Back to the Future II - dates
"Back to the Future Day" is rapidly approaching.

This fall, expect to see an onslaught of social media posts about how scientists and engineers have failed us because they haven't invented hover boards, self-drying clothes, holographic sharks, or flying cars. These sorts of Back to the Future memes have been showing up on social media every October for the past few years, often with the dates misquoted. These posts also tend to lament the lack of the nifty technologies showcased in Back to the Future.

And it isn't just Back to the Future that makes people get all nostalgic for the science fiction technology of yesteryear. At the turn of the century, people also bemoaned the huge gap between the manned spaceflight program depicted in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Arthur Clark's classic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. We also don't have food in the form of pills, or robot butlers, or lightsabers, or holodecks, or wrist phones either. Oh wait, we do have wrist phones, so we can check that one off the list.

But maybe the tech that we do have is actually better than what is depicted in contemporary science fiction movies.

Here's what bothers me: the same people who use their smart phones to post these "Back to the Future Day" memes to Facebook, and demand that scientists get off their lazy butts and build a working hoverboard, often take the technology that we do have for granted...

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Jurassic World - the park is open

Jurassic Park is one of my earliest and strongest movie memories. I think I saw it at least four times in theaters when I was a kid. Even at that age, I rarely ever saw a movie more than once in a theater. Probably because I couldn't convince my parents to take me more than once, so if I wanted to go again, I'd have to go with a friend or a cousin. But that movie was good enough that I think even my mom and dad went multiple times.

I had a bunch of the Jurassic Park toys, including the character action figures, the large dinosaurs, the jeep, and even the compound playset with the fence and the gate. It was a very monumental movie in my youth that also shaped my perception of movies going forward, as well as helping to spark my interest in science. The awe and wonder of it captured my imagination and held very tightly for a very long time. Its scenes, images, dialogue, and music have all stuck with me to this day.

Perhaps because of this, my favorite parts of the newly-released Jurassic World were the brief scenes of the kids exploring the theme park. I enjoyed the brief clips of the petting zoo where kids fed the baby dinosaurs and rode on the backs of baby triceratops. I especially liked the little playground set where the kids would pretend to dig up dinosaur fossils. Seeing the kids on screen enjoying the awe and wonder of the animals sent me on a nostalgia trip to 20 years ago. The idea of people interacting with these animals is still just as captivating as it was then. There was a very addictive, light-hearted sense of joy and energy throughout these short-lived segments.

Jurassic Park toys
I had many Jurassic Park toys when I was a kid.

Even a more depressing mid-movie scene in which Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas-Howard try to comfort a dying dinosaur was a touching moment that I really liked. It reminded me of the triceratops scene from the first movie, and the dinosaur was surprisingly expressive.

I did think it was weird that the director chose to play John Williams' trademark Jurassic Park theme as fanfare for what was effectively just a scenic helicopter landing. I get that it was an homage to the first movie, but I feel that the first movie built up to the arrival in the park, and paid off the fanfare with the classic money shot of the brachiosaur grazing in the open field. In Jurassic World, it just kind of felt like going through the motions. Imitation for imitation's sake.

In any case, these fun scenes with the dinosaurs is definitely not the point of the movie, and these sorts of scenes and moments get shoved to the side in order to make room for the film's main plot.

Jurassic World - dino safari
My favorite scenes were the ones of people enjoying the park.

I was skeptical about Jurassic World from the very first trailers. I worried that it would surely miss the point.

Michael Crichton's novels and the first movie weren't about "science gone amok"; it wasn't a Frankenstein story about mad scientists creating monsters. It was about well-intentioned scientists who underestimated the complexities of nature...

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Lifeless Planet

Being someone who appreciates good science fiction and has an interest in real-life space exploration, it's easy for me to become intrigued with any game that promises to let me explore an alien world. Lifeless Planet promised to let me do just that, so it was a no-brainer Steam Summer Sale purchase for me last year, despite the mediocre critical reviews.

The basic premise of the game is that you play as a colonist sent to alien planet thought to be rich in life and habitable for humans. You wake up from cryo-sleep to find your ship has crash landed and your two crewmates are missing. Worse yet, the planet you crashed on seems to be a desolate wasteland devoid of life.

Are you even on the right planet? If so, where's all the life?

Lifeless Planet - badlands
And we're off to find our missing crew-mates and figure out why the planet is lifeless.

From here, you set off to follow the tracks of your fellow crew mates in an attempt to find them and figure out where you are. Things get complicated very early on when you find a long-abandoned Soviet village. Wherever you happen to be, the Ruskies beat you to it!

But this just opens up even more questions: how did the Russians get here? And where did they all go? The mysteries behind these questions are supposed to be the driving force behind the game.

The bulk of the game, thus consists of wandering around the various alien landscapes in search of answers. This exploration requires a moderate amount of fairly trivial platforming, and you stop occasionally solve an elementary puzzle.

Platforming is mostly comfortable and works adequately. You have a malfunctioning jet pack that allows you a small boost to elevate you to higher platforms, jump longer gaps, or soften your fall. I had some occasional problems with the character sliding off of the geometry, and there were a couple areas late in the game that required multiple jumps without stopping that were difficult to control accurately. But other than that, the challenge of the platforming was minimal. The intended route is always obvious, so there was never any question about where I was supposed to go.

Lifeless Planet - jet pack
Your jet pack allows you to clear pitfalls and jump over large obstacles.

Puzzles aren't much more of a challenge. They are almost all environmental or physics puzzles that vary from "find the key" to "put the rock in the hole" to "push the boulders". There's nothing here that a grade-schooler couldn't figure out.

The rest of the game is just a steady walk along the linear paths ...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth

I was finishing up my Civ V: Brave New World strategies this fall, and thought that I'd finally have some time to play other games besides Civilization. Firaxis and 2K, however, had other plans. Instead of being able to play other Steam games and getting back to my PS3, instead, I now have Civ in SPACE!

I guess I can't escape Civ so easily...

So is Beyond Earth going to hold my attention, keep me up till 3 in the morning playing "one more turn", and monopolize my PC gaming? Or will it be a short diversion before being shelved in favor of other games?

Table of Contents

Most of the gameplay mechanics of Beyond Earth are variations of equivalent mechanics in Civilization V, with more or less complexity. This makes the game very accessible and familiar for most Civ players, but it also means that Beyond Earth isn't really pushing any gameplay boundaries. Whereas Civ V's transition to a hex grid revolutionized the series, Beyond Earth just feels like more of the same.

Most of the added complexity works in the game's favor, but some mechanics have been simplified such that they almost feel pointless.

Beyond Earth's extraterrestrial setting does play a small factor in the gameplay and differentiates this game a bit from Civilization V. The most prominent displays of this are in the alien life forms and the terrain of the map. The inclusions of canyons as a geography characteristic is mostly superficial, as they function almost identically to mountains. The biggest change is the inclusion of toxic "miasma". Miasma tiles cause damage to units that end their turn on it, and trade units cannot pass through miasma at all.

Civilization: Beyond Earth - miasma
Miasma damages units and blocks trade routes until you unlock the ability to remove it or survive it.
This adds a satisfying challenge and sense of having to deal with a hostile alien environment.

This adds some challenge to the first half of the game, since miasma can force the player to explore and expand differently than they would in Civ V. Miasma can force your workers to have to avoid improving certain terrain, and may prevent explorers from accessing certain regions of the map or completing some expedition sites. It can also prevent your trade units from following direct routes between cities, which can cause them to follow winding paths far outside your inherent zone of control, making them harder to protect.

Contrary to the developers' claims prior to release, the aliens really are just reskins of Civ V's barbarians. They are counted as "enemy" units to every civilization and inflict zone of control automatically. They spawn randomly from nests that function identically to encampments, and even offer monetary rewards for entering the tile and destroying the nest. The only major difference is ...

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Interstellar - poster
Interstellar is a rare hard sci-fi movie.

There has been a sad dearth of hard science fiction movies in recent memory. While comic book and alien invasion movies and the like have been proliferating (and some of them have been very good), there haven't been as many movies that have been willing to take science fiction subject matter seriously. The only mainstream releases that I can think of off the top of my head are District Nine, Inception, and Gravity, neither of which really wowed me. District Nine was alright, but I felt that its racism allegory fell flat since the aliens themselves considered the majority of their species to be mindless automatons. Inception was a fun ride, but nowhere near as clever or complicated as people made it out to be. And Gravity wasn't really "science fiction"; more like just "space drama" disaster porn.

That leaves the indie movie Moon and the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as the only really good examples of high-brow science fiction that I can think of - and maybe Edge of Tomorrow can count as "medium-brow".

That's why I've been very excited about Christopher Nolan's new movie, Interstellar. It had all the trappings of a modern-day 2001: A Space Odyssey, which (confusing psychedelic ending aside - read the book!) is one of the best hard science fiction movies ever made. Interstellar definitely lived up to this expectation, but it's a much gloomier and more depressing epic than Arthur Clark and Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece.

The space travel plot is, in fact, almost identical to 2001. A crew must travel in hypersleep in an experimental spacecraft to investigate an anomaly around Saturn (the original 2001 book placed the monolith in orbit around Saturn, but it was changed to Jupiter for the film). The sleeping crew is even overseen by intelligent robots. The rising action has conspiratorial undertones, and the climax dives deep into metaphysical fringe science.

Interstellar - Saturn approach 2001: a Space Odyssey - Jupiter approach
Interstellar [LEFT] is very similar to Arthur Clark and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey [RIGHT]
in its detail-oriented depiction of space travel.

A lot of the science in the first half of the movie is solid, and it's actually integral to the narrative and drama between the characters. The second half takes a lot more creative license for the sake of plot. There are significant issues with relativity with regard to a black hole, metaphysical stuff about a "ghost", and some ham-fisted mumbo jumbo about the power of love transcending time and space. But despite some silly science, there's a very real possibility that audiences might leave the theater with a better understanding and appreciation of relativity.

So Interstellar definitely earns its comparisons to 2001...

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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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