Upgrade movie

This one snuck up under the radar for me, and was a real pleasant surprise. Upgrade is a Blumhouse Productions film made by some of the same people who make Insidious, The Purge, and Saw, so the previews didn't really sell me on the idea of a clever sci-fi thriller. I was expecting more of just a gore-fest. There's some really over-the-top violence and gore, but the movie is paced well enough that every single graphic kill feels legitimately earned. The choreography is exceptional and creative, and might have been worth the ticket price alone, even if it weren't attached to such a well-made movie.

Where Upgrade surprised me, however, is the way that it is filled with small world-building details that really help to sell this idea of slightly-dystopian near-futurism, and the almost luddite level aversion that some people might have to the inevitable automation of our lives. It does this by being a small, simple story that has a sinister undertone, but which doesn't feel like it's trying to be too grandiose or overblown. This is basically a hard-R-rated feature-length episode of Black Mirror.

Upgrade has some very slick choreography, and some gruesome (but well-earned) violence.

The twist was, admittedly, very easy to see coming after about 10 minutes into the movie, and so the build-up to it makes the bulk of the movie feel kind of predictable. However, there was a second twist that did catch me off-guard. I'm not sure if the movie really builds up to that second twist properly, but maybe that's just me...

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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally sat down and binged the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. I was actually excited to see it (not excited enough to sign up for CBS's All Access service), since it looked like the mirror universe twist would take the show in new and creative directions, and might even establish that Discovery would be a sort-of anthology series after all.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I was initially excited to see Discovery's mirror universe episodes.

Stakes feel artificial and exaggerated

The mirror universe storyline didn't feel like it was new or creative at all. In fact, it felt like it was retreading a lot of territory that Star Trek has covered before. Except now, they are supercharging it with stupid.

Once again, I'm not going to fuss about the show being aesthetically different from the original series. Such complaints are mostly pedantic. You can't use the same 1960's aesthetics from the original series and expect the show to look futuristic to modern audiences. I can overlook the shiny touch displays, the redesigned ships, the new Klingon makeup, the holographic communications, and things like that. I'm a bit less willing to overlook details like the insignia badge, but whatever.

I was actually a little bit excited to see the mirror universe in the second half of Discovery. After all, the mirror universe episodes of Enterprise were some of the most fun that series ever allowed itself to have. Granted, it was super fan-servicey and silly, but it had that campy charm that helped make the original series so successful. Discovery does not have any camp, or any charm.

Enterprise's "In a Mirror, Darkly" got away with its silly fan service by being charmingly-campy.

What I can't tolerate are the major anachronisms like the Klingons having cloaking devices ten years before Balance of Terror, fifteen years before The Time Trap, and twenty-eight years (give or take) before The Search for Spock. Yes, I also complained about the Romulans already having a cloaking device in Star Trek: Enterprise as well.

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Stellaris - title

Last year, after my initial enthusiasm for Civilization VI began petering out (until the announcement of the expansion), I went on a bit of a space-4x bender. I spent some time with the rebooted Master of Orion. It was good, but I was underwhelmed by its limited scale and casual depth. I also planned on hitting up Endless Space 2. I played the first Endless Space briefly off-and-on, and I liked it, but kept getting diverted to other games and projects and never really allowed myself the time to get comfortable with the game.

But first, before diving into Engless Space 2, I wanted to tackle a game that's been in my library for over a year: Stellaris. This is an epic, space 4x strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive -- the same developer who brought us the infamously complex and detailed Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series.

A gentler learning curve than Europa Universalis

I was hesitant to try Stellaris because of its relationship to Europa Universalis (and its notorious complexity), but I was surprised to find that Stellaris has a bit of a gentler learning curve. Instead of starting you out "in median res" with a developed European kingdom with armies already mobilized, alliances and rivalries already in place, and wars already in progress, Stellaris starts you out in control of a single planet in a single star system, with just a small fleet of corvettes, a construction ship, and a science ship at your disposal. You send your science ship to explore the other planets in your system, then on to the nearest star, and slowly explore from there at a much more comfortable pace that is akin to a game like Civilization or Master of Orion. Unlike with Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, I didn't feel like I needed to sit down with a history textbook in order to know what was going on at the start of my game.

You start the game with a single science ship to explore your own star system, and work your way out from there.

Don't let this initial apparent simplicity fool you. Stellaris is still quite deep, quite complex, and the galaxy that you'll explore really does feel vast. While the Master of Orion reboot has galaxies with a mere dozens of stars (very few of which contain more than one or two planets), Stellaris features a default galaxy size consisting of hundreds of stars, most with their own planets, which might (in turn) contain moons.

There's still going to be some trial and error, as you'll make a lot of mistakes and miss a lot of opportunities in your first few games. If you left the "ironman" mode disabled, then you'll at least be free to re-load earlier saves and try to play better if anything goes horribly wrong. However, Paradox throws a bit of a curve ball at players by disabling achievements if you disable ironman mode. You won't stumble into achievements in your learning game(s) or by save-scumming; you'll have to earn them in the Ironman mode!

You also won't be able to manually save while in Ironman mode. You have to wait for the game to perform an auto-save (which I think happens every few in-game months, or maybe every year?). This can be very annoying if you don't notice the "saving game" popup and don't know if the game has saved your most recent actions. It's fine to include a single save file for this mode, but they could at least include a "Save and Exit" option in the pause menu!

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A Quiet Place

I missed yet another theatrical sci-fi movie. The trailers for Annihilation made the movie look like kind of a dumb monster flick, so I didn't rush out to go see it. I only started to hear several weeks later that it might actually be a pretty good sci-fi film. Unfortunately, life happened, my weekends were busy, and I never made it out to the cinema to see it.

So instead, I was invited to see a new horror movie with some friends. A Quiet Place is also a monster flick, but its novel gimmick really helps to set it apart from other monster movies. The gimmick itself isn't even particularly original. Other movies have featured monsters that are especially sensitive to sound. It's the execution of A Quiet Place that sets it apart.

Much like last year's exceptional War for the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place's dialogue comes mostly in the form of subtitled sign language, which the family of protagonists already knows because the oldest child (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. This leads to the movie being palpably quiet for most of its runtime. I say "most" because there's a few moments of punctuated loudness that work effectively. There's also quite a few moments in which artificially-loud noises, sound effects, and musical ques are used to create cheap jump scares.

That last bit was disappointing because when A Quiet Place is cleverly using its sound design to ratchet up tension, it works phenomenally. This comes through most clearly with the deaf daughter. The movie goes almost completely silent whenever it switches to her point of view, with a faint, high-pitched static being the only sound you'll hear. When this is combined with some depth of field effects that make it hard to see clearly what's going on, it really helps to sell the sense of powerlessness and lack of awareness of the character, which ratchets up the tension for the audience.

The daughter is deaf, so the family already knows sign language, and use it throughout the movie.

The diagetic loud noises, such as the toy space shuttle or knocking over the lamp at the beginning of the movie work really well to punctuate the silence and create momentary panic. It's when lazy, cliche horror movie sounds start to come into play that things start to feel cheap. I'm not sure whether to blame this on actor/director John Krasinski, or on producer Michael Bay. I lean towards the latter. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it does weaken it a little...

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Almost a decade ago, my love of board-gaming was kick-started by a single game. That game was Fantasy Flight's Battlestar Galactica board game. For a period of a couple years, my friends and I were playing that game once or twice almost every month. Even after we started branching out to other games, BSG would regularly grace our tables.

The Battlestar Galactica board game kick-started my tabletop hobby.

Unfortunately, as time went on, members of the regular group(s) that I played with got new jobs, moved, started families, and it became harder and harder to get a large enough group together to play a 4 or 5-hour long board game. Eventually, BSG (along with all my other games) started collecting dust on a shelf.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I finally got back into having semi-regular board game sessions, thanks primarily to my girlfriend taking an interest in X-Wing. Most of our board gaming in the past years has been dominated by either quick group games (such as Dominion, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Resistance, or Cards Against Humanity), or smaller, two-player games (like the aforementioned X-Wing). No one game has dominated in quite the same way that BSG did. I'd like to play it again, and maybe someday I'll even put up a review of it, but we haven't dusted the ol' game off because we rarely have the time for it. When we do have a whole evening cleared for an epic game, we try to play other games that we haven't already played the hell out of.

Well, clearly, I wasn't the only one who loved Battlestar Galactica, but wished it didn't take so bloody long to play, because Evan Derrick's 2011 game Dark Moon is basically a reskin of Battlestar Galactica that only takes an hour and a half to play. Dark Moon accomplishes this by reducing a lot of the mechanical complexity and by making progress in the game a lot more straight-forward. Virtually every mechanic or interaction in Dark Moon is a direct analog to a mechanic or interaction in BSG.

The shape-shifting space monster among us

The core conceit of Dark Moon (and Battlestar Galactica) is that the game is a semi-cooperative game in which most of the players are working together to try to prevent their moon-based mining station from falling apart around them. However, one or more of the players is secretly a shape-shifting alien (an "infected") who is trying to sabotage the station and kill all humans. Players take turns performing a single action to try to stabilize the deteriorating mining station. However, the most efficient action is to "issue an order" to another player to allow that player to take multiple actions. The catch is that the player you give the order to may secretly be a saboteur, so you have to be careful about only giving orders to other players who you trust.

Dark Moon - board
Players cooperate to complete a series of events, but some players are secretly traitors.

At the end of each player's turn, the entire group participates in a group task. Each task card has a pass or fail condition. Passing may result in positive effects for the uninfected players, and failing may result in harmful effects. These group tasks ensure that every player gets to participate in virtually every turn, so you're never sitting around twiddling your thumbs waiting for other players to do things. Even if you weren't participating in the turn, it would still behoove you to pay close attention to what's going on, if for nothing else than to look for any tells or indications that the current player may be an Infected...

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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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