Wednesday, October 28, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in November 2020

 For my full article, click here.

"Watch Dogs: Legion" Review

While the first two "Watch Dogs" overpromised and underdelivered, but the third time around reverses that paradigm. Those expecting more of the same in the open-world hack-a-thon will be dazzled at the amount of freedom and invention at your disposal this time around.

After the series debut in 2014 and its follow-up two years later, "Watch Dogs: Legion" opens up a breathtaking cyberpunkscape to explore and manipulate. Taking the baton from Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Toronto used the extra time to reinvent the franchise while staying true to the original vision.

Set in near-future London, you play as a cog in a resistance group who's out to gather up recruits to break the back of Dedsec, the privacy-exploiting, propaganda-spewing dystopian overlords. Swiping pages from megalithic Ubisoft properties "Assassin's Creed" and "Far Cry," the free-form, side quest-pulsing realms is one of the most dense and intricately detailed open worlds yet crafted.

Every character walking the streets has a backstory, routine and exploitable tendency, and you can inhabit any one of them, adapting their abilities and access to ease or complicate the path to your next objective.

While the amount of choice at your disposal can be paralyzing, the map and menu system does a solid job of keeping your tasks in order. You can take down missions in any number of ways, either opting for stealth and hacking, guns blazing or gadget manipulation. The freedom, for instance, to hack a security camera in order to hijack a drone that you can use to set off an explosive distraction to clear your path is intoxicating.

Although it's possible to spurn the vast amounts of potential paths and creative potential in order to power through missions via shortcuts or formulaic routines is alluring, but you'll get more out of the game if you open yourself up to the array of tricks and customizations that await. If the goal is to get you feeling like a digital god who bends the Matrix to your will, Ubisoft Toronto has succeeded beyond any expectation. The freestanding online co-op and adversarial sandbox play will no doubt give the game legs that far outlasts the primary campaign.

"Watch Dogs: Legion" is one of the most welcome surprises of the year. Symbolic of the technological mastery of its fiction, the game is a powerful sendoff for the current generation, as well as a tantalizing beacon of what's to come as the PS5 and Xbox One begin their dawn.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

"Umihara Kawase BaZooKa" Review

"Umihara Kawase BaZooKa" is a platformer that tasks you to wield a bazooka and fishing rod to knock out scores of dopey enemies. Think of a side-scrolling Skee-Ball with a little "Reel 'em In" tossed in.

The dev team at Success keeps the tone light and fast-paced, with little barrier to entry, even at the toughest difficulty. A breezy, party game feel races through every pixel and sound, providing an upbeat, friendly feel that can serve as a nice break for those needing an escape from doom and gloom.

It takes a bit of patience to endure this brand of fun, though. Repetitive battles and drab environments make the game wear out its welcome more quickly than you'd hope, giving you little reason to proceed other than to keep your momentum going.

Local multiplayer can spice things up, letting you test your skills against up to three other players. The shared mayhem will no doubt spark laughs, both with and at the content.

"Umihara Kawase BaZooka" is a title designed for players with eclectic tastes and a casual skillset. Bouncy and peppy to both its advantage and disadvantage, it bops along to its own oddball beat. 

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

"G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout" Review

Of all G.I. Joe's gaming forays, the one that left the most lasting impression on me was in the RTS-lite "Toy Soldiers: War Chest." 

The understated, milquetoast "G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout" may not do much to move the needle in terms of brand recognition, but is able to parlay the feel and look of the characters in that game into an action-heavy shooter.

Developer GameMill Entertainment hit its modest expectations with a serviceable, spectacle-free slice of fan service.

Most of the draw comes in the 17-mission single-player campaign. Twelve characters who span the comics, toys and animated series pop up in major roles, playing on the nostalgia factor for all it's worth.

Leading the Joes against the world-dominating Cobra terror organization, you use an array of machine gun fire, grenades, power moves and old-fashioned melee moves to slaughter your way to glory. There aren't many surprises in store, but there's something comforting in the mindless, unchallenging combat.

GameMill understandably skirted online multiplayer in favor of couch co-op and competitive combat. It's hard to imagine rustling up three other people who care enough about the game to tangle in standard capture the flag, assault, king of the hill and deathmatch formats. But if you can supply the people, the game has got your back.

While "Operation Blackout" doesn't reinvent G.I. Joe as a viable gaming franchise, it doesn't embarrass itself either. If you're a lifelong fan of the goofy characters and paramilitary antics, you'll feel right at home here.

Publisher provided review code.

G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout Image

Monday, October 12, 2020

"Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia" Review

Superfans don't need much to hook them. "Trollhunters: Defenders of Arcadia" checks most of the boxes for fans of the show, but does little else to go beyond fan service.

Based on the Netflix series, the plot has you guiding Jim Lake Jr. as he takes on Porgon the Trickster Troll, who is trying to bring on the dreaded time-pocalypse. There is action aplenty, with loads of enemies to pummel as you roll toward the end of each level.

What might have been an inspired throwback instead seems somewhat muted. 

With creative input from Guillermo del Toro, as well as the series' voice cast -- including Emile Hirsch, David Bradley, Charlie Saxton and Lexi Medrano -- in tow, there was a chance for something exciting. But developer WayForward falls victim to the uninspired design of many licensed games.

Expect repetitive levels, dull enemies and tedious visuals that fail to live up to the vigor of the source material.

Cut scenes are usually skippable trifles in platformers, but the story moments provide some of the more intriguing draws here. Those who have followed the storylines of the Netflix show won't need much convincing to play the game to get the full flavor of the saga.

This one will have you hunting for something better.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"Commander '85" Review

 "Commander '85" is the pioneer hacker's dream come to life. Just as in the 1983 film "War Games," you play as a child of the 80s with a fancy new computer with untold powers.

At the other end of your DOS prompts and your fuzzy manual modem awaits a burgeoning world to be shaped in your image via a series of command prompts.

The vision that Developer The Moonwalls is carrying is admirable and captivating. The execution, though, is as clumsily executed and obtuse as modder newsgroups of the infant internet.

Just about everything meaningful you accomplish in the game is done at your bedroom computer desk. You're massaging prompts, codes, passwords and adjustments that will seem foreign to anyone who came of age after Windows was introduced.

You're locked into a battle of trial-and-error against the programming itself, forced to use your ingenuity to decipher the correct prompts to advance you toward your task, whether it's cracking your school's report card database or manipulating powerful forces.

While retro charm abounds in "Commander '85," going it alone is an exhausting experience. If you want to progress with minimal frustration and adequate speed, you're best of digging up a walkthrough. While the game is fun to experiment with, it's also often as frustrating and slow as a Commodore 64.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

"Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning" Review

 There's no time like the cold months, especially during a pandemic, to hunker down with a deep, rich single-player RPG. "Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Recoking" certainly fits that bill, providing an expansive and robust dive into the realm of high fantasy for a cativating tale.

The 2012 game had a solid pedigree, with leadership from the likes of author R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane, and was one of the richer and better-looking RPGs of its day. 

The years have started to show the frayed edges and rust, though. The menu system now seems antiquated, the load times are a little rough and the quest management system is stiff and slow.

Still, the storytelling remains top-notch, and developer Kaiko made some strides in bringing the game up to modern standards. Smooth, compelling combat and fascinating, distinctive visuals help it make a lasting impression.

That said, there is much more the developer could have done in terms of fan service and quality-of-life improvements. The project's vision was seemingly to lightly touch up a well-regarded game, with little interest in taking it to the next level or adding to the content base.

As a whole, this is the definitive version of one of the top-tier RPGs of the decade. If you haven't played "Kingdoms of Amalur" yet, this is the form with which to make your recoking,

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, October 05, 2020

"Star Wars Squadrons" Review

Since taking the lead with the Star Wars license, EA has taken a careful and reserved approach in releasing a AAA-caliber game late each year. After stumbling with the ill-conceived "Star Wars Battlefront II" -- which was plagued with microsransactions at launch before it was stripped of the money-grubbing and reinvented -- the past two years have seen an impressive turnaround.

Building off the success of last year's exquisite single-player effort "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order," the multiplayer-focused "Star Wars Squadrons" is a throwback to the likes of "Star Wars: Rogue Squadron."

Developer Motive Studios could have dumbed down the gameplay to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible, but instead goes full geek, aiming for realism, customization and micromanagement that make the game admirably complex and obtuse. The more you study the nuances of the game, the more you'll thrive, making the club feel like an insular home of the elite rather than a casual rec league.

Five-on-five team battles make sit you in the cockpit of a New Republic or Imperial craft, pitting you in tense dogfights that become a game of cat-and-mouse with missile locks, enviornmental hazards and twisting objectives. The nagging need to rebalance your firepower, speed and shields depending on flexible needs of combat is a thrilling burden.

Impressive visuals and sounds help deepen the immersion, with the cockpit view making you feel as though you are truly inside your craft rather than controlling it as a drone. The unbriled thrill of success juxtaposes with the crushing devastation of defeat -- all part of a continues adrenaline rush that makes you feel skilled and powerful.

While more modes and fighter selections would have been welcome, what we have here is a compelling start that thrives on its economy of scale, plugging you to intense battles that reward invention and resolve. You feel as though you are in full control of a powerful starcraft, living out your cinematic fantasies.

"Star Wars Squadrons" capitalizes on the series previous aerial combat highs and soars to even greater altitude. The sky is no limit when it comes to this brave, bold excursion into deep space.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Book Review: "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tom Wolfe captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s psychedelic movement in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," a whirlwind of a book with a glowing reputation that casts a looming shadow over it.

It was a relic of and for its time -- thickly insular and crammed with hard-to-track references that severely date it. The time capsule nature of the book preserves it as an untainted, free-thinking and spoken remnant of its age. There is a certain innocence and vigor for upheaval that the decades in which I've lived can't hardly relate to. And a certain momentum that seems near impossible to recapture.

By employing a stream-of-consciousness narrative, Wolfe loses as much in relatability as he gains in immediacy. Ever at war with itself while trapped in a tendency to navel-gaze with an intensity that the Instagram generation will well identify, there are as many eye-rolling passages as there are watershed moments.

Wolfe's editors seemed to have taken a hands-off approach, leaving him free and clear to venture down bizarre asides and rabbit holes. That extends to morbid repetition of some words or phrases. He uses the term DayGlo so often that it could be a drinking game resulting in alcohol poisoning.

Despite all its flaws, the book stands proudly for the way it documents the rises and falls of counterculture movements of the ages, as well as the art, music and celebrity they inspired. Pyschedelics' influence on the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and the Doors and novelist Ken Kesey stretch beyond measure, and the same is ulitmately true of the author. All survived and endured past the acid test flashpoint. 

Publisher provided review copy.

"Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time" Review

Crash is back. Coming 22 years after the last numbered series entry, the spinning, double-jumping relic of a PlayStation mascot leaps into action as though the past couple gaming generations never happened.

A razzle-dazzle collect-a-thon in the tradition of PlayStation-era classics, "Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time" makes up for its lost decades with vigor and exuberance.

Building off the momentum of the 2017 "Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy," Developer Toys for Bob stays true to the original formula while introducing quality-of-life improvements, modern visuals and creative level design.

All the rail slides, improbable leaps, attacks and items to collect are back, along with a zany, time travel-centered story that has you selecting levels through a "Super Mario World"-style top-down view. 

While the silly cut scenes are skippable, there's no fluff in the playable content. Toys for Bob forged an impressive amount of creativity into the gameplay, twisting established formulas on their heads and delivering scores of thrilling set pieces.

The mainline game is the most significant draw, but not the end of the story. Controller-passing multiplayer is also here, in the form of time trials and crate smashing competitions that track scores for as many as four players. This is a platformer designed for speed runs, tricks and online streams. 

Far more than a tribute to the franchise's creaky past, "It's About Time" feels like a wholesale relaunch. They don't make 'em like this anymore, and it will be exciting to see what Toys for Bob does with its newfound momentum as Crash spins, jumps and slides into the future.

Publisher provided review code.