Is Microsoft Retarded!?

The Xbox 360 Elite has been announced, and it’s not a limited edition heralding an enhanced premium system as was rumoured. So now there’s three SKUs and the price has essentially been increased?

I was looking forward to buying a white 360 with HDMI when it was released, especially if it had the new 65nm chips and revised chipset (hopefully with revised reliability). I’ll be able to buy an HDMI-equipped 360, but that’s as good as it gets. Also good on them for including HDMI and component cables in the box, which is much better than composite. *cough*

What we get is a third SKU for $80 more than the retail price. Since people seem to price the 360 at $400 and the PS3 at $600, despite cheaper models being available, this is effectively a price hike that takes a chunk out of their nice $200 price cushion on the competition. And they don’t have the HD movie playback which may be of debatable value but is something you may as well have for $20 more.

No 65nm processors means that unless they’ve done a motherboard revision for the addition of HDMI the motherboards are still going to be warp-prone and unreliable. At least those three red lights will look nice against the black finish, right?

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a 360 without extortionate hard drive prices. $180 for 120GB is insane, as on NewEgg they sell a 160GB 2.5″ SATA hard drive for $120, or a 100GB one for $81. That’s one expensive enclosure that they put them in. A 2.5″ external 120GB drive costs $94.

I’ve almost got my head in my hands here. A limited edition before the standard premium (oxymoron?) got the HDMI port made sense, this just doesn’t. Fingers crossed that they’ll pick up the ball again when the 65nm chips get integrated.

On My God of War Ambivalence

Although in my previous impressions I said that I liked GOW2, I talked about how I didn’t really get it. Hardly surprising – it’s happened before, and I’ve taken it back before. I might be about to take this one back too.

My main problem that it’s a bit of a button masher stands, and the combat is undoubtedly more concerned with being flashy than mechanically strong, but I went back to the first God of War rather than throwing myself into the middle with the sequel. Even with the ending completely spoiled for me, I can feel myself getting onto the wavelength of the game and now intend to get back to GOW2 when I’ve finished this one.

So yeah, I’m enjoying it a lot and it’s not as flawed as I might have implied. It is flawed and not by any stretch of the imagination a ten, but still great fun. Buy it.

Kratos Smash!

God of War 2

I cannot believe what David Jaffe and SCE Santa Monica can make a PS2 do. That’s the overriding impression from watching and playing God of War 2. It’s incredible – you’ve probably seen the videos of the fight with the Colossus of Rhodes, and that pretty much makes up the whole first level. And then the next one puts you up against Typhon, who is even bigger. At this rate the final boss will be the planet Jupiter or something.

Everything else is understandably going to be a bit of a come down after that – especially when it gives you the Metroid-style contrivance to which you lose all your superpowered abilities gathered throughout the original and are forced to re-aquire them – and when the action has to exist at a sane level it plays much the same as God of War. I’m yet to come up against any of the really frustrating sticking points that the first game had (that crate pushing towards the archers on the first level nearly made me give up) and the combat is still more concerned with being visceral than the mechanics. And I mean ‘visceral’ in the most literal sense possible.

That’s the main problem I have with the game. Like its predecessor, GOW2 is beautiful to look at and seemingly reliant on that, as well as the always-interesting Greek mythology, to drive me to keep playing. Combat, while improving as you go through the game and get more attacks and therefore more options, is a bit of a button mash. Maybe it was deliberate in that it reflects Kratos as a character – lots of shouting and saying things like “RARGH!” a lot, hence the earlier Hulk allusion – or maybe it’s just a bit basic. It seems like a better game than the first one because it hasn’t, thus far, moved me to try to destroy a pad, which is probably a good thing considering that the reviews reckon it’ll take about twice as long to finish.

So if a PS2 can do this, who needs next-gen consoles with HD graphics? Me, for one. But this proves that the old ones shouldn’t be thrown in the cupboard just yet. A tentative thumbs up from me.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

I miss this type of fantasy film. While Lord of the Rings and its derivatives pull in untold amounts of cash, the more intimate ones where someone from our world finds themselves in a mystical land – think The NeverEnding Story or, conveniently, Labyrinth – never seem to have survived the 80s.

Maybe people like massive CG battles and vast, open plains better than a bit of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. My theory is just that LOTR doesn’t have David Bowie’s scary 80s hair it it. Or David Bowie, for that matter.

Del Toro is one of my favourite directors at the moment, since he clearly has a wonderful imagination and the means to realise it. Here he shows that he’s just as adept at serious period drama – much of the film takes place in the early days of Franco’s fascist Spain, at a military outpost – but balances it superbly with the fantasy elements. I was frankly surprised at how far the film pushes its 15-rating (clue: there’s no sex or bad language), and yet he still maintains the innocence of Ofelia’s fantasy world, regardless of what’s happening in “reality” (or is it, etc?).

One thing that really blew me away here is the quality of the Oscar-winning makeup work. The all-CGI face of Davy Jones in Pirates 2 had raised the bar for fantasy characters (the best thing in that movie, it’s stunning) but Doug Jones as the faun and the Pale Man looks incredible, and all with minimal CGI on both characters. The Pale Man in particular is one of the most sinister movie monsters in years, and no doubt due a Movie Maniacs figure that’ll be decorating my shelf in the near future.

I ended up enjoying Pan’s Labyrinth so much that I’ve ordered the beautiful Korean limited edition to go with my UK DVD. We got this film on DVD a couple of months before it’s due in the States admittedly (minus DTS-ES 6.1 sound), but how come we don’t get special editions like that?

GRAW 1.5. Uh…I mean…2

I was a bit reluctant to pay full price for this, given that it was getting criticism for being more of a mission pack and reviews have mentioned a short campaign. But at the same time, I loved the first GRAW and played a ton of multiplayer as well, and if they only criticism of the single player was the length (no mention of horrible difficulty spikes, dodgy checkpoint spacing, stingy health system, and at least one horrible bug) then it was a fairly sure thing that I’d get on with it.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2

What ultimately sold me, though, was that the achievements were all nice, round numbers. I still resent the first one for leaving me with a deformed gamerscore thanks to the weird numbers for finishing the co-op campaign. Only fives and tens here!

GRAW was one of the first games that really looked like you were playing it on a next-gen console but, like PGR3, going back to it isn’t especially kind to the memories. GRAW 2 makes it look much worse. The explosions, in particular, are gorgeous; some of the best in any game that I’ve seen. There’s a moment on the very first mission when you plant C4 in a cave and get to see the smoke and debris blown out through the cave entrances when it detonates. It’s a fairly incidental effect but it looks amazing.

Ubisoft has ground down those rough edges, particularly with regard to the frustration factor. There are fewer moments of drawn out battles without checkpoints, the new medic gives you a health boost without having to struggle to the next ammo box, the enhanced Cross Com (complete with full screen feeds) allows you to command your team and support vehicles accurately when they’re out of view, and your chaingun on the Black Hawk doesn’t overheat within seconds. Now I’m playing the game on the hardest difficulty and finding it challenging rather than infuriating.

Continue reading GRAW 1.5. Uh…I mean…2