Archive for July, 2009

Wave Foam – “I love Eurogamer”

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I’ve been known, on occasion, to defend Eurogamer. Why, you may ask? Well, maybe because they have shown to be independent enough to review certain games in a less than unanimous way (“Metal Gear Solid 4’s” “outrageous” 8 in 10 comes to mind), maybe because they have good journalists who know how to write properly (unlike myself), or maybe it is just because they’re European like me, and us Europeans need to stick together, right guys? I guess it has something to do with us old-continentals having a different acception of what criticism stands for, one that is less commercially oriented and broader in terms of conceptual analysis. I guess you can call it a more serious, and heck, why not say it, pretentious way of looking upon reviews. Not that Eurogamer always shows that particular posture towards game journalism, but for some reason I seem to find it in their texts, from time to time. Like any redaction, Eurogamer has good critics and journalists and its fair share of not-so-good ones. But, like all magazines and newspapers, be they online or not, what truly defines them is their editorial criteria in terms of content. In other words, what and how they spend their hard-earned English with.

This morning I came to read this interview to Epic’s Mark Rein (“Gears of War”, “Unreal Tournament”). I don’t even know what got me into reading the interview in the first place, since I am not that big of a fan of Epic (they design good shooters, yay)… but I guess I was just bored with the absolute lack of news regarding video-games (I do have to write about something!). I recommend you read it, if only to see what passes for journalism in lala land (video-game land, that is). The gist of the interview revolved around Ellie Gibson (the “journalist” conducting the interview) having a one-on-one joke contest with the interviewee. Exaggeration? Quite frankly, no. Sure, she inquired about Epic’s plans for future games, DLC and all that silly talk gamers take for informative news, but for some unidentifiable reason, she decided to pose almost every question as a witty remark, which of course, solicited the same sort of response from Rein. The result is a funny interview that is almost completely devoid of any real information. She asks things like “You’re like a badass factory?”, “I’ve got about £3.97 on me, could I get one [Unreal Engine] for that?“, or simply states absurdities like “You sound like you’re on the shopping channel[…]. I keep expecting you go to, ‘Hurry, we’ve only got 42 Unreal Engines left!'”. When Mark actually got to explain something regarding the Unreal Engine, she edited the interview, replacing it with this: “at this point, Rein delivers a lengthy monologue about the benefits of Unreal Engine 3. For the sake of brevity, it can be summarised thus: ‘The Unreal Engine’s quite good, buy one.'”. I guess she just wanted brevity, after spending four pages with funny jokes. Or maybe his opinion just wasn’t funny enough. Well, this was just the tip of the iceberg of a really lengthy interview. It was clear the interviewer was having a laugh with this, and made sure the whole interview served to amuse herself and her readers. In the process, any informative quality that the interview might have possessed was thrown out the window.

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Now, I love humor as much as the next guy, and I can even understand that the particular style of a journalist revolves around some clever remarks, but this is a whole new level. It actually reminded me of a piece done by Gametrailers where Geoff Keighley did an impromptu “interview” of Cliff Bleszinski, and the whole thing ended up with a discussion on how more “badassness” Cliff’s games could muster, and how many chainsaws and blood he could insert in one game. Perhaps Epic just likes to throw funny interviews. But perhaps this is a sign of how poorly journalists spend their time, whilst listening to what the industry has to say. Sure, you might advocate, like myself, that the only thing Mark Rein could ever say that is remotely interesting is precisely the sort of whimsical non-sense the interviewer got him to speak. But that brings up a much more prominent point – if that was indeed the case, why bother interviewing him in the first place, and not someone else?

This sad interview is symptomatic of the media we have access to. We’re in an industry of toys for kids that never takes itself too seriously, or speaks in a serious manner (lest the kids lose interest). We’re in an industry that very rarely lets the real authors speak, and when it does let someone speak, it’s usually some corporate suit that knows as much about games as a recently hired Gamestop clerk. And now the industry  wastes these (so called) journalists’ time with interviews that bear little to any significance to the subject at hand: video-games. We do get to laugh at some pretty funny punch-lines, right? Meanwhile, somewhere out there, is a designer with something really interesting to talk about, and the only thing we get on the receiving end is some guy covering how badass a game can be. This is game journalism.

Persona 4 – “Pop-tastic”

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While the J-RPG genre continued its long winding spiral into mediocrity, last year’s “Persona 3” managed to turn the tables around, thanks to its ingenuous new take on its genre roots. A twisted hybrid between the hard-core dungeon crawling experience of the Megami Tensei cannon and a Japanese social sim, “Persona 3” proved that the genre needed not be confined in its ever more claustrophobic tropes. Alas, with only one year separating “Persona 4” from its predecessor, one could never hope that such a innovative trend would continue for the newest iteration. But that is by no means the same as saying that “Persona 4” is just another derivative sequel.

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Granted, structurally, “Persona 4” is exactly the same as its predecessor, with only some minor adjustments and additions to the successful game design template. But for once, that comfortable familiarity with the game-design model actually allowed its designers to invest in the areas where “Persona 3” was lacking. Despite its brooding occult themes, the last “Persona” already attempted to re-envision its traditional Gothic aesthetic (from Kazuma Kaneko) with Shoeji Meguro’s more upbeat, pop art vibe. The result was thus transitional, being somewhat mixed and convoluted, not only on a purely aesthetic level, but also in terms of its narrative expression, with the overall plot featuring a darker tone than each of the social sim’s quirky slice of life meets Japanese existentialism mini-stories. This is where “Persona 4” comes out as more mature and consistent work, with a more coherent body of aesthetic work, and a scenario (Yuichiro Tanaka and Akira Kawasaki) with themes that perfectly match the social sim structure and the pop aesthetic.

“Persona 4” has a very dense back-story, a sumptuous layered cake filled with twists, surprises and undertones. There’s a plot-twist heavy, occult crime mystery on top (in the vein of the popular “Death Note”); a reflection on human society’s unwillingness to face its true self, with each slice of life story providing lots and lots of nuances and variations on this same theme; and finally, under it all, there’s a deep philosophical reflection on the role that modern media (personified by the TV) plays in our lives, in the way that it shapes our perception of reality and ultimately, reality itself. Characters are funny and endearing, and since you get to spend so much time with them, you’ll establish an effective bound with them, just as you would while watching a small Anime TV series. There is still a lot of the old Anime J-RPG silliness, but it’s so in tune with the themes and style of the game, that it becomes thoroughly enjoyable (of course, the good localization job also helps the comedic lines to shine through).

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But more than everything else, the most pleasurable addition to this new “Persona” is its wonderful ambiance, which attempts to faithfully portray living in a Japanese town for whole year. You get to listen to all the rumor brewing of rural towns’ inhabitants, attend to religious celebrations, explore traditional and modern commerce, with all the kinky items and eccentric oriental cuisine, etc. It’s a true delight to watch the scenery as the seasons slowly turn with Mount Fuji in the background: the changing sky tones, as weather oscillates from day to day, and sunlight’s hues blend differently with the setting according to each season, the ever present cherry blossom trees either reflecting the vivacious light of spring and summer, or the melancholic brown of  autumn. Though the establishing of a coherent Japanese reality has come a long way from “Persona 3“, it’s not as consistent and well translated as in “Shenmue” or “Yakuza”. Nevertheless, it’s still very aesthetically refreshing when compared to its high fantasy peers. It’s for all these reasons that, despite being basically the exact same game as its forbear, “Persona 4” is still an engrossing experience. In fact, it’s so intricate and unique in its visual and narrative expression, that you can’t help but think that “Persona 3” was just an experiment to pave way for the fourth iteration. But “Persona 4’s” success effectively sucks this game-design path dry, leaving the difficult task of reinventing the wheel (again) to its hypothetical successor.

score: 4/5

Wave Foam – “Jenova speaks… and we’d do well to listen”

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Jenova Chen (“flOw”, “flower“) spoke at the Develop 2009 conference in Brighton. I’ve found two different excerpts of his talk, which you can access here and here. Besides mentioning that a new game is in the making (rejoice!) he mentions similar ideas to the ones I’ve discussed in my recent “State of the Art” editorials. I’d like to give particular emphasis to one sentence that I find of utmost importance – according to Gamasutra, while developing “flower“, Chen realized “that in the attempt to make a “fun” game, the team had blunted the emotional impact.” This is a crucial point of my “games can’t express emotions” ‘thesis’, and something I’ve argued for a long time.

Art is a vehicle of emotional expression and communication, the translation of an author’s personal beliefs, feelings and sense of aesthetics into the work of a specific medium. That’s why, for games to be an art form, designers need to focus on emotional expressiveness, and to do so there is no other answer than shunning ‘ludism’ and the ‘fun’ side of games. Because ‘ludism’ is the shape of traditional games, and games aren’t about emotion, they’re about challenge, competition, reward and penalty. That’s why they could never serve as proper inspiration for an art form. But in its current form, computer games’ interactive dimension can only express very crude, low level emotions – the ones it inherited from traditional games. And because we’ve been stuck with that (pseudo) emotional template, we’re still light-years away from the expressive power of a film, book, symphony or painting.

Screenshot of "Citizen Kane", which the American Film Institute named the greatest movie of all time

This is the main reason why games “don’t have their own Citizen Kane” [yes, I’m pulling a “Citizen Kane” on you guys, you’ve earned it]. I don’t know what a “Citizen Kane” of video-games would look like, and quite honestly, I don’t think it even matters to this debate. Because whatever it looks (or will look) like, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it yet. And whoever thinks otherwise needs to watch “Citizen Kane” again, and appreciate how far cinema went from its genesis to that singular point in time. Games haven’t tread that path yet, and they’re pretty much where they were when they first emerged. Matter of fact is: video-games still aren’t able to convey madness, loss, nostalgia, hope, aging, infancy, memory, love, longing, or any of the other complex dimensions that are part of the wealthy, emotional tapestry of “Citizen Kane”. And in place of “Citizen Kane” you can place any other masterpiece of cinema, literature or music, that this fundamental truth will still hold. There is no “Citizen Kane” of video-games.

And while we’re on a fatalist note, let’s be honest, with the way things are going, it’s likely games never will achieve that high point. Designers blindly insist on this abhorrent paradigm of ‘fun’, and everyone seems to be on board with them. But for the interactive medium to evolve into a proper art form, it needs to move away from the language of ‘fun’, and into a new interactive language that can express emotions and complex abstract concepts. An emotional, artistic language. Right now, games aren’t artistic, they’re ‘fun’. For some that suffices. Not to me.

That is why I’m curious to see where this newfound truth will lead Chen, and other visionary creators like him, in future ventures.

Wave Foam – “Questioning the Present, Shaping the Future… Again”

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Executives will be executives, right? They’re in it for the money, I get that. But what does Gamespot’s editorial staff think about the way the industry has been handling itself? I’ll admit, I was pleasantly surprised… er… for the most part.

Now, before analyzing the common denominators that this eclectic group of journalists addressed, let me start by casting away the black sheep of the pack. Andrew Park says that “I know it’s very fashionable and cool to complain about the lack of originality in the games business and how there are all these sequels [hey, that’s me he’s talking about!], but in several cases, sticking with a certain series has let development teams build a better mousetrap with technology and engines (and game designs) […] He goes on to say that “The Sims 3”, “Gears of War 2“, “Resident Evil 5“, “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “Call of Duty: World at War” are all great examples on how sequels can be awesome. I won’t mention “Sims 3,” which I haven’t played yet, but as for the rest, we’re talking about derivative games, that add little to nothing to their predecessors apart from better graphic engines and cooler weapons. Is this what we want for games? Year after year of sequels with flashier graphics, and the same, tiresome game-play? What’s wrong with this guy? As a critic, he should be rewarding artistry, creativity and innovation, not the opposite!

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Amongst the “what’s wrong” answers, two major ideas stick out. “Corporate consolidation is a bit of a worry for me” -, states Shaun McInnis, and the “soaring development budgets for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games is disconcerting”, says Giancarlo Varanini. It’s true: the market is too crowded and claustrophobic, when it comes to the big budget productions’ arena. And with the rising costs of game production, less companies are capable of backing these projects, and the ones that do, risk bankruptcy or a merger whenever a game fails to break even (which usually requires, at least, a million copies sold).  What this all translates to for us gamers, is a lesser degree of creativity and variety in top tier games, something we’ve been paying the price for in the last couple of years or so. Because let me assure you that, especially in this climate of economic uncertainty, no big company will be willing to risk their five year long projects, which involve hundreds of people and millions of dollars, on some innovative concept that hasn’t been commercially tested before.

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On the sunny side up, there’s a clear reference to downloadable games and how they help counter-balance the stagnation of the upper echelons of the industry. It is only thanks to these micro-cosmos of independence, that we still have access to creative experimentation in the video-game medium. In the words of Giancarlo Varanini, “the fact that we get to play and enjoy games like Flower […] is possible only because of the relative low-risk investment of digital distribution […]”. But that’s not the only beacon of hope. “The industry’s rapid growth and expansion have an upside: There are a ton of great games to play”, Chris Watters. Thanks to the increase of gaming audiences, especially in the often despised casual market, we’ve had an astounding increase of game releases. Personally, I find that quality is sparse right now, but one can easily predict that, sooner or later, quantity will surely be followed by specialization and a dramatic increase in range and quality of these games.

As to the future, it looks journalists maintain a certain optimism towards new technologies that, for the most part, I cannot agree with. Downloadable services are the future, that I can concur with them. As to virtual reality-like controllers (Wiimote, Project Natal, Sony’s Wand) and cloud computing, I’m afraid I’m a bit more skeptic. You can read about why in previous editorials, which you can access here and here, respectively. Technology offers potential, but ultimately, it is the potential that actually gets fulfilled that counts in the long run, and in terms of these two examples, there is little to account for in terms of the way they have been changing (or can change) the gaming landscape.

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Amidst all these opinions, I got the sense that more or less, these guys are on the right bandwagon. But there’s some form of weird discrepancy at work here. If on one hand, they seem to applaud creativity and (well, except for that one guy) fear the overwhelming weight of big companies and their uncreative blockbusters, I must say that I never got that message from Gamespot in their non-editorial articles. They say they want creativity and originality, and that they support downloadable games, but I don’t see that in their reviews and respective scores. Is something amiss here? Because, as far as I perceive, Gamespot still rewards big blockbuster titles more consistently then they do small, indie and innovative games. Is it because there’s too much PR pressure to give “Killzone 2” a 9? How about giving a 9 to “flower” instead? Is it, that just like the Microsoft executive, and the schmuck that thought “Resident 5” was creative, they have their minds on the right note, but they just don’t know what originality really stands for? Perhaps they don’t have the taste levels or the artistic, cultural background that allows them to distinguish the qualities that make “flower” great and “Killzone 2” not so great? Do they lack a culture of hard criticism? Do they see games only as shallow entertainment vehicles, and thus reward them on the “fun” metric alone? Mayhap these are all true, mayhap not. Whichever the case, I think journalists need to start taking pride in their own opinions, cultivating their tastes and those of their readers, and start challenging the status quo. If they like downloadable games, then great, time for them to prove it by giving them better scores than they give to the generic, sequelized big AAA games.

Wave Foam – “Questioning the Present, Shaping the Future”

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As you know, I don’t think video-games have been going through the best of times lately. The rise of production costs, coupled with the massification of casual gaming and the consequent entrenching of the hardcore base – which now seems to live on military action games almost exclusively – has led to a degradation of the creative influxes of the medium. Rarer and rarer are the days where I get to see a new game that is, let’s put it bluntly, an actual new game, and not some remake/sequel/rehash of a classic franchise. It isn’t all bad though, as retro and indie games have found a great new habitat in downloadable services, which still allows some hidden gem to rise up once in a while.

But I have been wondering what does the picture look like from the other side of the mirror. What do journalists, designers and producers think? Thankfully, it appears that Gamespot heard my cries of help, and decided to give me the answer, or at least part of it. They did a state of the art piece, by interviewing the top four American executives of the industry (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and EA), and their own editorial staff, by asking “what’s wrong”, “what’s right”, and “how is it going to look in five years time”. The answers are enlightening, though probably not because of their actual substance, but for the ways in which they end up mirroring why things have gotten as bad as they are. I won’t analyze every sentence of this feature, but I will comment on some of the more interesting statements.

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When it comes to the executive side, I was baffled by one answer to the “what is wrong with the industry” question, and it came from Microsoft’s own Phil Spencer (general manager of Microsoft Game Studios). He answers that what is wrong, is the absence of creativity in designing new games, with designers “following tried-and-true, existing formulas and not trying to challenge themselves with every release”. This is true, but coming from whom it does, it lacks any substantial value, as I don’t see Microsoft pushing the envelope as much as his statement would lead you believe. “Halo 3”, “Fable II” and “Gears of War” aren’t that different from “Halo 2”, “Fable” and “Kill Switch”… so while complaining on lack of creativity is all fine and dandy, it wouldn’t hurt if his actions could back up his words. In all honesty I think he just said what everybody has been saying ever since games are around, without even thinking about whether or not he was contributing to the trend he criticized. Or maybe he really thinks Microsoft’s games are innovative and groundbreaking, in which case, you can see how deluded and out of touch executives can be, when it comes to creativity in artistic mediums. Side note on executive’s equation of creativity: “creativity is proportional to sales figures”… or something along that note.

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In terms of “what is right”, and “what’s it going to look like” the greatest problem of the industry becomes fully apparent in all answers. In one way or the other, all the four head-honchos love the fact that the market has opened up to casual gaming. I can understand executives being all Colgate smile happy about making huge piles of money with small, low-budget, easy to produce games, that don’t have to be innovative or creative. But the sad fact is that the casual market has really low standards of quality, even when compared to the hard-core games market (which was pretty lousy as it was). The result is that this massive wave of childish game-like applications – the “Cooking Mama’s”, the “Brain Training’s”, the “Wii Sports” – are  becoming the de facto standard of the industry, as they generate higher revenues with smaller risks, and a lesser need for quality control.

Now, like any other gamer, I love the fact that games have finally become a mass market. It’s great that we have opened up such a closed medium to all sects of society and age groups, meaning that games no longer have to be a modern social stigma for those who play them. But this sudden opening has to be regarded as a challenge for creativity and improvement, and not as some quick way of making money. Because these games are presenting the medium to these new found audiences in its more infantile facet, instead of using this opening as a way to captivate new gamers into more complex, creative and challenging notions of what a video-game can be. And if that doesn’t happen in the near future, this ‘casual gaming’ trend can potentially set back the medium another decade or even more. Casual, mainstream and mass-market – that’s the future, I agree with the executives there, but it’s a future that needs to be shifted into the right direction, and without oversight of niche markets that may want a little more than just waggling controllers and interactive fitness programs.

[Continues on the next Wave Foam Article]

Condemned 2 Bloodshot – “Condemned We Are”

Like its predecessor, “Condemned 2” is (supposedly) a first-person survival horror game, with hand to hand combat sequences and “C.S.I.” inspired puzzles. The original “Condemned” was a moody ambiance piece; its only redeeming factor was its capacity for building up suspense, thanks to its  deliberately slow pacing, and its dark, decrepit portrayal of American urban centers, in Fincher’s neo-noir style (also present in games like “Max Payne” or even “Silent Hill 2”). Not that the game really took advantage of that aesthetic – the second half of the game brimmed with visual excesses and over the top action and narrative. In other words, it was a mess that ended up ruining the carefully concocted ambiance and pacing of the first half.

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The sequel is pretty much the same, but going even more overboard than the second half of the original. The brawn has been ramped up, with a clear abuse on repetitive, boring action sequences, with a heavier focus on fire-arms (almost completely absent in the prequel). The plot is the silliest piece of Hollywood wanna-be action drivel I’ve encountered in a long while – it’s a dumb application of the mono-myth, filled with angst and foul language on part of the hero, i.e. more silly “dark and mature” adolescent fantasies written by inept writers. The aesthetic does manage to keep the influences of the original, which allows the game to sometimes shine. However, it quickly becomes repetitive, with the art designers lacking subtlety, and abusing dark color palettes and graphic detail. Not to mention that there are some ridiculous references to “Saw’s” torture porn, and “Bioshock’s” art deco (which makes as much sense in “Condemned” as a renaissance painting in a modern art exhibit). There is one mild improvement over its predecessor in the “C.S.I.” puzzles, which are now, well, actual puzzles which you must solve. What is a shame though, is that they bog down to visually flattering forms of questionnaires, which don’t really conceal that much substance. You’ll never deduce anything or really be forced to think like a detective, so you’ll never feel like one, despite tremendous effort from the designers on that regard.

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“Condemned 2” is a derivative game in every sense of the word. It tries really hard to capture what made so many games great in the past, by borrowing many bits and pieces, but in the end, it simply lacks the creative nexus to make everything blend together. A great example of this flawed exercise is in the use of a subjective point of view. “Condemned’s” creators tried to use the same consistent first person view of “Breakdown” or “Mirror’s Edge”, a technique that allows greater identification with physical actions and dramatic effect on part of the player. But instead of realizing the potential of such an approach on a survival horror game, they ruin the idea by using out of body cut-scenes (poorly shot and with some horrible animations) and employing a noisy HUD with combo meters and score tally’s. They spent all that money in making interesting first person animations, only to pull you out of character in no time, with some poor, easy to fix, design choices. And everything in the game works out in that same way, as every interesting solution they come up with, only being used for the most immediate, functional, infantile form of entertainment. But if we pull back, and take a good look around, we can’t be unjust to the point of saying that “Condemned 2” is much worse than its contemporary peers, because it isn’t. And that is the only frightening reality the game can really condemn us to feel.

score: 0/5

Wave Foam – “Needs More Bling”

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I am really glad that now, more than ever, players are interested in exploring the roots of video-games. It is becoming increasingly popular to (re)play old games, and they keep popping up in download services. The demand for these wonderful games, that have stood the trial of time, is staggering, and companies have astutely capitalized on that market by re-releasing their games whenever and wherever possible.  It’s a win-win deal: companies get increased return (some of which will hopefully make its way to designers), and players can say bye bye to night-time vigils on eBay auctions that end up costing a fortune.

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What I have a hard time in understanding though, is the need for a presentation overhaul in these revivals. Is it wrong on my part to think that, if these games were so good in the first place, so that they’ve even become timeless, they shouldn’t be touched anymore than strictly necessary to make them work in new platforms? Why the need to do half-baked graphical updates that, let’s be honest, most times don’t even show half the craftsmanship of the original version? Whether it is to add snazzy 3D graphics, like in “Bionic Commando Rearmed” or “Prince of Persia Classic”, or to simply add a new coat of HD paint as in “Street Fighter II HD”, these versions are poor and imperfect replacements of otherwise outstanding works of art at the time of their design.

The latest, and one of the most disappointing examples of this trend, is the revamping of LucasArt’s classic “Secret of Monkey Island”, of which Destructoid does a nice comparison gallery between the original (which will also be included in the download) and new version. The new visuals are so horrible that I can barely look. Why break the visual coherence and stunning artistry that made this game unique in the first place? We’re murdering the essence of  these classics, and for what? For the sake of (and I can only guess) making them easier to understand for younger generations that aren’t used to slightly less flashy screens? But they look worse anyways, so why bother? It would be bad enough if the process was well realized, but it isn’t! It reminds me of Lucas himself trying to add cool CGI to his older movies, like “THX 1138” or the original “Star Wars” trilogy, and in the process screwing up some of the most credible, consistent special effects to have ever been used in film. What’s next? Casablanca in color? Venus de Milo rebuilt with robot arms? Mona Lisa in 3D???