Damien and Ethan will be fine in The Division 2

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Kit Harrington was the guest host of the most recent Saturday Night Live, and while he gave an underwhelming performance as the main bad guy in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, he did fine as a needy NPC in the above sketch. The “new game” he’s supposed to be in isn’t specifically The Division 2 (there’s a zombie towards the end of the gag) but that hasn’t stopped Ubisoft from commenting.

“You’ll be happy to know that Damien and Ethan are now less chatty with our Invasion update. All hashed out!”

The Division 2 doesn’t actually have a Damien or Ethan that I know of, but I’d play a few missions like that in the middle of gathering widgets for the various bases. I assume a real effort to reconstruct a plague-ridden Washington D.C. would be filled with juggling drama queen personalities.

So you want to be a wargamer? Skip the plinky-dinky and go with Gettysburg

, | Game reviews

Ask a wargamer for a list of “introductory” wargames, and you’ll inevitably get a list of games that look remarkably like the games that person first played when starting in the hobby. Regardless of release date, these games have hexes, a limited number of units, and simple combat results tables, usually odds-based but sometimes just using differentials. The idea seems to be that if you just peel off all the special movement and overrun and supply rules, the simplest things for a new player to master are simply a bunch of hex-based combinatorial exercises.

The problem is that this looks at introductory wargaming from the perspective of a veteran, who has already assimilated the whole wargaming paradigm of force concentration and plinky-dinky factor counting, so stripping off all the “chrome” leaves a simply math puzzle that any grognard can immediately recognize. Unfortunately, for most normal people, the idea of arranging a bunch of chits so that exactly 21 “combat factors” are adjacent to that hex while another 14 are adjacent to that hex, while having to stay within the limits of a different “movement factor” printed on each unit seems like an impossible (and unpalatable) cardboard combat crossword, never mind trying to figure out what it all means. The Battle of the Bulge? What does that have to do with fitting two or three units in a hex that have numbers adding up to twelve?

If you ask Mark Herman what an introductory wargame is, you get a very concise and coherent answer.

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Best thing you’ll see while waiting for Netflix to screw up The Witcher: The Head Hunter

, | Movie reviews

The Head Hunter is pretty modest. But within the confines of what it’s trying to do, it’s entirely competent and even a bit haunting. It’s certainly better than director Jordan Downey’s Thankskilling movies, which were pranks on anyone dumb enough to watch them. Including myself, naturally.

But The Head Hunter is a sedate mood piece good enough to take itself seriously. Just be aware that you’re watching a short film given room to breathe. Room to sprawl toward feature-length. It’s a bit small for its 72-minute running time. But it uses the time wisely, dwelling lovingly on the production design for its homestead in a medieval countryside. When the call is sounded from a nearby castle, a monster somewhere needs killing. The things are everywhere. Flying overhead. Nosing about the window at night. The dude who lives here does the dirty work of keeping them contained.

The secret ingredient in The Head Hunter is the stately and hirsute Christopher Rygh. He cuts a fine figure under all that armor, and especially out from under it. As a dual class monster hunter slash apothecary who put a few points into necromancy, he’s not fooling around and he’s got the biceps to prove it. He is as somber and muted as the cinematography and no matter how silly that helmet looks, he plays it straight-faced and wild-eyed. Frankly, he deserves a bigger movie. Until then, he’s one hell of a way to fill out 72 minutes.

Planet Coaster’s next real ride is a double launch of thrills

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Frontier Developments has partnered with another amusement park to give players a recreation of a real roller coaster. Thanks to a deal with North Carolina’s Carowinds park, the next update for Planet Coaster will have Copperhead Strike added to the game for free. Copperhead Strike debuted in March of this year, and is the state’s first “double-launched” coaster, meaning it has a second powered launch midway through the ride, allowing for longer, more gravity-defying stunts. If this rendition is as good as the previous Steel Vengeance recreation Planet Coaster gave players, then virtual coaster enthusiasts will be getting a real treat. Plus, it’s nice to see some of the less famous amusement parks getting exposure.

Copperhead Strike will come to Planet Coaster on April 16th, along with the release of the Classic Rides DLC.

The secondary market for Starlink ships just got a boost

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Ubisoft is ending production of ships for Starlink: Battle for Atlas. The toys-to-life game fell below the publisher’s expectations, prompting the team to cease the manufacturing for the physical modular ship toys. According to the developers, content updates are still planned for the game, including digital ships, pilots, and weapons. The next large update includes more exclusive Star Fox missions for the Nintendo Switch version of the game.

This is your chance to escape to Alcatraz in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4

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Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout battle royale mode is getting a new map. Treyarch and Activision have announced Alcatraz, a smaller, tighter combat arena that they are calling “close quarters battle royale” to describe its mix of claustrophobic prison interiors and rocky island setting. Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage only had terrorists to deal with on The Rock, whereas Blackout fans will have to contend with zombies as well as hordes of enemies.

Alcatraz is available for the PlayStation 4 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 today. The new map will launch for other platforms later due to the marketing deal with Sony.

It’s time to play Snake as a train on Google Maps

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It’s April 1st, which means you’re going to find a lot of bull-puckey on the internet today, even with Microsoft banning pranks internally. What’s not a load of lies is Google’s free treat for everyone. Starting today, and through the rest of the week, you can play the classic game Snake on Google Maps. Just navigate to the user menu and select “Play Snake” and you’ll be running over people with a train in various locations in no time. That’s better than any dumb prank.

How are Borderlands’ SHiFT codes still a thing?

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One of the head-scratching decisions during the launch of Borderlands 2 in 2012 was the implementation of the SHiFT rewards program. Periodically, Gearbox Software, or its marketing partners, would publish codes that could be redeemed for in-game goodies. These rewards included Golden Keys that would exclusively open a Golden Chest in the hub town of Sanctuary. Every time a player opened the chest, it would give them high-level rare equipment – arguably some of the best stuff in the game. The idea was that the release of codes would keep fans engaged in a meta-game of seeking out and sharing codes in the real world.

Unfortunately, the Golden Keys were a balance problem. Why hunt for in-game loot when the best stuff could be had by plugging in codes? Sites like this one made it trivial to find codes, so it was easy to amass hundreds of Golden Keys. The in-game loot that dropped naturally off enemies, even bosses, rarely equalled the quality of Golden Chest contents, so who was going to waste time on the loot treadmill if they had keys to spare?

You’d think this issue would’ve been resolved by now, but Gearbox is apparently still keen on SHiFT rewards. During the announcement for Borderlands 3, the studio released codes good for more Borderlands 2 loot. (C3W33-RZ6ZJ-TFJ6C-TTJ33-RFHX5 for 100 keys, W3KJB-H9CBW-XRBRW-JTBTJ-9JRXK for 25 keys, and C35TB-WS6ST-TXBRK-TTTJT-JJH6H for an handful more.) They also announced that there will be codes specifically for the HD remaster of the first game launching on April 3rd. The studio seems committed to the SHiFT program, so I assume it will be used in Borderlands 3 as well. It’s a big assumption, I grant you that, but here we are in 2019 still copy-pasting codes to get loot.

Best thing you’ll see since you were a 10-year-old playing D&D: Hawk the Slayer

, | Movie reviews

Sure, we went nuts over Conan: The Barbarian, but it got less cool once all the dumbass jocks discovered Schwarzenegger action movies and lumped Conan in with that stuff.  The Terminator didn’t help. First Conan, and now a robot from the future? Schwarzenegger was the GURPS of action heros. Some of us were left with Beastmaster, starring a guy who looked more at home playing a doctor in a daytime soap opera.  No pet class barbarian looks like Marc Singer. Please. To be honest, we were mainly into it for Tanya Roberts. And the ferrets. The ferrets were cool. There was also Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoons. But there was something weird about those.  Something off. They came from some other state of consciousness we didn’t understand. A hangover from the 70s.

But our greatest cinematic joy as fantasy nerds of a certain age endures to this day.  It remains unknown to many. Unless you are among the initiated (i.e. you understood the GURPS reference), there’s nothing for you after the jump.  Move along. Nothing to see here. An enthusiastic review The Division 2 will be along shortly.

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Her Story gets an upgrade in Telling Lies

, | Games

Telling Lies, the sequel to Sam Barlow’s critically-acclaimed Her Story, looks like it had a much bigger budget than the original game from 2015. Instead of one full-motion video character, there’s four main ones in this game, played by Logan-Marshall Green, Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé and Angela Sarafyan. Instead of Viva Seifert staring into a camera while being interrogated, Telling Lies features anything a secret cache of surveillance footage might have recorded. Barlow jokes that the “game engine” can now handle exteriors.

Telling Lies launches later this year from Annapurna Interactive.

This is the end for Clementine in The Walking Dead

, | News

When Telltale Games shuttered at the end of 2018, beyond the tragedy of people suddenly losing their jobs, one of the practical issues for fans was the potential for The Walking Dead: The Final Season abruptly ending in limbo. Two episodes were released when the studio announced its bankruptcy and closing, putting the game in serious trouble. Luckily, Skybound Games came to the rescue, and with the help of many of the Telltale team, they were able to see it through.

This is it. The final episode of a journey that began in 2012. It’s perhaps appropriate that the game series ends properly only thanks to a miraculous resurrection.

Battlefield V Firestorm gets one thing right that almost no one else does

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Battlefield V’s Firestorm mode is live now. It features all the stuff you’d expect from a battle royale game from DICE. You drop onto a battlefield sans any weapons or equipment, madly scramble to get kitted up, then kill other players as a circle of death forces everyone into an increasingly smaller play area until only the final survivor (or team) remains. The Battlefield V wrinkle is that there are tanks and other armored vehicles to fight in and over, and most of the structures are fully destructible, which is as it should be since we’re talking about a series built on “levelution” and squads of players riding on camels. It’s a fine interpretation of battle royale, but it remains to be seen how well this Johnny-come-lately does against the already established heavyweights that are either free-to-play or have been around for months. Regardless of how its received by the audience, there’s one thing Firestorm does perfectly that none of the other games do well.

Firestorm takes its name from the apocalyptic ring of fire that encircles the battlefield. In other battle royale games, the circle of death is a technobabble contrivance that lays bare the gamey nature of the mode. It often has no basis for existing in the in-game fiction except it must exist to make the mode work. It’s a blue crackling field of energy controlled by some sadistic arena AI. It’s a red circle of radiation that pulses inwards because of reasons. It’s artillery that blankets the countryside. It may as well just be a pair of giant game designer hands that pushes players together. It’s not even much motivation to move! There are well-known tactics that depend on staying just outside of the safe area during the final moments of the match to maximize a player’s distance from the action. None of this is true in Firestorm. It’s literally a flaming circle, the aftermath of overzealous incendiary bombing, that destroys everything. Nowhere is safe. Houses and barns are chewed into spectacular conflagrations. Trees burst into match-paper kindling. Fire races along the ground, melting roads and reducing grass to ash. The visual and sound design of the storm is panic-inducing. Even if you could keep calm, being overtaken by the fire is a death sentence measured in seconds. That’s the other thing. It’s fast, unlike most danger zones in battle royale. The safe circle contracts at a breakneck pace once it gets going. No dawdling here! You move, or you get covered in fire. Firestorm is terrifying.

In Koushun Takami’s 1999 Battle Royale novel, the island the students are forced to fight each other on is divided into a grid, and being in a grid sector after it’s been declared off-limits results in an explosive collar decapitating the offender. The zones change a few times during the book, pushing the surviving students around the island’s geography and forcing them to engage. It’s a great system in the story, but too complicated for videogames which would need some intelligent grid sectoring to chase players around and would require too much of the players’ attention. The constricting circle of death we’ve settled on works well because it’s simple to understand, can be parsed quickly on a minimap, and is relatively easy to program. Firestorm takes that concept and makes it more than a barely motivating gameplay mechanic.