A Brief Game Review: Tiny Epic Kingdoms — Tiny Little Package, Big-Ass Feel

I’m a sucker for good 4X games both on the tabletop and my PC. I don’t even want to know how many hours days weeks I’ve dumped into Civilization in its various incarnations.

“4X” describes the four basic elements in this style of game: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. You start in some little corner of the board, then you explore the world around you, expand out into it, harvest the resources it provides, and wind up in plenty of fights as your neighbors do the same thing, improving your technology and unlocking new abilities all the while. These tend to be heavyweight games; a playing time of 2-4 hours makes a game fairly lightweight within the genre.

… until now.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms, a game that overfunded to the tune of two thousand goddamn percent on Kickstarter, is by far the fasted, simplest 4X I’ve ever played, yet still has the feel of what I love about the genre. This is a marvel of efficient game design and is just a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

Each player takes one of thirteen different factions, each with their own unique technology magic track. Everybody gets a home territory the size of a postcard, two adorably tiny meeples, and a handful of starting resources, and you’re off. The fundamental mechanic is role selection a la Puerto Rico, save that there’s no inherent advantage to being the one to choose one of the options. You can move meeples on a map you already occupy, move meeples to somebody else’s map, spend resources on magic, your victory-point sink tower, or new meeples, or exchange resources you have for resources you want. If somebody selected an option that’s useless to you, you may instead harvest more resources based on what lands your meeples occupy.

When two meeples occupy the same space, they fight! Battles are won based on how many resources the players are willing to spend; high bidder wins, ties go to the defender. (There’s also an alliance mechanism I’m looking forward to seeing in action, but it’s explicitly omitted from the two-player game, and so far I’ve only played this with Jasmine.)

You win by having lots of meeples on the board. Or by pursuing your magic tree and exploiting whatever VP-based power awaits at the end of it. Or by building the most bad-ass tower. Or by camping on the most VP-giving spaces.

I love this game. The rules are simple but have enough depth to be satisfying. The varying magic tracks give the game enough asymmetry to give each faction its own feel without completely turning the rules on their head. You’re making meaningful choices constantly, and have to think far enough ahead to avoid getting painted into some really unpleasant corners.

This is a full-on 4X game that plays in thirty freakin’ minutes. The ludicrous piles of Kickstarter cash the makers are currently Scrooge McDucking their way through show in the absolutely gorgeous artwork and production values. When this thing goes on sale properly, I can’t imagine it’ll cost much more than $30, and it will take up a tiny footprint on your shelf.

If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a must-buy, either for seducing new players into the ways of 4X or as a lightweight yet delicious snack for yourself. Highly recommended.

A Brief Review of Gone Girl

I would respect any opinion of Gone Girl from “It was the best movie I’ve seen this year” to “It filled me righteous and implacable fury and I will never watch anything David Fincher directs again.”

Hell, it’s possible to walk away thinking both.

I’m being vague because discussing what’s problematic about this movie is basically impossible without giving away some huge stonking surprises. And I don’t want to spoil anybody on the movie who might actually see it because it’s really goddamn good, a tense, twisty thriller with uniformly excellent performances that kept me engaged throughout.

But the problematic bits are … yow. This movie winds up embracing some cultural narratives that desperately need to fuck off and die.

Ultimately, did I enjoy this movie? Yes. Yes, I did. But through most of it, there was an annoying douchebag MRA in my head who kept punctuating various scenes with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “AMIRITEBRO?!?!”, and I gotta admit, I never really got that guy to shut up. Recommended for fans of exceptionally well executed lurid thrillers who either do not have certain liberal viewpoints or who are willing to temporarily push them aside for the sake of a gripping story.

A Not Terribly Brief Review of 28 Weeks Later

In the wake of the catastrophe on the Isle of Dogs, this committee strongly feels that some important lessons need to be learned about effectively containing the so-called “Rage” virus and its victims, the “Infected.” Simply put, this disaster brought to light an alarming number of strategic deficiencies in the US Army’s approach, deficiencies that must be addressed if Great Britain is ever to be successfully re-inhabited or if other similar outbreaks are to be managed.

First, intra-service communication was appalling, and can be blamed as the immediate cause of the disaster. Our investigation has revealed that the “Patient Zero” for the second-wave outbreak was a survivor who had been recently brought into the safe zone who was, in short order, identified as a non-affected carrier of the virus, directly analogous to Typhoid Mary from over a century earlier. She was, in short, both incredibly valuable and incredibly dangerous. Multiple armed guards should have been with her around the clock; instead, the only security in place was a single locked door to which civilian contractors had the key. She infected a single person — her husband who, predictably, kissed her upon learning she was alive — who then set in motion the chain reaction that led to horrific carnage. Literally for want of a single bullet, over 15,000 lives could have been saved.

Second, procedures for containing the likely inevitable recurrence of the Rage Virus were revealed to be inadequate to the point of incompetence. All the civilians were relocated to a single shelter — a hastily converted “car park,” to use the parlance of the nearly extinct British — where the surprise appearance of a single Infected would prove catastrophic, which is precisely what happened. Furthermore, the safety measures in place were defeated by a single Infected victim. This utter failure to provide even rudimentary security from a predictable threat is simply unconscionable, and led directly to a staggering death toll and quite possibly the end of England as a social entity. If the persons or persons responsible for this disgraceful lapse in judgement survived the events of that night and have not yet taken their own lives, a firing squad seems the only sensible response.

In the event that future infection zones are targeted for re-settlement, this failure hammers home the grotesque inadequacy of establishing a single emergency shelter. The best solution would be for individual homes/living quarters to be fortified to stand as shelters of their own; while expensive, fortifying a civilian structure to stand against unarmed assailants is a challenge that can be met, no matter how numerous or angry those assailants are. This would permit civilians to get to a safe place in a fraction of the time a single shelter requires, comes with the facilities needed to survive a lengthy stay cut-off from outside assistance already built-in, and eliminates the possibility for a single security failure to lead to genocide. While homes are being fortified, multiple smaller shelters should be established as an interim solution.

Third, the civilian population should be kept appraised of security emergencies while they are happening. At this point it can safely be assumed that any Britons who survived the initial outbreak are well-versed in crisis management. Herding them into a garage with no indication of what’s happening and then turning off the lights would be an unacceptable way to corral maximum-security prisoners into a shelter, let alone a population of civilians.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the so-called “Code Red” protocol failed to meet every stated aim, and did so in a way that will stain the US Army’s reputation in a way unmatched in modern history save for events of premeditated genocide carried out by the likes of the Schutzstaffel or the Khmer Rouge. Commanders on the ground interpreted the last-resort order to fire upon the infected with no regard to civilian casualties as an order to actively hunt and kill friendly civilians, even when the civilians in question were exhibiting no signs of infection and were under no immediate threat of being infected. Mass insubordination should have been expected. Indeed, this committee was alarmed that the breakdown in discipline and chain of command was not even more prevalent than it was, as the Code Red protocol had devolved into what any reasonable tribunal would immediately classify as a war crime punishable by death. These men, women, and children had entrusted the US Armed Forces with their lives. It will likely be several generations before another foreign civilian populace does so again except at gunpoint. Should, God forbid, the Rage virus appear on American shores, we should expect American citizens to regard the military with an extreme and highly justified degree of skepticism and trepidation, which will only complicate containment efforts.

And despite the draconian measures taken, containment failed. A sizable number of “Infected,” despite possessing only rudimentary problem solving skills and exhibiting extraordinarily predictable behavior and threat response patterns, escaped into London, making any efforts to repopulate within the next six months even more dangerous than they already are.

The abject and utterly predictable failure in London will haunt the US Armed Forces for a long time, as well it should. May God forgive us, and have mercy upon our souls.

A Brief Review of Guardians of the Galaxy

Dear DC Comics,

How’s it going, fellas? Look, we know making movies based off of comic books ain’t easy. Shoot, you know that better than anybody! I mean, you have some of the iconic characters at your disposal, including the first and most successful superhero of the modern era, and you still struggle to make decent movies out of them when neither Christopher Nolen nor Richard Donner are directing. Sure, that Zack Snyder fella has his charms, but let’s be honest — watch his Man of Steel back-to-back with Donner’s Superman from 1978, and tell us which one you’d actually wanna watch a second time.

I’m not gonna say we’ve got this thing licked over on our end. But we figured, maybe, just for the hell of it, while you’re floundering around trying to find a way to make people interested in characters they’ve known since they were children and try to fish a story worth telling out of damn near a century of material, we’d give some of our C-listers center stage. You know, a bunch of characters that make most of our die-hards go “Wait, who?” But no superheros this time; we’re gonna take a stab at space opera, a genre that’s awesome in theory but generally tends to fall into one of two categories in practice: Star Wars Original Trilogy, and Bitter Disappointment. Also, two of our main characters are going to be a violent, smart-alecky talking CGI raccoon, and his best friend, a CGI tree who can only say his own name. And then we’ll round out the cast with a sitcom goofball, a professional wrestler, and a hot chick.

And … hey, whaddya know? The resulting movie is FACE-MELTINGLY AWESOME. It ain’t easy making a movie that hits this balance of dazzling and exciting visuals, playful comedy, and emotional impact — we just make it look that way. Not to brag, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a rollicking fun time, an absolute blast, and easily one of our best movies so far. And we both know that’s saying something.

What can we say? We felt like we had to raise our own bar. Christ knows you weren’t going to. From here on out, Internet smart-asses are going to compare the emotional depth of your characters’ relationships to the friendship between a cartoon fucking raccoon and a cartoon fucking tree, and will sincerely find yours wanting.

Your move. Assuming you want to pretend you’re still in the game.

— Marvel

PS: If we can put together a Black Widow movie before you give Wonder Woman her own star turn? Seppuku. It never completely goes out of style. Just saying.

A Brief and Not Timely Review: Twister

It wasn’t at all what I expected.

It’s the story of a woman (Jami Gertz) engaged to an addict (Bill Paxton) who is trying to hide from his compulsion to seek out mortal danger without actually confronting it. The success of their relationship depends entirely on Paxton not being presented with the temptation to indulge in idiotic, poorly thought out risk-taking for the resulting adrenaline high.

The movie opens with Paxton meeting his estranged wife and fellow addict (Helen Hunt), ostensibly to get her to sign the papers finalizing their divorce. By way of “coincidence,” Paxton encounters Hunt and their familiar coterie of enablers just as they’re about to indulge their usual brand of reckless stormchasing.

After offering up token resistance, Paxton allows himself to get drawn back in to his old habit, using the preposterous excuse of an “evil rival” storm chaser (Cary Elwes) who has the temerity to have “stolen” a piece of technology Paxton developed, which is essentially a garbage can filled with ping pong balls that, as the movie demonstrates at every turn, is impractical and wildly ineffective. Paxton’s need to frame his own thrill-seeking as courage and integrity runs so deep that he openly scorns Elwes for being a corporate sell-out, oblivious to the extraordinary achievement of getting corporate sponsorship for an activity that, as Paxton’s haphazard crew demonstrates, is normally funded on a shoestring.

Gertz tries to understand her fiance’s compulsion, but only winds up enabling it and can only watch helplessly as Paxton and Hunt goad each other into worse and worse decisions. Spurred by their insatiable need for that next fix, their recklessness nearly gets them killed by the very first tornado they encounter and destroys thousands of dollars worth of equipment they can ill-afford to loose. But rather than take a sober inventory of the mistakes that led them to this place, Paxton and Hunt are giddy with glee, their hangers-on patting them on the back and supporting their incompetence.

Gertz tries to accept her beloved’s disease, but it’s useless. She’s an outsider in this world, this fellowship of addicts. She at last realizes that Paxton will never even admit he has a problem, much less confront it, and leaves him.

The rest of the movie is spent validating her choice. In a surprising turn, the movie ends with Paxton and Hunt being killed when their need to manufacture one crisis after another puts them in the path of a monstrous F-5 tornado. The denouement is an extended hallucination sequence as they lay dying from injuries, letting their fantasies play out within their own terminally savaged brains. Their rival dies in the most cartoonish tornado-related event ever filmed that doesn’t involve sharks, Paxton’s ill-conceived gadget works, they get to see the inside of the obsession which has consumed and ultimately destroyed them, they kiss to the adulation of their hangers-on, fade to the sweet release of death.

It’s honestly kind of brilliant. Seriously, there are people who don’t like this?

A Brief Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The problem with going to see the movie version of a popular YA novel on its opening night is all the YAs that will be in the audience. Five-year-olds may be annoying, but at least they 1) don’t know any better, 2) generally have parents trying to shut them up, and 3) may generally be avoided by going to see later showings of the movie. Teenagers have none of those mitigating factors, but are old enough to know rudimentary theater etiquette and to be at least vaguely aware of the existence of human beings outside their immediate social circle – in theory. In practice, they’re fucking teenagers.

So, yes, The Fault In Our Stars, John Green’s novel of a teen girl with cancer who falls in love with a teen boy with cancer, manages to be very good by virtue of avoiding many of the tropes suggested by the setup and by confronting the often bleak world these kids live in head-on, while still retaining a sense of wit and humanity. I was very curious to see whether the movie could retain the book’s strengths while shoring-up some of its weaknesses, and yes, you’re very daring for sneaking gummy worms into the theater, now could you please shut up about it already? You saved two dollars. You’re not some kind of criminal mastermind.

It was a mixed bag. Jasmine felt like our male lead, Augustus, was a bit too Manic Pixie Dream Boy for her liking, whereas I felt that was actually one of the flaws in the book the movie managed to correct, and yes, of COURSE he’s “cute.” Seriously, even if you hadn’t watched the trailer like fifty times already, this is such a surprise that you need to comment on it? Hollywood has pandering to teens down to a science; it’d be comment-worthy if he WASN’T a “hotty” and JESUS CHRIST do you REALLY need to know what Kristy thinks about this? She’s sitting nine seats away from you! If it was that important to share your trite observations in real time with Kristy, why the fuck didn’t you sit closer to her?

While losing some of the emotional nuance is inevitable, I did feel like there were some moments that could have had a lot more depth than they did. In the book, the scene where Augustus gives his grieving friend Isaac permission to smash his old basketball trophies had an undercurrent of sadness and letting go, while the movie plays it as more or less straight comedy, and YES, she KNOWS that was funny, because she laughed! When somebody laughs, you can pretty much assume they found it funny! Who the fuck cares if Kristy laughed? Maybe Kristy is sitting nine goddamn seats away from you by choice! Maybe she’s sick of your bizarre compulsion to share every thought you have the moment you have it! Maybe I’d like to have a beer with this kid and see if I can’t give her some ideas for trolling you when school starts back up!

The inevitable sad parts are quite effective, and FUCKING HELL, of COURSE that just happened! Even if you hadn’t read the Wikipedia summary so that you don’t sound like a fucking idiot when your friends talk about the book, it’s a movie about teenagers with cancer! Seriously, every teen with more than two lines of dialog in this movie has fucking cancer! Did you think unicorns were going to shit magic healing rainbows onto everybody? And for FUCK’S SAKE of COURSE your friend is sad! She’s crying! You were honestly concerned those might have been tears of joy?! AND WHY THE FUCK DO YOU CARE IF KRISTY IS CRYING?! Ask her in like ten minutes when the fucking movie is over! Are you so terrified of social deviation that you need Kristy on-hand to validate your own feelings? Or has Kristy been showing terrifying signs of emotional independence lately that require constant monitoring? I’m imagining YOU with cancer RIGHT FUCKING NOW and this movie just got a whole HELL of a lot funnier!

Recommended for SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!

Also, Did Garrus Actually Get Laid? This Stuff Matters.

I did it. I finally finished the Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy, a mere two years after the final chapter was released. My avatar, Commander Shepard (known by his first name “Bunny” to his friends, at least in my playthrough), saved the galaxy. I went in knowing from the beginning that many people, including friends whose opinion I respect, absolutely loathe the ending.

I want to talk about (and spoil the living shit out of — only warning) that ending. Eventually. But first, let me talk about Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, my shotgun-packing space gypsy mega-geek girlfriend. Let me talk about missed opportunities.

Tali’Zorah is a Quarian, a race with an immune system that’s been seriously compromised by generations spent living on board spaceships. You literally never see them outside their pressure suits. (Form-fitting pressure suits. Seriously, Tali rocks the hell out of that thing.) Which opens up what should have been a fantastic moment when Tali becomes a romance option in Mass Effect 2 — a moment that never actually occurs.

The essence of narrative romance is obstruction. Take two people, have them fall in love, and give them a reason they can’t be together, and you have Romeo and Juliet; take away the reason they can’t be together, and you have porn. The essence of sex is intimacy and vulnerability; the most powerful sexual moments come from sharing our most private selves, from leaving ourselves physically and emotionally at our partner’s mercy. By its very nature, a romance with Tali should knock both of those out of the park, setting up a relationship that ought to rival the doomed-lovers paths with Alistair in Dragon Age for its potency.

How should sex be depicted in a video game? There’s literally no right answer, because every solution carries so much baggage with it. The more you try to engage the player by making it explicit, the more you flirt with the demons of bad taste. You can wind up with something that may or may not be porn, depending on how emotionally engaged the player actually is, and will definitely outrage the various Guardians of Public Morality who always howl to the heavens if a video game depicts nudity. But simply fading to black and leaving the whole thing to the players’ imaginations, while much safer, is a cop-out, one that will leave many players annoyed and feeling as though you’re treating them like children.

Even if you don’t woo her, Tali may well be, by the end of any of the individual games let alone the trilogy, one of your dearest friends and staunchest allies. She’s a funny, flawed, intelligent, immensely likable character. By making her a romance option, Bioware set up a truly brilliant everybody-wins scenario.

You never see Tali’s face; she spends the entirety of each game wearing a translucent faceplate that keeps her from getting sick and dying. Showing Tali’s face would be casually within the realm of good taste — and yet, Tali taking off her helmet, exposing herself to the risk of a potentially fatal illness just to physically be with somebody she loves, is literally the most intimate thing she could do. Showing her exposed face, terrified yet excited, would have created by far the most visually intimate moment in the series, one more erotically charged than any glimpse of Liara’s bare blue butt could ever hope to be.

It’s a moment that never actually happens — at least, not for the player. If she and Shepard hook up, he takes off her faceplate with her back to the camera, then the kissing starts, and then fade to black. What a waste of a truly brilliant and beautiful opportunity.

We do get to see Tali’s face in Mass Effect 3, sort of. If she and Shepard are a couple, she’ll leave a helmet-less picture of herself on his nightstand. In context, it’s quite beautiful and touching, something that I had Shepard take a closer look at more than a few times. It’s almost touching enough to make me forgive Bioware for, instead of properly designing and animating a naked-headed character model for Tali, apparently giving an intern access to some stock photos and having them bang something out in Photoshop over their lunch break. (Seriously, click the first “Show” button. The half-assery on display is not subtle.)

Bioware doubles down on the missed opportunities in Mass Effect 3 by hand-waving away Tali’s craptastic immune system. At the end of Mass Effect 2, if you wander around the ship after your “suicide mission” saves the galaxy and has an unexpectedly high survival rate, she’ll tell you about the consequences of your pre-we’re-gonna-die-anyway-so-why-the-hell-not tryst — one she prepped for by researching the hell out of human male sexual responses (because she’s a massive geek, and I really wish the game had at least implied Shepard had returned the favor) and dosing herself with every immune-boosting supplement she could lay her three-fingered hands on. “Just so you know, I’m running a fever, I’ve got a nasty cough, and my sinuses are filled with something I can’t even describe. And it was totally worth it.” Something about the delivery of that line elevated her to “Best Fake Girlfriend Ever” status for me.

But what happens when you have end-of-the-world sex and the world doesn’t end? Now what? This is where the “romance through obstruction” thing should have kicked-in, hard. Her immune system is still crap. Yes, she survived ONE encounter with nothing more than a really nasty head cold (which must be an absolutely miserable experience if you can’t even touch your own face, but hey, beats death), but life is, indeed, going on. What happens when the two of you find yourselves back in each other’s lives? Do you accept that you were never meant to be anything more than a one-off, no matter how great it was? Do you try to give it a go anyway, knowing that you can never directly touch without one of you accepting a dreadful risk?

I wish the game had done more with “Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, Bad-Ass Bubble Girl” independent of whether you pursue the romance option. If she’s still around in ME3, she’s at the very least a dear friend. Surely when on their own ships, the Quarians must have sterilized “clean rooms” where they can disrobe in safety. (Which would mean that the Quarian rite-of-adulthood pilgrimage is REALLY an ordeal.) What if you had the option of repurposing a chunk of Shepard’s absurdly large personal room into Quarian living quarters for Tali? Carving out a place that’s explicitly hers, where she no longer has to wear a full pressure suit, would do more to make the Normandy her home than a million “loyalty missions” or friendly dialog options.

So at the very least, Tali could wind up as your roommate. And if her living space were made out of transparent material blocked-off with tasteful inner curtains (and Tali the Interior Decorator would give a character who already has oodles of personality even more opportunity to show it), Tali-the-girlfriend could have the curtains pulled-back.

Imagine two one-person beds, side-by-side, with a plexiglass wall between them. That simple image would tell you so much about what the two of them were trying to overcome and how they were trying to overcome it. The whole “touching-through-the-glass” thing may be a cliche, but tell me it wouldn’t choke you up if you saw Tali and Shepard in love and enacting it.

I’m just saying it’s a way more interesting addition to the room than the aquarium.

As to Tali and Shepard’s sex life, with or without a Quarian cleanroom … as the delightfully voyeuristic messages in the Shadow Broker DLC from ME2 revealed (seriously, Grunt’s Google history is comedy gold), she’s installed something in her suit called “Nerve-Stim Pro: Deluxe Edition”. Tali solves problems. You can’t go too far down this particular rabbit hole without summoning those Bad Taste Demons by the bucket, but I definitely would have appreciated more hints that she and Shepard are exploring ways to be physical without endangering her life.

It would also make the occasions where they DO just plain get it on have real impact. “I actually kind of look forward to apocalypses, because it means I get to kiss you the night before. That’s weird, right?” Tell me a line like that wouldn’t make you love her a bit more.

Instead, we get some hand-waving about how her immune system is “adapting” to Shepard. (And Tali is, apparently, not the only example of a recurring problem with MaleShep’s romance options. Shepard’s Magic Penis — It cures immunodeficiency! It heals psychological wounds! It erases ethical issues raised by banging your subordinates within a formal chain of command! Seriously, Bioware, I’m a fan, but could you please think some of this stuff through? I approve of adult content, but “Adult” is better when it’s more thoughtful than just “They’re totally doin’ it!”) Tali’s slacker immune system gets sidestepped entirely, which is just plain sloppy given that it’s a defining trait of her entire species. (And given that we STILL don’t see any character model other than the usual full-suited Tali, lazy to boot.)

The problem with writing a post like this is that it can give the impression you really hated whatever it is you’re carping about, and I don’t. I actually really liked the romance with Tali — I wasn’t joking when I referred to her as “Best Fake Girlfriend Ever.” She’s a great character, and I loved a lot of what the game DID give between her and Shepard. (The scene in the Citadel DLC where she and Shepard are watching a movie she loved as a teenager was heart-meltingly adorkable.) The moment at the end of my game where she adds Shepard’s name to the wall … seriously, I’m misting-up right now just thinking about it. (I can hear Garrus saying that Tali’s the one who earned that honor, and that moment doesn’t actually exist. It doesn’t need to.) It’s a great optional sub-plot, and I’m very glad the game included it.

But it could have been so much more than that. By exploring what she and Shepard would have had to overcome, by simply giving her a face, this truly could have been something amazing. I don’t lament the story, I lament the missed opportunity.

And that’s how I feel about Mass Effect 3’s much-reviled ending.

Taken in a vacuum, the ending is … passable. Not great. But I’ll give it a passing grade. A hobbling, likely-mortally-wounded Shepard chatting with some sort of star-child representation of … ultimate evil? unintended consequences? tech gone wrong? … gives a nasty case of tonal whiplash. Mass Effect likes to play with big ideas, but ultimately, the series feels very grounded and personal; yet that final scene has a certain sci-fi woo-woo quality that feels like a refugee from a poorly translated JRPG.

The mechanics of choosing the ending are sloppy as well. I wasn’t sure which path represented which choice (hey, it was 5 in the morning, and I didn’t realize the game was literally showing me which was which until it was time for me to shamble towards one of them), and I accidentally triggered the “Synthesis” ending that somehow turns all organic life synthetic and makes all synthetic life organic. “Right, totally want to do the ‘Control the Reapers’ thing, which one was that? Eh, it’ll give me some sort of prompt and let me click before triggering one of them. So let’s slowly lurch towards this beam of light and … noooo! Shit, I’m triggering a DIFFERENT apocalypse! Reload! Reload! Dammit! DAMMIT!”

The “Synthesis” choice, clearly meant as the “best” ending, gives the utopic dogs-and-cats-living-together-in-love-and-harmony ending, which I really disliked. It plays out exactly like the kid said it would, with no nasty surprises coming about as a consequence of unilaterally deciding to alter the fundamental nature of literally every living thing in the galaxy. Thinking like that is what gave rise to the Reapers in the first place, then later to Cerberus, the games’ two Big Bads. For it to actually play out as “Nope, HAPPILY EVER AFTER, bitches!!!” feels like a betrayal of the larger themes of the series.

So I reloaded and, after rewatching a half-hour’s worth of unskippable cutscenes (thanks, Bioware), went for the ending I actually wanted in the first place, where Shepard ascends to King Reaper. That one actually worked all right for me (overlooking the tonal whiplash), in large part because the choice was so thoroughly based on my experiences in the game. I was frightened by the maxim of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but the alternative was the death of all synthetic life in the galaxy. I’d been touched by the storyline where my girlfriend’s people had come to peace with the Cylon-like Geth who had displaced them from their homeworld. I really found myself caring about my ship’s autopilot’s journey to sentience, and her ambiguously romantic relationship with her pilot; EDI was my friend. Hell, I even found myself caring about the possibility that the Reapers were themselves a kind of victim, tools of a force they could neither hope to fight nor control.

But moreover, I wanted the choice that allowed the denizens of this universe to keep finding their own way forward, rather than having the deus ex machina enlightenment of the Synthesis ending dumped on their heads without their consent. I just hoped my Shepard could handle the power he was volunteering to take on without become a dark, cruel god unto himself. Sure, he was a Paragon, mostly, but he definitely had a bastardly Renegade streak, too; sometimes, you just need to headbutt a motherfucker. Would that doom him? And, in turn, doom the galaxy to yet another iteration of the war it was now fighting?

The alternative was a genocide I’d fought very hard to avoid, and the death of a friend. Risky, balancing all life in the galaxy against that. But doing the right thing often means taking risks, in the game or out of it. So, I rolled the dice. And I was all right with how it turned out.

The third ending is, of course, to just go ahead and wipe out all synthetic life in the galaxy. And it needed to be on the table; it’s the sure thing. And if that ending had really hammered home the consequences of your choice — you’re dead, the Geth are dead (if they weren’t already), EDI is dead, technology across the galaxy is crippled, but what the hell, at least the cycle of growth and brutal genocide has finally been broken for good — I would have liked it too.

But I saw that ending on YouTube, and it seemed to gloss over most of that, except for the Shepard’s Dead bit.

That was my big problem with the ending. It wasn’t so much the merits or deficiencies of any of the three choices. (Though if you want to argue that the truest, most emotionally satisfying ending would have been for the Crucible to work exactly as advertised while Shepard and Anderson look on from the Citadel, two war-forged friends bleeding out and dying side-by-side as they watch the fruits of their labors and sacrifice save everybody they love, I really don’t have a good counter for that.) The Mass Effect trilogy loves giving you hard choices. Watching how those choices play out is one of the pleasures of the game. Yet when the opportunity came to offer the ultimate payoff and show the consequences of your actions on the largest stage it could, it mostly punted.

Yes, it was very nice to see semi-animated stills of the Krogan rebuilding Tchunka into something other than a radiation-scarred hellhole. I would have preferred to see an in-game cutscene, with direct gameplay consequences, showing several million Krogan warriors descending upon Reaper-occupied Earth with a debt to repay, an axe to grind, and ammo to burn — preferably with a horde of Rachni at their side with their own score to settle. I sweated ethical bullets for those big boisterous toad-shark bastards, watched a friend die for them (Dr. Mordin, yet another great character in a series stuffed to the gills with them). I wanted something more than a rousing speech from my old drinking buddy. Just like I wanted more than an ambiguous “Okay, it’s all good now!” from the very dangerous alien bug-monsters I’d twice kept from extinction (to the deep unease of the aforementioned toad-shark drinking buddy).

Just like I wanted the union of the Geth and Quarian fleets to result in something more than a couple of inconsequential numbers being made larger. In fact, given that I had assembled the largest and most diverse war fleet in known history, a bit more deep-space Reaper ass beating would have been very much appreciated.

Just like I wanted to know what happened on Omega after I left. How deep does Aria’s new-found sense of decency go, anyway?

And all those decisions I made during the course of three games … I wanted something to surprise me. I wanted somebody whose life I spared to show up and have some major effect on the galactic stage, for good or ill. I wanted the decisions to affect one another. I wanted to be saddened, or overjoyed, or … or just see something to indicate that my choices had, in a large sense, mattered.

Hell, even on the most rudimentary level, I wanted some indication that all those military assets I’d spent Mass Effect 3 hoarding like so many Pokemon cards really made a difference. As you assemble the might of the galaxy to fend off the Reaper threat, the game assigns point values to the various assets you recruit to your cause, from hundreds of points for entire fleets of warships all the way down to the five points you get for carrying an embedded journalist on your ship. When I got to the credits, I was really confused; it felt like those points hadn’t mattered at all.

It turns out, according to the Internet, they did. The total value of your military assets determines which endings are available to choose from. (Well, the total value times a multiplier based on how active you’ve been in the on-line version of the game. That was a surprise, too; I thought that weird “readiness” thing and the “war map” were part of a half-implemented feature that made it into the final release for some reason. So, my solo experience depends in part on whether I’ve been doing multiplayer? Lick my taint, Bioware. If I gave a shit about multiplayer, I’d be playing somebody else’s games.)

Which is, in all honesty, bizarre. So if I have insufficient warships, a particular metaphysical reality ceases to be true, and I can no longer bring about eternal galactic peace by vaporizing myself in a particle beam. LOLWHUT?

It’s arbitrary, it’s tonally bewildering, it’s cookie-cutter, and yet … and yet. I can’t bring myself to properly despise the ending. It’s flawed, certainly, but it’s no Battlestar Galactica, which managed to somehow invert everything that made the show great and turn it into a rancid pile of pretentious suck. If Mass Effect 3 represented swinging for the fences and missing, Battlestar Galactica swung for the fences and not only missed but yanked its arms completely off, or suffered some other cartoonishly horrifying injury that revealed it had spent its career doing epic amounts of steroids, casting a pall upon everything you as a fan once admired.

But the opportunities missed … my God. I played the exact same character across three games that delighted in giving me one wrenching choice after another. Letting those choices add up to something interesting, something unexpected, something SUBSTANTIVE, would have made this game into something truly worthy of its own epic scope.

I know why it broke down that way: Money. Tali-with-a-face, all the choices you made playing out in ways that actually affected the gameplay, coming up with some clever web of how those choices could have interacted with each other and animating each result, all that shit costs. It’s a triple-A title; those things hemorrhage money during development. I don’t doubt that each and every thing I suggested here was brought up by somebody on the dev team, only to be shot down by one simple question: How much return are we going to get on that investment? The answer being, of course, less than the millions of dollars I just fanboysihly insisted they spend.

I don’t regret the time I spent playing these games, at all. (Well, aside from those occasional “Holy fuck it’s four in the morning?!?! Well, I guess I can still finish this mission….” sessions I allowed it to suck me into.) It’s a good series. Flawed, to be sure, but still a damned fine gaming experience.

It could have been much, much more than that. But, I suspect, the difference in sales between good and great is less than the difference between creating good and great.

Still. The ending left me equal parts satisfied and saddened. I wish it was what it could have been. That’s a game that would, I suspect, stay with me long after I’d finished it. That game would really be something to see.

Yeah, Pretty Happy These Didn’t Become A Thing

X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It’s a love story. Between an indestructible superhero and Explosions. Explosions loves Wolverine, and is trying to hug him. But Wolverine just isn’t feeling it, and runs away from Explosions every time. Poor Explosions. Explosions just wants to be loved!

This is basically a live-action cartoon that opens with a killer piece of efficient visual storytelling and then spends the rest of its runtime pandering to thirteen-year-old boys — badly. If you’re going to pull blatant fanservice by including a character like (popular violent wack-job) Deadpool, shouldn’t you at least make some effort to understand just why the fans you’re pandering to like the character in the first place? Maybe hit-up Wikipedia?

“Bad” doesn’t cover it. This movie is exuberantly stupid, gleefully thick-headed. It has a bunch of boxes to check off, and checks them off with as many bullets, blades, and booms as it can manage, with a heavy dose of fanwank Marvel cameos just for good measure. I have no idea how a movie this over-the-top ridiculous can exist with neither Nic Cage nor Paul W. S. Anderson having had anything to do with it.

This movie is like an adorable, excited, incontinent puppy who sprays the room with shit whenever he’s hyped-up, which is always. Yes, the little devil is kinda fun to play with, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that he’s covered everything you care about with a layer of dog feces.

The movie has an energy to it that’s actually kind of appealing. Not appealing enough to overcome its own awfulness, mind. But, still. It’s unique. And awful. But nevertheless, unique.

Luckily, The Franchise Resurrected Itself

Jasmine and I are taking a personal day, and just crossed X-Men: Last Stand off the to-do list, and I get it.

I get the outrage and disgust. I simply don’t share it.

This was a very ordinary movie — it is, I suspect, the movie fans feared the prior two would be. Weightless, silly, and flashy, this was a Comic Book Movie made for and by people who really don’t care that much about comics and think they’re fundamentally for kids.

And I didn’t care for it. Whatever depth and humanity the prior movies possessed largely evaporated, making it a hell of a lot less interesting to me as a movie watcher. But to be properly outraged, you need to be invested. You need to have spent a lot of time appreciating the depth of Magneto’s convictions and the truths behind them, contemplating his role as Malcolm X to the professor’s MLK, to be properly disgusted by the way he discards Mystique when she’s suddenly nerfed, or treats his Brotherhood of Mutants as disposable mooks. You need to have earned an appreciation for Scott’s qualities as a leader, his ability to get the most out of an extremely limited and limiting superpower, to be appalled at how shabbily the script treats him. You need a long-standing respect for Professor X and his deep sense of humanity to be bitterly disappointed at his role as a font of clumsy, wooden exposition.

I’m unfamiliar with the Dark Phoenix storyline, don’t know what it is that made it so beloved and iconic. I’m willing to bet, however, that it wasn’t a weird and superfluous B-plot tacked-on to a fundamentally unrelated story. And I bet the pain of watching a favorite story get thoroughly botched has only deepened with this new generation of Marvel movies, which you know damn well would have been laying the groundwork for Jean Grey, Unstable Uber-Mutant right out of the gate.

It has its moments. Kelsey Grammer was a very enjoyable Beast, the action scenes were lively. I can’t bring myself to truly hate it.

But I definitely respect the opinion of anybody who does.


Jasmine wanted to catch up on the X-Men movies before seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer. And since I quite enjoyed the three I’ve seen, I was game to grab the lot at Exchange, even the ones that are alleged to be terrible.

Thus far, we’ve watched the first two: X-Men and X2: X-Men United. X2 is reputed to be the much stronger movie, but I recalled my own reaction as being fairly contrarian: that it was perfectly fine, but actually fell a bit short of the first movie overall.

Having now recently seen them both back-to-back, my opinion was, weirdly enough, both affirmed and challenged.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, X-Men is probably not quite as good as you remember. Action-wise, the recent Marvel movies drink its milkshake right up. With the exception of the climactic battles in and on the Statue of Liberty, the action setpieces are all flashy curb-stomp battles where one side is completely overwhelmed and the outcome feels preordained. The final scenes remedy this, but do so at the expense of fight choreography that often looks distractingly hokey.

But it ain’t bad. The script has a light, deft touch that does a good job of humanizing its characters, and a lot of the quotable one-liners remain quite good in context. (“I am psychic, you know.”) Hugh Jackman owns as Wolverine, making his grumpy loner qualities come off as human and interesting when they could easily have been dull and tedious. And, of course, you have Ian McKellan as Magneto, who I tend to unjustly forget when discussing great cinematic supervillains. (Seriously, given the problems they’ve had with their own antagonists, Marvel Studios would probably kill to let Magneto be the baddie in one of their movies.) It deserves to be remembered as the strong foundation on which most modern superhero movies are based. Released today, it would come off as a worthy addition to the Marvel movies, just one that doesn’t particularly raise the bar — and given that, in the real world, it actually helped set that bar, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

X2 definitely tries to raise the bar over its predecessor, and in many ways it succeeds. The plot is bigger, more ambitious, and more interesting. The action scenes are (mostly) far superior. Alan Cumming and the special effects team absolutely nail Nightcrawler, who seems to have been quite well written to begin with. Halle Berry doesn’t embarrass herself, and raises her game to “Unfortunate non-entity where there’s supposed to be a strong, iconic figure.”

But … here, let me quote MightyGodKing’s Christopher Bird on how this movie is generally remembered:

“Everything about this is good and nothing is bad.”

Nope nope nope nope noooooooooope.

The climactic fight scene between Wolverine and Lady Deathstryke may be the worst third-act showdown in superhero movie history. Going into the full details would double the size of this post and obscure the fact that on the balance I quite liked the movie, but the short version: no buildup, no stakes, horrifying ending that makes the “hero” out to be every bit the monster the villain claims he is — and then some.

Jean Grey’s heroic sacrifice was probably the worst heroic sacrifice in superhero movie history until Man of Steel topped that shit. Again, short version for exactly the same reasons: contrived, very low stakes, completely ignores the mutants who would have had a fighting chance at getting everybody to safety but who inexplicably sat on their hands the entire time while Jean got herself killed apparently for the sake of a misplaced callback to an iconic X-Men storyline that most people watching the movie (including me) couldn’t have cared less about.

Of course, that sacrifice happens during a ridiculously drawn-out ending (topped only by Return of the King) that keeps on going and going a solid twenty minutes after the movie should have ended.

And the dialog and character interactions don’t even touch what the first movie accomplished. In their place are thudding moments like Professor X’s clumsy-playful threat to make Wolverine think he’s a six-year-old girl, or that ghastly “We like what you’ve done with your hair,” which deserves to be as reviled as Storm’s “You know what happens to toads when they get hit by lightning?” reading, and isn’t because Ian McKellan is otherwise so freaking fantastic. (Seriously, list all the villains who would be so cruel and tasteless as to taunt a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with the aftermath of their unsuccessful murder attempt. It’s a short list. The Joker and King Joffrey “Baratheon” would be on it. Magneto and Mystique shouldn’t be anywhere near it.)

No, X2 gets a lot of things right, but fucks-up more places than I think movie nerds like to admit. It’s still a good movie. And I definitely respect the effort to raise the franchise’s game. But on the balance, I don’t think it’s any better than its predecessor.

Next up, possibly this weekend, are X-Men: The Last Stand, on which I hear opinions raging from “Eh, actually not that bad” to “No, really, that bad;” and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for which my expectations have been set as low as you can get without digging into Manos: Hands of Fate territory.