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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Star Trek: Discovery

After a myriad of false starts, delays, production problem, bad PR, and generally negative expectations, Star Trek: Discovery finally premiered at the end of September. And the general consensus online seems to be pretty positive. It's not going to be the anthology series that I'd hoped for, but I didn't hate the first two episodes. I really didn't like them either, though.

Based on the season preview following the end of the second episode, it seems like it's kind of hard to gauge the series after just the first two episodes. They seem like more of a "prologue" to the main story, rather than part of the main story itself. These first two episodes take place on a different ship, with a different captain and crew, and a different situation than the rest of the show. So I don't know how representative they are going to be of the series itself.

The first two episodes see Captain Georgiou killed and the Shenzhou destroyed.

It seems a bit disingenuous (to me) for CBS to air only the first episode and then expect us to shell out $6 a month for the rest of the season. The first two episodes seem like they should have been the bare minimum, but three would have been even better, just so that audiences could see what the series proper is going to look like. Ideally, they should have aired the entire first season and then moved subsequent seasons to the streaming service. As it stands, I still don't trust the show enough to feel inclined to spend the money on a subscription. After all, it could be that the first few episodes were conceived under the direction of Bryan Fuller, and his spat with the studio, and subsequent departure from the project, could have lead to a radical change in direction for later episodes. But then again, those creative differences apparently cropped up before filming the premiere even started, so who knows how much of Fuller's creative vision even survived at all (despite the fact that he's credited as the creator and lead story writer in the opening credits).

Maybe I could pay for one month (or do a free trial) and then binge the entire rest of the series?

Anachronisms, and apparently space is no obstacle

Right off the bat, I had a lot of the knee-jerk reactions that I was expecting to have due to uniform anachronisms, costume and makeup redesigns, and so forth. CBS went to the trouble to recreate phasers and communicators that resemble the ones from the original Star Trek pilot, and apparently even made Klingon blood pink (ala Star Trek VI), but they couldn't be bothered to design ship-specific insignia badges for the uniforms? Everybody wears the delta-shield, which was supposed to be an emblem unique to the Enterprise. It was only adopted as the symbol of Starfleet (as a whole) later, in part because of the increased militarization of Starfleet due to the threat of the Klingons, and in honor of the Enterprise's service.

Just as I'd feared, everyone is wearing the same delta shield insignia.

And in the interests of fairness to the new Star Wars movies, I also can't neglect to mention the problem that the Discovery premiere had with distance...

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The Orville

Discovery isn't the only Star Trek show on TV this fall -- at least, in spirit anyway. September saw the premiere of Seth McFarlane's Trek-clone The Orville. Orville stumbled out of the gates at first with a premiere episode that I really didn't like. But it's been slowly getting better -- or at least, less bad, with each of the first few episodes being substantially better (though still not entirely effective) than the premiere.

A lot of this has to do with a shift in the show's tone. The show was advertised and marketed as a comedy (basically, a televised version of Galaxy Quest), and I went into the first episode with a comedic mindset, and that premiere episode definitely went out of its way to try to tell jokes. That was a problem because the jokes (and by extension the show) just wasn't funny. The focus on comedy and gags also detracted from the serious drama, which was poorly-written, sloppily-executed, and which revolved around a dumb sci-fi MacGuffin. Further, much of the comedy involved stupid pop culture references which are going to quickly become dated; thus, hurting the show's lasting re-watchability if it ever becomes good enough to warrant rewatching.

If you think Star Trek needs more dick and fart jokes --
or more dogs licking their balls in the background, then The Orville is for you.

The problem is that MacFarlane just isn't that good at writing jokes. It pains me to say this because I was a huge fan of Family Guy when it first premiered, and I'll still defend the quality of those first two seasons. But MacFarlane seems to be completely arrogant in his own joke-writing ability, while simultaneously completely dismissive of the audience's ability to grasp the jokes that he seems to think are much more complex and clever than they actually are. Most of these jokes boil down to being fart or sex jokes, and very few work on more than the most juvenile and immature of levels. Perhaps the best example of this is a joke in which the Captain Mercer puts a distress call on the viewscreen. The distressed scientist has a dog in the background who spends the entire conversation licking his balls. It was mildly funny due to its relative subtlety. Yeah, I guess that probably happened occasionally to Captain Archer in Enterprise. Ha ha. But then as soon as the conversation was over, the viewscreen flicks off, and the navigator and helmsman say "Hey, did you see that dog licking his balls?" What little subtlety is gone; joke ruined!

It's like McFarlane thinks he has to remind the audience that there was a joke, and that you should have been laughing, even though the joke wasn't that funny to begin with. This is the same problem that I've always had with laugh tracks in sitcoms: all they do is remind me that the jokes aren't funny. Except McFarlane doesn't use a laugh track, he writes the "hey, there was a joke here. Did you get the joke?" into the script!

"Command Performance" had humor more appropriate for its sci-fi set-up and relationship drama.

The next two episodes, however, seemed to plant their feet more firmly in the territory of genuine sci-fi concepts and character drama, and the show was stronger for it. The execution, however, is kind of hit-or-miss...

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Master of Orion (2016) - title

The 2016 reboot of Master of Orion kind of shoots itself in the foot a bit with its own subtitle: "Conquer the Stars". When I play 4x games, I like to feel like I'm really building an empire, managing an economy, and conducting diplomacy. All of those things are present in Master of Orion, but I've gotten a pretty distinct feeling that this is yet another strategy game that falls victim to military rushing being the optimal strategy by far. Master of Orion doesn't really want you to build a civilization and colonize the galaxy; it firmly wants you to do what its subtitle tells you: conquer the stars.

Master of Orion III was kind of shit (it was boring, ugly, and completely lacked personality and substance), but at least it made some effort to be new and interesting. Most noticeably, the galactic map was actually three-dimensional. Sure, this was a navigational and UI nightmare for the human player, but it required players to think differently about how they approached expansion and warfare. At a more fundamental level, MoO3 sought to be a game about macro-management, asking the player to manage a vast galactic empire rather than just a collection of a dozen or so planets. The meat of the game, thus, was intended to be in the mid-to-late stages, as developed empires engaged in epic battles for survival, rather than all the fun and challenge being front-loaded in the early rush to colonize all the nearby planets. It didn't work, but at least it was trying to genuinely innovate the 4x genre.

The new Master of Orion isn't anywhere near that ambitious, and seeks instead to simply bring the original Master of Orion concept (in its simplest form) into the age of high-resolution 3-d graphics. It's a scaled-down, bog-standard space-4x game that borrows heavily from Endless Space and Civilization V. But it is at least a competent one!

Conquer the Stars isn't as big, complex, or ambitious as Master of Orion 3, but at least it's competent.

The galaxy itself isn't very big this time around. Depending on the map's size, there's only a few dozen stars, and most of them only have two or three planets. Unstable star lanes and space monsters can lock you out of exploring certain systems until you research certain technologies or grow your military sufficiently large (respectively). Other than that, exploration is over fairly quickly (especially once you start performing map trades in diplomacy).

Planet-management is also fairly easy. You can assign population meeples between one of three different types of output: food, production, and research. Meeples of different jobs and races have different icons, and unhappy meeples on strike have icons that sit down holding a picket sign. It makes it very easy to see what your population's current status is at a glance. There's just not really much to do with them. You don't have to assign them to work specific buildings, and with only 3 outputs to manage, balancing or specializing isn't that difficult.

All the buildings in the game are also one-time builds that don't serve much function other than to provide flat points of one of the three outputs, or to modify the efficiency of meeples in a particular output category. Buildings that have unique functionality (such as the Spy Center, Gravity Generators, or Interplanetary Administration) are few and far between. The only other thing that you do with your planets is to occasionally terraform them in order to boost your max population and unlock additional slots along each of the output tracks.

Master of Orion - conquered planet
Each point of population is of a specific race, which affects the morale of conquered planets.

The tech tree also feels kind of bland and linear. I would much prefer a tech web along the lines of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Master of Orion kind of goes in this direction a bit by including some techs in which you have to chose which of two different items you want to take when you research certain techs. You can then trade for the other via diplomacy if you want to. It's kind of like the leaf nodes in Beyond Earth, but only some techs have them, and I rarely had to think too hard about which one I wanted...

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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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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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