Thursday, 22 November 2012

Preview: Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed (WiiU)

This preview has also been released (in a slightly edited form) on Shadowlocked, here.

The Mario Vs. Sonic rivalry hasn't quite died yet. Sure, they get along just fine at the Olympics, but when it comes to Kart racing, Sonic is still looking to take the top spot.

Between Mario Kart and its long list of competitors across console generations, the genre has become incredibly refined. At this stage, in order to remain competitive, innovation and bold statements are definitely required. In the light of Mario Kart 7, All-Stars Racing Transformed has done both of those things; and it succeeds! Mostly.

What makes the All-Stars Racing series stand out is its use of Sega history. While Sonic's in the game title, it's not all about him. Characters and courses are sourced from all places, with surprising additions. Transformed features a Skies of Arcadia stage (and Vyse as a racer), and raceways born from Panzer Dragoon and Afterburner, of all things. For more contemporary cameos, the Starlight Carnival stage from Sonic Colours is included, which is just as mind-blowingly colourful as the original.

Transformed makes itself directly comparable to Mario Kart 7 by having the vehicles (you guessed it) transform. However, while the hang glider and submersible in Mario Kart handled in manners similar to the basic car, the planes and boats in Transformed handle noticeably differently.

On paper, this makes a lot of sense. In terms of... let's say 'gamefeel', having each vehicle type handle differently is logical; a plane controlling exactly like a car would feel terrible. At the same time, having the handling of your car change severely in the middle of a race can be very off-putting if you're not prepared for it.

The previously mentioned planes are egregious for this. Developers Sumo Digital realised that, in a game designed for all ages, having total free-flight would end in wayward chaos. As such, you can turn on a 'guiding path' that creates a friendly green guideline in the flying sections. It's also somewhat magnetic – flying too far away from the line will pull you back on track. You can turn this assist system off at any time, but after using it for a while, the full plane controls gave me the piloting skills of a drunken madman. I hastily turned the guides back on.

Like any self-respecting kart racer, All Stars Racing Transformed has weapons – but interestingly, they aren't the randomised game-changers that they are in Mario Kart. Equivalents to the Blue Shell and the Lightning are nowhere to be found. This, personally, is a glorious, well-judged addition. While, in close races, a well-timed firework will get you into the lead, the person at the back can no longer effortlessly ruin the person in first place.

What they have to challenge the leader instead are stage hazards. On some courses, like Starlight Carnival, enemies from the source material will hover ahead causing havoc. On all stages, there will be a sudden swarm of bees at set intervals during the race. The person in 1st place will have to deal with them, and poor driving at these moments can leave you fighting to hold position. While sudden, it never feels unfair – but having these obstacles be bees on every stage feels like a wasted opportunity for good theming. They could easily be ninjas on the Shinobi stage, or Rokkaku Police on the Jet Set Radio stage.

In terms of game modes, they've taken the time to go beyond the basic standards. There's the regular Grand Prix, versus modes, and battle modes – but there's also an extensive single player mode that acts as a sort of 'career', with race requirements, branching paths and challenge races. The challenge races are legitimately difficult, and are a great way to improve your skills in the game (don't know how to powerslide? Do the checkpoint challenge where you get bonus time for good drifts, and you'll learn fast). If you want to take things online, up to 10 racers can participate at once.

While there are additional functions that make use of the Wii U's assets, they're all rather incidental. That's no bad thing – labouring gimmicks into the control scheme would definitely hinder more than it would help. You can use the tablet controller as a steering wheel should you wish (you won't); the screen acts as a top-down map in single player, and your own personal screen in multiplayer.

It feels a little mean-spirited of me to continually mention Mario Kart while writing about a game that's legitimately solid and entertaining in its own right; but much of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed wouldn't exist (or at least wouldn't be so refined) without the context provided by Nintendo's racing series. That Transformed has managed to take that context and make it its own this is definitely commendable, though. Until Nintendo release Mario Kart WiiU (and trust me, they will), Transformed is looking to happily be your kart racer for the next generation.

N.B. After the article went up on Shadowlocked, I had an error corrected. Rather than butcher the paragraph to fix it, and addendum was placed:

Since writing this, I've been corrected about the weapons. There is actually an equivalent to the Blue Shell in All Stars Racing Transformed: the bee swarms. During my (short) time playing, I never found them in item rotation, so I took them as a stage hazard. That this isn't the case is actually a huge shame, though the reality makes a lot of sense. I'd still enjoy it if the bees were themed to to stage they appeared in, though.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

5 video games that demand a film adaptation (and some that don't)

Going by the AAA titles, game design shares elements with film design. Having a fully voiced and acted plotline is common these days. However, video games make for poor films. Game series that get adapted to film are campy cult hits at best, and a waste of everyone's time at worst.

Still, games adapted to film aren't an entirely toxic concept; it just takes a little bit of lateral thinking. Here are 5 films I feel could be interesting adaptations, and a few that definitely shouldn't make a trip to Hollywood. (Note that some titles I mention may be in production already. Just because they exist doesn't mean they should.)

Take them to the silver screen

Yakuza (2005, Sega)

Who would direct it?: Chan-wook Park (Oldboy)
Yakuza has drama on two levels. On one, there's the inter-personal relationships of ageing yakuza members searching for peace and comfort. On another, there's Kazuma Kiryu repeatedly ramming a barstool into some thug's face.

Adapted as an action movie, a gradual swing between emotional torment and low budget, brutally choreographed violence would be deliciously harrowing; a welcome escape from the CGI and explosions that's the normal go-to for the genre.

Luigi's Mansion (2002, Nintendo)

Who would direct it?: Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon, Mulan)
Feel-good summer blockbuster of the year; one plumber who has long suffered in his brother's shadow, plucks up the courage to be the driving force in his own life. A decent animation studio is a must - the Mushroom Kingdom doesn't work in real-life proportions, evidenced many times.

Half the fun would be Luigi's ghostbusting antics, the other half being a great art direction. Hey, if Disney's Wreck-It Ralph makes a decent return at the box office, and they retain the license to use Nintendo characters, this may not end up being conjecture.

...I wish.

Driver: San Francisco (2011, Ubisoft)

Who would direct it?: Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite)
Driver:SF is a love letter to the car chase genre, right down to bonus missions that reference big-name films set in San Fran. However, a Scary Movie style adaptation with endless references isn't going to cut it.

The plot of Driver:SF is campy, simple and incidental (John Tanner is a cop chasing down criminal mastermind Charles Jericho - even in his dreams), meaning a film version can go all out in telling a self-parodying tale about comas, fast cars, and rebellious police.

If they manage to retain the game's mechanic of Tanner possessing other drivers, the chase sequences could be unlike any other.

L.A. Noire (2011, Team Bondie)

Who would direct it?: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
The Artist, though I didn't care for it, proved an important point - the techniques of old can have modern relevance. Gaming fans already know about this (what with all the retro-style indie games out there), but here it means that mimicking old film styles has more validity than just being a gimmick.

L.A. Noire's 1940s setting heavily reflects actual Film Noir (right down to the use of flashback), but Film Noir is traditionally done in the 'past tense' (with the protagonist as a narrator), while L.A. Noire is very much 'present tense'. Doing the adaptation in a true-to-period style would make for an interesting angle, and might encourage viewers to look into some Noir classics.

Mother 3 (2006, Nintendo)

Who would direct it?: Chris Butler (ParaNorman, Coraline)
The Mother series is known for its cute and colourful settings, with a darker horrifying plot underneath. That kind of setup just begs to be told in a twee stop-motion format (without Tim Burton, preferably).

Mother 3 in particular is a great tale experienced by few, and a surprisingly sad and moving one at that. Having recently watched ParaNorman, the team behind that would do incredible justice to such a project. Just... Don't let very young children watch - they may be permanently scarred.

Keep them on the game console

Mass Effect series (2007-2012, Bioware)

Mass Effect's charm really isn't in its world-building. What the games did well was making that world feel relevant to the player - a range of choices in character design, dialogue options, good/evil dichotomies, and so on. A film (being a linear narrative) has to choose a single story path - so writers of a Mass Effect movie would have to try and encompass a representative telling of the games with a single continuity - and that just ain't happening.

The series' huge backstory also puts it in a position similar to the lacklustre Watchmen. A fine line stands between drowning newcomers in lore, and not having enough in-jokes for the diehard fans. Failure results in a hot mess. Mass Effect would likely suffer even worse - fans are going to take every difference between the film and their own personal experience on board.

Uncharted series (2007-2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted is already 90% film. The set pieces in the series are grand and dramatic, but the best moments are where you have control during the death-defying parts - the possibility that you could mess up and leave Nathan Drake to perish. Just watching the same scene (without the uncertainty of survival, no less) voids that tension.

Aside from that, the actual events in the Uncharted games are pressingly generic in action films. We've had decades of ruins exploration, shoot-outs against Russians and snappy one-liners - Drake as a character can't offer anything new to that formula.

Heavy Rain (2010, Quantic Dream)

Heavy Rain is, in a way, a film rendered as a video game. The director, David Cage, has gone on record many times saying that the future of games is to make them more like films, and has yet to prove himself correct.

The game's cinematography is definitely first class, but little else is. Heavy Rain's story is unique for a game, but dire for a film. Character motivations are all over the place, and the character plot threads are hastily stitched together. An adaptation would have to fix so much to make things competent, it may as well be a different story.

Final Notes

Video game stories are generally unambitious and often pandering, but a common complaint levelled at film adaptations (and this holds true for films adapted from other kinds of media) is that the narrative strays too far from the original work. The long-term fans want to see their darlings in a 1:1 translation, and won't stand for less.

The best film adaptations that I've seen don't take the source's story verbatim, but instead understand the feel of the original. The Street Fighter movie isn't great, but it's an adaptation that definitely captures the goofy nature of Street Fighter, even if the character roles and actor choices are unorthodox.

If game-to-film adaptations are to succeed, the games with a strong theme, easily understood context, and with room for reinterpretation are key. Just taking what sells well isn't going to cut it.

Then again, since when were adaptations about artistic integrity?