Horror Films of the Past Decade

The Aught’s, as some people have come to call this decade about to end, was actually a pretty good decade in terms of the amount of quality horror that showed up on the big-screen. We had some channeling the nastiness of the 70’s exploitation era while a couple ushered in this decade’s era of the so-called “torture porn.” There were more than just a few remakes of past horror films. Most of these remakes were quite awful compared to the original, but more than a few managed to end being good and held their own against the original.

Some of the titles I will list will eschew gore and the shock scares for a more subtle and atmospheric approach. More than a few straddled not just horror but other genres like comedy, drama and sci-fi. If there was one major observation I was able to make, when collating what I thought was the 20 best horror films of the decade, it was that the Foreign studios really came into the decade with a vengeance.

While I consider these horror films on this list as “the best of…” it is still my opinion and I am sure there will be people who will disagree, but even if people do not agree with all my choices it would be hard to dispute any of them as not being good to great in their own way. Like my similar Sci-Fi list this one will be numbered but only for organizational sake and doesn’t determine which film is better than rest. They’re all equal in my eyes.

  1. The Mist (dir. Frank Darabont)
  2. Splinter (dir. Toby Wilkins)
  3. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
  4. Hostel (dir. Eli Roth)
  5. A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon)
  6. The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall)
  7. Martyrs (dir. Pascal Laugier)
  8. 28 Days Later… (dir. Danny Boyle)
  9. Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. Don Coscarelli)
  10. Dawn of the Dead (dir. Zack Snyder)
  11. The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro)
  12. Frailty (dir. Bill Paxton)
  13. Kairo (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
  14. Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright)
  15. American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron)
  16. Inside (dir. Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Mary)
  17. The Orphanage (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)
  18. The Devil’s Rejects (dir. Rob Zombie)
  19. Slither (dir. James gunn)
  20. Audition (dir. Takashi Miike)

Honorable Mentions: Saw, Haute Tension, Drag Me To Hell, Trick ‘r Treat, Dog Soldiers, Ju-On, May, Midnight Meat Train, The Ruins, Jeepers Creepers, Ginger Snaps, Funny Games (remake), Shutter, Frontier(s), Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon…just to name a few.

Vocaloid Nenderoid Petit aka J-Crack!

One of my newest obsessions. Newest in that I’ve only started collecting them in the last year or so. My newest obsession feeds the growing otaku growing inside me. This awesome and criminally cute little things are the “nendoroid” line of anime-based figures from Good Smile Company of Japan. This particular group is of the smaller nendoroid petit line and using the Vocaloid characters. Vocaloid is a singing synthesizer application software which has become the rage in Japan and especially those who are very into the anime/manga scene.

These have become the replacement to those damnable Pokemon’s everyone were trying to catch a decade ago. I do believe I’d rather have these than those weird looking critters. So, finally receiving this set in the mail today has made my inner otaku quite happy indeed. >.<

5 Artists/Bands I Fell In Love w/ in 2009

While I’m not as well-versed with all sorts of music genres like some friends of mine I do have a well-rounded taste when it comes to music. Growing up during the 80’s it was hard not to get into the hair-metal which dominated the scene. Yes, I fully admit to being a Motley Crue fan and even listened to the random Poison track here and there. In addition to hair-metal I also got into rap and hip-hop during the 80’s and early 90’s which I still consider the Golden Age of the genre.

Young people nowadays can have their Lil’ Wayne or Soulja Boy (but why would they want to) and the Dirty South crew and all that. I say I’ll take giants of the genre like Eric B. and Rakim, EPMD, Wu-Tang Clan, Afrika Bambaataa, Paris, N.W.A, Ice-T and Ice Cube over these new youngbloods any day of the week and Sundays included. While rap and hip-hop have become too much about commercialization I do like current acts like Mos Def and Talib Kweli of Black Star, Common, OutKast, Mobb Deep and Goodie Mobb.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve branched out from those two genres and embraced all types of music (though folk music still escapes me most of the time). It doesn’t matter now whether the artist/band plays some subgenre of metal like Norwegian Black, Viking, Pagan or combinations in-between. Or if they’re more classical genres like baroque, chamber and symphony. If they sounded good and I got into them I couldn’t care less what sort of genre they went under.

2009 was a good year for me in terms of discovering some new bands and artists. These were not new in the way that they’ve just been making music recently. All five I’m about to mention have been making music for at least a decade or decades for a couple.

1. Altan Urag

Altan Urag is a folk-rock band from Mongolia who have combined traditional Mongolian folk music, Western rock stylings and traditional Tuvan/Mongolian “karkhiraa” throat singing. It’s just very difficult to try and explain Altan Urag who has never heard of throat singers and folk music from the region. I’ve pretty much scoured every music store in my area, the net and other shadowy options to find their music. To say that I fell in love with this band would be one of the major understatement of the year.

2. Bathory

Bathory is one band I’ve heard of in the past but never really bothered to try. I was still very leery of the subgenres of metal that went by labels such as Norwegian Black, Pagan, Viking, etc. I was very much still a child of the NWOBHM movement of the lat 70’s and early 80’s and the rise of trash/speed metal of the 80’s. But the last two years I’ve branched out to try more types of metal and in 2009 I finally gave Bathory a chance and was instantly hooked. I’ve wondered since why I never gave them a chance. My favorite track of theirs has to be “Hammerheart” from their “Twilight of the Gods” album. It’s a much more subdued Bathory, but every time I listen to it I feel like I should be at a pub or some Viking hall downing a few pints of ale or horns of mead with my buddies before going off to battle. I definitely feel like Odin is watching over me when I listen to Bathory.

3. Blind Guardian

What is there to say about Blind Guardian that its most ardent fans haven’t already said ad infinitum about this greatest of all power metal bands. Power metal have been a genre I’ve dabbled in here and there in years past but never really paid them much attention as they truly deserve. Blind Guardian changed all that for me in 2009 and I now count Power Metal as one of my favorite type of music. Blind Guardian’s epic and quite operatic 2002 album, “A Night at the Opera”, was my first introduction to this power metal band of all power metal. While I’ve come to love all the other albums of their pre- and post-Opera I found this album of theirs the most accomplished and musically complete. Even people who are not typically fans of metal would find this album as something they would enjoy listening to. My favorite track is also the longest and most complex in the album, “…And Then There Was Silence.” It is an epic 14-minute track that tells the story of the Trojan War. If there’s a song more epic than this one I haven’t heard it.

4. Boris

Whenever I used to think of Japanese popular music and rock I always thought of J-Pop and it’s rock equivalent. I’m not wrong in that assumption as those type of music coming out of Japan have become quite popular due to the rise in the popularity of anime in the West. So, color me surprised when the same friend who introduced me to Blind Guardian and Altan Urag told me to check out Boris. The band is the power trio of Atsuo (vocals/drums), Wata (lead guitar) and Takeshi (bass guitar/vocals) out of Tokyo who simply cannot be hobbled by any particular genre of rock. One album may be stoner rock while the next all about doom and drudge metal. They’ve even released ambient rock and noise rock albums where one would think the music was just amps feedbacking back on themselves. I’ve come to call Boris the mad scientists of rock and their albums attest to that. My favorite track of theirs come from their 2003 album, “Akuma no Uta.” The song in question is called “Naki Kyoku” and one just has to listen to this song just what sort of musical geniuses the trio of Boris really are.

5. Tom Waits

Tom Waits. There’s just nothing much I can say about my love for Tom Waits other than people who have never heard him should just listen to “Pasties and a G-String” and be amazed. To try and describe Tom Waits would be an exercise in failure. One either loves The Waits or just don’t get him. There’s no middle-ground when it comes to The Waits.

So that makes the 5 bands and artists I fell in love with in 2009. Honorable mentions must go to these others: Mastodon, Turisas, Isis, Otis Taylor, Mantic Ritual, The Black Keys, Mirrorthrone and Nightwish just to name a few.

Past Review: The Prestige (dir. by Christopher Nolan)

2006 has been a quiet year for event films. The predicted blockbusters this past summer pretty much underperformed despite some being exactly as good as I thought they’d be. Other than Johnny Depp and the gang’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, every blockbuster didn’t blow the industry out of the water. It’s a very good thing that I had smaller films to tide me over. This year has been a very good ones for some independent-minded and smaller films which came out during the slow first couple months of the year and during the graveyard release months between the end of summer and the start of the late year holidays. I’ve already had the chance to see such very good films like Running Scared from Wayne Kramer and Hard Candy from David Slade to The Proposition from John Hillcoat. I am glad to say that Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel, The Prestige is another non-blockbuster that excites, entertains and, in the end, keeps the audience mystified but not confused.

I’ve read Christopher Priest’s novel about dueling late 19th-century London magicians. It’s a novel written in epistolary format with each chapter and section written as entries into the journal of one of the main characters in the story. The novel itself is pretty straightforward as it tells the story in near chronological order. I was hesistant to embrace this film adaptation when I first heard about it since alot of the mystery of of the story wouldn’t translate so well in film if they followed the strict order of how the story was told in the novel. For Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, to just adapt the novel straight-out would’ve made for a dull and boring mystery-thriller. I was glad that the Nolan brothers were inventive enough to borrow abit from Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Memento. Their film adaptation of The Prestige doesn’t go backwards in its narrative, but it does mixes up the chronological order of the story somewhat, but not to the point that Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The two Nolans fudges abit with the timeline to add some backstory filler to help give the characters that Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman portrays with the reason for their pathological obsession with each other.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay for The Prestige was able to keep the mystery of the story intact, but it also keeps the amount of red herrings in such films to a minimum. Michael Caine’s character, Harry Cutter, opens up the film explaining just exactly what constitutes a magic trick on stage. How it’s divided into three parts. First, there’s “The Pledge” wherein the magician shows the audience something ordinary he or she will use in the trick. Soon, the magician will follow this up with “The Turn” where the abovementioned ordinary object does something extraordinary in front of the audience. The pay-off of the magician’s trick is “The Prestige” where the audience’s astonishment occurs as they fail to deconstruct and figure out the means of the trick. That’s pretty much the film in a nutshell. It’s one big magic trick. The clues are there for the audience to see, gather and extrapolate their answer to the mystery that is the story. The screenplay doesn’t treat the audience as if they need to be hand-held throughout the film. In fact, anyone who pays attention will be able to solve one-half of the mystery by the first hour. I won’t say exactly whose half of the mystery it will be but people will be kicking themselves afterwards if they don’t figure it out right away.

This magic trick of a film does have its many underlying layers of themes to add some complexity, drama and tension to the characters of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). I’ve already mentioned that throughout the film their mutual obsession about each other is due to a backstory detailing their past. A past where they were initially friends — rivals even — and apprentices to the magician Milton (played by Ricky Jay) and Harry Cutter (excellently played by Michael Caine as the only voice of reason throughout the film) who creates and maintains the devices used in all the stage tricks. Borden and Angier’s obsession is not just in ruining and sabotaging each other’s magic tricks and lives, but also trying to find out each other’s secrets as they both learn magic tricks which amaze and thrill the gentry of London’s stage. From the beginning of the film these two characters begin a journey towards a path of destructive behavior which puts not just each other’s lives at risk, but those who they care about. All of it in the name of humiliating and upstaging the other due to a tragic incident early in their mutual careers. These two individuals were not sympathetic characters and I applaud Christopher Nolan and his brother for not softening up their hard edges.

Most adaptors will try to make a story’s characters more sympathetic and likable. They went the opposite in The Prestige. But even these two dark characters continue to exude the charisma and strong personalities that the audience will root for one or the other. Should they root for the charismatic and born shownman that Hugh Jackman’s Angier character plays or go for the perfectionist Borden character Christian Bale plays. A perfectionist whose technical skills surpasses that of Angier’s but whose introverted and brooding personality makes him little or no stage presence.

Both Jackman and Bale play their characters well. The film wouldn’t be so good if it wasn’t for the work of these two actors. It helps that they’re surrounded by quality supporting character like Michael Caine as the seasoned, veteran mentor to the dueling magicians. Even Scarlett Johansson does very well with the part she’s given. It’s a part that many sees as more of a throwaway character. A piece of very good-looking distraction for both the story and the audience. But she gamely plays the role of pawn for both Angier and Borden. Unlike Michael Caine’s character who remains the singular voice of sanity in the film, even Johansson’s character of Olivia gets pulled into the obsessions and betrayals that’s plagued both Angier and Borden. But in the end, she’s just part of the process of “The Turn” and if people have been watching the film closely right from the beginning then she’s also a clue as to the secret of one of the amazing magic tricks shown by the two magicians.

The Prestige also has a distinct look about it. The 19th-century London just before the start of the new millenium gives it a certain sense of Victorian-era familiarity. Production designer Nathan Crowley shows a London at the height of its Gilded Age, but soon gives way to a certain steampunk look as inventor Nikola Tesla makes an appearance during an integral part of the story. David Bowie portrays Tesla as an eccentric genius whose search for the secrets of the universe will lead to the discovery of what many of that era would consider magic. It’s the ingenius looking technology created for the Tesla sequence which finally gives The Prestige it’s root in fantasy and science-fiction. The film doesn’t dwell on this new development but from that part of the story and until the end, the film takes on a look and feel of a steampunk mystery-thriller. There’s not enough films that tries to mine this new subgenre and I, for one, am glad that Christopher Nolan added this new dimension to the film’s overall look.

In the end, The Prestige really needs to be seen to be appreciated and for people to make up their minds about the film. Some will see it as a thriller with twists and turns that doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience. Some may see the film as just one large gimmick from start to end. Those people will probably be correct as well. The film at its most basic level is one long magic trick with all three acts. It has “The Pledge” which is then followed up by “The Turn” and then ends with “The Prestige”. It will be up to each individual who sees the film to make the final decision as to whether they’ve bought into all three acts of the magic trick that is The Prestige, or come away having felt like they’ve wasted their time. I’ve not come across many who felt like the latter, even those whose own feelings about the film don’t reach the same level of praise as I have for Christopher Nolan’s latest offering. All I know is that this is a film that delivers on its premise to confound and amaze. It also continues to validate my views that Bruce Wayne and Batman are in very good hands with Christopher Nolan at the wheel. The Prestige was easily one of the best film of 2006.

Review: Dragon Age: Origins

Before BioWare became famous for its console rpgs set in scifi settings (Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), they were a company already well-known and well-loved by PC gamers for their excellent Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights fantasy-based rpgs. The company was able to take the rich and complex setting of AD&D’s Forgotten Realms universe and actually succeed in making it accessible to old and new fans alike. While they made one fantasy-based console rpg in the last couple years (the very underrated Jade Empire for the original Xbox), BioWare seem to have stuck mainly in making scifi rpgs. It was a nice surprise when just a couple years ago the company announced that in addition to developing Mass Effect for the Xbox 360 the company was also in the midst of creating a new and original fantasy-based rpg for the next-gen consoles (Xbox 360/PS3) and the PC. This game was to be called Dragon Age and was to be their latest rpg franchise. A fantasy one to bookend the scifi franchise they had established with Mass Effect. It took them a couple years, but the renamed Dragon Age: Origins was finally released in early November 2009 to some considerable fanfare. This was a game fans of the company’s earlier fantasy rpgs on the PC have been waiting for. Did fans of the Baldur’s Gate Series get what they’ve been wishing for or did BioWare misstep with their return to fantasy rpg in Dragon Age: Origins. I’m happy to say that BioWare more than lived up to their own hype of their latest fantasy offering.

Dragon Age: Origins is a a fantasy rpg based on a world wholly-created and owned by BioWare. Like it’s scifi sibling in Mass Effect, this game is an amalgamation of ideas from well-established franchises (Forgotten Realms, Lord of the Rings, Warhammer Fantasy) but with a rich history and background created from the ground up by the creative forces within BioWare. This world that DA:O inhabits is called Thedas with the realm of Ferelden being the main setting for this introductory game to what looks to be an on-going franchise. It is populated by the usual fantasy races such as elfs, dwarfs and imperial humans. The world has its own version of the usual orcs, goblins and other so-called evil races of fantasy. These races are generally called “darkspawn” and it is this danger which forms the main conflict the player must fight and defeat throughout most of the game’s playthrough. BioWare has also introduced a very complex political and intrigue element to the game in the form of a civil war brewing within the human faction in the game not to mention a conflict of succession on the dwarf side of the equation. The elf race (divided in two separate and distinct groups – city elf and Dalish elf aka wood elf) also get it’s own brand of subplot in the form of racial discrimination and a genocidal battle with a primal race. One common thread binds all these different races and the many classes one could choose from and that’s they all become Grey Wardens and the main hero of the game.

Such rich additions to an rpg are usually simple and minor in even some of the best rpgs of the past both western and Japanese. BioWare’s decision to make these sorts of storytelling additions very complex and rich makes for a more immersive gameplay. There are literally volumes of history and information to find and sort through in the game and from the impression I was able to glean from books and stories found throughout it barely scratches the surface of the history and background of Thedas and Ferelden. The world-building BioWare has done with DA:O was as deep and complex as Tolkien’s fantasy world and those created by the legion of writers who worked on AD&D’s Forgotten Realms. DA:O just doesn’t introduce you to the game and it’s world but immerses you in its details. These were details ranging from those needed to get through the game to the minutiae which doesn’t do much in terms of gameplay but does help make the world seem more real.

The gameplay begins with an introductory chapter which works as both introducing the origins of the player’s chosen race and class, but also as a way for new players to get an on-the-field tutorial on the game’s combat and inventory mechanics. Combat both melee and spellcasting has less to do with button-mashing once a target has been highlighted but instead similar to BioWare’s combat system in their KOTOR games. A player selects the appropriate special attacks and buffs using a radial menu (attacks and buffs used often can be hotkeyed to the appropriate button on the Xbox 360 controller for instant access). Other characters in the player’s combat party could either be left to attack, defend and support the player using preset commands similar to Square-Enix’s “Gambit System” in Final Fantasy XII or the player could pause the game to switch to those characters individually and set a particular command manually before unpausing the game to continue the fight. The combat in DA:O is more about managing how the party fights and making sure the right combinations of attacks and spells are chosen. In the beginning of the game the simplest commands should suffice to beat most enemies in small or large numbers, but as the game progresses deeper into the story both main and sidequests the need to make use of every type of attacks and spells became more important. Bulldozing one’s way through most of the game only works in the beginning and would only get a player and his party killed once they enter Chapter 2.

This type of gameplay mechanic might turn-off some players who prefer a more active-style of combat which BioWare implemented in Jade Empire. At times I still found myself button-mashng a particular hotkeyed attack even though I knew that pressing that attack nonstop didn’t make me attack faster (each use of an ability came with a cooldown time which last just mere seconds to minutes depending on their level and potency). It is definitely a combat mechanic that took some getting used to and at time it does make the player less an active participant in the game and more an observer. I’m still on the fence as to whether I like this micromanaging-style of combat. While it does add some complexity and strategy to how a player fights the multitudes of battles in the game it also makes some of the larger boss fights (especially the final boss fight) very long with a wrong choice of commands ending a fight as quickly as it started.

The graphics for DA:O on the Xbox 360 is pretty crisp and keeps a steady frame-rate throughout the  game and it’s many cutscenes. I’ve heard comparisons about the look of the game on the 360 to the PS3 version with the latter having a more vibrant color palette but some slowdowns in the framerate when there’s many things going on in the screen. Until I actually get a chance to play the PS3 version I will say that the 360’s look and stability of its graphics I’d prefer than slowdowns which considering the type of combat mechanic it uses could really become detrimental to gameplay. It’s not the prettiest Xbox 360 game out there but this game makes’ ample use of the 360’s power to make gameplay as smooth as possible.

Now one can’t talk about the graphics without pointing out the pros and cons of the audio in the game. I’d say that it’s in this aspect of DA:O that BioWare had better success. Each weapon strike whether they be sword, staff or bow/crossbow has a very distinct sound to them. The sounds of the world around the player adds to the experience. Even when a player is not in battle and just stands around to admire the view the game still bombards them with sounds both ambient and natural depending on the area they’re currently at. One aspect of the sound design that would probably put a smile on many gamers would be the varying sounds of weapons and spells hitting flesh in the game. BioWare sure delivered on making a very violent world come to life with their sound design. I’d also like to make special mention to the soundtrack by longtime collaborator Inon Zur. His orchestral work in the game is a great mixture of Medieval Europe and Middle Eastern musical influences.

The voiceover work by the large cast in Dragon Age: Origins gives life to the dialogue both in and out of camp. I would say that pretty much 60 percent of all the dialogue in the game was spoken and done well. While it’s not on the same level as Mass Effect‘s voice work for an rpg it was a lot and helps distinguish it from it’s Japanese rpg counterparts where most dialogue outside of cutscenes are silent and read-only affairs. Some players might even recognize some of the voices in the game. Two who stood out where Claudia Black (of Farscape and Stargate SG-1 fame) as the witch Morrigan and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager’s Capt. Janeway) as Morrigan’s mother, Flemeth. All the actors on in the game give off dramatic readings instead of flat, directionless reads which could break a player out of the moment. I think Black’s work as Morrigan was some of the best voiceover work in video game history and really fleshesh out her character. I knew that I kept her around through pretty much most of the game’s playthrough just to hear her speak.

Overall, Dragon Age: Origins was a great introduction to BioWare’s newest rpg franchise. It’s definitely the spiritual successor to their acclaimed Baldur’s Gate rpg series on the PC. As with most introductory games in a franchise it does have some flaws that could’ve been fixed prior to the game’s release, but these flaws were not enough to take away from the game’s enjoyment (on the Xbox 360 at least which I played it on). The rich and complex world-building BioWare’s creative magicians were able to inject into their own brand of rpg gameplay makes for a very immersive videogaming experience. Thedas and Ferelden come to life as do the Grey Wardens and it’s other inhabitants both good and evil. BioWare has already announced a new expansion to extend the game past it’s final boss fight. Here’s to hoping that they continue to support the game while they begin work on the sequel.

Dragon Age: Origins – Morrigan Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Leilana Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Zevran Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Wynne Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Oghren Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Sten Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Alistair Profile

Dragon Age: Origins – Shale Profile

Mass Effect 2 aka The Galactic Dirty Dozen

BioWare has long been a favorite game developer of mine. This love for their games goes back to their classic Baldur’s Gate series on the PC and then their KOTOR games for the Xbox 360 (still waiting for the third game in this series…still waiting). I’ve always enjoyed how conversations were not just affairs where as a player I just had to watch the dialogue unfold. BioWare has pretty much made it their own to have dialogue which branched out into different results and consequences depending on how the player responded.

In 2007, they released what I thought was one of the best games, if not the game of the year, in Mass Effect. It was an action-rpg clothed in space opera clothing which brought to mind the early Star Wars films (prequels don’t exist in my world) and some of the best supplemental novels based on Lucas’ scifi universe (the Zahn novels being the best of the bunch). While the game itself had its flaws they were never glaring enough to ruin the game and the story.

2010 is just days away and the release of the sequel to Mass Effect is just weeks away. In what could be one of the games to vie for 2010 Game of the Year, Mass Effect 2 returns to address some of the game mechanic flaws from the first game and expand on the galactic-wide story and history which unfolded before. This game looks to find the protagonist in the initial game (whether John Shepard or a customized player) out to save the galaxy once again, but this time around needing the help of one of the villains in the first game: Cerberus. In order to save the galaxy and the human race it looks like the player must go through what I could only call as “The Dirty Dozen” but in space.

The Dirty Dozen Trailer

Mass Effect 2 – Samara Profile

Mass Effect 2 – Tali’Zorah nar Rayya Profile

Mass Effect 2 – Subject Zero Profile

Mass Effect 2 – Thane Profile

Mass Effect 2 – Grunt Profile