After killing your Star Wars dreams, Rian Johnson likes to unwind with Pokemon Go

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That’s a pretty straightforward commercial for the upcoming Pokemon Go Fest 2020. No subverting expectations there, unless you look behind the lens. The ad was directed by Rian Johnson, previously seen upending the locked room mystery genre in Knives Out and making old Luke Skywalker aggressively milk a space walrus in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“As a longtime Pokemon trainer, it was a real pleasure working with Niantic on this spot.”

Pokemon Go Fest 2020 is a virtual affair this year. It begins on July 25th.

Seven Reasons I Keep Trying to Play Shadow Empire

, | Game reviews

There are a lot of reasons to stop playing Shadow Empire.  I’ve hit many of them several times over.  The most common is that I don’t understand how something works, but I didn’t realize I didn’t understand until it was too late.  Maybe I built some expensive structure that took several turns of saving up resources, and then several turns of actual building, and now it doesn’t work like I thought it would.  Maybe I move my armies into position for an attack, and now they’re decimated because the supply rules are impenetrable.  Maybe I get into a sudden economic death spiral when I didn’t even realize why I suddenly ran out of food.  Who’s eating all my food?  Maybe I simply can’t figure out how all these numbers are supposed to line up.  Why are these numbers here if I’m supposed to simply take them on faith without even understanding what they mean?

Among other reasons to stop playing Shadow Empire are the torturous interface, the primitive graphics, the slow turn processing, and the uneven documentation.  

But there are also lots of reasons to start playing Shadow Empire again.  Most games that are easy to quit playing are also easy to not play again.  That’s not true of Shadow Empire, an (overly?) complex combination of hardcore operational level wargame, intertwined with a King of Dragon Pass style leader management game, played atop a sci-fi 4X.  Every time I’ve quit playing, I’ve picked it back up.  Here are some of the reasons:

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The Top Ten Games of 2020 (so far!)

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Now that we’re officially in the second half of 2020, it’s time to look back at the first half of 2020 and consider which of the games released so far are the best.  Because that’s what calendars are for.  They exist to arbitrarily group newly released videogames into time periods in which they’re pitted against each other on top ten lists for people to argue about on the internet.  It’s the whole reason the Romans or Mayans or whoever invented calendars.  Shame they couldn’t stick around long enough for videogames to get invented and fulfill the purpose of their calendars.

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Skins are coming to Halo: Combat Evolved

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When Halo 3 is added to the Master Chief Collection on PC, cosmetic skins will be added to it as well as to Halo: Combat Evolved. For Halo: CE, this will include weapon skins, visor colors, and vehicle skins. The June update from 343 Industries lays it all out, including a deep dive into how audio works in the legacy Halo titles and why it’s taken so long to get that pesky audio glitch in Halo: Reach corrected. But we’re not here for sound! We want to know about the Master Chief with a pink visor.

“We wanted to bring a greater level of customization to the games that didn’t have as many customization options for armor sets so players can have their uniqueness in each game.”

Fret not, purists! There will be an option to toggle them off so you don’t have to see the hot rod paint jobs on Warthogs or “squirt” rifle decals. Ominously, the studio is looking at further ways to spice things up.

“This season will have some content that’s available for any title, like nameplates, but the customization items will be focused on Halo CE, and we are looking in the future seasons to add customization items to other titles as well.”

Who knows what’s next for the game? Emotes? Sprays? Victory poses? Celebrity voice announcers? Combat evolved!

Amazon’s Crucible is going back to the warehouse

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You probably don’t remember Crucible, the free-to-play team shooter from Amazon Game Studios, that came out on May 20th. It’s okay. Amazon wishes everyone would forget. By the few reviews available of it, the game was pretty bad. Even though it officially launched as a 1.0 release, and not as an early access title, most accounts characterized the game as a buggy, sloppy, unfinished mess that wasn’t all that interesting to play.

“For the most part, your experience as a Crucible player will stay pretty much the same while we’re in beta.”

Amazon is pulling the game from the public eye and putting it back into closed beta. If you’re interested in checking out what’s there, you have until tomorrow at 9AM Pacific to download the client. After that, the game will disappear from Steam‘s store and only people that played it prior to the cutoff will be able to continue playing, at least until the developers are ready to put it back in the harsh light of day. It’s all part of a previously announced plan to right a ship that came out of dry dock already listing to one side.

I just set a new record for time-to-uninstall in Civilization VI

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I saw a blurb on Steam about a new zombie faction in Civilization VI as part of Red Death, which is some sort of battle royale mode. The zombies have unique horde powers, which sounds about right. So, I figured it was time to reinstall Civilization VI again and see how it’s coming along. And it turns out that, yep, it’s just a battle royale mode in which units walk around and punch each other. The godawful one-unit-per-tile tactical combat jammed into a last-man-standing match, and each faction has some sort of jokey special ability. Civilization VI, which arguably works as a city-builder, stripped of the part that works. Why is this even in here?

While Googling how to set it up as single-player game, I came across a Red Death Wiki entry, which begins:

“Originally conceived as an April Fools’ joke…”

You don’t say. 

I did notice a variety of different “rulesets” for multiplayer games. A two player duel over the Nile, a Cold War arms race with nuclear weapons, Vikings trying to amass the most wealth, that sort of thing. They looked intriguing, and I was briefly tempted to try one of them before I came to my senses and realized that would mean playing Civilization VI.

Worst thing you’ll see all election year: Irresistible

, | Movie reviews

You’d think Jon Stewart would know better.  But then you watch Irresistible and you realize he doesn’t.  As a director and writer, Stewart seems sadly out of his depth in this facile misguided political comedy.  I use the term comedy loosely, since the jokes are flatter than the Wisconsin farmland where they die with a thud.  The humor includes lots of Steve Carell leaving the frame and then — ha ha! — having to return to the frame.  Or Carell making a lewd gesture and then — ha ha! — realizing an old lady has seen him do it.  Or Carell just nattering haplessly.  Is Carell doomed to play Michael Scott for the rest of his career?  Can we please get more stuff like his canny interpretation of Donald Rumsfeld in Vice?

Irresistible is the story of a small town mayoral race in rural America, Heartland, USA.  That’s the title card.  No joke.  “Rural America, Heartland, USA.”  The election captures national attention as it draws big time political operatives played by Carrel and Rose Byrne.  Carrel’s supposedly savvy political operative routinely forgets people’s names.  As he flies into Wisconsin to recruit a candidate, he’s reading the Wikipedia page for Wisconsin.  These seem like the opposite of savvy, but it just goes to show how desperate Irresistible is for laughs.  Byrne stands around looking blonde, brittle, and inanimate, presumably doing a Kellyanne Conway impression.  Mackenzie Davis scores the most thankless role as a blushing farmer’s daughter who gets to be the voice of indignation in the third act when one of the campaigns — gasp! — dares to run a dirty attack ad.  

But where Jon Stewart really disappoints, and where he should definitely know better, is in the strained political element of Irresistible.  I’m not sure there’s a message here.  It feels like an attempt at a sweetly optimistic political fable from the time of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Why does it make a point of opening on the morning after Trump’s election?  What is it doing here and now, in these cruel times?  What does it have to tell us about anything contemporary, or even relevant?  “Democrats are getting our asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you,” Carrel tells the salt-of-the-earth lily-white rural voters standing in front of the town’s boarded-up storefronts.  You can all but feel their economic anxiety.  It’s all so naive, glib, and sickeningly saccharine.

And worst of all, at a certain point, Stewart decides he wants Irresistible to be about something else.  It’s as if he realized he didn’t have a point, so he changed his mind to make the movie about that thing instead.  A sudden plot twist is a weird way to deliver a pandering and sanctimonious lecture about the election process, but I’ll give it credit for one thing.  It reminded me it’s time to re-watch Michael Ritchie’s brutal and timeless 1972 political procedural The Candidate.  So thanks for that, Irresistible.

A new member of the family joins Children of Morta

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That’s Apan on the left. She just rode into Children of Morta on a dragon and added herself as a new playable character. When she’s not partaking in the game’s seriously good pixelated action RPG action, she sets up an ornate backdrop in the Bergson household’s main foyer and dances around in front of it, recreating myths and legends from the far north. Sort of like when your favorite crazy aunt comes to visit.

The Top Ten Solitaire Boardgames of All Time

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So you’re sitting at your dining room table and there’s no one else there to play boardgames.  What do you do?  Glad you asked, because I have ten suggestions. 

Some of the usual suspects will be conspicuously missing.  You won’t find Mage Knight here.  You certainly won’t find Gloomhaven.  You won’t find a lot of dungeon crawlers, although if you did, they would be curios like Deep Madness and Space Cadets: Away Missions.  You won’t find a lot of Euros.  You won’t find a lot of regular multiplayer games with bots or automatas or whatever scant claim to solitaire play someone dumped into the box.  What you will find are games that were designed from the ground up for solitaire play.  Or cooperative play, which is what you call it when you force your friends to play parts of a solitaire game for you.  

I considered arranging them from one to ten, but then decided to just arrange them alphabetically, but then decided that defeats the whole point of a list, so what was I thinking?  So I hurriedly ranked them one to ten.  Please don’t challenge me on the ranking, because it’s a frail edifice that will collapse with the slightest push.

Also, a brief confession: I almost tried to get away with a top eleven by including Kingdom Death Monster.  However, I’m in the middle of a crisis of faith with that game because of the miniatures.  I love the basic gameplay loop of fighting a brutal monster, crafting stuff from its remains, and then resolving a settlement phase, in which terrible and wonderful things can happen.  The monster fights are a masterclass in how to transcend the usual “punching each other’s hit points away”.  But having to assemble the miniatures is such an obstacle to playing that I’m currently considering a mini-ectomy, in which I chuck all the miniatures and just use meeples for my characters and Skylanders for the monsters (what else am I going to do with all these Skylanders?).  So my relationship with Kingdom Death Monster is in a bit of a strange place.  I’m not ready to put it on any lists at this point.  Well, not ready enough to turn a top ten list into a top eleven list, at any rate.

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Not the worst thing you’ll see all week: A Good Woman Is Hard To Find

, | Movie reviews

There’s a point in these movies, usually fairly early, when the protagonist should really just call the police.  You know the movies I’m talking about.  The ones where a bad decision leads to a violent thriller.  A Good Woman Is Hard To Find, an Irish “bad decision leads to a violent thriller”, sets itself up nicely enough.  We meet the lead character, we understand just enough about her to understand her first bad decision or two, and then things get underway.  At which point she runs roughshod over about five or six times when she should really just call the police.  She doesn’t, of course, because that would cut short the running time.

Once you accept that the script simply won’t allow for calling the police, you’re in pretty good hands because Sarah Bolger carries the movie far more capably than her pretty looks might suggest.  As she navigates the downward spiral of bad choices, she wears her vulnerability well, looking tired and wan and terrified.  And when it comes time for the pay-off, courtesy of a handful of absurd contrivances, she gets where she needs to go with steely-eyed clarity and strength.  A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (I suspect the title is simply a matter of Flannery O’Connor being an awfully Irish name) is directed with bursts of audacity and far too many drone shots of Belfast, but it’s ultimately about watching Bolger carry a mediocre script.  A good woman might be hard to find, but as long as you’ve found an actress as good as Bolger, your movie will be fine.

Movie streaming in Fortnite is going to be a thing

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Get used to it, Gramps. The kids love Fortnite and it’s the hub of their entertainment world. Back in the good old days, the youngsters would watch videos on YouTube, but that’s long gone. Fortnite is the place to go if you want to capture the youth market. A pre-movie event for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker was only available in Fortnite. Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Tenet trailer debuted in Fortnite. Celebrities play Fortnite to show how hip and cool they are.

Now, Fortnite will stream three movies in its Party Royale island. Depending on where you live, you’ll get one of three Christopher Nolan films streamed in your region on June 26th. The movies are The Prestige, Batman Begins, and Inception. Unfortunately, US residents get Inception, while Canada gets the superior The Prestige. The event will mark the first time a full movie is played in Fortnite. Attend so you can tell your grandchildren you were there too.

Throw aside your prejudices against orcs and dark elves in Dungeons & Dragons

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Wizards of the Coast is revamping the way races are depicted in Dungeons & Dragons. Take orcs, for example. An evil homogeneous race of humanoid green-skinned barbarians no more, according to the blog post. Orcs have feelings and motivations. In fact, they are as complex and diverse as humans. It’s all part of a strategy to be more racially and culturally sensitive throughout the game system.

“We will continue that approach in future books, portraying all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.”

Wizards of the Coast is dedicated to more diverse hiring, and they’re working with consultants to vet their products and make sure they’re not inadvertently perpetuating harmful stereotypes. The studio is committing to correcting past misdeeds by updating long-time favorite publications.

The studio acknowledged that the Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation adventures contained unfortunate depictions of people that have been corrected in upcoming reprints. Kobolds, of course, are still dog-faced little twerps.

Dozens of Mixer fans are about to get Facebook Gaming accounts

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Microsoft is closing down Mixer. Beginning today, Microsoft will transition the hundreds of Mixer accounts left to Facebook Gaming, with the absolute switch occurring on July 22nd. It’s a radical move meant to support Microsoft’s Project xCloud system which is integral to the Xbox Series X and Xbox Game Pass strategies moving into the next generation.

Microsoft acquired Mixer in 2016, and integrated it into the Xbox ecosystem shortly afterwards. Despite a concerted marketing push, people just weren’t into Mixer. The big money exclusivity deals Microsoft cut with top tier streamers like Ninja and Shroud just last year ended up as nice paydays for those talents, but the audience did not come with them from competing sites. While the Twitch and Facebook Gaming streaming services saw audience numbers and hours viewed rise significantly during the COVID-19 crisis, Mixer has remained relatively flat.

Who cares about the Force when Star Wars: Squadrons has bobbleheads?

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I’m a sucker for tchotchkes in cockpits. The idea of customizing the console of my long-haul truck or P-51 Mustang with stickers, fuzzy dice, or pictures makes me warm all over. The king of useless dashboard toys is the bobblehead, and I love slapping one down in a high-performance vehicle. Put one in a No Man’s Sky spaceship? Sure. Put one in an Incom T-65B X-Wing Space Superiority Fighter? Oh, it’s on.

Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: Squadrons may end up being a boondoggle with a subpar single player campaign and it might launch stuffed to the brim with microtransactions, but look at the cockpit customization! I can forgive almost anything with a good bobblehead.

Hopefully, it won’t take 25 years to get Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge 2

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December 17th, 1995 was the air date for Marge Be Not Proud, the 11th episode of The Simpsons’ 7th season. In it, a clueless Marge buys Bart a copy of Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, and she expectantly looks on as he hides his disappointment at not getting the infinitely more awesome sounding Bonestorm game. (To drive the point home, the episode’s end credits play over a clip of the snooze-worthy golf game.) Decades later, the internet would use the pivotal scene as the basis for a million memes.

Someone finally made Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge. You won’t have to shoplift it either. Aaron Demeter has thankfully uploaded his creation for free. You can play it here in your browser. Former Simpsons writer Bill Oakley has even given the game his seal of approval.