, | Game reviews

With only four playing pieces, how good can a game be? But developer Thoughtshelter, which is basically a fellow in Minneapolis named Kris Szafranski with a keen sense for how to balance intricacy and simplicity, has crafted an shrewd interplay of mobility, defense, and dirty tricks. These four pieces are dramatically different from each other, and since they’re druids who shapeshift into animals, they’re each technically two pieces.

After the jump, two times four is still only eight. So how good can it be? Continue reading →

, | Game reviews

The Martin Wallace games I know are intricate affairs, challenging to learn and teach, often with some distinct or even controversial twist. Brass, A Study in Emerald, Mythotopia, A Few Acres of Snow. You wouldn’t whip them out for a casual group. No one would ever mistake them for party games or palate cleansers. They are the main event of a gaming night, or perhaps better a gaming afternoon when everyone is sharp and alert. But Onward to Venus bucks the trend of the Martin Wallace games I know. Here is a joyous, snappy, whimsical, and gloriously colorful science fiction side dish, suitable for a wide range of players and distinct enough to ensure a unique place at the table for a long time to come.

After the jump, remember when the space pirates of Titan attacked Great Britain’s factories on Ganymede? Continue reading →

, | Game reviews

Wild West Rampage, one of the two tables in the Iron & Steel Pack for Zen Pinball 2, is Zen’s first non-licensed table in a long time. And it’s about time, too. I enjoy Star Wars and Marvel superheroes as much as the next guy, but Zen has been drinking from those wells for a very long time now. It’s nice to see them going back to reliable tables that stand on their own.

After the jump, not a lightsaber or cape in sight! Continue reading →

, | Movie reviews

“Is there a carnival in town?” This is the reaction of one of the characters upon arriving for the climactic sequence of Dead Snow: Red vs Dead. He will later reiterate the sentiment: “What the fuck is going on? It looks like a computer game.”

Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s sequel to his 2009 zombie movie wants more than anything to be outrageous, funny, and self-aware. Instead, it’s just messy, overblown, and winking. Ha ha, I’m a carnival and a videogame, it insists. It even proclaims itself “an entirely new genre”.

The original Dead Snow played more like a slasher movie. The Nazi zombies were its backstory, but it was mainly concerned with dispatching good looking young people in a remote cabin. And although it appreciated the silliness of Nazi zombies — we’ve come a long way since Peter Cushing in Shockwaves — it was clearly a horror movie. Not so with this sequel, which is a slapstick comedy with all the finesse of a tank driving through a house.

It’s always a bit disappointing to see horror going full comedy. A lot of us horror fans died a little when Sam Raimi resorted to Army of Darkness. Funny and grim can go hand in hand, as Raimi demonstrated adroitly in Evil Dead II. Most gore is inherently ridiculous, so there’s no need to push it. But Dead Snow: Red vs Dead giggles merrily as it dispatches old folks, people in wheelchairs, children, and even infants. And none of this is grim, because it’s all played for laughs. Remember in American Werewolf in London when the Nazi monsters burst in and slaughtered the family watching The Muppet Show? That was hilarious and horrifying. That was how to do funny and grim. When you stop and wink at the camera, the grim goes out the window and the funny just feels strained.

Dead Snow: Red vs Dead doesn’t even have the courage to stick to its own national identity. Martin Starr — unfortunately, this movie has no use for his droll sense of humor — leads a team of Americans bringing in easy jokes about nerds and Star Wars. For a movie with just the right balance of horror, humor, and a towering sense of Norwegian national identity, there’s always Trollhunter.

Dead Snow: Red vs Dead is available for video on demand.

, | Games

If you love numbers and stats, a good action RPG like Diablo III will happily oblige you with more numbers and stats than you can shake an abacus at. But I didn’t have the foggiest notion about the game’s concept of distance until I saw The Escapist’s breakdown of just what “one yard” means in Tristramiam measurement.

In related news, here are some upcoming changes in the next patch. Hey, Blizzard, Diablo III is already good enough! Stop trying to make me want to keep playing!

, | Game reviews

Imagine the biggest single thing on earth. I bet you imagined a mountain. But a sea can swallow a mountain. In fact, it already has; a sea contains many mountains. There is nothing on earth vaster than a sea. The defining characteristic of the sea is its size. We’ve known this from the very first moments we’ve seen seas. Among the earliest folly and greatest ambition of humanity is the act of setting out for the horizon of a sea, the hubris of thinking you can get to the other side of something so vast. This is the legacy of the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Portuguese, the Spanish. For every Magellan, there were thousands of doomed mad men who we remember in enduring myths like the book of Jonah, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and Jaws, stories that remind us that seas are hungry and ultimately far worse than malevolent: they are indifferent.

In science fiction, space stands in for what seas once were. We intuitively understand space, not because we can understand space, which is far too vast for us to understand. Instead, we understand space because we know the sea and we remember what it meant before we conquered it with ships and submarines and transcontinental flights.

After the jump, how can we know the sea in videogames? Continue reading →

, | Game reviews

Imperial Stars II is kind of a joke name. The first Imperial Stars isn’t a published game, but a prototype that Chris Taylor made some time ago. No, not that Chris Taylor. The other Chris Taylor. The one who made the first Fallout and, more recently, the superlative solitaire boardgame Nemo’s War. Taylor updated the Imperial Stars prototype enough that it was a whole new game deserving of a whole new title, at which point Victory Point Games published it. Imperial Stars II was born.

After the jump, when spreadsheets collide. Continue reading →

, | News

One of the new features of the Heart of Thorns add-on for Guild Wars 2 is a new player vs. player mode called stronghold. ArenaNet recently revealed details about this mode and it turns out it’s basically a five vs. five MOBA. You can read an overview of stronghold mode here and watch a detailed presentation on an abandoned map in this forty minute video. You’ll note stronghold has all the trappings of a MOBA, with the equivalent of creeps, player roles, lanes, defensive towers, jungling, and resource gathering. That’s the map up there. You can see the lanes. You can also see that it’s got trebuchets. I don’t think trebuchets are a trapping of MOBAs, but they should be.

One of the things that mystifies me about MOBAs is how long they can take. A round of League of Legends takes about twice as long as it should, especially considering the relatively brittle match progression. You’re just knocking down towers, one after the other. There’s none of the fluidity you get in an actual RTS, with base building, variable army composition, and wide-open maps. Do MOBA players really want to push their way down the same lanes for over a half hour? Given the popularity of the genre, I guess they do.

So for all the MOBA trappings of stronghold mode, I’m delighted to hear ArenaNet designer Hugh Norfolk say:

We want to still preserve that feeling that you can play PvP in Guild Wars 2 and you’re not investing some weird amount of time that can be anywhere from ten minutes to thirty minutes to forty minutes or whatever. So we want to preserve time so players can have quick intense battles over a short period of time.

He later estimates that a round of stronghold will last fifteen minutes. That sounds about right to me. I can be finishing up my third round of stronghold while you’re finally getting to the enemy base in your first round of League of Legends!

, | Movie reviews

Oh Australia, you’ve done it again! Aussie zombie movie Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is a revelation emerging from the shambling horde of me-too cash-ins. Brothers Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner — remember those names, because these are a couple of guys to watch — directed, wrote, edited, and even handled production design and sound design in this spirited and immaculately paced splatterfest. Wyrmwood has all the energy of a first-time director in love with his job, but perfectly willing to homage his influences. It freely riffs on Sam Raimi’s playfully slithering camera, George Miller’s classic post-apocalyptic outback chic, and the sickly visceral red splat of Romero and Savini’s full color zombie movies. But Wyrmwood is also refreshingly original, with its own unique take on zombie ecology that feeds into the can-do frontier spirit of the Australian outback and a mad scientist sequence so outrageously nonsensical that it wouldn’t feel out of place in a Resident Evil game. In fact, part of the appeal of Wyrmwood is how it plays as a loving mash-up of movie zombie mythology and videogame zombie mythology. Return of the Living Dead meets Dead Rising.

Although it’s ultimately about a couple of very specific characters, you can’t have a zombie apocalypse without killing a bunch of protagonists. You’ll meet plenty of tough men who know how to weld, headshot, scheme their way out of impossible situations, and even reference their cocks as needed, along with a uniquely Australian take on what would normally be the comedic sidekick. There’s even a last-minute villain totally worthy of being the movie’s hero.

But the real standout in Wyrmwood is its heroine, played by Bianca Bradey, who spends much of the movie acting with her eyes. Her introductory scene is one of the most thrilling zombie sequences I’ve seen since 28 Weeks Later and one of the creepiest zombie sequences I’ve seen since I was a kid and I stumbled across Italian zombie movies. A shambling corpse is one thing. A snarling infected feral zombie is yet another thing. But the thing dangling from the rafters in Brooke’s studio is something else entirely. And Brooke’s eventual contribution to surviving the zombie apocalypse is yet another example of how Wyrmwood is no mere me-too cash-in. It’s an Australian fever dream that has earned a place alongside classic zombie movies.

Wyrmwood is currently available on video on demand. Support Qt3 by watching it on Amazon.com.

, | Features

I’m not in the habit of recommending, much less playing, early access games. I’d just as soon wait until a game is finished before playing it. It makes no sense to me that I’d jump into some form of entertainment while it’s still being made, any more than I’d eat lasagne before it’s been baked or move into a house before the roof was in place. “Hey Tom,” Joss Whedon might ask, “do you want to watch Avengers 2 now? I haven’t shot all the scenes, and the ending isn’t in yet, and there’s no CG yet for The Hulk. But here, you can watch what I’ve got so far!” What kind of deal is that? Why wouldn’t I wait until the movie comes out? Besides, I have plenty of finished movies I could watch.

It’s no different with games. So why would I play Offworld Trading Company, which enters public beta today and is available for $40 on Steam?

After the jump, it just takes one moment of weakness. Continue reading →

, | Movie reviews

For the most part, you should leave well enough alone when it comes to tracking down the movies that freaked you out as a kid. You’re just going to be disappointed. Your jaded adult eyes will see right through the stuff of your childhood nightmares. Among my recent disappointments are Without Warning, in which an alien uses a fleshy frisbee to hunt humans such as David Caruso; Prophecy, in which a scalded mutant bear ponderously chases Robert Foxworth; and The Giant Spider Invasion, in which a Volkswagen Beetle is draped in black carpet and fitted with long spindly legs to stand in for a giant alien spider.

But some of the things that freaked me out as a kid hold up wonderfully! Phantasm, Jaws, Mario Bava’s Drop of Water segment in an anthology called Black Sabbath, Them, Dawn of the Dead. So I keep trying. My most recent experiment revisiting childhood terror was Blood Beach, which I was surprised to find in Amazon’s instant watch catalog. It’s a movie about something on the Santa Monica beach sucking people under the sand. What I remember most is being truly freaked out by how little is revealed during the course of the movie. Unlike the cover art on Amazon.com, there’s no gore and certainly no scantily clad women being eaten. Blood Beach is not nearly as lurid as the title suggests. Instead, people just disappear under the sand. That’s it. It even attacks during the day, on a crowded beach.

But what I didn’t remember because I was too young to know better is the absolute lack of pacing or craft in this 1980 throwaway B-movie. It is unable to achieve anything beyond its premise. Burt Young plays a wisecracking Chicago cop who seems to have wandered in from a different movie, and occasionally John Saxon shows up as a police lieutenant ordering around some extras playing cops. Saxon even gets a bit of dialogue that I thought was the tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t even get there”. He actually says that. He actually riffs on the Jaws 2 tagline.

There is a weird scene in which a crazy homeless lady watches impassively while a policeman who’s trying to help her gets sucked under. I remember that scene freaking me out as a kid. Why doesn’t she help? Why doesn’t she at least react? There’s also a gross, very 70s-style scene that turns inadvertently funny. A rapist attacks a woman under the pier, ripping open her shirt. She elbows him and breaks free, cowering in terror as he crawls on his belly towards her. Then the Blood Beach creature attacks him from under the sand, biting off his penis. I’ve never seen a more literal representation of someone getting his dick knocked in the dirt.

I still can’t help but begrudgingly admire Blood Beach for playing it close to the vest, mostly leaving it to our imagination to consider what could be doing this. A coronor who ends up being a stand-in for the usual movie scientist briefly speculates on the nature of the creature. We eventually get a glimpse of it before Burt Young blows it to smithereens, which then scatter about and regenerate into a bunch of little Blood Beach creatures. There was no Blood Beach 2 forthcoming to tell us the continuing story. Instead, Tremors will be along in ten years for the definitive take on the genre of underground monsters, of what lurks beneath. But what Blood Beach managed was a weird iteration on the mythology of quicksand, also a fixture of my childhood fears, as a hungry creature that will eat you alive.