Tom Chick

Best thing you’ll see all week: Blow the Man Down

, | Movie reviews

You don’t see enough Greek choruses anymore.  At some point during the last few millennia, the Greek chorus fell out of favor.  So one of the first delights in Blow the Man Down is realizing that this New England noir about unlikely femmes fatale comes with a Greek chorus.  It opens with a bunch of sailors singing a rowdy sea shanty. They’ll be back, but not as often as I would have liked. And I’m not sure how relevant their sea shanties are to the narrative action.  But I appreciate the idea, and it’s emblematic of how Blow the Man Down has some great ideas, even if it does struggle to present them.

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Stanley’s Color Out of Space is more Lovecraft than Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space

, | Movie reviews

Warning: if you haven’t seen Color Out of Space, this review is basically one big spoiler.

Colour Out of Space is an odd fit among H.P. Lovecraft’s works.  It’s about ordinary people — farmers, to be precise — on whom something fell.  They were just going about their business, herding sheep and sowing crops and whatever farmers do, when a meteorite landed on their farm and infected everything with an alien presence.  They were driven insane and died and the land was barren from then on.  

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Entropy and empires collide in Sunless Skies, the best game of 2019

, | Game reviews

For all the points of the compass, there is only one direction.  And time is its only measure.

–Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The eye has a powerful thirst.  It will drink greedily and without reservation whatever pictures you put in front of it.  But words sneak past the greedy eye with their own secret pictures. Pictures that no one showed you, that no one else can see, that no one else will ever see.  You, and the author of the words, and the words themselves conspired to create these secret pictures out of emptiness. The words are the breath breathed over the face of the black waters and what happens next is no less than the act of creation.  

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The 2nd best game of 2019: Control

, | Features

After I finished playing Control, I wrote one of those snooty reviews that talks a lot about subtext and themes and the designer’s possible motivations.  Basically, stuff that doesn’t include potentially helpful consumer information like a description of the plot, how many hours it takes to beat the game, and whether the graphics are visually stunning.  But as I’ve gone back to Control to finish up some loose ends, I’ve noticed that some of my favorite things are things I might not even have realized at the time because I was too busy mulling over national character and whatnot.  So here are a few addendums to the review. Some things I really appreciate about Control as I go back as a completionist instead of a tourist.

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The 3rd best game of 2019: One Finger Death Punch 2

, | Game reviews

Fighting games are a form of puppetry.  You pull the strings, an insensate doll animates, videogame violence ensues.  Most of the puppetry has gotten really complex because most of the puppeteers have gotten really good, and therefore more demanding.  They expect long deep learning curves and literal split second timing. Those learning curves get deeper and that timing gets more precise as brawlers like God of War and Devil May Cry lure away the more casual players like me.

But One Finger Death Punch believes we should all be puppeteers.  

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The 4th best game of 2019: Void Bastards

, | Game reviews

Sometimes when you’re playing The Swindle, a steampunk heist game with cool steampunky progression to pull you through procedurally generated heists, you get a gimme.  A lightly defended computer stuffed with cash, right next to the entrance, with only a couple of robot guards strolling by on their preset patrol paths. Knock out the robots, hack a couple of thousand quid out of the machine, and beat feet back to your airship pod.  With that kind of gift laid at your feet, there’s no question of pushing the risk/reward calculations any further. With pockets that full, why risk running deeper in to scoop up whatever change is lying around on the floor?

But other times, you get a network of defenses sealed tight behind brick walls, swarming with guards, festooned with landmines, eyed jealously by overlapping cameras wired to alarms.  No point bothering. Make do with the scant money you found in the foyer and call it a day. The procedural generation giveth, the procedural generation sometimes don’t giveth.

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5th best game of 2019: Age of Wonders: Planetfall

, | Game reviews

It’s been 25 years since I was captivated by Simtex’s Master of Orion and Master of Magic games.  Since then, no one has understood Simtex’s appeal to my imagination as well as Triumph Studios with their Age of Wonders series.  After wallowing luxuriantly in rich (if somewhat generic) fantasy, hammering away at their design like a dwarven smith banging on a mithril battle axe, they’ve pivoted to science fiction.  With Planetfall, they’ve given me everything I want in a 4X, but this time with robots, lasers, alien bugs, hovertanks, extradimensional threats from beyond the galaxy, all that jazz.

But this isn’t science fiction among the stars.  It’s planet-bound, and to Triumph’s credit, that’s clear in the name.  This is hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, itself a vividly reimagined science fiction version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.  You won’t be mastering Orion because Orion is a star. You will instead be mastering Ringworld, Hyperion, Hoth, Pandora.  

And Triumph makes it look easy, because they understand how simple it is to make a great 4X.  Just put interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place.  That’s all there is to it. I mean, duh. Right?

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6th best game of 2019: Field of Glory: Empires

, | Game reviews

As soon as you boot up Field of Glory: Empires, you can tell what you’re getting.  Just look at that patchwork map with those little armies standing around. Look at all those numbers and tooltips and region labels.  Looking at the adoringly historical spreadsheet propping it all up. This is a clone of a Paradox game.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Almost all strategy games are based on either the Sid Meier’s Civilization model or the Paradox spreadsheet model.  Consider Aggressors: Ancient Rome, which covers the same part of the world during the same time period as Empires (the ancient Mediterranean is a popular playground second only to World War II).  Aggressors hews so closely to the Civilization formula that it can feel a bit like Civilization, but with an arbitrary cutoff date before you get to the fun stuff with caravels, gunpowder, and railroads.  It raises the question, “Why aren’t you just playing a Civilization?” The answer, of course, is that you want more historical specificity, and that’s what Aggressors has to offer in its Civilization-shaped package. But will that answer work for Field of Glory: Empires when Paradox already has games with the same historical specificity?

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7th best game of 2019: Phoenix Point

, | Game reviews

You can play X-com for the first time exactly once.  And what a precious time that once. All the mystery and uncertainty, the danger, the discovery, the horror of what those weird little aliens were doing to our cows.  Our innocent cows! What else were they up to? What would you reveal when you finished researching this thing that you found? What startling discoveries would you make on the UFOpedia?  What new powers and weapons would your soldiers carry down the ramp of the Sky Ranger? What horrific things would happen out in the field? What was out there, in the darkness, just outside the range of your flare?  And what is that? You’ve never seen one of those before!

Even after Firaxis picked up the mantle and applied lessons learned from a decade or so of game design, it was a reboot of some of the same mysteries, the same settings, the same aliens, the same weapons.  It was familiar territory, which is partly the point of a reboot. UFOs invading Earth is old-school comfort food, familiar and delicious. Even XCOM 2’s slightly forced concept of a rebel uprising against conquering aliens was mostly familiar.  New words for the same concepts.

Then there’s Phoenix Point.

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