Beauty and the Best

The Dark Knight Returns Part 1


I have to admit that even before I began watching The Dark Knight Returns Part 1, I already had high expectations.  I was a fan of the Batman animated series that first introduced the signature Bruce Timm art style so knowing that he was on board as an executive producer was a plus.  This story is based on the 1986 Frank Miller four part comic book series comprised of The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Falls.  It takes place about 10 years after the death of Robin, Jason Todd, which is thought to have played a major role in Bruce Wayne’s decision to retire as Batman.  Gotham is once again plagued with crime but it’s the reemergence of Harvey Dent (aka Two Face) that coaxes the 55-year old Wayne to come out of retirement.  But Dent, like Wayne, has changed quite a bit since their last encounter and I found the result of their reunion to be a pretty mature and believable resolution.  It’s also revealed that in Batman’s absence there’s been a lot of debate about whether he was an aid to ridding Gotham of its villains or inadvertently part of the cause of their rise.  Luckily, rather than wasting time indulging in the public or private speculation, Batman immediately goes to work.  It’s not long before he discovers that beyond Dent, another menace called The Mutants are wreaking havoc throughout the city. 

The fight sequences between Batman and The Mutant leader are some of the best choreographed and “fair” I’ve seen in a while.  The animators seemed to be conscious of the deliberation of attacks from a seasoned combatant verses the energy conveyed by pure youth.  Peter Weller (RoboCop) turns in an incredible voice performance as The Dark Knight, completely embodying the older, no-nonsense version of his younger more patient self.  Here it’s apparent that Andrea Romano is at the top of her game having cast so many prior Warner Brothers Animation projects to date.  I have a particular fondness for her because of her passion for the work and her dedication to the people she brings to the table.  Bob Goodman’s screenplay stays pretty true to the Frank Miller series and director Jay Oliva doesn’t pull any punches with regard to the level of violence prevalent throughout Part 1. In support of this, Robert Hargreaves' sound design is as impressive as always and most notably when Batman comes charging into the Mutant camp with the Batmobile. 

The pacing throughout is pitch perfect and the character development is well balanced – especially the introduction of Carrie Kelly, who dons a knock off Robin costume and teams up becoming Batman’s new sidekick.  Even though you can kind of see what’s coming with final scene of part 1, it’s a great cliffhanger to leading into Part 2.  As a fan of the series, seeing characters like Commissioner Gordon and Alfred still loyal to Bruce conjures the same type of nostalgia as a film like The Expendables. More so than anything, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 clearly shows why Batman is so many people’s favorite serious hero whether super or otherwise.  Although aging and tormented, he’s determined to continue the fight for Gotham’s justice and unlike some, he encourages others to join the fight.  The Blue Ray includes a two part Two Face episode from the original animated series, several featurettes, a documentary on Batman creator Bob Kane, a sneak peak of Part 2 (due in early 2013) and a digital comic book. This is definitely one for the permanent collection!

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Tiny Wings – IOS Game

Tiny Wings in Play
Since the time of its inception in July of 2008, there have been hundreds of thousands of apps released through the iTunes App store, but I have to imagine that when the reviewers first laid eyes on Tiny Wings they had to be as overjoyed as I was.

I was working on a Kinect title when I first heard about this game from a friend of mine on the God of War III team. They raved about playing this everyday so I had to check it out if for nothing else but a break from bug triage sessions in prep for our pre cert submissions to Microsoft. (Game devs – you know what I mean.) Anyway, there’s an immediate analogue-ness to its colorful presentation that’s a breath of fresh air compared to all of the flat shaded, 2D games that have the appearance of being created entirely with Photoshop. For all I know, maybe Tiny Wings was created in Photoshop as well but the art has a great hand-drawn, organic feel to it. You play as a cute little bird whose wings are too small to allow you to take full flight so instead you have to glide down hillsides building up enough momentum to launch yourself up into the air until gravity brings you back down again. An intuitive tutorial shows you that all you have to do is tap the screen at the precise moment in order to land at the right angle to give you the greatest lift on the upswing. As you get into the groove you can really pick up speed racing against the setting sun to gain distance before the moon rises and you return to the world of slumber. Then you start the whole process again just to see how many islands you can get past before sundown.

This game is the brainchild of German born Andres Illiger, who coded, designed and created the art for the game in the truest spirit of indie game development. He’s admittedly an introvert but professes that in the midst of such negative and destructive games, he wanted to create something that makes gamers feel truly happy. I must say that I’ve spent more time playing Tiny Wings than any other game on my iPhone despite it’s simplicity and he definitely achieved that goal. It’s the perfect way to kill time before hopping on a plane, riding on a bus or train or waiting for an appointment. And I’ve always got a reason to come back because the achievements award you bird nests of varying designs that each act as score multipliers. Finally, there’s the music that blends seamlessly from the main character’s idle state at rest and then dynamically changes as soon as the player touches the screen to start the level. This music is super catchy and Illiger offers it for free download on his website which is pretty cool. The All Good Things Bottom Line: Tiny Wings is an incredible value that more than achieves its goal of bringing you a combination of fun, tranquility and challenge..

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The Orange Box - AGT Mini Review

Orange Box Cover
To this day, one of the absolute best values in gaming is Valve’s offering of The Orange Box on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Mac. This is a video game compilation including Half-Life 2 (the full game), Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two, Team Fortress 2 and the first introduction of Portal. Any one of these games by themselves is probably worth more in pure entertainment value than most first person shooters on the market, even at of the time of this mini review’s posting.

Since the introduction of the Half-Life series in November of 1998, Valve took skeletal animation and enemy A.I. to a completely new level and drew gamers into the engrossing underground Black Mesa facility. Players took control of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist and MIT graduate, armed with a Hev suit and an array of incredibly cool weapons. What’s probably most endearing are the companion characters Gordon is always happy to either battle along side or convene with after a series of intense firefights. From the mysterious Vortigants to the enchanting and tough Alyx Vance, Valve has gone above and beyond to create one of the most memorable experiences in video game history.

Then there’s Portal. I had no idea what to expect when I started playing Portal because I’d been deep in production and hadn’t done my research to even know what it was. Hadn’t even seen a preview video. I was immediately addicted to the first person puzzle gameplay based on the use of the portal gun. By the way, Portal 2 (not part of The Orange Box) takes it to an entirely new level if you like this type of gameplay. One warning though – it’s not a shooter. It’s about using your brain - in the same way some of the original Tomb Raider games were about entering a room and figuring out what was needed to escape and avoid certain death. And if nothing else, Jonathan Coulton catchy song, Still Alive, will be nearly impossible to get out of your head. By the way, he’s not a one hit wonder. Coulton’s got lots of other great songs written in his signature sardonic tenor that are not related to Portal but equally is witty.


And last but not least – Team Fortress 2. For those of you who can’t get enough multiplayer action, this cartoon-styled shooter dishes out a healthy dose of capture the flag and base defense modes to appease even the most jaded gamers. As sequel to the original Quake mod, they just amp it up another level.

Unlike movies, games have the daunting task of trying to predict various potential interactions of their audience, which often leads to scripts splinter out into 500 plus pages. With Half-Life 2 especially, Valve manages to guide the player through a world that feels open while simultaneously building a narrative that’s more engaging than most feature films. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, horror, dimensional riffs and rebel skirmishes against fantastic alien and cybernetic organisms, the Half-Life series is for you. And Portal and Team Fortress stand well on their own as more than the icing on the cake.

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