Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Quick Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Ep 12

Vaulting Ambition
With spoilers

Dayyyyyyymm. This episode was mind-blowing.

Yesterday I told my bf I didn't really feel like watching the latest episode of Discovery. He asked me if I thought it was the weakest series so far and I answered that it was difficult to say. Like I've mentioned in my reviews, every Star Trek series has its fair share of pretty lackluster episodes. What they get right is that what it comes together to is greater than the parts that make it out - and Discovery had not yet reached that wholeness. Which I didn't find odd considering that it hasn't even finished the first season. But yesterday, after the last episode that revealed so much of what we had been expecting, I felt a bit drained.

Episode 12, the one episode I decided to not watch as soon as possible, is of course the episode that brings it all together.

Let's start from the top though. The last episode revealed a whole lot of things, but it ended with Georgiou (I absolutely hate trying to spell that name by the way) turning up as the mirror universe Emperor.

So this episode starts off with Philippa (as I will call her from now on) inviting Michael to her palace which is actually a massive star ship that looks like it's run on a tiny star (?). Pretty cool. I read in a post by Kotaku that the empire has probably learnt its lesson from the events that unfold in ENT (which I had actually forgotten about) where Sato destroys emperor Archer because his palace is immovably on earth. Michael finds out that the information she retrieved from the disc is pretty useless, so somehow she needs to get to the archives in the palace anyway.

And apparently this was the standard uniform.

Meanwhile on Discovery, we get to see what is going on inside Stamets' head aka the mycelial network. Turns out mirror-Stamets also ended up in here, they meet up and he explains the situation briefly. Not only are they both stuck in there, but the mycelial network is becoming corrupt. My first reaction to mirror-Stamets was that he seemed like a pretty nice guy, considering he too is part of the overly-evil Terran empire. Of course I was wrong about that.

As Stamets is trying to help mirror-Stamets and himself to get out of there, he finds Culber, who also is in here for mysterious mycelial network reasons. It turns out that mirror-Stamets is the reason the network is corrupted. Culber helps Stamets wake up from his coma, in what is a really sweet scene, but this also leads evil mirror-Stamets to wake up and we don't know what kind of problems that is going to bring yet...

Meanwhile back on Discovery the (at this point) side-plot of Tylers being Voq continues to play out. Saru apparently didn't get information from Michael that Tyler is Voq somehow, so to solve the problem he asks L'Rell for help. After some persuading she agrees to free Tyler from Voq (so apparently it was only a mental thing and not a physical), but it's difficult to believe that was the last we saw of Voq and that Tyler is just all well now.

Back on the palace space ship, Philippa is offering Michael some kelpian soup. Yeah, apparently they eat Kelpians in this universe, not that I am surprised. Then she tells Michael she knew that she and Lorca were plotting against her and now she is going to execute her. Before she does, Michael decides to tell her she is not the Michael Philippa thinks she is. So Philippa stays her hand. Michael tells Philippa everything about the mirror universe, what information she needs and that they'll be out of Philippas hair as soon as they get it. Philippa tells Michael that the way the Defiant made it through is not going to work as it also seems to make everyone insane. Michael mentions the spore-drive which seems like a bad idea. Philippa makes it seem as if she hasn't heard of it before, but considering mirror-Stamets was working on it that seems odd.

As they talk, Philippa tells Michael more about the plot that mirror-Michael and Mirror-Lorca had against her. This information leads Michael to come to the conclusion, and this is the real bomb here, that her Lorca is actually mirror-Lorca who this entire time has been conniving to get back to the mirror-universe to finish his coup on Philippa.

This hit me like a sack of bricks. This has been foreshadowed so brilliantly, without me being able to pick up on this possibility at all. But it makes perfect sense! All the times I've mentioned that I like the moral dubiousness of Lorca, the way he just seemed like he had an ulterior motive. I just could never in a million universes have guessed this was it but not only was the setup for this perfect, it also brings everything that has happened so far together. As soon as they ended up in the mirror universe I was wondering what this was leading to. Now that too makes perfect sense. Lorca has been the key figure since episode one.

I just really hope they can treat this setup the way it deserves for the rest of the season.
And I know I really want to see what happens next.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay - Review

Bite-sized fun.
Some spoilers.

My first encounter with Riddick, as I assume most other people, was with the Pitch Black movie. I quite liked that movie, and I quite liked Riddick. He was cool enough without seeming to try too hard and it was very understandable and predictable that someone wanted to make more out of such a promising character that suited Vin Diesel perfectly. So a couple of more movies followed, and some games. Where did Riddick even come from? As far as I know he didn't start out as a comic book character, as one could guess but just sort of got a franchise based on himself from nothing else than that first movie.

Remember these guys?

Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Buther Bay (EfBB), released in 2004 (same year as the second movie in the franchise), unfortunately didn't get on my radar until all my time was absorbed by WoW, so even though it looked interesting I never got around to it for the longest of time. As with many other games I've eventually played, I did see quite a lot of it through it being played by my then boyfriend and I liked what I saw. Especially later, as I realized that sneak'em'ups probably were right up my alley, and I had heard good things about it - it was definitely on my to-do-list. 

Once I finally got to playing it, I realized I still didn't know very much about it. I knew it was about breaking out of a prison (the title sort of gave that one away), I remembered it being very dark and I remembered getting night-vision at some point. Turns out, that pretty much sums up the game as well.

Story-wise it plays out a lot like one of the movies could. All the characters you recognize (Johns and Riddick in my case) are played by their original actors, which of course is a nice, and in Riddicks case absolutely necessary, touch. The premise starts out simple - Riddick has been caught by his bromance bounty hunter not-friend Johns yet again, and is being sold to the notorious prison Butcher Bay. It's not mentioned, but definitely assumed, that this is not a place you get out of alive. Riddick of course has other plans.

Does this have slash fiction?

It never really gets more complicated than that, and I am actually thankful for it. Many games I've played that start out with a simple and straightforward plot sometimes deviate into weirdness and some confusion towards the end (System Shock 2, Thief, every anime running past 100 episodes). This one sticks to its guns and by mixing up the sneaking with some shooting at times it keeps things interesting. In a twist that could be comical or obnoxious, Riddick is recaptured no less than two times and sent to increasingly stronger holdings. Rather than making the game feel silly or repetitive, this allows the game to show off different areas and also perfectly suits the "I don't give a damn"-attitude that Riddick has. Even when he gets sent to cryo-sleep and you think there is just no way he could make his way out of that, the game gives you a fairly reasonable way to manage.

Gameplay-wise it's like a stripped down Deus Ex. Forget about the character management from Deus Ex and remove most of the branching paths and you have EfBB. While this might sound boring, I found the well designed atmosphere, controls and gameplay elements instead gave me a tight and thought-through feeling. Nothing was in there just to bloat the game (not that it is in Deus Ex either!). With a very generous checkpoint system it gives you an intensity and that lovely "just another try"-feeling that doesn't have to cost you many minutes when you fail. For someone like me, with a tight gametime budget, this game suited me perfectly. Rarely can I start up a game, only play for 10-15 minutes and still feel like I accomplished something. EfBB provides you with exactly that opportunity.

Overall the game felt fair and well-balanced in its difficulty too. It can sway widely from crawling through airvents and sneaking up on unsuspecting victims, to going all out spray-and-pray mode against six enemies and a mechawarrior. Nothing feels out of place and nothing feels like it doesn't work. Enemies are not the cleverest, and don't follow you particularly far even though realistically they should seeing as they are prison guards and you're an escaped and very dangerous prisoner, but none of that ruins the fun of the game. I'm a firm believer that good gameplay comes before realism (if and when the choice is necessary), otherwise I wouldn't be playing games in the first place.

I mean, it definitely looks like a prison.

You'd think putting your game in the setting of a dangerous prison is to make it easy for yourself as a game designer. The whole point is to make it look drab, monochrome and cramped up. But it still has to feel believable and make sense within the universe of the game. I feel they definitely succeeded with that. Each area, that becomes increasingly more patrolled and claustrophobic (the containers hanging off the side in the second third of the game felt truly creepy to me), felt like it could actually be a real prison. The color scheme is overwhelmingly dark blue, brown and gray and that makes sense. Everything is made of metal or dirt and there is barely any sun. You won't see any flowers, forests or animals (other than the poisonous moths and murderous beasts) in this prison. It's supposed to be depressing and it manages the atmosphere well. In fact my only question is why they bother keeping people in here at all, and not just kill them and get it over with? Especially someone as dangerous as Riddick, what is the motivation for keeping him alive? And especially especially when he'd foiled your great plan for the third time.

I rarely lost my way, in fact the only time I managed to backtrack on myself was when I found an alternate route from a previous area and accidentally followed it back to where I had already been. Rather than annoy me it only made me more careful to try to pick out these "secret" routes as I went on with the game. As mentioned, even when you make mistakes or fail it rarely costs you more than a couple of minutes, relieving any tediousness you might feel from trying different tactics or paths.

The inmates have formed gangs and ask you to perform tasks for them before they'll help you out, not all of them are needed to progress the story and I found there was little hand-holding in helping you to solve these "quests". They weren't even always beneficial. Overall however this is a linear experience where you rarely have to worry much about whether you've said the right thing to the right person or picked up the right item to progress. In a time when games get increasingly spread out and "open-worldy", trying to pack in as much content as possible, I found this game to be very more-ish without any risk of getting stuck trying to figure out what to do for very long. Maybe because of that, the game isn't very long, it took me just under 9 hours to complete and from what I read that is a comparatively long time. But this game knows what it wants to do, sticks to its guns and gives you a well-designed experience throughout. In that way it's a lot like a really good book - you know where you are and you know where you're heading, but it's one fun ride all the while.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Quick Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Ep 11

The Wolf Inside
Definitely spoilers

We finally get to know who Tyler really is, and by this point it should've been obvious. Of course I was the last to figure out, because I am really bad at these things, but we'll get to that...

When the episode started I was confused. I had completely forgotten the ending of the last episode where they were trying to be their own evil counterparts and Michael was now the captain on the Shenzhou. Michael is clearly uncomfortable being morally derelict, and it all gets worse when she is ordered by the mysterious emperor to wipe out a rebel base they've found on a nearby planet. Michael goes to discuss the matter with Lorca who think the most important part is that they keep their cover. Michael convinces him that he is losing his grip in things and that there is a different way, in a scene that is a bit uncharacteristic for Lorca in that he seems unsure about himself for the first time so far. It's understandable though, considering all the torture he has gone through so far.

Again, just as in the previous episode where Tyler was clearly able to visit L'Rell in the brig without anyone minding, Michael is left alone with Lorca without any trouble. Sure, she's the captain and she can order whatever she wants, but in a totalitarian and backstabbing state like that it's still surprising that no one is curious as to why she is spending so much time with him.

Michaels plan is to infiltrate the rebel base instead, to steal information on where all their bases are and so have the means to destroy more than just one. At least that is what she tells everyone else - her real plan is to warn them of the attack, while at the same time get information on how the Klingons manages to be in a coalition with so many other species - information she thinks can be highly useful back in their own universe.

I like the moral conundrum though, and feel like it's a nice throwback to some of the best Star Trek episodes. Should Michael sacrifice the rebels of this universe for the greater good of the people back in her universe? This reminds me of episodes like "Similitude" of ENT, where they clone Tucker to harvest the organs for the "real" Tucker who is dying from an accident. That Star Trek episode actually had me crying at the end. Another good one is the "Nothing Human" episode of VOY, where the Doctor is set with the conundrum of using medical information obtained through immoral means to save one of his patients. In this episode, the conundrum is more of a setup of for the rest of the plot rather than the point of the episode, but it was an interesting reminder of some of the things that I really like about Star Trek.

"You only exist so we can harvest your organs. Nothing personal."

Also I was reminded that the doctor of Discovery is called Culber. Let's see how long it takes me to forget. EXTRA SPOILER HERE! I read an interview with Jonathan Frakes who directed the episode where Culber dies, and he sort of hints that it's not the last we see of him. It doesn't mean much, but I wish I hadn't read it none the less. END EXTRA SPOILER.

This episode actually sets out to explain a lot of things. So we get to know about more about what is happening to Stamets. In essence he is turning into a tardigrade, sort of, maybe? I didn't really get much of it, but Tilly says she wants to try to fix him using the spores and to no surprise of course it fails, because that would've been to easy otherwise.

Michael also speaks to Saru on the Discovery, telling him that she has the information about the Defiant that they need but no good way to transport it off the ship without anyone noticing. We also get to see that in this universe, Saru is a slave. For some reason Michael chooses not to tell Saru when he asks if she has encountered any Kelpians like him.

Back on the Shenzhou Michael and Tyler are ready to get beamed down. I wouldn't trust anyone beaming me anywhere in a regime where beaming people into open space is the go-to way of execution. How is Burnham to make sure that the people at the controls don't just do that or beam her into a wall or straight into the rebel base? I'd take a shuttle...

Just saying, it CAN happen.

Once they're on the surface they get shot on a bit but as soon as they lay down their weapons the rebels decide to listen to what they have to say. Considering the Terrans are such a scourge in this universe that Klingons have decided to be BFFs with Vulcans, the rebels are awfully trusting.

They are taken to the rebel leader, who happens to be on this exact base that they found? Pretty lucky ain't it. It also happens to be Voq, if ya'll still remember him? In this universe he has fared a bit better than back home and I've been wondering what happened to him after L'Rell said she was going to take care of thing a lot of episodes ago. Well, we don't have to wait much longer for that answer... Tyler starts acting very weird around Voq and it all ends with Tyler shouting things in Klingon and trying to murder him. Fortunately he fails but obviously now Michael has had it with Tyler's weirdness. Before they leave though she tells the rebels she is giving them an hour to evacuate before she'll blast everything for show.

When she confronts him back on the Shenzhou we get to find out that Tyler is in fact Voq, in a twist that, as I mentioned before, came as a surprise to no one. Since I am a bit daft I only realized this was the case when Tyler met Voq in the rebel base, but it was really quite obvious. We don't get to hear anything about Voq since episode 3 (or so) and it's clear Tyler is a Klingon. Of course he is Voq! (It doesn't help that the information is on IMDB where I go to look for other information every now and then, but clearly missed this).

He tries to murder Michael, and almost would've made it too if it wasn't for the meddling slave-Saru who comes in and saves her life. Voq/Tyler is taken prisoner and sentenced to death. Michael beams him into cold space herself and as we see Voq/Tyler floating around there we know it can't be the end of him because that would just be stupid. Of course, he gets saved. By Discovery?!

Who fortunately looks nothing like this.

Saru beams him onto the Discovery and says some stuff about how even though they're not in their own universe they need to abide by Federation law and put Voq/Tyler on trial. At first I thought he was stupid, but turns out Michael used Voq/Tyler as a means to transfer the data disk of information on the Defiant. Very clever! Very odd however that no one notices that Voq/Tyler has been beamed out of space again.

Then the episode ends with the rebel base being destroyed ahead of time by another ship, presumably killing everyone in it including Voq and Sarek (whom, I forgot to mention, also is there). Then Shenzhou gets a personal visit from the emperor himself, actually herself, because it turns out to be none less than Phillippa Georgiou in this universe. And she is not happy with Michael disobeying orders on destroying the rebel base.

This episode was good in the sense that it answered, or at least laid open, a lot of the things that it has been lurking for the last couple of episodes. And it ends in a place where even though a lot of things have just been clarified, we really want to know where things are going from here. Is Michael going to be found out? Is Voq/Tyler going to reunite with L'Rell now that they're both in the brig (I'm assuming they only have one brig, but I would really not put those two anywhere near each other) and scheme murderous plans? How long will Lorca want to deal with the torture and how will it further deteriorate his mental state? Will they be able to get back to their own universe with the information they have on the Defiant (that seems like a given)?

Sucks to be Voq/Tyler though, who went through all that trouble to become human so he could infiltrate them to steal information, and not really accomplish any of that. Or did he?

I'm definitely looking forward to the next episode and that is always a good sign.