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A United Kingdom Review

There’s a difficult tonal tightrope being walked on at the heart of A United Kingdom, the new film from Amma Asante, based on the real life relationship between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Beginning in London in 1947, we meet Khama while he’s studying law in Oxford, listening to jazz in classy social clubs and preparing to take over the throne of Bechuanaland from his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who’s been serving as regent over the kingdom in Seretse’s absence. Everything is going according to plan until he meets Ruth one night, connecting with her over their shared love of jazz and undeniable chemistry.

Falling in love is the last thing either of them need, but still they spend their nights walking through London into the hours of the early morning until Seretse finally proposes to Ruth, asking her to go back to Bechuanaland with him as his wife. She instantly agrees as the two begin making preparations for their wedding, but there’s only one problem: he’s black and she’s white. Both of their families disapprove, with Ruth’s father threatening to completely disown her at the news, and Seretse’s uncle trying to force him to abdicate the throne should he move forward with his marriage to Ruth.

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Powerless: “Wayne Dream Team” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

There’s a point in tonight’s episode of Powerless where Vanessa Hudgens’ Emily takes one for the team and spends 24 hours watching the world’s worst, most soul-sucking anti-bullying video. It’s tempting to draw comparisons between that and the experience of actually watching Powerless. That’s a little overly harsh, as the sophomore episode is at least marginally better than the first. But the fact remains that this series is much less entertaining than a comedy set in the DC Universe has any right to be.

Two weeks in, probably the biggest knock against Powerless is that the DC elements still feel so superfluous. One could very easily rewrite the script to remove any mention of the superhero fantasy draft or the “Rumbrella” and have a very generic workplace comedy on hand. If anything, the DC elements are even less prominent than in the pilot. Other than another brief appearance by Jack O’Lantern (a one-note gag of a character who’s quickly wearing out his welcome), this episode didn’t even feature a single hero or villain in the flesh. An occasional name-drop for characters like Batman and Flash doesn’t cut it. If Powerless wants to bill itself as a DC Comics-based show, it needs to make more than the absolute bare minimum effort to be one.

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Fifty Shades Darker Review

At the start of Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, we find our heroine, Anastasia Steele, (Dakota Johnson), working as an assistant at a publishing company for the seemingly great Jack (Eric Johnson). Well, to Anastasia he’s seemingly great, everyone in the audience will know that there’s a villain lurking underneath that nice exterior. There has to be – Jack’s last name is Hyde (as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr.) and Fifty Shades Darker is not a subtle movie.

Directed by James Foley with a screenplay from Niall Leonard and based on the E L James novel, Fifty Shades Darker is the perfect companion to the original movie. Not only is it not a subtle film, there is little to no chemistry between Johnson and co-star Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, and that’s unfortunate because this is supposed to be some sort of love story.

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Justice League/Power Rangers #2 Review

When you put two uniquely entertaining properties like the Justice League and the Power Rangers together, the sheer fun of the idea allows for a certain level of leeway when it comes to execution. Unfortunately, that forgiving nature all but evaporates in Tom Taylor and Stephen Byrne’s follow-up installment, the book’s limited gains hampered by its disappointingly flat characters.

Given the nature of the read, the book’s familiar case of mistaken-identity-turned-inevitable-team-up is none too surprising. And to writer Taylor’s credit, he makes good use of the initial confusion, the various instances reading mostly true to character. It’s surprising then just how dull these initial interactions are, as despite the many physical clashes we’re treated to there’s never any real sense of drama or escalation. Much of that blasé feel comes from the characters themselves. While true in tone, there are no real sparks to this clash of cultures, or at least nothing that makes their union memorable. Superman and the Justice League treat the Rangers as more intriguing interlopers than true threats, whereas the dialogue for the Rangers, aside from Kimberly and maybe Billy, is more or less interchangeable from character to character. There are a few choice Batman bits involving how scary he is, but even that is offset somewhat by artist Byrne’s bright color palette.

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The Expanse: “Static” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

A dejected, and rejected, Miller hatched a clever new scheme this week in “Static” – a good episode that was engaging and informative, but also somewhat motionless.

A frustrated Naomi blew off steam (thanks to Cara Gee’s “whatshername” character), a guilt-ridden Alex locked himself inside a simulator, and Amos managed to find a way to connect with a captured Protogen scientist in a chapter that felt a lot like a comedown from the massive conflict waged back in the season premiere.

But let’s stick with Miller here. Right when it looked like he’d found a new home with the crew of the Roci, Miller got bounced for shooting Dr. Dresden. An action that we’d find out, later on, was done because the madman was actually making a bit of sense. You know, in a cold and calculating “greater good” way. Anyhow, Miller now found himself undone, from an arc standpoint. Where would he go? Meaning, both literally and figuratively.

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Double Dragon 4 Review

In Arc System Works’ revival of the classic Double Dragon series, we have evidence that some video game throwbacks can be too authentic for their own good. Double Dragon IV is a direct sequel to the NES version of Double Dragon II (oddly not Double Dragon III)–and when we say “direct,” we mean it. This is an odd game that, quite literally, could’ve appeared on the 30-year-old system and felt right at home.

While this might sound great in theory if you have nostalgia for the 8-bit era, reality tells a different story. The original Double Dragon games still hold a special place in many an older gamer’s heart, but they are products of their time. Later side-scrolling brawlers would vastly surpass the primitive action of the series’ Lee brothers. Capcom’s Final Fight and especially Sega’s Streets of Rage would go on to take the mantle of top brawlers in the 1990s, so seeing a sequel to the NES version in 2017 is a bit strange.

Double Dragon IV staunchly replicates the NES games’ graphics and mechanics, complete with incredibly annoying screen tearing and flickering. Characters are crudely drawn, hit detection is sketchy, and the gameplay itself wavers between mindless and unfair. Some enemies stand around senselessly or rush blindly at you, and others start attacking with projectiles before they even appear onscreen. Compared to a modern brawler, the moveset–though slightly enhanced since the early ’90s–is limited. You have a punch, kick, jump kick, and a couple of minor “special” moves like an uppercut. Regardless, you can get through most levels by spamming basic attacks.

Repetition has always been a problem with brawlers, but Double Dragon IV really doesn’t overstay its welcome. Like the originals, it takes around 35 to 45 minutes to complete. Levels are short, transition story panels are slight, and while the scenery changes, there’s not a lot of variety in the level design.

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In light of a few sections that require pixel-perfect accuracy on your part, Double Dragon IV’s stiff controls add an unnecessary layer of frustration to seemingly simple platforming. At one point, there’s an odd level inside a freight ship that includes spiked ceilings and traps, that lead to a lot of annoying instant deaths. Tricky level design isn’t unusual for Double Dragon, but unfortunately, it serves to highlight how sluggish the controls are.

So, Double Dragon IV isn’t a good game in a modern sense, but it certainly is an honest trip back in time that will, if nothing else, offer a heavy dose of nostalgia for anyone with a fondness for the Lee Brothers’ 8-bit adventures. Frankly, it mimics its source material perfectly. It’s a worthwhile historical artifact if nothing else, but absolutely cannot match the vast improvements in gaming since those early days.

Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach Review

Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach is a tough game to play. It’s a turn-based strategy game packed with great ideas pulled straight from its namesake tabletop game, but it buries the good bits under layers of awful user interfaces, poor artificial intelligence, threadbare aesthetics, and a ton of bugs.

On the surface, Sanctus Reach seems like it’d be easy enough to pull together. You only have two factions to manage: the iconic Space Marines and the bloodthirsty Orks. Once a match starts, each player has a preset number of points they can spend on the units and gear they’d like to take into battle. Options are varied and run the gamut between colossal Dreadnoughts and packs of Goblins. After each side picks its warriors, players take turns moving across the board with the aim of controlling as many victory points as possible. Bouts are engaging, and depending upon your initial choices, you’ll have a small array of strategic options at your disposal. Unfortunately, almost everything outside of that core is painful and frustrating. And it starts with the menus.

Starting a match in Sanctus Reach is a tedious process. At a point where players should be raring to go, excited for all the possibilities to come, menus with almost nonexistent tool tips bog and frustrate. Outside of the campaign–where you’re railroaded into a series of rough-hewn maps–skirmishes and multiplayer games start you off with a few options. Most of these, like the size of the map, are simple enough. Others, however, don’t make any sense unless you’re a seasoned player, as they don’t get any cogent explanation.

The game fails to demonstrate which troops do what or what types of foes they’re effective against. Match length is unpredictable and the objective of each game mode is unclear. Options include “Attack,” “Defend,” “Meeting Engagement,” and “Symmetric.” None of those, on their own, explain their effects at the start.

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Granted, some of that goes away with experimentation, but the bulk of the game’s tutorials are in YouTube videos. They explain things in a direct, easy-to-understand manner, but they’re not available in the game itself. You can access these videos from the game’s splash screen, or click an in-game link that closes the program and launches your browser. Instructions within the game are insufficient as they are, and it’s unfortunate that you need to leave the game entirely to learn the inner workings of its mechanics.

Even with the video tutorials, however, you’ll encounter situations you won’t quite understand. A Dreadnought (Warhammer speak for monstrous exosuit) can stand right next to a cadre of Orks, unable to attack. You might think it’s because line-of-sight is blocked, but there’s nothing preventing you from attacking. The Orks will shoot up your mechanical walker several times before you can reposition, and before you know it, you’ve lost one of your most expensive units. It’s impossible to tell if there’s some mystery mechanic that’s never explained or if it’s a bug.

Those bumps notwithstanding, matches do show some promise. Depending on the composition of your team, you’ll have tactical options (though, again, you don’t know what those are without experimentation) that range from area-of-effect attacks to suppressing fire to specialized melee abilities. Your only goal is to scout control points and hold onto them with your units’ various abilities. Depending upon whether you’re attacking or defending, you can charge forward, blowing holes in walls and destroying your foes’ cover, or you can hunker down and prepare ambushes for the invaders. Regardless, this is where Sanctus Reach’s scant strengths show.

Most units have a few different means of attack. Some have heavy weapons and melee options, while others are fast shock troops that switch between pistols and grenades. Your goal is to leverage each of their abilities and organize your teams into tight groups that work well with one another in order to clinch victory. Pairing units that complement one another–like vehicles that can hit hard and move fast with flamethrowers that can wreak havoc on swarms of enemies–is crucial. And the combination of troop variations with map obstacles often creates intriguing decisions. You can hold a defensive position in a bombed-out building, whittling enemies down as they approach before you blow through a wall to continue on to the next control point.

As fun as that can be, you won’t have to wait long for it to wear a bit thin. Whether you’re in the campaign or in skirmish/multiplayer modes, you’re always dealing with control points. Turn timers put a hard cap on how long games last, too, so rushing tactics are the only real option. There’s no total elimination and no multi-part missions with creative or varied goals.

Making matters worse, the game’s AI is laughable. Often, Orkish hordes will march straight into an obvious trap, and then, once their soldiers have been reduced to mangled, bloody bodies, they’ll send another detachment without any additional precautions or changes to tactics. The developers have openly acknowledged some of these problems, but at time of this review, it’s a big drag on a game that desperately needs some more marks in its favor.

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Sanctus Reach is frustrating enough with poor tutorials, bugs, and awful AI, but that’s all magnified by bland aesthetics that blur together. Many units look similar, textures are grainy and pixelated, and many screens have low-resolution backgrounds. It’s not usually an issue, but graphical oversights of all types abound and can make it difficult to recognize units and unit types, as well as hinder the legibility of tool-tip pop-ups.

Even if you can get past its many shortcomings, Sanctus Reach has some of the weirdest bugs I’ve ever seen. In my time with it, I found that the game wouldn’t always maintain full-screen priority. Without warning, it would shift into the background and bring up a web browser or word processor. It would also lock up on occasion, and when trying to Ctrl-Alt-Delete to close, I’d get a Sanctus Reach-specific error code saying that it had a “Fatal Application Exit.” Crashes like this were rare, as was the automatically shifting window priority, but they add even more frustration to an already flawed game.

Sanctus Reach does offer a handful of decent moments. I chuckled when I reduced a squadron of Orks to bloody puddles, and again when I managed what at first seemed an impossible incursion. But these flashes of satisfaction aren’t enough to hold up a game that’s mediocre at best and vexing at worst. Together with a host of minor annoyances, they add up to a long, dull stint with a bad game from a great franchise that deserves far better treatment.

Arrow: “Bratva” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

With Arrow spending so much time flashing back to Ollie’s time in Russia and initiation into the Bratva, it was only a matter of time before the show made an international detour in the present as well. Past and present didn’t collide in any particularly meaningful way this week, and there was certainly no progress on the Prometheus front, but the change in scenery alone helped keep things interesting.

Among other things, the Russian trip served to wrap up Diggle’s ongoing storyline, as the majority of Team Arrow raced against the clock to prevent General Walker from selling a nuclear bomb to Markovian terrorists. I’m not overly thrilled with how Diggle’s struggle resolved itself. He’s gone from wrongly incarcerated felon back to free man a little too cleanly and easily. And not for the first time this season, it feels like David Ramsey is overdoing it a bit when it comes to conveying Diggle’s pent-up frustration. Beating a prisoner nearly to death seemed a bit much. The big question now is where exactly Diggle goes from here. His ordeal seems over at this point, though it’s always possible that Walker will find some way to make good on his threats to Lila and John Jr.

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Nioh Review

Nioh is an immensely layered experience. Through its Dark Souls-inspired combat, you’re taught the virtues of patience and the value of defense. With each death, you learn a bit more about yourself and your enemy. This Team Ninja production, set during a time of great social upheaval in Japan, demonstrates the studio’s penchant for demanding action-driven gameplay that rewards tactics and high dexterity. And despite all the inevitable dying, Nioh is surprisingly rich with solutions to overcome its many hurdles.

Koei Tecmo’s fondness for Japan’s tumultuous Sengoku period is on full display in Nioh. The unusual foreign point of view of protagonist William Adams adds freshness to this familiar setting. Adams’ real life notoriety as the first Western samurai is the kernel that allows the game to glorify him as a knowledgeable user of Japanese melee weaponry. His path to combat proficiency is partly motivated by his pursuit of antagonist and occultist Edward Kelley, also an English historical figure. Both are searching for Amrita, a type of magical stone abundant in Japan that is thought to have the power to turn the tide in Queen Elizabeth I’s favor in her war against Spain.

Death is featured heavily, not just in the frequency of player failures but also in the war torn lands Adams explores. Many of Nioh’s levels feel like you’ve walked into an imaginary epilogue of an Akira Kurosawa film. The extensiveness of ruin and the littering of corpses are complemented by a recurring musical theme that effectively captures the solemnness of what remains.

These devastated landscapes is also a breeding ground for hostile yokai, demons and creatures heavily inspired by Japanese folklore. Like the Onimusha and Toukiden series, Team Ninja puts their own spin on these fantastic beasts. There’s great imagination on display as Adams confronts unusually agile ogres and homicidal ravens decorated like Buddhist monks. There’s much to marvel at in the otherworldliness of the yokai’s designs when you’re not too busy dodging their deadly attacks.

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The demands and challenges of melee combat in Nioh cannot be overstated. Assuming your character level isn’t significantly higher than the recommended level of a given mission, some enemies can kill you with a single stroke. By the same token, there’s always a chance, however unlikely, you’ll clear a chapter without a scratch. At times, enemies fight with the unpredictability of a PvP match. It’s normally comforting when you can recognize the beginning animations of a enemy combo. Yet there’s another layer of difficulty when that foe can switch up attacks mid-combo, a common occurrence in Nioh. You’ll sometimes wish you could compliment these enemies for their cunning–that is until you throw your controller from dying at the hands of a boss for the twentieth time.

Nioh is at its most elegant when you’re engaged in a one-on-one duel. Many enemies telegraph a lot of information even before they attempt their first strike. By studying their stances, you can deduce what attacks tend to result from those poses. Their outfits also offer hints on capabilities. Sword-wielding fishermen attack with two-handed labored lunges, making them frequently open to attack. Decorated and well-armored veteran samurai show more discipline and attack with greater efficiency. As you gain experience with a sword, you’ll have an easier time anticipating the attacks of other sword-wielders, since many use the same stances and techniques as Adams. Being able to read your enemy and emerge victorious thanks to all this visual information provides some of Nioh’s most gratifying moments. Between the occasional compulsion to fight honorably and the potential for one-hit kills, Nioh is the closest a game has gotten to recapturing the unique intensity of Squaresoft’s Bushido Blade series.

At its most fundamental level, survival in Nioh is about managing stamina–known in the game as ki–which determines how frequently you can attack an enemy. To complicate matters, enemies often create ki dead zones where stamina does not replenish. The beauty of Nioh is how it’s chocked full of countermeasures that deal with such obstacles. In the case of these dead zones, potential solutions include stamina enhancing consumables and ki-specific weapon enhancements. For the most dexterous players, a quick shoulder button press after a combo can potentially boost stamina recovery. And the fact that enemies are equally limited by stamina creates tactical and exploitable opportunities one seldom encounters in these types of games. Like a scene straight out of a samurai film, there’s a sense realism when you and a foe are huffing and temporarily immobile from stamina-depleted exhaustion. That’s followed with heightened suspense, knowing that one of you will fall once you both catch your breath.

Just as enemies have tricks that extend beyond melee combat, Nioh empowers you through a wealth of resources and choices that only expands as you make progress. A single weapon is capable of over a dozen types of attacks, organized and spread across a trio of battle stances. You acquire new weapons through a Diablo-inspired loot drop system, where myriad stats and special effects ensure that no two weapons are alike. Five melee weapons types, a selection of firearms, and non-samurai abilities like magic can be a lot to take in. Yet given Nioh’s optional quests and the ability to replay completed missions, you can take your time to get your footing and learn what tactics work for you before advancing to the next mainline chapter. And even if these resources aren’t enough for you to vanquish a boss in your first or tenth attempt, level grinding works as a viable solution.

Options for success further expand with the inclusion of cooperative play, available after completing the initial chapters. This isn’t co-op in the traditional sense since there’s no way two friends can experience new story chapters together. In order for a guest to be eligible for a host’s story mission, the guest needs to have already completed that mission. This, unfortunately, nerfs what could have been a stimulating session. Save for a slight increase in boss’ health bars, difficulty does not ramp up in co-op. The guest, armed with information on a map’s layout and the boss’ tactics, can help turn a chapter that would normally take three hours into a 15-minute jaunt.

Regardless how you choose to progress, the immense variety in environments is reflected in the thoughtful pacing of what will be an 80 hour playthrough for many. Nioh doesn’t escalate in intensity with every subsequent mainline mission, although the endgame is rightfully brutal. Instead, there’s a rhythmic ebb and flow as you advance through the story. For example, after an exhausting two-chapter skirmish on a ravaged battlefield, you’re greeted with a less demanding yet still challenging trek through a lush and foggy forest with enemy ninja encampments. These reprieves from the more intense missions add depth to the campaign.

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Each area exudes its own sense of character not just by conveying widespread destruction in its detailed backgrounds but also by challenging you with environmental puzzles. The chapter based in the Iga, for instance, capitalizes on the region’s reputation as a nest of shinobi and a playground of stealth. It’s a level loaded with enough hidden doors and confusing passages that you might need graph paper to make sense of the level. Adding to these engrossing complexities is a section that can be literally flipped, where the floor becomes the ceiling and vice versa. And these do not take into account all the ninjas hiding around corners and behind sliding doors. Iga is just one location that showcases Nioh’s impressive labyrinthine maps, of which there are many. And much like the Dark Souls games that inspired much of Nioh’s level design, having a fastidious exploratory mindset helps reveal a location’s many shortcuts, the discoveries of which are always satisfying.

It is though exploration that you increase your chances of finding weapons and items, often by searching through the seemingly countless corpses strewn throughout the game. The final words of the dead echo in Adams’ head, often providing clues to nearby dangers. The fallen are additionally represented by the gravemarkers of other Nioh players with a note of their respective cause of death. These serve as warnings to the living, whether it’s a hint of a nearby cliff or a difficult yokai ahead.

Although the spectre of potential failure hangs heavy over any play session, dying in Nioh is never genuinely disheartening. This is thanks in part to the various avenues of character growth and many approaches you can utilize to tackle a difficult section or boss fight. It shouldn’t be surprising that the foresight and patience needed to survive a battle in Dark Souls translates well to the fundamentals of samurai combat here. Nioh’s most invigorating and intimidating moments occur when you feel you’re at equal footing with your opponent. And it’s during these encounters that one careless move can result in your demise or the right string of thoughtful actions can make you feel invincible.

It’s Always Sunny: “Hero or Hate Crime?” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

Did that finally happen? Was it…? Did it…?

Did Mac come out and then stay out?

That was awesome. Needless to say, I’ll be hugely disappointed if things return to the old status quo next week and Mac goes back to denying all of this, but for right now – man, what a sweet moment. You don’t get to say this too often with Always Sunny, or at all really, but this episode delivered a really touching and powerful few seconds. There was even a bit of silence involved. A quiet surrounding his decision to come out and feel free. I loved it.

I won’t fully go into how this move was long overdue, but it’s safe to say that the running gag of everyone else in the Gang thinking Mac was gay — aided and egged on by all the farcical gay things Mac did and said — outstayed its welcome several seasons ago. There was simply nowhere new to take it. So for the final push over the edge, the last hurrah, they brought out the anal fisting bike (ahem, “Asspounder 4000”) and had Mac crazily explain his way around it. It was the final prop in this “bridge too far.” And with that final burst of absurdity, Mac came clean.

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