reviews

Gaming Reviews: XCOM 2

Call of Duty, The Sims, and chess, all rolled into one.

I’ll admit it, I am very new to the genre of turn-based games. Before I picked up XCOM 2, I’d never even played its sequel, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I don’t know if this a recommended game for players who are new to the genre, but whatever. I went for it.

The game opens with a relatively easy beginning mission with a batch of four randomly generated rookie soldiers. The object of the game isn’t clearly spelled out to begin with, but you’re promptly given a simple mission objective: get one or more of your soldiers to the destination point, set the explosives, and evacuate without dying.

Obstacles come in the form of ADVENT soldiers. Not knowing the apparently necessary backstory from the first XCOM game, all I can tell you is that they’re aliens.

Instead of running aimlessly like one would in a normal shooting game, XCOM is played more like a game of chess: protect your strong, valuable soldiers by hiding them behind cover in terrain – and, if necessary, less valuable minions. There are five classes of soldiers – sharpshooters (snipers), rangers (ones with machetes), specialists (healers, basically; they have drones), grenadiers (they blow stuff up), and psi-ops (psionic operatives – they can mind control, but they’re harder to get) and all are necessary to play a good game. There’s as much careful strategizing involved as there is shooting up aliens. Somehow, they’re equally fun.

It’s a very interesting, refreshing combat system, especially for someone who’s as terrible at aiming as I am. The reason I’ve never gotten into games like Overwatch and CS:GO is that I’m pretty much the worst shooter ever. Seriously, I have better aim in real life than I do in most first-person shooters. Instead of a seat-of-your pants, fast-paced, shoot-em-up game, this is a game that requires a lot of strategy and forethought. If you’re planning on sitting down and playing for a long time, I recommend you bring snacks. For whatever reason, I get better at video games when I eat cheese.

XCOM’s combat system is based, more or less, on a random number generator. The game takes several factors into consideration – such as your soldier’s aim and proximity as well as your target’s cover and dodging affinity – and presents you with your hit chance in the form of a percentage. If it’s a good chance, you take the shot. If it’s a bad chance, you either move and try again, or you can go into overwatch mode, which makes your soldier take a shot at the first enemy to move into his or her line of sight.

In theory, at least. I swear (and it’s not just me, either) that XCOM’s RNG is alive, and that it hates each and every player. I have missed 98% chance shots before. More than once. And then your soldier rubs it in by saying something like “Ah, I didn’t get it!” or “Adjusting aim!” Yeah, you missed by five yards. You’d better adjust your aim.

Outside the combat missions, a lot of the more nuanced gameplay happens aboard your flying base, known as the Avenger. This is where you stock up on gear, heal your wounded soldiers, and – of course – mess with the character creator.

The character customization may seem arbitrary, but in the end, it actually helped a lot. I cared much more about my soldiers when I personalized them. There’s a ton of options for you to choose from, so you can make nearly anyone. My dad made his star squad look like our family. I named all of mine after my original characters from various stories and stuff I’d written in the past. When I ran out of those, I named them after people from CBS’s reality show, Survivor. I wouldn’t recommend you name them after anyone TOO close to you, though, because, once they start consistently missing 70%+ shots, you might start to hate them in real life, too.

Although the gameplay seems pretty systematic at first, the game throws you enough curveballs to keep things new and engaging. There are more than a dozen different kinds of enemies, and they all present a different kind of threat. The maps are constantly changing, as are the objectives; as you gain better and better gear and advantages, so do your enemies, in ways that are very difficult to predict, and are almost guaranteed to make you say “Whoa, what just happened?!” at least once.

The storyline is quite interesting, as well, although it is rather easy to miss, since all the vital cutscenes are skippable (and, from the first couple of seconds, all look rather the same). Basically, Earth is being occupied by a bunch of aliens, who are eventually planning to eradicate mankind to use their bodies to create new hosts (Avatars) for their rulers, the Elders, who can mind-control stuff. You are the commander of the resistance, known as XCOM, and it’s your job to direct your forces to drive the aliens out of your home.

XCOM 2 is engaging, addictive, and constantly changing. The combat system is not for the faint of heart; individual missions have taken me upwards of two hours before, which was only made more frustrating by the absurdly long reloading times. Seriously, I could play through Portal again in the time it takes to reload two moves.

Overall, this game earns a rating of 7/10. The gameplay in and of itself is fresh and quite fun, but it’s offset by the immensely frustrating, seemingly unlikely RNG failures, as well as the amount of time it takes to load saves. I would definitely recommend it for veterans of the turn-based genres, as well as particularly zealous newbies such as myself. There will be a lot of frustration, but it will definitely pay off at the end.

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TFG Movie Reviews: Allegiant

I saw this movie on Friday (which was apparently opening day!) with the decently awesome cousin of mine who goes by Celestia on the Internet. According to my dad, the reviews were (and still are) horrible – one out of many examples he gave me was that only 10% of Rotten Tomatoes reviewers said it was worth seeing. Still, it was something to do besides levelling my World of Warcraft character (ah, but that’s for another post), and I got to have pizza and cheesecake, so I went.

I have to say, I’m not sorry I saw it. It’s not an inherently bad movie. There were some things about it that I would never say were great, but if you’re looking for something to do, here you go.

I’ve heard people say that the story was bad. That’s not wholly true. Maybe the execution wasn’t amazing, but I thought the base storyline itself wasn’t bad. (I’ve heard before that I’m too easy to please to be a reviewer. We’ll see about that.) It’s a pretty cool premise: an isolated, ruined city, divided into five factions that dictate everything from the clothes you wear to the way you spend your leisure time, that, as it transpires (boop boop, spoiler alert!) is actually an experiment set up by a bureau of geneticists that are trying to “breed out” of humanity damaged genes that were put there by the world’s own governments.
While the story wasn’t bad, I thought it was pretty butchered in the movie as opposed to the book. In particular, the characters. Book Tris’s faction aptitude was evenly split among Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the smart). Emphasis on that last one. If, without knowing the story, I had to guess which faction was chosen for her, I’d say that the aptitude test was so fed-up with dealing with Movie Tris’s idiocy that it shut itself down and told her to just go factionless. Seriously. I can think of multiple examples where simple truths had to be shoved in Movie Tris’s face for her to comprehend them. Really, Tris, Tori is dead, screaming her name over and over for five minutes isn’t going to help. No, Tris, Four cannot come with you upstairs. No, you can’t come together. Seriously, why is that difficult to understand? Tris, don’t trust David. Yes, we get that he told you he’s good, but people can lie, Tris. There are a hundred and one reasons not to trust him, but I don’t expect you to be able to understand any of them.

Maybe it was bad acting, maybe it was bad writing, maybe it was just that Shailene Woodley didn’t have the IQ to empathize with an only moderately smart character like Book Tris. That movie could have spared itself from countless critics’ harshness if it had only cast someone different.

Another character whom I think the movies kind of skewed was Peter. I’ve never seen movies one and two, only read the books, so I knew all the characters but not what they looked like in the movies. It wasn’t too hard to distinguish Tris, Four, Caleb, Christina, or even Tori, but Peter, although he looked decently accurate, was so different where personality is concerned that it took me a sizable chunk of the movie to make the connection. Movie Peter was a lot more likable than Book Peter, for one thing. He’s not a guy I can picture executing people for Jeanine or stabbing dudes in the eye for no reason other than that they were stronger than him.

While several of the characters weren’t up to scratch, the pretty 2016 effects were actually quite good. Futuristic dystopian movies like the Hunger Games (which were, by the way, better than the Divergent trilogy) always provide a lot of opportunities for cool space-age effects, and Allegiant didn’t disappoint. Although the storywriters/adapters could’ve gone with a little less pay than they probably got, the special effects teams, at least, seem to have had an adequate budget.

A lot of my movie reviews are based on accuracy to the book they’re based on, so here comes that part of my review.  There were a lot of little things the movie changed for the sake of conciseness (like Tori’s death, for instance), and that’s understandable.  But the most major difference I and Celestia noticed was the ending.

(WARNING:  The upcoming part of the review pertains only to people who have read the book, who are the only people who care if the movie was true to the book, anyway.   If you’re reading this review and trying to decide if you ought to see the movie or not, you should probably skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

At the end of the book called Allegiant, instead of shooting up a few pipes to solve the movie’s problems, Tris had to break into the laboratory that was formerly Jeanine Matthews’s to disable the memory serum that was about to wipe the minds of everyone in Chicago.  This might’ve been able to go without a hitch if it hadn’t been protected by a lethal dose of death serum.  Caleb, Tris’s brother, was ready to sacrifice himself to save Chicago in atonement for his support of Jeanine, but Tris took his place, disabling the flow of the memory serum and effectively killing herself.

There are, from what I can see, a few contributing factors to the directors’ decision to change the ending.  One is that they want to get just a little more money out of the Divergent franchise before it’s over, airing the fourth movie, Ascendant (how is that even going to work?  The plot has nowhere left to go), and they couldn’t do that if they killed off their protagonist.

Another is that, like at the end of The Giver, they didn’t want to end the movie on a dismal note.  People who go to the movies for a good story generally don’t have the same standards as people who go to a book for the same thing:  while readers might be looking for a darker, more poignant tale, moviegoers would rather see their triumphant hero defeat his or her adversary without serious personal sacrifice.  There are, of course, a few exceptions (I don’t envy whoever had to produce Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), but the Divergent series – the movies, anyway – appeal to a different audience.

Maybe the directors knew that Shailene Woodley was too stupid to even pretend to figure anything out in a lab, so they had her break some stuff instead.  Okay, maybe not, but it’s fun to imagine.

Anyway, as a final rating, I’d give Allegiant three out of five stars.  It probably could have won back one, maybe two stars if it hadn’t been for the lead actress.  It was enjoyable to watch where the story and especially the effects were concerned, but by the time it was over and that rather catchy song came on (I like Tove Lo’s music), I wasn’t sure how much more Shailene Woodley I could take.

Thanks for reading and checking out my blog!  If you found this post informative, helpful, or plain enjoyable, I’d like it if you gave it a like and a nice rating.  If you didn’t like it, I give you permission to give me a bad rating.  (That’s why there are five stars, after all.)

~ Summer

Edit: In addition, I found this hilariously awesome video that gives you a pretty decent idea of what the movie is about. I recommend you check it out.

Miscellaneous Reviews: Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch Tablet

Heya, guys, and welcome to Teen Fiction Girl!  I have a bit of news before we get on with the article, so hang tight.

My friend Amber (the one who hated Screwy Thing with a burning passion) has decided to get back into blogging.  It took me a while to find her blog – she said she changed the name to Amber’s Life, but actually she only changed the header – but at last I found it.  It’s called Amber’s Gaming Hat (although she hates the name, so that might change at some point) and you can check it out here.

Anyway, onto the review.

This is a review like the other ones I do on this blog, except it’s neither a book review nor a movie review.  It’s a review of a Wacom tablet, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a graphics/digital drawing tablet.  This one is called the Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch.

Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch Small Tablet (Old Version)

Now, you might be inclined to imagine a tablet like an iPad, but that’s the Wacom Cintiq – this one is more like a tricked-up mousepad.  You plug it into your computer with a little USB cord and whatever you draw on the tablet appears on the screen.

It’s what I’ve been using to draw my most recent digital art, including my Planet Minecraft avatar.

Myravatar

Not too shabby, as you can see.  The biggest attraction of this tablet is the pressure-sensitive lines.  When you push down lightly with the pen, it makes a fine line; when you push down harder, it makes a thicker one.  This can be used to create elegant tapered lines, which look a lot nicer than the blocky, uniform ones you’d draw on a program on an iPad.

Chicken

For what it is, this piece of technology is incredibly inexpensive.  “$90 isn’t inexpensive!” you might say.  “That’s ten dollars short of a Benjamin!”

Well, yes, but if you think that’s expensive, click on that Wacom Cintiq link up there.  Drawing tablets that work about the same can be nearly $2000.  The Cintiq might be a little slicker and a little more portable, but unless you’re a graphic designer for a gaming company or something, this one’s the better choice.  It’s five percent of the cost and a hundred percent of the performance.

A lot of the negative reviews on Amazon were about relatively stupid things.  “I don’t like the texture, the pen doesn’t slide easily enough!”  “There are only 1024 pressure sensitivity levels instead of 2048!”  “It feels too light!”

I promise, unless you were raised in a mansion, you won’t care.  The pen feels rather like drawing with a marker; if it were too smooth, it would slip all over the place and your lines wouldn’t be as smooth.  Seriously, more than a thousand pressure sensitivity levels is enough.  You won’t miss that second 1024.  And anyway, you aren’t going to be picking it up off the table and weighing it.  You don’t want it to feel like a 1980’s computer console, do you?

I, personally, am not a great fan of the software included with the tablet; the AutoDesk doesn’t have enough tools to do the kind of things I need, and while the ArtRage Studio is a great tool for other kinds of art (maybe the kind of art you purchased a tablet for) it doesn’t do the kind of simplistic, digitized art that I like to do.  It’s more for a digital form of traditional painting and/or pencil drawing.  I’m not terrible at the latter, but in the case of the former, I couldn’t be worse.  Of course, the software has nothing to do with the tablet itself; just get yourself a somewhat recent version of Photoshop.  It has better opacity control, anyway.

I find that the stylus is the perfect size for your hand.  It’s thicker than a pencil, so your fingers don’t get tired from gripping such a teeny little stick, but it’s thinner than, say, a Crayola marker, so it’s not awkward and hard to maneuver.  The one problem I’ve had with the stylus is with the little clicker on the side; before I knew what it was used for, I kept accidentally pressing it and accidentally dragging my canvas all over the place when I was trying to draw.  That was user error, though, and doesn’t affect the final rating for this product.

The Wacom Intuos Pen & Touch version makes it so that you can use your fingers to zoom in and out, which I think is a pretty great addition when you’re trying to draw details.  It functions pretty much as a mouse that’s better for drawing.  Hold your stylus’s tip just above the tablet to move around the mouse, and press on it with varying degrees of pressure to make lovely, tapered lines.  Tap once to click, click and hold to right-click.  (As far as I know, that last one doesn’t work in Photoshop, so when changing tools or something else that requires right-clicking, make sure you have a mouse, touchpad, or trackball handy.)  It also has an awesome palm-rejection feature, meaning that even though it will respond to touches from fingertips, it won’t accidentally misinterpret the side of your hand as a click when you’re resting it on the tablet as you draw.

I’ve had problems with my tablet freaking out when it gets too close to my keyboard.  It’s supposed to communicate only with the stylus, but apparently there are components in my keyboard that set it off, too.  If I move the stylus too far away for too long, it starts randomly making contact and clicking on things, which once resulted in three strokes of art being undone and deleted.  The solution to this:  scoot your keyboard far back when you’re drawing, just in case.

Overall, the tablet is an excellent product, and it’s well worth the $90-or-so price tag (the price can flex a little from $70 – $100 depending on where you’re buying it).  You can get it, or at least look at it, here.  I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to develop their casual digital art skills – it’s professional enough to work well, but simple enough to be easy to use for anyone.

I hope this review was helpful to you.  I’d appreciate it if you’d leave a rating or comment to tell me what you thought.  If you really loved it (and you have a WordPress account), you can leave a like.  And remember, follow Teen Fiction Girl if you want to read more reviews like this in the future!

Thanks for reading!

~ Summer

Movie Reviews: Mockingjay, Part 2

**WARNING:  This post will contain a fair number of spoilers.  If you’ve read the books, come on in, but if you’re new to the Hunger Games story, I recommend you skip to the end for the final rating.**

Anyway, hey all, and welcome to Teen Fiction Girl!  I’m fairly certain that I reviewed Catching Fire when it came out a couple of years ago (although I could very well be wrong) and this movie was as worth a review as any of its predecessors.

I’ll start with talking about the plot of the movie.  There were very few slip-ups where book/movie continuity is concerned.  The main thing that the movie producers changed was Katniss’s method of getting into the Capitol – in the book, she was authorized to go, whilst in the movie, she snuck in.  I don’t know which I prefer:  the book is the book, after all, but the movie’s method allowed for a little further development of Katniss, President Coin, and Plutarch Heavensbee as they plotted to make Katniss’s deviance appear to be their idea.  (Speaking of him, I remembered about halfway through the movie that the actor playing him was dead.  Luckily, there were no awkward mid-movie actor switches or anything; I think they covered it up rather well.)

I thought the two-part conclusion was going to end up like The Hobbit movies were – so stretched out in an effort to make more money that they were tedious and not even kind of like the books – but I think, all in all, I liked the two-part movie better than its single-sectioned predecessors.  The scenes in the Capitol were quite true to the book, right down to the type of pod they encountered and the members of Squad 451, which I’d have thought the producers would have considered too minor to include.  The death of the Leeg sisters was a little different in the movie than in the book, but the end effect was the same, so I hardly consider this a point of conflict.  They even included the girl in the lemon-yellow coat.

Katniss and Peeta’s relationship seemed perfectly natural to me; she seemed to push him away at first but finally realized what she was doing wrong.  Although I rather dislike Peeta as a character (I’m on Team Gale for sure), Josh Hutcheson’s acting was superb.  Especially in the conclusion, he played his part well, although I think that Katniss looked a little funny as a mom, to tell the truth.

The last and most obvious of the movie’s shortcomings was the conclusion of the war.  In the book, Katniss witnesses the death of her sister, nearly burns to death, murders the president, gets locked up at the top of the tribute tower for months on end, starts singing to herself like a madwoman, and eventually becomes suicidal before returning to District 12.  In the movies, only a few of these things happened:  Prim did indeed die and President Coin was indeed assassinated, but they made Katniss’s… ah… decline much milder.  Her burns were nowhere near fatal and there was no oncoming insanity.

I’m usually a lover of accuracy, but I’ll admit I enjoyed seeing the producers’ version of things more than I enjoyed reading Suzanne Collins’s.  If you were looking for a carbon copy of the book, you won’t find exactly what you’re looking for, but I think, on the whole, the story itself was great.

As for the production of the movie itself, I wasn’t disappointed in any way.  The characters all looked exactly as they should.  I was especially impressed by the camera team and President Coin – they looked identical to their book versions.  The camerawork was flawless, the soundtrack was great, and the effects were simply amazing.  The atmosphere looked so perfect for the story – District 13, the Capitol, everywhere – and the special effects, as I just mentioned, were beautiful.  I almost regret not seeing it in 3D, but if I had, I doubt I would have been able to enjoy it as much due to the awkwardness of wearing 3D glasses over my normal glasses.

And now, for the final rating.  For an almost spot-on story and the greatest effects I’ve seen in a movie all year, I give this movie four and a half stars out of five.  I took a half star away for the slight changes to the story, but other than those tiny discontinuities, there was nothing wrong with this movie.  I recommend it to anyone who even partially liked the books and/or other movies.

I hope this was helpful to you.  Please, I’d love to hear what you think!  Leave a rating at the top of the page or, if you have a WordPress account, a like if you really loved it.  Comments are always appreciated – give feedback and criticism, and, if you like, suggest a post you’d like to see from TFG in the future.

Thanks for reading!

~ Summer