Games 8/27/08: Too Human, Grid (Nintendo DS), Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty

Too Human
For: Xbox 360
From: Silicon Knights/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

The story behind “Too Human’s” creation — nine years, three platforms, countless restarts and even some pending litigation — is packed with more mythos than the game’s actual story. The long process also leaves an indelible mark on a final product that’s both unrelenting in the pursuit of its vision and saturated with design choice that were more acceptable when development began than they are today.

The heart and soul of “Human” centers around its gameplay mechanics, which most closely resemble those of the “Diablo” franchise of PC games. “Human,” like “Diablo,” is a dungeon crawler in which the primary objective, beyond carrying out the storyline, is to slay thousands of enemies, build up your character’s attributes and hopefully stumble some one-of-a-kind piece of weaponry or armor.

Rather than use buttons to attack, as most console dungeon crawlers do, “Human” instead maps all attack commands to the control sticks. It sounds awkward, but in practice, it represents the best approximation yet of “Diablo’s” mouse-based gameplay. Flicking the stick to slide between enemies and carve through armies of monsters is surprisingly satisfying once you develop an understanding of the system’s intricacies. (Ranged combat doesn’t fare as elegantly, thanks to “Human’s” stubborn auto-targeting system and unavoidably archaic camera controls, but it generally suffices.)

But while “Human” validates itself when it finds a groove, serious balancing issues often leave it struggling to do just that. Remedial enemy A.I. sends the same monsters straight at you ad nauseam, and it’s hard to glide gracefully between enemies when you’re so frequently mobbed. The penalty for dying in “Human” is practically nil outside of an obnoxious cutscene you cannot skip, and the game compensates for this by overwhelming you with waves of cheap enemies.

A little less cheapness and a little more danger would have done wonders for elevating “Human’s” stakes, which already ride low thanks to its lacking storyline. Silicon Knights has positioned “Human” as a trilogy, but part one neither sets the table compellingly nor leaves gamers hungry to find out what happens next.

Yet with all that said, it must also be said that for the right crowd, “Human” still manages to hit that sweet spot just flush enough to suck people in. The character-building options are just deep enough, and while the game doles out rare items far too generously, the compulsion to uncover slightly better loot remains. If you understand that compulsion at all — or simply cannot for “Diablo III’s” arrival — “Human” is unquestionably worth at least a rental, if not more.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Firebrand/Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Resist, for a moment, the entirely understandable urge to penalize the Nintendo DS version of “Grid” for what it isn’t and never could be — specifically, the gorgeous, blissfully intuitive sleeper that emerged from left field to become one of Xbox 360 and Playstation 3’s best racing sims.

The DS is capable only of rendering 3D that looks straight out of the late 1990s, and as such, “Grid” loses one of its chief selling points — those incredible good looks — entirely by default. The cars are ugly, the backgrounds relatively static, the collision animations more reminiscent of crashing piñata cars than steel bending around steel.

But short of reinventing itself as an unrecognizable 2D racer, “Grid” has little choice but to look as it looks and make do from there. Far more important than how the game looks is how it actually performs, and it’s here where the news considerably improves.

On the track — 37 licensed tracks, to be exact — “Grid’s” 29 licensed vehicles handle surprisingly well despite the limitations of the DS’ control pad. Imagine a Nintendo 64 racer and the degree of control that typically entailed, and you have an idea what to expect here: a degree of precision not on par with the console versions but plenty serviceable for what it’s trying to accomplish. “Grid’s” simulation leanings are understandably more forgiving on the small screen, but the game still keeps you abreast of vehicle damage and when it may be wise to enter the pit for repairs.

For the trouble you invest in getting to know its intricacies and looking past its inherited shortcomings, “Grid” rewards you with a whole lot to do. As hinted by the number of included tracks, the single-player component is remarkably comparable to what the console versions offer, and “Grid” accompanies a rather nice variety of event types with a satisfactory toolset for upgrading, redesigning and tweaking whichever cars you’ve unlocked. Four-player wireless and online multiplayer are available for those in search of human competition, though there’s no telling yet whether the game will foster a viable online following.

It deserves to, if only due to “Grid’s” dauntingly deep track editor, which provides a startling level of freedom for designing your dream track and lets you challenge other players to beat you on your own turf. Hobbled though “Grid” unmistakably is by the DS’ limitations, it also takes acute advantage, though this feature, of the special capabilities only Nintendo’s handheld can provide.


Downloadable game of the week

Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, use of alcohol)
Price: $15

With “Quest for Booty,” the celebrated “Ratchet & Clank” series ventures into new territory: episodic gaming. That means a jarringly shorter (roughly three hours) game than “Ratchet” fans are used to, and it also means a detour in the series’ storytelling. “Booty” takes place on the heels of last year’s full-sized “Tools of Destruction,” but it doesn’t resolve that game’s cliffhanger ending so much as advance it a few degrees. Consequently, Clank — who was kidnapped at the conclusion of “Destruction” — isn’t available as a playable character. That’s unfortunate, but here’s the good news: In adhering to the bite-sized format, “Booty” trims the junk that sometimes weighed previous “Ratchet” games down, leaving behind three uninterrupted hours of top-shelf running, jumping, blasting and puzzle-solving. Ratchet’s gadget arsenal consists mostly of holdovers from “Destruction,” but the game’s environments are completely new and even more lovingly detailed than what gamers experienced last year. The series’ expert mix of action, humor and gorgeous good looks is as close as gamers can get to experiencing an interactive Pixar film, and “Booty’s” expert pacing makes it an ideal summer blockbuster that’s easily replayable purely on the merits of fun. If you truly love “Ratchet,” this one’s a no-brainer.

DVD 8/26/08: Son of Rambow, My Sassy Girl, Postal, Virgin Territory, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, Chicago 10, Warner Bros. Westerns, The Shield S6, Heroes S2, Everybody Hates Chris S3, Dexter S2, Entourage S4

Son of Rambow (PG-13, 2008, Paramount)
Shy, diminutive grade schooler Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is so sheltered, he has to leave the classroom whenever his teacher plays a video because he isn’t allowed to watch television. Class bully and amateur film pirate Lee Carter (Will Poulter), obviously, lives a little differently. A chance encounter has the naive but artistically gifted Will performing stuntman duties in Lee’s homemade film, and once Will catches the tiniest whiff of this television thing, it’s all over. “Son of Rambow” is one of those wonderful little films that assumes multiple personalities — an adorable coming-of-age story, a screwball comedy about boys being boys, an allegory about the perils of creative control, an anti-cautionary tale straight out of “Footloose” territory — without going overboard in any one area or ever losing its head. Sometimes “Rambow” speaks of the joys of creative pursuit; other times, it simply illustrates it. All the while, the film does a masterful job of creating real characters where others might simply have trotted out walking cartoons, and when the film isn’t trying simply to make you laugh or smile, it has more than enough ammo to tug at heartstrings without resorting to crass manipulation. The whole process seems so effortless, it’s enough to make one wonder why the likes of “Rambow” don’t come around more often than they do.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, the original homemade film that inspired “Rambow’s” creation.

My Sassy Girl (NR, 2008, Fox)
Don’t feel bad if, for the first 50 minutes or so, you don’t really understand why anyone bothered to make “My Sassy Girl,” which in fact is a remake of a 2001 Korean film. By all appearances to those who know nothing about the original, “Girl” is yet another movie about a normal, boring guy (Jesse Bradford) whose life is turned on its head by a crazy, excessively spirited girl (Elisha Cuthbert) whose instant and insatiable interest in the boring guy makes zero sense. A lot of things, in fact, don’t make sense: “Girl” randomly jaunts from one groundless scenario to another, and we’re left with no choice but to believe that random inanity is all the film has to offer. But then, and without spoiling anything here, “Girl” explains itself, and stunningly well at that. A single scene transforms just another dumb romantic comedy into a rather extraordinary modern love story, and Cuthbert’s character goes from crazy to improbably sentimental just as instantly. As twists go, it’s hard to do more in less time. “Girl” isn’t a whole lot more plausible by film’s end than it was during its first half, but those who want to believe in it will have ample opportunity to do so. It’s amazing sometimes what a single scene can do. All that said, if you don’t mind subtitles and can bother to seek it out, the better-balanced original remains the definitive version of this tale. No extras.

Postal: Unrated (NR, 2007, Vivendi)
On the surface, “Postal” is a guilty pleasure aficionado’s dream come true — a 100-minute bombshell from a notoriously awful director (Uwe Boll) that’s based on what arguably is the most intentionally vile big-budget video game ever made. Sure enough, “Postal” goes to town in bad taste country, unloading its most offensive scene in its very first minute and following closely with a barrage of bad stereotypes and gags even a 12-year-old boy might dismiss as immature. (All that talk about a naked Dave Foley turns out, sadly, to be completely true.) No informed consumer can complain about any of this, because this is precisely why “Postal” exists. What people can complain about, instead, is how much steam the film loses as it hurtles toward the big finish. Rather than repeatedly raise the train wreck bar, “Postal” plateaus about halfway through and aimlessly coasts the rest of the way, a film built around a scattershot of offensive gags but under the direction of someone with no clue how to finish it. By the time “Postal” wraps, the joke is old and the novelty sanded fully off. That’s hardly shocking news, given the full and intentional non-commitment to quality on display here, but it’s worth noting all the same. Zack Ward, Chris Coppola, Jackie Thorn and Verne Troyer star alongside Foley.
Extras: Boll commentary, an uncut copy of the “Postal 2” computer game for Windows, footage of Boll literally boxing his critics, Troyer outtake, behind-the-scenes feature.

Virgin Territory (R, 2007, Anchor Bay)
Take a “Princess Bride” wannabe, mix in a whole lot of “Porky’s,” and what you get is “Virgin Territory,” a film about… well gosh, who is to say, really? There are three, arguably four or even five, plotlines cooking at once in “Territory,” and each is unwieldy in its own particular way. Everything intertwines, often messily, and occasionally the story comes to a complete dead stop so “Territory” can cobble together an excuse to trot out some gratuitous 14th century nudity. The sum total of “Territory” is a kaleidoscopic mishmash of action, drama, comedy and nudity, and it’s ultimately hard to discern whether “Territory” is strangely enjoyable because it’s a guilty pleasure or strangely enjoyable because it’s so bad as to be good. Either way, “Territory” is, in fact, strangely enjoyable — but probably only once, and only if you’re in the right mood and watching with the right crowd. Hayden Christensen, Tim Roth, Mischa Barton, Mathew Rhys, Christopher Egan and Craig Parkinson, among others, star.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes, costume gallery.

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? (PG-13, 2008, Weinstein Company)
Morgan Spurlock’s recent successes must have had him feeling a teensy bit invincible as he embarked on the making of “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?,” which finds him trekking across the Middle East and employing a hypothetical scenario involving the pending birth of his son as justification for the journey. Obviously, Spurlock didn’t find his target. What’s less clear is whether the film achieves whatever intention it originally had. The overlying message — that people over there are, far more than not, just as normal and grounded as people over here — is a nice sentiment, and there are moments where the film illustrates that point with inspiring conviction. Too often, though, the mood meanders, and viewers who approach “Laden” from different angles are equally likely to call it out for excessive preaching, unnecessary showmanship and/or trivialization of an entirely serious subject. Critical eyes can see through these problem spots and respect the positive message that lies beneath, but anyone who knows how to do that probably also knows everything the film had to say in the first place. Spurlock’s first-person everyman approach remains a unique and welcome addition to the documentary filmmaking landscape, but he’d do wise to consider just who his audience is and what his work can do for them. “Laden,” all good intentions aside, appears to have skipped that step.
Extras: Alternate ending, animated history of Afghanistan, interviews, two bonus segments.

Chicago 10 (R, 2007, Paramount)
If you enjoy watching documentaries, is it because you find the format enlightening or entertaining? If it’s the latter, your time and trouble may be well-served should you check out “Chicago 10,” which stretches the boundaries of what a documentary is while revisiting the drama and subsequent trial surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That boundary-busting works for and against the film. “Chicago 10” cleverly mixes archival footage of interviews and anti-war protests with animated dramatizations of the trial, and it balances the two media with energy and spirit (and some great music) to spare. Watching “Chicago 10” is so much fun, in fact, that it’s dangerously easy to forget you’re not really learning much of anything. “Chicago 10” paints the protesters as charismatic heroes and the opposition as a bunch of freedom-hating squares, and the story behind the story, when told at all, is painted overwhelmingly in black and white. Were this a work of fiction, such excessive subjectivity would probably be fine. But 1968 really happened, and telling half the story, no matter how well-dressed, is as bad as not telling it at all.
Extra: Remix contest-winning video.

Worth a Mention
—Warner Westerns: If you’re a lover of westerns but your library is feeling a bit stale, thank Warner Bros. for going nuts and releasing no less than three sets at the same time. “Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection” includes four Flynn films (“Montana,” “Rocky Mountain,” “San Antonio” and “Virginia City”), while “Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection” features six (“Escape From Fort Bravo,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Cimarron,” “The Law and Jake Wade,” “Saddle the Wind” and “The Stalking Moon”). Warner also is offering a three-disc collector’s edition of “How the West was Won,” which includes a remastered cut, commentary, a behind-the-scenes film and a smattering of collectable books and photo cards.

Best of the Week’s TV on DVD
Per usual, late August brings with it new seasons of TV on DVD. Among the best of the bunch:
— “The Shield: The Complete Sixth Season” (NR, 2007, Sony Pictures): 10 episodes, plus commentaries, deleted scenes and two behind-the-scenes features.
— “Heroes: Season 2” (NR, 2007, NBC-Universal): 11 episodes, plus commentaries, deleted scenes, alternate season finale ending, season three sneak preview, six behind-the-scenes features, Web featurettes and an art gallery.
— “Everybody Hates Chris: The Third Season” (NR, 2007, CBS/Paramount): 22 episodes, plus commentaries, deleted scenes, Webisodes, cast interviews, Chris Rock voiceover session footage, outtakes, one behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers and a music video.
— “Dexter: The Second Season” (NR, 2007, Showtime): 12 episodes, plus two sample episodes each of “Brotherhood” and “The Tudors,” a sample episode of “Californication,” a Michael C. Hall Podcast and an interview with Hall.
— “Entourage: The Complete Fourth Season” (NR, 2008, HBO): 12 episodes, plus commentaries, U.S. Comedy Arts Festival panel featuring the cast, one behind-the-scenes feature and a trailer for the fictional film “Medellin.”