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My wife and I finished the story mode in Lego: Rock Band tonight, and I thought I’d offer up some impressions. While the game has received a bit of a negative backlash from long-time Rock Band fans, I think it’s pretty unwarranted overall, but the game is admittedly not perfect. This is no The Beatles: Rock Band.

I think the idea of making a more kid-friendly version of RB isn’t at all without merit. While some of the decisions made about which DLC songs are appropriate are… opaque, at best, the bright colours and quirky humour of the Lego games is a great idea to get kids more interested in the game. RB itself is a little on the grungy, dingy side in terms of venues and player avatars, and it’s quite a fun change to be playing in environments inspired by Lego sets I remember building as a kid.

The story mode is excellent. The cut-scenes and antics of your road crew and band are funny and cute, and it’s a somewhat different way to experience a story mode in a RB game. You still progress from venue to venue, but it has a bit more plot than the usual rise from obscurity to fame than RB2 or TB:RB. Alien invaders play a big part (and alien spies are fun to try to spot in the venue backgrounds), but the more unique idea is the Rock Power Challenges, when your band uses their musical skills to solve problems for various people, such as helping farmers get rain for their crops or escaping an angry T-Rex. The game play style of these levels – in which the vocalist sings the whole song while the instrumentalists take turns playing – is a little odd at first, but it’s a neat way to let the instrumentalists see more of the background visuals than they have in the past. The song selections are often fun and always relevant, such as playing “Ghostbusters” to rid a haunted house of spooks, or playing “The Final Countdown” to aid a spaceship launch.

Also a lot of fun is the way you can buy various Lego pieces and characters to customize your band space and characters – not just your own avatars, but that of your NPC bandmates, roadies, and entourage. They are always seamlessly integrated into the cinematics, and it provides a level of customization well beyond picking your instrument and your hairstyle. Kids and adults will have a lot of fun with this stuff. Even better is being able to play as Lego versions of various bands when playing their songs, such as Queen, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The idea to just have you automatically play as these bands when playing their songs is fun and neatly sidesteps the Guitar Hero 5 embarrassment of seeing Kurt Cobain sing a rap song.

It’s not without flaws. The 45-song setlist is a bit on the short side, though at least your DLC works immediately (well, that which has the “Family Friendly” stamp of approval – more on that later). While there are some terrific songs, it’s a little heavy on crappy emo bands like Good Charlotte, featuring lyrics that a 5th grader could improve on. And it seems just perverse to give us a girl-pop-punk cover of “Real Wild Child” when Iggy Pop, who recorded the most famous version of the song, is already in the game. While (for an additional $10 fee) you can export these tracks to Rock Band 2, unlike the original RB export, it’s an all-or-nothing deal. So if you want “Song 2” and “Two Princes” in RB2, you’ll have to take the crap you don’t like, too.

The gameplay is classic RB, but with one major problem – the note charts now look like Lego pieces. Fine, but the hammer-ons and pull-offs are a lot harder to discern at Expert speeds than in any rhythm game before them, and it’s deeply frustrating to drop note streaks because a HO/PO looks too similar to a strummed note (or vice-versa). Another major flaw in the game is that it doesn’t support online multiplayer, a considerable step back for the franchise, though one done (I suspect) to prevent kids from encountering the foul-mouthed horror that XBL online can be.

In addition, the gameplay has changed in another fundamental way – you can’t fail a song. If you do “fail”, you get a chance to recover yourself. This is something I actually rather enjoy, as it lets us hit random setlists with no qualms, as even the few songs we can’t usually pass on Expert (“Green Grass and High Tides”, anyone?) will get finished easily. They’ve dropped “No Fail” mode in the extras section, but have added a new “Super Easy” difficulty, in which it’s almost impossible to fail, and instruments are dumbed down to the point of complete ease. Guitar/bass requires only strumming and no fretting, all vocals are easy “talky” vocals, and drums need no kick pedal and you can hit any pad you like at the right time. Just to get an idea how easy this difficulty is, my wife and I got the achievement for 100%’ing a song with all four band members; she played drums (for nearly the first time) and vocals, while I played both bass and guitar. It only took a few runs at a simple song (“Cups & Cakes”, Spinal Tap) to get the achievement.

The biggest source of complaint from many has been the process which Harmonix has used to determine which songs are “family-friendly” enough to be included. I totally get that “Casey Jones” is not going to make it, as most parents don’t want their kids singing “Driving that train, high on cocaine”. But some make no sense at all. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” doesn’t pass the cut for some reason – a song whose lyrics can fit into a tweet, and which simply describe a one-legged sailor losing his wooden leg climbing up the sails and heading out to find it. “Pinball Wizard” also doesn’t make the cut, though as far as I can tell the most offensive lyric in the song is “He’s got crazy flipper fingers.” I really wonder whether licensing issues are the real reason behind some of these decisions. Meanwhile, one or two of the songs on the disc in LRB have edited swears, though of the mildest sort. It doesn’t make much sense, and it’s made a lot of people mad.

The achievements are largely easy, and largely beat automatically in story mode. Several are for spending “studs”, this game’s version of money, but you’ll earn way, way more studs than you need to get them very easily. Only one – 100%’ing the guitar solo in “The Final Countdown” – is truly difficult, and only one other – 100%’ing a guitar solo on Expert – is difficult at all. The rest of the 100% achievements can be done at any difficulty, even the new “Super Easy”. This is a major change from earlier RB games, which require these done on Expert difficulty, sometimes even with a twist, such as up-strumming only on bass, or using the solo buttons on the guitar. If you’re a bit of a gamerscore whore (as I am), this is an easy ~900GS, though a tough 1k because of “The Final Countdown”. You’re looking at around 20 hours of gameplay to get some of them, though, such as acquiring 1000 stars, finishing all 170-odd gigs, and finishing the Endless Setlist.

All in all, it’s an interesting, but not required, entry in the Rock Band franchise. It would be greatly improved by making online multiplayer and the “Family Friendly” tracks available if you have no parental controls on your console. If you’ve got kids, you really want a bunch of the songs included on-disc for RB2, and you don’t get too worked up about the DLC exclusions, it’s a fun game. Otherwise, I can’t heartily endorse it as I have all the previous RB games.

As you’ve probably heard, reports are now saying that Microsoft banned modified over one million modified consoles from XBL as they were modded to play pirated games, forcing these users to buy new consoles if they want to continue playing XBL online.

They didn’t ban or zero-gamerscore the accounts used on these consoles, though in a way I think they should. They ban gamertags for using gamesaves to game the achievement system – and aren’t these people doing the same, by inflating their gamerscores with hundreds of games that the regular gamer can’t afford?

Yeah, I know, they can’t. It would be nice if they could, but they can’t tell which gamertag on a given console is a pirate. It’s quite possible that I could truck my memory card over to a buddy’s house for some Rock Band 2 and he never mentions that he modded his console. I don’t know the disc in the drive is a DVD-R, and I get banned and zeroed for no good reason.

I can’t believe anyone’s outraged by this, but many people are, judging by the comment threads I see online. You frickin’ mod your system to play pirated games, then get pissed that Microsoft catches you. Then they don’t do anything but prevent you from playing online from that console. No XBL ban for your gamertag, no zeroing of your gamerscore – you just can’t use that console online ever again. You can play single-player pirated games to your heart’s content as long as you don’t care about gamerscore. All they did was stop you from playing your pirated games online or earning gamerscore with them, on the online service they provide and are perfectly within their rights to refuse service to. They were kind, in my opinion. Just how deep does of culture of entitlement go?

Awhile ago I said I was done with Heroes, but that didn’t take (it was mostly pique at a Tim Kring interview in which he acted like a douche). But seriously… is anyone still liking this show? I’m watching, but it’s usually because a) I don’t work Tuesdays so have probably been into the agave extracts and b) I have a morbid fascination with seeing how bad something can get. It makes no sense.

After the first season, they figure they need a bunch of characters with cool new super powers, then decide to abandon them entirely, leaving no resolution for many of them. They replace the new superheroes with convoluted back story characters and resurrections, like Papa Patrelli, then promptly kill them off, while just plain losing track of some of them. They decide to strip down the cast to the core regulars this season – not a bad idea – then proceed to introduce a bunch of pretty lame new characters. They fixate on trying to re-capture their first-season successes, so are now sending Hiro back in time to muck with them – crap like rescuing Charlie. Thanks for once again rendering a key emotional point in the once-good series moot, again.

This is the biggest problem, they keep contradicting the canon. Saving the cheerleader didn’t do squat, in the end – Claire easily survives Syler’s brain surgery later on, and gains her power. And he survived Hiro’s sword stab even without her power, so it didn’t matter much. Then Syler conveniently forgot about powers the show couldn’t deal with, like his nuke and illusion abilities – their attempts to amnesia them away were shallow and silly.

They also have never come to grips with Hiro’s powers, so invent endless road blocks for them that are hard to swallow. They never understood that a character who can change time and events is really hard to deal with. That’s why most major time traveller characters, like the Doctor, get arbitrary rules they have to obey about paradox and so on – they can take part in events they time travel to, but can’t go back and fix their actions. From early days, setting up Hiro’s power as a way to mess with history was a mistake.

I keep watching for the reasons stated above – mostly alcoholic impairment on its broadcast night. But I really doubt that it could ever bounce back now. The show runners have no idea how to script sci-fi – they’re acting like it’s a show like ER, with short-term plot arcs and character changes that just get folded into its week-by-week cast and character changes. And you can’t do that with such a complicated sci-fi premise.

What made Heroes so good in its first season was its superhero characters acting and dealing with things like real people. There was no school for gifted mutants or tight-fitting spandex – these were real people discovering they had great power. But they had nowhere to go with it, past their loosely veiled imitation of Watchmen‘s plot and perspective. They lost continuity in a big way, losing track of characters, leaving interesting ideas dangling. This show was just too big for the people who wrote it, and its death now seems imminent and inevitable.

The fact is, the show is overly obsessed with superhero origin stories. Look at the history of superheroes on screen, and they’re almost always the origin story. How so-and-so got their powers, discovered them, started using them. Spider-Man 2 was one of the first that found a post-origin direction. Movies like The Dark Knight took it even further, into the realm of truly great storytelling. But Heroes is wrapped in a miasma of origin story -> overly powered characters -> power reduction -> new character -> (repeat), and it just won’t stop now. If they move it to a night I have to work the next day, that will probably be it for me. Such a shame after such a promising start.

I have a tendency to consume media in pairings. After reading a novel I get a strong urge to watch its adaptation. The past few months, I’ve read/watched A Clockwork Orange and several Stephen King adaptations like The Mist, for instance. I’ll watch any adaptation at least once, though I don’t re-watch the execrably bad ones like The Langoliers.

One exception to this is Jurassic Park. I love the Crichton novel, probably his best. Crichton wasn’t a prose genius or anything, but being a science junkie, his well-researched science fiction (though, for some reason, it was rarely called that) always scratched an itch for me. I re-read it a couple days ago, so I had to re-watch the film too, even though I hate it.

I suppose that the parts of the film that are well-done – and which made it such a success – are still pretty great-looking, and that’s why I insist on seeing it again. The rex attack, the kitchen scene with the raptors, the first time you see the dinosaurs in the film – these are moments of true Spielbergian eye candy and kinetic action that are still beautiful to look at. But so much of the film is so intolerably bad, and much is because of mindless changes to a good novel.

Okay, I get that you don’t want as much detail about complexity theory and DNA sequencing in the film as you get in the novel. But the decision to squeeze about all of it into a cutesy cartoon and one or two brief dialogues out of Jeff Goldblum was taking it too far. People like to have some explanation of science in their sci-fi.

What they did with the characters and casting is almost butchery. Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is the exception – he’s the one bright point. Some of it was bad casting, like Laura Dern, whose irritating overacting is distracting. Samuel L. Jackson has a similar problem here; though I usually enjoy his performances, this is one of the few I hated. Sam Neil wasn’t great for Grant, either, but more egregious is the non-sensical switch from child-lover to child-hater. I guess it was for the dramatic arc of having him come to like the kids, but it didn’t bring enough to the party to justify how it changed our perception of him.

The kids’ characters were actually improved a little; swapping the ages of the boy and girl was fine, and splitting the computer talents/dinosaur enthusiasm up instead of them being both Tim as in the novel was smart, as Lex did little in the novel but whine about being hungry. Their acting was the problem; while they were fine with the action sequences, they seriously needed to rein in on the dialogue. The best example is how the perfectly reasonable line, “This is a Unix system. I know this.” switches from sensible if rendered matter-of-factly to one of laugh-out-loud cheesiness.

Hammond was even worse; while Attenborough is a brilliant actor and he could have played the character from the novel well, they switched him to this goofy grandfatherly type. While Hammond initially appeared that way in the novel, he was a dark and unlikable character, and the best in the novel. A typical example is his attitude towards park admission fees; in the film, he wants every child in the world able to see dinosaurs, while in the book, he cynically says to Gennaro that he can’t wait to see the children’s faces – the rich children, anyway. The Hammond of the novel doesn’t even particularly like his grandchildren, but only invited them to use as emotional blackmail against Gennaro.

Finally are the changes to plot, which were massive almost to the point of completely different (as the sequel, The Lost World, would eventually do, bearing almost no resemblance to the novel). Yes, in the novel, the ride breaks down, the rex attacks, and Grant and the kids cross the park to get back to the visitor’s centre. But none of the details are the same. Maybe it was for financial reasons, but their journey was the best part of the book, a day-long journey full of encounters with different dinosaurs, a river raft chase with a plunge over a waterfall towards a waiting T-rex, and a near-death encounter with pterodactyls (which finally appeared in a much different form in Jurassic Park III). We get a rushed trip with a cliché and hokey electric fence scene. The battle with the raptors at the lodge/visitor’s centre was epic and much, much more interesting. And let’s not even talk about the exciting, climactic exploration of the velociraptor nest that was absent entirely.

Look, I get that movies can’t be slaves to their books. That’s how you end up with a snoozer like the first couple Harry Potter movies. Many of the changes made to Jurassic Park were perfectly understandable – eliminating Henry Wu’s presence from the control room, combining the characters of Ed Regis and Donald Gennaro, as well as Harding/Muldoon, that kind of thing, just to improve the narrative flow and cut down on superfluous characters. But to completely change most of the plot and most of the characters makes me wonder why you bought the rights to the novel in the first place.

I’m aware that not everything can be Lord of the Rings, which did these things carefully and well – expanding Helm’s Deep, having Arwen replace Glorfindel for the race to the Ford of Bruinen, eliminating Tom Bombadil, etc. Sure, you can’t please everyone, but I understand these changes completely – even the loss of the Scouring of the Shire, one of my favourite parts of the books. But shouldn’t I expect to at least recognize the story I read on-screen?

Crichton novels seem to get this treatment worse than most, and rarely with good or successful results. Congo wasn’t bad, but marred by the animatronic gorilla. Rising Sun was watchable and pretty faithful, but it wasn’t great to begin with. Timeline was awful. Sphere was awful. Disclosure seriously messed with events & characters but was okay. And so on.

Stephen King movies are often bad (and not surprisingly, when they’re not – Shawshank, Green Mile, Misery – they’re very faithful), but at least you can say that they usually follow the story – even The Shining, or the more-or-less intact but different-ending Cujo and The Mist…well, unless you count The Lawnmower Man, which takes the prize on not resembling the original source.

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