Archive for April 26th, 2013

The best thing you’ll see all week: Upstream Color

, | Movie reviews


It’s been nearly ten years since Shane Carruth’s Primer, an intriguing first-time director project with a smart spare style, a cold dispassionate edge, and hardly a performance worth remembering. But Carruth’s Upstream Color is so much more — I don’t intend this to sound as patronizing as it’s going to sound — mature than Primer. It has real emotional weight underneath the concept, where Primer was all concept.

A lot of the credit goes to the heartbreakingly expressive Amy Seimetz. Her frail intensity similarly drives a horror movie called A Horrible Way to Die. Carruth knows enough to let the movie linger on her, on her wonder, on her wounded confusion, on how she’s looking at whatever she’s looking at. The payoff is a scene in which she shifts her gaze up a few degrees. You can see it coming, you know it’s going to happen, but watching her finally fix the deep black of her gaze is a staggering moment. Literally. God Himself cannot bear to look back.

Upstream Color is rich with theme, meaning, and oblique references that might not bubble up until long after you’ve left the theater. When Moses met God on Sinai, he couldn’t look at God’s face. Upstream Color opens with a similar moment, and culminates with the aforementioned shift in gaze, but this is no mere movie about religion. In Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, the angels looked on sadly, forlornly, one of them wanting desperately to be seen. In Upstream Color, the angel is no angel, and he lives in the DNA of a worm instead of atop the Victory Column in Berlin. Upstream Color, which is like Wings of Desire in that it’s about empathy, presents identity theft as a metaphor for evolution. Or is it the other way around? It’s about the terrible price living creatures pay for empathy, or the power of memory at a cellular level (hi, Altered States!), or how consciousness is unmoored from time and space. I sound like I just dropped acid and watched 2001 for the first time with my friends, and now we’re holding forth in someone’s dorm room, convinced we’re all smarter for it. But that’s the level at which Upstream Color works, and it works wonderfully if you’re willing to meet it on those terms. I don’t mean dropping acid. But I do mean whatever your counterpart is to holding forth in someone’s dorm room. For instance, writing up a short review like this.

Too few directors take the chances Carruth has taken here. His creative vision, which goes well beyond directing into editing, music, stunning cinematography, and even how his acting creates a place for Seimetz to curl up, deserves the freedom he affords himself. This is a uniquely languid movie, and potentially confusing, and not at all neat. People who came because they saw the trailer might get up and leave and later feel right at home in Oblivion, or maybe even the pedestrian film-school anime-fan trippiness of Looper. Upstream Color, the opposite of a crowd pleaser, is what would happen if Terence Malick’s Tree of Life was a genre movie instead of his usual meditation on the meaning of life. I’m inclined to put Upstream Color in the same bio-punk category as Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral. I don’t pretend to know much science fiction beyond movies, but if young directors like Carruth, Cronenberg, Duncan Jones, and Neill Blomkamp keep doing what they’re doing with the genre, I might have to apply for a sci-fi fan card.

Upstream Color is in limited release and will be available for video on demand May 7th.

Gamers secretly love Farming Simulator

, | Games


Want to play a game about driving a tractor, tending crops, and managing a farm? Apparently, a lot of people do.

Farming Simulator 2013 is consistently in the top 100 games played according to the Steam stats. In fact, it’s sitting just above the newly released Monaco as I write this and previous entries in the series did just as well. Despite being the butt of jokes and a number of too-hip Youtube Let’s Play videos, Giants Studio is doing something right with the Farming Simulator games.

The Penny Arcade Report interviewed Thomas Frey of Giants Studio to take a look at the popularity of this genre of games and examine why they’re so darned popular.

Frey pointed to the steady release of mods and new content from the community as one of the reasons the game keeps its audience so tightly locked in the act of creating farms. There is also the fact that there is no violence to turn off anyone in the audience. The theme is a farm. Some players like the simulation aspect of the game, children like playing with the giant machinery, and yes, farmers like playing the game to talk about farming strategy. A farm is attractive to any number of demographics, and the game’s appeal cuts across age lines as well.

“That makes our player base super large and is why we sold so many copies of the game.”

We have our own gaggle of Euro Truck Simulator 2 fans here on the Quarter to Three forums, which I’d put squarely in the same genre of blue-collar RPG. Maybe I need to tap my inner Old Macdonald and start baling some hay?

Next Xbox may have a new spin on Achievements and social networking

, | Games


Polygon has the latest grist for the Xbox rumor mill today, but along with the normal (and tired) hullabaloo of whether or not the console requires an always-online connection, or allows used games at all, the story pops up a little information that we haven’t seen before. Up until now, no one has talked about the social infrastructure of the next-gen Xbox and what kinds of upgrades or changes we might see.

Video capture of gameplay with sharing and uploading to Youtube, similar to the Playstation 4 feature, is mentioned as well as an unlimited Friends list that functions more like Twitter with users following one another instead of needing two-way approval. The rumored upgrades to Achievements may have Gamerscore addicts going crazy.

With the next Xbox, developers and publishers will be able to add more achievements to a game after launch, without the need to add DLC. This is designed specifically to allow developers to tweak player behavior, perhaps urging players to check out specific areas of a game or get past a difficult spot. Next-gen achievements can also be tied to broader events, like a weekend challenge or a communal goal, like contributing a set number of kills to the bigger goal of 10,000 kills over one weekend. Companies can also create cross-title achievements, like awarding points for finishing the first chapter in two different and unrelated games published by the same company. Some of these bigger, cross-title, communal achievements will be a requirement for all titles.

Microsoft is playing around with cross-platform achievements as well. Ideally, these achievements could be earned by playing a game on the next-gen system and then using a companion app, a website or maybe even by playing a specific game, like a prequel to a next-gen title, on the Xbox 360.

Imagine the possibilities! “Used the Pizza Hut app to order a pizza while playing Halo 5 – 100G” or “Attained Prestige level in 3 consecutive Call of Duty games – 200G.”

It remains to be seen which, if any, of these rumors will prove true on May 21st during the Xbox press event.

Valve pays back CS:GO map makers

, | Games


Valve just released the Operation Payback patch for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Besides the usual batch of bug fixes and balance adjustments, Payback adds the ability for players to pay for access to official servers hosting seven of the most popular Workshop maps.

For a limited time, you can buy a pass half-priced for $2.99. That’ll get you unlimited access to a Classic Casual map group featuring seven of the highest-voted Workshop Maps. Invite your friends (even if they don’t have a pass) and enjoy uninterrupted low-ping play on official servers – all while rewarding CS:GO’s top-voted virtual mapmakers with real money. Buying a pass also gets you a one-of-a-kind challenge coin, upgradable by playing and viewable wherever your avatar is shown. “Operation Payback” will be live from now until July 31st.

Players can still download the maps for free through the Workshop and play on community servers using them. Future “Operations” are planned that feature different custom maps.

Team Fortress 2 has added dozens of user-made maps to its offical roster, but map makers have complained that the compensation rate is unfair compared to the thousands of dollars (sometimes hundreds of thousands) that cosmetic item creators have made. TF2 gives players the chance to purchase map stamps that give a portion of their price to the creator for that particular map, but people do not buy them in the same volume as hats because everyone gets the maps for free regardless.

Operation Payback seems to be another attempt by Valve to pay creators for their work while not splitting the player community across separate map packs.

XCOM gets declassified as The Bureau

, | Games


2K has officially announced that the first-person shooter previously known as XCOM, is now a third-person squad-based tactical shooter called The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The gameplay change was rumored since early 2012 when the game was unexpectedly delayed. The new version of the game features the same 1960’s setting, but now places more of an emphasis on real-time squad tactics. Unlike the Firaxis-developed X-COM, 2K Marin’s game will not have pauses in the action.

There is never a frozen time, you’re always making snap decisions. To use a sports analogy: It’s more about calling audibles then huddling. We are trying to emulate the fantasy of being the squad leader out in the battlefield versus the commander sitting at the desk who has all of the time in the world observing from afar.

The Bureau was previously developed by 2K Australia when it was just XCOM. Visit the official site here.

First mystery Skullgirl nearly here!

, | Games


Skullgirls’ remarkably successful crowdfunding campaign means we’ll get Squigly, a girl with a snake in her hair, and Big Band, a saxophone in an overcoat who’s definitely not a girl. This means the game will have to be called Skullgirls and That One Guy. Note that even if you didn’t donate to the campaign, you still get the characters. The DLC is free on all platforms. You’d think that’s a terrible premise for a crowdfunding campaign, but the Skullgirls developers pulled in $829,000 for a $150,000 funding goal. They’re obviously doing something right.

Among the stretch goals were two additional characters, also free, who would be selected by the people who donated to the campaign. The voting for the first of the two additional characters has just entered its final phase and will come down to either Aeon, Annie (pictured), Eliza, and Minette, all of whom you can see here. I don’t want to influence anyone’s vote (yes I do), but Annie’s toothy rabbit, which gives her galactic themed powers, is named Sagan. That beats a bear named Tibbers any day of the week.

(Thanks anonymous!)

Get to Lego City Undercover faster now

, | Games


The Wii U, which is known in my household as the Lego City Undercover system that we sometimes use to play ZombiU multiplayer and that I would be playing Monster Hunter on if it wasn’t for the superlative and portable Soul Sacrifice on my Vita, just got the patch that supposedly makes it less of a sluggish beast at the front end. From Nintendo’s press release:

* The time required to start the Wii U console, launch built-in applications, exit software and return to the main menu, jump between applications, and jump between software and Miiverse has been reduced.

* While the Wii U logo is being displayed during the system startup, users can directly transition to the Wii Menu by holding down the B Button on the Wii U GamePad.

* Users can install games and applications from the Nintendo eShop in the background while other software is being used.

* When powering off during a download, Wii U will go into a standby mode, then power off when all downloads and installations are complete.

Unfortunately, it still takes crazylong for Lego City Undercover to actually load. The obvious solution — to just never stop playing — is an easy enough workaround.