Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (movie)

Full disclosure: I’m a huge Spider-Man fan. Like for real huge. The grooms cake at my wedding was a Spider-Man cake.

While I enjoyed the first two Spider-Man movies quite a bit (I don’t like to talk about the third) I felt like they never truly got the character right. Peter Parker is a hopeless geek, his alter ego, Spider-Man, is a smartass. Raimi’s Spider-Man movies got the first half of that equation right, but Spidey himself was pretty bland. In the comics, Spider-Man uses the anonymity his mask gives him to say things he wouldn’t normally say. He’s an internet troll personified.I love that about him. It’s the ultimate fantasy for an awkward insecure teenager. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to him as a kid.

Also, I’ll take this moment to remind everyone that my son being named Parker has nothing to do with my love for Spider-Man. Seriously. For real.

Spider angst

If you’re familiar with the source material, it might help to know that this version of Spider-Man is closer to the angsty younger hero of the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, despite bearing the Amazing Spider-Man comics name (he’s an adult in the Amazing Spider-Man comics). With that mindset going in, you might enjoy the movie more. It’s not too angsty--Spider-Man is a fun character, his movies should always lean more towards Iron Man than Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Andrew Garfield does a great job with the whole overly sarcastic moody teenager thing. He has dumb mood swings. He’s awkward. He’s a smartass at times even without the mask, and he’s genuinely funny. As a former overly sarcastic moody teenager, I approve.

A real relationship

Unlike the previous films, the blossoming and awkward relationship between the two leads--Garfield and Emma Stone--plays a central role in the development of Spider-Man as a superhero. And, much to my wife’s satisfaction, unlike Toby Macguire and Kirsten Dunst, Garfield and Stone have actual chemistry.

From the awkward beginning to the “I’m gonna tell you all my secrets way too soon” moments--it’s a pitch perfect teenage romance. My wife and I have been together since high school, so we kind of have a soft spot for young love stories. The back and forth between Gwen and Peter is appropriately awkward and sappy. It reminded us of us, so I consider it a success. And when I say “us” I mean a better looking version of our high school selves. In this version I also had super powers and wore skinny jeans.

A believable origin

I also liked that Spider-Man didn’t just become a hero because he had powers and his uncle died. The way they slid his revenge-fueled manhunt into a full-time superhero gig fit the character better. He didn’t get powers and then suddenly decide to fight crime, in fact it didn’t seem like he was actually actively stopping crimes for any reason other than to find his uncle’s killer for most of the movie. Peter had to realize that he could help people, that the Spider-Man thing didn’t have to be all about him. It’s classic “show don’t tell.” We got to see him learn that with great power comes great responsibility, instead of just hearing it.

They also did a decent job of making the origin we all know so well feel fresh again. The mystery around his parent’s death was exactly what the story needed. It gave Peter a motivation to investigate Oscorp, and it gave him a small chip on his shoulder that led to some nice clashes with his aunt and uncle, who were actual characters this time and not just mouthpieces for plot development.

Excellent effects

I read somewhere that the director of this film was a proponent of practical effects over CG whenever possible. Because of that, this Spider-Man feels a little more grounded in reality. It also helps that Andrew Garfield’s wiry frame and fluid movements helped blend the CG and real life stunt work smoothly. In the last trilogy, the moment the mask went on, it was CG time. Also, the CG in those old Spidey movies hasn’t aged well.

New York City

Another thing about the last three Spider-Man movies that bothered me was how poorly represented New York was. Spider-Man is New York’s hero, but those old movies presented a weird version of the city that felt detached from reality. The strange non-Thanksgiving festival in the first movie, the above ground subway in the second movie, and the constant convenient run-ins with friends (despite the millions of people in the city) in the third movie were just some of the very un-New York moments.

The new movie feels like it is set in New York, not a comic book version of it. Even with his amazing powers, it still takes Peter a good bit of time to get around. I like that many short scenes are set in out-of-the-way places: a random parking lot, a low rooftop, a small apartment. There aren’t a lot of those framed up “this is so New York” shots. You know, like in front of a hot dog cart or in the middle of Times Square.

Did they need to reboot Spider-Man so soon? Technically yes. Before Marvel started making their own movies, they licensed out their characters. Sony Pictures has Spider-Man, Fox has the X-Men. In order to keep the Spider-Man license, a new movie needed to be made. They could have given the license back (Marvel would probably love to have their star hero join the Avengers), but when even the worst Spider-Man movie raked in a ton of cash, it didn’t make financial sense for Sony to let it go. So really, The Amazing Spider-Man exists for business reasons. Because of that, it could have been a mindless creatively-bankrupt cash in. I’m glad it wasn’t. If they can build on what they did with this movie, I’m definitely in for another two.

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How I Survived the Summer Steam Sale

The Summer 2012 Steam Sale wasn’t nearly as complicated as the winter 2011 sale. No collectibles or weird contests that had you buying games to earn achievements that would result in discounts to buy even more games--just simple sales. There were daily deals, flash sales and sale voting, which gave you plenty of opportunities to buy games cheap. In most cases if a game popped up in the daily deals, it would also appear as a flash sale later on.

Here's how my wallet survived: I set aside $50 on my birthday in June in preparation for the sale and I spent every penny. Simple right? Here’s the breakdown:

Mafia 2 – 7.49

Trine 2 – 3.74

Dear Esther – 2.49

Shining Force 2 – 1.79

Dungeon Siege 3 – 4.99

Torchlight - 3.74

The Walking Dead – 14.99

With my last ten bucks I picked up this Aperture Science coffee mug, because I always wanted one.

In the weeks between my birthday in June and the sale I also picked up Wizorb and Sword & Sworcery (the latter through an indie bundle deal). This year I focused on games I could jump in and out of or that could be played in a relatively short amount of time. You gotta be choosy when you’re a gaming dad.

I wanted to be as disciplined with my playing as I was with my buying, but so far that’s not working. My plan was to play one, maybe two, games at a time before starting something else. So far I have started Mafia 2, Trine 2, Dungeon Seige 3, Torchlight, Wizorb and Sword & Sworcery. I have so little gaming time these days that it’s hard to stick to one thing at a time. The danger is that I won’t come back and finish games I started. Poor Witcher 2 is sitting on my hard drive half completed. But I guess I’d rather play a little bit of a lot of games than a lot of just one.

Thankfully, many of the games above are short. I beat Mafia 2 in a few days thanks to easy mode and having to stay home with my son. I could have beat it sooner if there was some sort of fast travel option. The game has an open world that’s not really open. There are only story missions. There’s nothing to do outside of them. No reason to cruise the city. I get that making you drive aids immersion, but it also aids boredom after a while. LA Noire had a similar problem. Neither game really needs the open world. At least LA Noire let you fast travel after a while.

Other than the constant driving (seriously, some missions consisted of drive to the bar, drive home, the end), I liked Mafia 2. It’s messy and kind of dumb and full of cliches, but it also takes a road less traveled in mafia stories. The two main characters are a couple of screw ups. They see some success, but this isn’t a story about climbing the mafia ladder. You do not end up as a don, or some kind of bigshot boss. Vito and Joe might make some nice cash in a few spots, but even then they continue to screw up and piss people off. They let their emotions and simple-minded thinking rule them. These guys don’t ever stop to consider the big picture. They’re low level thugs. Henchmen hoping to be something more, but incapable of ever actually succeeding. It’s a story of dudes in lower to middle management positions. That’s not too common in mafia stories. So it was definitely worth $7.49.

Also I didn’t find this out till later because I didn’t play Mafia 1, but there’s a cool nod to the first game about 3/4ths of the way through. Just google “Mafia 1 in Mafia 2” and you’ll find a YouTube clip of it.

What did you pick up during the Steam sale? Have you finished any of your purchased games yet?

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What are the little things you look for in games?

From movies and music to friends and food, our tastes change as we get older. Games are no exception. Looking back over the last few years, I can see a change in my tastes and interests, especially after I became a father. While I still love to play all kinds of games—minus strategy sims, sports and most JRPGs—I find myself gravitating towards games with the following features:

EASY MODE

Back when I had more time, I always played games on normal because I wanted to play them the way the developer intended. Now unless I’m reviewing the game or I’m in the mood for more of a challenge (played Mass Effect 3 on hard my first time through, thank you very much), I play games on easy. It’s great for story-based games. For example, the other month I went back to Uncharted 2, put it on Easy and then turned on Infinite Ammo and One Shot Kills. The pacing was perfect! The gunfights were just long enough to be fun, but not long enough to be tedious. I could still die if I was too sloppy, but it wasn’t likely. It was more like playing a movie than it was the first time on normal without cheats.

PAUSABLE CUTSCENES

This needs to become an industry standard. Most of my gaming these days takes place after the baby is in bed, but I do get to play a bit on the weekends and I appreciate the ability to pause cutscenes. The worst part is figuring out if a game has them: Do I press the A button? Maybe Start? Oops, just skipped that cutscene, hope it wasn’t important.

HELPFUL MAPS

The glowing trails in Fable 2 and 3, the on-road GPS in Saints Row, the icon explosion of Assassin’s Creed’s maps, the “Go here, kill this” marker in Skyrim—all of these are good things. They help me get to where I need to go quickly, but also give me the chance to explore if I feel like it. I hate getting lost in a game, it’s not fun. That is why I stopped playing Fez.

SAVE ANYWHERE

I’m hoping old school end-of-level save points will eventually be left behind. You can already see it happening. Most games are littered with autosave checkpoints, quick saves, and/or the ability to create multiple save files. PC games have been doing this forever. It’s about time everyone gets on board.

GOOD INVENTORY AND MENU MANAGEMENT

User Interface design is so important in games. The Skyrim UI is beautiful, but not the best organized (there are mods for that though). I want to play a game, not fiddle around in menus. I usually hold off on mods so I can experience the game as intended, but if there’s a UI or inventory mod that removes encumbrance and/or organizes things more sensibly, I get it immediately. I was one of the few people that preferred the systems in Dragon Age 2. I feel like half of my 50+ hours in Dragon Age Origins was spent in menu screens, outfitting each party member, comparing stats and managing my carry weight. Why do games have encumbrance limits anyway? For realism? If that was the case, I shouldn’t be able to carry around 25 wheels of cheese.

Those are just a few of the features I appreciate more now than I did a few years ago. Looking at them together, they’re all things that make games more accessible. Easier for someone with a wife and baby, a full-time job, a dog that needs walking and a ton of freelance art and writing work to do. Back in college, I would have gladly pulled out a paper and pencil and deciphered the mysteries of Fez. Now I’m lucky to game for more than an hour and a half at a time, the features above help me make progress. What are some of the little features in games you appreciate? How have they changed?

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What Sony could do with Gaikai

So Sony just picked up Gaikai, the online gaming service, for $380 million. This could be a big deal. Here’s why:

In June, Sony started throwing the phrase “instant game” around in the Playstation Plus section of the PS Store. A slew of popular, new-ish games (Infamous 2 and Ratchet & Clank All 4 One being the freshest) were made available for PS Plus members to download and play “instantly”. In addition to high quality retail releases, there were also a number of arcade-style games up for grabs, including the excellent Sideway: New York, which I reviewed last fall. Once downloaded and installed, those games can be played for as long as you’re a PS Plus member.

For me, this was the moment that the $50/year Plus membership looked like it might be worth paying for. It looks like this Instant Game initiative is a gaming Netflix. You pay for a service membership and get to access the media on the service for as long as you’re a member. Like Netflix, the library constantly shuffles, bringing in new and/or classic games each month. The big difference between Netflix and Sony’s services is that whole “Instant” thing.

The Playstation 3 has always had a horrible download and installation system. Games must first be downloaded--you have to tell the system to do it in the background by the way, as if anyone would prefer to stare at the download bar--then you have to go to their location on the hard drive and install them. Want to play Infamous 2? You’re looking at least an hour (likely more depending on your connection) wait to download and then install all 14 gigs.

That’s where Gaikai comes in. They’ve been at this streaming game playing thing for years. I’m not sure if they’ve ever really gotten the traction they were looking for, but it’s certainly an interesting service. It essentially turns your computer into a dumb monitor. All the heavy lifting is done on machines miles away. Sign in to the service, plug in your controller, and you’re literally playing a new-ish game instantly.

You can see where this is going right? If Sony can somehow plug the Gaikai tech into the Playstation Network, you could play full games instantly. Or maybe you could start playing a game while it downloads. Or instead of waiting on a demo, play a bit of the game in the same time it would take to download a trailer. Not sure if we’ll see this acquisition bear fruit this generation, but who knows, maybe Sony will start testing it out before the Playstation 4.

This does make me wonder what Microsoft is up to, and how they intend to compete. My $40 a year (I always find and buy XBL Gold cards on sale) for Xbox Live Gold doesn’t seem worth much right now. Why do they gate Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and others behind the pay wall when a zillion other devices from the Playstation 3 to Apple TV to Roku and Boxee boxes all give it to me free? I shouldn’t have to pay for the ability to use a service I’m already paying for, that’s just stupid. Yes the multiplayer and communication infrastructure is fantastic, but so is the one in Steam, and that’s free.

The next generation of gaming is going to be an interesting one. Hope you have a good internet connection.

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What do you do with your obsolete hardware?

I’ve never been one to tinker or fiddle with my hardware too much when it’s still on duty. I learned the hard way in college when my computer literally melted (seriously, pop-pop-smoke, donezo) what happens when you run untested buggy software and cool experimental apps on your primary machine. So now I save my tinkering for old hardware--stuff I don’t use much, or has been replaced by shinier alternatives.

I always wanted to root my crappy Droid Eris phone, but since it was my only phone, I was afraid I would brick it, and then I would be screwed. A couple weeks ago I found my Eris in a drawer (I upgraded to the Razr in December), and I rooted it, downloaded a colorful baby app that makes sounds and shows pictures, and gave it to my 9-month-old son. He loves it, and now he doesn’t go after my actual, much more expensive phone.

This past weekend I came across my PSP, collecting dust in a closet. As a freelance game critic, I’ve always walked the straight and narrow when it comes to my systems (except for when I got into emulators in college, which probably contributed to my computer meltdown). I need my systems to function as a normal consumer’s would, so I can review a game fairly…and also not get banned. But the Vita is out now, and I’m pretty sure I reviewed my last PSP game over a year ago. So I hacked the now obsolete system. As with my phone, it turned out to be shockingly easy.

Right now all it has on it is a ripped copy of the original Prince of Persia (one of my all-time favorites, I’m afraid to think about how many incarnations of that game I’ve purchased over the years). It runs great though. I might load it up with some other old games the next time I go on a trip. It would be nice to have a small game library all on one card. I know a lot of people hack their PSPs to pirate PSP games, but I’ve owned a PSP for five years, and thanks to Gamefly and the used game bin at GameStop, I’ve played every PSP game worth playing, excluding JRPGs and sports games. There aren’t a lot of them.

I don’t have the time, or the tools right now, but I’m thinking about attempting something like this with my PSP. I could screw it up beyond repair, but what do I have to lose? Nothing, because it’s obsolete—some might argue it’s been that way for a few years. Poor PSP.

There’s something satisfying about breathing new life into old hardware. What do you do with your old tech?

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The Year of the Backlog

E3 2012 came and went, and I think the general sentiment from most gaming enthusiasts is that the show was underwhelming. I agree for the most pat. There were some good announcements (Watch Dogs, Beyond, Star Wars 1313--all new IPs, which is nice) and a few details on games I knew I was already going to buy (The Last of Us,Assassin’s Creed 3, Borderlands 2) that made me want to buy them more, but nothing totally mind blowing.

I can’t really fault the industry for the lukewarm showing though--it’s in a weird spot. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are aging systems, they’ve far surpassed the typical four to five year console life cycle, and it’s starting to show. Everyone knows that the next round of systems is right around the corner, but until they’re announced, we’re going to get mostly sequels and filler.

Out of all the next systems, I’m most excited to see what Microsoft does. It’s clear that they’ve stretched the 360 to (and past) its limits. When it came out in 2005, it was a game machine, now, thanks to yearly software updates, it’s a all-in-one media box. But software updates can only take it so far. The system needs more memory--the dashboard menu is lagging under its own flashy ambition. More powerful hardware leads to more media and connectivity possibilities. Oh, and also some real purty games.

But that’s at least a year away. The release calendar isn’t as jam packed as it has been in years past, which means there’s more space between big releases. In fact, there’s not much of anything coming out until August, making summer 2012 the perfect backlog season. I’ve got to finish The Witcher 2, Asura’s Wrath, Dragon Age 2, the second Penny Arcade game, and Dustforce. I also just finished Max Payne and will hopefully move on to Max Payne 2 (I got them both for like $2.49 in a Steam sale last year). Not sure if I’ll get all that done, but I’m trying to be better about actually playing the games I get from Steam sales (Vampire The Masquerade, Company of Heroes and Terraria included).

It’s going to be a bit of a slow year, at least until August. What games are you going to catch up on?

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A Softer Side: John McClane

Had to get this one done before E3 started and all my outside work time is spent reading about video games! This image was one of the first to pop in my mind when I started this series. I love the Die Hard movies, but I think the third one is my favorite. Normally I'd be annoyed by a character like the one Sam Jackson plays in that movie--constantly yelling and griping about every plot turn--but I love him. I guess Bruce Willis gets paired with those type of characters a lot. He needs a mouthy sidekick to contrast with his no-nonsense bad ass protagonists. Sam Jackson definitely did a better job of that than Chris Tucker in Fifth Element. Anyway, here's the pic and video, hope you like it!

Oh yeah, I put together a Softer Side page on my website. Now you can see all the pictures and videos on one page! Hooray! Previous pics include Wolverine, Kratos and Mace Windu. I'll probably do one or two more before I close out the series.

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I just got a box full of swag!

In April I entered this image into a Mass Effect 3 pixel art contest at Gamespot.com and I won. Today, my prize came--a box full of Mass Effect 3 swag. Check it out:

That's me in one of TWO N7 hoodies, holding a sweet N7 mug. As a fan of tastefully geeky game memorabilia, this stuff is great. The N7 hoodies look like athletic gear (like I said, tastefully geeky), and are made of some surprisingly high quality material. These things are incredibly comfortable. Shame it's 86 degrees in Charlotte right now!

My lovely wife wearing the other hoodie (it's kind of huge on her) while displaying the N7 Playstation 3 armor. It's an N7 chest piece that actually goes on the PS3. Also comes with a cool back side and stand so you can sit the PS3 vertically.

Here she is again holding what is probably my favorite piece of swag: The Art of the Mass Effect Universe. As an artist and a huge Mass Effect fan, finding this at the bottom of the box was a real treat.

Here's the whole haul. Two hoodies, two shirts--one button up, the other a t-shirt--the PS3 armor, a N7 mug, and the Mass Effect art book.

This was a wonderful surprise to come home to today. Thanks to Synthia and Jody for putting on the contest and sending me this mega awesome box of swag!

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A Softer Side: Mace Windu

I finished two Softer Side images in one weekend! A couple of days ago I showed youthe softer side of Kratos, God of War. Before that, it was Wolverine. Today's image is from the baddest Jedi this side of Endor, Mace Windu. Apple already showed us the softer side of the actor that portrays him, so I figured the softer side of the actual character was probably similar. Hope you like the new pic and video (warning: video includes Star Wars dubstep).

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A Softer Side: Kratos

The second entry in my softer side series is done! This one is a haiku-writing Kratos, from the God of War games. I'm already sketching out my next entry, I think it will be Star Wars related. Hope you like it! Check out my last entry, Wolverine, right here.

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