Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

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Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan (2014).

Score: Excellent.

Interstellar is colossal. I’m a fan of Nolan and I can say that this is as of now his finest work and it will go on to become a classic of science-fiction. My two favourite films he directed earlier, Inception and The Prestige, are also excellent films but have some flaws that I tolerate but others won’t, such as being overly complicated, extravagant, disgruntled or juvenile. Nolan has overcome that with Interstellar, a truly mature and consistent film. It’s long and feels even longer, so have a good snack before going in the cinema, but I don’t think it could have been made much shorter. It has a lot of things to tell and tells them just at the right pace.

Twenty minutes into the future, humanity has fallen into an age of scarcity. There is an unknown plague that’s killing crops and population has been drastically reduced. It’s not considered a time to invest in science and research has been severely crippled. Dr. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), engineer-turned-farmer, lives in the countryside trying to accept he won’t do science anymore. Until he gets swept into a project to go through a worm hole to three possible inhabitable worlds to make a new start for humanity.
Matthew McConaughey does a great job as the lead, continuing the current golden age of his carreer. The rest of the cast does well too, as well as the design team, who throws on the table a very plausible portrait of what the world might look like 40 years from now. It’s really well researched, and don’t take that from me, take it from the physicist that came with me to watch it. Nolan does a masterful use of silence in the scenes that take place in space. That means, yes!!, no sound or fire in space in this movie, but also that the claustrophobic feeling of the astronauts inside the shuttle is passed on to the audience. It falls on the hard side of Mohs’ scale of science fiction and the fantasy element is kept to a minimum. What’s more, it takes relativistic physics way more seriously than most science fiction works in any medium, the last time I saw something similar being Siri and Merin’s section in Hyperion.

It drinks heavily from Sagan’s work, mostly Contact and The demon-haunted world. 2001 is clearly a reference in order to make realistic scenes with spaceships, but the list of inspirations is potentially infinite. Angry aside for the ignorant hipsters who keep saying it plagiarises2001: rotatory space stations, cryosleep, wormholes and AIs are so commonplace in science fiction it’s not even funny, not to say scientists speculate with their actual application in the future. Read a fucking book and stop being such fanboys.
So to wrap it up, I’m already considering it an automatic classic of science-fiction. Go watch it, you will enjoy it.

And now for the ***SPOILERS***

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Terra Battle (Mistwalk, 2014)

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Terra battle, developed by Mistwalk for iOS and Android (2014),
Or, how I tried to avoid micropayments on a free-to-play.

Terra Battle is a tile strategy JRPG. In it, you have to move your characters around the field in order to flank and attack enemy tiles. You have to bear in mind there is a rock-paper-scissors weakness system and you actually need to use it or you lose. You actually have to play methodically or you lose. Sometimes you lose just because, I’m suspecting so you will buy more lives. It really bugs me because the game is actually good but different little things render it almost unplayable. I had some sort of Stockholm syndrome and kept playing, though, because it’s good and the gameplay is original. Not the Jewels ripoffs and four or five variations on that we’re constantly seeing in mobile device marketplaces.

First bad thing, you have to play online, even in single-player mode, and I can’t really see why. Which means that I, having a tablet with no cellular data capabilities, can’t play while commuting. And second and most important, there is a lives system which means once you’re out of tries, you can’t play anymore unless you buy more lives, at 0,89 euro a pop, 54,99 for a hundred. They don’t regenerate over time like lives on Candy Crush –but there’s a stamina counter that means maybe you do have lives but still can’t play for a while because you’re out of it. There is a workaround, though, which is that if you login everyday they give you some lives each time, so I would save them up and play every few days when I had enough to try to play through a stage. I might have noticed, or maybe I am biased, that the longer you keep logging in, the fewer lives you get. Fortunately, for the last month or so there was a special event every week where they would give you five lives or so, for me more than enough to play through the day.

I’m an adult and I would pay to fully unlock this game but I know nobody in Mistwalk or a lot of other development companies care because free-to-play/freemium is much more profitable than you can imagine. It will only be over when someone invents something that’s even more profitable, and I don’t think that’s ever going to be the traditional model anymore. But I refuse to play along this kind of freemium. Why should I have to pay more if I need more tries to clear a stage? Why does anyone think it’s reasonable to pay more to beat an arcade game than, say, Diablo or Dragon Age, even if you pay little by little? (I’ll tell you why: some of my colleagues do work that’s related to pay-to-play and you’d be surprised how many people have compulsive tendencies and poor self-control).

Anyway, the fun disappeared relatively quickly. Even though there were some quirks on certain stages, like enemies that make you sleep (god, I hated those), or that leave a trace of bombs or goo that hurts you when you’re on it, that’s pretty much it. Once you’ve figured out how to approach and beat those quirks it’s pretty straightforward and monotonous.

So to sum it up, my feelings towards it are lukewarm. At first i really liked the game mechanics, but I don’t think they were exploited with a lot of variance, which kills the fun of it. Also you’ve got the two major downsides of having to play online and its free-to-play/freemium nature.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)

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American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (2001).

Score: I really tried to like it but didn’t.

Last year I started Neverwhere and left it half in as well. I picked up American Gods honestly wanting to like it, but to no avail. I even feel bad because I think Neil Gaiman is such a nice guy and follow him here on Tumblr and everything but he just doesn’t catch my attention as a fantasy writer.

American Gods tells the story of Shadow, a guy that has behaved like a pinball all his life and thus ended in jail for a robbery gone wrong. He’s left out of prison a few days early due to the death of his wife in a car crash. While flying to a hometown where no one’s waiting for him he meets Mr. Wednesday, who hires Shadow as a bodyguard. It turns out Wednesday is the incarnation of an old god and has some other god friends as well, who want to fight the new gods for their believers, since when people don’t worship them they lose their powers (it’s like Small gods, only less funny). The new gods being the internet, credit cards and such.

I read about a hundred pages of it before I decided I just didn’t find it interesting enough. I found Shadow a bit annoying as a main character because he’s just being pushed around (even though apparently there’s a reason for it that’s revealed later), and Wednesday wasn’t really as charming and mysterious as he fancied himself. The style is not dry nor bad but since the events weren’t entertaining me the other reason to keep reading was the narrating style (I put up with a lot of bullshit from writers like Stephenson and R.R. Martin for the sole reason that the fuckers do know how to tell me a story). So narration didn’t keep me on the boat either.

I decided to look up how the plot developed and it didn’t appeal to me either. ***Obviously, SPOILERS*** All this nonsense about Shadow being Odin’s son and his going to jail as part of a setup from him and Loki to stir up a war and cash on it. It didn’t feel as an original or interesting development to me. The original setting didn’t lend itself to much more but if the development looked liked it was going to be different i would have carried on. ***END SPOILERS*** Another thing that was supposedly unique about the book and its style was the ongoing theme about the United States, Americana as a genre and how American identity is such a vague and fleeting thing because there are so many people from so many different places and different customs, blah, blah, blah. I know that Gaiman is British but, god, I hate it when Americans behave like they’re the only multicultural country in the history of everything. The case of the US is not as unique as they want you to believe.

So to wrap it up, I didn’t like it but maybe you will, so give it a chance. I guess I’m a Greek mythology person after all.

Destiny (Bungie, 2014)

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Destiny, developed by Bungie and published by Activision (2014).

Score: Outstanding, pure fun.

See, I was once in love. A dashing young game appeared in my life and made me fall for space opera. Its name was Mass Effect. It eventually broke my heart. As much as I wanted to believe in the indoctrination theory, I knew it could not be true, and was left thinking I couldn’t aspire to anything better. And then Destiny came along.

It’s not the same kind of game, though. This is an MMOFPS and you have to take that into account when you’re experiencing it. The storyline is sketchy and vague, but that’s what it should be, when it’s a multiplayer, gameplay centered game. The storyline was sketchy at best with Skyrim and it’s still the most fun I’ve ever had playing a videogame. It’s about having fun, not being enlightened by the storytelling. You can like both kinds of games and there’s nothing wrong about it, but most games can’t indulge you with both.

The plot involves an artifact called The Traveler that somehow contributed to terraform most planets in the Solar System. Humanity colonised them and thrived but after some kind of cataclysm most of us died and those planets were invaded by alien races. Now the Ghosts, aided by the Speaker, are resurrecting humans and dubbing them Guardians, with the goal to restore humanity’s old splendour.

The level design is really well-thought. Some people have been complaining that levels are reused, but I don’t see how that’s a problem. Virtually every multiplayer shooter has just a few maps that keep repeating themselves and nobody ever complained about that. Every cave in Skyrim and every spaceship in Mass Effect looked exactly the same and everyone was fine with that. You’ve got these huge, insanely detailed levels in Destiny which are reused for story, strike and patrol games and suddenly the game is repetitive. Fuck it, I prefer to play lots of times in a gorgeously designed level than in modular levels that look exactly like each other and have worse design.

People have complained that story missions are repetitive because most of the time they involve Ghost a.k.a. Siri to hack into something while you fight off waves of enemies. GTA IV was the most repetitive game experience I’ve ever had (i.e. drive your cousin around and shoot some gangsters once in a while) and that didn’t prevent anyone from sucking its cock. If shooting waves of monsters in the head is not what you came for, you’re not going to like the game anyway, so don’t pretend that’s the reason why you didn’t like it.

The game is essentially multiplayer but to different degrees. Story missions can be played alone or in cooperative mode with no matchmaking. In these you can see and interact with other players in the common areas, but when you enter the story-exclusive area you are alone or just with your fire team. Patrol missions are in open stages where you interact with other players mostly in upcoming events, which happen randomly and have a time limit to complete. Strikes have a matchmaking system and are the mid-level PvE cooperative experiencepar excellence. Crucible matches are basically THE PvP experience in several modes. They both give you reputation and a currency (marks), which allows you to buy higher-level equipment. Because here’s the thing: up to level 20 you level up with experience the regular way, but after that you need equipment that grants you light. This means the piece of armour will have Light +x and you level up according to your light rating. So at this point of the game your farming starts. The cryptarch, the NPC that will decrypt loot that gives you a random piece of equipment, had to be patched recently because he was a bit of a miser. Still you’re sometimes stuck with a sweet ass piece of armour that you can’t wear because it’s for the wrong class, something that doesn’t happen with lower level equipment. And then there are the raids. Difficult as fuck. But still I find the system fun because at every level and every point of the game you have sorts of missions that are challenging and you always have stuff to do. Bungie has announced that Destiny is a project for the next ten years and expansions are already in the way. I can definitely see myself playing most of them. I’m expecting them to add new planets, strikes and raids (once you’ve beaten the story missions you don’t care much about those), and hey, maybe they could throw in some new game modes. Ten years is a very long time.

The music makes me nearly jizz and deserves another review just for itself. I love that they have avoided this cliché that science fiction or futuristic games need to have an exclusively electronic soundtrack because apparently brass instruments will be extinct in the future. It’s so satisfying to blow heads to bloody bits while an overly dramatic and epic orchestral piece is blaring through your home cinema. It also has the more quiet and reflective parts, perfectly suited for the exploration bits, and it uses different resources wisely, such as orchestral instruments, electronic sampling and human voices and choirs.

As for the voice acting, there isn’t really much speaking, especially once you’ve already beat the story missions. I think Peter Dinklage did a neat job, though you might argue he falls in the inexpressive side of the scales. I didn’t like the Spanish dub as usual, since it falls more to the histrionic and overacted side, which is considered good acting in the Spanish voice acting industry, god knows why (as a silly side note, we would call Ghost either Siri or Tyrion or Pepper because the Spanish voice actor is the same as for Modern Family’s Pepper). Shoutout to whomever did the angry babble the Fallen speak when you’re fighting them, it’s hilarious.

This game is fun as fuck and a great example of the good science-fiction I’ve grown to love. It has been terribly hyped, to a level absolutely nothing can live up to, but it’s not garbage like a lot of people want you to believe. As someone I read on a forum put it: people who like Destiny are playing it, the ones who’re not playing are the ones that have time to talk shit about it.