PolyCast logo

Earlier today, I served as a guest host for the Civilization podcast Polycast, episode 295. I joined regular hosts DanQ, Makahlua, MadDjinn, and TheMeInTeam. The episode covered a handful of topics, ranging from the new religion mechanics introduced by the fall 2017 patch, to a proposal for athletes to be a type of great person, the new Civilization: A New Dawn board game, to the issue of micro-transactions (or "Recurrent Consumer Spending" as Take-Two Interactive CEO, Strauss Zelnick calls it), and more.

If you missed the live broadcast, then the edited archive version will be released on PolyCast's website next Saturday (December 2). I'll update this post with a link once the archive is updated.

"Recurrent Consumer Spending"

"Recurrent Consumer Spending" was one of the primary topics of the previous episode (PolyCast #294), and so we discussed it again as part of a discussion on feedback from last week's episode. Micro-transactions (and loot boxes in particular) are a hot topic in gaming of late, especially after the fiasco that was EA's launch of Star Wars: Battlefront II. Games pundit Jim Sterling has made micro-transactions an almost weekly issue in his Youtube podcast The Jimquisition. Sterling has been comparing loot boxes to gambling for months, and recently, some European regulatory agencies have started to evaluate whether loot boxes should legally be classified as a type of gambling. As someone who has previously worked for a gambling company, I am aware of how compulsive impulses are used to keep gamblers addicted to a particular game, and I definitely believe that the current implementation of loot boxes in games like Shadow of War, Call of Duty, and Star Wars: Battlefront does try to capitalize on those same addictive impulses, and so should probably be regulated similarly to gambling. I don't want micro-transactions in my games at all, but I don't necessarily think that such things should be illegal per se. But they should be regulated, and I do think that the game boxes should clearly indicate to parents that the game includes "gambling-like elements" (or some other warning).

Jim Sterling has been making a fuss about micro-transactions and loot boxes for months.
WARNING: May not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers.

More importantly (for me), however, is the concerns for what micro-transactions do to the actual game. Just last night, I spent something like 4 hours in Shadow of War grinding my character and orc captains up to a point that I could siege the castle in Act II. I played every side mission available in the chapter, and then still had to do some Nemesis missions, in order to get Talion up to level 20 and unlock the ability to assign a third uruk captain to my siege assault. That third captain was essential to get my siege level up above the level of the defenders. I'm not sure if that was necessary, but I didn't want to risk having my captains killed during the attack. I actually happen to really like Brûz The Chopper, so I didn't want him dying because my siege was under-leveled. This is just Act II! I can't imagine how grindy the game might become during the later acts! And all this extra grind in the campaign is a direct result of the inclusion of the game's War Chest (i.e. loot boxes). You can spend real-life money to buy random orc captains to use in your sieges or to defend your captured forts. So the whole game is balanced such that it's just enough of a grind to encourage people to spend money to speed things along by buying the War Chest.

Well, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick has said that he wants every game in 2K's library to include "recurrent consumer spending". That would include my beloved Civilization...

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Justice League poster

From the start, Justice League seemed to be slipping off the rails due to its awkward editing in the first act. It certainly doesn't help that the opening scene is terrible, uncanny valley, cell phone footage of Superman. Who in their right mind thought that would be a good opening scene?

So this movie takes place years after the events of Dawn of Justice, but Batman and Wonder Woman are just now getting around to recruiting the others? Are we to believe that Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg had evaded their efforts for so long, only to suddenly all pop up at the same time? Then we cut to Steppenwolf suddenly appearing in Themyscira to steal his McGuffin box and butcher a bunch of Amazon. It's a scene that feels like it should maybe have been earlier in the movie in order to act as a catalyst for Batman to stop pussyfooting around and just go get Flash and Aquaman, or should have been after the bulk of the team has joined up.

As soon as Cyborg showed up, I felt the movie falling completely off the rails. Everything was getting too convenient -- too easy. There just wasn't any real resistance for the heroes. The villain completely failed to create any real stakes or sense of threat, and just has no real presence in the movie at all. Even when the characters are saying that "we're all probably going to die", it doesn't feel like a low point for them. By the end, the heroes are gleefully punching the bad guy, and Superman just shows up a toys with him. Nobody seems to be taking anything seriously. There's no gravitas. Even the Marvel movies, as colorful and upbeat as they tend to be, always have moments with gravity. Justice League tries to go the route of Avengers by pretending that the heroes don't really get along (until they have to), but it never feels genuine.

So now DC has completely squandered both the death and resurrection of Superman. These are two watershed moments in comic book history that are never going to have the same impact for movie goers. And hey, let's leave the magic, world-destroying McGuffin unattended while we wrestle with Superman, so that the bad guy can literally just beam down, pick it up, and beam away.

Why is the team just now coming together?
What the heck were Batman and Wonder Woman doing in the years since BvS?

In addition to poor editing and poor plotting, the movie is also just plain ugly to look at. I want to praise the movie for being brighter, more colorful, and not as washed-out as Man of Steel or BvS, but I can't because the movie just looks terrible. Superman, Aquaman, and Batman's costumes look particularly phony in the brightly-lit environments of this movie. Steppenwolf and Cyborg stand out as blatant CGI monstrosities. And Flash and Wonder Woman's costumes aren't far behind on the ugly scale. Flash's costume looks like it is being held together with pieces of metal wire and tape and looks like a cheap cosplay outfit, even though Bruce Wayne gushes over how technologically advanced it looks. What, Bruce, you couldn't give him a kick ass, actual technologically advanced costume like what Tony Stark did for Spider-Man in Homecoming? Half the time, Wonder Woman's costume suddenly looks too big in the top (like it's about to fall off of her) and too small in the bottom (with her cheeks hanging out from under her skirt). Jason Mamoa and Henry Cavill get topless for whole scenes, so the ladies get plenty of beefcake to ogle. But Wonder Woman is the only one with her ass hanging out of her actual costume.

In general, the color-correction looks awful. You can view early trailers of the movie, and then newer trailers and see that entire scenes were changed from being general night-time footage to being in broad daylight or having some weird red filter applied to them. I get that it's a reaction to the general consensus that the other movies are too dark (visually), but as movie-makers, someone had to have known that the costumes are designed to be shot in certain lighting conditions, and arbitrarily changing those conditions completely changes the way that the costumes look.

Even the trailers went out of their way to highlight gratuitous Wonder Woman upskirt.

There's also a few moments in which the heroes seem to completely disregard the preservation of their secret identities. Batman calls up Alfred within earshot of a thug, and Louis stands in the middle of an open park, in broad daylight, yelling Clark's name with policemen standing around her (and presumably a large crowd watching from a distance)...

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The Evil Within 2 - title

Okay, I said I would give up on Shinji Mikami after the first Evil Within game, but here I am giving that IP a second chance. I had heard that the expansions for Evil Within were actually pretty good, and that they even made the base game better by filling in some of the narrative gaps. But I was so furious with the base game that I sure as hell was not going to shell out more money for DLCs. If they were that integral to the core game, then they should have been included with the core game. Now that my furor over the original has faded a bit, I was hearing that the sequel is also much better than the original game and leans more heavily in the horror camp than the action shooter camp. I was dismissive of the game's announcement, and I was skeptical of the claims that the sequel was actually good, so I picked up a [relatively] cheap used copy off eBay so that I could give it a chance over the Halloween week without necessarily giving any more money to Bethesda.

The Evil Within 2 - Kidman
I feel like I missed something...
Maybe I should've played the DLC?

Besides, Shinji Mikami isn't the director this time around. Instead the sequel is directed by John Johanas, who was the director of the [supposedly] good DLC expansion packs. The first game actually did have some good ideas and set pieces within, so maybe a different directorial approach could bring those ideas out to their full potential?

A more focused package

To Johanas' credit, the game, as a whole, definitely has a more "unified" presentation. The first game felt very scattershot with regard to how it wanted the player to play. It's early chapters (which were also the most enjoyable parts of the game) were focused mostly on stealth, with a few pursuit and escape moments thrown in. It was slow, somewhat atmospheric, and built incredible tension. But those mechanics were quickly dropped in favor of shooting gallery set pieces, constant scripted ambushes, set piece boss encounters, and frantic, funhouse-ish trap / puzzle rooms. The sequel, thankfully, is much more focused. I didn't feel like I was wasting my resources by putting points into Sebastian's stealth skills (a skill tree that was completely absent from the previous game), as you can actually continue to use them over the course of the entire game. Sure, there's still scripted ambushes and puzzle rooms, but the focus is much more firmly planted in sneaking around, exploring the environments, and generally avoiding detection.

Unfortunately, there's still a bit too much of a focus on frenzied action. It detracts significantly from any sort of horror or tension that the game might be trying to build up. The autosaves are fairly generous (even though there are also manual save points in each of the game's safe houses), so enemies come in hordes, hit very hard, and deaths are going to happen. Chapter 3 basically completely desensitized me to death and put me in the habit of just standing up and letting the monsters kill me if I ever screwed up the stealth.

The Evil Within 2 - learning curve
The early combat encounters are not gentle, as they put you up against hordes of enemies.

There's a greater focus on open-ended exploration this time around, and Chapter 3 is the first open map that the player is free to explore. There's basically two main paths through it: the hard one and the easy one. The easy path is basically a straight line due north from where you start, but the game throws some curveball objectives at you that basically encourage you to try the other paths that end up being much harder. You're told about weapon caches and NPCs that you're supposed to try to save. One such weapon is the crossbow, which is actually a pretty necessary tool (because, you know, every game has to have a crossbow). It's right off to the side of where you start, but picking it up can easily lead you down a much harder path to your actual mission objective...

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Thor Ragnarok poster

The Marvel movies have always been very light-hearted and fun, leaning heavily on humor and wit to keep the audience's attention during the slow dialogue bits. Thor: Ragnarok seems to take things to a new level though -- at least, outside of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Ragnarok comes off as almost a full-blown comedy. It's good. It works well. I just hope that this doesn't become a new de facto template for future Marvel movies, as it would eventually run itself very dry.

That being said, the Marvel films have definitely shown signs of growth after Avengers: Age of Ultron. The plot doesn't revolve around a magic MacGuffin, and it's not even really a revenge story. The bad guy just wants to conquer Asgard because she's an ambitious bitch who wants power. There's a little bit of a vengeance angle, as she's obviously mad at Odin and Asgard for imprisoning her. But Odin's dead before she even shows up, so she basically just shows up and says "kneel before me or be destroyed." Hela is kind of bland. I wish they'd done more with the Planet Hulk stuff instead -- maybe even making Hulk be the bad guy?

I also initially struggled to find any sort of core, unifying theme, and walked out of the movie not quite sure what it was supposed to have been about. The overarching theme seems to be that Thor doesn't need the hammer to be powerful, but isn't that just retreading the core lesson that he learned in the first movie? Besides, the whole "the power was in you all along" thing only comes up at one point mid-way through the movie, and then Anthony Hopkins' Odin shows up at the very end to just tell Thor that he doesn't need the hammer. It felt like a bit of a copout.

Ragnarok has no compunctions about shaking up the status quo.

But I don't think the Dumbo storyline is actually the point here. I think the point is the movie's fatalistic (yet still, somehow, upbeat) ending. Despite the tongue-in-cheek, comical tone, this movie does nothing if not completely disregard that status quo. True to the movie's namesake, the end of the world actually does happen this time around! Asgard (along with the Rainbow Bridge) is destroyed, Odin is dead, The Asgardian army has been massacred, Mjolnir is destroyed, Bruce Banner is [supposedly] irreversibly transformed into the Hulk, and so on...

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Stranger Things season 2

The first season of Stranger Things was a mysterious and intriguing piece of television that successfully channeled an eclectic collection of 80's and 90's nostalgia (from E.T. to Stephen King to The X-Files to Dungeons and Dragons). Instead of being a cynical piece of derivative nostalgia bait (or an outright cash-in on established intellectual property), Stranger Things somehow felt wholly fresh and original.

Unfortunately, season 2 lacks a lot of that mystery and originality that made it's predecessor work so well. Season 2 just feels too familiar. We already know about the Upside Down, and the Demogorgon, and Eleven's psychic powers, and the secret government research lab conducting shady experiments. None of that can really carry the show anymore. But that's about all that season 2 has. There's nothing very new. There's no surprises.

The introduction of a new girl creates tension within the group.

Compounding this problem is that plot points and set pieces feel recycled from last season. Most are inverted in some way, as if they are Upside Down reflections of the previous season's events. But that isn't nearly as clever as the wordplay might make it sound. For example, there's a sub plot of tension among the boys because a new girl has entered their group. This time, it's Max instead of Eleven, and it's Mike who's unhappy with the new dynamic of the group instead of Dustin and Lucas. Midway through the season, there's a set piece in which Will draws a bunch of pictures and hangs them up all over the house. It feels like a repeat of Joyce hanging up the Christmas lights, except that it's Will trying to communicate with the Upside Down instead of Joyce trying to communicate with her son. And the group even takes in another stray and tries to hide it; except this time, it's a baby demogorgon instead of Eleven.

There's a sort-of new monster in the form of the "Shadow Monster" that haunts Will. This shadow monster, however, doesn't really do anything, and we're left with only the army of dog-like demogorgons. It takes an approach similar to James Cameron's Aliens , in that it multiplies the number of monsters, gives them a "nest", and adds some big "queen" that seems to be controlling everything. This comparison is driven home by the shadow monster's resemblance to a ghostly xenomorph, and the inclusion of a scene that was basically pulled straight from Aliens (right down to the beeping motion detectors). But unlike Aliens , I never felt threatened by the surplus of demogorgons, and the Upside Down never seemed as mysterious as the xenomorph hive or their horrifying queen.

The "Shadow Monster" is a threat that never really pays off -- at least not this season.

While the first season didn't revel in sudden character deaths for the sake of shock value like Game of Thrones , the sudden death of Barb midway through the season did manage to raise the stakes for everyone else. Season 2 has nothing like that. There's no sudden or unexpected deaths of any characters who aren't obviously disposable from the moment they arrive on scene. And even among the cannon fodder characters, the death count is still ridiculously low...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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