Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm – An Evolution of Gameplay and Story

      “Heart of the Swarm” improves off “Wings of Liberty” in most places where it counts. The story has more going on, the characters are more interesting and the side missions are really enjoyable as well as the hero leveling system that the game gives in how Kerrigan grows through the game. You are given choices that matter and affect gameplay, which is more than “Wings of Liberty” was ever able to do. I’ll get into more of what I mean later in the review, but this is a game that improves upon the original in almost every way.

The downsides are really in how there is too much emphasis on Emperor Mengsk as the villain and not enough on the threat of the Xel’Naga, which sadly hurts the overall arc of the Trilogy.

The story picks up where “Wings of Liberty” left off with a de-infested Kerrigan with Raynor’s Raiders and Valerian Mengsk. When Dominion forces attack she is separated from them all and when she believes Raynor to be killed goes on a revenge mission against Mengsk as she takes control of the Swarm and grows once more into her role as the Queen of Blades.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Universe – I love the Starcraft Universe and in this game we get so much more of it. From Narud’s experiments and the infested resurrected Stukov and the Hybrids from the last game, from the Primal Zerg and the Zerg who witnessed the Xel’Naga come but only cared about becoming stronger and better and did not care for the greater war in the Universe as Amon created them on the Primal Zerg world…from the power of the Dominion and recruitment of the Brood Mothers as Kerrigan re-establishes herself as the Queen of Blades. I love this Universe and this game does nothing but enrich it. We also get to play as Raynor’s Raiders taking on a Mercenary army with their Battlecruiser in order to find out where Raynor is trapped and so that he can rescued. The world is so wonderfully dark and complicated.

Evolution Missions – On the way of taking control of the Swarm once more Abathur, Kerrigan’s Evolution Master gives missions where you can shape Zerg into different strains. Each choice is permanent but their are pros and cons to each. You can have faster and weaker units that can fly, greater number of units or stronger individual units with greater regeneration depending on the choice you make…and on those missions you take out Dominion or Feral Zerg forces. They are so much fun.

The Nature of the Swarm – The Swarm is change and evolution. This is one reason Kerrigan works so well as the leader because she is constant change and adaptation and now being free of the Overmind she no longer as Amon’s influence on her (that she originally got through the original purpose of the Zerg and the Overmind). It is powerful seeing her take charge of the swarm and see how their primary drive to live, change, evolve and grow. The Zerg are not static and this game really shows how easy it is for the Swarm to grow and become one of the strongest powers in the Universe. It is in their nature and when they have direction from the Queen of Blades the Overmind or one who knows them, they are unstoppable.

Kerrigan and her Team – Kerrigan has my favorite Team out of the 3 games. I like how Abathur is a selfish being that only sees the point in making things more efficent regardless of cost (so weird, awful and alien) how Zagara only values strength and bettering the Swarm and serving Kerrigan how Stukov has no one so only wants acceptance and the Swarm is the only acceptance he has now that he is dead to humanity and Dehaka and his obsession with essence and his drive to survive and change through anything.

Leveling Kerrigan and Shaping the Swarm – The gameplay is fun and part of the reason it is so much fun is you power up Kerrigan and her abilities and these abilities influence her as hero unit and also your base and how quickly you can build or what you start. She is a powerhouse and the right upgrades make her an unstoppable force on her own or one who can sustain the Swarm and have a large group. The Swarm is also shaped from the Evolution Missions stated above too.

Okay: The Power of Emperor Mengsk – I’m putting Emperor Mengsk’s power and the Dominon as okay and not a pro for two reasons. The first is that he should have been weaker after Valerian took half his fleet and second Kerrigan destroyed his forces on more than one occasion. This game happens just after he got his butt kicked last game. The reason I don’t put him as a con is he did have Narud and via Narud Amon backing him so he was powerful that way and there was a good amount of time between “Brood War” and “Wings of Liberty.” For these reason I won’t put him as a con.

Not Enough Xel’Naga Exploration – We get a glimpse of the nature of the Xel’Naga on Zerus (the Zerg homeworld) and when Narud’s true form a changeling is revealed and what dialogue he gives us. Otherwise they are an abstract threat even though we the prophecy of Kerrigan’s role going on and really needed more in the lead up to whatever her future is.

The Narud and Amon Payoff – Narud is the mini-boss before Arcturus Mengsk and it is only over the course of 3 missions. He really should have been a bigger deal. Mengsk makes more sense narratively but for the overall game Narud has been the greatest threat of them all. He is the reason the UED no longer exists as a threat, he is the reason the Protoss continued to fall apart and his master Amon is the reason the Zerg almost destroyed everything fulfilling their role in the big picture. With better writing, he really should have been the end boss or played a much bigger part in the story. He’d been around for so long why did he suddenly stop manipulating the Zerg when he clearly still had control of some Protoss forces, Moebius and the elements of the Dominion. Narud and the Xel’Naga deserved better and I think Blizzard didn’t know what to do with them after setting them up so well in “Brood War” and the original “Starcraft.”

The Cons: Raynor and Revenge as Primary Motivation – I think the writers meant it to mirror Raynor’s love for Kerrigan as his motivation in “Wings of Liberty” but it sucked that Kerrigan was turned into that as well. I never got those vibes from her in any of the original games and making her The Bride from “Kill Bill” was fine but her best character moments are when we see her accepting her role as the Queen of Blades and finding motivation beyond revenge as she cares for and shapes the Swarm. That was where she was amazing as we already got her revenge story back in “Brood War” and it was handled so much better.

I really enjoyed “Heart of the Swarm.” This is a game for all the flaws it has (largely based in story with Emperor Mengsk being this unstoppable force who still continues to lose through 2 games) and the lack of focus on Narud, Amon and the Xel’Naga makes the upcoming threat feel only so strong. It also sets up Kerrigan as the Chosen One which is stupid storytelling in general, even though I like that Kerrigan’s flaws are all her own. she is ruthless and driven and a little bit of a sociopath but it makes her compelling because it is her mind that shapes the Swarm and we see how she makes the Zerg Swarm less of an all consuming force and more a precision weapon focused on perfection and change. For these reasons I would rate it higher than “Wings of Liberty.” There is better payoff storywise, better gameplay and the campaign missions are a lot of fun and honestly, my favorite heroes are the Heroes from the Swarm and how wonderfully alien they all are. This is another one of my favorite games.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

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Baby Driver (2017): The Unforgettable Soundtrack of a Life

  Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors at this point. He has created some of my favorite films…from the “Cornetta Trilogy” to “Scott Pilgrim.” Now “Baby Driver” joins those films as one that takes a unique take on a genre (in this case crime thrillers) and adds a whole new presentation of action while giving a powerful message and some of the best written gangsters in cinema. Seriously, I can’t recommend this film enough and as of this point in time, it is my favorite film of the year.

“Baby Driver” was written and directed by Edgar Wright while being produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park.

The story involves Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is a driver who can only function listening music, who works for Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) crime syndicate. He does one last job to get out of debt and ends up falling in love with Deborah (Lily James) a waitress at a local diner. Things soon go south when after the job all as not as it appears to be and Baby is in over his head.

The Pros: The Art of Soundtrack Intertwined Action – This is a film that is a masterful work of art and so much of that is in the sound editing and use of songs with action. The film kicks off with a heist where there is silence before the pin drop and build up of a song as the getaway occurs. This is just the first example of how the two are interwoven to show rather than tell action. You have scenes with characters with no dialogue is needed and the song and how it is edited with the action tells you all you need to know. Both “Guardians of the Galaxy” did this to some degree (Baby is even a bit like Star-lord with his family issues) but what differs is that here it is down to the details and we are given continuous shots to use a song to it’s fullest degree or whatever sound best serves to show us the action.

Flawed and Compelling, the Art of Character – The characters in this film are compelling and interesting. They are all bad to varying degrees (the exceptions being Deborah and Baby’s foster father) but even the baddies are complex. Each of the characters carry their scars and wounds and we see why some like Bats are so batty and distrust all, because of what they’d had to do, or are driven by a hedonistic love of life and one another (Darling and Buddy) or characters who are driven by a level of trust but also some longing for family connection (Doc) and in all cases this leads them to do bad and good things. These are characters who I wanted to learn more about and who revealed the different aspects of themselves over the course of a film. Even my favorite crime movies like first two “Godfathers,” “Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York” and “Wolf of Wall Street” all didn’t quite pull off the ensemble exploration. This film does and it is part of what makes it the prefect film of it’s kind.

Letting Go and Redemption – A major theme of the film is letting go and and in turn finding redemption. We see obsession consume certain characters in the final act leading to their destruction, while others have to die to themselves and their dreams in order to care for another and in doing so find peace. I’m being purposely vague because I don’t want to spoil this movie. You really should see it.

Subverting Genre Tropes – Deborah is not a damsel in distress. She is as much an active participant in this crime thriller as Darling, Doc, Bats and Buddy. It is her choices and activeness that keep her from becoming the damsel that love interests so often become in these types of films. The ending also subverts the common tragedy trope that often happens in these types of films. I won’t say how it ends but I’ve never seen a crime thriller end this way.

You should go see this film. If you like great films and want a film that will keep you on the edge of your seat because the action has purpose, the soundtrack is amazing, the characters are compelling and the message is meaningful, than this is the film for you. This is the perfect film in it’s genre and I hope Edgar Wright wins awards for this masterpiece.  To any aspiring directors, take note of Wright’s work, he owns this craft as both a writer and director.

Final Score: 10 / 10. The first perfect film this year.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005): Redemption and a Secular Society as the Road to Peace

Kingdom-of-Heaven_3

        “Kingdom of Heaven” is a great film! I’m at the point now where with historical films…I know there won’t be a truly historically accurate films, but how goes the story and how well is it capturing the world of our characters? I’d say on these counts “Kingdom of Heaven” captures this wonderfully. This film is also a good “Spot that ‘Game of Thrones'” character. I must say Ridley Scott does know how to do Epic as well as personal and this film manages to do both really well.

     The film was written and directed by Ridley Scott and produced by William Monahan.

      The story involves Balian (Orlando Bloom) seeking redemption in Jerusalem and the Crusade after the suicide of his wife and his learning from Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson) that he is his bastard and heir and must go to serve the King of Jerusalem. Once he arrives he finds himself pulled into the politics as the Templars seek to break the peace with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) while Balian seeks some sort of peace after he spares the life of Saladin’s second-in-command Nasir (Alexander Siddig) and to protect the Queen Sibylla (Eva Green) who is the woman he loves.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning and Ridley Scott knows how to cast memorable scenes. From Balian being lost in the desert or the darkness of Jerusalem during the siege or time of trial. John Mathieson did a wonderful job on this and created stunning visuals.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is truly epic! It is good at incorporating traditional Arabic instruments and classic instruments and creating rising tension throughout the piece as well as some truly amazing fight music too. Harry Gregson-Williams was the right guy to choose for this soundtrack.

The Action – The battle scenes are amazing! The final battle of the Siege of Jerusalem is really well done as we get to see both siege weapons and a whole bunch of other styles of attack including the final attack after Saladin destroys the wall. Each of the action scenes has purpose too and it is only a few times where it feels like it drags.

The Characters – The characters are one of the strongest part of this film. I wanted to spend more time with them and not getting enough time in a 3 hour film really says a lot for how well they were written and acted. There are not many films that can make me say that, and “Kingdom of Heaven,” did.

Nasir – Alexander Siddig (Bashir of “DS9”) is wonderful as the second-in-command of Saladin and the mystic perspective in Islam as we see he cares about the Christians and sees that it is the good a person does that matters in the end. He attributes that good to God’s will but unlike one of the advisers he is always looking for another way as he has seen the humanity of the people he fights, for example Balian sparing his life and refusing to enslave him lead to him returning the favor and always acting with virtue wherever he was and whatever situation he was in. He was one of my favorite characters.

Sibylla – Eva Green brings a lot of depth to this role as we see someone torn in her role as she loves her brother the King who is a leper but also wants freedom and feels trapped in her role as she is seen as others as a political tool, except for the bastard Balian who never wanted power to begin with. Eventually she finds freedom giving up her role as Queen and becoming Balian’s wife while caring for her people who are now refugees after Saladin spares them.

Guy de Lusignan – Martin Csokas is the main villain in this as he believes God wants the destruction of the heretic and the ascension of the Templars. He is a good antagonist too and nearly succeeds in the assassination of Balian. His life is spared at the end so he still has the chance to become a good person, but given his scheming I think he’d most likely rebuild the Templars who Saladin destroyed and join with King Richard for the next Crusade.

Baron Godfrey – Liam Neeson plays Godfrey, a man who seeks redemption in his son and bastard who he eventually convinces to come to the Holy Land and who he defends against the corrupt local authority. He is injured in the process but is able to point Balian on the right path. He is the man who almost killed Saladin and is respected by all the factions in the region besides the Templars. Neeson plays the flawed wise man really well.

Balian – Orlando Bloom plays the broken noble hero really well. In this he is seeking redemption for his wife who committed suicide and in the end finds himself and realizes that a good God would not put her in Hell, especially as she is still in his heart. After the death of his father and releasing of Nasir he rules over his Baron which is a religiously plural land. This informs his perspective and why King Baldwin respects him as they work towards a peace with Saladin. It is knowing the danger that religion can bring that leads him to threaten to destroy all the holy places too so the fighting will stop…and Saladin agrees showing they both see that the places are hot-spots for instability among both their populaces. After the Siege he leaves with Eva who has become his lover and they give up their titles in order to live with peace simply and care for the refugees. It’s a cool arc and his denial of his role as Baron to King Richard shows that he has finally found peace away from the “Holy Land.”

Saladin – Saladin in the warrior king who we learn is conquering in order to appease the locals who want power and prestige (like the Templars). He is smart though and we see him try to make just decisions while dealing with his own fanatics. Eventually he does attack Jerasulem as he promised but he spares the populace after Balian negotiates terms as we see they both have a similar perspective and that there can’t be real peace if there is only death and loss.

King Baldwin – I didn’t even recognize Edward Norton in this role until I looked it up after. He is wearing a mask and does a wonderful job as the secular king ruling a religiously plural land. He is willing to to anything to keep the peace with Saladin including punishing his own religious fanatics (The Templars) and it is his example and strength that rubs off on both Saladin and Balian as he proves that you don’t need physical strength to have moral strength, and that morality doesn’t come from religion or the rules of religion.

The Importance of Secularism – Secularism is the point of this film as all the good leaders know that only in a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims can live in peace can there be peace…and this means no religion ahead of the others or passing laws against and oppressing the others. This is something the protagonists understand while the antagonists are driven by religion and the power they get from their position within the religion, be they Muslim fanatics or the Templars. Only in a society where there is room for multiple ideas and freedom to express those ideas, can there be peace.

The Danger of Religious Fanaticism – The danger of religious fanaticism is a huge theme too as it is this that leads Saladin to eventually attacking Jerusalem and it is the Templars who keep trying to start the war too as they see the Muslims as heathens and that only those who fight for God will be rewarded. Saladin and King Baldwin in the end are unable to control these factions which eventually leads to war and a breaking of the peace.

The Cons: Pacing – Sometimes it feels like it stretches for too long of time. For example when Balian first becomes Baron over his lands. These scenes stretched too long when we could have got more character moments with the Templars and the other factions in play. For example, I would have loved more time with Saladin.

  This was a powerful film with a message I fully endorse. The dangers of religious fanaticism cannot be warned against enough and this film does that while telling a powerful story and showing just how diverse this region of the world has always been religiously, politically and racially. It is also beautifully filmed, acted and written and is one of the best films to be created by Ridley Scott. If you are looking for a truly epic tale with a message that is timeless and will always ring true, you will probably like this film.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Sleepy Hollow – Season 2, Episode 6 – “The Abyss Gazes Back” – A Matter of Redemption

Sleepy Hollow Season 2 Episode 6

    “Sleepy Hollow” has great monster designs and this one gives us the classic beast of the Wendigo, which is used as a werewolf analogue since it is a cursed human who changes at the smell of blood after receiving the curse from ground up bone. This episode also gives us a greater glimpse into Abbie’s mentor Sheriff Corbin as his son appears in the episode.

The episode was written by Heather V. Regnier and directed by Doug Aarniokoski.

The episode begins with Sheriff Corbin’s son Joe returned from Afghanistan and hates Abbie for feeling she stole his father from him. He is forced to seek her help after blood turns him into the Wendigo and he realizes what his curse is. From here the story unfolds as they race to find a cure and War uses the situation to his advantage to get an item of power that Sheriff Corbin had hid away.

Here is the assessment of the episode:

The Pros: Detective Irving – The episode begins the asylum with Irving accusing War of taking his soul, War says he traded and will owe it if Irving dies. He later manipulates him into nearly killing the man who paralyzed Irving’s daughter from drunk driving and we see the dilemma Irving is in. He’s soulless and has no good choice.

Sheriff Corbin – We see Corbin in a flashback mentoring Abbie where he expresses his love to his son. It is great seeing Tom Clancy again (especially after finishing up “Carnivale”) and we see how the war changed him in regards to making him distant, even if he never stopped loving his son.

Joe / The Wendigo – Joe is the man always going into danger because he has no time with the people he loves, given his father was never there. For this reason his redemption arc involves him forgiving Abbie and his father. He is used by War pretty effectivly though as he retrieves the artifact that his father said was buried when his father passed him on his legacy and after War transforms him, seeing his humanity as a curse. Abbie holds off till the end though and the Shawnee chant and blood from the Wendigo successfully save him.

Abbie Mills – This is a great Abbie episode. In this we see her when she was young and how the love that Corbin gave his son was what she wanted in her life, which lead to her turning her life around. This theme of redemption she carries over in order to save Joe, Sheriff Corbin’s son. She still has hangups about War though, given he locked her in purgatory…and if it comes to the tough choice and Ichabod and Katrina can’t make it, I hope she can kill or stop War…cause someone needs too. He’s one every battle so far this season.

The Shawnee – The Shawnee in this episode are cool. Their hunting party is a group of bikers and it is only through the mention of failure to save Boone that they work with Ichabod since Hawley has screwed them over in the past and sold items they traded and told him to keep. I hope we see them again.

Ichabod Crane – Crane is willing to take the step with those he isn’t attached too. He was ready to kill Joe when the curse seemed permanent. This is contrast to his unwillingness to face War or even the darkness in Katrina. I hope this has consequences later as it is something War should use to his advantage. It is here we learn that Boone was turned into a Wendigo too and the Shawnee weren’t able to help him. They help Ichabod this time though.

Henry Parish / Horseman of War – Parish is great again in this! It starts with him telling Detective Irving he can get his soul back if he kills another…a soul for a soul. He is battling for control of Irving against Crane and on his and Moloch’s designs he succeeds as he turns Joe into a Wendigo with the bone from the flute that the Pied Piper made and got the poison needed that he turns into a spider that goes into his mother Katrina’s mouth at episode’s end. His manipulation of Joe and making Irving feel hopeless is part of what makes him such a great villain. He always wins and even turns his losses into wins.

Okay: Nick Hawley – Looks like he’s a member of the team as he helps them in the search for cures for the Wendigo curse. He isn’t bad but it is hard to be attached to the guy given he lacks the charisma of the other characters.

Jenny Mills – Appears briefly but is only their as muscle to protect Joe. I hope we get a Jenny episode, as she is a great character and deserves more exploration.

The redemption theme is powerful in this episode, but I hope they show that you can’t always find it. Henry Parish is pretty evil and has destroyed all his humanity. The longer Katrina and Ichabod fail to face him, the closer he is to winning. Abbie is right and she might be the only one who can stop him given she knows how bad he is. An artificial curse is not the same as evil chosen the way Parish has chosen it. If they do take that path in the season it better make sense because right now it would look really contrived. War is committed to the cause and doesn’t have empathy even though his power is to find and eat other’s sins. Regardless, can’t wait to see where the story goes. I really like War as antagonist.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

 

Batman: The Animated Series – Season 1, Episode 12 – It’s Never too Late – The Consequences of a Crime War

It's_Never_Too_Late-Title_Card

“It’s Never Too Late,” is about a war between two crime bosses, Rupert Thorne, who we saw from the last episode (who is one of the most competent and dangerous crime bosses in Gotham) and Arnold Stromwell, the conflicted crime boss whose son is kidnapped and who has a brother who is a priest who is trying to save his soul. This is another episode that isn’t about Batman, but while others were focused on the cop perspective…this one follows the two crime bosses as the primary perspective.

Here is the assessment of the episode:

Pros: The Crime Bosses – The crime bosses get some awesome exploration. Thorne is manipulative but has his own sense of twisted honor, Arnold is dealing with trauma in relation to his priest brother and at his core is good. It is an interesting dynamic the two have.

Batman – We once again see Batman as active and trying to see the best in people. He saves Arnold’s life from Thorne and confronts his brother about facing him so that they can move forward and Arnold can find direction.

The message – The dangers of addiction…Cromwell’s son becomes an addict and is stuck in rehab. He is forced to confront the consequences of what he does to people…which Walter White never truly did in “Breaking Bad,” this episode is like of Walt jr. became a meth addict. It also deals with how people are afraid to face themselves. Arnold resists facing himself every step of the episode…even when he’s says he plans to end the war in return for his son who he believes Thorne stole (turns out his son was in rehab).

Cons: The message presentation – It got a bit preachy at times. Should have been more show and less tell. For this reason I won’t be giving it a 9. Presentation of message is important.

The ending – Was very abrupt, he just decided to tell Gordon the truth of what he’d been doing. It wasn’t gradual, it just happened.

It was a good episode, my ratings for it are 8 / 10.