GOG Star Wars Day releases and sales

Only two days before the unofficial worldwide Star Wars Day celebration, but digital distributor of classic games GOG already has plenty on offer already with new releases and sales.

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Two of the biggest and also most pleasant surprises are Rebel Assault 1 & 2, interactive movies with lots of on-rails shooting and also the reason for many, including myself, to get a CD-ROM drive back in the old days. This might sound strange for those growing up with DVDs or even BDs, but it was a big deal being finally able to relive the famous moments of Star Wars history with FMVs.

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The video quality might look pretty bad in comparison to today’s technology, while the gameplay isn’t the most refined, but to understand what an impact these games had, one really should check them out. The second title even had a completely new story with newly filmed video sequences and mostly unknown actors. I don’t remember much of it, other than it was fun without experiencing the same wow factor. But then again, it’s one package for a very small price on GOG to try out both.

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If you like space sims like me, then X-Wing and TIE-Fighter are must haves, this time even being upgraded with the Collector’s CD-ROM editions which feature better graphics and controls.

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I haven’t played the new versions yet, but spent a lot of time with the originals. Compared to today’s console-centric gaming, these are pretty difficult and need some getting used to when learning all the different keyboard layouts. But they’re totally worth it if you want to have that special fighting-for-the-rebels or fighting-for-the-Empire feeling, and also to see how intriguing and unique joystick gaming was.

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It was only a matter of time, but they’re finally available on GOG as well: the sequels to Dark Forces and Jedi Knight: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

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I haven’t finished the former or even played the latter. But what X-Wing did for the space sims genre, the Jedi Knight games did for FPS games, namely transporting the space saga atmosphere with lightsaber duels and blaster shootouts to the computer screen. The graphics might not have altered that well, but there’s surely no better way to relive the past glory days when the games were way better than what George Lucas came up with later on his unimaginative own.

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To celebrate these releases and the upcoming Star Wars Day, GOG has two sales going on until Thursday, May 7, 6:59 AM GMT, the Blaster Bundle and Saber Bundle, including even more Star Wars goodness of various genres.

So if you want to have some games which are true to the source material and bridge the gap of waiting for new films, then there’s no better time than now on GOG.

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Game release: “Broken Age – Act 2″ + GOG creative writing contest

After being financed via Kickstarter, it was quiet at Double Fine Productions about Time Schafer’s adventure game, but the second instalment of Broken Age is finally out now.

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I haven’t been much involved in the whole fundraising craze since Tim Schafer started it, and I still think it wasn’t the best idea to split it into two games without telling people beforehand or even using part of the money for other projects. But putting these issues aside, I’m rather excited about this release. Many voices were raised that the puzzles of the first act were too easy and that it made too many compromises to speak to a bigger audience. But looking at the art design, listening to the stellar voice acting and the world Schafer created makes playing this more than worthwhile.

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Personally I’m not into the whole puzzles-for-the-genre’s-sake argument. Actually I never was. For me, story comes first, and if it’s about going into a world with characters that is compelling to explore and who are interesting to talk to, then that’s enough to warrant a play. But like the Telltale games, I’d rather play the whole thing instead of having to wait so long (in this case over a year) to see the conclusion.

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The idea of having two worlds collide, two different personalities in the form of Vella who’s going to be sacrificed for her village, and Shay who is on a spaceship that’s too protective, is certainly great storytelling material, so hopefully this turns out to be the awesome experience Double Fine Studios promised.

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Waiting for the release of the complete package was also worth it if you want to have a boxed version without having actively participated in the crowdfunding process. Thanks to Nordic Games, this retail version includes both the DRM-free game and a Steam code.
Speaking of DRM-free, GOG has a 30% launch discount that will last for one week, until Tuesday, May 5, at 9:59 AM. This Thursday, April 30th, at 6pm GMT (2pm EDT/11am PDT), Tim Schafer himself will also present the game live on GOG’s Twitch.tv.

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If this wasn’t enough, there’s also a creative writing contest on GOG which is about creating a unique character in the universe of Broken Age by providing a name, a story, and a goal. For more information, check out this news page.

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Modern sci-fi movies: “Cypher”

A sense of paranoia permeates Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi thriller Cypher, and it’s all the better for it.

Cypher
(USA/Canada 2002, director: Vincenzo Natali)

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An everyday man is hired by a company to do espionage on other corporations and soon he loses all sense of identity, becoming a pawn in a much bigger game.

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This is one of those movies that despite its low budget can be believable and suspenseful at the same time, mainly due to enough mysteries and surprises along the way. What it also achieves is to make the audience believe in the same paranoia the main protagonist experiences. Like the best of espionage thrillers, few people can be trusted and relied on. The sense of losing one’s own identity has of course been done before, but it’s taken to its extreme here.

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Unlike a movie like Matrix that also deals with alternate realities and manipulation, there are very few action scenes. But it’s not only dialogue-driven like so many sci-fi movies which ultimately becomes boring, as the suspense really comes from the individual setpieces, the situations the main character is in with some frightening future scenarios that are still real enough to be close to the present-day without an overload of gimmicks.

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The only downside to the low production values is that the special effects are pretty bad, especially with some explosions and flying vehicles one has seen better realized with an amateur video editing program. So it’s good that there’s not much of the outside world to see. However, this isn’t irritating, as it adds to the sense of isolation and changes of identically looking places. The whole look of the movie is also quite cold which fits perfectly to the corporate espionage theme.

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Simply said, I enjoyed this movie much more than the overrated Cube the director has become famous for. I wouldn’t go so far as to put it above Matrix, but considering its low budget and more suspenseful story, it’s certainly on par and should be checked out even by those who usually avoid sci-fi because of the running time.

Score: 8/10

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Modern arthouse movies: “A Field in England”

Ben Wheatley presents another mindboggling piece of cinema with A Field in England, but is the historical horror as enjoyable as his former movies?

A Field in England
(UK 2013, director: Ben Wheatley)

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A group of deserters during the 17th century civil war in England find themselves forced by an alchemist to find a hidden treasure.

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The problem with avantgarde and experimental cinema or theatre of the absurd on the big screen is that if it’s just a pointless sequence of nonsensical scenes showing beautiful cinematography with a dark score and having people run around without a clue… then it becomes a bit pointless to continue watching. Granted, there are some funny scenes and even if most of the humor comes from bodily fluids and the use of the F-word, at least it breaks the monotony of the boring or non-existent plot and character development.

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Ben Wheatley’s films were always slow burners, but they usually had some intriguing if weird characters and suspense. A Field in England desperately tries to be arthouse cinema with a bit of shooting and gore thrown in (but very little of the latter). Most people will probably have fallen asleep before the action begins or when one of the characters eats a mushroom and starts having hallucinations. If you’re suffering from epilepsy, then it’s better to turn the whole thing off anyway, as the warning at the beginning shouldn’t be taken carelessly. Unfortunately, fast changing of people’s faces, melting into each other and pointless scenes being repeated again and again only induce annoyance in the audience rather than blowing them away with visual wonder.

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There are only very few scenes which make the audience keep their eyes open, as e.g. when all characters pull on a rope without knowing what’s on the end and what it all means. Now if the director would have provided more clues instead of endless blabbering about metaphysics and/or mundane topics, it wouldn’t have mattered much that there’s only one field as a setting. More has been accomplished by other directors both on and off screen. It’s one thing to play with the audience, but quite another to pull their leg or brains just to see how far one can go, especially if one has only done horror, comedy and thriller before.

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The soundtrack is certainly haunting and one song will be stuck even after the credits roll. But the overacting, the extremely slow pace without any sense or reason prevents enjoyment altogether. A Field in England is an unfortunate experiment in filmmaking that can only be loved by those who look at beautiful nature images and try to find a hidden meaning or story. Maybe that’s the biggest problem. Great theatre of the absurd plays like Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are enjoyable and/or unsettling because of the great dialogue so that one doesn’t care nothing really happens. Here one tries to find a story because what’s said and done on screen doesn’t really hold the attention for long.

Score: 3/10

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Modern arthouse movies: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Having been nominated for 4 Oscars, does Benh Zeitlin’s drama with slight fantasy elements Beasts of the Southern Wild really deserve the attention?

Beasts of the Southern Wild
(USA 2012, director: Benh Zeitlin)

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Six-year old Hushpuppy is thrown into a world where her father can’t protect her anymore against the sudden flood and prehistoric creatures who come from the melting ice caps.

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I’ve always been careful with movies being hyped and praised by critics and even if there are some deserving to win an Oscar, this one definitely isn’t. I was also suspicious that it was featured at the Fantasy Filmfest 2013 as the centerpiece, as I didn’t find the trailer that captivating. And that’s exactly what I got.

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Now, I’m not against arthouse or indie movies per se. In fact, there are very good ones out there, like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant where not much happens, but which still tell an important story without clich├ęs. Unfortunately, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the epiphany of pretentious filmmaking. The often shaky camera is nauseating, trying to give a sense of exhilaration in celebration scenes or trying to evoke emotions in sad moments of the story. It simply doesn’t work.

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Then there’s the plot itself and the characters. An alcoholic father the dear, cute daughter loves so much despite his being torn between abuse and caring protection, has been seen so many times before. The rest of the cast is portrayed as outcasts, rebellious to the point that they become laughable with their screaming fits. What’s even worse: they’re instantly forgettable. Despite trying to have a sense of community, none of the characters have any redeeming qualities that make them relatable or sympathetic and in turn become little else than pathetic in the process.

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What also doesn’t work is the integration of some fairytale fantasy elements. There’s nothing new about a child being told stories of the past, and combining history and fiction, past and present isn’t very original, either. Having this movie as a centerpiece of the Fantasy Filmfest was also a big mistake, as the fantasy parts are very sparsely used, so sparsely in fact that it’s difficult to find them in the mud of social commentary. The metaphorical comparison between people and beasts of a world long gone by is also so pretentiously and pointlessly used that the final confrontation of the girl with the herd is the pinnacle of ridiculousness. Sure, one can see the whole plot as a fantasy fairytale story, but having the “monsters” take a backseat and showing the “civilized” world colliding with the wild doesn’t make for a very exciting tale.

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And now we come to the often praised “acting” abilities of the small girl. I’m very well aware of her age, but to be honest, I’ve seen better examples. It doesn’t make for great acting to have someone read lines of a script as an off commentator and it certainly doesn’t work to have her scream to show her newly won self-respect and self-reliance. Simply the worst kind of characterization is to have a main protagonist who’s either crying, screaming or trying to say profound things that are just there for the sake of it.

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The less said about the boring plot, the better, as there’s rarely any suspense. Only the last scene of a dying character could be felt as drama, but even this one is destroyed by an over-the-top “we defy anything” ending. Some people have said this is a racist movie, some that it’s a visual masterpiece (just look at imdb or Amazon). I say it’s a boring 96 minutes that feel like 3 hours and after which nothing positive remained in my mind.

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This is the stuff schoolbook discussions are made of. This is the stuff people can hold against loud and noisy blockbuster movies. But to be honest, subtlety doesn’t necessarily have to mean a movie in which nothing happens. This is Beasts of the Southern Wild. An instant classic… failure. Better watch the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. It might not have the whole race issue and social commentary, but at least it’s arthouse filmmaking done right and also suitable for other audiences who don’t use the words “masterpiece” and “stellar acting” in every sentence, while worshipping everything indie, contemplative and not-Hollywood-ness.

Score: 1/10 (for the one memorable character who collects chicken snack wrappings)

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