U-boot - title

I haven't been able to organize as many board game sessions as I would have liked to over the past 2 years, thanks to the ongoing COVID pandemic. By the time vaccinations were widely available, and we were willing to have more frequent gatherings, many of my board-gaming friends had returned to work. Many work irregular hours, so it's hard to organize games. And despite limiting gatherings, we still suffered our own COVID infections, and several other potential exposures that forced us or our friends into self-quarantine for a week or two, resulting in the cancellation of some board game plans. And of course, having an infant to take care of doesn't make organizing play dates any easier.

Despite not being able to play board games as much, I've still been buying board games, in the hopes that eventually we'll be able to overcome the need for social distancing and will be able to have larger game sessions again. One such game that I bought last summer is U-Boot: the Board Game, which is an app-assisted World War II submarine management game. The rulebook and "tactical guides" are massive, and the game looks lengthy with a steep learning curve. It's not the kind of game that we can play in an impromptu session. It requires preparation, and a lot of time to practice.

As such, I haven't been able to play it yet. I only downloaded the app and played around for a bit to try to learn the rules. Hopefully I'll get to play an actual game soon.

In the meantime, I decided I could maybe get my U-boat fix by buying and playing a totally different U-Boat: the Game, which is an early-access PC game on Steam. It has no relation to the board game, but feels like it could be.

U-Boat is still in early access when I played it. I'm not sure when it's supposed to come out of early access, but it seems like it's fairly complete and should be ready soon. I don't usually go for early access games. As any reader of this blog will know, I take a [possibly overly] critical view of the games I play, and playing an "incomplete" game can be a frustrating experience. I don't want the frustration of incomplete mechanics and frequent bugs to sour my opinion of a game to the point that I'm not willing to play it at all when it is eventually complete. For instance, I never went back to games like No Man's Sky after playing it on release. It wasn't early access, but it might as well have been considering how shallow and incomplete it felt. No matter how much my friends insist that it's better now, I just don't have the motivation to play it again.

I bought the U-Boot board game, and started reviewing the rules, but haven't been able to play it.

But I was itching for some U-boat action, and the user scores looked good, so I gave this one a try. This game is so "indie", I couldn't even find a website for the development studio; just some social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

Early access tutorial

One area that I hope gets a lot of attention before this game leaves early access is the tutorial. Despite taking hours to complete, the tutorial still left me feeling woefully unprepared for the game proper. U-Boat's tutorial teaches the basic mechanics of the game well enough. It taught me how to navigate my sub, how to submerge, how to assign orders to crew, and how to shoot enemy ships and planes using the automated mechanics. What it doesn't teach is any of the actual strategy or technique for operating a World War II submarine, nor does it teach any of the advanced, manual mechanics (like manual torpedo targeting).

How do I deal with escorted convoys? How do I approach without being detected, while still being able to get close enough to identify the ships and attack? Once I launch my torpedoes, what do I do next? Do I wait at periscope depth to confirm the kill? Do I immediately submerge and run away? How do I escape pursuing destroyers? How do I evade depth charges? If I'm hit by a depth charge, what do I do? None of this is explained by the tutorial. I had to spend several Saturday afternoons trying to figure all this out through trial-and-error by save-scumming a single random encounter. It was incredibly frustrating, and I barely had the patience to keep playing.

Tutorial teaches basic mechanics, but isn't effective at teaching strategy.

The early missions don't help ease the player into the game either. I did like 10 patrol missions in "The Black Pit" (the first and "easiest" campaign area), and only encountered a single convoy in the patrol areas, and was only able to sink 1 ship. I would zig-zag around the patrol area, but would never find any enemy contacts. On the way to or from the patrol area, I would often get radio requests to sink a transport with rare tech on board. These would often be escorted by multiple destroyers and a crap-ton of smaller corvettes, and as soon as I would sink one ship, those 3 or 4 destroyers would converge on my exact position and sink me with depth charges.

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Call of Duty: WWII - title

I haven't played a Call of Duty game since World At War on the PS3 almost 10 years ago. I really liked the first two CoD games on PC, but after Infinity Ward stopped developing the games, they increasingly focused on spectacle rather than any attempt to accurately portray war. After throwing back more enemy grenades in the first mission of World At War than were probably ever manufactured in all of World War II (I'm exaggerating a little bit), I got sick of that game and basically gave up on the franchise.

After having a little bit of fun with EA's Battlefield 1, I decided to pick up a used copy of Call of Duty World War II from eBay. I was curious if the return to World War II would be taken a little bit more seriously by Activision. It wasn't. This is the same old stale Call of Duty that I've been actively avoiding for the past decade. The single-player campaign didn't do anything to pull me in.

A light-gun shooting gallery

Probably the biggest problem with the campaign is just how rote and repetitive it feels. Almost all of the game's missions boil down to moving from one shooting gallery to another. When you aren't in an outright combat tunnel (like a bunker or trench), you're only given about a hundred feet of lateral space to work with. The whole game feels very confined and small in scale, with very few opportunities for any tactical movement such as flanking maneuvers. Just sit behind cover and pop out to take a few shots, then repeat. It might as well be an on-rails shooter, or one of those pop-out-and-shoot light-gun arcade machines like Time Crisis. I wonder if this was maybe done to make the game work better in VR? Maybe they wanted to reduce the amount of movement so that players don't get motion sick? But it's not VR, so it just comes off as lazy and tedious.

Almost all the missions boil down to moving from one narrow shooting gallery to another.

Even when the game tries to do something a little different, it usually still finds a way to make it uninteresting, or to outright get it wrong. There are some stealth mechanics shoe-horned into the game -- because of course there's stealth mechanics. They are rudimentary and very unforgiving. It's clear that certain segments are intended to be played stealthily, but you just don't have the tools necessary to make it work, and the levels aren't designed very well for stealth. Your limited field of view makes environmental and situational awareness very difficult. It's hard to tell where enemies are, and it's also hard to tell if your'e hidden behind cover. Even if you are effectively hidden, you can't peek out of cover to monitor the enemy's position or movements.

After stealth killing one or two enemies, I almost always got caught and was forced into more shoot-outs. Many of these scenarios involve the player being isolated and usually disarmed, so that you don't have the firepower to easily deal with a shootout when it inevitably happens. Put simply, the stealth is only barely functional and might as well not even have been included.

The undercover "Liberation" mission is the only level that is actually built around stealth.

The only stealth level that worked was the undercover "Liberation" mission with the Marquis (which you mostly play as a different character). ...

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Dunkirk movie poster

I've had a busy couple of weeks of movies! Three movies in the past two weekends, and planning on seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming in the next couple days. But first, while trying to keep ourselves entertained in Des Moines, my girlfriend and I decided to kill a couple hours at the movies and checked out the newly-released war movie from Christopher Nolan: Dunkirk.

I'll admit that it took me a little while to figure out this movie's chronological structure. Director Christopher Nolan decided to edit the movie into a non-sequential order, in which individual scenes jump back and forth between points in the movie's timeline (sometimes to show the same event again, but this time from a different point of view). There's three main storylines running in parallel: a pair of soldiers trying to catch a boat off the beach, a pair of pilots hunting down German bombers, and a civilian yacht captain setting sail to help rescue the stranded British army. Early in the movie, the scenes with the soldiers take place at night, and the scenes on the planes and in the yacht take place during the day.

At first, I thought maybe this was some kind of time zone difference. Like maybe the scenes on the boat were taking place sufficiently east that the sun had already set; whereas, the planes were flying far enough west that the sun hadn't set yet. This wasn't the case. The movie was, in fact, shifting between an aerial pursuit taking place during one afternoon and the boat escapes that happened the night before (or several nights before). Maybe I missed something at the beginning of the movie that made this all more clear?

I didn't have any trouble following along with the non-linear, compressed time in Inception, but this movie threw me off a tiny bit simply because I wasn't expecting it. Once I realized how the movie actually worked, it was easy to follow along with each of the individual threads, and to start to see where and how they intersected. Not a deal-breaker in any way. By the end, everything comes together quite nicely.

The early movie cycles between the day of the evacuation and conflict from the night before.

Much like War for the Planet of the Apes (which is quite good), Dunkirk is a surprisingly slow and quiet movie...

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Last November, my girlfriend and I took a trip to Denmark and visited the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. That was a great trip, and the ship museum was pretty great, but there were a couple things that we wanted to do, but which we couldn't because the ship museum doesn't operate them in the winter. For one thing, the museum has a collection of reconstructed Viking ships, including a full-size longship. These ships are usually docked in the harbor, along with some living exhibits of the construction and maintenance of these ships and the ropes and sails used to sail them. During winter, the exhibits are closed and the ships themselves are brought onto land and covered in order to prevent ice from forming and damaging the ships.

More importantly, the museum offers tourists the opportunity to go out sailing the reconstructed ships with a couple of museum guides. This service is also only offered in the summer due to weather restrictions, and we decided that we wanted to go back to Denmark so that we could sail a Viking ship!

Big Ben
Big Ben was the first of several Civilization
world wonders that I'd get to see.

She found affordable tickets to London, and we allocated two weeks to spend in Europe this summer. My dad also expressed an interest, and we offered to take him with us and pay for part of his airfare and lodging expenses as a combined Father's Day and birthday gift (his birthday is in May). We ended up deciding to take him to London, England, to Coppenhagen, Denmark, and to Munich, Germany.

London, Stonehenge, and Shakespeare

Our first stop was London, England on June 26th. We did some of the usual tourist things, like visit the Tower of London and walk by Parliament and Big Ben (one of several Civilization wonders that I would be visiting during this trip!) and Westminster Abbey. We also had fish, chips, and beer in a pub and started two week's worth of gluttonous eating! Despite walking 15 to 20 miles per day, I still gained 3 1/2 pounds during the trip.

The British Parlaiment building was covered with scaffolding, apparently being repaired or remodeled. This would actually become a recurring theme during this trip, as many of the places that we visited would be covered with scaffolding.

We visited the Imperial War Museum, including the Churchill Warroom.
I tried on some World War I-era clothing, which was very uncomfortable and itchy.

The second day (Tuesday), we visited the Churchill Warroom and the Imperial War Museum. I had previously visited the Imperial War Museum in Manchester during my trip to the U.K., so this time we got to see the larger museum in London. I was a little bit disappointed that the museum didn't cover British Imperial history prior to World War I. There were no exhibits about colonial British sailing ships. The museum starts with World War I, and then goes through World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism. It also included an exhibit on the Holocaust, which was interesting because the exhibit started on the top floor, and then descended to the lower floor as the exhibits shifted from persecution of the Jews in Germany to the full-blown "final solution" period. It was a clever bit of symbolism to descend into the fullest horrors of the Holocaust.

On Wednesday, we did a day-trip with a tour company to Windsor Castle, the Roman bathhouse in Bath, and to Stonehenge (another Civ wonder!)...

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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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