Monday, February 27, 2017

‘For Honor’ Quick Thoughts

I feel like it’s been a while since Ubisoft has launched a new triple-A IP, but that isn’t true. Sure, last year they released The Division but that game is a Tom Clancy game and to be honest, the gameplay is painfully like other open world shooters. For Honor, on the other hand, is bringing some truly unique gameplay mechanics to the table.

The main unique aspect of the game is the combat system. At first you see larger than life characters mowing through small grunts and it just looks like a gritty reboot of Dynasty Warriors. It’s not until you meet up with another hero character that things change for the better. A duel begins and you have three stances to attack and defend from. If your opponent attacks from the left, flick for-honor-duel-2-300x169 'For Honor' Quick Thoughts Games the right stick to the left and you block their attack. If you see your opponent defending from the right, you can change your stance to attack from above in the hopes that they won’t be able to change stances in time. Tense standoffs arise out of this rock-paper-scissors-esque mechanic. Minute movement and specific timing of weapon swings become important because every move you make could open you up to a punishing counter-attack.

What Ubisoft does well is take this tense core-mechanic and add fighting game elements on top of it. Each of the three factions (Knights, Vikings and Samurai) have four different characters to play as each with their own move sets. Each character class comes at this dueling mechanic in a slightly different way by boosting or lowering certain stats or changing how a character can attack or defend in certain scenarios. This means that when you enter into combat with another person you are raking you mind for any information you know about how that character plays in order to give yourself the best chance to attack them. It’s in this way that For Honor feels like a fighting game in disguise.

Ubisoft didn’t stop there – in many ways For Honor is a MOBA in disguise. The game’s main mode, Dominion, pits teams of four against each other on a large battlefield filled with AI grunts. The battlefield is split into three lanes with a control point in each. Help your grunts attack the opposing grunts to further your domination of the map until you win the match. It nearly blew my mind that Ubisoft basically tricked my friends into buying this MOBA and they didn’t even know it. I found myself strategizing in the same way I did while playing Heroes of the Storm with friends that I usually play Madden with. Bizarre to say the least.

Where the game falters is in its overbearing meta-game. Before you can play online you are inundated with tutorials explaining their over-world map, and after every match you earn War Assets to help your faction in the meta-game. Beyond that there is virtual currency called “steel” which canFactionWar-300x165 'For Honor' Quick Thoughts Games be used to buy different levels of loot boxes as well as experience buffs. The loot you get is hero-specific and it can be dismantled to get a secondary faction-specific currency that can be used to buy loot within that faction. Systems on top of systems on top of systems.

Luckily you can mostly ignore all this stuff and just have fun swinging swords at fools online but I think down the line it could become a problem. All the loot you earn has stats attached to it that boost your character’s abilities. So, if you don’t engage with this meta-game your characters are simply not going to cut it online at some point. To fix this they need to do a better job explaining these systems to people, or simplify them.

To me it feels like someone at Ubisoft Montreal created this fun, unique dueling mechanic and then the businessmen from corporate tried their best to monetize the fuck out of the entire experience. I’m sure this happens with a lot of games and that push and pull is surely something that developers must deal with often. It just seems like this time the business men might have gone a little too far.

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by Christopher Moore
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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Rapid Review: ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

First I want to throw a quick shout-out to the boyfriend of the couple sitting next to us in the theater last night. You got through it – through all your bickering, falling asleep, and violent snoring. Even when your girlfriend kept waking you up with a gentle “let’s just go,” you just gave a nice loud “HUH,” and fell right back to sleep. Expert level stuff.

That’s right, even the adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that is John Wick: Chapter 2 couldn’t keep that guy awake. But those of us with our eyes open were treated to an incredibly satisfying deep-dive into a world that built nicely on top of its predecessor. If you’ve seen the original John Wick, you know the tale. Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a mythically dangerous man who, following a series of tragic events, just wants to live out his life in peace. Peace continues to elude him.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up just about where the first film left off, and almost immediately Wick is pulled back into his violent past. From there, the film doubles down on the non-stop action. The carnage is as polished and effortlessly elegant as ever. We get a fun look into the expansive world of The Continental – the underground fraternity of assassins to which Wick belongs. The settings expand from our familiar New York to a sweeping party in Italy as we learn that the group exists on a truly global scale.

Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Common, Lance Reddick, and Riccardo Scamarcio all do a great job joining in on the fun. The movie delivers on everything it promises, and with a cliffhanger ending teasing an even more explosive Chapter 3, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rating: ***1/2 out of five

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane

Runtime: 122 minutes

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by Jeff Moore
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Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: ‘Homeland’ 6.05 – ‘Casus Belli’

A show like Homeland is always at its finest when it takes the fantastical dramatization of a world closely resembling our own and threads it, ever so intricately, through the “realness” of America’s most prescient moral and geopolitical dilemmas. Whether we’re watching a terrorist raid on an American embassy in Islamabad or the thwarting of a bombing at a Berlin train station, seeing how the show navigates the balancing act of maintaining its fun spy-thriller reputation with the specific, sensitive layers of its subject matter is fascinating to me. When it succeeds on this front (which I would say more often than not, in this post-Brody era, it does) it’s among the very best drama series on TV; when it misses the mark, it reverts to self-parody.

With the death of Sekou Bah and all that encompasses it, we’ve now arrived at the “phase two” turning point of a season of Homeland. And for the first half of this episode, it was genuinely interesting to watch the world of the show devolve into crisis as a result of the first attack of this kind on New York City since 9/11. The guilt-stricken President-Elect’s been carted away to some remote tech-deprived safe house, and she really wants her staff, dammit! The FBI is even more blood-thirsty after allowing Sekou to slip through their firm extralegal grasp, and his survived mother and sister are paying the price. And Carrie – oh Carrie – has again implicated herself and the people for whom she works in the center of a national crisis, thanks to a healthy mix of compassion, insubordination, and general incompetence.

But that quickly becomes the least of her worries in the episode’s back half, as her severely disturbed and addled housemate (again as a result of something she did), Peter Quinn, loses his mind over the sight of reporters swarming Carrie’s house, and takes “hostage” of both her daughter and daughter’s nanny at “gunpoint”. This plot very literally hijacks the remaining half of the episode and I’m honestly a little baffled at the creative team’s decision to take us here. Was there a greater point to this beyond the shock value? Would the episode have better served had it maintained the focus and urgency of its first-half by continuing to deal with the aftermath of the bombing?

While the answer to the latter question would be a resounding “yes”, I would answer the former question the same, albeit far more tepidly. While I would consider the execution of this story coupled with the amount of time devoted to it a huge misstep in a season that’s more or less worked so far, it did do its job in furthering along the main arc of the season, while also shedding even more light on the extent to which Quinn is deeply damaged. Homeland really straddled that line between important and parody this week, to the detriment of the renewed goodwill its established in this now post-Brody era. But hey, at least Carrie maybe sort of knows someone’s been spying on her from across the street.

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by Michael Lang
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Review: ‘The Walking Dead’ 7.10 – ‘New Best Friends’

I can’t help but reflect on the recent uptick in quality that I’ve felt from The Walking Dead. You can only warn of an inevitable turn into shit for so long. Eventually I must acknowledge that I don’t just have hope that The Walking Dead will become good, it has been good for some time. This week fixed some of the character problems I’ve had with the show while at the same time growing the world even larger than it has been lately.

While I still found Father Gabriel’s explanation of why he left with all their goods lazy, it did the job it needed to do. It is lazy storytelling to have a character do something so unlike their personality in one episode and then later claim there was a person off-screen forcing them to do it all along. Really him leaving was just a macguffin to get our survivors to meet the first group they can convince to join forces with to fight the saviors.

I found myself seeing this new world of The Walking Dead having parallels with fantasy epics like Game of Thrones. If you distill these character conflicts down to their core, they are about warring factions and small but willful protagonists trying to take on the villains in power. I felt that even more so this week when we were formally introduced to our newest faction of survivors. I don’t even know what to call them, a cult? I just don’t know. But I was making connection between them and the “Brotherhood Without Banners” in the Game of Thrones universe. They were like mercenaries that wanted more than to just survive, they wanted to test you and then take from you if you failed their challenge.

It’s almost as if in the slump between season 5 and 6 the writers looked at the immense critical acclaim of Game of Thrones and decided to craft their own Westeros. Except with real zombies instead of ice zombies. Now I know you can say that Robert Kirkman created these storylines many years ago in the comics. To that I say that our lord and savior George R.R. Martin created the world of ice and fire in 1996. I’m not staying they are directly related, I’m just saying there is a certain template that can been seen within both. Either way it only makes for a better Walking Dead.


Quick Notes:

  • Rick was so good in this episode. He’s proven again why he is fit to lead.
  • How cool was that armored walker?!?!?!?!?
  • I love how little they have used Neagan in this half-season. That character can become a caricature of itself if used too much.
  • Once again some shitty, out of nowhere green screen on one of the most popular shows on television! Why?

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by Christopher Moore
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Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: ‘The Walking Dead’ 7.09 – ‘Rock in the Road’

The mid-season premiere of The Walking Dead crept up on me like a thief in the night. I literally didn’t remember it was on until I saw that my DVR was set to record it. This doesn’t reflect on the quality of the show itself, but rather on how obtuse the AMC two-part season structure is. I understand that we get more total episodes in the end but it winds up breaking any momentum and possible interest you have in a show if half way through there is a multi-month break. But hey, the Walking Dead is one of the most watched programs on television today so I guess they must be doing something right. Right?

Well I’ll say for the first time in a long time, the Walking Dead remembered it is a prime-time juggernaut. “Rock in the Road” pushed the story forward in interesting ways while at the same time showing off a truly ingenious action set piece. If you thought they had ran out of ideas of ways to kill walkers, you were bitterly wrong. But the best thing about the steel cable scene wasn’t that it was cool to watch or shot well (which it was), but it made sense within the context of the scene and what the characters needed to do. It wasn’t just cool to look at, it added much needed building blocks to the story of the show.

It wasn’t all good, things may be moving a bit too fast in the “rise up” arch and I hope they can spread this story out meaningfully for some time to come. For this story to pay off well, the viewers need time to simmer in agony. Also, what do these writers have against Father Gabriel? Anytime they need a character to act without thinking or become the personification of a wrench being thrown in the gears, they go to Gabriel. But beyond a few stumbles, this mid-season premier is giving me what these characters are desperately clawing for… hope.

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by Christopher Moore
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Friday, February 10, 2017

Review: ‘Taboo’ 1.05 – ‘Episode 5’

It’s amazing to me that after the premier of Taboo, I felt the show was restrained in its use of violence. That entire episode, characters seemed on the brink of clashing but at the last moment would back down. Five episodes later this is most certainly not the case. Assassins and stalkers are roaming the streets of London, people are being held at knife point and bloody bodies are washing up on shore.

Though I should point out that the violence depicted in the show is not senseless, it’s a brutal reality in the time the show takes place. A prime example of this is in the amazingly done opening sequence where the challenge from last episode is paid off. It was bizarre in the best way possible when the “rules” of the duel were laid out. It’s reflective of something I’ve always found interesting about that time period. No matter how brutal things get, there remains a societal need to be proper. It’s something that Penny Dreadful excelled at highlighting as well.

Apart from discussing how the show’s universe depicts violence, this episode also did a lot in terms of moving things forward. Delaney is given a gunpowder ultimatum, thus moving his plan forward in such a way we’ve never seen before. Delaney finally has to change his overall plan for someone else, instead of the other way around. It’s interesting to see his character react, when he has been the one making others react to his schemes for so long. Though I still feel there is more to his plan than we have been seen, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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by Christopher Moore
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