Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Splatoon 2" Review

Nintendo is determined to keep feeding the beast, cranking out a head-turning first-party release for the Switch per month. Stacking along with an impressive slate that includes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Arms, Splatoon 2 is the third among the four offerings of games either previously made for the Wii U or remade from releases on the system.

The strategy of bolstering the new system's library by drawing from the old well is working so far. Nintendo is using the mediocre reach of the Wii U to its benefit, building upon solid word of mouth and unbridled enthusiasm of hardcore fans who devoured the previous games to build a groundswell of anticipation for new-ish games on its hot-selling system.

More Splatoon 1.5 than a full-fledged sequel, the new game excels by refusing to tamper with what already works well.

A strong, competitive third-person shooter hindered only by the lack of multiplayer voice chat that dogs all Nintendo software, Splatoon 2 brings the thrills and entertainment factor of a usually adult genre to all ages. Replacing bullets with paint guns gives the action a harmless, laser-tag style feel.

Gyroscope-aided motion aiming makes the Switch feel like a window into a world you control with your wrists and button taps, and the fluid combination of wall-crawling and paint stream dodging makes for invigorating war games.

What you get is an expanded set of offerings of what the 2015 title offered. New weapons, skins, maps and modes expand naturally on what came before, matching and exceeding the original slate.

LAN play makes more sense than online multiplayer, as long as you happen to have Switch-equipped pals. Face-to-face competition makes the action more exciting, thanks to the smack-talk and facial expressions that come along with the intimacy of the setup.

The four-on-four team-based Turf War mode remains the main attraction, but the new Salmon Mode offering -- think Gears of War's Horde Mode, team you and a buddy to face off against increasingly difficult waves of oncomers.

Checking off another box in the Switch's slowly, steadily growing catalogue, Splatoon 2 helps Nintendo continue to have an unmatched 2017 in first-party production. If you're still satisfied with the Wii U and original Splatoon, rest comfortably that you aren't missing out on all that much new. But if you're looking for future-proof shooting you can take on the go, the sequel should be in your sights.

Publisher provided a review code.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age" Review

Eleven years ago, "Final Fantasy XII" pushed the PlayStation 2 to its limit, reaching what was then a high point for the famed RPG series and laying the groundwork for an awkward decade for the franchise that finally came to blossom last year with the spectacular "Final Fantasy XV."

Telling a sprawling, layered story with gorgeous visuals, deep writing and exhilarating combat that melded turn-based and action qualities, the game was ripe for an HD remaster. "The Zodiac Age" builds on everything that worked with the original -- enhancing the visuals and streamlining the rough, antiquated edges of the gameplay -- and minimizes what didn't work. The result is a gleaming gem that rivals "XV" and "VII" for the top spot among the series' pantheon.

Those who were wowed by "XV" but yearn for the series' roots will find much to love in "XII." Although the checkpoint-based saved system is a previous-gen relic -- hey, at least it does away with the ludicrous PS2 memory card system -- the structured, linear experience recalls the experience that most longtime fans of the franchise grew up loving. You can micromanage every attack or preset your party's emphasis and sit back and watch the mayhem unfold.

A new orchestral score helps give the action and story beats the cinematic resonance that the newer games have, while keeping a foot squarely planted in the past. Looking at the story through the 2017 lens gives the saga a decidedly "Game of Thrones" feel, with the tale of redemption unfolding through brutal setbacks and slivers of hope.

Weighing in at $50, "The Zodiac Age" is on the pricey side of previous-gen remasters, but the cost is well worth it based on the 100-plus hours of thrills it provides, as well as the loving care that went into nearly every aspect of the build. Easily the definitive way to experience "XII," this is as much a remake as it is a makeover.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Minecraft: Season 2, Episode 1" Review

Building of the momentum of the 2015 Telltale Games episodic adventure, the follow-up season reunites characters from the original game and takes your choices into account.

Nailing the blocky graphics and sing-song music of the famed sandbox builder game on which it's based, the storyline and dialogue capture Telltale's trademark humor and emotional resonance.

The new story takes a while to get going, with much of the time spent establishing characters and motivations. Intriguing choices come into play for the branching paths you decide to take, letting you establish your hero as egotistical, sarcastic or compassionate.

Mission directives are always clear and concise, reducing the amount of time you'll need to waste wandering around while looking for ways to advance the story. That's not to say the format is strictly linear. Staying true to the Minecraft spirit, there is plenty to distract you from the main path in the way of exploration and whimsy -- including, of course, opportunities to build stuff.

Like an expert Minecraft builder, the first episode of the new season lays a solid foundation for the heights that are sure to come.

Publisher provided a review code.

Book Report: The Zookeeper's Wife

This is hardcore history dressed up with fictional interludes to streamline the narrative. You know what you're getting into here. A tale of torture and inhumanity, with animals as well as people suffering the spirit-crushing reach of the Nazi regime. I wasn't familiar with the Polish resistance beforehand, and learning about how the people risked everything they had to turn the tide and take back their homes only to find physical devastation, imprisonment and slaughter waiting for them was difficult to handle. Ackerman is very much on the nose with her symbolism, relating animalistic qualities to her heroine, and could have made more of an impact with her theories had she scaled back a lot. But overall, this is a fascinating, well-researched and resonant record of a sad yet inspiring tale of survival.

Monday, July 10, 2017

New Nintendo 2DS XL Review

Sometimes progress means taking a step back.

That's the case for Nintendo's newest handheld, which further clouds the choices handheld gaming enthusiasts need to make when deciding which device to tote around.

The New Nintendo 2DS XL -- yep, quite a mouthful -- is a nominal advancement over the New 3DS XL, the current king of Nintendo's handheld-only products.

Smaller and lighter, with a longer-lasting battery, included charger -- the New 3DS XL lacks one -- the 2DS boasts the same size of display and resolution in both its screens.

Its slimmer form factor, endurance and game library gives it the edge over all other handhelds, including the Switch. The sacrifice is its lack of 3D capability, rendering the once wow-grabbing visuals that have now faded squarely into antiquated fad territory obsolete. You may not be able to get as much out of your 3DS library visually, but if you already have tired of handheld 3D, it's no big loss.

Still, depending on your preferences, there is a cornucopia of brethren systems to tempt you. Start with the tight, compact original 3DS, move on to its supersized big bro, the New 3DS XL, check out the kid-friendly, tablet-style 2DS and then consider the console/handheld hybrid system of the future the Switch, with its currently slim library.

If you want the best of all Nintnedo's offerings, the solutions is a trick question. You'll need both a Switch and a member of the "3DS Family." The New 2DS XL, being the newest of the bunch, makes the most sense for streamlined on-the-go gaming.

If you only have the budget for one system -- and if you plan on keeping the system in your pocket at all times -- your best bet is the newest system, which puts glasses-free 3D in the rear-view mirror, probably for good.

Publisher provided device for review.

Friday, June 30, 2017

"Baby Driver" Review

For my written review, click here.

HTC U11 Review

HTC has struggled to keep pace with Samsung and Apple -- usually playing catch-up on significant tech specs -- but that changes with the U11.

Introducing new tactile functionality along with an elegant two-sided glass form factor and shimmering 5.5-inch, 2K resolution display, this smartphone vies to be the center of attention rather than a wallflower.

Exemplary battery life -- intense use after a full work day will not deplete your power bar -- a staggeringly impressive 16/12 megapixel camera set and impressive multitasking and processing speeds make the U11 tough to put down.

The most intriguing new feature is the squeeze input. Rather than hunt for buttons, you squeeze the phone to launch the camera app and snap pics. While the functionality initially seems incongruous, it quickly becomes second nature, even going to the point of making it feel archaic to go back to another device and snap pics the traditional way.

If you dig the squeeze input, you can take a deep dive and set other apps for squeeze activation. If it doesn't work for you, you can ignore it and rely on the preset inputs.

The Pixel-style Google assistant fills the Siri/Bixby roll well -- riding high on a Snapdragon 835 processor -- and the dust-resistant surface keeps you from having to wipe it clean.

Most importantly, the U11 just feels right. Engineered for responsiveness, ease of use and an appealing ergonomical feel, this gem of a device puts HTC into the unfamiliar -- for the past few years -- spot at the head of the pack in the ever-evolving smartphone arms race.

While there's nothing here to make iPhone or Galaxy die-hards give up their cult-like devotion, fence-sitters looking to upgrade should give this one a long, hard look -- and not be shocked if it's love at first sight.

HTC provided a device for review.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Report: People Who Eat Darkness

Parry goes beyond nuts and bolts journalism to tear the cover off his murder story and dive deeply into the sociopolitical context and disturbing subculture that spawned Joji Obara's kidnapping and killing of Lucie Blackman.

Recounting a case he covered extensively for a British newspaper, Parry exposes the seductive repression of the hostess bar circuit that Obara used to hunt his prey and Blackman clung to as a means to use her charm and looks to get by in a foreign land. Shoving aside constraints of reporter neutrality, he shares the yearnings and frustrations of him and Blackman's family as the staggered Japanese justice system strains to shackle the monster.

Fascinatingly told and free of cliches or lazy true crime crutches, Parry creates a true masterwork that endures as the magnum opus of Blackman case coverage and sets a shining example for not only authors, but reporters, to follow.