Monthly Archives: April 2015

Cowherd’s Words

Cowherd's Words

“Oh fuck this guy.” I turned my head to my friend as he said this. It was an understandable reaction. He’d just read the bitter words from ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd. And I get it. After reading Cowherd’s view on televising competitive video games—more commonly known as eSports— I wanted to say the same thing.

Let’s back this train up, though. The starting point of all this is ESPN2 airing a special called Heroes of the Dorm on April 26th, a college-focused tournament for the game Heroes of the Storm. The winners would get their entire college tuition covered, so who wouldn’t want to give it a whirl?

And a lot of people tuning into the channel were surely confused. I actually got texts and Slack messages about it, asking me what this was. It’s a fair question since 1) Heroes of the Storm isn’t officially out yet and 2) video games haven’t gotten huge broadcast coverage in American since G4’s Arena (and WCG Ultimate Gamer before that).

Many of them came around to the idea and actually enjoyed the program. MOBAs aren’t inherently difficult to understand the basics of, though mastering them is a much larger challenge, much like any physical sport. The scoring scheme is straightforward and it’s visually easy to understand, a one-two combo other competitive games fail to achieve like StarCraft and Call of Duty.

But not everyone seemed to like it. Here’s the first relevant pull quote from Cowherd’s segment.

Here’s what’s going to get me off the air. If I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire and move to a rural fishing village and sell bait. You want me out? Demand video game tournaments on ESPN because that’s what appeared on ESPN2 yesterday.

Of course, that’s all entirely his call. If he doesn’t want to work a job any longer, then that’s perfectly fine. No one should have to do something they don’t want to, so if video games on ESPN is going to make Cowherd leave the network and pursue a career in the fishing industry, then good for him for having that kind of conviction.

Never mind, though, that ESPN has covered video games before. He, in fact, was the one that did it, as Own Good over at Polygon pointed out. Cowherd willingly provided coverage for Madden NFL 11, 12, and 13 as part of SportsNation. And it seems the great culmination of these team-up was MCing the vote tallying of Madden’s cover athlete.

He also was a member of the unlockable SportsNation team in 2010’s NBA Jam for Wii. (Apparently Ad Rock is one hell of a dunker.) So really it seems that Cowherd doesn’t have a problem with video games in general. It’s more that he doesn’t have room for anything beyond football and basketball.

Cowherd made a strange and broad implication as he talked about listening to the commentary for Heroes of the Dorm.

I tagged out at Harry Potter … I tolerated Donkey Kong, okay? I’ll tell you what that was the equivalent of there … Of me putting a gun to my mouth and having to listen to that.

He might have something there with the facet regarding commentary; it’s not always grade-A stuff. But he’s lumping Donkey Kong in with Harry Potter. He’s looking down upon two vastly different thing in the same sweeping view from atop his highly perched nose. There’s stuff he likes and there’s stuff he doesn’t like, sure. But apparently the stuff he doesn’t like all exists in one giant bucket.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

That is inherently disrespectful and ignorant. It doesn’t matter whether he appreciates a sport or understands the nuance of ballet or the beauty of a piece of code; they all exist without his approval and have all the finesse and power and impact they would have regardless.

Not recognizing that is absurd. It’s like when characters in movies close their eyes and cover their ears to ignore bad news, as if those simple and childish actions would make it all go away. Cowherd’s tone itself is condescending, using his massive radio platform to disseminate his dangerous and bitter philosophy among his listeners.

More than that, he goes beyond wildly slinging personal opinion and goes to attacking those that play games. “Somebody lock the basement door at mom’s house and don’t let ’em out,” he says, a personal taunt to people that play games, one that ignores the fact that he horrendously broad label of “gamer” can apply to Angry Birds enthusiasts to professional League of Legend athletes. Also, video games? $21 billion in 2013.

Colin Cowherd

Cowherd goes on with, “You know what the funny thing is? Listen to how intense they are. These guys are totally into it.” He’s now making fun of people for enjoying something. Britton Peele over at GuideLive laid out a perfectly succinct response: “Forgive them for apparently having fun incorrectly.”

Perhaps he has the same fear those behind the threats and insults of Gamergate have. It certainly has that same flavor, of an instinctual counter to the feeling of something being taken away from them. As James Dator of SBNation puts it, “Here’s the secret: eSports doesn’t need you to care about it. This is a thing that will continue to grow, with your validation or not.”

It’s coming whether Cowherd wants it to or not. He’s attacking the inevitable. He’s attacking the fact that everyone has different tastes. Even if you overlap with Cowherd and millions of others in liking football and basketball, you likely have views and opinions that differ from him as well.

Lumberjack World Championships

Think about the people that likely celebrated the televised broadcasting of competitive eating onto ESPN. Or lumberjacking or spelling or any other niche competitive sport. They are validated by those that like it, not torn down by those that hate it or don’t understand it (and aren’t willing to try).

Certainly there are growing pains with eSports. Raphael Poplock, ESPN’s Vice President of Games and Partnerships, put it plainly in an interview with Kotaku in 2013. “Look at what [ESPN] has done for the sport of poker. We really revolutionized it, made it to a place where fans really could understand what was going on.” eSports needs a production scheme that allows intuitive consumption, not diving further down the rabbit hole of jargon.

But that’s not even what Cowherd is saying. There is legitimacy in his words—personal obligation, the strides that still lay before eSports, etc.—but his message is not one of insightful criticism. He is spouting hurtful, vitriolic, opinionated ignorance as if it were fact.

Heroes of the Dorm

Cowherd’s words are playing directly into the human inclination to either retreat or lash out at things they don’t understand, things that are foreign to them. And given that he has a massive audience, he’s not just looking into his mirror with his positive affirmations but instead influencing thousands of listeners. (Potentially 23 million according to the ESPN fact sheet.)

On the basest level, it’s fine for him to think and hold these opinions on his own. But the fact that he spreads them so willingly and recklessly to a substantial audience makes him dangerous. It’s a poisonous viewpoint, one that diminishes and inhibits human and cultural development. Whether you agree with eSports belonging on ESPN, his words, like everyone’s words, deserve scrutiny. And his don’t pass muster.

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Broken Age Act 2 Review: Another Time

Broken Age

The second half of Broken Age is out, just a scant two and a half years after the original Kickstarter promise. And while perfectly fine on its own as an entertaining, beautiful, and engaging adventure game, it takes a step down from Act 1 in many regards. That, however, shouldn’t stop you from giving it a chance.

Spoiler warning: seeing as how this is a review for the second half of a two-part game, it will naturally contain spoilers for the first half. If you haven’t played that yet, this isn’t the kind of spoiler you can forget. It changes the entire foundation of the two characters’ stories.

Act 2 picks up directly after the events of Act 1, finding Shay coming out of his crashed ship and Vella coming up on the beach to her defeated monster. Surprise: they’re one and the same. But after Vella takes a swing at Shay, the two accidentally switch places and now much work with their counterpart’s old friends and family to fix the situation.

This is a rather interesting premise. Shay, in a world far beyond anything he’s been able to explore before, is mesmerized by the whole endeavor. And by going through a series of microcosmic worlds already influenced by Vella, we see the consequences. Some are good and some are bad, but all of them are intriguing. We see an old place through a new filter.

The same goes for Vella, though in a slightly different tact. She is exploring the innards of what she once thought was a beastly god monster who demanded maiden sacrifices. It’s not that she is in a world beyond her own like Shay, but rather her life’s institutionalized truths were altogether lies. And to find out the impetus behind the lie is something far more nefarious is shattering.

There are, however, two noteworthy consequence to this. The first is that while the actual plot of this second half is definitely a good one, it lacks the impactful themes and inquisitive nature of the first half. There is no notion of childlike curiosity and there is no push to find a deeper happiness. Instead there is the establishment of evil and the necessary defeat of it, a seemingly base concept compared to the first.

Broken Age Act 2

Next is that a great deal of Act 2 is dependent on Act 1. This doesn’t just mean narratively where stories and characters carry over. (Some jokes, as well, require past knowledge.) No, this is also a second half in terms of the puzzles. There are a lot of hints and setup in the first act that will facilitate progress in the second.

Heed Tim Schafer’s advice and play Act 1 again before you start Act 2. There are several puzzles that will only make sense after you solve them (or, more likely, accidentally stumble upon the solution) if Act 1 isn’t fresh on your mind. Either involving hugs or motivations, it’s almost impossible to just “figure out.”

It’s not just a problem of knowledge, however, in Act 2. Many of the puzzles this time around become instilled with a sense of paranoia once you realize that information necessarily crosses between the character boundaries. There are at least two times where you have to progress as either Vella or Shay to get information for the other character. Otherwise you will be brute forcing your way through a lot of things.

Broken Age Act 2

More than that, until you realize that fact, you will think you’re just not being smart or perceptive or logical or creative enough. This will most likely lead you to backtracking all over the place and seeing if you can combine anything in your inventory with anything on the screen. It wastes a lot of time not knowing that these two worlds move forwards through interfacing facts. It’s narratively smart but frustrating in practice.

All of the aesthetics, though, remain superb. The visuals are so deliciously sweet and overflowing with tantalizing beauty, words and sentiments that further apply to the characters. As previously siloed characters meet each other and interact, it’s dangerously smile-inducing to see how joyful everyone in this world can be. (Also, Dutch the talking knife and utensil counterpart to Shay’s spoon is one of the best characters in years.)

This naturally extends to the voice actors, the folks that bring the levity to bouncy life in the recording booths. From the side characters to the main cast, everyone is acted and written to a T. Just from their opening words, each one is personalized to being a unique entity, not just someone that will give you clues or holds something you need.

Broken Age Act 2

While this game is still incredibly easy to recommend, it does come with a set of faults not present in its predecessor. They’re not even faults, really, but retrograde developments from before. It’s a little disappointing in that way, but Broken Age Act 2 is still smart, funny, gorgeous, and worth playing.

+ Still great to look at with plenty of witty and intelligent writing abound
+ Some puzzles are devious in the way that make you feel like a genius
+ Interwoven and swapped story settings are fascinating
– A lot of futile backtracking in puzzle exploration (read: not solving)
– Not many new environments or characters to see

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Broken Age Act 2

Game Review: Broken Age – Act 2
Release: April 28, 2015
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Ouya
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $24.99
Website: http://www.brokenagegame.com/

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You Should Probably Play Does Not Commute

Does Not Commute

It’s pretty simple getting from point A to point B in Does Not Commute. The fun comes in when you start adding point C and point D and so on. Does Not Commute is a clever and engaging little mobile game that forces you to plan ahead while playing behind. A lot of people have been looking forward to it since seeing it at GDC and now that it’s out, you should probably play it.

Described as a “strategic driving game” by developers Mediocre, the point of Does Not Commute is to continually guide a series of different cars from their starting points to their destinations. The catch is that with each successive car you have to drive, every previous commuter persists on the map, clogging up major thoroughfares and complicating your journey.

While each map can get complex rather quickly, the foundation is quite simple. Presented in a top-down perspective, you simply tap each half of the screen to steer. That, in fact, is the only amount of instructions given outside of how to use certain power-ups as you earn them. The rest is taught through simply playing.

For example, you don’t even start off knowing what the basis of the game is. Your first task is to get one fellow from the bottom of the screen to the top. Easy peasy. But then the second task, if you try to go direct, will cause the two cars to crash. It’s a brilliant and smooth bit of integrated player education.

Vehicles will also handle drastically differently, and it’s sometimes dependent on the drive. Some are in a rush and are real speed demons, which can be a humongous problem if you’re late into a map and you need to do a lot of tight maneuvering. And then sometimes you have a bus or a dump truck, and what are those naturally other than painfully slow.

That, however, is where the power-ups fit in. By using Turbo, you can fit slower drivers into tighter openings where you’ve already (and, regrettably, unknowingly) bombarded with other cars. Or by using Traction, you can rein in the unwieldy folk. It offers a layer of strategy, but also a layer in which you can once more screw yourself, which is the best kind of tool in video games.

Does Not Commute

This especially goes for collecting more time. You see, you have a timer dictating how much time you have to get everyone simultaneously through to their end goals. While it overlaps, you burn a single second every time you reset an attempt, and that really adds up. This forces you go often go out of your way to collect little bundles of time of 10 or 20 seconds. It’s a necessity, but it will also undoubtedly and fantastically bone you so hard.

A nice little touch (other than it sounding and looking great) is that each driver comes with a little blurb of a backstory, and they all tend to weave together. The first rural setting paints a picture of an accident and an identity thief no one’s noticed yet. Then you see in the city in the next map that there’s definitely might be some Cayman Islands-fleeing type money shenanigans.

One thing to note is that while the game in its entirety is absolutely free, it’s pretty much impossible to beat it unless you pay for the premium version. Fronting the cash will unlock checkpoints, so when you inevitably run out of time or simply close the app or your battery dies, you won’t have to start over from the first map. It’s an inoffensive scheme since nothing stops you from beating it for free, but it’s quickly a nuisance if you aren’t a freaking god of gaming.

Does Not Commute

The problems can quickly compound once you have to take advantage of the floaty nature of these cars. Driving off the side of an overpass might be the only way late into the game to get over a troubling intersection of your own creation. Or launching off a ramp could be the only way to save you precious seconds, preventing failure. (Also, notice that I keep saying “vehicles” and not strictly “cars,” wink wink.)

There’s a great deal that makes Does Not Commute a good game, but in this case, the best way to convince someone is to just have them play it. And at the price point of zero dollars, there’s really no reason not to give it a whirl. (That is unless you don’t own a phone, in which case how did you escape the 1800s?) You should, without a doubt, play Does Not Commute.

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Pushing Blood in Bloodborne

Pushing Blood in Bloodborne

While I’ve yet to finish Bloodborne, I can tell you that it’s well worth your time. It somehow both refines what you’ve come to appreciate (I won’t say love because fuck Souls games) and usurps your expectations from Dark Souls. And From Software does it with just two simple changes.

In getting through Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, I’m sure many of you did what I did, which was aim to simply survive. It wasn’t a matter of winning, per se, but rather outliving the things that were trying to kill you. It’s more like capitalizing on the opportunities given to you instead of creating them for yourself.

Builds, from what I’ve seen, can vary from totally middle of the road knights to barebones speedsters, but the majority sidle towards tank builds. By taking as much punishment as possible while still remaining evasive, you give yourself more time for more opportunities to rear their giant ugly heads.

Dark Souls II

That, however, is not viable in Bloodborne. There are, in fact, no shields in the game. (Well, there’s one, but it’s more of a plywood plank and totally an in-joke.) This is the first change.

There is instead a new category of weaponry: firearms. Rather than set the idea of defense as one of soaking up damage, the goal is to subvert damage. The guns, you see, aren’t particularly good at injuring foes, nor is their ammo (relatively) plentiful like arrows of yore. What they do is open up the ability to counter.

These counters, known as visceral attacks, are made to empower you against moments where evasion isn’t a choice. Timed properly, they allow you to move confidently into situations where you would move cautiously in past Souls games.

Bloodborne

It’s different from parries, though. Parrying leaves enemies staggered and possibly open to followup. Visceral attacks are damaging in and of themselves. It feels a lot more like the very active combat framework of games like Bayonetta.

That’s the other change. Bloodborne encourages a much more active take on the previously slow and meditative fighting of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. From Software has implemented a regain system where after you receive damage, you can attack enemies to gain your health back.

This is your new shield and armor. Instead of dissemination and ablation, you take the damage and then just get it back. It’s not so you can be reckless and button mash your way to victory. This is still, after all, very much a Souls game, but you are encouraged to be proactive instead of reactive.

Bloodborne

In this way, the major expectation of how you used to play is flipped on its head. With the ability to massively counter enemy attacks and recover health from mitigated or failed incursions, you create opportunities now. You dive in and you force the hand of your opponents rather than the other way around.

That is the subtlety of precise and expert game design. Bloodborne maintains exactly what you expect from Souls games but also smashes those expectations into something new. A review will be forthcoming, but between playing new Dark Souls II DLC and eating tacos, I do suggest you make time for this and see what you think of these changes.

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Nature of the Battle

Nature of the Battle

Good Versus Evil. It’s an archetype known so well that it barely evokes anything from that vacuous pit you call a soul despite being a fundamental concept in storytelling, moral development, and basically everything else in life. But it’s precisely because it’s so ingrained that it often fails to inspire.

That’s one of the more interesting parts of the history of comic books. As an art form, they’ve been around for centuries, but even the modern take of serialized, interconnected tales has existed since the 1930s. This offers an intriguing problem worthy of solving: how do you keep the base narrative conflicts fresh after being rehashed over and over again through publishers, characters, and reboots?

The answer, it turns out, is rather simple, though the execution can be quite complex (the recipe for most things worth pursuing). Comics have taken to regularly flaunting and questioning what it means to be good and bad—what it means to be a hero and what it means to succeed—by exploring internal and external struggles simultaneously.

Marvel's Daredevil

Spoiler alert: this will contain discussions regarding Marvel’s Daredevil and slight tie-ins with some Marvel and DC comic properties and their past stories, so be wary if you haven’t seen the show or read the respective timelines.

If you pay attention to Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil, it’s easy to see where showrunner Drew Goddard went for this tack. From the outset, either from prior knowledge or just the way the show presents the two characters, you perceive Matt Murdock as the protagonist and Wilson Fisk as the antagonist.

And why not? One is both a nighttime crime fighter and a defender of smalltime justice and the other is a wealthy, powerful, and pretty unsettling fella that outsources murder. However, they both have the same goal. They both just want to save Hell’s Kitchen, a city ravaged by the fallout from The Avengers‘ climactic alien invasion battle.

Marvel's Daredevil

It turns out just want to rid their hometown of rampant, deadly crime, but they both go about it in very different ways. It’s all a matter of perspective. To Daredevil, the villain of his quest is the man behind the scheme to kick out tenants, enable a Russian drug ring, and back a human trafficking ring. All of that is straight from the stock list of Bad Guy Hobbies along with The Good Guy’s Guide to Stopping It.

But from Kingpin’s perspective, by reigning in the unregulated nature of the crime he’s inserting his organization into, he’s taking the first step to preventing his city from descending into complete despair. And he’s not wrong. Structure would go along way to stopping innocent people from dying.

If you consider it instead by swapping the tactics of the two men, where Daredevil would use physical intimidation and Kingpin would manipulate a system for regulated coercion—oh wait, those are already both true. You see Daredevil torture a man in his second outing and Fisk run for office, mirroring Murdock’s attorney career and Kingpin’s penchant for excessive pugilism.

Marvel's Daredevil

Perhaps Murdock’s only saving grace is that he doesn’t willfully kill, but that doesn’t make him any better than Fisk. When he describes his first attempt at vigilante justice, he tells Foggy how he beat a man so bad that that man had to eat from a straw. And Murdock’s response? “I never slept better.” He thrives off of the violence.

But with each time Fisk loses it and beats a henchman down to the ground or something, it is always accompanied by regret and a deep, disturbing sorrow for doing what he considers is necessary. You can tell that Fisk is anchored to a single principle in his choice of cufflinks, a pair worn by his father so he can remember to “not [be] cruel for the sake of cruelty.”

Murdock, however, holds no reservation. It’s debatable if he even holds a glimmer of emotion. He’s stoic and unmoved at Ben’s funeral. He sheds no tears at Elena’s corpse. Only when faced with the realization via Foggy’s discovery of his secret that he’s a cold, mechanized tool in the city’s hands does he finally break.

Marvel's Daredevil

If so inclined, this freshman saga could easily be aimed at a setup where Murdock is the antagonist and Fisk is the hero. It’s a lesson of objectivity; it doesn’t exist when it comes to heroes. To accomplish any great task against a great foe, you have to be willing to challenge your own preconceptions.

This exercise in trading traditional values comes out fairly well in the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer. It, in and of itself, is not a particularly good trailer, but it does force one very particular question from the less comic-inclined. “Why would Batman fight Superman?”

The trailer frames Superman as the villain, even going so far as to include a sound bite regarding “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s more common, however, for Batman to be the villain. Not only that, it’s more interesting that way.

Batman is aggressively doubtful of Superman’s intentions while fearful of what the alien’s existence means for his role in keeping the peace in the world. He seeks out a conflict with Superman to settle up on these—and a few other—questions.

Superman, however, has only ever tried to live by the ethos commanded by his ostensibly altruistic father before sending him to Earth. He wants to save the world because he believes they are a people worth saving, whereas Batman believes they need to be saved from themselves because they are insufferable and ultimately irredeemable.

But the easy way and a possible alternative interpretation is that Batman represents our viewpoint into an unknown and seemingly impossible power, one that actually (and recently) resulted in the near total destruction of several small towns and one big city. This naturally sidles our prejudices up against a villainous Batman.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This is because putting Batman as the antagonist forces our hand into lumping ourselves (by way of Batman representing our Greek choral opinions) into the bad guy camp. Now, instead of outright cheering for justice, it feels far more confused and uneasy and encourages us to empathize with Superman’s seemingly unwanted struggle for peace.

As it turns out, it’s never just Good Versus Evil. It’s more just one person versus another person, either by way of physical struggle, conflict ideologies, or anything else that throws two perspectives into stark relief. It’s the contrast and accompanying viewpoint that makes both good and evil, not any one objective pool.

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Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1 Review: Hellishly Good

Marvel's Daredevil

How can anything good happen in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? It’s a real location, named after the brutality that seems to overflow from its residents and onto its dirty streets. It’s also where Marvel’s Daredevil takes place, Netflix’s latest original series and the next entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s one hell of a trip.

This first season covers he origins of lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as well as the origins of his alter superhero ego Daredevil. It actually follows the serial format for comic television: we track the present day hero as he develops his chops for taking down bad guys while visiting the past through flashbacks for the foundational backstory.

In Murdock’s case, he saved a man from being hit by a truck back when he was a child, but some of the dangerous substances on the truck burned away his ability to see with his eyes. But through some ways the show explains, he further develops the ability to see a different way—to see a “world on fire”—and uses his remaining heightened senses to fight crime.

The first thing that’s interesting is that this world is canonical to the MCU, taking place roughly 18 months after the events of 2012’s The Avengers. Most of New York is still recovering from “the event,” a softer colloquialism for a mass alien invasion from a floating portal in the sky. In fact, this is how we believably eschew the modern upscale aesthetics of Hell’s Kitchen to the crime-ridden one of the show. The Avengers left a hole in New York, and the filth of drugs and human trafficking have flowed forth to fill it.

It’s fascinating, though, that outside of a few oblique references and Easter Eggs to the films and some potential future developments, Murdock’s escapades are almost wholly self-contained, and for good reason. For all the grandiose explosions and world-ending consequences of the theatrical entries into the canon, Daredevil is infinitely more personal. This is the hearty, intimate endeavor of one man to save his city.

Truthfully, it’s two men trying to save their city. Opposite Cox’s Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, better known as The Kingpin, and he is going about a different tack for redeeming his hometown. Working hand in hand with Russian mobsters, Yukuza, and Chinese gangsters, he is trying to do good through the warped filter of his past.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is one of the highlights of the show. D’Onofrio is an extremely potent Kingpin. Fisk, as a child, was terribly troubled by his father and further his relationship with his mother, and whenever his actions come to a head as an adult, you can see his history in his eyes. You can see his regret and his conflict constantly percolating just behind those big doughy peepers.

That is until he loses it. And boy does he lose it, and it feels dangerous. Some of his vocal gurglings are questionable, but his explosions of emotion—be it rage or sadness or whatever—are the perfect foil to Cox as Murdock. While Murdock struggles inwardly with his desires to fix the city and his desires to remain a good man, Fisk exposes his inner turmoil rather outwardly.

This makes Cox’s performance as important to the tone and direction of the show as D’Onofrio’s, which you would expect since it’s a series named after his character. And he handles the responsibility with aplomb. Besides capably executing on the physicality of the role (fighting and blindness included), Cox holds a necessary tenderness behind his steely demeanor as both an attorney and a crime fighter.

Marvel's Daredevil

Most of the supporting cast does just as well including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, each one with considerable depth and pesonality. And whether you count James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fisk’s righthand man, as a supporting role or the primary villain for nearly the first third of the season, he is a commensurate intimidator with Fisk. It’s a solid one-two of villainy, especially when you throw in Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) emergent psychosis.

Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is fairly problematic, though. The childhood friend and lawfully employed partner to Murdock, he is right there alongside Daredevil and Kingpin all the way through the season, blissfully unaware of his friend’s nighttime activities. But Henson’s acting is more like constant overacting and the character itself tends to flipflop between being moral and being money-hungry without any consideration. Most of the time he’s annoying and confusing. Other times he’s just taking up space.

There is, however, an admirable and impressive amount of grit to the show. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Marvel’s offerings, where things only ever get as dark as classic apocalyptic scenarios, but this is about taking the dirt off the streets and rubbing it in your face.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is exemplified through the excellent production and meaningful directing of the season. There’s a lot to the visual impact of each episode. It’s not just about showing you one talking head after another (though it does indulge in that inevitable trap often) but it’s about filling your head with the idea and suggestions of what is important and what isn’t but showing you some things and simply implying others.

There’s one particular scene early on that features a five-minute, one-take fight scene where Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped child. It is a tiring battle for both him and the audience. This isn’t where Captain American punches a bad guy and proceeds; this is a true slugfest. You can see the methodical nature of Murdock’s combat, assessing and reassessing the tight confines of the hallway while utilizing his abilities to monitor the things beyond sight.

But towards the end, he is worn and exhausted. It’s not even fighting after that long. It’s just desire, and his desire is outmatching the several men he’s dismantling. This culminates in a shot that excludes us from the payoff of the crucible, forcing us to realize this is indeed Murdock’s journey and not ours.

Marvel's Daredevil

Speaking of the fighting, though, there is a lot of it, and it’s pretty fantastic. Very rarely do you see Daredevil get through encounters as if they were mere scuffles. These are full-on battles, each and every time. Sure, he manages to accomplish some superhuman things, but you feel like he earns each and every victory. And that’s not to mention the moves he does are pretty cool.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as consistent. The personal threads hold tight and intimate throughout, but the intrigue of the procedural elements involving a menagerie of crime organizations, lessons on the dangers of truth-seeking/journalism, and incontrovertible good Samaritanism waver in and out and all over impotent romances. It’s too many dishes stacked up and almost all tip over and break across the singular goal of taking down Fisk.

Despite that, this is still a good show. Whether you’ve watched the other bits and pieces of the MCU or you’ve read every Marvel comic under the sun, Marel’s Daredevil is a compact, forceful, and dramatic season of television. It is well worth your time.

Marvel's Daredevil

+ Intimate and personal foils between Fisk and Murdock
+ Plenty of great performances that fit this darker facet of the MCU
+ Directing that has meaning
+ Fighting that feels real and has consequences
– Wavering and confused threads in the last third of the season

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Furious 7 Review: A Calm

Furious 7

For all the bombast of the series, Furious 7 feels gravely intimate. They’ve condensed the cast down to something far more manageable and focused on just a few themes, perhaps showing growth as a dramatic franchise as well as one that will drive a car through three skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. Action and narrative maturity make Furious 7 well worth seeing.

While the movie stands perfectly fine on its own, you’ll gain a lot more by watching the six previous films. Whether you enjoy them or hate them, they add an incredible depth to the world you’ll be trotting around in this film. There are multiple callbacks to past entries that go well beyond a simple cameo. They loop back in a very tangible way.

The basic gist, however, is that the big bad brother of the big bad thief from Fast & Furious 6 is out for blood, going straight for the jugular in a quest for vengeance. Turns out, however, that a shadowy pseudo-government group headed by Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) has been keeping tabs on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) for the purpose of taking advantage of his crew to retrieve a stolen program called God’s Eye that can track and find anyone in the world.

It is absolutely, 100-percent ridiculous full of questions that demand answers but are left wanting. Especially tracked over the course of the franchise, you can’t help but wonder how things got here. The movie opens with familiar scenes of a desert racing festival, reminding you of how the series started, right before delving into something more akin to a superhero movie.

If nothing else, there is an endless string of one-upping the past film. We go from undercover cops to the FBI to the DSS to finally an unnamed government black ops group. But there’s also a much more dire escalation that’s easy to overlook with 230 cars exploding around you.

Toretto and his crew escalate the severity of their consequences. From losing cars to losing their civil liberties, they go from stealing information to stealing money until they finally arrive at fighting for their freedom. This is the last stop, though: fighting for their lives.

Furious 7

This is the first time where they are being deliberately hunted, and it shows. People have died in the past (Gisele, Jesse, etc.), but that’s along the course of the action. This is where they finally have to reconcile their past with this deadly comeuppance.

By trimming the dramatic fat of unnecessary characters and focusing on a tighter group, we can focus better on why this is all happening and, better yet, how this affects that group in terms of the past, present, and future. Each one is presented as a theme through a different character, a sophisticated structure for a seemingly unsophisticated movie.

Dom, for instance, is perpetually in the past, driven by the memories of his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and wife Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez). Letty, however, is forced to live in the present due to her lost memories. And Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is pushed to live for the future with his child and marriage to Mia. Unfortunately, a lot of this is lost on those that are jumping in with just Furious 7.

Furious 7

Tying directly into Walker’s character is the fact that it’s almost impossible to separate the experience of watching his arc from the knowledge that Walker passed in late 2013. It fills the two-hour runtime with a somber omniscience, driving you to ponder the impact on the film while viewing it. The characters have always warned against the dangers of their lives, but is this the time where it all comes to a head?

Especially by going in without knowing how Walker’s real life death is resolved for the franchise, there’s a potent dread looming over all the action sequences. Is this where it happens? Is this what they meant? Certainly meta to the film itself, but there are times where you can’t separate fact from the fiction it creates.

Speaking of the action sequences, they are here in full force. While nothing tops the recklessness of dragging a bank safe through Brazil or the absurdity of chasing a cargo plane down an endless runway, but Furious 7 pulls no punches. Better than that, they are almost all pulled off practically. From parachuting cars to jumping off a bus that’s going off a cliff, the stunts feel real because they are, in fact, very real.

Furious 7

There are, of course, problems, not that they really matter to a movie like this. A lot of the characters are nothing more than cliches and stereotypes, totally devoid of the growth and humanity shown by the leads. Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce is nothing more than a clown, though he shows hints of glum self-awareness this time around. It’s a far cry from when Roman was a troubled man trying to trust the same person he blamed for his incarceration.

Then there’s Ludacris as Tej Parker and Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, two computer experts that now fill the filmic stereotype of hackers that are too cool to be hackers. And all the bad guys like Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and Kiet (Tony Jaa) and Kara (Ronda Rousey) come across as nothing more than stunt casting, showing up for battles and disappearing despite having enough camera focus to make you wonder if they have backstories we just happened to miss.

This even extends to the primary villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). We know he has a brother and that he’s a badass. That’s about it. There’s nothing more to him other than he wants to kill you and he can probably do it. It’s hard to fear a soulless archetype from an audience perspective.

Furious 7

But the question, of course, is whether this matters at all. There’s is a surprising amount of narrative complexity and depth where it matters. The bad guys give goals and obstacles, but the focus is always on the heroes and how they struggle to live as they want to live. Whether families or bullets, they have to fight for it, and these antagonists offer opportunity.

There’s the outlandish action, driving the characters all closer and closer to the edge of survival. There’s the unexpected substance to the ethos and purpose of the characters, giving a foundation to the ensuing absurdity. Throw it all together and it’s hard to not recommend Furious 7.

Furious 7

+ Crazy action, often pulled off with practical means
+ Nestles wonderfully in a full world of characters and motivations
+ Attempts to drive characters over plot with interwoven themes
– Thin story that serves only to give opportunities for danger
– Characters that are only characters insomuch that they have names

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Axiom Verge Review: Past the Edge

Axiom Verge

Forget the sleeve; Axiom Verge wears its influences on whatever the sartorial equivalent is of a flashing neon sign. It’s obvious to the point of groaning derision. But the important (and amazingly emergent) thing is that it is not those games. Everything that it blends in, leaves out, and concocts all on its own make it a familiar and fresh surprise and wholeheartedly worth your time.

Just one glance, and you can tell: this game wants so desperately to be Metroid. Axiom Verge is a pixel art-inspired side-scrolling action platformer that lifts almost entire portions of Metroid‘s design docs from its room-to-room tunnel doors, its backtracking patterns, and weapon-enhanced traversal bits.

It’s easy to just look at the game and make the comparison. In fact, it feels like the game would prefer you do that immediately and aggressively. It sets up such a delicious and meta twist for your expectations. For how much you think you know the game will work, it doesn’t do that, and instead often does something far more interesting.

That bait-and-switch is actually what merits the most discussion. The story is rather thin, serving up a hapless scientist named Trace to an alien dimension and robot thing seeking aid, and it doesn’t really go anywhere you couldn’t guess. It serves mostly as a framework with which to best emulate its influences structures of exploration and continuous integration of new gadgetry.

Make no mistake, though, because this game also handles well. But you can also very well guess how it handles. It is tight, moving you around the world just the way you’d want it to. From jumping over walls of projectiles and ducking under the next to swinging your way across a deadly chasm, it allows you to set an expectation for handling and it meets it perfectly.

And that is very important. It introduces some rather complex mechanics that, if handled in a less deft manner, would be annoying at best and deadly otherwise. But these mechanics are exactly what comes up in that facet of pleasant surprise.

Axiom Verge

For example, early on, you encounter plenty of little half-height tunnels and holes that, if you have any amount of Metroid knowledge in your bones, would suggest you would tuck up into a ball and roll on through.

Not even close. You instead do something that can further extend into smooth but incredibly advanced vertical navigation. You even spend most of the game in denial that there isn’t a double jump on your plate, one of the basest components to a video game. It’s like a car says no thank you to the windshield.

It’s that fundamental but the game not only works around it but introduces its own, far more engaging solutions across a myriad of solutions. And this is all while you are figuring out and encountering your new arsenal. Each one is distinct and falls into its own optimal predicament for utility, allowing you to not engender yourself to a single set of guns and instead pushes you towards analyzing encounters instead of barreling through them.

Axiom Verge

There is one gun in particular that offers a fascinating depth. It’s the glitch gun, a firearm that is less of a confrontational item and more of a transformative one. It has the ability to totally alter how enemies act against you and the environment. It can turn them into fountains of health or platforms or any other number of things that wholly change how you approach basically every situation.

The unfortunate part here is that the lowest Metroid foundation doesn’t offer a lot of horizontal expansion. The gameplay loop rarely progresses beyond what you’ll find five minutes before or after any other given moment: enter, kill, leave. And then check the map to make sure you don’t leave anything behind.

This weakness is certainly exacerbated by the rather bland and forgettable tunnels and cavernous rooms you’ll find yourself in. Nothing is particularly memorable, sure, but also nothing is especially demanding in terms of the landscape. They will necessitate new armaments to progress, but that is a progress gate. It’s not about your ability to platform.

Axiom Verge

The world you find yourself in also fails to convey anything beyond “this is alien,” which comes back around on the weak story. Not only is the plot not especially engaging but it also is told mostly through exposition dumps because the world itself fails to tell you anything meaningful.

It doesn’t fail, however, to provide a canvas for intriguing and engaging gameplay. The boss battles especially force you to pull your gaming muscles taut just to survive. They can occasionally devolve into bullet hell dodging, but they always put you in unique predicaments.

Truly, Axiom Verge is something worth going beyond its surface valuation. Even its graphics, wonderfully retro-inspired as they are, surprise you as they pop with flourish and then turn into mechanical elements. It may look like a simple clone of a classic formula, but with or without that in mind, Axiom Verge pushes through to be quite the gem on its own.

Axiom Verge

+ Moves capably and deftly, just as you’d expect and want it to
+ Surprises you with plenty of variety and utility in its weaponry
+ Often provides delightfully demanding cases for combat and traversal
– A story that barely constitutes a story, even in its extensive exposition
– Gameplay loop doesn’t progress or evolve

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Axiom Verge
Release: March 31, 2015
Genre: 2D action platformer
Developer: Tom Happ Games
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.axiomverge.com/

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