Allow me to introduce you to Ramiro Vazquez. Reader, this is Ramiro. Ramiro, reader. Ramiro is a member of a small nameless organization hidden deep underneath the machinery of government, yet profoundly involved in the affairs of state. A “deep state”, if you will. Our secret brotherhood pulls the strings that run the world. Yes, it’s a brotherhood. We don’t allow girls into the club. This is the 1600s. Think of it as a pre-Kassandra Ubisoft game.
Heavy Metal was a 1981 anthology of very R-rated short animated films based on the sci-fi/fantasy magazine. It was infused with enough nudity, gore, and profanity — albeit animated — to keep a 15-year-old boy riveted. But after the titillation wore off, the part of Heavy Metal that stuck with me the most was a segment called B-17, about the ill-fated crew of a World War II bomber. I was really into B-17s. I had built models of them. Sure, I was partial to the B-25 (remind me to tell you about a solitaire boardgame called Enemy Coast Ahead), but the B-17 was a legend. It was an icon of American resolve and fortitude.
I didn’t like The Crew 2. At all. But that was two years ago, when it was initially released, minus all the cool stuff that comes with seasons passes, paid DLC, and free updates. Presumably, Ubisoft has been hard at work on their flagship driving game. So let’s see what Ubisoft can do with two years of post-release support.
Greyhound, a Tom Hanks movie about an ill-fated destroyer captain trying to protect merchant ships from German U-boats in World War II, isn’t terrible because it’s historically loose and absurdly indifferent to realism. Actual World War II submarine combat would be a snooze-fest for people who watch Tom Hanks movies. Even more boring would be the perspective of the destroyer, which drives around and listens to the ocean and sometimes hucks giant bombs into the water. Destroyers aren’t even the ones getting shot at. So no one can blame a filmmaker for wanting to Hollywood it up a little, with submarines and destroyers firing broadsides at each other as if they were in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. With U-boats with actual wolves painted on their conning towers. With German captains prank calling the Allies to make wolf howling noises. Because wolf packs, you see. Not every submarine movie can be Das Boot, and not every submarine movie should be.
It’s also not terrible because Hanks seems to be phoning it in. He spends most of the movie passing orders down a chain of command, often over a literal phone. I suspect he’s trying to sound officious when relaying messages, but he instead sounds like someone doing a bad imitation of how robots are supposed to talk. That Mr. Rogers movie must have really taken it out of him. But Hanks’ flat performance actually works in the context of the movie, because this isn’t Sully. This is a guy who seems like he’s not very good at his job. Regardless of the historical incident, Greyhound portrays its hero as someone uncertain and morose who’d rather be somewhere else as German subs kill all his dudes. We can infer from some unnecessary scenes with Elizabeth Shue as his…daughter?…oops, nope, I called that wrong. We can infer from Elizabeth Shue as his soon-to-be-bethrothed where that somewhere else might be. The script does wag its finger at some plucky British destroyer captains who have a tendency to wander off, but it mostly comes down to a guy who can’t control his fleet and feels really bad about it. No wonder he talks like a robot.
What makes Greyhound a terrible movie is that it has no sense of how to be a movie. It has no structure. It is a series of poorly shot and edited action sequences, all indistinguishable from each other, separated only by brief scenes of Tom Hanks forgetting breakfast or being kind to a seaman or asking for his slippers. Then it’s right back to a bunch of random swooping CG of ships breaking through the waves shooting at something, intercut with Tom Hanks giving an order, quick shots of markings on navigational charts, and sometimes a little screentime for one of the younger actors to look scared or confused. Dramatic music explains that this is all very exciting, very tense. But because Greyhound has no idea how to tie it all together, and most conspicuously no idea how to integrate CG with live action, it just feels like a rough cut of a pitch for a movie. If you’re going to Hollywood it up, you have to know how to Hollywood.
This used to be a video. I would ask my $10 or more Patreon supporters to request reviews. Then I would sit in front of a video camera, read the requests, offer a counter-recommendation for each of them, and draw a winner. But my ability to do video is limited these days, so as you can see, this is not a video.
On one hand, that’s a shame, because I liked to think of these as informal conversations. “Hey, you should check this out and write about it,” you would say, and I would reply, “You know, that makes me think you might be interested in this other thing.” I guess they’re still informal conversations, but written. On the other hand, perhaps written is better. Perhaps written is more accessible to people who wouldn’t watch a half hour of some dude holding forth in front of a camera. Perhaps written means the reader can just skim along until something catches his eye.
At any rate, here are the review requests from my $10 and up Patreon supporters in July. I hope you enjoy these as much as I do. I like to think of them as lists of the cool things Quarter to Three’s supporters are into. As you’ll see, we’re an eclectic bunch. I learn a lot from these.
In case it’s not clear from the formatting, everything after the Patreon supporter’s name is what he or she has written, and then everything after the word “counter-recommendation” is my reply. There will be a video drawing of the winner posted tomorrow, followed by a review posted within 30 days. And shortly thereafter, we’ll do it all over again!
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My concern about any follow-up to Turbo Killer, Seth Ickerman’s music video for Carpenter Brut’s song Turbo Killer, is that it will include people talking. At which point, it might collapse back into the soil from which it was grown: the B-movies from the 80s that were mostly bad, but colorful and sometimes fascinating, but still mostly bad. In other words, Beyond the Black Rainbow, or Mandy. Which are colorful and fascinating, but missing entirely the distilled power of Turbo Killer’s appeal. Colorful and fascinating — this usually includes self-indulgent — can only get you so far. Once people start talking, once characters start developing, once room is allowed for drama and decisions and actors, once time slows and four minutes turns into forty minutes and then ninety minutes…at that point, style is not enough. At that point, you’re investing in a story instead of riffing on a feeling.
You can tell a diver whose mask doesn’t fit by the ring pressed into his face after a dive. The angry red crease along the shallow skin of the forehead, then down around the outer edges of his eyes, into a furrow through the soft flesh of the cheek, and finally cupping the nose to bisect the philtrum. If it’s a guy, and he shaved that morning, and you’re all on a salt water dive, he’s really feeling it. He’s feeling the burn on his upper lip even when the mask is off, and especially when it’s back on. That maddening chafe, and more maddening still that the water kept getting in, up his nose, into his eyes, no matter how tightly he pulled the band at the back of his head.