Monday, February 29, 2016

Factorio, or why I may never see my family again

Grade: B
Platform: PC, Mac, GNU/Linux
Genre: Building, supply chain management, resource management, sim
Price: 20€

Odds are good that when you saw the genre entry for this review, you had one of two reactions: puzzlement, or joy.  For the puzzled among you while its true that many (if not all) games have an aspect of resource management some games are more focused on that part of the game than others.  Factorio is really nothing but resource management.

You have to mine iron to make iron plates.  But you have to mine coal to fuel your smelters which turn raw iron ore into iron plates.  You have to use factories to turn iron plates into iron gearwheels.  You have to use iron gearwheels and iron plates to make conveyor belt segments.  You have to use conveyor belt segments to......

If your eyes glazed over there, then Factorio is probably not for you.  Try the demo anyway, its free and you might find you harbor a previously unknown love of supply chain management.  If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person who really started loving Dwarf Fortress when you discovered how detailed the game was when it came to making goods, then Factorio is right up your street.

Factorio is about building a factory complex, shuffling the raw materials around to make finished goods, and shuffling the finished goods around to make even more complex finished goods.  For a game of this sort it has a startlingly small number of resources: copper ore, iron ore, wood, water, coal, and oil.  That's it.  But they're combined, refined, reprocessed, and produce a plethora of goods and intermediate products, and every single thing needs to be moved from where it was produced to where it is needed.

You'll discover that to avoid making a factory as tangled as a plate of spaghetti, and one that's nearly impossible to expand, you'll have to make your factory sprawl.

There's alien bugs who hate pollution and will attack, but they're mostly included just to add more challenge and to force you to expend resources defending your factory.  Combat is meh at best, in the traditional sense, but it fits the theme rather well since the whole point of the game is automation so it makes sense that the focus of combat is on automatic turrets (so far I've found the easiest way to beat the bugs is to "walk" turrets to their hive).

The problem with games of this nature is that their appeal largely rests in the learning curve.  Figuring out how to make a factory work is the challenge and once you have it cracked you either go completely obsessive and refine everything to the utmost, start trying to see if you can build a Turing Machine in game (you can), and otherwise really get into it, or you lose interest and wait until the next game comes along and can consume you until you've learned all its secrets as well.

Factorio hopes to avoid that by encouraging a vibrant modding community, as a result the game is very mod friendly and has a nice interface and lots of modding support.  So far the mods are looking good.

All of which is doubly amazing since technically Factorio is still in pre-release and the developers don't think its anywhere near finished.  Despite having been available through for quite a while, it is only very recently available on Steam and that only through the early access program there.

However, unlike most early access games, which often seem like varying degrees of scam, Factorio is polished enough it could be called a finished product right this second.  There's lots more the developers intend to add, but if they were all hit by the hypothetical bus tomorrow Factorio would still be well worth the price.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel
supes looking coolGrade: B
Genre: Action, Alien Invasion, Comic Book

When I first saw Man of Steel, back at its release, I was underwhelmed.  I hadn't intended to bother watching it again, but my son has been on a Superman kick and since its really bloody easy to rent a movie on Google Play, I loaded it up for him.

And I found that on rewatching it was a much better movie than I'd thought the first time I saw it.  Zack Snyder did good.

There were bad parts, the Kryptonian costumes looked uncomfortable and like costumes rather than like clothes people actually wore.  Only Lara Lor-Van (Supes' mom) looked like she was wearing clothes that a person would wear in the real world.

Plus the absurdity that Jor-El, a man bred for science and presumably not trained as a soldier, was able to be billy badass and defeat not just Zod's mooks, but Zod himself.

But leaving that aside, the movie worked well.  Flashing back and forth in Clark's timeline worked as a good way to establish his character and history while not dragging things out too much as all origin stories will if the director isn't extremely careful.

I did wind up positively hating the character of Johnathan Kent.  The problem wasn't Kevin Costner's acting, he did an excellent job.  The problem was that as written Johnathan Kent was not really a nice or good person.  He instilled fear and doubt in his son at every turn, worked actively to undermine Clark's natural desire to do good and help others, and generally was the closest to a villain I've ever seen Johnathan Kent portrayed.  By comparison, Diane Lane's Martha Kent was wonderfully done, and quite refreshing after the American Gothic cypher that she was turned into for the 1978 Superman.

But the best and most interesting thing about Man of Steel was the fact that Snyder, for a first in Superman movies, really looked at Kal-El through the lens of him being an alien.  That shift in viewpoint changed the whole tone of the movie in a positive and interesting way.

I'm also not sure whether it was a deliberate choice, or simply a remnant of Snyder's love of action sequences done by fast forwarding then ultra slow motion for the arrival of the punch or sword or what have you, but this time around I noticed that the first major power Zod and his soldiers really exploited and used was super speed.  Kal-El, by comparison, first developed his senses, his strength, and his flight.  But any good soldier knows that mobility is the key to victory, and so it really made sense that the first power Faora-Ul and the others would develop would be their newfound speed.

At heart, Man of Steel is a story of aliens visiting and invading the Earth, and Snyder managed to capture the awe at the arrival of aliens, and the fear at them being hostile perfectly.  Its more in the family with Independence Day, and The Day the Earth Stood Still than it is with the first series of Superman movies, or even with Superman Returns.  By choosing that approach to the movie, Snyder manages to instill a sense of awe and wonder at parts of the Superman story that I'd have thought were mostly worn out.  I'd been of the increasing opinion that retelling the origin of the more famous superheroes needs to end.  We know how Spidey gets his powers.  We know that Clark is the last survivor of a doomed world.  We know the Fantastic Four got their powers through irresponsible science.

But by changing not the content, but the viewpoint, of Clark's origin, Snyder developed something new and well worth watching.  Yes, we know Clark is the last survivor of a doomed world and most people who do Superman stories gloss over that part.  But for all that he grew up in Kansas that makes him an alien.  And that aspect of his origin turned out to be well worth exploring.

On rewatching Man of Steel, I find that I intend to watch Batman vs. Superman which I'd previously not intended to do.  Overall, it was a fine movie.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

War For the Overworld

War for the Overworld
Grade: C-
Platform: PC, Mac, GNU/Linux
Genre: 4X

War for the Overworld is really Dungeon Keeper 3, it can't be called that for copyright and trademark reasons, but it's DK3.

And that's both good and bad.  Hardcore DK fans like me have been clammoring for DK3 ever since DK2 was released, so it seems a bit churlish to give it a less than stellar rating when it finally does get released.  But I've got my reasons.

WftO has a lot going for it, to begin with they got Richard Ridings the original voice actor for the mentor from DK1 and DK2 to voice this game as well, and his silky yet sinister tone was always one of the little joys of playing Dungeon Keeper.  The WftO designers also must have been working hand in glove with the legal team to skirt as closely as possible to violating the trademarks and copyrights on Dungeon Keeper without actually stepping over the line. It looks like Dungeon Keeper, it feels like Dungeon Keeper, it sounds like Dungeon Keeper. 

So why a C- instead of a C or a C+?

A variety of reasons, beginning with poor support for post-campaign play.  There is a not very well designed sandbox mode, the inevitable PvP mode, and the promise, or perhaps threat, of DLC in the future.  Compare to DK2's rich post-campaign play and it doesn't hold up.

There's also the problem that while they did innovate a bit, much of what they came up with was mediocre at best.  I did like some changes.  The mana pool is better managed than it was in DK2, they made mana regenerate at a flat rate and took out the abuse inviting mechanic of allowing prayers in the temple to generate mana.  I honestly think DK was better without mana, the DK1 mechanic of paying for spells with gold seemed like a better option, but if we must have mana there is no doubt that WftO handles it better than DK2 did.

Unfortunately that's the only new thing in WftO that was a real improvement.  I like the idea of the alchemy lab, but found the implementation and the range of potions wanting.  I liked the idea of rituals from the dark temple, but like the alchemy lab I found the implementation wanting (how did sacrifices work exactly, it was never really easy to tell) and the rituals themselves a bit bland.
Then there were the unnecessary add ons, the tech tree was kind of pointless really.

Where the game really suffered was in a failure to take risks.  It isn't so much DK3 as it is a loving recreation of DK2 with a few pointless add ons, and a short campaign.  Worse, they kept the parts of DK2 that weren't all that great, and the parts of DK2 where it became less innovative than DK1.

The best part about DK1 was the inversion of aggression.  In most games the player is the aggressor, the one who dictates the tempo of the game, the one invading the enemy and crushing them.  But in DK1 all that was reversed.  The player was a passive defender, the game dictated its own tempo for the most part, and with a tiny few exceptions the player was the one being invaded (though if they planned well of course they were party doing the crushing).  DK2 and WftO changed that, it is always the player doing the invading and taking the active role.  The joy of building a dungeon filled with traps and lurking monsters waiting to destroy would be heroes who would dare try to steal your gold is not a part of DK2 or WftO and I miss that and I miss the bold innovation and role reversal it entailed.

They also kept the Dungeon Keeper combat system, which is both understandable (imagine the wailing if they changed it and it wasn't very fun) but also disappointing.  Combat is easily the worst part of the entire series, it was never anything more than grabbing your monsters and dropping them into battle then hoping you outnumbered the enemy (or in DK2 hoping you'd managed to get all the Dark Knights while leaving your opponent stuck with the goblins).  Combat in WftO is exactly the same, and that's a point really driven home in the level where you have to fight off several other Keepers (ahem, sorry, "Underlords") and the whole thing is basically a bunch of dropping and occasional smiting of enemies with lightning.  Of all that parts of DK that cried out for change and innovation it was combat that called the loudest, and those calls were ignored.

WftO does away with the DK2 mechanic of a shared pool of potential recruits that all Keepers must compete in, but it makes getting hordes of monsters somewhat difficult. Each building will only summon a tiny number of minions, and buildings cost gold and land.  In a way this is good because it can force you to throw minions into combat you otherwise wouldn't, but its also bad because it makes expansion more a matter of deciding which minions you need the most and building more of their rooms than any other consideration.

I'm iffy about the plot of WftO as well. It was short, had an abrupt end with no real demounement (not something I object to, but something of a risk and apparently one that many other players did object to), and while neither DK1 or DK2 had much in the way of player choice in the plot, the way it was presented felt more natural and less forced than it does in WftO.  You had a home realm that seemed like it'd be fun to decorate and fix up with your newly acquired rooms, but trying to do so resulted in the dark god harassing you every few minutes to get back and finish the campaign which kind of detracted from the potential fun there.  Through the entire game you're the pawn of the dark god, and not an unwitting pawn but rather a pawn who is constantly told that they are a pawn, which got old after a while.

What's worse, the plot sometimes had you do something it claimed was important (beating up the other Underlords to make them serve you) but then apparently forgot about that and their servitude was never mentioned again, you never used them for any purpose, it was just sort of left hanging.
Overall, if you want to relive DK2 with better graphics I'd say WftO is a good buy. It's also pretty fun on its own merits, if nothing spectacular.  Personally, I'm loading up DK1 and DK2 from GOG and playing them again.

Superman (1978), a look back at an old movie

Superman - The Movie
Grade: D
Genre: Action(?), Comic Book

My son has been on a bit of a DC kick of late, what with the Flash on Netflix, so I decided to show him the old 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman.
To say it didn't age well is to vastly understate the problems with this movie.

I recognize that times and tastes change, and that modern moviemaking has advanced.  But yeesh.  
It was so **SLOOOOOWWWWW**. Begin with the flipping credits, which were done in that godforsaken era when they had to show all the bloody credits before the movie started, everything from the stars to the assistant to the key grip. Five minutes and 23 seconds of nothing but John William's excellent music and a bunch of names flying onto the screen and off again before they let the movie actually start.  I realize that's a relic of the era, but it set the stage for the pacing of the rest of the movie.
The Krypton sets and costumes did age well, the sets are minimal and don't look awful, the costumes were good.  In fact, I'd argue that the Krypton costumes looked better in the 1978 movie than in Snyder's 2013 Man of Steel.

But it started with the setup for the second movie.  Before Jor-El can actually get to the part where he says Krypton will be exploding any moment now and that the leadership is ignoring a crisis at their peril, he has to be the final judge, and apparently executioner, of Zod and his minions.  This develops plot, but for the second movie, not this one.  Couldn't it have been dealt with in a flashback in the second movie?  Even if they wanted to film it for the first, just to avoid having to get Marlon Brando back or whatever?  And dang even that went slowly.  The bit where Zod & Co were actually being put into the Phantom Zone just dragged, it was many long tens of seconds of reaction shots and a long dragging shot of the 2D plane that would be their prison slowly zooming across the screen and it felt like it just went on and on for no reason.

Finally, 11 minutes and 15 seconds from the start of the movie, the plot starts moving with Jor-El putting out his plea to the council to evacuate Krypton.
But it kept on being so slow.  There were long psychadelic sequences with baby Supes in the escape pod, growing up and being educated by Jor-El's computer ghost.    Then long dragging scenes in Smallville.  Then another bloody 2001 A Space Odyssey style psychadelic scene with fragments of Jor-El lecturing the now teenage Supes.
It was 48 minutes from the time the movie started until Clark arrives in Metropolis. Seriously, no joke. Out of a 2.5 hour movie, they spent almost an hour just setting things up to get the main character to the place where the action takes place.
And the slow pacing didn't let up then either.  Long sequences with nothing actually happening on streets or in offices, long pans across street scenes with random people waking around, interminable times when character wasn't developed and plot didn't advance and basically you just sat there waiting for something to happen.   

They harkened back to the old TV series with a few scenes of Supes fighting crime, but even those dragged and had no real action movie style pacing.

Perhaps its just my modern audience viewpoint intruding here, having Supes fight most crime seems kind of pointless.  He captured a cat burglar, and my thought was "doesn't he have something better to be doing?"   And the bit where he captured a gang of robbers seemed a bit too little and too late, there were dozens of stray bullets flying around and likely hitting bystanders during that whole sequence.
The actual plot, the part where Lex is going to use a nuke on the San Andreas fault to make California fall off and turn his useless desert property into valuable beachfront property is basically glossed over, after wasting the first 1.5 hours of the movie on a boring nothing, they pared down the actual plot to a few brief, but still somehow very drawn out and slowly paced, shots of incompetent and sexy sidekick changing some missile codes, then an extended (and SLOW PACED) action sequence of Supes reversing the damage and the weird flying around the Earth to make it spin backward bit.

Don't misunderstand, slow pacing can at times be good.  I loved Kikujiro, a movie that is nothing but long slow scenes with little action happening.  But it was better done, with a whole lot of subtext going on during all the long slow scenes, and there was artistry there.

The sequence with Lois and Supes flying around wasn't bad, the idea was to try to catch the wonder of flight and the truly amazing thing about Supes being Supes.  It worked well and if it had been tightened up I think it would have broken the mood they were trying to set.  But most of the long slow sequences had none of that purpose, and weren't so well done, and were just long for the sake of being long.

There were elements where it was absolutely brilliant.  Christopher Reeve looked great and acted perfectly as Superman, always the moral core of DC's universe and he played it well with humor and a caring undertone that kept his Perfect Boy Scout routine from seeming cloying and smug.  Reeve's bumbling mild mannered reporter Clark Kent was so spot on that it set the standard and still looks amazing even today.

Overall though, I'm amazed it did well. I think, if someone aggressively edited it, you could actually get a decent hour and a half movie out of that steaming mess. Obviously tastes have changed since 1978.