Monday, December 30, 2013

Card Hunter marries the RPG to the CCG... and it actually works

 Sometimes when I try to get a friend to play one of my collectible card games, they just stare at me blankly as I attempt to relay the rules to them. Part of this is because I'm a better writer than I am a speaker, but it's also because CCGs are complicated, even more so if the only games you played when you were a child were Monopoly and Clue. What can be even more complicated than a CCG is the traditional tabletop roleplaying game. Combining the two sounds like a recipe for disastrous complexity, but there are few games as easy to "get" as Card Hunter. This is easily my favorite free-to-play game to date.

 

Look here: I've spent a small fortune on Steam games in the past few days. None of those games are as fun and potentially addictive as this one. The artwork is perfect, the mechanics are damn-near flawless, and I've sustained no balance issues or anything like that. It's also got a fantastic sense of humor. I might write about it more in the future when I've had some more time with it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I will.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Arrival holds up today

The year was 1996. The movie everyone wanted to see that year was Independence Day, which was ultimately forgettable. I, like millions of other moviegoers, chose that film as opposed to The Arrival, the trailer of which looked absolutely awful (and still does). Give me a break, I was thirteen years old and I'm attempting to atone for my crimes here.

don't even bother with this trailer, go straight to the movie

A funny thing happened when The Arrival premiered on HBO. I caught it from the beginning and found myself immediately drawn into it. The movie was ridiculous, even goofy at times, but overall it was designed as a thinking man's summer blockbuster. Most likely because of the ID4 hype, however, the movie bombed at the box office (that didn't stop a direct-to-video sequel, though). It's a shame, too, because fourteen years later it's still a very solid effort.

The movie opens with a climate scientist roaming a picturesque meadow. She sniffs a flower and unnecessarily says to herself, "This shouldn't be here." The camera proceeds to pull back—way back into outer space. We see she's near the north pole and this meadow is completely surrounded by ice. Never mind that there probably isn't any land that close to the north pole, it's still much more exciting than instant alien invasion. The aliens are here. They're already up to diabolical machinations. Apparently they've transported dirt to the north pole. That's fucked up... or kind of nice. I don't know which.

After the title card we meet Zane, a radio astronomer played by Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen sounds like a horrible (yet typical) choice to play a scientist, but he pulls it off with a dorky goatee, even dorkier spiked hair, and glasses. Zane's a paranoid individual (at least that's what his girlfriend says, but we kind of just have to take her word for it until the end) who's just discovered forty-two seconds of a radio signal emitting from a star fourteen light years away. When he takes the message to Phil Gordian (Ron Silver) at JPL, the guy who pays Zane's bills, he loses his job for seemingly unrelated reasons. Gordian promises to send the audio recording up the ladder, but the moment Zane leaves Gordian breaks the tape.

So Zane takes a job in what he calls telecommunications (read: installing home satellite dishes). Before long he has the idea to link several people's satellite dishes into an array for his own purposes. How he does this without stringing several miles of cable directly to his house, I don't know, but we'll let that slide as it's always good to see such a determined character. Back at his house he manages to lock onto the signal again, but there's something strange about the second instance: the signal's not coming from the star this time, but it's being beamed from Earth to the star.

After a little detective work, Zane realizes the signal originated in Mexico. On an astronomer's salary he takes the first plane to the broadcast location. Wouldn't you know it: it's exactly where that climate scientist from the beginning of the film went, too. Together they team up and discover a power plant the aliens are using to pump gases into the atmosphere. See, the aliens like it warm. Zane's first indication something is wrong is when he sees a very similar face. At this point I've said too much.

The fun of the movie is that it posits one WTF moment after another. As ridiculous as the risks Zane takes are, we want him to take those risks. We know why he's doing it because we need the answers even more than he does. You should know by now whether this movie is your type of movie. If you think it might be, you need to see it and you should go into it knowing as little as possible.

The Arrival isn't on Netflix Instant, but it is free on Amazon Prime.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why I haven't reviewed Elysium yet

Short answer: I was disappointed.


The long answer is I was a huge fan of District 9 which, in a medium that seems to favor technophobic scare tactics (see: Splice and the upcoming Transcendence), stood out as something that truly deserved the label "science fiction." What I want from science fiction is interesting aliens (if you plan on having aliens at all), social commentary, and a healthy dose of speculative politics. District 9 ticked these boxes and more. While it ticked some better than others, it was a huge breath of fresh air, especially considering Avatar had failed to connect with me on any emotional level whatsoever. The fact that D9 had a great sense of humor, special effects that actually worked, and futuristic guns which blew people up like the produce at a Gallagher show didn't hurt, either.

So here's what Elysium is about: it's the future. Rich people live on a space station. Poor people live on Earth. The space between the two objects is more or less a metaphor for the American-Mexican border, but I won't go much into that because the movie doesn't go much into it either. Earthlings are oppressed by the rich people's robots (courtesy of fantastic special effects, by the way) and the factory that manufactures the robots is where Matt Damon's character, Max, works. After receiving a lethal dose of radiation on the job, Max is told he's got a few days left to live.

On Elysium the rich people have futuristic tanning beds which can cure any ailment. All Max has to do, in theory, is sneak onto Elysium and get into one of the beds. However, Jodie Foster's border patrol is on high alert so Max—I hope you're following all of this—has to have a robotic exoskeleton surgically hardwired to his body. One thing I'm more than thrilled to report is, as far as movies go, this is as cyberpunk as you can typically get.

A lot of the passion is gone in Neill Blomkamp's follow-up, though. Here's a movie which is far from terrible, but none of it really clicks. There was a wide variety of action sequences in D9. In Elysium, it's all about the gunfights. When you have a giant space station in the shape of a wheel with an atmosphere that's held in by centrifugal force alone, you're telling me the most you can come up with is standard shootouts, the majority of which take place on desolate earth?

My God. So much wasted potential here. Where's the excitement? Where's the stuff I've never seen in a movie before?

And is there a reason why Jodie Foster speaks in a phony accent? Hell, even William Fichtner is off his game here, and that guy's almost always brilliant. Casting Sharlto Copley (he was the weenie hero of District 9) as bad guy Kruger is one of the best things about the movie, but his character just isn't developed enough. And I like Matt Damon and he certainly feels at home in a movie like this, but again, the character himself leaves a lot to be desired.

There is a bit involving a grenade that got a huge laugh out of me. There's more to it than that, it turns out, and they make a sort of interesting use of the previously mentioned medical beds.

At the end of the day, I wouldn't say Elysium does much to scar Blomkamp's reputation. Unfortunately, that says more about how good D9 was than it does about Elysium. I'm still excited to see his next movie. Hell, I still want to see what he would do in the Halo universe, which was the original plan for the director.

Elysium is a fairly solid rental, but only if you don't have something better to do on your Friday night.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why Dark Souls is the best game ever

I'm thirty, which means I remember when games were actually challenging more often than not. I've got Pac-Man patterns memorized in my muscles. On a single quarter I can play Dig Dug and Galaga for so long that I don't walk away when I lose all my lives, but when I simply don't feel like standing at the game cabinet any longer. When I was a kid, acquiring a home video game was so rare, you had to learn to love the ones you actually got, and most of them were terrible. Here's one of the ones I had to pretend to love:

He's not exaggerating. This game really is balls.

Nowadays I still love games, but they're just not challenging. It's not that I'm more practiced because the games from my childhood are still hard. Mario titles are a piece of cake, Call of Duty holds your hand too much, and whenever you die in GTA, you can more or less reload where you left off. Even Doom 3 was easier than its predecessor. When the average video gamer is an adult (no bullshit), you wonder why so many of these games seem to be tailored for people who have never played a game in their lives. You can't even get stuck in games anymore—I think the last time for me was Quake 4.

That is until I played Dark Souls.


Until recently I had heard about the brutal cruelty known as Dark Souls, but I had no idea what the game was about. I finally picked the game up on a Steam sale and loved it so much I bought a copy for my PS3 so I could have the game in my office as well as my home. (For those wondering, the PC version is a pretty lame port, so if you've got the option, get it for a console.)

Let me let you in on a little secret: the game's not nearly as hard as the reviewers make it out to be, at least in the beginning. I was pleasantly surprised by how far I got before I was killed for the first time. But all the hype over the game's difficulty is a good thing: it makes you feel like a total bad ass when you clear two or more bonfires (checkpoints) in a single day. Playing this game in my thirties was the equivalent of playing The Legend of Zelda for the very first time. The Japanese creative team behind it has a wonderful take on the western fantasy setting. It's like nothing you've ever seen before, yet somehow so damned familiar.

When you begin the game you chose a fantasy archetype, a gender, starting stats, a gift (just choose the master key), and find yourself fighting your way out of a dungeon. Glimpses of the sun are so rare in this bleak setting, that players often scrawl "Praise the sun!" on the floor whenever it actually makes an appearance.

Which brings me to the most impressively unique multiplayer mode I've ever seen: you're typically alone in the world of Dark Souls, but other players can write messages—usually extremely limited tips—that appear in your game. Using a special item, other players can actually force their way into your world and beat the everliving shit out of you (at least that's usually the result for me). Another special item allows you to team up with other players to take on a hard section.

A funny thing about Dark Souls is it's not nearly as frustrating as you would expect. I've been stuck on the same boss fight for weeks, but in my defense I don't get to play the game very often. I ain't even mad, though. Shortly before finding myself stuck there, I had planned to marathon play the game while my girlfriend was out of town for a week. Guess what? Didn't even progress to the next checkpoint until long after she got back.

If you're like me and feel the setting, mood, and exploration opportunities of a game are the most important features, you could do a lot worse than Dark Souls. Hell, I'm fairly certain you can't do better, period. It's been far too long since I took my time with a game and absorbed every tiny detail of it. Get this game, play it, and don't rush it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2001 Ray Bradbury video is full of writerly advice


This speech is full of good stuff. Right off the bat Bradbury suggests something I wish I would have known when I started writing fiction in my teens: don't write long in the beginning, but write a ton of short stories. Preferably one per week. At the end of the year, at least one of those stories should be good. "I defy you to write fifty-two bad ones," he says.

He then goes on to suggest reading a lot of Roald Dahl, Guy de Maupassant, John Cheever, Richard Matheson, Nigel Kneale, Edith Wharton, Katherine Ann Porter, Eudora Welty, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He calls John Collier "one of the greatest short story writers of this century and you've never even heard his name."

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Dice Tower's top 10 board games of 2013


The thing about Dice Tower is there aren't a whole lot of YouTube creators who can post an hour long video that I'll actually sit through. And considering that two of the games mentioned above have already found themselves on my to-buy list, I think it's safe to say that we board gamers are lucky to have someone like Tom cheerleading for our hobby.

Which board game have you played the most of in 2013? For me it was probably Zombie Dice, which is a blast for starting out a session and playing in between games. Android: Netrunner is my favorite of the games I acquired in 2013, but most people I know have trouble with the cyberpunk theme, mainly because I'm really bad at explaining things. So most of my guests would rather play Pandemic, which I really liked, but need a break from.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2013 Super Trailer (and what I thought about Pacific Rim)


If you needed a reminder of why it's simply human to love the movies, here it is. Basically it's a trailer of all the trailers of 2013. Even the movies I didn't like give me chills when presented in this form.

* * *

I just realized I never properly wrote about Pacific Rim. Let's be clear: I hate disaster movies as I've said so many times before. I hated the American version of Godzilla, I hated Independence Day, and I hated just about every other modern film that destroys recognizable landmarks ad naseum. On the other hand, I love proper mecha, monster movies such as the real Godzilla, and all things Ray Harryhausen (speaking of Ray, the best documentary on him yet is currently on Netflix). Couple that affection with the fact that Guillermo del Toro hasn't made a bad movie ever and you can probably already see where this is going...

I loved Pacific Rim. It would be easy to dismiss it as a typical Hollywood action movie for kids if you've A) never seen it or B) don't enjoy the films it tributes because you're a pill. For the rest of us, however, it's the real deal. The awesome (in the true sense of the word) music, the convincing special effects, and the playful absurdity of it all had me smiling like a kid for ninety minutes straight. Sure, it's preposterous, but it knows it's preposterous and it's just too fun and upbeat to poke holes in it the way we did in the boringly morose Man of Steel. It also has some near-cyberpunk visuals as demonstrated by this image:

The colors, man, the colors!

Here's a movie that doesn't cut every three seconds as if the director is on crack. Here's a movie that doesn't relegate every country other than America to the sidelines. Here's a movie that's so colorful it's easily one of the ten best-looking films I've ever seen. Some have complained about the lack of female characters. Well, there's at least one great one in it and let's face it: it's fucking sea monsters versus mechs... it's for the twelve year old boy in all of us.

I could have written about this movie in depth, but it's no longer fresh in my memory. Perhaps sometime in the future I will revisit it. And if del Toro directs the inevitable sequel, I'm there, dude. In the meantime, check out The Host if you haven't seen it yet. I believe it's on Netflix and like most of the Korean films that actually get imported, it blows the American stuff out of the water.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Read Phantasmagoria for free, no strings attached!

Here's the link. Ooo, scare-eee!

 

I guess this one's a horror story, but I think that's misleading... sort of. Maybe not. I don't know. Just check it out.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Allow me a moment to gush about Doctor Who

The perception filter has broken. Oh, I was wrong, so wonderfully wrong when I reported I disliked Steve Moffat's leadership on Doctor Who, when I said I hated Amy Pond, when I stated I merely liked Matt Smith as the Doctor. It is with great pleasure that I admit my mistake and my boneheaded belief that Chris Eccleston and David Tennant are the greatest Doctors of my adulthood. They are not.



What's great about Doctor Who is at its worst it's like a catchy pop song you wouldn't admit you liked to save your life. At its best it's a far more culturally-important LOST with actual answers to the many questions it raises. The answers are so brilliantly unexpected, yet at the same time you slap your forehead and say, "But of course! The clues were hiding there in plain view all along!"

I loved it when we simply knew who was going to be in the Pandorica when it finally opened, but we were wrong. I loved that in the very next episode when the box opens again it's not the same person who we last saw in the box, but an unexpected character who all-but winks at the camera and acknowledges our confusion with these fantastic words: "Okay, kid, this is where it gets complicated." Chills, friend, when the iconic and heart-pumping title music fades in. That's the point we know we're in for an episode that's far more challenging and unique than anything typical television has to offer.

I love that the timelines are as easy to follow as tangled pasta. I love that we nerds who take these matters way too seriously can argue about what's paradoxical, what isn't, and what makes no sense at all and why it makes all the sense in the world. I love that the most whacky and unexpected stories can so easily slip into the accepted canon as if they were designed to be there from the beginning. I love that when the universe's many stars explode it looks just like a Vincent van Gogh painting; van Gogh, of course, is a recurring character on the show. Above all I love that we have a show that already took us to the bleak and unavoidable end of the universe, then destroys it all over again in an episode that successfully combines all of the Doctors most memorable enemies.

The moment I knew I liked Matt Smith the most was the episode in which he's told, "Good guys can never win because they have too many rules." His response: "Good guys don't need rules. You're about to find out why I have so many of them." I've been longing for a darker Doctor for ages. That little bit of dialogue made both of my hearts swell.

I'm glad, too, that all good things must come to a definite end, and Matt Smith's rein is nearly over. I'm very enthusiastic that the next Doctor will be the more seasoned Peter Capaldi; until now, each actor who played the Doctor has been younger than the one before him. While I would have liked a female Doctor (yes, it happens from time to time in the story universe, but so far never on screen), I'm glad they're going back to an older guy. Somehow it rubs me the wrong way when a character who's a thousand years old is portrayed by actors as young as me.

Doctor Who can never be rebooted in the Hollywood sense, it can never be remade or copied. But that's just because it never grows stagnant; it's constantly changing, forcing us to follow it through the good times and bad, the old familiar and the new uncomfortable. It is the farthest thing from the traditional sitcom, which comforts the viewer, which says it's okay to turn your brain off. It's not okay, not ever, to just sit there and go numb. The Doctor continuously reminds us of this fact and everyone who watches it is rewarded.

I'm closing in on the final episodes available on Netflix streaming and will watch the seventh series on Amazon Prime. So no, I haven't even seen the 50th anniversary yet. So expect more DW stuff in the near future.

Sunday, December 1, 2013