Video Game Review: Total War Warhammer

For a computer gamer, one of the most magical times of the year is Christmas.  It is when we get to experience something called, ‘The Steam Holiday Sale’!  For the uninitiated, Steam is a digital delivery service for PC games – there are a few others but Steam is by far the largest.  Popular new PC games can cost upwards of sixty dollars but a couple times a year Steam has a sale and it is possible to get sixty dollar games for a fraction of the price.  If you’re ever on the fence about a game and don’t want to pay full price, Steam sales are a great time to take the plunge.

This past Christmas, I took the plunge on a game called Total War Warhammer (TWW).  The Total War franchise is a series of popular strategy games which have been around for about fifteen years.  There is a grand campaign strategic campaign, but the real draw is the tactical battlefield where you can control thousands of warriors in gloriously detailed mayhem.  Rome, Feudal Japan, and the Middle Ages have gotten the Total War treatment.

On the surface, TWW represents a departure from the formula.  Where the other games were grounded in history, Warhammer is a popular fictional fantasy universe.  Unlike Tolkien’s better known fantasy world, Warhammer is a grimdark universe where a marginally bad xenophobic theocratic empire is the only thing that stands in the way of the evil forces of Chaos and a host of other baddies.  Warhammer tabletop games are all about the horrifying spectacle of bloody warfare where the question isn’t ‘are you going to die?’ It is how gruesome is the death going to be.

In other words, it is the perfect world to get the Total War treatment.

For followers of the series, the gameplay isn’t remarkably different than what has come before.  It has been refined though to the point where an enthusiast can jump right in and feel at home within five minutes.  For the newcomer, the campaign mode can be a bit overwhelming at first with tons of options thrown at you.  It doesn’t help that the sides in the conflict are asymmetrical so there is a lot of nuance one must learn to effectively execute their strategy.  I could get it after a few tries but I think a newcomer might bounce off this level of the game.

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But really none of it matters once you get down to the tactical battles and this is where TWW excels.  The controls are quite intuitive and within a few moments, you are maneuvering hundreds of soldiers around the battlefield.  The asymmetry and loads of options which are aggravating on the campaign level become interesting tactical problems at the battle level.  TWW rewards good tactics and employment of forces – I couldn’t just throw everyone at the enemy, I had to consider where to place the spear wall, when to disengage the skirmishers, and when to launch the cavalry charges.

Ultimately, the highest praise I can give TWW is that it stayed in my mind long after I finished it.  The atmosphere, terrain, graphics and detail all combined to lead into a gaming experience where instead of playing the game, I felt like I had lived the battle.  I may have been in my living room but for a moment, I was on the side of a hill behind the shield wall repulsing the charge of the hordes of Chaos, arrows and musket balls whistling past me as the guttural war cries of the enemy signaled yet another charge.

Movie Review: Split

Once upon a time, there was a director I really liked named M. Night Shyamalan.  He made a movie called ‘The Sixth Sense’ and it was a hit.  It had atmosphere, suspense, and a cool twist.  The movie was very popular and the country was divided into people who were surprised by the twist and those who lied about seeing it coming.  His next film, ‘Unbreakable’, was one of my favorite superhero movies of all time precisely because no one knew it was a superhero film until the very end.  And then he made ‘Signs’ featuring a mopey Mel Gibson and had the result of making me afraid of corn fields at night.  M. Night Shyamalan became a director, much like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, whose films I marked on my calendar as must watches.

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And then it all came apart.  ‘The Village’ wasn’t so much bad as it was underwhelming but everything afterwards was increasingly awful.  What happened?  I honestly couldn’t tell you.  Perhaps it was the stories became increasingly pretentious.  The actor choices became erratic.  The cinematography remained great and the usage of sound and camera angles, a Shyamalan hallmark, were impeccable but his movies became soulless and rote.  With the release of ‘After Earth’, it became official – M. Night Shyamalan was a hack.

Then a curious thing happened.  He made a good movie.  ‘The Visit’ wasn’t high cinema and had its flaws but for the first time in a decade, Shyamalan made something that was interesting and worth watching.  Once again, what happened?  I tend to believe Shyamalan had gotten lazy.  The studios let him make a movie but they took away his budget and gave him young unknown actors who were hungry.  They told him to shut up and work and I think it made all the difference in the world.

So where does that leave Shyamalan’s new movie, ‘Split’?  Is this low-budget movie the hungry Shyamalan or is it the lazy indulgent Shyamalan?

I’m happy to say it is a lot of old Shyamalan with just a hint of indulgence.  ‘Split’ tells the story of a guy with dissociative identity disorder whose mental illness results in twenty-three different personalities.  He kidnaps three teenage girls for a very specific reason and the movie is about how they must joust with the various personalities to survive.  There is a side story of the guy’s interaction with his therapist, a story which gives several clues as to where the movie is ultimately going.

Tonally, the movie shares a lot of similarities with last year’s excellent, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’.  It is mostly claustrophobic but the setting matters less than the interplay of the various characters.  It is really James McAvoy’s movie and it he tears into his role with relish.  Why wouldn’t he?  He gets to play two dozen different characters and it is quite clear he is having a good time and I really enjoyed watching him chew the scenery.  I wasn’t as impressed with the performance of the chief protagonist, one of the teenage girls with a bit of past in her past.  I initially thought her performance wasn’t energetic enough but in further reflection, her performance was subtle and restrained as befitting a character with her background.

Is M. Night Shyamalan back?  Can he sustain this second wind?  I think time will tell but I think studios have cracked the code.  Give him a smallish budget and force him to improvise and innovate – his technical expertise is as good as it has ever been and it appears he is back in the business of building chemistry with his actors again.  This is a movie worth seeing.

Oh by the way, there is a Shyamalan twist to this movie.  The only thing I will say is that he better be serious or I will kill him slowly.

The Hollywood Kill Team

Recently, I was asked one of the most profound questions a cinema lover like me could be asked:  If your family was killed by a pack of Cartel narco terrorists and you sought revenge by driving down to Texas with a trunk full of whisky and five of the biggest movie bad-asses in the business, who would you pick to go with you?  They could be alive or dead and current age/status doesn’t matter, they go as they were in their prime.  I was surprised by how much time I took thinking through my answer.  Here is my list of hired guns:

Lee 11248-5040Marvin:  There used to be a Hollywood rule back in the day.  To play a bad ass on the screen, you had to be one in real life.  Few people were as bad ass as Lee Marvin.  He was the kid that was kicked out school because he was a bad boy.  Enlisted in the Marine Corps where he was shot by a machine gun during the Battle of Saipan.  He drank, he womanized, he was a real jerk.  But on screen, the guy was a panther who with minimal dialogue scared the shit out everyone around him – probably because he was a scary dude in real life.  If the whiskey in the trunk lasted, he would be good to go.

Charlpassager_de_la_pluie1es Bronson:  Born Charles Dennis Buchinsky – the son of Lithuanian-Russian immigrants who didn’t even speak English when he was a kid.  This guy worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine as a damn child laborer until WWII came around and he enlisted and was a gunner on a B29 in the Pacific Theater.  Famous for playing tough guys his entire career and it is easy to see why when you looked at his biography and his lined and scarred face – this was a guy who lived a hard life.  Famously blunt.  When introduced to another actor and his wife, Bronson sized up the situation and said, ‘I’m going to marry your wife’ and proceeded to do so.  That is so punk rock it isn’t even funny.

c31efae83bdc081e1cf627c6476a0d3bDanny Trejo:  He has become something of a household name and his Machete movies are almost a parody running gag nowadays – hell, this guy was a soap opera star prior to his Robert Rodriguez work.  But here is the thing, you wouldn’t have laughed at this guy back in the day.  In and out of prison his entire young life, he was the prison boxing champion in San Quentin.  Let that sink in for a moment, he was the prison boxing champion!  One doesn’t earn that title by being anything less than the nastiest man in the yard.  We are going up against the Cartel and need someone who speaks Spanish and kicks ass.  We need Machete.

rourkegnarlyfinnersMickey Rourke:  Speaking of boxers – you have this guy.  Before acting, he compiled an amateur boxing record of 27-3 and then fled Florida because he was wanted for burglary.  He started his career as a sordid pretty boy actor whose notable accomplishments were the jaw dropping X-rated sex scenes with Kim Basinger and Lisa Bonet (at the height of her Denise Huxtable fame for crying out loud).  This utterly shameless guy was violent and unmanageable on the set and eventually decided to go back to professional boxing where he was undefeated and pretty much disfigured from boxing injuries and fly by night plastic surgery.  Back in acting now, he now gets Academy Award nominations.   Some actors play tough guys.  Micky laughs at those guys.

images-1Steve Buscemi:  Given the nature of the mission, we are going to need some comic relief and given Buscemi’s body of work, he would fit the bill.  But no dead weight here, Steve was a New York City Firefighter prior to being an actor.  During 9/11 when several fire departments were decimated, he put back on his firefighter uniform and helped his old firehouse look for survivors – no fanfare or media statements, just showed up and did it.  He also came back on duty to help clean up after Super Storm Sandy, once again – no publicity.   Also notable was the scar on his face – he got it from being slashed in the face with a knife when attempting to help a friend in a bar brawl.  Sure if things went live, Buscemi would be there pulling his weight.

Which five actors would you take with you?

Best of 2016: Television

It was an extremely good year for Science Fiction and Fantasy television, particularly for good science fiction shows.  It was hard to limit myself this year – I liked the Magicians and 12 Monkeys quite a bit and though I haven’t seen Man in a High Castle on Amazon yet, I have heard good things about it.  Not to mention Star Wars: Rebels is continuing the saga from the Clone Wars and telling great stories.  Here are my personal favorite picks of the year.

The ExpanseI’ll share this upfront – I’m a big fan of James Corey, the author of the Expanse series of books (now six books running).  They aren’t the most complicated SFF books out there.  But it doesn’t matter because they are good clean popcorn entertainment full of one-liners and science fiction goodness and you should go read them.  They are also very cinematic books – like when I first read them I thought ‘This would make a great movie!’.  SyFy channel took a chance on the property.  They put some money and acting talent behind it and I think I was proven right.  The fourth episode ‘CQB’ had the best space battle since Battlestar Galactica ended.  The Expanse filled the BSG-sized void in my heart and I look forward to watching many seasons of James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante on their adventures.

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Mr. RobotThis show is fascinating and like my departed and loved, Hannibal, it isn’t afraid to take chances on mental illness and the nature of reality.  The narrator is completely unreliable as a storyteller and several times I have gone into an episode thinking one thing and then being amazed on how the show takes a left turn – one that is genuinely surprising yet earned.  This show is also the most realistic depiction of actual computer hacking and social engineering on TV – topical given the current times not to mention a bit unsettling just how close the dystopian view presented is to us today.  Highly recommended. Click the link to see my earlier review.

West World:  It has been a month since the end of the season and I have come down off the high a bit.  It wasn’t the best show I saw all year.  But I think I’m okay with that because HBO tried to make a smart and complex show to complement Game of Thrones and I think they succeeded.  Not everything in this show worked – it fell in love with some its stories and let them linger a bit longer than they ought too.  Interestingly, Thrones has the same problem.  But there was a lot of fascinating stuff here as well (Bernard’s story, Maeve’s journey, Hector/Armistice going nuclear) and those last two episodes were riveting and better than anything else out there.  HBO hooked me again.  Click the link to see my earlier review.

PreacherI have a thing for Southern Gothic stories, particularly ones who contain fire and brimstone men of faith doing their thing.   This show scratches the itch and then some.  This show has atmosphere – positively swimming in it as it presents the story of a faithless Preacher, an irrepressible and lethal female warrior, and an Irish vampire.  The first season’s story was essentially a preamble to the comic book journey to find the missing Creator. Honestly, it got dull and hard to follow in parts.  So why is this show on the list?  The characters were so damn interesting and the atmosphere of the show so good that I didn’t care.  I just wanted to spend time watching these people on screen.  I expect more out of the story in season two but in the meantime, season one gets a giant pass for bringing these characters on screen.  Click the link to see my earlier review.

This is the final entry of the best of 2016.  Other ‘Best of…’ lists from 2016:

Books

Movies

Computer Games

Podcasts