Hallow Ground: Review of Halloween 1978

Image taken from Mental Floss and owned by Trancas International Pictures

Micheal Myers wasn’t the first of his kind, the slasher antagonist. There was Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s groundbreaking 1960 Psycho. There was Leatherface from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). There was the one-off slasher Black Christmas. Halloween, however, solidified a genre’s popularity throughout the 80s and 90s and many cliches and tropes originated in John Carpenter’s original. To put it another way, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho were for slashers what Wolfenstein 3D was for the first person shooter and Halloween and Doom in that same respect. Forget Jack Skellington. Micheal Myers is the king of Halloween and he changed the face of both the holiday and William Shatner for many forevermore.

I haven’t yet seen the forty year later followup that ignores the nine other films in the franchise, so I’ll hold my thoughts on the surprise blockbuster. What I can say as a first time viewer is how surprised I was at how effective the original remains. The first person camera meant to simulate Micheal’s perspective was a new idea for a horror film back then and it remains surprisingly easy to see it as somehow unique to Halloween even though the first Friday the 13th would copy that same technique to hide the killer’s identity two years later. The setting of small town, rural Illinois in Fall conveys both a cold yet at times oddly comfortable slice of the late 70s’ aesthetic. Despite being filmed in LA county, it simulates Illinois as far as I can tell quite convincingly.  Carpenter is one of the master indie filmmakers, managing to take a small budget and make it look bigger than it really is. While the scope of Halloween is necessarily small and tight, as befits the tone, it feels as if for what was intended, no expense was spared.

The cliches are unavoidable but feel acceptable especially due to execution and as an early example of what was worn out over countless imitators. The sexually promiscuous, drunken teenagers. The high school age dialect which in some respects hasn’t changed that much. As the Honest Trailers send up of the film pointed out, you can make a drinking game out of one of the character’s use of the word “totally”.

What grounds the film is the overall performances, especially Jamie Lee Curtis’ beloved Laurie Strode. Though unintended on Carpenter’s part, she is the most enduring example of the “final girl”, the sole female survivor who doesn’t drink, smoke, toke or have intercourse of a sexual nature. Instead, she dutifully acts babysitter to a duo of kids on Halloween night. It’s not so much karma that saves Laurie I feel in the end from Micheal’s murderous rampage, but luck and some really on the spot quick thinking. It seems really credible that she could’ve died, especially if Micheal had chased, rather than sadistically stalked her. Even after Micheal is driven off, you feel that Laurie will never be the same again, all because she had to drop off something at the abandoned Myer’s residence for a friend, which Micheal was spying out of. It was all random chance and if not her, someone else. That’s one reason why Micheal Myers works.

The other, even more unnerving reason is that it’s implied Micheal doesn’t even know why he kills. In the infamous opening where a 6 year old Micheal slays his sister on Halloween night in a clown outfit, all in first person, once he’s unmasked, he has a glazed, confused expression. Why did he do it? No one knows, not Micheal, not his parents, not his terrified, dying sister, maybe not even John Carpenter.

Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist who hunts for Michael after his break out from the asylum, after so many years of study, comes to the conclusion that he’s just evil, and that nothing save for life imprisonment or death will ever stop him. Donald Pleasance, in a rare heroic role that stuck with him for Halloweens 2,4,5 and 6, expertly conveys a man who is both resigned yet gravely anxious, knowing what is loose in Haddonfield, IL. He has effectively given up on rehabilitation and would rather see Micheal dead if it spares lives.

It’s the creepy yet involving atmosphere of this fictional Illinois town and Curtis and Pleasance’s roles that gives the first Halloween an enduring leg up on most of its successors and competitors. At best, other franchises like Jason’s Friday the 13th and Freddy’s Nightmare on Elm Street are (mostly) enjoyable for how much they are just guilty pleasures with rare instances of legitimate quality. Halloween set a precedent that has rarely, by other’s accounts, been surpassed for the often dismissed slasher genre. Micheal’s first night creeps up on you in how resilient it’s quality is and even if you can see certain stuff coming a mile away, you can’t help but be gripped all the same. And Micheal is very good at holding you by the jugular.

Originally posted 2018-10-30 20:12:06.

For a Few Dollars More: A Preview of Red Dead Redemption II (spoilers for the first game included)

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Image owned by Rockstar and from The Hollywood Reporter

There are surprisingly few games based on the wild west, perhaps due to a limited scope of gameplay genres that would allow an antiquated period to be mechanically explored. Aside from Red Dead, there is the currently dormant Call of Juarez, a first person series that attempts to depict the gunslinging lifestyle of the mid to late 19th century from the eyes of  old west outlaw(s).  It’s much more likely that 2010’s Red Dead Redemption was so wildly successful in capturing the American frontier in a virtual open world space that everyone else was scared away from trying it themselves, instead of copying like with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto.  In the gaming industry, this town is indeed only big enough for one of them.


Instead of a sequel to their old west epic, Rockstar studios, based out of Scotland though now headquartered in New York City, has decided on a prequel fleshing out the history of the Van Der Linde Gang, which was the criminal outfit the first game’s protagonist, John Marston, once called family. It makes some sense, as RDR I took place in 1911, at the very end of the wild west, a eulogy for the romanticized era of American history, as well as for the grey nature that was the Western outlaw. RDR II takes place 13 years earlier in 1899, the beginning of the end for that violent era. It reminds me somewhat of Godfather Part II, in being both narrative continuation and background extrapolator.

You play as Arthur Morgan, a major member of the Van Der Linde gang, led by the philosophical Dutch. Considering that Arthur wasn’t mentioned once in the original game, I assume some ill fate awaits him. John Marston’s horrible bullet-riddled death near the end of the prior game is one of the most heartbreaking gaming moments I can think of, and to be replaced with his grown up and vengeance-seeking son, Jack, was the icing on the thematic cake that was the first game’s powerful conclusion. I don’t know if Rockstar plans to off Arthur in a similar fashion as that would be too predictable. All I know is that Arthur, John, Dutch and the rest of the gang aren’t in a good spot in this story.

After a bank heist goes terribly wrong, Dutch’s gang begins a country wide odyssey for a safe place to outrun the authorities, who are now trying to seriously police the Southwest United States. The new, stricter policy on crime is not kind to people like Arthur Morgan or John Marston. Dutch desperately tries to keep the gang together despite the encroaching authorities making the new order of things increasingly bleak. It’s not just a bunch of male rapscallions. There’s women and children included too, namely one child, a very young Jack Marston. Some of the ladies are outlaws too, others are just pariahs from a society that can’t or won’t accept them. It’s almost, maybe is a counterculture movement that isn’t just about the acquisition of  ill-gotten gains. A philosophy of real, anarchic freedom from a milquetoast civilization that is at best in their eyes, hypocritical. It’s makes the group that Arthur and John follow much more multi-faceted than just some “bad hombres”. It could help make their plight legitimately sympathetic, their achilles heel being the amoral aspects that you can actually back away from, controlling Arthur in game.

Arthur through the player can explore a wide open world full of diversity in wildlife, terrain, climate and people, as Rockstar tries to once again top themselves in immersing you in a world as close as is currently possible to being alive. Everyone, animals included, have their own schedules and interactions with Arthur. Arthur in turn, can interact with anyone he wants in either a pleasant or antagonistic manner, creating entirely different outcomes in every encounter. Many I assume will have a wide butterfly effect of consequences which Rockstar promises will be remembered. Like the “honor” system of RDR I, how you behave can have an impact in how both the world treats you and I imagine the story itself could be tweaked by your reputation. Maybe even Arthur’s fate can and will be decided through this system. It could help paint your perception of what Arthur is: (1) A noble outlaw trying to reform and have an out before it’s too late, especially with his growing skepticism in Dutch’s direction. Or (2), a monstrous criminal that is every bit as bad as the law thinks he is and could die without regret except that he couldn’t keep doing bad longer.

No matter how you direct Arthur’s journey, there will never be a lull in things to do from what I’ve seen. There will be plenty of shooting and not just against your fellow men and women. There will animals to hunt, food to eat, games of chance to play, fish to fish, secrets to be found, places to rob, etc. Red Dead Redemption II promises a lot in being an evolution of the safer and more ethical “Westworld” playground to indulge ourselves in. I expect a lot of content, a good even great story, a customizable protagonist in almost every way including moral code, and as Rockstar is promising, the most reactive and alive open world yet crafted for a video game. Considering their last game, Grand Theft Auto V (2013), was praised for raising the water mark for immersive gaming, their reputation precedes them. There is an impressive amount to look forward to in improving upon one of the greatest games of all time, which is one of the many accepted accolades of Red Dead Redemption I. I go back and forth over whether the first game is truly as great in my memory as is commonly considered.

Perhaps what Arthur offers in his journey can be the next step for an artform. Perhaps, it’s not time yet for Rockstar to fold em’, despite their legacy of groundbreaking titles making the possible fall all the higher. Either way, a whole bunch of people will be saddling up this October 26th.


Originally posted 2018-10-09 20:19:31.

The Arkham Spider Rises: A review of Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)

Image result for ps4 spiderman

Owned by Sony, Marvel and image from Alphr


The newest Spider-Man game and the first to be a Sony exclusive since Neversoft’s beloved PS1 entries from the early 2000’s is good, even great. It’s not spectacular or amazing though it has its moments, it’s simply a good new Spider-Man. I can’t be the best judge of what makes a good Spider-Man game having not fully played any of the games based on the Sam Raimi trilogy. The adaptation for Spider-Man 2, once and for some, the best Spider-Man film, also had the quintessential interactive Spidey experience of its day. Swinging across a PS2-era Manhattan with countless enjoyable side activities, encounters with Spider-friends and foes and just enjoying the sensation of web-slinging around made it a new milestone for superhero games. Batman would eventually surpass Spider-Man in quality with the Arkham series, with Arkham City doing for Batman would S-M 2 did for the wall-crawler.

Now Insomniac, creators of Sony franchises like Ratchet and Clank & Resistance, have taken more than a few pages from Rocksteady’s Bat-series and the more remarkable thing is how easily you can ignore and forgive the thievery of formula as Arkham’s style of combat, countering, maneuverability and traversal meshes just as well with Peter Parker as it does with Bruce Wayne.  If only they had made the things you do in the game over the long haul a bit less repetitive.

An older, sorta wiser Peter Parker now at the ripe old age of 23, has successfully ended his near decade crusade to put New York’s greatest crime lord, Kingpin, behind bars. But of course, with great victory comes great consequences and with that, even more responsibility. The Kingpin’s fall gives rise to a hole that new gangs and criminals inevitably try to fill, with an Asian gang called the Demons taking center stage. They’re led by a relatively new Spider-foe from the comics, Mr. Negative, who from my perspective is almost Marvel’s answer to Two-Face, right down to the yin and yang symbolically coloring his powers and bipolar morality. The Asian antagonist goes down a surprisingly darker path than most enemies Peter faces, employing terrorist style tactics and blatant public firefights with the police. Intermeshed with this new NY crisis is a conspiracy that ties into some of Spider-Man’s other affiliations,  good or bad. As is Spider-story tradition, Peter has to balance his highly dangerous life as Spider-Man with his “normal” life including a job as a scientist working with a pre-Doc Ock Otto Octavious on artificial limb technology, helping his dear Aunt May at a homeless shelter, trying to get back with Mary Jane, now an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle and paying his rent and failing gloriously.

Peter Parker is the working class or even poverty class hero, taking all the neat gadgets, dead relative motivation and building swinging action from Batman and creating a more personal or relatable feel to my demographic or just about anyone who’s tried to do good by the world on hard times. That is undoubtably why Spidey endures as Marvel’s signature icon. The game near perfectly captures this essential dichotomy of making you feel strong and powerful as the webslinger and weak and average as the post-graduate millennial. You play as a walking, talking paradox.

Spider-Man’s role in his new shiny PS4-exclusive adventure is aside from doing nearly everything a spider can (ignoring the disgusting stuff) is to explore New York for crimes to stop, missions to complete, actually worthwhile collectibles to find, landmarks/photo ops to shoot, and research to science the shit out of. On that last part is the most creative addition to the open world sand box that Insomniac offers this swing around. Scattered across Manhattan rooftops are research stations operated by Oscorp, the company owned by Norman Osborn, traditionally Spider-Man’s archenemy who now serves pre-Green Goblin as both CEO of his company and Mayor of New York. The stations are monitored by his son and Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, away on sabbatical in Europe presumably. The stations track and find solutions to technical and environmental problems in and around Manhattan, some of which are “coincidentally” caused by Oscorp itself. Spidey has to use his genius intellect to figure out solutions to these various problems, leading to fun timed and scored challenges that often put your skill in maneuvering Spider-Man to their absolute limit, especially if you want the rewards for the highest score.

The biggest rewards you get in Spider-Man PS4 are acquiring suits, most of which are based off of Spidey’s fifty-year plus comic wardrobe. Some are based on the MCU Spider-Man like the Homecoming and Iron Spider suits. Almost all of them also come with a new special ability that can be unleashed not unlike a “ultimate” ability from Overwatch. Whether it’s “web blossom”, which involves spinning around spraying webbing at your opponents or even getting to use the “Iron Spider arms” from Infinity War, there is no shortage of possibilities in combat, especially hand in hand with the many different gadgets that are unlocked or craftable. On top of that there is of course, a leveling system which focuses in on three key trees of combat, gadgets and traversal, all helping make Spider-Man well…superior.

It all sounds as good and faithful to Spider-Man as any game could possibly be. And it is, earnestly. Yet, the sheer number of side content that involves fighting enemies despite the legitimately high number of things to do in combat draws the game’s pacing to ironically, a crawl. Sure, you can easily skip a lot of side content and move onto the pretty decent storyline the main missions offer, but the rewards for doing a lot of sporadically monotonous open world content are indeed plentiful. For one, on the standard difficulty Spider-Man PS4 can be surprisingly hard. The game constantly keeps surprising you in how brutal it can be from lowly street thugs to higher class opponents, some of which I omit from mentioning out of spoilers. The game does give you good incentive to actually take the time to do things outside of the general “mission” style content in order to make Peter more resilient and with more options to fight through the challenge but the cost are moments when you’re doing Spidey stuff that goes from off-the-literal-wall awesome to seen it done it all before.  I can’t tell you how tired I got of having to stop a car chase in the exact same manner so many times. If there had been much more variation in Peter accomplishing these misc. tasks or perhaps him having something different to say every-time he checked off one of those in-game boxes, it would have gone a long way in making me let these complaints slide.

Those latter aspects is what shrinks the wall-crawler’s new triple-A adventure for everyone teen and up from being a glorious continuation of the Superhero genre Rocksteady pioneered with Batman to being a stalwart, somewhat safe first chapter for a new franchise I’m quite happy being onboard with. Some of the best things Insomniac’s Spider-Man has to offer aside from a near perfect traversal system is the potential of the wider story they’re trying to tell with this Peter Parker.

It’s probably no longer a secret or that much of a spoiler that a certain character from the recent comics makes a critical and playable appearance in the title and what Insomniac is setting up for the future looks really, really spectacular and amazing in equal measure. Spider-Man is home on the PlayStation 4 and the sequels inevitably in motion are sure to entice more than just the fanbase, Marvel or Sony-wise. Until that time comes, I’m actually looking forward to the post release content as it will be fun to see more virtual adventures in this beautifully realized alternate Manhattan, whether it’s with more enemies or frenemies like Black Cat as rumors suggest, or maybe even other Marvel properties like perhaps Daredevil, that other major Manhattan vigilante who is very conspicuous in his absence. The possibilities are many and maybe Insomniac can snatch them up, just like flies. Watch out, here comes the Arkham Spider-Maaaan!!!!


Originally posted 2018-09-18 18:38:50.

Fear of Loving It: a Twenty Year retrospective on the cinematic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Image owned by Universal and image taken by Sequart Organization


No one knew drugs were bad in quite the same way that Hunter S. Thompson did. And yet through most of his 67-year lifespan, he couldn’t stop taking them. He managed to be such a captivatingly wild yet oddly morose figure in both writing and journalism all the same. He created a new genre, Gonzo, which is more about the subjective stream of consciousness of the writer relating his/her events to the reader than it is about objectively relating the story, opinion possibly intertwined. How much of what really happened or how exact the recollection is up to you. Who knows? Perhaps one of the stranger moments not clearly the result of an acid trip on Raoul Duke’s( Hunter Thompson’s literary avatar) dark journey into Las Vegas circa 1971 was fairly historic and some more banal going ons in the book/movie is completely made up. Perhaps the drugs addled Thompson up so much he himself couldn’t tell or care about the difference.

Terry Gilliam, the American member of Monty Python, directed the now two-decade old adaptation of Thompson’s early seventies’ eulogy for the counter-cultural sixties. Johnny Depp, a real life friend of Thompson who would go on to portray Thompson’s other persona Paul Kemp in the less well regarded The Rum Diary (2010) as well as attend his 2005 funeral following his tragic suicide. Depp completely loses himself in portraying Thompson’s Duke, to the point where I actually believed I was looking at a younger, somewhat more handsome Thompson. Thompson himself proclaimed that no other actor could have done the role. In a sense and I could be wrong, not having seen that much of Depp’s early works, but this is the film which started the actor’s eccentrically committed style. What I mean is if you look at Jack Sparrow from POTC, Tonto from The Lone Ranger, Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc, you’ll see that same strange style which we are familiar with Depp for portraying and in recent years, have gotten sort of sick of.  I wonder if in some way, Depp returns to the style of Raoul Duke to play roles which are so different and not just tonally. If not the actual style, but that manic energy or laid back weirdness.

To the uninitiated,  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is what a drug trip looks like from a perspective hardly sober, all with a philosophical slant. Thompson’s Duke and Dr. Gonzo( Benicio Del Toro), the former’s attorney and nominal best friend, head to Sin City to cover the Mint 400, an annual dirt-bike/dune buggy race. Eventually, due to both the drugs and other glaring distractions of Vegas, the duo begins to lose focus and stumble, drive, drink, inhale, and eat their way through a town that takes decadance to an existential level. Despite his best efforts to actually show some journalistic integrity, such as also ironically attending a D.A. convention on prevention of drug use, Duke becomes too all enraptured in the vice of the drugs. He never stoops to the down right scary excesses of his attorney Gonzo, and at times Depp’s take on Duke is almost adorable if it weren’t so sad at the same time. The drugs not only give Duke a unique yet bleak perspective on America after the Counter-Culture died off, it also is perhaps a way for him to cope with what the American Dream has become: a glitzy, frazzled, obscene shadow of what once or perhaps never fully was.

Critics in 1998 complained of the disjointed pace, sequencing of events, and how there seemed to be no real direction to the quest of Duke and Gonzo. How right they were. Tell me, would a drug addled adventure to Las Vegas be orderly, sequential and coherent? It might not be pleasant either, but by Jove it is a brutally honest experience. It’s not so much the accuracy of the real life trip the novel/film is honest about, it never tried to be. It’s the emotion and perception, the earnestness of Duke’s oddly consistent framing of what he makes of Las Vegas. It’s a bad place, full of people trying to screw other people. Of people in law enforcement not knowing a whit about their junkie enemy. Of a place willing to forgive so much law breaking so long as it doesn’t interfere with the money making process. The hypocrisy and the agony are keenly seen by a man who is no angel, who hangs out with a man who should by all accounts be in prison rather than in the legal system.

The most “ahem”, addicting aspect of Fear and Loathing in Vegas, both as literature and as a motion picture experience is the sheer creativity of Duke’s speech patterns. His quotable sensibilities and accent are bizarre yet seem just right for the sort of story that Fear and Loathing is.

If you can stomach the subject matter and have just an inkling of what to expect, then Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains one of the premiere fever dreams, from out of Hollywood or otherwise. Maybe you will get something out of it like I did, maybe you won’t as was the consensus of 98′. You’ll have a hard time forgetting about it and you will suddenly find Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” on your iTunes library. Like an acid trip, you won’t remember the full picture but a part of you will always sense it, deep down.

Originally posted 2018-09-04 19:22:01.

Mass Effect Tenth and a half year retrospective: Mass Effect 3

Image result for mass effect 3Image owned by EA and Bioware, image from Destructoid

If Mass Effect 3’s legacy is anything and it is considerable, it is that games can provoke a loud and emotional response for its story’s conclusion as well as the elder mediums, that of books, cinema, and the like. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive response either. For 98% of Mass Effect 3’s total amount of content, you could make the persuasive argument that Bioware made the best possible trilogy capper it could with what its aging hardware generation could muster, especially for those carrying Commander Shepard’s personalized story from 1 and 2. It was grander, more technically and mechanically refined, and definitively for both the invested and the newcomer, a heart-wrencher.  In some ways, Mass Effect 3 is how you conclude a three part story, game or otherwise. In others, not so much.

The time of destruction Commander Shepard has long feared and warned the galaxy about has come: the Reapers have returned to continue their endless, cyclical harvest of advanced sentient life. Trillions are at risk, billions at best will die, no matter the Commander’s decisive action. He/she first must leave Earth behind to build an intergalactic coalition of species, along with a doomsday weapon to combat the ancient monsters and save their homeworld among many others.

What made Mass Effect 1 special was Shepard beginning his/her quest to become humanity’s avatar, a representative to all of what their species is to the galactic community, especially with a Lovecraftian threat discovered. Mass Effect 2 was special for both its further solidifying of the handcrafted universe its developers had created, as well as a heavier focus on caring for Shepard and their compatriots, or at the very least, seeing what made them all tick. Mass Effect 3 is special because it actively puts everything you’ve become attached to in even greater peril than ever, and lets you know from the start that you can’t save it all. Sometimes to win the day, Shepard must either let his darlings be killed or kill them him/herself. Few legends aren’t built without sacrifice. Shepard cannot be exceptional in that regard.

The most divisive aspect of Mass Effect 3 outside of its endlessly picked apart conclusion, is what I’d call the “tightening of the adventure”. There is less emphasis than ever on exploring and learning about a wonderfully realized galaxy like before and more on trying to put out the flames it’s engulfed in. It makes sense, considering a horrifically brutal galactic war is happening, but going from four hub areas( not counting your space vessel, the Normandy) on four distinct worlds back to one, the giant cylindrical space station, the Citadel, is an off-putting experience, initially.  There’s fewer options in your dialogue wheel, going from three to two in a more, frustrating binary sense. You can have up to seven squad members than 2’s 12. There are fewer missions, optional or otherwise, likely to insinuate a tighter more desperate pace, than the relatively urgent but laid back recruitment drive of the prior game. By Mass Effect 3, the universe and most of its characters have been established. You should know the world, now you have to save it and tie up any other loose ends that were set up. This criticism of a smaller space to operate, despite the staggeringly high stakes is understandable but much easier to fight against than the more agreeable problems of how it can all turn out.

Of the seven characters Shepard can bring along for their final tour of duty, four are returning from Mass Effect 1( should they have survived up til now) and the new three are not entirely new in more ways than one. Kaidan or Ashley, your human teammates of ME1, are up to working with you again depending on who didn’t bite the dust in the original. Liara, now operating as an information broker of considerable influence, is back full time from her short great stint in ME2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. Garrus and Tali are,assuming they are alive from the last game, back to be the only two characters to be full time members in all three games, bless Bioware for that. Wrex, the sixth member of your crew from the first, makes an awesome encore party member in one of ME3’s excellent DLC offerings, but only in that DLC.

The newcomers include ME2 character,EDI( voiced by Cylon Tricia Helfer), going from a holographic AI to one with an appropriately sexy robot body, that is endlessly lamp shaded for those reasons and Shepard can play matchmaker with her and Seth Green’s lovable Normandy pilot “Joker” Moreau. James Vega,( played with revealing commitment by D-list actor Freddy Prinze Jr.) is the rather divisive new human squad addition. A super jacked Hispanic soldier in the Human military force, the Systems Alliance, he becomes a tag along member with Shepard’s team escaping from Earth when the Reapers invade. He quickly becomes the most reckless member of Shepard’s team, as his youth, rage at Earth’s predicament and desire to make up for tragic mistakes in his service marks him as a noble yet understandably hotheaded brute of a character. I go against some of the grain in actually liking, not loving James. He acts, as Bioware intended as a stand in for newcomers to the franchise, who perhaps start with ME3 in their experience with the series. He also acts as an outsider looking in to the inner circle of friends and allies Shepard has acquired over the years.

The final teammate, Javik, is my favorite addition, due to being an exceptionally cranky Prothean who managed to survive his species’ extermination the last time the Reapers invaded through cryrostasis in hiding. He is the sole surviving member of his race and is probably the most motivated member of Shepard’s party out of vengeance. His cold and severe outlook on life both from living under the Reapers onslaught and the Imperialist standard of his race’s empire create a nice contrast to the rest of Shepard and Co. He also serves as a mirror to a more “renegade” Shepard in terms of behavior: Do what must be done to win, no matter how ugly.

The interactions with your seven man team in and out of combat remains a defining and crucial part of the Mass Effect experience in 3. The squad members actually bother to leave their quarters on the Normandy and interact in other parts of the ship as well as disembark onto the Citadel without Shepard’s need to tag along. It helps make the crew feel more organic and real and that is especially important considering the dire tone in play.

Mass Effect 3, while not without moments of relief comic or otherwise, doesn’t let you forget you are stuck in the mother of all wars. The constant news reports, sheer number of wounded or displaced people on the Citadel, and the understanding that everything you do up until the end of the game is simply slowing down a certain doom. It can wear on you, as it definitely wears on Shepard. The culmination of a possibly tragic pre-game background and the events of the first two games show their weight on the Commander. If more of your overall team of characters have died up til now, the heavier it feels. There’s even a memoriam wall on the Normandy with the list of those who’ve died serving on the Normandy and like it or not, it will almost certainly fill up more as 3 means to go on. It’s a war story, and going into knowing that helps.

The means that Shepard utilizes to build up the galactic forces for one last climatic push are called “war assets”. It can be as small as an individual of no small importance like an unrecruitable teammate from a prior game to an entire fleet of ships to supplies and tools to build your weapon to quell the Reapers, the Crucible. The act of acquiring them is one of the most enjoyable aspects that pertains only to 3. Scanning solar systems across the galaxy in search of resources big and small replaces the divisive mining portion of 2 and it is made more thrilling as every time you scan a system, the Reapers will detect you eventually and give chase. You can also find them by doing numerous side quests on the Citadel and finding them lying around so to speak  during combat drops. It’s hard to lose sight of what’s important in Mass Effect 3 and that is anything but a detriment.

Speaking of combat drops, almost every mission involving combat involves being flown in via shuttle with Shepard and two squad members breaking down the game plan. It reinforces the wartime feel in this manner and the combat itself is easily the best in series. It was so improved from ME2, that Bioware made a successful multiplayer mode to accommodate the huge amount of freedom it entails. You are no longer forced to use only a certain style of weapons based on class. For instance, if you chose Engineer for Shepard’s class you could only use a shotgun and pistol. Now, you can pick any combination of weapons you want, having all five types being assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, sub-machine gun and sniper rifle at your disposal. You can upgrade and customize individual weapons and Shepard’s suit of armor down to the benefits and drawbacks. Mass Effect 3 makes you a master of arms, and the fluid and fast combat with adaptable enemies, varied design of levels, coupled with the increasing stakes attached, make ME3 if anything, the most fun to play in the broadest sense. The combat is so well paced at times, it almost shortens the game in some ways.

It sounds like a fine way to end a trilogy and for the most part, it is. But as you were likely waiting to see me extrapolate on; The game’s very end has, despite legitimate post launch improvements, created a seemingly permanent bad aftertaste to many. Can’t say I’m not one of those people. It remains very real how surprised I was at how.. incomplete Mass Effect 3’s original endings were. Again, it has been decently addressed by a studio which did seem to care about the severe blow-back that followed the game’s March 2012 release. The details of what didn’t and in some ways still doesn’t ring true about the conclusion(s) is so long and deep, that even for an essay that is part of a ten year retrospective analysis, it would take too long to fully digest all the spinning plates.

What I can say shortly, especially for those who still don’t know about the specifics is that it involved a whole lot of unanswered questions( a couple that were brand new), bitter lack of closure, as well as murky retconning of some of the series core themes, right at the 11th hour. The wounds have healed even after replaying, but a bit of that initial, quiet exasperation lingers despite the free extended cut that clarified a lot. One prevailing consequence that ending started was a new suspicion and mild contempt for Bioware going forward with later additions from the studio: Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda. Inquisition, the third entry in the sister series to Mass Effect, while largely acclaimed by critics, has overtime had a much divided response from the playerbase, especially longtime Bioware fans. Chalk it up to mixed feelings on the open world structure, weak antagonist and repetitive combat being the aspects which give fans umbrage. Mass Effect Andromeda on the other hand, that would take an entire article to dissect what went wrong there, and it is likely more the fault of quite likely literally evil publisher EA, then it was the poor, inexperienced B-team at Bioware’s Montreal studio than the veterans in Edmonton, Alberta.

Now, Bioware’s next project,Anthem, is turning a lot of heads in the wrong direction. That mostly comes out of eschewing a lot of the elements of Bioware’s established formula and creating a new episodic experience. It takes more than a few notes it appears from Bungie’s polarizing Destiny series of online, shared world shoot-em-ups. Many fear Bioware may legitimately be in trouble following Andromeda’s disastrous release last year and the lukewarm pre-release reception Anthem has been getting. For some like myself, Dragon Age Inquisition could end up Bioware’s last good game, others would say it was Mass Effect 3. More bitter and temperamental voices may declare Mass Effect 2 all the way back in 2010 as being their last good one. It is mostly a subjective whirlwind of opinion and no one can make up a general consensus, for better or for worse.

Mass Effect 3 is still a damn fine way to conclude the trilogy Bioware embarked on in 2007 and no journey no matter how memorable is perfect. Mass Effect 1 and 2 had their own problems too, though they do seem ever smaller compared with what to complain about nowadays. Shepard’s story is complete, I believe that much but I couldn’t tell you if Bioware’s is nearing a needlessly sorrowful conclusion as well. It could be even more uproarious than anything ME3 could conjure up. If the end is near, so be it.

Originally posted 2018-08-07 22:05:23.

Assignment: Inconceivable: A review of Mission Impossible: Fallout

Image by NerdReactor and owned by Paramount


You can call Tom Cruise many things, but you can’t call him a coward. You can call him complicated. He is easily the most recognized Scientologist in the world aside from its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.  He has been accused of cultivating something of an ego which is par for the course when it comes to expectations of a Hollywood figure. His tabloid love life is infamously well catalogued. And yet he is doing something few in Hollywood dare: make action films that are almost certainly actually dangerous. Sure, Mad Max Fury Road was partially an American production and the John Wick flicks are, while not necessarily risky for Reeves and co. while filming, far more grounded and creative than similar fare.

Mission Impossible: Fallout is the third and possibly best in what essentially is a successful soft reboot for a six-film franchise that was once just dumb and occasionally fun, despite the talented hands of De Palma, Woo and Abrams directing the first three. MI6 in some small ways does pay tribute to the 60s TV series on which it is based on more so than the last two in terms of legitimate gadget based deception and stealth/espionage. It also has outrageous action set pieces which are remarkably convincing in presentation. This comparison isn’t new but yes, aging but still surprisingly youthful looking Tom Cruise is trying successfully to be the American Jackie Chan, albeit with a different set of close quarters fighting skills, obviously. It’s brutal, effective, cliched and most importantly, engaging. It’s hard for me to judge which of the new trilogy is the best overall in quality, which is supposed to be my job. 2011’s Ghost Protocol inspired new faith in a dead franchise, just like how 2009’s fourth Fast and Furious did the same with varying degrees of critical quality. People still talk about both the incredible climb up Dubai’s Burj Khalifi and the climatic,automatic car garage brawl.

2015’s Rogue Nation was no less audacious with an underwater turbine segment actually standing out more for me than the marketed opening segment of Cruise’s Agent Ethan Hunt actually hanging outside a cargo plane lifting off. Fallout has its incredible helicopter climb and chase with a finale that tries to one up the end of Stallone’s Cliffhanger( successfully). It also has a seemingly unfilmable HALO jump, an almost R-rated bathroom fight, a dizzyingly detailed armored car heist and subsequent chase and much more. The biggest problem isn’t that one of these parts doesn’t work, they all do, it’s that it can be hard to follow the full plot, even if you’ve seen the last film.

Ethan Hunt and his lovable duo of partners in the IMF(Impossible Mission Force):Ving Rhames’ six film veteran Luther and new films favorite Benji( Simon Pegg) lose three cases of plutonium during an undercover sting in Berlin. It’s connected with the villainous “syndicate” of the prior film, including its villain, Solomon Lane( Sean Harris). A complicated roller coaster of allegiances, clues, theories and objectives follow through in Hunt’s attempt to recover the plutonium from terrorist hands. There’s multiple run-ins with last film love interest Elsa( Rebecca Ferguson) as well as brawny newcomer Walker, played superbly by Henry Cavill (dat mustache). It’s a race against time that becomes more literal as the film goes along. With that comes a slight pacing issue, which also affected me with the last film, especially in its third act. This time around, the slower part comes near the middle with the final act antics second winding me up.

Unsurprisingly, though dubiously unavoidable are the more cliche parts of what is an ingeniously creative film for its genre of spy caper. The love story aspects are very obvious in execution though there is a refreshingly handled twist on that part near the end. Even parts of the film you can see coming a mile away aren’t so bad after the fact if only because of how director Christopher McQuarrie decides to handle them. It helps that they’re actually people I care about in these familiar yet perilous situations, and the film does find something new enough to forgive earlier use of worn trope. After 20 plus Bond films, and now six MI films, it would be nearly impossible to find something entirely new under the spy genre.

It’s ultimately the guts that sells Mission Impossible Fallout. The guts to take your standard spy action picture and imbue either actual or the illusion of risk on the part of the filmmaking process. Just the third act’s helicopter scenario seems like a far flung love letter both to the first Indiana Jones picture, in particular the truck chase, as well as the gloriously unlikely misadventures of Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. With films like these, do we need an Uncharted movie, even hopefully one with Nathan Fillion? Do we even need 007 anymore? Once Cruise does get too old for these kinds of pictures, who if any can thrill us like Mission Impossible thrills us now? I imagine this kind of discussion would be very unlikely ten years ago.

Originally posted 2018-07-29 21:30:47.

Mass Effect Tenth and a Half Anniversary Retrospective: Mass Effect 2

Image from rpgsite, owned by EA and Bioware

Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I’ve ever played and made me truly a fan of the series more so than anything the original game had to offer. The scope, emotion and complexity of the crew you assemble to take the fight to a new enemy is what solidifies ME2 as the best entry in the series and save for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1, the most significant game Bioware has yet and may ever release.

I think back very fondly to the first few months of 2010 as a highlight in my life for mixing up my time playing and replaying Mass Effect 2 and discovering all the smaller details that helps make no one run of the game truly feel entirely the same. Sure, the basic setup remains unchangeable of a resurrected Commander Shepard after being killed in action, being forced to work for a terrorist organization (Cerberus)  with the resources to defeat the new enemies that slew him/her. No game is so customizable  that it can truly be that open to deviation of plot thread, yet. Your goal is to recruit a team for the express purpose of ending an immovably malevolent alien race called the Collectors that have been abducting humans and only humans for some unknown purpose. What is more convincing for Shepard is their clear connection to the series overall antagonist, the Reapers.

Some may still criticize Mass Effect 2 for its somewhat loose connection with the underlying plot device that are the Reapers. It’s more about reevaluating if need be the direction you want to take Shepard and their story before the truly cataclysmic events of the trilogy capper.  If you think they need a new face or hair color, then change it. Do they need another specialty in combat, then adjust for new tastes. Do you believe Shepard deserves a new love or none at all, that’s up to you. Despite the looser thread to the overarching story, ME2 is greater than its sum due to the connections it does have between the first and final chapter in the trilogy.

Perhaps one of the more unique joys that ME2 introduced to me was carrying the save data of a completed ME1 playthrough. Everything you did, from who died, who you romanced, and other key and even small choices would carry in some way going forward and they could further be altered based on what you do in ME2. It felt and remains really special that you aren’t just controlling a customized character of one game, you’re carrying a character through three. It wasn’t until the second game that people were starting to see the impressive, innovative vision Bioware had for the trilogy through that system.

The majority of what Shepard does during Mass Effect 2 outside of most of the excellent DLC content is to figure out a way to reach the Collector’s homeworld safely and defeat them however possible to end the abductions as well as destroy one more tool of the Reapers before their inevitable invasion. A considerable chunk of that time is spent recruiting your squad members and if you pool the time correctly, gaining their “Loyalty”. It’s the cycle of recruitment and loyalty that makes ME2 not just about the gloriously tense final act, the “Suicide Mission”, but about further building the Mass Effect universe before the Reapers start setting it on fire. The deep breath before the plunge.

Up to 12 team members can join your group. Two are there at the start, the Cerberus operatives Miranda and Jacob. Miranda is the unabashed “Ice Queen” second in command of Shepard’s group and Jacob is the more sympathetic agent of the shadowy group who remains wary of Cerberus’s questionable behavior. Another two are downloadable additions, Zaeed the jaded, aging human mercenary with the cockney accent and Kasumi the Japanese master thief with serious grief issues revolving her murdered boyfriend/ partner in crime.

Yet another two are returning fan favorites Garrus and Tali who were so popular with fans of the first they were made romance options, with the Turian Garrus going to a female Shepard and Quarian Tali going to a male. Those options also are quite popular as well, especially for myself. Garrus and Tali, more so than even returning wisecracking ship pilot Joker, create a sense of continuity that is especially potent should they survive to the third game. More on that later.

The other half of your team consist of Thane, a terminally ill alien assassin who is still more than fit enough for your mission complete with a deeply spiritual side, Jack, a female convict with incredibly powerful biotic abilities and a deeply traumatic and angry history with Cerberus. Samara, an Asari Justicar, essentially a mix of a Knight and detective who for a deeply held code of justice will root out evil-doers no matter what and Grunt, a tank bred alien Krogan who despite being grown up has the attitude of a violent child mixed humorously with a Football player.

The last two members of your team are both favorites of mine as well as being really critical to the plot of ME3. Mordin, a Salarian scientist/ professor with a love of Gilbert & Sullivan( no joke) and Legion, a Geth with a figurative heart of gold who is of the same robot species that were the primary enemies you faced in the first game. His surprise reveal as an new ally of Shepard is one of the true highlights that makes ME2 special.

How you utilize your team going forward, from the upgrades you can request of them either to improve themselves or your new better than ever space ship, the Normandy, is one thing. Gaining their loyalty through accomplishing their special missions can unlock new abilities for them in combat, abilities Shepard them-self can unlock to use. Romance is as far as I know only possible through loyalty as well. Together with all the locations you visit preparing your ship and crew for the climatic mission, it’s essentially one more tour of the Milky Way for new stories big and small, some even with parables to tell and character secrets to unravel. Learning more about the Galaxy that Shepard resides in is the special sauce that makes you care about its fate in Mass Effect 3. In some ways, Mass Effect 2 is only this amazing because of the ties that bind to the third game.

Even a favorite of mine is not perfect. I can’t and won’t speak for my recent playthrough on the PS3 port of the game as I think my console is simply not working well hence the surprisingly poor performance but two issues still stick out despite my love of the game. First is the infamous “probing” side activity which is essential if you want to research/upgrade your abilities, protection and weapons as well as the ship upgrades which could very well be key to surviving the climatic mission. Basically, you have to go around the galaxy to find solar systems and probe a planet to find minerals and materials that can be used for those upgrades. One benefit of mining that happens despite the tedium is that you could run into a fun and short side mission on the planet, some of which carry on narratively to other planets. It’s a way to help encourage you to explore the galaxy, but the repetition sets in regardless with a more fun alternative introduced in ME3 thankfully. There’s also the pace.

Out of all the games in the trilogy, Mass Effect 2, especially with its sizable chunk of DLC, is massive. The momentum towards the tense suicide mission can slacken when you have to account for all that Shepard must or can do. It definitely helps out that the majority of content ME2 does offer is very substantial and memorable and the rewards of the long haul approach are quite clear.

There is a moment late in the game where you are encouraged to pick up the pace and start the suicide mission finally, but its tempered by an earlier story mission which can be put off indefinitely to do all the busy work needed for as good an end run as needed. Then there is the Suicide Mission. It doesn’t hurt either that the music in this section is so. damn. epic. The build up and release of tension you and Shepard go through as you begin and carry out the trip through the mass effect relay to the Collector base remains quite palpable almost every time I’ve played. It’s especially more emotional if you have a lover to worry about during the proceedings.

It’s not just a matter of upgrading your ship and gaining and keeping the loyalty of your team. You also have to plan on the spot what the crew must do. Who will be the specialist for this specific task? Who will lead a second team while you’re protecting the specialist? Should you send someone back for safety? Over multiple runs, what you should or shouldn’t do becomes very clear and easy to replicate for the perfect run of the mission. It still remains epic and awesome but admittingly a bit of the stress of uncertainty that came prior has evaporated. Not much you can do about that but on the plus side at least you get to see your amazing team of heroes and anti-heroes survive to the next game. You’re going to need them. It’s an investment for more than one game and that is in a nutshell, what is so wonderful about Mass Effect. The short term is great and memorable. The long term is powerful and unforgettable. Mass Effect 2 nearly masters what it has to offer in the immediate but never lets you forget that the future is what matters.

Originally posted 2018-07-23 22:12:55.

Sunday Ramble IV (Black Ops 4)

Image result for black ops 4 ruinImage from PCGamesN and owned by Activision and Treyarch


As I attempt to refinish Mass Effect 2 and 3 for this blog in honor of its franchise’s tenth anniversary, I felt that I should continue my dormant “Sunday Ramble” series. The topic this week is one that feels quasi-personal to me, since I used to be a regular player of the Call of Duty franchise. From the original game in 2003 to 2012’s Black Ops II, I have played every entry up till that point and generally enjoyed all of them, though I wouldn’t start playing the multiplayer until Black Ops 1.

2013’s Ghosts was the first entry in the series I can remember genuinely feeling disinterested or turned off by and the lukewarm reception it got vindicated my feelings. I returned to playing with  Advanced Warfare the following year, initially skipped Black Ops III the following year, actually tried out the detested Infinite Warfare both out of curiosity and yes because of the Modern Warfare 1 remaster forcibly included to string more dollars out of me the year after that. I haven’t nor plan on playing last year’s WW2, which brought the series back to its roots with mixed results from what I’ve heard. Now we reach Black Ops IIII, which excluding spin off titles, is the fifteenth entry in the series. Including the first game’s expansion, United Offensive, there’s been a Call of Duty game every year since I was nine.

My first impressions before I learned about the Scrooge- levels of greed involved in this year’s installment were not kind. Aesthetically, the game looks very similar to the look and style of its predecessor which for the first time since 2011’s Modern Warfare 3, did look like a rehash rather than an actual sequel. Yes, there are differences which are noticeable. The advanced movement system of thruster boosting, wall-running and dashing introduced in Advanced Warfare is gone and the series is back to “boots on the ground” as the fans wanted it. It seems to take place setting wise in-between the events of Black Ops II and III, a middle ground which still has enough of a futuristic tone to use more out there weapons like a giant pile-driver to seismically smash opponents or the ability to spread fire around an area. The “Specialists” of the last Black Ops are back and as my friend Angel pointed out, it has more of an “Overwatch” feel than ever with certain characters having abilities that can be unleashed after a certain amount of time has passed in the match or through your performance in-game. Black Ops III actually beat Overwatch to the punch by half a year but its safe to say that the latter’s execution and popularity has given people a forgivable amnesia of what came first.

BO4 has been criticized for finally eschewing the singleplayer or story campaign that was available every year since the beginning in favor of small “tutorial” missions where you get to understand the specialists abilities tied to a pinch of backstory. The exact same thing occurred with Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege and overtime the risks for that title paid off as Siege is now a popular and enduring multiplayer experience nowadays. It doesn’t hurt that Rainbow Six isn’t annualized and thus new worthwhile content is released after launch for years rather than a year as is Call of Duty’s practice.

Another reason for the singleplayer’s removal aside from the understandable lack of people who don’t actually play or finish singleplayer, as was definitely the case with BO3’s polarizing co-op format, is the Battle Royale mode.  Titled “Blackout“, it is viewed by very many as following a trend rather than creating one of its own, which 2007’s Modern Warfare 1 definitely did for the multiplayer formula. With the explosion of popularity for games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, the former though dwindling in success thanks to the latter, it seems as if people are already growing weary of “Battle Royale” as a genre. What is the genre about? Like the Japanese cult classic film of the same name from 2000 as well as The Hunger Games’ novels and movies, a large group of people, often a hundred, enter a match where the goal is to kill each other any way they can until only one remains. Sounds grim but pretty cool, right? Not if familiarity breeds contempt. That concept clearly hasn’t bothered a series like Call of Duty too much considering a decade and a half life span at this point. So, a mode people feel sketchy about, in a series of games which aren’t really geared towards that style of gameplay. It doesn’t help that competing military shooter game Battlefield V will also have a BR mode, and that series is seemingly much better suited, with its much larger maps, possible tactics and so forth.

There’s also the Zombies mode, which instead of one or two maps of survival content, there’s three perhaps to make up for the singleplayer absence as well. Perhaps people would still not be that hard on the latest COD if it wasn’t for the awful, awful manner in which Publisher Activision is promoting the game. In order to get any of the zombie and multiplayer content post launch, you have to buy the Black Ops 4 pass, which is the only way possible to access a seriously large amount of content which should be available anyway to start with.  Getting the pass or the “deluxe” edition of the game can cost up to $100 dollars. For an annualized series, that’s grossly inexcusable.

Perhaps if I was a committed Call of Duty player, I would feel much worse about this, but I’m not. I have other interactive ways to pass my time this Fall season when the game is released. For one, there’s Battlefield V, whose biggest hurdle is not so much with the gameplay or how it’s being sold, as it actually looks pretty watertight, especially coming from publisher EA and their debacle with last year’s bitterly despised Star Wars: Battlefront II. It’s the questionable tone and historical accuracy, particularly of females fighting in a WW2 scenario. Wouldn’t be an actual problem if they showed French, Russian or maybe Chinese female soldiers. They do show in the story mode Norwegian female resistance fighters that existed, but they have predominantly shown British female soldiers that did not and thus the outrage, however actually important it really is. Would still prefer that to BO4.

There was a special promotion at this year’s E3, in which if you preorder Black Ops 4, you can access a set of “new” maps for Black Ops 3. It’s a set of multiplayer maps from earlier Black Ops titles that are fan favorites that have been rebuilt in the third game’s engine. However this preorder promotion is only for PlayStation 4 users like myself and to sweeten the deal, for a short time only with the service PlayStation Plus, Black Ops III can be downloaded for free. I did so, not because I wanted to preorder Black Ops IIII, but because of the three Call of Duty games I had never played, BO3 was the one I was most curious to try out. What harm can come from trying out a free game, whatever it may be?

If you can ignore the “Black Market” service, then Black Ops III is a fun, not really that remarkable but decent entry in the series. The Black Market is where the much despised “microtransactions/loot box ” system comes into play. You can spend real dollars to get COD points, which you can then spend on purchasing loot boxes which have a randomized selection of unlockable mostly cosmetic items. In other words, gambling. I haven’t spent a penny on this service, unlike with Overwatch. I got Black Ops III for free and I won’t part with any of my earned money especially at my place and age in life for a company whose eyes have become too green for their own good.

In other words, even being generous as possible, Black Ops 4 and by extension Call of Duty are stuck in a nasty mess of it own making. It’s something to boycott a game or in my case simply decline to want to buy something for ethical concerns. Adding pragmatic reasons to the fold is what ultimately wins the day. Perhaps Activision suits will stop snorting cocaine to realize the long tarnished goodwill they’ve created and will attempt, however disingenuously like perhaps EA, to get it back. But odds are they won’t. Shame.

Originally posted 2018-07-15 21:08:25.

Mass Effect Ten and a half year anniversary retrospective: Mass Effect 1

Image result for mass effect 1Image by Fextralife


It’s been a little over a decade since the first Mass Effect game was released and established the foundation for gaming’s finest space opera unless you really, really like Halo, which I don’t. An epic planned trilogy originally meant to grace the PC and Xbox 360 exclusively until the series became big enough to warrant ports to the PlayStation platform and in the third game’s case, the Wiiu. It has elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and the works of H.P. Lovecraft sprinkled in surrounding the series’ antagonists, the Reapers. What’s so ‘cough’ effective about the series is despite all the similarities, Bioware Studios made their universe distinctly its own thing rather than a carbon copy of other older works and the central thread that connects this fabric of a near perfect trilogy is Commander Shepard.

Shepard is your customizable protagonist, in which you shall decide what you want their gender, background, abilities and choices to be. You can be the stalwart yet humble Paragon, your own Buzz Lightyear, or a gritty anti-hero who will go to lengths few would cross for his mission as a Renegade. Or you can combine both just to see what could happen or to evolve a character through what you would do in the Commander’s boots or or what his chosen background would suggest. Choice in who the Commander courts or falls in love with during the course of the game is one of the most endearing and marketed aspects of not only Mass Effect but almost any given Bioware title, particularly its sister series, Dragon Age.

The first chapter of Shepard’s adventure to save the Milky Way’s trillions of denizens from death or a fate worse than death is the most contentious one for myself, even more so than the third. The one with the ever despised endings. Perhaps if I had experienced the original Mass Effect on the PC, I would think better, but alas I remain a console gamer. Whether I played it on the 360 or the PS3, as I recently did for this essay, it remains a game that is apparently not very easy to port to console. Performance is all over the place, muddy textures, lagging frame rate, some really long load times, there is a menagerie of issues that dampen the otherwise excellent first chapter.

But its not just performance. Mass Effect 1 compared to its sequels, just looks..old. Goes without saying being the first in series, but for a trilogy meant to be played together especially when you can import the save data to carry your Shepard into the next game, you have to put up with a lot. The world, while well crafted and most certainly well thought out if the expansive in-menu lore is anything to go by, feels less alive than the other games. The colors and locations feel sterile and too clean, which despite being a semi-optimistic view of the future, feels not quite in line with 2 and 3‘s more varied and breathing environments. The two least aged well proponents of 1 are the combat and the faces.

The series most recent entry, Andromeda, got a lot of earned heat for a laundry list of soul crushing reasons and the poor mannequin faces and bodily movements of supposedly the most state of the art game in the series stuck out terribly, to meme levels of derision. The first game a decade older does look better with occasionally solid moments of emotiveness that still look good, further digging Andromeda deeper. However, it still looks like a product which while truly amazing at the time has perhaps unavoidably not stayed that way. It even looks downright ugly in many ways. I would argue that if one were to remaster or even”Resident Evil” style remake the trilogy, improving the faces and bodies of just about everyone human or not would be a necessity.

The combat is also the sorest example of what Mass Effect 1 doesn’t get right. It could partially be the result of the bad ports the consoles offer, but actually fighting in Mass Effect 1 can be sloppy at best. The constant motion from the ruckus of guns firing, grenades exploding and that every single weapon relies on a “cooldown” system makes the experience of fighting a chore more than a thrill. Even worse when you pilot the Mako, an all terrain vehicle that even among fans is contentious. The awkward feel from the controls especially when engaging in vehicular combat never really leaves no matter how many times I’ve played. Navigating the many mountainous worlds across the galaxy can be just as frustrating when you can’t quite get over those damn crevices too many times! It’s also a pretty weak vehicle in terms of protection.

All of these frustrating things can’t keep Mass Effect from being overall, a great first step into a larger world. Bioware expertly crafts and opens up an interesting take on humanity’s early years as a space-faring civilization. Its interactions with other races, like those of the Citadel Council and its desire to be part of that galactic government, is what drives the story. It’s what drives Shepard him/herself: as a representative of how through their actions humanity will be judged. Shepard’s overall goal is track down a rogue Spectre called Saren , who has betrayed the Council by attacking a human colony, all for knowledge from a beacon of a bygone species. Shepard too experiences the beacon and learns through feverish, horrible visions that what Saren is trying to do through his treachery could spell doom for everyone.

In order to catch Saren, Shepard is made the first human Spectre to catch the alien traitor. Like almost any given role playing game, he acquires a squad of characters to follow him on his mission and a full blown ship to captain, the Normandy, piloted by Joker, himself portrayed with pure, perfect snark by Seth Green.

It’s not just Shepard and the player’s choice based role in shaping him/her that is at the heart of Mass Effect’s most enduring quality, it’s those that take up arms along them that counts. The first batch of squad members are the most important overall, as their impact on the trilogy, assuming who among them survives 1, is the clearest in retrospect. The two human compatriots of Shepard, Kaidan and Ashley, are probably among the most divisive in terms of how well written or likable they are compared to the Alien crew.

Kaidan’s relative blandness grew on me surprisingly, as he felt in some ways one of the most real characters on the crew; his lack of ambition, desire to be a decent Lieutenant on Shepard’s ship and ultimately depending on gender, lover, is very sweet. The most baggage he has is migraines from an implant in his head which gives him “biotic” abilities that manipulate telekinetically objects and himself but his lack of drama is in the long run quite novel. Ashley represents the near inevitable prejudice humanity would engender when living in a time when sentient alien life was a common day reality. Ashley is not an out and out bigot but being connected to a military family with connections to humanity’s first defeat at alien hands has painted a biased yet willing to adapt perspective.

The other four are the characters who remain possibly the most beloved in the entire series. There’s Garrus, the spiny bird/cat looking alien from the Turian race, the same species as Saren. He is a Citadel police officer whose desire for justice at almost any cost butts heads with his people’s strict disciplinary stance. He reflects Shepard’s divergent paths from the Renegade to the Paragon in terms of problem solving and how the two of them interact is one of the best loved moments in the whole trilogy. Many prefer to see Shepard and Garrus become badass brothers-from-another-mother style friends and if you choose a female Shepard by the second game the two can become more than friends in one of the most tender relationships games have ever produced. But more on that later.

Tali is the other fan favorite that was so popular that like Garrus, was made a squad member for the rest of the trilogy. She is a Quarian, a species that live nearly their entire lives in suits due to living generation-ally on ships that in turn weaken their immune system. A tech expert searching for something to help her nomadic people on her traditional “pilgrimage”, she gets more than she bargains for when she joins Shepard on the hunt for Saren. Her shy and unquestionably cute personality made her like Garrus the perennial favorite, that she became a love interest for a male Shepard in the subsequent games that is in its own way, is also one of the most tender relationships games have ever produced, as well as my favorite for Shepard’s embrace. You have to wait till the second game for either of these two to get this close with the Commander.

Finally there’s Wrex the Krogan and Liara the Asari. Wrex is a lizard-like big alien who grumbles cynically on his warlike people’s bleak prospects as a species and becomes perhaps the truest friend Shepard can make aside from Joker  that he/she can’t in turn romance. What adds to Wrex’s compelling place in the trilogy and in the first game especially is his divergent fate. The possibility of death that Wrex can face and its dire ramifications going forward is one of the key examples for what Mass Effect did well as a series that other franchises weren’t at the time. Liara is for the player-base a much loved character whose role in all three games is especially important. Some even consider her to be the default love interest of the series, due to her never being an expendable figure in the storyline up until the end of the series. She is a key plot figure in helping Shepard figure out the role the Reapers play in the narrative and I can’t say I’m a fan of her.

She does improve for my taste in the later games, but in 1 her shrill, hammy always inquisitive mood and voice was more exasperating than adorable as the consensus declares. That she is often thrust as the main or default assumption for Shepard’s love regardless of gender strikes me as breaking with the theme of the player being the decider of who Shepard and their relations are. It’s a shame for myself that I never could see the same magic others saw in her and always wished they could have dialed down her heavy emphasis in Shepard’s life despite the many, many variables the player can thread.

The Mass Effect Trilogy, in an odd unintended sense, connects with the original Star Wars Trilogy in terms of my subjective opinion. The second one is the best, the third is my second best and the first is the weakest IMO. This goes against the grain of the Star Wars community who view second movie best, first second best and third weakest but I digress. Perhaps for me both ME1 and A New Hope are the least enjoyed by myself in how they both reflect their age the strongest. The promising worlds both first entries introduce show promise but it doesn’t feel as if enough of it has been seen or realized until later installments. The effects are weaker, the dialogue is weaker and the sense of awe and enjoyment isn’t as high as what is to come.

Ultimately the promise of grander, better celestial adventures is what makes it worthwhile to experience the first game always before the first two. Imagine if the viewer of A New Hope could manipulate to a certain extent the events of Luke’s first chapter and how it would affect The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. You would want to experience the movies chronologically now wouldn’t you? The planting of  seeds is the savior of an imperfect yet almost paradoxically impeccable introduction.

Originally posted 2018-07-11 03:19:09.

High and Low: A review of Ant-Man and the Wasp

Image result for ant man and the wasp

Image owned by Disney, Marvel Studios and EW


After a month long hiatus which was partly due to a two week trip to Colorado, I’m back to review the MCU’s twentieth motion picture and the first to come after the events of Avengers: Infinity War. People are probably more interested to see the connection Scott Lang’s second semi-solo outing has with the cataclysmic events of April’s record breaking film than with the actual continuation of his story from the events of Captain America: Civil War. Both parties should find satisfactory and enjoyable answers during the course of the last MCU film to be released this year with the next, Captain Marvel, a painful eight months away.

Due to Scott Lang’s small but wonderful part in Cap 3, he is now under house arrest for aiding the titular fugitive and now is forced not to be the hero his adorable and growing daughter Cassie rightfully thinks he’s become after a stint as a burglar. He’s trying to help his fellow ex-con friends and allies led by Luis (Micheal Pena) make an honest living despite being stuck at home and on top of that, make up for disappointing his mentor Hank Pym and daughter Hope in helping out Captain America. Scott’s helping hand put a lot of people in trouble, which shows how even a not necessarily important role in a prior film can have considerable consequences.

That being said, Scott’s first movie experience in the microscopically small “Quantum” realm has given him a literal connection with Hank’s long thought dead wife Janet, the original Wasp, of which her daughter will take up the mantle. This spark of hope Scott discovers sets in motion a series of events which while intriguing and building on the foundation the original set, does feel over encumbered by sub-plots, however well written and acted, as well as a pace which stalls the momentum a bit too much.

So to recap, Scott ala Ant-Man/Giant Man has to help Hank Pym and daughter Janet van Dyne, the new Wasp and partner, find a way to reenter the quantum realm to rescue Pym’s wife while avoiding a phantasmic assassin who desires the same technology to get there that can help with a particularly awful “phasing” problem of hers while avoiding black market dealers who have helped the Pyms with gaining the technology for this project as well as the FBI who are both trying to keep Scott on house arrest and are also being bought out by those same black market dealers. Gasp.

It’s a lot to take in for a film which is still breezier and more light-hearted in tone than the monarchy and race politics of Black Panther and the universal crisis of Infinity War. It doesn’t hurt that everyone involved feel like they want to be here and are having fun with what essentially is Honey, I shrunk the Kids meets Spider-Man. It also helps considerably that Marvel’s formula of injecting humor surprisingly and consistently well is still intact, taking more advantage than ever with the comedic hijinks that shrinking and enlarging your body can have. That the new experimental Ant-Man suit Scott uses constantly malfunctions adds to the more enjoyable set pieces.

Evangeline Lilly’s role as Hope ala the Wasp is the best part of the film. While Scott is an effective lead, he does manage to come off as the comic bumbler to Hope’s straight woman. Some may make the knee jerk reaction that Wasp being overall a much better fighter in the field than Scott is a play on the “women are competent, men are incompetent” accusation that modern pop culture has been called out for. This never felt that way for me for a number of good reasons. One, when Ant-Man and Wasp do work together which to be honest I don’t think was enough, they work well, not to mention as a likely romantic couple. Two, Scott has spent a long time stuck in house arrest trying to be a good father to his daughter while Hope has had much more time to practice or just be the Wasp in the field. The disparity of skill between the two feels understandable and also appropriate considering the story’s circumstances.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is the weakest of the three MCU films this year but that is hardly surprising or even all that disappointing. Black Panther became a cultural milestone for having a mega blockbuster superhero film with an African lead cast and Infinity War was the successful culmination of eighteen prior films. AMATW was never meant to be a bigger and badder motion picture than those two, exactly the opposite. A calmer, less serious moment before the plunge we expect from Captain Marvel and Avengers 4. It does what it set out to do in continuing one of Marvel’s intentionally smaller franchises as well as letting us know at the end that they are still very much part of a larger universe.

I want more adventures from Scott and Hope in the future. I’m also hopeful that Scott’s daughter Cassie will one day become a hero herself, like in the comics. The film does seriously play with the prospect as I’d hoped. After what comes in the fourth Avengers, Cassie may despite her father’s noble concerns  have to step up to the plate. Perhaps a bigger or smaller step than usual.


Originally posted 2018-07-09 18:36:58.