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Reviews by Phil Villarreal. Phil is an author, blogger and Twitterer.


Grid 2
(360, PS3, $60, Everyone)

There’s nothing wrong with Grid 2 in and of itself, but it suffers from Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise syndrome, meaning the previous stuff was so refined there wasn’t much room for improvement, making sequels sort of pointless.

The old-timey Grid (2008) was such a flashy and tricked-out racer that the new entry can’t manage to pass it on tight corners. The developers made strides to make the bumping, grinding and paint-trading more accessible to newcomers, sacrificing a bit of the original’s harshness in favor of accessibility. The online system gets a heck of a facelift, coming close to aping EA’s Need for Speed-instilled autolog feature by letting you keep track of times registered by friends and rivals.

With a sick amount of courses, race types and customization options, there’s plenty here for gear-heads to grease up over but too little reason for casual fans to opt for the new model over the classic.

The Last of Us
(PS3, $60, Mature)

There are definitely more than enough zombie games out there, and The Last of Us could loosely fit that description. But lumping it into that tired genre is like considering bacon just another pork product.

Due out Friday, the game is a high water mark for Naughty Dog, the team that whipped out all those amazing Uncharted games. That’s saying something, considering their previous work is arguably the finest jewelry the PS3 has to offer. In a post-apocalytpic world ravaged by a virus that has decimated most of the human populace, transforming many into ravenous monsters, you struggle for survival by any means necessary.

Excruciating choices and intimate emotional moments abound in the intensely deep story, involving as an Oscar-worthy Hollywood film. Excellent acting and exceptional writing pulse through every frame, and the game is surprisingly slim on video gamey-style awkwardness that takes you out of the moment. A game that can be played, replayed, savored and discussed for weeks, if not months, the achingly amazing work is a solid reason to pick up a PS3 even though the console will be outmoded by its follow-up by year’s end.

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons
(3DS, $5 each until June 20, Everyone)

An interlinked pair of 2001 Game Boy Color Zelda entries wash up ashore as 3DS downloads, bringing their refreshing A Link to the Past-style sensibilities and recalling the series at its top-down-view high point.

Both games offer separate journeys crammed with parallels and callbacks to the other, as well as the standard Zelda-game trope of re-working mechanics from previous entries. Difficult yet fair puzzles, cleverly designed dungeons and engaging combat make both games must-plays for Zelda freakazoids. The adventures haven’t aged much and perform addition by subtraction by cutting to the core of what makes the franchise so addictive. At $5, both games are no-brainer buys for 3DS owners.

State of Decay
(360, $20, Mature)

A poor man’s version of The Last of Us and last year’s superb The Walking Dead episodic adventure games, this survival horror romp resurrects the zombie apocalypse thing for another jog around the park. Uncommonly intense attention to story and strategic aspects helps set the download apart from much of its competition.

As a straggling survivor, you join up with communities of fellow running-scared humans, helping to fend off marauding forces of the undead. Something akin to real-time strategy comes into effect with you deciding how to manage resources on the fly. Expect to have your gray matter – the very stuff the zombies are looking to munch on – taxed more than in most other games of its ilk. Offering a robust amount of gameplay for the $20 asking price, State of Decay is something to pick up if you are a Microsoft loyalist and don’t have The Last of Us on your radar.


Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2
($24 each on Blu-ray, $20 each on DVD)

Cartoon Network’s absurdist romp, courtesy of demented genius Pendleton Ward, has gotten by with themed episode releases on disc, but until now, no proper season-by-season editions. That’s finally changed, with the show’s first two seasons both getting DVD and Blu-ray editions, packed with every bit of the oddball crazy that had you giggling in 2010 and 2011. The Blu-ray comes with HD digital copies of all episodes, as well as some fascinating and funny behind-the-scenes peeks.

Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray
($35 Blu-ray)

It doesn’t seem quite right to see the eternally grainy and faded 1973 martial arts flick look all hot and dapper in HD, but you get over the awkwardness quickly. Iconic superstar Bruce Lee plays a fighter assigned to infiltrate a crime lord’s empire by battering his way through an underground fighting tournament. What the flick lacks in plot, it makes up for in raw fury as well as several iconic images of Lee baring his warrior’s soul. Despite the film having been shot with all the skill of a high school A/V club, Lee’s overpowering presence makes the film a keeper. Producer Paul Heller’s commentary, a trio of newly-made making-of featurettes, and a series of interviews join a slew of background material that came with the film’s old DVD releases.

A Good Day to Die Hard
($15 Blu-ray, $13 DVD)

Oh, Bruce Willis. Like a frazzled career criminal who can never resist that one last try at a big score to recapture his glory days and supposedly call it a career, the action stud can’t resist going back to spoil his signature series. The Die Hard brand thuds to a low point with this pathetic, lifeless connect-the-dots affair. It annoyingly gives Willis an unnecessary sidekick in Jai Courtney, playing his son who gets the hero caught up in Russian criminal underground. The dialogue is made up of vigorless attempts at catchphrases, the action is frequent but routine and the story makes even less sense than the last three pointless but harmless Die Hard follow-ups. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo doesn’t seem to realize that its film is a dud, hailing it with loads of featurettes, deleted scenes, an extended cut, filmmaker commentary and a stills gallery.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
($15 Blu-ray, $13 DVD)

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play grown-up versions of the fable protagonists who have evolved into an obscenity-spewing, butt-kicking tornado of witch destruction. The fractured fairy tale has some fun jabbing at storytime tropes but tires out as an action movie, suffering from poor CGI and eyebrow-raisingly fake stuntwork. It also doesn’t help with the oddness factor that Renner seems too old, and Arterton too young, for their parts. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo doesn’t quite supply a candy house of extras but does manage a look at the story’s adaptation and featurettes on key characters.

House of Cards: Season 1
($30 Blu-ray, $25 DVD)

I’m not sure why many people would need a Blu-ray of this excellent Netflix political drama because it’s available to stream with the service, but here it is, maybe for those who quit Netflix out of spite yet are intrigued by the thought of Kevin Spacey as a power-mad congressman. Joined by Kate Mara as an ambitious reporter and his sometimes lover, as well as Robin Wright as his cunning wife, Spacey savors the role. He even handles a Southern accent with little trouble, and supplies ample darkness and severity for the cold-blooded role. The Blu-ray boasts a digital copy but no special features.

The Newsroom: Season 1
HBO’s high-powered TV news drama from Aaron Sorkin – master of the walk-and-talk scene – comes off a little preachy and naïve at times, but overall it works as riveting drama. Jeff Daniels plays a talking head who’s fed up with the status quo and decides to start telling it like it is, career prospects and political repercussions be damned. Emily Mortimer plays his producer and old flame, and Alison Pill, Olivia Munn and John Gallagher Jr. round out the cast with solid supporting roles. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo delivers deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes stuff on each episode, a few commentary tracks and a round-table with Sorkin, Daniels and other power players involved with the show.

Oz the Great and Powerful
($28 Blu-ray, $18 DVD)

James Franco plays the not-so-great wizard in this not-so-great prequel to The Wizard of Oz, which sticks closer to the book than cinematic inspiration. Franco plays a conniving shyster who, roughly following a plot similar to that of the book and musical Wicked, schemes his way to the top while reducing an otherwise not-so-wicked witch (Mila Kunis) into a desperate, green-skinned mess. Director Sam Raimi is wielding a bottomless budget, and it shows in the form of impressive effects. But the cookie-cutter story can’t buy a soul. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo lays out a Yellow Brick Road of extras, with exhaustive mini-docs that show how the special effects were concocted. There are also a ton of interviews and Franco’s set diary.

Wild Strawberries Blu-ray
($28 Blu-ray)

Swedish master Ingmar Bergman delivered one of his greatest ruminations on love and life in this 1957 drama which finally blossoms into HD with a gorgeous Criterion treatment. The story follows an aging professor (Victor Sjostrom) who looks back on his life, recounting his struggles, failures, moments of bliss, embarrassments and fantasies. The black-and-white footage glows in a sumptuous, elegant Blu-ray transfer, capturing more of the detail from one of the last century’s greatest visionaries. Extras abound, including a tribute book, a film historian’s commentary, a 90-minute documentary on Bergman and behind-the-scenes footage.

Screeners were provided by the publishers for review.

COED Writer
Watches movies and games for work, then watches more movies and plays more games on his downtime. A movie and video game critic since 2001, Phil is the author of Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel, Stormin' Mormon and Zeta Male. Twitter: @philvillarreal