Review: The Dark Knight Returns 1 and 2 Animated Film

I disliked this animated film. It felt like a very botched adaptation of Frank Miller's masterpiece.

Out of the voice cast, the only ones I think they got right are Michael Emerson as the Joker and Ariel Winter as Carrie Kelly. Those two really nailed it. Peter Weller's voice is so flat and smooth and monotone that he just sounds like... well, like a robot. He doesn't sound like an old Batman, who I figure would be more rumble-y and coarse. Gordon's voice actor was also a wrong choice, because I felt he sounded like someone's elderly grandmother. It was oddly high pitched and feminine. Just didn't sound right.

Right from the get-go, I could tell that the production was off. The opening scene of Bruce racing the Neumann 500 looked like it was out of a damn video game. The CGI race cars just looked so cheap and primitive and awful, it was insane. You could tell that they just did not have a budget to pull it off. Came out looking horrible.

Again, like I said before, Peter Weller's Batman voice just doesn't sound good at all. It's even and flat and you don't get much emotion out of it. Old Batman shouldn't sound like RoboCop.

There's odd stylistic choices that just don't jibe with what I know of the story. For example, in this adaptation, Martha Wayne looks like a blonde bimbo trophy wife for some reason? That made no sense to me and just felt distracting. It was certainly not that way in the Miller comic.

You get lots of scenes that are directly lifted from the comic, but they're delivered shoddily and lose so much of the impact that they had in the comic. For example, the weatherman delivers the line "Like the wrath of God, about to hit Gotham..." in a disengaged, casual tone. There's nothing real or revealing behind that delivery. On the other hand, in the actual comic panel, the weatherman utters the line "Like the wrath of God it's headed for Gotham..." with this solemn worried expression on his face, as if he can feel the very thunder in the angry night announcing his presence.

Indelible moments and lines from the graphic novel are inexplicably toned down and lose their original intensity. When Batman goes after the robbers after their car crashes into the construction site, he turns to the cops and loudly declares "THESE MEN ARE MINE!" in a big booming voice. In the comic, at least. In the animated movie, Peter Weller states "These men are mine" in a flat and almost bored delivery. It just loses all of its punch and power. Disappointing.

When Batman and Two Face crash through the side of the skyscraper, there's a wonderful shot in the comic of lightning lighting up the darkness of the room. Yet in the film, this is completely removed and we're left with regular dark lighting. Just one more example of how shoddy and low budget this project was. The ending of the whole scene was also changed. In the original, Batman embraces Harvey in an emotional moment. In the movie, this is changed into Batman just standing there awkwardly. There's no reason for it and it hurts the resolution of the scene. I don't like it.

The scene where Batman glides down onto the television studio and has to take on Yindel and the GCPD is a great example of how they completely botched the execution and created something ridiculous and stupid instead. In the comic, Batman glides down and immediately takes cover behind a wall and throws out his smoke pellets, completely obscuring the entire rooftop in a haze and enabling him to move out and take out the police through concealment. In the animated movie, this doesn't happen and he just runs around in full view of the police riflemen, casually knocking them out one by one while they all have clear shots and lots of time to shoot him dead, but somehow don't. It's completely unbelievable and loses all sense of reality. Instead of marveling at Batman's ingenuity and tactics, we're just astounded by the GCPD's stormtrooper-esque marksmanship skills. It's a laughingstock of a scene and completely took me out of the movie.

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Review: Sicario 2

I just watched it the other day and could not believe how bad it was. A complete shambolic bollocking, as the Brits would say.

The movie has no real central idea to convey. The first movie, which I loved, had a very simple, very basic idea that it laid out in its final line: “you are not a wolf, and this is now the land of wolves.” There’s absolutely nothing like that in the sequel. Instead it feels like a half-assed attempt with half a script cobbled together to string along a series of events that happen in a sequence. There’s four or five ideas that they just seemed to cram together into this one movie, each one completely undeveloped.

First, it’s the idea of the CIA creating a drug war between two cartels. Hey, that’s a pretty interesting, compelling idea for a movie about the border. If they just went with that idea and followed it through to the end, I figure they’d at least end up with an okay movie. But then the ambush happens and they drop it.

Then we go on to the idea of Alejandro bonding with the cartel daughter and deciding to protect her. But it’s not enough. We just see them stumbling upon a dead guy and using sign language. Nothing happens to allow us to understand why Alejandro now cares about this girl. Remember, this was a guy who had absolutely no problem with wasting some cartel leader’s children in the first movie. We’ve already established this about his character. We need to be convinced that this girl is different and why she’s different in his eyes. But we never get it. There’s no reason why he now cares about cartel leaders children. It’s a question hard been in my mind since I first saw the trailers, and they never satisfactorily answer it.

Then we go on to the idea of Josh Brolin and his guys going up against Alejandro, which was heavily implied in the trailers. This is not really a new idea, of the two former friends/allies suddenly at odds with one another. It’s somewhat of a trope that’s been done countless times in movies. But hey, it can still make for an enjoyable and compelling movie. I’m not asking for the moon here. Yeah, I’m onboard to see Josh Brolin and Del Torro getting into it. But... the movie never delivers on this conflict at all. We think it’s gonna happen, and then... it’s dropped. Again, this is what I mean when I say they just cram a number of ideas into this one movie and never develop any of them. It’s insane how half-assed it all comes out feeling.

So then we move onto this one kid from the border who’s now started working for the illegal alien smuggling ring. At first he just seemed like a normal kid who’s doing this because of a bad influence and he wants some money. Okay, fair enough. But then he completely turns into an evil shit and blows Alejandro’s cover and even goes on to execute him. Wait, where did this come from? Why is he such a complete villain now? Didn’t see it coming. But okay, maybe that’s just how some people are. Then, after the execution, he’s riding on the truck and suddenly jumps off. No idea why. Maybe the movie is suggesting that he had a change of heart and regrets it? Maybe? It’s just bizarre and again the movie does nothing to explain this. I guess maybe he’s not that evil? But then a year later, we see him again and he’s all tattooed up with gang signs on his arms and he seems like a scummy gangster. Okay, so now... I guess the movie wants us to believe that he actually was an evil villain after all, even though he jumped off the truck? Wha? See, I’m getting whiplash from all the weird direction changes in this movie. But okay, now we see him get caught by Alejandro. But instead of getting killed for being an evil shit, Alejandro now... wants to recruit him? What? Why would he want to do that? I suppose you can argue that Alejandro had no way of knowing that the kid was the actual guy who tried to execute him with a shot to his head, but he still rattled him out and got him caught. This bizarre ending just didn’t make any sense to me.

And something I noticed was that Josh Brolin planted the grenades and the kitted out assault rifle for Del Torro to find later in the truck. That implies that Brolin knew Del Torro was still alive and wanted to help him out. But how did he know he was still alive? Didn’t he just see him get shot in the head in the drone footage? I’m so confused.

And see, all of these ideas just go nowhere, or result in odd and confusing conclusions. The first movie has one simple thing to say, and it said it. This movie has no real concrete idea to talk about, so we just get a bunch of incoherent babble. They just get dropped and cut off before they can be developed.

I actually liked the little girl actress, Isabella Moner. She was doing a good job in the first part of he movie and giving us some attitude and it worked. But then in the second half, she just goes completely mute and silent and nothing goes on with her and it’s just over. We don’t get to see the end of her story. She’s just whisked away into witness protection. Which makes zero sense, since in this case they’d be using the US government to give her witness protection from... the US government.

Catherine Keener was another waste. I thought she was gonna be pretty important as the shadowy government official who ends up as a villain or something. But they don’t do anything with her and she just disappears from the movie. Alejandro never confronts her... she’s just gone. Another interesting element dropped from the movie. What a waste of a great actress.

The movie just doesn’t work as a cohesive story. As I’ve outlined here, it’s a number of disparate elements that all awkwardly follow each other and none of them are given any care and attention and focus. It’s Things Happening the movie. I cannot believe they thought this would be a worthy sequel to a great movie like Sicario.

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BattleTech 2018: My thoughts on the campaign after watching streams for the past week, and ideas for the future

Ya know, when I first played XCOM back in 2012 (definitely the GOTY for me), I was marveling at the incredible gameplay, both at the micro and macro level, and thinking in the back of my mind "Man, wouldn't it be neat if this sort of game was made with BattleTech? Wouldn't that just be the most amazing thing?" But of course, it seemed like one of those pipe dreams. MechCommander 2 was ages ago and MWO hadn't come out yet. The license just seemed dead and buried.

And then when the kickstarter was announced with HBS, I was excited, but still in a somewhat reserved manner. I had picked up and played their Shadowrun game, with expectations of getting another amazing XCOM-like experience, but (and I apologize to any HBS employees reading this) it really didn't connect with me. I found it overall pretty dull and unexciting compared to XCOM's combat. So I just shrugged and moved on with my life. It was something that would hopefully turn out well, but I wasn't impressed with their track record.

Then I started to hear excitement brewing up with the backer beta that was coming out, and watched a couple youtube videos of gameplay, got excited for BattleTech again, started buying new sourcebooks and BattleCorps books (I'd stopped my involvement with tabletop after the Jihad arrived), and bought the backer kit. And I played the skirmish mode quite a bit, but the simplistic nature of it all, 4v4 Mechs clashing over and over again in these limited maps, soon got boring. And the way that the heat scale had been completely changed, and the very limited sight distance, also dampened my enthusiasm. I found myself thinking "Man, if the campaign is just gonna be this sorta skirmish combat thing, over and over again, but with some slightly added story... I'm gonna be so let down." The beta's skirmish mode was this very bare bones thing, and I was really setting my expectations low, because I really didn't know how much more they were going to do. They certainly hadn't shown anything in promos to indicate the campaign would be what it is today.

But now here we are today, watching Cohh's stream, seeing how it's all come together with this campaign that has seemingly taken the best of previous MechCommander campaigns, XCOM1/2's campaigns, and also a bit of roleplaying from Shadowrun, and made something so wonderfully BattleTech and cohesive and detailed and awesome... it's just an incredible surprise and delight. I was watching Cohh go through the contract system and Mechlab and management of the DropShip, and there's that feeling that said "Yes, the devs behind this game also had that exact same feeling that I had when they played through XCOM back in 2012!" It's like this instant connection across time and space. And again, in hindsight... maybe I was really foolish to look at the beta's Skirmish mode and think that the campaign would just be some shoddy thing thrown together on top of that. But at the same time, let's be honest here... HBS is a small studio, they are not a Firaxis. Firaxis is so much bigger and more established and so... I just wasn't expecting HBS to be able to pull off an XCOM-like campaign because of that. They were working off of a Kickstarter campaign, and not a huge publisher's funding like Firaxis. And I hadn't had a great time with their previous game Shadowrun.

Really just incredibly impressed with how it's all turned out.

Now, the one big worry that I do have after watching the stream is simply the starmap. To be short and simple: it's huge. There's probably something like a hundred or more planetary systems on that map that you can take missions from. Each with their own unique details like biome conditions and tech level and atmospheric conditions and whatnot. While that might sound great at first, it very quickly made my heart sink when I realized that there's simply no way that there could be enough premade maps in the game to support a hundred or more different planets. It's simply out of the realm of possibility, even though I know HBS is full of hardworking people. Firaxis made more than a hundred maps for XCOM1 and it still wasn't enough to keep people from getting tired of reused maps. I just fear that this same situation will arise in this game, when you go to your 56th new planet, with its detailed biome and environmental conditions and all plotted out on that starmap, and then drop down with your lance and realize that it's the same swampland map with the waterfalls that you've played 5 times already. That's just something that'll sting, I think. The starmap is so hugely ambitious and grand that I just feel like the limited mapset will let it down.

Now as to the future of the game: Well, I think the most obvious expansion ideas would be a singleplayer Solaris campaign, and the Clan Invasion. That's just the obvious thing that comes to mind. Going over to Solaris and eventually grinding your way to the top and becoming the Champion would be amazing (it was in MW4 Mercs). And you know that they wouldn't have to create too many map assets, since Solaris only has those five big Arenas. It'd really be more about the specific dueling mechanics and introducing environmental effects for the Arena, in order to make a single one vs one fight tactically interesting. Which I think they can do.

And then with the Clan Invasion, that's just a whole huge task to do right. Whether it's a standard Inner Sphere player vs Clans setup like we're used to, or if they choose to have the player as the Clan warrior invading the Inner Sphere, which would require intricate and well-designed bidding mechanics. There wouldn't really be that emphasis on contract payments and salvage like there is with the Merc gameplay (Cause I don't see Clans salvaging and using inferior IS tech), but I think there's definitely logistical requirements that the Clans have that could make for good macro-level mechanics for the campaign. Maybe you have to go back and fight off guerrilla forces on conquered planets every so often, just to put down insurgents and protect your logistical train. Things like that.

But those two are really big expansion ideas that will require a lot of effort and many new mechanics. I think if we're talking about an immediate new expansion pack for the game, it's gonna be something adding onto the vanilla Merc campaign. And what I would hope is for HBS to really lean in and leverage the Deep Periphery setting of the game. There are so many possibilities for strange and kooky things to encounter out there, because it is the Periphery. Something like the Vanishing Battleship of Merope... that's just weird. Have stuff like that happen ingame. Or a long lost Star League naval fortress, similar to Camelot Command from the BT animated series. It could be infested with pirates now. Really cool and out of the way gems like that, which will help break up the other 90% of the campaign where you're just landing on the usual planets and fighting Mech forces. Allow for that special and sporadic break in the action for something new. Other examples off the top of my head: long lost Castles Brian, filled with strange and wondrous sights and SLDF self-defense systems that have been corrupted by centuries of neglect. And then maybe encounters with a splintered off group of the Minnesota Tribe that has now turned to piracy, where you get inklings here and there of what they're about, but never fully find out the truth. That's the sort of stuff that will really appeal to us hardcore BT fans. We don't want the mystery solved, but just getting tantalizing hints of a deeper truth.

And another thing that this expansion could use: introducing new and more extreme environmental conditions. Just think about the really memorable hostile environs of BattleTech. I'm thinking about stuff like The Great Gash on Twycross. Or the Devil's Bath on Tukayyid. Stuff that's really amped up and challenging to fight through. I'm not suggesting that the maps be filled with them, because that'd get annoying real quick, but just sprinkle them in every now and then to shake things up. Kinda like how they did it with Volition's FreeSpace 2 (the finest space sim ever made) back in the day, where you'd get nebula missions every so often that would wreak havoc on your UI and targeting. Again, the goal is to leverage the amazing universe that BattleTech has and show new sights and sounds off for players.

Maybe even have hostile wildlife for certain random missions. I mean, there's an actual planet with real life dinosaurs (Megasaurs). Can you imagine a fun mission where they break out of their enclosures and you have to put them down? It wouldn't be terribly challenging of course, but it would serve as a nice easy break between tough missions, right?

Now, for something a little out there and more extreme... I was thinking the other day that if they wanted a really unique expansion pack, they could do one where the player plays as a member of ComStar's elite ROM covert ops. I remembered that there was that one time ROM disguised themselves as the Death Commandos and went on a failed raid on Hanse Davion's NAIS during the Fourth Succession War. That incident got me thinking about ROM's covert ops teams that would take on challenging missions like this. Why not have a whole expansion pack that allowed you to lead one of these and change the entire complexion of the game? Just like TIE Fighter back in the day, this would allow you to play as the "bad guys" and maybe get weird ComStar tattoos on your arm or something. Real sinister stuff, but in a really fun and creative way. It was always more fun to play TIE Fighter then X-Wing, because you were getting that new perspective of playing as the bad guys. And instead of doing things openly as a Merc, it would allow for new stealthy mechanics and gameplay, since you'd need to as ROM. Again, a lot of work for HBS, but I think it could be really cool if pulled off.

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Movie review: I, Tonya

Just came out of the theater. Overall... really really happy with this movie. The trailer had left me with high expectations, and the movie absolutely lived up to them.

The music was on point throughout. I just loved all the music choices they made to pump up the scenes and help provide that dark comedic atmosphere that this movie's clearly going for.

Ya know, as someone who was around for the real life drama at the time (I was around 9 or 10 year old), I knew that the dramatic scenes would be plentiful and well done, but I was skeptical about the skating scenes. I'm no figure skating aficionado or fan and just didn't know if they'd be anything interesting to watch as a moviegoer. And I've gotta take my hat off to them, they filmed the skating in creative ways that actually were visually interesting and kept my attention. Even with the triple axels, which I knew were done with CGI because they couldn't find any stunt skaters able to do them... I didn't notice the CGI a la Superman's upper lip. They looked fine to me.

Everybody did great jobs acting, especially Allison Janney as the mother. Though I will say that... at the end of the day, Margot Robbie is a beautiful woman, and they couldn't really hide that. Tonya Harding is a pretty... homely looking woman, so it was always a bit weird to see Robbie as her, because she's never going to be able to look as dumpy and white trash as Tonya was in real life. You're just not able to really see her as not being beautiful, because she is. Though she did do a great job with the accent.

I think the best part of the movie has to be near the end, when her mom comes to reconcile and says "I'm proud of you" and the whole thing just felt off to me. I'm sitting there going "Okay, this movie has done nothing to earn any of this and the mom's been a complete monster up to this point... why is this change happening now? This is going off the rails." And then you see what's in her pocket and why this is happening and it completely makes sense. I love it when a movie surprises you like that and subverts your expectations. That's what I'm looking for in movies.

At the end of the day, the whole movie is based off of these interviews with the various characters and it's not clear what you're meant to think about Tonya Harding. The movie doesn't make her out to be some glorified heroine. And it doesn't make her out to be the villain that the media's portrayed her as for so many years. It just presents the life of a very complicated, messy person and leaves you to make up your own mind about it. Just as all great movies do.

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Comics: Jupiter's Circle is Vastly Superior to Jupiter's Legacy

I've just finished reading through both series. For those who don't know, Jupiter's Circle is a prequel to Jupiter's Legacy. Both are written by Mark Millar as part of his independent superhero comics line. They're available in 2 volume trades.

I'm not gonna hold back, so here goes: JC gives me those same feelings that I had when I read Watchmen for the first time. It's a very similar experience. At the end of it, I'm incredibly uncomfortable, disgusted, disturbed, and feeling in need of a shower. It's a book that digs into you like that. But in a good way, I promise.

Of course, I'm not saying that this is the second coming of Watchmen. I'm not claiming that JC is as well crafted and as thoughtful and everything else. It's not Moore's Watchmen 2. So please don't expect such a work. I'm simply saying that JC deals with the same general ideas of deconstructing the superhero genre and generates a lot of the same feelings of uncomfortable-ness when you see these heroes go awry.

On the other hand, JL has the trademark Millar-isms that a lot of people criticize him for. He goes way over the top and generates lot of shocking moments that feel exploitative in that special Millar way. JC is much more toned down and the shocking moments feel much more natural and palatable IMO. JC also by sheer necessity can't be as shocking or viciously bloody in its moments as JL, simply due to the fact that it's a prequel series and Millar can't kill off all the characters that he needs for JL.

JL follows a lot of the "Standard Millar Story" and Millar tropes that readers of Millar are going to be familiar with. If you've read Wanted or Old Man Logan or a lot of other Millar books, it's going to be like deja vu. I'm getting kind of tired of em, to be honest. Someone's in hiding and getting chased by vast hordes of evil. There's a pivotal moment when the hero finally emerges and proceeds to kick serious ass in a "hell yeah" splash page. Millar even blatantly reuses a key scene from Old Man Logan that's incredibly shameless.

In JL, the two resolutions with the characters of Skyfox and Walter Sampson are incredibly disappointing. Now, Millar spent most of JL, as well as all of JC, building up Skyfox. He's building him up and we're all waiting in anticipation and then we finally get to see him back in action at the end of JL and... it's incredibly underwhelming and disappointing. Skyfox gets dispatched in about two or three panels? And the actual methods are incredibly vague and unclear to the audience, since Millar never really fully explained the powers and abilities of these new superheroes he's created. It's not clear cut like in DC, where we know that Superman is gonna have a bad day if he's shot by a kryptonite bullet, or if Martian Manhunter gets trapped in a forest fire. Skyfox is just somehow wrecked in three panels and we the audience never fully understand how it happened, so it all just feels like another cheap Millar shock moment.

Walter Sampson is the ultimate villain of the story and his resolution is just... ugh. It feels real dumb.

In contrast, Millar builds up a thread in JC that has an incredible payoff and makes sense. And that is the relationship between Utopian (Millar's Superman analogue) and his wife. We're treated to a detailed breakdown of his wife's life every morning and how things are and at the end it's all paid off and feels incredible. It's a look at Superman that has never quite been illustrated in that manner and felt like a revelation. But of course, this shouldn't be a surprise, Millar's a huge fan of Superman (Red Son, Superior).

In JC, the masterstroke by Millar has to be the event that splits Skyfox and the Union (the JLA analogue) apart. It's the best, most troubling element of the series and incredible to behold. What I love about it is how when you think about it and toss it around in your head... it becomes clear that (1) it is something that must have happened at some point in the history of a Justice League or an Avengers, and (2) it is something that DC and Marvel would never ever have the guts to publish. It's an event that is so human and inevitable. I mean, I've encountered something similar happening, while playing World of Warcraft. Yet it is a story that you'll never see in a DC or Marvel book. They would never dare to put their heroes in such a light.

The art style: I like JC's art very much, in that it evokes that sort of robust 1950s Darwyn Cooke look. It's bold and bright and perfectly fits with the time period. In that sense, you can think of JC as a sort of New Frontier if it all went horribly wrong in a Watchmen-like manner.

JL's art, on the other hand, is drawn by Frank Quitely, who I can't stand. His people all look horrible and lumpy and it doesn't work for me. I've never liked Quitely's art, and I probably never will. Personal preference here.

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Playing BSG Deadlock... I got the urge to watch the show for the first time. My impressions so far

So Deadlock is a rather fun turn-based strategy game and I've been playing it this whole Labor Day weekend. In the middle of it, I decided it might be a good idea to finally sit down and watch the show it's based on. Not the original 1976 show, I'd already caught most of the episodes of that one, but the new Sci-Fi Channel show from 2004. I'd watched the miniseries pilot back in the day and hadn't been impressed, but maybe now that I've played the game it'll work better.

First, the designs of the show have aged terribly. The CGI Cylon robot monsters look terrible in both their design and actual execution on the show. They look bad and the CGI looks bad. I don't know what they were thinking when they drew up these things and stuck them into the footage. It's a horrible design and not anywhere near as iconic and memorable as the classic Cylon suits from the original show. You kinda wanna just throw up your arms and sigh everytime they show up, because they completely break the immersion of the show and look fake as hell. And it's an especially odd feeling to see dozens of copy and pasted CGI Cylons standing next to Tricia Helfer in a fetching stylish red leather jacket and high heels. Very odd.

The Basestar looks horrendous and nonsensical. Why did they mess with such a good thing? The classic Basestar design from the original show had this nicely grounded, solid looking silhouette that was instantly recognizable and formidable, much like the Star Destroyer design from Star Wars. It was a powerful basic shape. The new Basestar design looks like this crazy tentacle monster ship that doesn't make any sense and looks awful from every angle. It doesn't "read" well on camera, as special effects people tend to say.

They don't delve all the way into the sci-fi universe of the show as much as I would've liked. When the BSG's soldiers show up, they're all wielding standard FN-P90s with contemporary scopes and silencers. Looks nothing like what you'd expect from a sci-fi show set in a distant galaxy. And the soldiers themselves are all dressed up in what you'd expect from any Canadian SWAT unit. The same helmets and goggles and pads and everything. It's all completely underwhelming and lackluster and feels out of place. This is what's great about shows like Star Trek... they use phasers that look like dustbusters. They're not using real life tools and weapons and clothing that takes you out of the setting.

The shaky cam (I believe they referred to it as "cinema verite") style is also very old and dates the show terribly. It's annoying and so comprehensibly stomps over all the shots in the show as this distracting element. It feels almost like a joke how often the scene will start with this excessive shaking and swaying and then zoom in on a close up. Some shows are just classic and can be watched over and over again and not ever feel dated, like Star Trek TNG. BSG unfortunately can't claim this at all, because of this crazy shaky cam. It's a shame.

Tricia Helfer's job description for this show must've been "look sexy and whisper seductively in this guy Baltar's ear." Cause that's what she does, and it feels excruciating and unnecessary and blatantly exploitative every time. I dunno if they think the audience is super horny or needs to get laid or what, but it's this constant bombardment of Helfer getting undressed or trying to kiss Baltar or Baltar trying to kiss her or Baltar jacking off or whatnot. It's just so irritating and unbearable for me that I've gotta fast forward through these parts. I mean, I thought ST Voyager's Seven of Nine was bad, but it's nothing compared to the awful stink of weird lewdness and lusty seductive whisperings that go on in every Baltar scene. I can't stand it, as a normal guy who likes porn but doesn't want it in his sci-fi shows.

And so I'm going along, and the episodes don't really make much sense to me, like how people are staying awake for five days straight, and yet not taking shifts so they can actually get some rest. That's just real bewildering and I dunno how they're actually flying around in Vipers every 33 minutes and making crash landings successfully after five days of zero sleep. It seems unlikely to me. But I go along and keep watching. But then I get to that one episode. And it might be one of the worst hours of television I've ever watched. And it's the episode where we're introduced to Colonel Tigh's slut of a wife. She's just a huge slut. And I dunno, I don't like this episode. It's just an hour of having to endure this huge slut that's going around and slutting it up and everyone being annoyed. And I dunno, I don't get it. It's not entertaining, I don't know why we needed to see this or meet this person. It's just hey... here's this old randy slut that Tigh somehow married. Oh, okay. Please kill me.

So Ron Moore worked on Star Trek TNG once it got good, and he's running this show as well. When I saw the independent tribunal episode, I thought to myself: Hey, this'll surely be a nice fun new twist and different take on the TNG episode "The Drumhead". That seemed like where it was going. But... nope, it ended up just being a redo of The Drumhead, without changing a thing. What a disappointment. There was nothing new said or gained or explored, it was literally just The Drumhead but in the Galactica.

And finally, I'm getting near the end of the first season, and it hit me that... really, I've been watching a ship full of assholes. The whole show is just this ship full of unlikeable assholes who do irredeemible acts and you can't root for and they might as well just die. Apollo and Starbuck get into some weird tiff over Starbuck sleeping with Baltar and so they just have a fistfight out on the hangar. Then Apollo actually goes and pulls a gun on Tigh during a tense military standoff. What is this? Who are these unlikeable, despicable people? Where did this come from? Apollo seemed like a normal, rational dude, but then all of a sudden you see him pointing a pistol at Tigh's head and he gets carted off to the brig. I mean, wouldn't this be treason and is he prepared to be executed? Cause I feel like that's what should happen. So now I can't be invested in anything that Apollo does for the rest of the show, because he went and made a colossal mistake that he should be executed for and it made no sense and I can't understand this character anymore. It's just bizarre. But that's the thing, the entire ship is full of these assholes and their unlikeable personalities and actions. How do you really root for these people? I mean, I get it that Ron Moore was quite stifled by the narrative limitations of Star Trek TNG and trying to make compelling drama with the optimistic future that Roddenberry envisioned. But he ended up doing it and we got great stories with these wonderful, warm, likeable characters on TNG. They felt like a welcoming TV family that we wanted to join, to embrace and journey with every week on a new adventure. I get the exact opposite feeling with the crew of the Galactica. These guys are a bunch of assholes that you don't like or understand or want to be around. And that's ultimately the main failure of the show. It's not the bad CGI Cylons or the obvious FN-P90s. It's the awful characters.

But hey... at least Deadlock is a lot of fun.

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Cover Art Appreciation: The Battle of Coventry by Les Dorscheid

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Of all the covers in Battletech books through the decades, my favorite might just be Les Dorscheid's reserved, understated cover painting for "The Battle of Coventry" scenario pack #1693. Now, Les is not my favorite artist for covers. That would probably be the famed Doug Chaffee, who's contributed so many gorgeous painterly pieces to the universe. Doug's art tends to emphasize the multiple layers of battle, combined with a lurid palette that glorifies every battle as a clash between titans. Wonderful stuff in my opinion.

But with Les's Coventry, there's a very tranquil and restrained touch that subverts expectations in the best way. As a piece of BT art, it's very much a contradiction in how serene it appears at first, before you notice the Shadow Cat's weaponfire, and glowy orange fires in the distant background. This contradiction is what gives the art its power and majesty, in my eyes.

The first thing that registers is the Shadow Cat marching calmly through the dense forest, keeping steady pace with the advancing Elementals in the foreground. The image is one of confident military precision, with the combined arms of infantry and Mech united in purpose and stride. Very much the picture of a well-oiled military machine, as we would expect from the Clans. The Elementals even look relaxed, with one in midjump, seemingly almost playful in tone. Most of BT's cover art portrays scenes that are tragic, dramatic, or distressed. Not so here.

The symbology that really stands out on a second glance are the birds of course, scattering in response to the arrival of these intruders. It can be seen as the natural world's reaction to this unfamiliar and foreboding presence, or the birds could be interpreted as harbingers of doom, signaling the advance of these Jade Falcons. Birds scattering in fear, or on the warpath? They're a really nice touch that emphasizes the central totem of the Clan, and the placement above an Elemental in flight is pretty much perfect.

Overall, Dorscheid's art tends to be minimalist in style, without the excessive paneling or linework of some BT artists. The Shadow Cat for example is strikingly simple, and looks seemingly carved from solid granite, with a chip here or there for battlewear. He's not concerned with little details or gribblies, but the overall imposing presence of the Clans. The impression you get is one of solid, unyielding, unearthly metal, placed against the backdrop of a very realistic and tranquil forest.

Even the gauss rifle fire from the Shadow Cat is portrayed in this toned down manner. It doesn't actually look like what you'd expect a photorealistic gauss rifle blast to look like, but really more of a primal elemental fire, spouting forth out of one of Man's war machines. Again, I appreciate Dorscheid's restraint in portraying a sci-fi weapons system from the 31st century, going for the understated presentation instead of a more complicated, overwrought look. In the foreground, we see the gauss blast cast warm orange hues on the tree trunks, lighting up the natural darkness of the sleepy forest. And in a sense, bringing light to a dark, uncivilized Inner Sphere, as the Crusader Clans see it.

As a whole, the painting is one that's surprisingly soothing and peaceful, and in my interpretation shows the advancing scouts of the Falcons, out in front of the main juggernaut of the JF Galaxies. In the distant backdrop, we can see the raging fires glowing faintly and the destruction that they foretell. The portrayal we get is the very tip of the spear, advancing on an unsuspecting and unprepared Coventry. Woe to the defenders of this world.

I hope to keep writing more of these pieces in the future.

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First Impressions: Sniper Elite 4

Saw this was on flash sale on PSN for 39 bucks, and I figured... hey, why not? For a new PS4 game, 39 bucks... that's not bad at all. And the reviews looked rather good. Mind you, I've never played any of the other Sniper Elite games before, so this is absolutely my first experience with the franchise.

As someone who enjoys realistic stealth games, I gotta say... this is really damn good. It is a much better stealth open world shooter in polish, graphics, and feel compared to Ghost Recon Wildlands, which also came out recently. I mean, it's hard not to compare the two. Obviously, here you're dealing with much smaller open worlds, basically islands around Italy, as opposed to Wildlands which sims the entire country of Bolivia. So the scale is smaller, but it feels so much better and polished. On a spectrum from MGS V to Wildlands, this game feels and plays much closer to the MGS V end. The graphics aren't amazing or Crysis 4 or anything, but I do enjoy how you don't just see huge ass blocky boulders made with four or five polygons like you get in Wildlands. In particular, it seems like the devs for Sniper Elite are really proud of their God rays, cause they show up a lot and look pretty spectacular in the summer Italian daylight. Really gorgeous vistas.

In addition to the all important sniper rifle, the game gives you an automatic rifle/SMG slot, which I never actually use, and a silenced pistol, which is surprisingly accurate and feels as satisfying as a Splinter Cell game when it comes to delivering headshots. So when you get caught unawares and need to stealthily take out a guard at close range, it is completely comfortable and natural to pull out and use the pistol. And the bullet does go through helmets, unlike MGS V. There's also a lot of tools and gadgets to play with, like sticky grenades, which work like the sticky grenades in Halo I guess. Could be interesting, but I've never used them so far, preferring to stay stealthy.

Now, in order to stay stealthy, the sniping gameplay basically calls on you to use either a lot of distance, or sound masking to hide your shot. Basically, you need to fire when there's a really loud noise in the environment drowning you out, like a plane flying overhead, or a malfunctioning generator nearby, or etc. The planes flying overhead are pretty frequent, coming around maybe every minute and a half or two, so it's not that much of a chore to wait around for them. In the meantime, you can use the binos to scout out for more enemies patrolling around, admire the scenery, etc. Of course, if you're impatient and don't really care to wait around for 2 minutes just to shoot a guy, the game does give you a limited supply of suppressed ammo. You can equip them as an alternate ammo, which also adds a suppressor to your rifle, and now you can fire whenever. But the limited nature of them does mean that you're encouraged to utilize the sound masking mechanic at least some of the time, which has been fine for me.

Oh yeah, and you can adjust or zero your scope for different distances. Again, the sort of realistic detail that Wildlands should've had.

Now, I will say, the rather surprising thing I've encountered with the game is... it's pretty damn easy. I'm playing on Hard difficulty, which is above Normal, and below Authentic. I figured this was a good difficulty setting to start off on, since I've never played a Sniper Elite game before but do have a lot of experience with stealth games like Splinter Cell and the like. But man, this game on Hard difficulty is just about... the easiest stealth game I have ever played. This is no exaggeration, it really is easy. Snipe carefully and enemies from 200m away will never have any clue where you are, unlike the amazingly prescient cartel henchmen from GR Wildlands. On Hard difficulty, gravity drop and wind are both in, but the aim assist still works, so you still just use it to automatically adjust and fire at the red assist marker. You use binoculars to tag enemies, just like in most other stealth games these days, but the funny thing is... enemies will always show up on your minimap regardless of whether or not you've ever tagged them. So it's basically impossible for them to catch you unawares. And their reaction time feels really forgiving, because I got caught by surprise by a guard walking around the corner about 6 feet in front of me (the minimap did show him, but I mistakenly assumed he was on a higher elevation level), while I was completely offguard and was holding the sniper rifle while casually strolling. In the next couple of seconds, I had enough time to manually save the game, pull out the silenced pistol, aim it carefully at the guard's head, and pull off the headshot, before he did anything. This all took a few labored seconds just because I was so unprepared, mind you. And yet I still killed him without any reaction or alert or anything. In a Splinter Cell game, this would've ended in my immediate death. So yeah... pretty easy so far.

And I do like how the game allows for saving anywhere at any time (as well as quicksaving on PC, I'm sure). There's checkpoint saves of course, but if you don't trust the devs to know when you want a save, you can just manually save as often and as freely as you like. This is a BIG, BIG plus for the game in my opinion. There's no wasted time due to screwing up, which makes sense for something in the stealth genre. And really, it allows for so much neat experimentation and fun with the gameplay, because you can always quickly load back if something goes wrong. It's exactly what a stealth game should have, and I applaud the devs for having it in. It's really a shame that a lot of devs won't see the logic and improved quality of life of saving anywhere.

All in all, if you're craving more of that really polished, really tactically satisfying, open-world-but-without-the-jank, realistic stealth shooter experience that MGS V delivered, and found Ubisoft's Ghost Recon Wildlands woefully inadequate to satisfy your needs, then I can say with complete confidence that this is really the game for you. It's got mechanics that reward planning, patience, observation, and just delivers a lot of refreshing depth in a landscape of very casual, very mainstream fare. Just uh, be prepared to crank the difficulty up.

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Review: Splinter Cell Blacklist (after all these years)

I had honestly given up on Blacklist a while back. When I first tried it, the side missions were completely atrocious and godawful. Grim's stealth missions had absolutely no checkpointing or saving at all, while you would fail a mission upon first detection. That meant if you missed a single pistol headshot, or if a dog noticed you and barked, or any of a number of occurrences that might happen. And you couldn't save any progress, you just had to start all over again. That killed the entire thing for me. I've been a fan of the series since the beginning, and some of those earlier games had fail-on-detection mechanics. But guess what Ubisoft Toronto... they all had friggin quicksaves so you didn't have to restart the whole damn level all over again!

But Blacklist failed this, which just frustrated me to hell. And then there were Charlie's side missions, which inexplicably were all Horde mode-style defend missions that expected you to play the game like it was Gears of War. WTF? How can you completely bungle the entire essence of Splinter Cell by trying to turn it into a Horde mode third person shooter? This was insanity. So... I just didn't care for it. I dropped the game.

But now that I've finished Ghost Recon Wildlands, I got the itch for some ol Tom Clancy again. The ol Clance itch. And Splinter Cell is one of my favorite series. Even though Conviction was not quite what I wanted, it was still a pretty good campaign and had some nice powerful setpieces that made you feel like an intelligent black ops ninja. And I do still own Blacklist. And Rise of the Tomb Raider had not yet arrived in the mail yet. So uhhhh... I decided to go back and try it a second time, but avoiding the side missions this time. And I finished it and uh... yeah. I managed to get through it. That's the best thing I can really say about it.

First of all: Let's face it, the new voice actor for Sam sucks. He's just such a generic video game protagonist voice. I couldn't take him seriously as Sam Fisher, it felt so bizarre and off-putting when we've gotten to know and love Michael Ironside's cadence for so many years. This was a huge mistake. Now, Ubisoft Toronto says that they had to replace him because Ironside couldn't physically do the motion capture performance for the game. And uh... I get that, Ironside is an old ass man, but... why not just use the new actor for the motion capture, and then just use Ironside's voice for the voice and facial stuff? The result just wasn't worth losing the iconic voice of Sam.

The equipment unlock system means that you'll only eventually get to the same degree of stealth as in Conviction, which was puzzling at first. In Conviction, from what I recall, you could easily storm up behind someone while crouched and melee kill them without them noticing you. Your footsteps at top speed, crouched, wouldn't give you away. However, this is not the case in Blacklist, where you start out in the beginner OPS suit and need to buy your way up, upgrade by upgrade, to max stealth. This was strange at first, coming from Conviction, because you wouldn't expect Sam to get worse from one game to the next. But uh, yeah... you've just gotta suck it up and be extra careful in the first couple levels. Now, this feels odd to me because the game still keeps Conviction's two stage movement system. In the earlier SC games, you could modulate your level of movement, from slow creeping crawl, to light shuffle, to walk, to run. It was all done through the scroll wheel, or how much you moved your analog stick. In Conviction, they changed it to a basic two stage movement, where you're either at a fast walk, or a very fast walk. So even a light movement with the analog stick would result in hitting that fast walk animation. It was not nuanced at all, and felt simplistic, but it worked in Conviction because you were basically silent and it didn't hurt to be at a fast movement speed. But in Blacklist, with the weakened stealth due to the equipment system, it feels very clunky and unsatisfying for stealth play. Still very playable of course, but not as nice as the older games in the series.

The strongest pistol, the SC-IS pistol, still won't penetrate helmets, so why is there an option to use AP rounds for it? They do nothing. Everytime I saw a guy with a helmet, I always pulled out the sniper rifle. There's basically no benefit to adding three points of damage to it with the AP round upgrade.

The dog is hands down the worst enemy in this game. I can handle big armored thugs, or red laser snipers up on balconies... those guys don't scare me. But damn, those dogs that start barking and immediately run over to my position... I fucking hate the things. Worst enemy by far, and you better have a nice handy sniper rifle to snipe them on first sight.

Now, the game does have several levels that feel like classic Splinter Cell, and this is where it shines. This is when the gameplay gets good and feels old school and all is right with the world. There's certain segments of the campaign where you can tell they were calling back to old SC games and it got the right stealth tingles. Specifically, I'm talking about breaking into Nouri's mansion, the entire Iranian Embassy level, Guantanamo Bay, and parts of the last mission. These levels really do draw back on classic SC levels and are just about stealthing around like a bad ass covert ops ninja. The stealth mechanics all come together in a cohesive gameplay loop and you're just shooting out lights and hanging from pipes on the ceiling and it's very much the Splinter Cell that I used to love so much. So the devs did a lot of stuff right with those missions.

Unfortunately, there's way too many sequences where it's unrelenting action and completely unsatisfying for a stealth playthrough. You pick up Kobin and it's time to extract... what happens? A whole huge squad of soldiers comes bumrushing in, forcing you to Mark and Execute them (unavailable on Perfectionist mode). Or when you've got Reza Nouri and you're trying to extract him... what happens? A whole huge squad of special covert ops operatives comes bumrushing in, trying to kill Nouri. So it's now an escort mission on top of everything. It's just so unpleasant and frustrating to deal with. You wonder why these devs thought this would be fun gameplay. I mean, who even thinks escort missions are fun anymore? Yet there's one here. Oy.

Then you as Sam get poisoned by some VX gas and feel whoozy and start slipping and falling everywhere, trying to recover. And what does the game do? Throw whole waves of covert ops operatives at you, trying to kill you. And they've all got armor helmets, so you can't take them out with single headshots from the pistol. And they took away my sniper rifle, so it feels particularly unfair. Again, what is this doing in a SC game? It feels like a deeply frustrating gameplay decision that doesn't appeal to old school SC fans, nor does it provide a welcoming game for brand new players who might be more casual. I just don't understand what the devs were thinking, they made the least fun thing imaginable. As a stealth game, the goal should be to avoid gunfights, yet they just force you into these engagements. And with the armored helmets, you can't even feel good with taking them out with stealthy headshots with the pistol either, as that's an impossibility.

Another example: storming down a plane's cargo ramp into gunfire? How is this Splinter Cell? Where is the stealth? I couldn't believe what they were asking for. And that's literally what you're doing, just running down a ramp, with no cover, hoping and praying that you don't get shot.

Bursting into a train and getting instantly gunned down? This actually happened to me over and over again. You're supposed to go down this train, car by car, gunning down the terrorists along the way. It worked out pretty well at the beginning. You just take cover and shoot down the enemies that are in front. But then you get to a section at the end where you have to climb along the outside of the train and then force your way back inside. Sort of an homage or callback to Pandora Tomorrow, I suppose. Yet, because I was playing on Perfectionist, I'd just get instantly gunned down by one or two shots as soon as I broke the window and slid back inside the car. It just got so frustrating. Finally, I had to lower the difficulty in order to survive. I dunno what else they wanted me to do. It felt incredibly lame, getting shot and killed instantly, without any way to avoid the damage or take an alternate path.

On the oil refinery level, you're tasked with chasing down an important henchmen. But the game's forcing you to chase him down, at full speed. You can't let him get away, says the game's objective. So you run at full speed and keep up the pursuit. But then no... you get shoot by the other henchmen. So then you take it slow, and try to shoot and be careful. But then you fail the mission for being too slow and letting him get away. WTF? Do you see how idiotic this mission design is? Either pick one or the other, don't fail the player for doing the smart prudent thing. This isn't an arcade action shooter like Quake Arena or something. If players are to take out enemies, give them the time to do so. This schizophrenic jerk between forcing the player to chase at top speed, and stopping to kill guards along the way, feels way off and just results in irritating gameplay.

There's even one section where you play in FPS mode. WTF? There's actually a mission section where you take the role of Briggs and it just completely turns into a first person shooter, with a gun and ADS and you're just supposed to go around shooting guys. It all feels clunky and unpolished and enemies don't react satisfyingly when shot. I mean, if you're gonna turn the whole game into an FPS and disrupt players' expectations, at least make it feel good and satisfying like a casual CoD game or something. But it doesn't even manage to feel that good. Instead, it feels lame and dumb, and the aiming is clunky and not particularly smooth, and then you're pumping a million rifle rounds into a big armored guard and they gun you down with one shotgun blast and it all feels incredibly stupid and clumsy. Why did we need this in the game? People who want to play Splinter Cell don't want a generic first person shooter. And even if they did, they would at least want one that plays well, like a CoD, and not like the poor excuse for a shooter that this sequence was. It's just baffling to comprehend.

The game's ending is horrible. You're stuck with a gun without any bullets, running around while the bad guy is firing at you and lights are blinking off and on around the environment. What a horrible gameplay experience. There's nothing fun about scurrying around like a toothless animal. I don't know what the devs were thinking. It's one of the worst endings I've ever seen. And then, right at the end... you choose to use the Fifth Freedom and... spare the guy's life? Huh? When a few minutes ago, Briggs chose to use the Fifth Freedom as well, and killed the Secretary of Defense? Isn't it understand that the Fifth Freedom means you get to kill? But why does it not do that for the main bad guy of the whole game? The villain behind so much death and destruction? I'm so confused.

There's half of a good game in SC Blacklist. The Mansion, Embassy, Gitmo missions... all great SC-worthy content. But again, it's just half of a game. The other half is horrid, awful actiony garbage that does not belong in a SC game.

Edit: Oh yeah, one more thing... I really liked what they did with Grimsdottir this time around. You could tell that they really sexed her the hell up and made her into some weird super operative in Conviction, which felt pretty silly. But here, with the more realistic look... I dunno, it really just worked for me. I thought her portrayal, while not being very close at all to what the first 3 games had, was a very grounded and respectable one. And the motion capture was pretty impressive. She's definitely one of the most attractive video game characters I've seen, but in a very believable and normal, not-sexed-up, sort of way. Thumbs up from me.

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My problem with Call of Duty campaigns

Open it up. The tightly scripted nature of it is a huge turnoff, man. I mean, gamers hate on-rails shooters. Yet it feels like we're basically playing one in CoD campaigns.

I was alright with it with CoD 1 and 2. Back then, they were still doing the whole MoH:AA thing with delivering a sort of cinematic Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers inspired schtick and I understand that and why gamers liked it. I was okay with it too. But it got old after a while, man. I got to CoD 4 MW and it was the same damn thing again and I just got tired of it. Crysis came out right around that time and really showed how much fun you could have without scripted sequences everywhere. Where you had real openness and options for what to do and solving combat puzzles.

The CoD games have a lot to like, don't get me wrong. I like how tight and responsive the gunplay feels. I like the fact that it is 60 fps and silky smooth. And I like how they have all the weapons kitted out with attachments and special ops gear and it all looks great and polished and you don't see hands clipping through vertical handgrips and other stuff. They really did deliver that high production value and polish that a lot of other shooters were lacking at the time.

But I hate how limited the campaigns are. I don't care for being told to mindlessly follow someone. I don't like endless respawning waves of enemies (the TV station in MW). I don't like just being along for a roller coaster ride and being hurled from one setpiece to another, all scripted to hell. Dynamic gameplay is where it's at for me. For example:

Look at that oil rig mission from MW2. You launch out of the submarine on that cool Navy SEAL submersible and you see marine life swimming all around you and it's cool and feels like you're playing a scene right out of The Rock. Yet for as good as it all looks... there're no options for approaching the oil rig. It's all tightly scripted to hell. How about letting the player maneuver around the ocean to pick a specific location on the oil rig to disembark? Giving us tactical options for where to breach and clear, instead of just forcing us through one preset point? It's just frustrating how the devs take all the choice out of the player's hands, like we're unworthy of being entrusted with that.

It's why while Ghost Recon Wildlands is a hugely unpolished game with lots of bugs and jank and oddities, I'm still spending hours and hours every day playing it and haven't touched my copy of CoD Black Ops III outside of an hour or so. That power of freedom and making my own tactical approach and gameplay in the world is something that I value and enjoy 100,000 times more then what CoD campaigns can deliver.

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