Amnesia: The Bunker - title

Amnesia: The Dark Descent almost single-handedly popularized the "hide and seek" and "run away" sub-genres of horror that would go on to influence everything from Outlast to >Observer_, and even the likes of P.T. and Visage (though I'm always surprised to remind myself that Silent Hill: Shattered Memories actually preceded Amnesia by a whole year). Amnesia also remained one of the more mechanically complex horror games, as more and more horror games leaned harder and harder into the paradigm of the "unarmed, defenseless player character" and erred closer and closer to walking sims. But even though Amnesia retained more mechanical complexity and more genuine threat than its contemporaries, it (and its sequels) never hit the level of complexity and action of a classic survival horror game.

Survival horror seems to be going through a renaissance of late, thanks in large part to Capcom hitting it out of the park with most of recent Resident Evil games. As such, Frictional Games wastes no time in telling the player that Amnesia: The Bunker ain't no walking sim. This is a return to old-school survival horror, but with modern conventions and twists. I have not been this impressed or excited by the opening hour of a survival horror game since booting up Resident Evil VII for the first time.

Death from German machine guns? Or death from an eldritch Beast? Take your pick.

Bullets and draw strings

Within the opening minutes of Amnesia: The Bunker, the player is dropped into a World War I trench with nothing but an empty revolver. There's no HUD at all. In order to check how many bullets you have in the revolver, you have to open the cylinder and look at how many bullets are left. To reload, you have to open the cylinder, drop out the empty shell casings, and manually reload each new bullet one at a time. Aiming and firing the gun is slow, clunky, and imprecise. There is also an ability to lean around corners and aim the gun.

After a short gun fighting tutorial in which the player is scripted to take damage, the game hands us some cloth with which to craft bandages. So the player has actual health, instead of just automatically healing over time, or losing sanity.

Then the game gives the player a flashlight. But unlike other contemporary horror games (or The Dark Descent), this flashlight doesn't run on batteries or oil. It has a simple friction motor that is recharged by repeatedly pulling a drawstring. Apparently, nothing in this game is going to be simple or effort-free. I do have to say though, that I wish the flashlight charge would last longer. Fumbling around in the dark to charge the flashlight (and risk making noise that could attract an enemy) is a wonderfully tense and anxiety-inducing mechanic, but having to do it every minute or 2 (whether there are threats present or not) gets tedious and annoying real quick. The fact that the light has to be recharged multiple times to explore a single moderately-sized room at a modestly brisk pace should have been a red flag that the light doesn't last long enough.

The flashlight and revolver require deliberate engagement from the player to use.

And then, if this weren't already feeling like a real survival horror game, within an hour of starting, you'll wander into a save room, complete with an item storage box and a map showing objectives and puzzle locations. One could easily mistake this for Resident Evil. Below the save room is a gasoline generator, which burns fuel to keep the bunker's electricity and lights running. But the supply of oil is limited, and spread throughout the bunker. And a warning sign is printed next to it, saying that the "beast" prefers to hunt in the dark. Keeping this generator running is one of the key mechanics of the game, since it (not your flashlight) is the primary source of light, and also the primary defense against the Beast.

This opening hour or 2 is so perfectly exactly what I want in a horror game! It is slow, tense, and methodical. I'm 2 hours in, and I haven't even seen the monster yet; I've only heard its threatening growls and the sound of it scuttling around within the walls and ceiling, seemingly ready to pounce at any moment. The game is already mechanically rich and varied, and full of risk / reward mechanics. Light and sound are both thematic effects and also full-fledged mechanics with strategy associated with them. It has an ever-present sense of dread and danger. The existence of the save room and item box suggests actual stakes for failure, and the presence of healing items and fuel suggest that the battle against this Beast will be one of attrition. It's looking to be a modern take on classic survival horror from one of the studios that innovated modern horror gaming.

Can I just give it an A+ already and start singing its praises on social media and YouTube? Well, let's actually play it and make sure. You know, just for shits and giggles. I mean, I haven't even seen the monster yet, so I should probably get at least that before I make up my mind, right?

The opening hours feel like pitch-perfect, classic survival horror.
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Wonder Woman movie poster

In their single-midned insistence on making all of their movies about epic showdowns between the superheroes and some big bad guy, the DC movies have consistently failed at depicting their heroes as having any particular desire or inclination to actually help people. This is perhaps the greatest failing of the Zack Snyder / Henry Cavill Superman movies and the greatest strength of the classic Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve Superman films: Snyder's / Cavill's Superman seems to treat saving people as a begrudging chore that he's obligated to do; whereas the classic Donner / Reeve Superman put on a charming smile and went out there to do good for the sake of doing good, simply because he is capable of doing good.

Well now, DC seems to have finally realized that the primary role of its superheroes is to be idealistic saviors and protectors. For the first time in the DCEU movies, our hero shows the idealistic optimism and desire to help people and do good that has been the trademark of the classic Superman films and the Spider-Man films (heck, even Amazing Spider-Man 2 got that right). But in this case, our hero isn't Superman or Spider-Man; our hero is Wonder Woman.

I actually don't mind the darker aesthetic and tone that DC has adopted for its movies. The problem so far has been that those movies have been dark and poorly-written and thought-out. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a much brighter movie (both in terms of visuals and thematic tone), and benefits from much tighter writing. The script is solid and tightly-themed, Wonder Woman has a full and nuanced character arc, the performances are good, the action looks slick, and (most importantly) it's easy to follow along with what's happening.

The biggest failing of the Zack Snyder / Henry Cavill Superman is that he seems to be begrudgingly helping people,
instead of happily doing good for the sake of doing good (as in the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeves Superman).

Gal Gadot provides a great performance that proves that her stealing the show in Batman v Superman wasn't just a fluke or a simple sign of how bad the rest of that movie was. She actually works well in this role and is almost as charming a Wonder Woman as Christopher Reeve was at being Superman. The supporting cast mostly works, and this is probably the best role that I've seen for Chris Pine to date. Some of the secondary characters are a bit under-written and lack screen time, but everyone (no matter how minimal their screen-time) has a role to play that helps shape Diana as a character. There's no superfluous characters like Louis Lane in either of Snyder's Superman movies. The only exception being, maybe, Steve Trevor's secretary, who actually deserved a lot more screen-time that she received.

Even Doctor Poison seemed to have a little bit of complexity and nuance to her character. She does suffer from some poor, underwritten motivation, as the movie never really seemed to go too deep into why she's doing what she's doing. But it's definitely apparent that there's something going on under the surface, beyond simply being manipulated by higher forces. The closest that I could figure is that she has some kind of relationship with General Ludendorff and is blindly loyal to him, but she at least wasn't a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy.

Hits and misses

The only major weakness of Wonder Woman, as a movie, is that it's a bit of an uneven work. It's broken down into a readily discernible three-act structure. The first act is great, the second act is okay, and the third act sinks towards the DC stamp of terribleness. The unfortunate thing about this is that I walked out of the theater with a bad taste in my mouth, even though the movie was still mostly pretty good. So far, DC's movies have all started out mediocre and progressed towards terrible by the end. Wonder Woman, however, starts out good and starts to sink in the direction of bad at the very end. Which, I guess is a big improvement.

Wonder Woman - emerging from the trenches
Act II concludes with Wonder Woman getting her first real "hero shot" in the movie.

The first act, set on the island of the Amazons, is colorful and vibrant. It's beautifully shot, with interesting and well-choreographed action sequences, and sprinkles of humor. If you didn't know better, you might be justified in mistaking it for a Marvel movie...

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Battlefield 1 - title

Nobody can make a game about World War I. Trench warfare is too boring. Nothing really happens. There isn't a strong, identifiable villain or good versus evil struggle.

Those are among the many excuses that people made for why all the video games are about World War II, and never about World War I. And then the gaming public and journalists got a glimpse of this:

The teaser trailer for Battlefield 1 was a smash hit.

That teaser trailer was damn good. People were excited. I haven't played a first-person shooter since Call of Duty: World at War, I generally hate online shooters, but even I was excited to try out this game! And other people were hyped about it too.

Now, I never really bought into the idea that World War I was "not video game material". I've long advocated for games to look at all periods of history for inspiration, and World War I is a monumental moment in world history that certainly deserves to be examined by games. The indie market certainly realized this, with games like Valiant Hearts and Verdun. But the big publishers have completely shied away from "The War to End All Wars".

This is a shame. The rapid technological advancements and radically new military tactics that evolved leading up to (and during) the war could be great material to examine in the form of a game. The widescale industrialization of warfare, the complicated politics, and the general fuzziness of the morality of the war are also ripe source material for dramatic storytelling. So it's about time to see this war thrust into the mass market spotlight.

I'd prefer to have seen a strategy game along the lines of Total War; but whatever, I'll give DICE and Battlefield 1 a chance.

UPDATE: 12 MARCH 2018, Better than I gave it credit for:
After having played Activision's Call of Duty: WWII and (especially) EA's Star Wars: Battlefront II, and having talked about it with friends, I have gained a bit of respect for the successes that Battlefield 1 has been able to accomplish. I've started to like it more in retrospect. Not enough to go back and re-play it or try out any of the expansions (yet), but I do feel that I may have been a bit too harsh on the game in retrospect, especially with regard to its campaign vignettes.

I'm not going to change my original review score, but compared to CoD:WWII and Battlefront II, this game probably deserves a slightly higher grade. So keep that in mind as you read the following review. Of all the big-budget first person shooters that I've played in the past couple years, Battlefield 1 is probably the one that I most enjoyed, and it's the one that I would recommend.

The futile indifference of war

First impressions were actually pretty damned good. I was actually really impressed with Battlefield 1's campaign tutorial. It's basically a guided tour of the game's various core mechanics: shooting at enemy soldiers, capturing victory points, piloting vehicles, and so forth. It does a good job of introducing each of these mechanics and systems by jumping the player around between multiple characters in a large-scale battle.

But what really stuck out to me was how the tutorial transitioned between these different set pieces, and how it handled player death. This tutorial is actually surprisingly merciless and difficult. As you complete one set piece, the game gradually (and subtly) increases the threat until it becomes overwhelming and your character dies (or they just kill you after a timer expires), which allows the game to teleport you to the point of view of another character for the next set piece. The dying character's name and birth / death years are shown on screen during the transition, granting that character with a certain degree of humanization.

Battlefield 1: tutorial death
The excellent tutorial emphasizes the indifference and futility of "The War to End All Wars".

Depending on how good you are at the game, you'll go through between half a dozen to a dozen different characters, each with a name and an age. And they all die. The tutorial makes this war look brutal and futile. It even has an almost Dark Souls-like indifference to the player character, killing you without a second thought and forcing you to respawn as another poor, dumb bastard who's about to die for his country, rather than restarting you at a checkpoint until you get it right.

I even wish DICE had gone a bit further by also displaying the character's birth place and maybe even a snippet or two of other biographical trivia. Maybe listing some hobbies, or saying that he was on his high school's varsity football team, or some other little detail like that. DICE settled for just the name and birth / death year, but it's still effective and establishes a very strong running theme throughout the tutorial. The point is a bit undercut by the rapid pacing and by how conventional the actual running and shooting feels. But I still walked out of this tutorial excited by what the rest of the campaign had to offer.

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Tropico 5

Without a decent, new iteration of SimCity for me to play, I've been looking high and low for new city simulator games in order to scratch that particular itch. I spent a large chunk of time a few years ago playing Cities XL, but never got around to reviewing it (maybe I'll post aretro-review in the future). Cities XL has so far been the best of the bunch and has a very wide scope, but it's developer has folded, and the game has never truly felt complete.

So I've started looking at more niche titles. I gave Children of the Nile and Caesar IV a go a few years ago, and both were pretty good, but just didn't hold me over for very long. So when Tropico 5 went on sale on Steam, I picked it up and put it on the shelf till I took a break from Civ. The game has also been released on XBox 360, and it has also been announced for a PS4 release sometime in 2015, but I've been playing the PC version.

The primary gimmick of the Tropico series is that the player isn't a mayor (as most city simulators claim); instead, you play as a dictator who is granted governorship of a small Caribean island-nation by a European power. It's basically a Cuba-simulator. At the start of a game, you must create a dictator avatar, and that character can have children and heirs in order to maintain your dynasty. From a meta standpoint, this gives much greater justification for the breadth of power that the player has over the development of the city. But this dictatorial theme isn't just a gimmick; the game actually does use it for gameplay purposes.

Tropico 5 - war
Poor management of relations with internal factions and external nations
can lead to revolts and open warfare on your streets.

In addition to balancing workers versus jobs and various citizen satisfaction metrics, the player also has to worry about maintaining your position of power and dealing on the international stage. Much like the Democracy games, the player actually has to win elections in order to avoid losing the game, and so you must balance the favor of various competing factions. It's nowhere near as deep as Democracy, since there's only about four factions (which change depending on the current era), but it does add an extra challenge that a game like SimCity lacks. After all, your mayor-hood in SimCity is indisputable.

It can be hard to manage the favor of these various factions and their members, since it's hard sometimes to tell exactly what is making them happy or unhappy...

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Archduke Franz Ferdinand
of Austro-Hungaria (1863-1914)

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptuous heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Serbian militant named Gavrilo Princip. This lead to a chain of events that ignited the powder keg of European mutual defensive pacts and triggered the first World War.

And war was never the same again.

Horses were replaced with mechanized, armored tanks for the first time. Radio was used to triangulate artillery bombardment without a direct line of sight. Land mines halted enemy advances. Air planes patrolled the skies for the first time and dropped bombs and rained machine gun fire onto soldiers. Chemical and biological weapons were deployed for the first time with horrendous results. War stopped being the close, personal, visceral evil that it had been since the beginnings of human history, and it became distant and impersonal. Armies could fight each other from a distance through crosshairs and scopes. War could be waged with bombs and machines at a global level with industrial killing efficiency.

When the dust had settled and peace had come, the nations of the earth were so horrified with what had transpired, that they declared this "the war to end all wars".

They were wrong...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's thoughts

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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