Monday, October 16, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Hot Wheels Unleashed 2: Turbocharged'

These are boom times for Mattel, with the "Barbie" film staking claim at the box office and Mattel Adventure Park set to open in Glendale next year. So now is as good a time as any to push out a sequel to one of last year's surprise racing game hits.

While "Hot Wheels Unleashed 2: Turbocharged" doesn't reinvent the die-cast wheel, it manages to succeed by playing it safe.

Back is the standard setup of wild, toy set-inspired tracks that pulse with power-ups and speed enhancements. You rev up your boost meter by completing drifts, then blow past the competition with strategically-timed bursts that you save up.

The game is firmly aimed at the family audience, making it a solid choice for experienced gamers to play with beginners. Although the proceedings are colorful, friendly and unoffensive, they are still occasionally unforgiving. 

Mistimed jumps can easily toss you off the course, sending you careening around the floor until you opt to respawn. I'm an adept racing game player, but still found myself thrown for a loss. That's a credit to the challenging design.

While it felt to me like "Turbocharged" was more of a glorified map pack than a full-blown sequel, it's undoubtedly a fuller, richer experience than the original, and manages to smooth out some of the rough edges of its predecessor. While far from a necessary for all but the Hot Wheels-obsessed, this isn't something you'd toss out of your toy box.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Game Review: 'Shark! Shark!'

Swimming in the slipstream of "Hungry Shark World," "Shark! Shark!" lets you follow along the evolution process by starting off as a tiny fish that chomps his way to bigger size.

The effort from BBG Entertainment is a simple yet satisfying affair. Profoundly replayable, the game boasts a frantic, Pac-Man-like feel in which you're constantly scampering for any opening to escape teh onslaught of creatures looking to devour you.

Once you've reached the tipping point on the size scale, it's you who paddles toward the apex side of the coin. There is far more satisfaction in tracking down smaller fish and chomping them so you can grow in size.

A pleasing soundtrack that enhances the onscreen action and simple yet satisfying visuals round out the package. This is most definitely a game that can instill the Tetris effect in you after you close your eyes once you finish long sessions.

While more depth to the gameplay would have made the package even more appealing -- the game often feels like a mobile venture or side mode to a meatier titles such "Maneater" -- "Shark! Shark!' is satisfying in its simplicity. An advanced class on barebones design and compelling replayability, the title is worth stocking in your Switch aquarium.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Game Review: 'Train Sim World 4'

Train hobbyists are an insular lot with particular tastes and demanding resolve. Dovetail Games' "Train Sim World 4," the latest entry in a franchise with tracks that trail back through the last half decade, is exquisitely designed to meet those demands.

Depending on your proclivities, this will either be a go-to obsession or something that you know you can't stand the instant you encounter the tutorial.

A proudly odd duck, "Train Sim World 4" allows you to live out every model train hobbyist's fantasy by entering the worlds of your creation as though they were life-sized.

The game includes routes from across the globe, including L.A.'s Antelope Valley Line, as well as routes from coast to coast and throughout Europe.

Licenses abound, including brands such as thee Flying Scotsman, Railpool Vectron. Class 323, 8F and Class 66 trains are all included.

Quality-of-life improvements from past entries abound. The user interface is slick and easy to use, force feedback on controllers is improved, and the weather and lighting visuals are enhanced. 

The area I suspect most hardcore players will spend their time is Free Roam, which lets your imagination come alive. You can set your own paths, spawn trains wherever you like.

There is so much to delve into in "Train Sim World 4" that you could spend hours with it every night and find much more to do and see every time you return. And there is just as much to avoid without any FOMO if you're not into this scene.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Wild Card Football'

Picking up where "NFL Blitz" left off, "Wild Card Football" -- released today -- delivers a playground-style, 7-on-7 football sim. The game is filled with over-the-top hits, ample powerups and fast-paced action that emphasizes arcade thrills over realism.

With customizable teams and logos, the game also takes cues from the "Super Mega Baseball" franchise. To ground things a bit, as well as add personality that will make the game relatablet o NFL fans, there are several licensed players, including, oddly, Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty of current star power included, with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Aaron Donald, Justin Jefferson and T.J. Watt. Teams are named after quarterbacks, and you can play through season modes, online showdowns with crossplay, as well as couch multiplayer.

As a player who always preferred "NFL Blitz" and "Tecmo Bowl" to "Madden," firing up "Wild Card Football" felt like coming home. And as a beleaguered Arizona Cardinals fan, it was also a pleasure to see that Murray was joined by the likes of teammates James Conner and Budda Baker. 

I found the powerups distracting and irritating rather than enhancements to the gameplay, breaking up the smooth, exciting on-field action that was every bit as thrilling as "NFL Blitz" at its finest.

A full player roster and NFL license would have benefitted the game greatly. Because there are so many genuine players in the game, it makes you notice those who are missing. Then again, the lack of an official NFL tie allows developers to get away with antics that the league may not have approved of.

Here's hoping "Wild Card Football" sells enough to warrant annual, or at least periodic, sequels, or at least roster update DLC.

I had fun with "Wild Card Football," and appreciated the occasional interjections of Chris Berman, whose boomingly iconic voice is an apt fit for the zany on-field action. 

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Game Review: 'Payday 3'

Whenever a sequel to a live service game comes along, the immediate question that arises is "why?" 

"Payday 3" fails to answer that question of the bat, and while the answer may well be buried somewhere deep within, I doubt whether it's worth the time and effort to discover it.

While there is nothing overtly wrong with the four-player heist mechanics, which are suitably refined and improved from the game's predecessors, there just isn't enough juice here to justify even the $40 entry fee, much less the $80 Gold Edition.

I suspect that much of the player base will come from the crowd on Xbox GamePass, on which the game launched day and date. Sunken costs of the subscription fee aside, this feels and looks like a free-to-play effort through and through. If your GamePass-subscribing buddies ate up the first two Payday games, then by all means squad up for this one.

For the rest of the crowd, you deserve better than what amounts to a map pack. Like one of its protagonists who dons a mask before breaking into a fortified sanctum to seize the goods, it doesn't deserve your hard-earned dough, and isn't even trying all that hard to nab it.

Publisher sent review code.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Book Report: 'Gravity's Rainbow'


Gravity's RainbowGravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Gravity's Rainbow" is not something you read, it's something you survive.

The divisive Pulitzer Prize-winning stream-of-consciousness brain dump from Thomas Pinchon is an intentionally abrasive, incoherent screed that reads like the mutterings of a fever dream-addled, drug-addled person shouting at the sky.

Sift through the wild, unkempt brambles and you can no doubt dig out poignant observations on the human condition, satirical digs against the military-industrial complex and guilt-ridden confessions of a life well wasted. But what you won't find is any lifeline for those longing for a sense of logic, or common sense or decency.

There were a few times where the book managed to cross its own squiggly lines of self-governance and outright angered me. I could barely withstand its onslaught of nonsensical limericks and sailor's shanties. Oftentimes, I was sure the book would never truly end, but just regenerate in a Pac-Man-like loop of punishing eternity.

Yet "Gravity's Rainbow" does finally end. This is no rainbow connection I'd recommend, but should you tread its murky waters and reach the other side like me, we will share the grudging mutual respect of having endured the impossible.

View all my reviews

Game DLC Review: 'Resident Evil 4: Separate Ways'

 The "Resident Evil 4" remake will no doubt go down as one of the best games of 2023, and its $10 DLC, "Separate Ways" is likely one of the best bargains of the year, granting a tantalizing story expansion for a minscule price.

Taking you through numerous familiar locations, each revisited with a sly twist, "Separate Ways" serves as a tantalizing desert course to the four-course meal it follows. It;s a revamp of a side mode included in the 2005 "Resident Evil 4."

Armed with Ada Wong's grappling gun, you race through the locales via a mix of stealth, survival and occasional brawling. As with the original, trategic thinking is a must to advance unscathed.

With spectacular boss fights that live up to some of the finest set pieces in the series' recent history, the DLC is a blisteringly paced roller coaster that rarely pauses for breath. If the remake thrilled you at the beginning of 2023, its waning months are an apt time to enjoy the follow-up.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Arizona Theatre Company Review: 'Barefoot in the Park'

In the 60 years since Neil Simon's masterpiece "Barefoot in the Park" debuted, what was once a daring modern take on relationships has evolved into a quaint period piece. 

That may sound like a knock, but it's quite the opposite. While the wickedly smart screenplay is still every bit as funny and romantic as it was when it first hit Broadway, the nostalgic, whimsical tone it has taken on since adds layers of reasons to appreciate it.

Director Michael Berresse does Young proud by staying faithful to his original intentions, while subtly playing up its now antiquated properties without making any concessions to a crowd who may or may not remember when manual installation of telephone lines or its more obscure cultural references were applicable.

The play thrives on its two lead performances, which are inhabited by a pair of dynamic treasures. Kyra Kennedy and Tyler Lansing Weaks inhabit young married couple Corie and Paul Bratter with penetrating, joyous charisma. They flirt, bicker, sarcastically snipe against one another and all the while, subtly show why each is smitten with the other.

The Bratters are newlyweds who have moved into a decayed Greenwich Village brownstone. The entirety of the drama swirls around their efforts to meld their disparate personalities into a working relationship in an effort to iron out the kinks of lust and romance into enduring love.

A smattering of periphery characters color, enhance and mute their disagreements. Each is a serial scene-stealer. Gayton Scott plays Corie's meddling mother, Harry Bouvy plays flamboyant upstairs neighbor Victor and Matthew Zimmer is the beleaguered telephone repair man, who idealizes the couple's plight.

Gorgeous, convincing set pieces, subtle musical cues and pitch-perfect line delivery characterize the production, which is top-heavy with laughs and tends to fade in momentum as the third act rolls out. Even the more laborious portions of the play are necessary, though, for the powerful emotional payoff at the climax.

Smiles, giggles and touching moments swirl at the core of the magnificent script, brought to life once again by a cast with a unified heart that beats strongly for the ghost of Neil Simon.

"Barefoot in the Park" plays through Oct. 13 in Tucson and Oct. 20-Nov. 5 in Phoenix. Buy tickets here.

Game Review: 'Whateverland'

There's so much love, wit and charm channeled into the indie darling "Whateverland" that you can't help but be captivated by the passion reflected in the pixesl.

The dev team at Caligari Games took the toughest route possible toward making their point-and-click, board game-inspired adventure. Opting for music created by a sextet and hand-painted art, the game has a homespun feel that gives it the air of something you'd find at a swap neet ir street fair. If games were sold that way.

Crammed with content, the game has a turn-based sports sim, loads of minigames and a branching story driven by dialogue choices.

Morality comes into play as well. You can treat characters the way you please, and your choices can come back to help or haunt you. You can even go so far as swipe items, and face the consequences for your larceny.

As much as "Whateverland" has going for it, it's definitely an acquired taste that some may find too shrill and smarmy. But it's an apt fit for those who are sick of the Triple A game grind and are yearning for something with a singular, fresh voice.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Review: iPhone 15

Just as it was once a status symbol to wield an iPhone that shed the 30-pin connector for the Lighting Cord, as well as it was cool to have a notch, now suddenly Lightning-using iPhones are relics from the past. 

In joining the near-universal technological embrace of USB-C, the iPhone 15 marks another sea change in smartphone elitism. Now the time has come that Android and iPhone users can share chargers. It's a glorious future, and even had Apple not taken any more initiative to improve the latest iteration of iPhone, it would be reason enough for me to take the leap forward and upgrade.

But there is far more to appreciate than the new adapter. While nearly every new iPhone feels like it comes from the future when you first take it out of the boss, the feeling is even more pronounced than usual with the 15. It feels impossibly light, thin and looks stunningly sharp. The future is here, and it fits in your pocket

And yet, I entered my iPhone 15 future with a measure of hesitation,

After spending the past seven years with giant-sized Plus/Pro Max size iPhones in my pocket, it was a little jarring to shift to the base-model iPhone 15. While I thought I'd miss the larger screen real estate, I was surprised to see how quickly my eyes and thumbs adjusted to the 6.1-inch screen. I found that the lighter weight and diminutive wingspan wore out my wrist and hands much less than the bulky iPhone 14 Pro Max I had been using. The comparative minimalism felt freeing.

The device, which starts at $800, offers a Super Retina XDR display that looks gorgeous and holds up strong at maximum brightness without sucking away battery life at a distressing speed. the 60 Hz refresh rate was deceptively smooth.

Tugged along from the iPhone 14 is the Dynamic Island interface, which allows you to multitask and check out notifications without disrupting your flow.

I was bowled over with the camera setup, even while foregoing a telephoto lense. The 12 MP, 2x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom camera takes stunning photos, and especially gorgeous panoramic shots. The 8 MP selfie cam, which boasts a 26mm lens, was nearly as capable. 

While I hold firm that the current state of iPhone bliss can be had, to a degree, with devices dating as far back as the 12, there are clear reasons to upgrade from the 15 from not only that generation or earlier, but even the bold, beautiful 14 line. Also, due to the USB-C integration, it won't take as much convincing as usual for Android users to consider making the leap.

If you see an upgrade in your future, the 15 is one to keep an eye on, even if you're playing the long game and waiting for a price drop in the coming months, when the inevitable 16 comes knocking on the door. The future starts here.

 Apple sent loaner unit for review.

Game Review: 'Mortal Kombat 1'

A wholesale series reboot that pays tribute to the series three decades of genre-altering history, "Mortal Komnat 1" is a massive, penetrating fighting title that is bursting at the seams with modes, characters an Easter eggs aplenty.

It was nearly exciting to download and fire up the latest effort from NetherRealm Studios as it was to saunter up to the arcade cabinet when I was a teenager, plopping quarters in the machine for a few minutes of outrageously bloody action.

A whimsical and often hilarious story mode serves as the flesh to the old yet sturdy bones, recalibrating the nonsensical narratives from the games, films and comic book offshoots in an effort to shepherd them into something of a cohesive hard reset. Familiar faces abound, but they are back in altered forms that seem to be cruel-yet-appropriate twists of the multiverse.

Every bit as gleefully gory as the series' original, more controversial games, "Mortal Kombat 1" thrives on its willingness to take its bloodiness to the gory extremes. This is stuff that would make Itchy and Scratchy wince, and the game is all the more appealing for it.

While the franchise has never seemed to be able to climb to the upper echelons of the esports world, the combat in this edition seems balanced enough to make a play for that aspect. Online matches are immensely watchable, with wild momentum shifts and glorious combos and breakers that tend to fill matches with drama and suspense.

One irritating aspect of the game is the DLC content, which seems to be deliberately held back in order to charge gamers piecemeal for additional characters. Having to cough up an extra $8 for such a traditional character as Shang Tsung is wince-inducing.

Overall, though, "Mortal Kombat 1" does far more to please the crowds than it does to chase them up. I had a wide grin on my face throughout nearly all the time I spent with the game. Now that it stands alongside "Street Fighter 6" on my virtual shelf, it feels like the best of the 1990s fighting game renaissance is back in all the best ways.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical'

An oft-tormented soul who drew from her struggles to conjure a succession of genre-defying anthems, Tina Turner lived a hard, loud life that yielded timeless musical treasures. "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical," weaves her greatest hits into the tapestry of her complicated biography.

"Tina" is just as much a concert as it is a theatrical production. The lead performer -- handled alternately by Ari Groover and Naomi Rodgers -- interacts with the audience as Turner would have, playing to the crowd and feeding off its energy. Roderick Lawrence handles the multifaceted, often villainous persona of Ike Turner with masterful presence, and Wydetta Carter is triumphant in a small but powerful role as matriarch Gran Georgeanna.

Rather than smoothing over the rough edges of Turner's life, the book explores the ugly realities Turner faced. Confrontations with racism, domestic violence and drug abuse are tough to endure, but necessary to grasp the struggles Turner dealt with.

The musical, which opened on the West End in 2018 and launched on Broadway in 2019, pulses with crowd-pleasing hits belted out with gusto. The songs are complemented by fevered backup dancing that synthesizes the trend-setting energy of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Physical stagecraft is largely barebones, yielding to a mesmerizing succession of projections that supplement the performers with often flashy, sometimes muted notes.

"Tina" bowls the audience over with an engaging rush of emotional performances in the opening act, punctuated by a showstopping performance of "River Deep - Mountain High." While the meandering second act struggles to maintain that energy, it manages to send off the audience in a flourish with a dizzying post-bow encore. It's impossible not to smile, admire the energy of the performers and nod in agreement with the echoes of "Simply the Best" bouncing through the rafters.

"Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" plays through Oct. 8 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

Early Game Review: 'Assassin's Creed Mirage'

Set in Baghdad in the year 861, "Assassin's Creed Mirage" is a deep dive back to the Middle Eastern roots of the franchise. 

Tighter and denser than most mainline entries in the franchise, the effort from the dev team led by Ubisoft Bordeaux delivers a meticulously crafted, endlessly entertaining adventure that draws on the series' heritage and paints a bold path toward the future.

Due out Oct. 5, the follow-up to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla," the game is set in a gloriously imagined version of Baghdad when it was a cultural and economic hub. Teeming with life, culture and audiovisual wonders, the city is one of the prime characters in the game. 

As you race over desert rooftops and romp through bazaars while playing out sequences, you feel as though you've entered via a rift in time. No game series makes history come alive as much as Ubisoft's flagship, and "Mirage" continues the tradition with gusto.

You play as Basim, a side character in "Valhalla," who is a master of stealth and parkour. More than in most games in the series' past, you'll need to rely on deception and sly maneuvering to stalk and kill targets with the most efficiency. The challenging, yet coolly forgiving nature of the gameplay manages to keep you intrigued while rarely frustrated.

As part of the fabric of the Hidden Ones -- the forerunners of the Assassin's order locked in eternal conflict with Templars -- you trade blows with the Ancient Ones, who will evolve into the Templars. Wrestling for control of the future of mankind, you must operate in secret against overwhelming numbers and strength, exacting your order's directives by chipping away at the Ancient Ones' power base.

Paced with deep storytelling, spellbinding cutscenes and compelling combat, "Assassin's Creed Mirage" is yet another triumph for the storied franchise. While some may crave the vast worlds of the more recent entries, the return to more succinct and penetrating quests on which the "Assassin's Creed" name was built. The title may be "Mirage," but there is substance to this trek to ancient Persia.

Publisher sent review code.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Early Game Review: 'NHL 24'

"NHL 24" is more like a measured, well-executed power play set piece than a thrilling breakaway. It takes calculated, smart risks that advance the gameplay in meaningful ways, building on the strengths of last year's title while minimizing its flaws. 

The hockey sim may lack the wow factor that convinces lapsed players to come off the bench in line-change masses, but its refinements and clever adjustments will satisfy its base.

Due out Friday, the game takes on the grit and forcefulness of cover star Cole Makar. Like the bruising Avs defenceman, the on-ice action delivers chilling hits that deliver crushing momentum shifts. 

Much of the on-ice improvement comes from the implementation of the new Exhaust Engine, which orchestrates the nuances in the ever-evolving interplay between offensive pressure and the goaltenders' alertness, energy level and overall effectiveness. 

The shift leads to the sort of questionable goal allowances and heroic saves you tend to see in real life, but which previous games had trouble simulating. Well-integrated into this dynamic are Vision Passing -- which lets you flick the left stick to size up a possible pass before you make it -- and Total Control Skill Moves, in which star forwards use flashy moves to work their way past defenders and clear up space to fire off shots.

Also spicing things up are Flex Moments, which deliver more than 75 new goal celebrations into the mix. The attention to detail is mesmerizing, with flourishes and nods from the gameplay to the color commentary and new snippets of atmosphere that capture the culture of each arena, that will make superfans smile.

When I'm blowing off steam in between more serious games, I spend some time with Chel, the franchise's take on street hockey. Chel, like standard multiplayer, gets current-gen crossplay that lets you take on frenemies on other platforms. While it remains to be seen whether a new World of Chel Battle Pass will hook gamers in or chase them away for its efforts to squeeze more money out of players via microtransactions, it's pleasing to see that developers channeled more effort into the mode.

While I would have appreciated more adjustments to franchise mode and Hockey Ultimate Team, the mechanics that remain in place are still as addictive as ever. Constructing your squad is something akin to shaping a Bonsai tree, tasking you to cultivate your squad by playing to its strengths and snipping out the weak spots.

Rugged and robust, "NHL 24" is the hockey fan's hockey game. It's proud to thrive in its insular world, ever ready to share its bounties with outsiders who decide it's time to suit up.

Publisher sent review code.