Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

What are the two biggest, most consistent weaknesses of the Marvel movie franchises? Well, they have a lot of trouble with direct sequels -- the sole exception being Captain America: Winter Soldier (why, oh why did I never review that movie?!). They also have a lot of trouble with villains -- the sole exception probably being Loki. I'd also throw in a third weakness, which would be the over-reliance on McGuffins to carry the plot.

Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 actually manages to avoid all three of those Marvel pitfalls!

Vol. 2 gets around the sequel slump by slowing things down a bit so that it can be a more character-driven story. For the majority of the film, the stakes are set pretty low and personal, and each character gets a chance to be an actual character rather than just an action hero. The main plot revolves around Starlord connecting with his long-lost father, only to discover (almost too late) that said father is actually a supervillain, and that he didn't realize that he had another father figure right there beside him the whole time. That's a great setup. But I almost feel like Starlord and the rest of the Guardians crew feel more like the B-Story here, because this movie feels like it's more about Yondu than about Peter Quill, Gemorah, or any of the main cast. But that might be partly because the entire cast gets such a balanced amount of screen time, and no one character or plot thread dominates the others.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - Starlord and dad
This movie operates on a smaller scale, with a more personal conflict -- at least initially.

Despite the frequent cuts and the presence of almost half a dozen individual plot threads, the movie is remarkably tightly-themed. Virtually every plot thread in the film revolves around family. Quill meets his father. Gemorah finally gets to understand her sister. Rocket is dealing with raising Baby Groot and confronts his own inability to stop being an asshole long enough to let anybody actually like him. Drax is being repeatedly reminded of the loss of his own family. And Yondu is dealing with the feeling that he's a failure in the eyes of anybody who he ever might have considered "family".

This family-centered core of the movie then manages to help resolve the second major issue with Marvel movies. Vol 2 actually has a pretty interesting and mysterious villain...

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This War of Mine: the Little Ones

It was a long wait to get this DLC on PC and Steam. It originally released back in January on consoles, while we early adopters of the PC version were stuck waiting out in the cold with no clue whether or not we'd ever get the expansion. I wanted to play it, but I was hoping that a PC version would be released because I was skeptical that controlling a shelter full of characters with only an analog stick (and no pause button) would be unweildy. But it finally did get a release on Steam, and was even discounted during the Steam Summer Sale, so there was no way that I was going to pass that up.

The base version of This War of Mine is a fantastic game and ranks up there with Papers, Please, Metal Gear Solid 3, and Ace Combat 4 as one of the best games about war that I've ever played. This War of Mine is a very harsh, brutal, and depressing game. But if you didn't think that it was a depressing enough game to begin with, then wait till you play it with children as playable characters! The expansion adds some new scenarios with child characters as well as a handful of child-specific craftable items, but it's surprisingly skimpy on new content. As far as I can tell, there are no new scavenge locations, ambient events, or neighbor events.

This War of Mine - a child was hurt
If the game wasn't already difficult and depressing enough, now you have to keep children safe as well.

The trauma of war

Children can be both a burden and a blessing in this game. By default, they can't perform most crafting, they can't shovel away rubble or unlock blocked doors, they can't be sent out to scavenge at night, and they can't do anything to guard or protect the shelter from raids. At the start, they are basically just extra mouths to feed that have the potential to consume more of your valuable medicines and bandages, but they can't contribute directly to your survival. They can also be particularly needy, and their needs can be tough to meet as you struggle just to get the basics like food, water, and an assembly line of crafting stations.

However, it won't stay like this for long, as children can be taught to do many of the same crafting tasks that the adults can do...

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Fallout 4

"Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist" sounds like a pretty legendary character, right? Well, he wasn't. In fact, he was a very lucky, over-achieving halfling rogue in a short-lived campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. I rolled for the character's initial stats, got fairly low constitution, and then rolled the minimum value for hit dice for the first few levels. The result was a sixth-level character with a pathetic sixteen max hit points! A single lucky shot from virtually any enemy could be an instant KO for that character, and getting engaged in melee would practically be a death sentence. While some power gamers may scoff at the idea, rage against their dice, and then remake their character with a standard array and average HP, I decided to run with it and role play the hell out of little Gregle.

Dungeons & Dragons - Halfling Gregle
Character sheet for "Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist"

With the low initial constitution, I focused my character around stealth abilities, disengagement and evasion tactics, and ranged attacks, and continued to improve those skills as I leveled. Knowing that he's a pathetic weakling, Gregle overcompensated by being a very flamboyant braggart and narcissist (I took inspiration from Stephen Colbert), and thought that he was more charming than he actually was. He routinely hid in the shadows, taking pot shots at vulnerable enemies and racking up kill steals from afar while his two warrior companions did most of the heavy-lifting. He would occasionally disarm a trap or unlock a door, and once used a clever trick to pacify (and subjugate) an entire band of pirates. He then took credit for much of the party's achievements.

Despite having only slightly above average charisma, he leaned on his halfling luck to succeed on some charisma checks and make himself a bit of a celebrity with the local townies for his exaggerated heroics. He reveled in the unprecedented access to their community that the locals provided, and he reveled in the adulant gifts that they showered upon him, happily hoarding it all in his bag of holding. The other party members never called him out on it in public, since they were just happy to have the cooperation of the locals.

While the other players and DM enjoyed Gregle's antics, their characters only barely tolerated his presence. During the actual adventuring, he was constantly getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out by his fellow adventurers. He once falsely awakened the party during his night watch after mistaking a wyvern for a dragon. In another instance, he was KO'd while using spider-boots to walk up a ceiling to pursue an enemy that had climbed a rope to escape the conflict, and he became stuck on the ceiling, forcing the party to figure out a way to get him down. They reluctantly obliged to help him, since Gregle was the possessor of the party's bag of holding, and was actually good at sneaking around to perform recon, unlocking doors, disarming traps, coming up with clever plans to avoid direct conflict, and other appropriately roguish things.

Gregle was one of the most fun characters that I've ever played, and he provided me with one of my most entertaining gaming experiences. This is the power of role playing to a character's strengths and weaknesses. It's a power that Bethesda shows no interest in utilizing for Fallout 4.

Out of the vault and into the wastes

I have to give credit to Bethesda for making one really interesting decision with Fallout 4: the game starts in a time period prior to the Great War that triggered the nuclear holocaust, and so it explores as yet unseen elements of the series' backstory. Or at least, it does for all of fifteen minutes. Much like Fallout 3, the pre-war gameplay and time that you spend in the vault is really just an extended tutorial and character-creation process. But unlike Fallout 3, it doesn't give enough time and depth to those settings to make the player legitimately care about them or the characters in them.

Fallout 4 - pre-war home
You don't spend enough time in your pre-war home or vault to develop any attachment to the place or people.

After creating your character and setting your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, you and your spouse immediately flee with your infant child to the neighborhood vault. Once inside, you're handed the trademark silly superhero pajama jumpsuit and then promptly cryogenically frozen. You awake to witness your spouse get murdered and child kidnapped by apparent raiders, but then get frozen again. Then you awake again to do the combat tutorial against radroaches before leaving the vault and starting the game proper.

You spend virtually no time in the pre-war time period; you don't bond at all with your spouse or child; you don't establish any connections with your home or neighbors. There is absolutely no emotional bond between the player and what is lost in the war. So when the game drops you in the wasteland with a dead spouse, a missing child, and a quest to track down the kidnapper/killer, it does so without creating any emotional connection or investment for the player. I could go to Concord and then to Diamond City and search for my son, or I could just wander off in any random direction fighting raiders and painstakingly building my own little settlement out in the middle of nowhere using salvaged car tires and scrapped raider armor. Fallout 4 doesn't waste any time taking a nose-dive into the open world limbo.

Fallout 3 - birthday in vault 101
Fallout 3 simulated an entire childhood in the
vault, with friends, family, and even bullies.

Compare this against Fallout 3's prologue. It spent a considerably longer time developing your character and immersing you in the vault. Your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) plays with you as a baby to teach movement and camera controls, he teaches you how to shoot, and throws a surprise birthday party for you. You interact with a childhood friend, other vault dwellers, and even a bully in order to tutorialize persuasion and speech checks and learn how to solve conflicts without violence. You even go to school and take a test to determine your default skills. In the short amount of time in the vault, you've lived a montage of an entire life.

With only a little bit of buy-in from the player, Fallout 3's Vault 101 becomes a living, breathing place populated with people who you can relate to and care about. You, as a player, have an investment in it and the characters that inhabit it. So when shit happens and you have to leave the vault, it's a monumental moment, and the events of your life, and the decisions that you've made, will shape your character's development over the rest of the game.

Even Skyrim gave the player interesting role-play decisions in its tutorial by required your character to make an immediate decision to follow the imperials or the Stormcloaks (though the scenario makes that decision a pretty one-sided one). And your initial choices of weapons and battle tactics would level up those specific skills; thus, starting the character down a path towards specializing in those skills as the game progressed (though you were completely free to change all that if you want).

And Fallout 4 has a perfect opportunity to take that father / son dynamic from Fallout 3, and invert it! The game could have opened with the birth of the baby. Since Bethesda had to record dialogue for multiple names for the player character, they could just as easily have done the same with the child's name. The doctor could hand you a paper with "This Year's Popular Baby Names", and you could chose one of those names that were explicitly recorded in dialogue. You could even be given the option to type your own name and replace the child's name with "my son" in dialogue. You could fill out the child's name and your own character's name on the birth certificate. Naming the baby would create a sense of ownership and connection to the child that might help encourage the player to pursue the main quest.

Fallout 4 - leaving the vault
Fallout 4's vault serves only as a combat tutorial with no depth, emotional resonance, or meaningful decisions.

But it doesn't have to stop there...

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Skyrim DLC

In my Skyrim review, I pretty much only considered the base game content. But the game does include three paid DLC packs that are fairly hit-or-miss. Instead of making my original review longer and more complicated (it's already long enough), I'll lump all the DLC reviews into this one post.

As a reminder, I am playing the PS3 version of the game, so my review applies specifically to the console version. Many (if not all) of my complaints can probably be relieved on the PC by mods. Sadly, I do not have access to mods...

Table of contents

  1. Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
  2. Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
  3. Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
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Gone Home

I'm very late to the Gone Home bandwagon. It's a game that has been available for well over a year and a half. I've had it sitting in my Steam library for quite some time, but only just now got around to playing it, since I've been busy with other games and projects.

The game has already received piles and piles of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades, and I can't imagine that I have anything new to add to this conversation. It was very hard to go into this game without a bias considering that I already knew a bit about how it would play out, and that it's received overwhelmingly positive praise. But now that I've played it, I can say that Gone Home deserves every bit of praise that it receives!

Gone Home - family photo
The inclusion of real family photos
adds to the sense of realism.

The premise of Gone Home is that the player assumes the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman arriving at her family's new house for the first time after a year of university abroad. She finds the house empty. Her younger sister apparently got into a fight with her parents and has run away. The player must explore the house to discover clues as to what happened in the family, why Sam ran away, and where she is now.

To discover the details of the situation, the player must explore the house, reading hand-written notes, looking at journals, looking at photographs, and picking up cues from the environment in order to piece together the story. Each note has distinct hand-writing, and by the end of the game, you'll even start to recognize the handwritings and know who wrote a particular note before you even pick it up.

By observing the house, reading notes, and hearing journal voice-overs, the player begins to piece together the family's story. The primary narrative revolves around a budding romance between Kate's younger sister, Sam, and a friend at school, and the conflict that comes from her parents' disapproval of the relationship.

Anyone who has ever had a crush or been in love (which is almost all of us) should be able to recognize and relate to elements of Sam's story, even if your situation doesn't mirror hers. The early notes depicting the excitement of getting to know someone new and falling in love were particularly powerful. Reading about Sam being shy in approaching her crush, and then finally having the feeling reciprocated is heartwarming. And the eventual roadblocks in the relationship are then equally heartbreaking.

Gone Home - Sam's room
The game is loaded with personality that makes the characters more substantial and real.

This story is made even more powerful by the absolutely perfect voice-over narration ...

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A gamer's life...

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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