Movie audiences were all pleasantly surprised when the ensemble cast of Avengers all came together to make a pretty damned good movie. There was genuine anxiety regarding whether that movie could possibly successfully bring four movies' worth of superheroes together into a single movie, and manage to give everybody enough valuable screen time to make the whole thing work. Similarly, there was considerably anxiety regarding whether or not Marvel could double-down and pull off an ensemble of ensembles for the mega-crossover Infinity War. But at this point, I think we've all moved past any expectation that Marvel will screw up, and we all just assume that they're going to find a way to magically make it all work.

I had to wait a couple weeks to find out. I had planned to see the movie the Monday after release and have this review out two weeks ago, but fate conspired against that. Towards the end of the trailers, somebody pulled the fire alarm in the building, forcing the theater to evacuate. It was a false alarm, but by the time they let everyone back in, it was too late and the movie wouldn't be over in time to pick up the kids from KidsQuest before they closed for the night. Ah well. My girlfriend finally got sick of having to hush her students whenever they started talking about the movie, so she dragged me out to the theater earlier this week.

The sheer volume of characters, content, and punches here does make Infinity War one of the more unbalanced of Marvel's movies. It is after all, weaving a complex tapestry of superhero action, science fiction, and magical fantasy, and there's virtually no set-up or development for the characters. This movie is all climax all the time. It's probably the first Marvel movie that really requires that you have seen most of the lead-up material. There simply isn't enough time here to introduce who everyone is and what their deal is. If you haven't seen at least one film featuring each character, you'll likely be lost with regard to who they are. Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, and Ragnarok are pretty much essential prerequisite viewing. You can skip Ant Man though, as he's conspicuously absent from this particular compilation piece.

Infinity War is an ensemble of ensembles.

This movie would probably fail miserably if it were a typical super-hero movie focused around the heroes and their struggle to beat the bad guy. Instead, Infinity War is much more about the bad guy. Thanos is pretty much the main character here, and a great deal of time and effort is paid to trying to make him as relatable and understandable of a villain as possible. Whether or not you sympathize with his point of view will, of course, depend on where you stand on the topic of universal genocide. Josh Brolin's Thanos does, however, have some pretty definitive swagger and charisma. His CG monstrosity has a lot of screen presence. It's too bad that the CG isn't always completely convincing though.

Because the bad guy is basically the main character (and protagonist), the entire narrative arc of the movie is almost the inverse of what you'd usually expect. The bad guys show up to create the dramatic stakes and sense of threat with aplomb, as expected. But instead of the rising action being a series of setbacks for the heroes with a climactic victory at the end, the heroes seem to come together and get everything mostly under control for the middle act of the movie, only to have it all go to shit when the climax arrives.

Thanos is the main character of this movie, and the dramatic and emotional arcs revolve around him.
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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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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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In my reviews of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I complained about how the speed of communications and hyperspace travel seems to have shrunk the Star Wars universe. I asserted that the writers seem to have no appreciation for the size and scale of this universe, or for galactic conflict. That observation severely hurt my enjoyment of both films. Star Wars has always flown lose with its science, but even though the original trilogy got a lot of details wrong (ahem, "parsec"!), there at least seemed to be an effort to respect some scientific believability. Even the prequels stayed fairly respectful to the size and scale of the universe and conflict. The new movies, by comparison, seem completely (and deliberately) scientifically illiterate.

Keep in mind that the following analysis is coming from someone with only minimal knowledge of the extended universe. I'm more of a Trekker than a Star Wars fan (a "Warser"?). I have tech manuals of the Enterprise and the star charts of the Federation, but no Star Destroyer tech manuals or Imeprial star charts. So my opinions come from the films alone. Besides, all those novels, video games, and comic books have been de-canonized by Disney anyway. If anyone more knowledgeable of the Star Wars extended universe wants to chip in with corroborating or conflicting information, feel free to do so in the comments. Thanks to Disney's meddling, such knowledge may now be moot.

And oh, by the way, it drives me nuts when Star Trek movies make these sorts of mistakes as well. I'm looking at you, Star Trek V and first episode of Enterprise!

Hyperspace originally analogous to contemporary air travel

Let's start by looking at a frame of reference: the trip in the Millenium Falcon in the first Star Wars movie. While the Millennium Falcon is in transit from Tatooine to Alderan, Luke has time to receive some rudimentary Jedi training from Obi Wan, Han calmly relaxes and socializes in the lounge, and Chewbacca has time for at least one game of space-chess against the droids. This hyperspace trip is presented as being analogous to cross-continental (or intercontinental) plane flight: at least enough time for passengers to unfasten their safety belts and wander around the cabin.

Star Wars - lounging in the Millennium Falcon
A hyperspace trip in the Millennium Falcon offers at least enough time for everyone to lounge about.

But an estimate of hours is on the low end of the spectrum of possibilities. As far as I can tell, there's nothing in the movie that negates the possibility of this trip to Alderaan taking days. That would certainly be plenty of time for Obi Wan to teach Luke enough of the basics of Force-sensitivity to enable his "lucky shot" in the climactic Death Star trench run. It would also give the characters enough time to socialize, converse and develop some sense of camaraderie with one another. It's also enough time for Leia to undergo at least a couple rounds of interrogation aboard the Death Star...

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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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