My biggest concern going into this new Twilight Zone reboot was with the hour-long format of its premiere. The first episode, "The Comedian" (which was available on YouTube for free as a preview of the show to come), was a bit overlong and dragged considerably in the second half. It had made its point by about halfway through, we could all see where the episode was going, and it insisted on going on for another 20 minutes despite not really having anything left to say.

OK, yeah sure, in the past I've complained about shows like Fox's Cosmos reboot being too short. Commercials cutting Niel DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot to only 45-ish minutes was simply not enough time for Tyson to give more than an elementary overview of the grandeur of nature or science.

However, The Twilight Zone isn't an educational show about "all that is, or ever was, or ever will be"; it's an anthology of science fiction parables and allegories. Parables and allegories are usually short and simple stories intended to convey a moral or lesson or insight into the human condition. The Twilight Zone doesn't really need a full hour to tell its stories. The twists are easy enough to see coming. This isn't The Sixth Sense, or Fight Club, or American Psycho, or Se7en, or something similar that actually needs a two-hour runtime to build up suspense and intrigue and dot the entire runtime with clues for its twist ending.

The pilot episode "The Comedian" felt over-long.

I was happy to see that episodes later in the first season have variable runtimes. The second episode, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" (which is actually a totally different story than the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" classic that it is homaging with its title), is under 40 minutes, filled out its runtime better, and enjoyed much tighter overall pacing. The following episode, "Replay", clocked in at 45 minutes, and also enjoyed a much tighter script.

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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

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Terraforming Mars

Steam recently released a digital version of the board game Terraforming Mars. I haven't played the digital version (which is getting "mixed" and negative reviews at the time of this writing), but I have played the board game version. It's pretty fun, and in celebration of the latest NASA probe landing on the surface of Mars, I thought I'd launch a review of the board game.

Terraforming Mars has a wide variety of gameplay mechanics, which makes it kind of difficult to clearly categorize it. It also makes it a little difficult to teach the game to new players efficiently. It's not an overly-complicated game, however. It's just a lot of different concepts that you have to explain. Regardless, I've been able to get through learning games with new players in about three or three-and-a-half hours (including the rules explanation). So it's not overly burdensome to learn and play. It's also not terribly hard to simply play a sample round to teach the game flow, and then mulligan the game if any players feel they dug themselves into a hole.

Terraforming Mars has multiple distinct mechanics, ranging from tableau-building to tile-placement.

There's tile placement with adjacency bonuses. There's resource management. There's action economy. There's a little bit of tableau building and hand management. There's even a certain degree of bluffing. Playing with the non-basic corporations adds variable player powers, You can even optionally play with card drafting! Pretty much the only thing that we're not doing is loyalty / betrayal mechanics. Despite including so many varying game mechanics, nothing feels out of place, and everything fits together well.

The rulebook includes footnotes explaining the scientific basis for the rules and mechanics.

Depending on how you play, however, the actual game board and your tableau of cards can sometimes feel very disparate. If you're not actively placing tiles on the board, then the whole board can pretty much boil down to a score and prerequisite tracker. However, if you're avoiding placing tiles on the board, then you're probably going to lose, as I've yet to see a predominantly card-based strategy win the game.

The board itself includes a map of Mars' surface, and has notable landmarks on Mars clearly labeled. Unfortunately, the board only covers one half of Mars' surface, so there's some notable landmarks that are not included at all (perhaps the other side of the planet is an expansion?). The resource cubes are very shiny and pretty, and have an appropriately sci-fi aesthetic to them. The rulebook also includes little footnotes that explain some of the scientific bases for the game's rules and mechanics. it's like the kind of thing you might expect if Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote a board game. Science and space nerds will probably really appreciate these efforts at scientific accuracy.

The resource cubes are pretty, but shift around very easily on the flimsy, card stock economy boards.

Other components besides the resource cubes are kind of cheap and flimsy though. The player economy boards are printed out on basic card stock. There aren't any slots or grooves for the production cubes to sit in, so they slide around very easily if the table is jostled, or if the economy board is shifted around. You may want to invest in some third-party replacements or overlays in order to solve this problem.

The box also doesn't have any inserts of any kind for storing components -- just a handful of plastic, zip-lock bags. They expect you to just drop all the cards in a plastic baggie and just toss them in the box haphazardly along with all the other pieces!

At a price point of $70 (USD), I expect more from a game's components! Fortunately, where the game lacks in production value, it more than makes up for in entertainment value!

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Doom (2016) - title

I never played the original Doom. I didn't get into PC gaming until the mid twenty-aughts, and even then didn't play much in the way of first person shooters that weren't the first two Call of Duty games. I was always more into SimCity and Civilization. So I was in no rush to play 2016's reboot of Doom, nor can I really look at it from the perspective of how it holds up against the original's legacy. I heard a lot of good things about it, and picked it up on this year's Steam summer sale.

Bethesda recently announced a sequel, so I thought I'd check this one out to find out if I should be excited.

I miss the good ol' days of game demos being available before a game releases.

I actually did play the free demo on the PSN months ago, which was an option for me because the game's been out for two years already (does this count as a retro review?). I miss the days when free demos were available before a game's release, so we could try it before we buy it. Sigh. Anyway, I had a lot of trouble with hitting enemies with a PS4 controller considering how fast and movement-oriented the combat is, but I definitely saw the potential enjoyment that I could have with the finer control of a mouse. So I went ahead with the Steam purchase.

Punch a demon in the face

Doom breaks from the cover-based mold set by most recent big budget first-person shooters by encouraging very fast, very frenetic, very aggressive, and very in-your-face action in a fashion similar to Bloodborne. Staggering an enemy allows you to perform a melee "Glory Kill" that provides you with a shower of health pick-ups and ammo. When your health is critical, the best course of action usually isn't to run away and take cover (like in so many modern cover-based shooters); rather, the ideal strategy is often to find the biggest, meanest demon, shotgun it in the face, and then rip its head off with your own bare hands. This keeps the player in the action, and mostly removes the need to backtrack through a level to find health kits and powerups. It's not quite as tactical or thoughtful as the dismemberment system from Dead Space, and some might argue that it's derivative of the chainsaw from Gears of War, but it does help to create a definite flow to the combat that helps it to stand out from other shooters of the era.

Charging an enemy is often the best way to restore your health.

The default move speed is faster than the sprint of most other modern shooter games. You can press 'Shift' to toggle a "walk" mode, but I honestly don't know why you would ever want to, and I never once used it after experimenting with the controls at the start of the game. Most enemies also charge at you with melee attacks or have actual projectile attacks (as opposed to hit-scan weapons). You don't avoid damage by ducking behind cover; instead, you can usually just side-step an incoming projectile or attack. Again, because of the fast speed of the character, the term "side-step" isn't really apt; it's more like a "side-sprint".

This all creates a very retro feel that [I assume] faithfully captures the spirit and fluidity of the original game's combat. It's an experience more akin to a first-person bullet hell game rather than the cover-based, whack-a-mole shooting galleries that define most modern shooters.

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After reading through my complaints regarding the shrinking scale of the Star Wars film universe, a colleague of mine asked me to preview a novel that he was writing. He also grew up as a Trekker, and he sorely misses the optimistic science fiction that Star Trek represents, as well as the attention to technical and scientific accuracy that is sadly lacking in much of today's science fiction. Popular "science fiction" of today frequently focuses on special effect spectacle to the exclusion of cerebral or thoughtful stories and concepts, but there are still plenty of indie writers and film makers who try to offer more substance over pomp.

In his debut novel, Without Gravity, author David Pax explores an optimistic distant future in which humanity has spread across the stars, living in harmony with our technology and the worlds that we inhabit. It's not a vision of the future without conflict, however. Planet-bound humans are drawn into periodic conflict with a divergent culture of human "Spacers" who spend their entire lives within the confines of their zero-gravity space ships, making them virtually aliens to the rest of humanity.

When the Spacers launch a surprise attack on the mineral-rich frontier world of Tirimba, the citizens must take shelter within the cavernous mines and prevent the Spacers from acquiring the valuable resources that would allow them to build new ships and threaten the heart of human civilization. The Spacers aren't the only threat, as the citizens of Tirimba must also deal with one colleague who's selfish greed puts the entire war effort at risk.

Pax's vision of the future may be exotic, but it's also very grounded. The conflict is one of resources and logistics, as Pax pays diligent respect to the vast scale and distances of intergalactic conflict, and puts strict limits on the capabilities of the warships and technologies. Tirimba is remote, and is only a small piece of a larger conflict that happens mostly beyond the awareness and comprehension of the civilian refugees who remain stranded on the planet. This remoteness creates drama and maintains mystery and intrigue regarding the conflict. The story, after all, focuses on the civilians, and the personal cost that they pay, rather than on the military.

The novel itself is fairly short and a relatively light and easy read. Despite his engineering background and attempts to describe and develop the technologies and society that he has imagined, Pax doesn't drag the novel's pace down with unnecessary techno-babble. You don't need an engineering degree to follow along or understand.

Pax also writes short stories and maintains a blog. He's a friend and colleague of mine, and we share many common interests and perspectives. If you enjoy reading my ramblings, then I invite you to visit his site as well, and to support him and other indie authors who are trying to keep the spirit of science fiction alive.

If you do decide to purchase Without Gravity, use the promo code MEGABEARSFAN at checkout to receive a discount.

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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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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

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