Control - title

I kept hearing good things about Remedy's Control, but I never got around to playing it. For some reason, I was thinking it was an XBox exclusive. Maybe it was a timed exclusive? Anyway, it showed up as one of the free PSPlus games of the month a couple months ago, and I downloaded it to play over the summer. I kind of regret not having purchased it, since it's a pretty good game with a lot of neat and innovative ideas, and Remedy is a smaller studio that could definitely use the money and deserves the support, especially considering that Control was released as a mid-budget, mid-price, $30 release ($40 for the new Ultimate Edition). I'll probably buy it as a gift for a friend at some point, so that I can support the studio for making a quality product.

In any case, consider this a recommendation: if you haven't bought and played Control yet, please do so. It's definitely worth checking out, especially if you like a game that will give you a substantial challenge. It's available on the next-gen consoles, but if you're like me and haven't been able to secure a PS5 yet, then it's also available on the previous-gen as well. It won't have the fancy ray-tracing and other advanced graphical effects, but it played well and ran mostly smoothly on my PS4 Pro. The only technical issue I had was long load times and a temporary freeze whenever I unpaused the game. No big deal. The game is tough, but it wasn't so overwhelmingly difficult that I was stuck constantly staring at the long load screens.

Spectacle action worthy of The Matrix

Control is certainly a spectacle to behold. Every fight feels like it has the bombast of the climactic lobby shootout in The Matrix. Nobody is running up walls or doing slow-motion kicks, but the player (and enemies) can levitate, bullets are whizzing past, furniture is getting thrown around, loose paper and stationary is flying everywhere, and chunks of the walls are being ripped or blown off. At the conclusion of each fight, the environment is completely trashed, and it looks fantastic. Even on the PS4, the level of detail is impressive.

The aftermath of every battle reminds me of the lobby shootout from The Matrix.

There's also a surprising amount of expressiveness in the combat mechanics. I can go in and just shoot all the enemies as if this were some basic cover-based shooter. Or I can use telekinesis to barrage the enemies with the clutter in the environment. I could even run in with the shield up, attack with the "melee" psychic push, then dodge around, managing my energy like the stamina bar of Dark Souls. Even within one of those broad play-styles, there's a handful of support abilities that can be used to varying effects. I can haphazardly throw any old object at enemies with telekinesis, or I can specifically search out objects that might explode and do larger amounts of damage to be more efficient. I can mind-hack an enemy and turn him against the other enemies to act as a damage sponge and spread around my DPS. There's a surprising amount of options here, especially considering that first impressions make Control look like just another run-and-gun shooter.

By midway through the game, the challenge had started amping up to the point that I wasn't able to rely on simply shooting every enemy with the pistol anymore. Doing so was still possible, but it was difficult. I started using all of my psychic abilities in many encounters, and I was rotating through all of my available service weapons based on the situation. Even the abilities and weapons that I initially thought were garbage (such as the shield and the pierce weapon) started getting regular use against certain enemies or in certain situations. I even learned to spend time scanning the environment for particularly destructive telekinesis objects.

Abilities and weapons that I had initially dismissed as "garbage" were getting regular use later in the game.

This was a far cry from my recent experience with Resident Evil Village, in which I was able to breeze through a vast majority of the game by just shooting everything in the face with the pistol or shotgun, and never had to utilize the more diverse tools and environmental opportunities at my disposal, because using them was more trouble than they were worth. No, here in Control, I am using everything! In fact, I even had a viewer pop up on my Twitch stream and comment that he had never bothered using the shield, but watching me use it against the Distorted made him realize that he could have been using it in his playthrough to save himself a lot of frustration and respawns.

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Virginia - title

I spent a large chunk of my gaming time since last August playing football video games. With the season over, I wanted to spend a couple months playing other games before diving back into to football critique videos with the next installment of my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" series. I also recently played Outer Wilds, which gave me an idea for a new video essay about the evolution of walking simulators (video will be published soon, and I'll post it to the blog when it's released). So I spent pretty much all of March diving into my Steam backlog of walking simulators, replaying ones I'd played years ago, and spending some Patron funds to purchase ones I had never played.

One such game sitting in my Steam backlog for years was the divisive indie noir thriller Virginia. Players take on the role of a freshman FBI agent tasked with performing internal affairs oversight on her partner, who is currently investigating a case involving a missing teenager in a small Virginia town. The game shows its X-Files and Twin Peaks influences proudly on its sleeve, including a scene of lounge musicians performing a song that is a blatant homage to the title theme of Twin Peaks.

Virginia is heavily inspired by 90's thrillers X-Files and Twin Peaks.

What makes Virginia interesting as a game is its unique presentation. It uses very cinematic editing, with sudden cuts and montages during gameplay. I might start walking down a hallway on the first floor of the FBI building, then suddenly cut (mid-stride) to the hallway leading to my partner's basement office (just like the office of Agent Mulder in X-Files). This can be convenient because it spares the player from the unnecessary legwork of tediously walking through such a large building. This keeps the game focused on telling its story at a brisk, cinematic pace. When combined with the context of the situation, and the movie-quality soundtrack, this editing can build a lot of tension and suspense. Who would have thought that a montage of walking down empty hallways for less than a minute could be such a tense experience?

Furthermore, the levels are designed such that these edits sync up with player inputs so as to create a surprisingly smooth and purposeful stream of inputs. These aren't cutscenes. I remain in control of the character, and these sudden cuts rarely, if ever feel jarring. They might be surprising (especially the first few times they happen), but I never felt like I had no idea what was going on (with maybe a few exceptions late in the game).

Cinematic edits cut down on tedious travel and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

This style of carefully-paced editing can also be problematic. Scenes will sometimes transition without player input, creating frequent points of no return, even if I wanted to go back and examine something else or try another interaction. Even though the player remains in control throughout, I still had virtually no agency in how scenes would progress -- let alone how the larger story unfolds. This probably could have been a first-person animated film and wouldn't really lose much in the translation.

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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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Stranger Things

After P.T. took the PlayStation Network by storm two years ago (geez, has it already been that long?), I set up my Google news feed with a subcategory specifically for Silent Hill news. I wanted to keep up with the progress of the game, since it looked like the most promising project the series had seen in a decade. After the traumatic cancellation of Silent Hills, that news feed has been mostly populated with articles mourning the loss, or with conspiracy theories about the game's return. Lately, however, a new story has been repeatedly populating that news feed: reviews and interpretations of the Netflix original series "Stranger Things".

With the internet's insistence that Stranger Things is "the show that Silent Hill fans have been waiting for", and some recommendations from co-workers and friends, I decided to give Netflix's new horror thriller a chance. So while House of Cards and Daredevil still sit unwatched in my Netflix queue, my girlfriend and I powered through all eight episodes of Stranger Things within a week.

Stranger Things reminded me a lot less of Silent Hill, and a lot more of Twin Peaks and E.T., but I loved the series nonetheless. I found myself amazed by just how much the show looks and feels like something from the late eighties or early nineties, and by how well it manages to capture a sense of nostalgia for its sources of inspiration without having to license them outright. Hollywood could learn a thing or two from this show. The insistence on reviving franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, The X-Files, etc., is starting to wear very thin. At best, these films feel like high-budget fan fiction. At worst, they feel like cynical attempts to play off of nostalgia for a quick cash-grab. Very rarely do they feel like genuinely inspired works of creative art. This reliance on adaptation instead of inspiration has created a dearth of creativity that in many cases has tarnished once-venerable intellectual properties.

Stranger Things - the Upside Down
The internet claims that Stranger Things is "the Silent Hill show that fans have been waiting for".

Stranger Things doesn't stoop so low. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeves, but it also remains, thankfully, it's own entity. It never feels derivative; it never feels stale; and it never feels creatively bankrupt. It's not exactly original (as it blatantly incorporates elements of its inspirations into its plots and characters), but it also manages to occasionally surprise with its clever subversions of genre tropes. It never feels like the shallow fan service that I've gotten so used to seeing from Hollywood blockbusters, and (most importantly) I could enjoy it without the baggage of expectations from a recognized namesake.

Much of this is due to the characters and performances, all of which are great...

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Iron Man 3 - title Iron Man 3 poster

I have very mixed feelings about Iron Man 3.

On the one hand, the movie throws some very unexpected curve balls at the audience, and departs from other big-budget action movies by being a very thoughtful and introspective movie. It provided everything that Star Trek Into Darkness failed to deliver. If the people who wrote Iron Man 3 had been involved with writing Into Darkness, then that movie would have benefited greatly. Iron Man 3 succeeds because the writers are really trying to say things with their movie, even if they have to twist the audience's expectations and break a few eggs to do it.

On the other hand, the movie suffers from some pacing and script issues, and it blunders with its primary villain(s).

The core of the plot is about Stark coming to terms with the events of The Avengers and deciding if he can truly hang with genuine supermen and gods. It's a very introspective film (which is something that the Iron Man movies have been very good at). In fact, most of the movie revolves around Stark being forced to solve problems as a regular person, rather than being able to rely on a fancy, weaponized suit of armor.

Stark has reexamine his goals and objectives and try to figure out where he wants to draw the line regarding problems he can deal with, and problems he can't deal with, and also with whether or not he should deal with them. The internal conflict within the character is the primary moving for much of the movie's plot, and Robert Downy Junior pulls it all off with the grace and style that we've come to expect from him with this character.

Iron Man 3 - bros on the couch
Tony Stark is going to be stuck solving problems without his fancy armor throughout most of the movie.

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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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