Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Tom Clancy's The Division 2" Review

Set in a near-future Washington D.C. ravaged by invasion, "Tom Clancy's The Division 2" has you join a crack team of tactical supersoldiers who become the last guardians of Western democracy.

Set seven months after a deadly biological weapon ravaged New York City, the covert ops unit seeks out strongholds, infiltrates enemy choke points and establishes footholds to hold off the enemy.

Subtle visual upgrades and sweeping gameplay adjustments distinguish the sequel from the 2016 original, which survived a rough start to evolve into a multiplayer standby, particularly in Xbox One and PC circles.

Although the campaign is a solid foundation, it's mulitplayer that will grant the game its legs in the coming months -- and judging from the exhaustive support Ubisoft gave the first game -- possibly even years. The pipeline of free DLC is a compelling inducement for players to invest their time and effort into scoping out the game's finer points.

Although squadding up, executing missions and harvesting the rewards is a main draw from online play, one of the more intriguing aspects is the PvP-oriented Dark Zone, which tasks players to put prime loot on the line as they size up their skills and loadouts with high stakes on the line.

"The Division 2" keeps the adrenaline pumping, thanks to slick pacing and a smooth menu interface that helps you make your adjustments and dive back into the action without suffering through much of a waiting game. Geared from the ground up to hook you in quickly and keep you playing for hours into the night, the game builds off a superb base and reaches substantially more impressive heights.

Enrolling in "The Division 2" feels worthwhile because every action -- particularly collaborative work -- leads to more links in a chain that forms a reward loop, inducing you to keep coming back for more with refined weaponry and gadgets that will make you that much more effective as you seek glory on the monumental battlefield.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 15, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: "Captive State"

For my written review, click here.

Book Report: "The Pole Vault Championship of the Entire Universe"

The Pole Vault Championship of the Entire UniverseThe Pole Vault Championship of the Entire Universe by Conor Lastowka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a slow, dad joke-filled start I was wondering whether I had found myself in a mire of bland, unfunny madcap shenanigans that would never manage to right itself.

But Conor Lastowaka manages to step up his game once he makes it past the awkward introductions to his "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"-like intergalactic goof, he's able to interject occasional strings of hilarious, belly laugh-erupting writing.

Comedy novels are among the toughest to write, so a certain measure of inconsistency is expected, but Lastowka's work extends the full range of comedic success and failure to a degree I've never seen.

The story follows two threads: One of an eccentric, self-fashioned dictator of a platform-country the size of half a football field he calls "Hawall" in order to trick Hawaii-bound tourists into visiting by accident. He recruits his estranged granddaughter to visit and compete, while also continuing the family tradition of wearing a dirty, ruined and mind-manipulating costume. The other is about a megalomaniacal alien who dreams of shedding his race's reputation for garbage collection in favor of conquering the Earth and proving his athletic dominance.

The writing sometimes comes off as a 10-year-old snickering to himself while filling out Mad Libs. But at times, Lastowka is funny enough to emerge as something of a creative mastermind.

A capable Audible cast, which includes Eliza Skinner, Janet Varney, Weird Al Yankovic and Mike Nelson, assembles for something close to a full-featured, extravagantly produced radio play. It's easy to imagine the play working as a stage musical. I could also see it becoming a really awful animated movie. The future of this franchise is as mercurial and unclear as that of Hawall itself.

Publisher provided review code.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the new "Avengers: Endgame" trailer

"The Caligula Effect: Overdose" Switch Review

Set in a world created by a sentient virtual doll, in which people can relive an idealized version of their high school life, "The Caligula Effect: Overdose" explores the downside of shrugging off real-life problems in favor of a virtual world.

Lost in artificial bliss, you need to work your way through numerous insecurities, hang-ups and virtual barriers to return to some semblance of real life. Elegant, observant writing, ethereal visuals and pragmatic design are the game's high points. Pacing, controls and menu systems tend to hold it back, and that hasn't changed since the game's initial release.

Three years after its debut on PS4, Vita and PC, the game re-emerges on the Switch in a slightly revamped form. While the basics remain intact, there are minor adjustments that optimize the game for the portable/home console hybrid.

The game remains mainly for those interested in an artistic, intellectually challenging experience rather than a more common, action-oriented adventure. An imperfect but undeniably engaging spectacle, it's worth seeking out and getting lost in its world.
Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Report: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Arthur Conan Doyle made himself the all-seeing Sherlock and his readers the dumbfounded dupes Watson. His stories set up obtuse, unsolvable puzzles, then make the solutions seem obvious, even though they were impossible to solve by the reader, given the information presented to them.

His storytelling is economical and smooth, cutting from one key conversation to the next, with no superfluous flourishes and never any exposition. His narratives always take place in the moment, with alternating flashbacks set up by monologues from Watson or Sherlock's clients.

Doyle plays to his strengths in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," emphasizing short-form storytelling over the need to set up an elaborate setup and payoff. The format lets him leap from one topic to the next, wrapping things up and moving on whenever his attention span demands. It plays out something like a collection of short stories linked together by the common device.

If you've never read a Sherlock Holmes book, this is the one to start with and compare all others against.

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PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the new "Aladdin" trailer

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Braveland Trilogy" Switch Review

A fantasy-inspired hex grid combat epic, "Braveland Trilogy" tests your tactical skills amid increasingly hectic challenges.

Five years after it was released on PC, the game comes to Switch in a mildly refined form. The game fits well into the console's slate of strategy-minded games.

Stylized, hand-drawn visuals lend a timeless feel to the presentation, and the controls have held up well, ably adapting to the Switch's twin-stick format.

The overarching story is a tale of redemption. You guide a warrior's son whose village was decimated by a raid. You seek retribution by rising through the military ranks, taking command and grinding your way to prominence in the land.

Loading up your party with archers, footmen, healers, scouts and the like, you can adjust your forces to your play styles, leaning into your proclivities, whether they be loaded up in an attack-focused mindset and aggressive, risk-taking stance or well-balanced and conservative.

You'll often find the need to adjust your technique on the fly, deploying your skills to take advantage of the scenarios that emerge.

With a user-friendly interface that makes the game easy to pick up and play but may frustrate veteran gamers who long for the difficulty to ramp up, "Braveland Trilogy" works as something of a starter strategy title, as well as a welcome, nostalgia-tinged throwback for those who grew up with games like this.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Book Report: "The Color Purple"

The Color PurpleThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A challenging and linguistically innovative novel, Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is an effortlessly intellectual think piece wrapped in a gloomy historical drama.

With a Steinbeck-like urgent optimism, Walker shows off a boundless sense of rhythms and flows of poverty-ridden country life. Her protagonist, Celie, maintains an earnest sense of self-affirmation as she tells her tumultuous life story via letters to God.

Celie's backwoods vernacular becomes a poetry in the way it weaves and stumbles its way through deep philosophical thoughts. The writing dares you to overcome your own ingrained social prejudices to truly hear the message at play.

Walker's vigorous messages cry out for justice for women, people of color and homosexuals, who are forced to bear burdens thrust upon them by the powers that be. Her message of love and understanding sings out proudly.

Walker's choice to narrate the Audible adaptation was crucial. No matter how studied the voice performer, there's no one who could even pray to come close to matching Walker's command of the spirit and commitment to the downtrodden characters she carves out.

"The Color Purple" is a cleverly written and consistently emotionally overwhelming fable. Walker's shrewd, sense-of-place sorcery makes you feel and think what its characters do. As if you were reading your own stack of letters rather than those of Celie.

Publisher provided review copy.

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PHIL ON FILM: Breaking down the final "Game of Thrones" trailer

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

"Sudden Strike 4: The Pacific War" Review

Tactical combat has a way of bringing war to life on a grand scale. The isometric RTS "Sudden Strike 4" impressed hardcore World War II fans upon its 2017 release with invigorating gameplay, detailed visuals and satisfying ease of use.

The game's high points were able to neutralize some of the shortcomings, including a jumbled interface and awkward point-and-click controls that made a rough transition to consoles.

A well-designed mission structure and rich breadth of varied content went miles toward stoking the fires of its community.

There just aren't many games of this ilk around anymore, and diving into the game brings back the "just one more mission" draw that keeps you playing long into the night.

"The Pacific War" DLC freshens up the game by adding the Pacific Ocean theater. Replacing tanks, paratroopers and infantry with warships, fighters and bombers. 

With historically accurate scenarios and the vivid scene setting that's become the franchise's trademark, "Sudden Strike 4" continues to grow and evolve in the years since its initial release. Playing the game is a bit like opening up an interactive history book or documentary. 

Publisher provided review code.