Black Widow Movie Review

I just came home from the cinema, and my head is buzzing with many thoughts about Marvel’s return to the big screen. But, before I get into it, I will have to put a big red: SPOILER WARNING. You’ve been warned. 

The MCU had been going strong since WandaVision graced our TV screens, but we had to wait a tiny bit longer for the return of the movies. When they first postponed Black Widow, I don’t think any of us thought that it would end up getting pushed back till the summer of 2021. Yet, here we are. 

There was a lot of speculation about what Black Widow would be about and where it would be on the timeline of events, but I don’t believe anyone guessed correctly I certainly didn’t. My theory was that Natasha is closed inside the Soul Stone and she would somehow relive her memories, but slowly she would realize what’s been going on. I was completely off track, which led to the very sad realization that this indeed was the last appearance of Scarlett Johansson in the MCU. This realization is due to the fact that Black Widow takes place between the events of Civil War and Infinity War when Natasha is on the run. 

At the beginning of the movie, we get a look into Natasha’s childhood with her father, mother, and little sister in Ohio. It sure seems idyllic until the eagle-eyed Marvel fans (aka me for example) start to chuckle. Natasha didn’t know who her parents were, and that is made clear throughout the MCU timeline. She is in fact very surprised when Red Skull reveals her father’s name to her in Endgame because she didn’t even know that. Therefore, we can already tell that something isn’t quite right in the scenario, even though it is nice to see a happy moment from our beloved Black Widow’s childhood, even if we soon find out that it was all an illusion. The people she treated as family betrayed her very early on and she and her little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) are tossed back into the Red Room where the Widow training is happening. 

The movie fast forwards 21 years as Natasha is on the run from Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after the events of Civil War. This is where we also meet Yelena again as she is on a mission and as she overpowers the target, a red substance is thrown at her. But instead of turning into a mindless monster, (which is something one could expect in a situation like this), her head actually clears up and it turns out that ever since Natasha escaped they have used very successful mind-controlling chemicals on the next generation of Widows. Yelena gets rid of the tracking device that is inside her and soon the samples of the ‘cure’ (let’s call it that) end up in Natasha’s hands.

Yelena (Florence Pugh) Alexei (David Harbour) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson)

That’s the catalyst for the movie. It is so much more than just a superhero/action film from that point. Natasha has to deal with a lot. She goes from one broken family (The Avengers) back to another one only to find out that the famous Budapest events (referenced by her and Clint a lot) were all for nothing. It turns out that she had tried to kill the leader of the Red Room and the Widow program Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and her arch-nemesis had actually survived. 

Now before I get on with the review, I want to share a bit of a fun story that happened at this big reveal. I am from Hungary, and we've been waiting to find out what role our capital: Budapest, would play in the MCU since it was first mentioned in Avengers (2012). There was a line in the movie referring to events that probably aren’t funny to an international crowd, but the whole cinema here laughed out loud when it was said. Natasha says that after the bombing, which was supposed to take out Dreykov, she and Clint had to fight through the Hungarian Commando. We all laughed at this because TEK (the previously referred to Commandos) has quite a bad reputation here in Hungary because in a lot of cases they are deemed to be incompetent. So Natasha saying that they had to fight through them like it was a big deal made over 90 people laugh in the cinema even though I am sure they didn’t think of it as a source for laughter. 

Ok back to the review. 

Once Natasha realizes that what she did to close down her past and save other girls from the same fate was unsuccessful, a much darker thing comes back to haunt her. As it turns out, the day they tried to kill Dreykov they also killed his daughter because as she put it, “There was no other way.” It’s clear very early on that this decision never left Natasha’s mind, and that she has struggled to come to terms with what she did. To find forgiveness. It sits heavily on the film the same way their “parents” betrayals do. 

Natasha Romanoff

They soon figure out that in order to find the Red Room they have to get the help of their fake parents. First, they have to save Alexei (David Harbour) from prison - he was betrayed and put behind bars by Dreykov - and get to Melina (Rachel Weisz) who still works for the Red Room and is responsible for the chemical compound that controls the widows. Once they arrive at Melina’s home we get to witness one of the most important scenes in the movie as the two girls’ trauma catches up with them. I have to admit that I was unsure about Florence Pugh’s casting as Yelena up until this moment in the movie. Here she proved it once and for all that she is pretty great. It broke my heart a little as it also showed us that Natasha’s past has been darker than we could have imagined. Yelena represented the child who was unaware that nothing she saw or experienced during their three years as a “family” was true, while Natasha was old enough to know that it was nothing more than an act. Both of their hurt was real and deep-cutting. 

I really liked the more quiet parts of Black Widow. It once and for all proved that one of the original six deserved to have her own film and we still had a lot to learn about her. She is smart, strong, brave, and everything that’s worth looking up to. It definitely gave me more strength to keep going on my journey and do everything I can to one day be part of the MCU. 

I know a lot of people complained about Taskmaster being a letdown and while I do understand them, I do not agree with them. The tragedy of this character, and showing the true evil of the story is simply fantastic. Taskmaster is none other than Antonia Dreykov (Olga Kurylenko) aka the daughter of Dreykov, who was used by her own father the same way other girls were. He was controlling the mind of his daughter without any remorse. He even has the audacity to thank Natasha for giving him one of his greatest weapons. 

Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko)

The movie's conclusion is amazing. Natasha not only finds forgiveness for what she did, but she also realizes that there’s still hope for her and her other family. They set Yelena up as our next Black Widow flawlessly and Natasha shows up at the end of the movie the way she looked in Infinity War, which gives a bittersweet touch to the whole story. 

I was ugly crying once the realization fully set in that this was our last time with Scarlett. She has been such a highlight of this Universe and she was an example for girls to look up to. She has been and always will be an inspiration. 

And the reason I will forgive Black Widow for coming out this “late” in the game lies in the end credit scene. 

Yelena goes to Natasha’s grave (with the dog she mentioned she always wanted) and that’s when FREAKING VALENTINA (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to whom we were introduced in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier shows up to give Yelena her next target. It is none other than the murderer of her sister: Clint Barton aka Hawkeye. Now, my theory with this big-ass surprise, in the end, is that we will meet Yelena again sooner than we thought in the upcoming Hawkeye series. I mean, it would make sense, but I also know that there’s no point in creating theories when it comes to Marvel because they like to mess with us a little. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier

All in all, Black Widow was a perfect entry in the MCU. Sure, we could have gotten it sooner, but to be honest I kind of don’t mind getting it like this. They did a wonderful job with tying the knots together,  and Scarlett’s last appearance couldn’t have been any better, even if it was bittersweet in the end. I sure will miss her. 

Thank you Black Widow. 

Thank you Marvel. 

I am sending my therapy bill. 

What did you think of the movie? Leave a comment below.

Friendship Enders: Mario Party

There are three universal truths in life: light travels at one astronomical unit, gravity exerts a force onto the Earth equal to 9.8 m/s, and Yoshi is the best character to play in Mario Party (fight me).

Speaking of Mario Party, we’ve got the second installment of Friendship Enders after a long hiatus, and we’re focusing on part two of the relationship-ending trifecta – Mario Party. Now because there are quite a few games in the franchise, I’ll be grouping them into my own personalized categories. The following stories are based on real events… the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

For all of you that have never experienced the true rollercoaster of emotions that is Mario Party, you roll dice and move around a set of boards each with interesting themes and play minigames to earn coins which you use to buy stars. This goes on until the set number of turns ends and bonus stars are awarded to players or someone gets frustrated and hits the power button. It’s like a family game night except you can’t flip the table unless you want to replace your gaming console.

Mario Party 1 – 3: A Rocky Start

With any great work of art, you’ve always got the first few rough drafts, and even the juggernaut franchise that is Mario Party is no exception.

So, we’ve got the first three Mario Party games on the Nintendo 64, which is in and of itself a bit of a rough draft console, especially with the early polygonal 3D graphics employed that could take someone’s eye out if they looked too closely.

Apart from feeling like I’ve had my retinas sanded down after playing these games, these do feel like the first floundering steps of the developers. The maps are pretty simple and lifeless compared to later games, the minigames are a little rudimentary and underdeveloped, and there seems to be a bizarre prevalence of 3 v 1 minigames as opposed to the 4 v 4.

All this being said, Bowser really feels more like an agent of chaos and embodies the random chance of these Mario Party games that I have come to miss with later games in the series.

Still, these games gave me some great times and some lifelong memories, specifically ruining the palm of my hand playing Tug of War ten times in a single 50 turn game.

Worse for your palms than masturbation

Jumping from the early cave paintings to the renaissance Tintoretto styling of 3D graphics, we’re ditching the N64 and jumping aboard the good ship SS GameCube for our next three games. These games, much like the graphics of the GameCube compared to the N64, were a more refined experience.

Mario Party 4 got the ball rolling in a big way. It really felt like the developers broke down the first three games to their fundamental elements and reworked them to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. First of all, they gave us chances to team up with our mates and gave us a couple of new characters to play. The minigames were similar to the first three but with the rough edges sanded down.

The fourth game in the franchise may have gotten the ball rolling, but Mario Party 5 was the real game-changer with the introduction of their capsule/orb system. These little capsules had all sorts of items crammed into them, from extra dice blocks to chance time events. It lends each and every game that extra helping of randomness that has become the basis of the famous Mario Party idiom “the only turn that matters is the final turn.”

The best part is that Mario Party 6 pretty much perfected the formula, smoothed out the last of the rough edges, and kept the party going.

All the memories I have of these three games are always either crazy chance times that ruined my perfect strategy or stupid bonus stars handing me a second-place loss out of nowhere.

Little did Daisy know that with three small button presses she’d end up putting first place to fourth, seizing the means of production and topple the Roman Empire

Mario Party 7 – 9: The Downward Spiral

With every peak comes the trough, and for every winter comes the spring, bringing with it the stench of decay that the winter snow mercifully covered. In the case of Mario Party, that stench of decay emanates from these next three games.

So, imagine this; it’s 2006, and you’ve been waiting for ages to play the latest Mario Party after the US has had it for months. You finally get the game, start playing, and something just doesn’t feel right, kinda like the heart and soul of the franchise has started to leak out of it, and there’s a bit of a weird smell coming from it.

You keep playing but you can’t shake the sense of Deja Vu with its copy-paste gameplay and art style. Some of the boards have a couple of unique gimmicks like Neon Heights, but it doesn’t have the same spark from previous games. Still, the series has been going from strength to strength, so you write it off as a small stumble.

Then Mario Party 8 and Mario Party 9 come out to put your fears to rest *switch to an ominous tone of voice* or so it seems. Admittedly, some of the minigames have a uniqueness lent to them by the power of the Wii mote waggle.

All of this doesn’t hide the very simple fact that you’ve played all of this seven times before. Looking at these games in a vacuum they’re good enough, but comparing them to the wider franchise, they’re always going to come up short.

With exciting games like hide and seek, how could this one have been anything but a surefire hit?.

Mario Party 10 & Super Mario Party: Rock Bottom and A New Hope

Here we are, the bottom of the barrel and the remake that was needed with Mario Party 10 and Super Mario Party respectively. It seems that with Mario Party 8 & 9 not exactly setting the world on fire, the developers decided to scrap the competitive focus and make Mario Party 10 a more cooperative game. Unfortunately, no sane person was there to tell them that you don’t make Mario Party cooperative. Just like you don’t combine ranch dressing and fish sauce with the sterling logic that both flavors work well together because you like them (spoiler: it won’t).

For me, the scales had fallen from my eyes back in Mario Party 8 & 9, but it seems like everyone else has reached that point with the tenth entry because absolutely no one ever mentions this game when people discuss great games in the series. The fact it was on the Wii U also didn’t help with that console being the red-headed stepchild of the Nintendo family.

I’ve only played this game a couple of times and there’s nothing memorable in this game that hasn’t happened to me in previous games. Let’s move onto a better game – namely Super Mario Party.

Oh man, so I got my switch and was so excited to play all the new Mario Party maps… all four of them. Well, then maybe they put a bunch of effort into the boards, right? Well… kinda. The board gimmicks are pretty much the same as previous entries in the franchise but each of the four boards are different enough so they don’t feel samey, but with only four, they lose their novelty pretty quick.

While the boards and number of maps are a bit on the lean side, the minigames are where it feels the majority of the development time went and they have got to be some of the best Mario Party games I’ve ever played (Sizzling Steaks!). It’s the first time since Mario Party 4 I’ve had to check the instructions and it was a great feeling.

Yes, Super Mario Party is a little lackluster in the quantity department, but the quality of the minigames is a real breath of fresh air and personally, I’ve had more fun with this game than any other in the series.

Mario at its finest

Here’s looking forward to the next Mario Party.

Have you played Mario Party? Which game’s your favorite? Let me know in the comments below.

Early Access: Ground Branch

To begin this article I have to ask you all something first. Have you ever wanted to play a game that had realism, tactics, and with a pinch of unique shooting mechanics? Welcome to Ground Branch, a realistic tactical shooter where you actually have to think like a Tier 1 Operator in order to play this game.

WHAT IS SO UNIQUE ABOUT GROUND BRANCH?

Ground Branch is not your every day “First Person Shooter”. The game puts legitimate elements together for you where you have to actually think about and how to overcome certain objectives.

Let me give you an example: think of a plane taken over by terrorists and the surrounding buildings. What would your approach be? Do you go in with stealth to take over the buildings before going to the plane? How would you get to the plane without being noticed or getting shot in a wide-open area? What weapon will you take with you? Do you take an M416D CQB or an M16 rifle? Do you want to go long-range and back up your team, or do you want to clear the plane in a close-quarters battle?

These are just some of the questions that you ask yourself when playing this game. Preparation is vital in this, and believe it or not, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to playing Ground Branch.

CO-OP/SINGLEPLAYER AND GEARING UP

If you want to squad up with your buddies and play some good ol’ fashion co-op mode, Ground Branch has you covered! When you start in a lobby, you will be placed in an Operations Center. This is where you can customize your loadout (Will talk more about customization further down!), test your equipment at the shooting range, vote on what map to play/match settings, or customize your character.

I’m gonna be honest here. When it comes to the customization in Ground Branch, I was completely blown away by how much attention to detail there is. When I put together my gun, I used the M416D CQB option(A carbine used for Close Quarters Battle) with a basic holographic sight, foregrip, suppressor, and laser sight.

Customizing my rifle was fun. You can place the foregrip anywhere on the under-barrel. You want it closer to where your magazine is? No problem! You want the sight a little bit further down on the rifle? You can do that!

If you wanna do some sniping but are concerned about getting up close with the enemy, you can put a sight on top of the scope! Just make sure the scope has a flat mount first, then you can put a mini red dot sight with the flat mount.

Let's move on to the character. You will have an encumbrance meter (Weight of gear that you are carrying)for your loadout, so be aware of that when customizing your operator. With every operator, you will have a chest rig or platform that holds your ammo. Now with this, you can put which type of ammo you want in your pouches. It usually defaults to your primary ammo, so I would keep it to that.

The same can be said for the grenades. If you want flashbangs or smoke grenades instead of the frag, you can change that out! I can go on and on about the customization, but I feel like I should leave some of it out so you can experience this for yourself!

Once you have everything you feel is the right fit for your loadout, you will find a briefing room where you can get a strategy going with your team and pick where to insert yourself on the map. The map will only give you two points of entry, so decide where you feel it is best suited for your loadout! When playing with bots, there are only two game modes to choose from. You will have the traditional Terrorist Hunt game mode and Intel Retrieval. You will also have mission settings where you set the difficulty, expected resistance, search time, etc.

IS THE GAMEPLAY ANY FUN?

The gameplay and gunplay in this game are extensive, so I will do my best to describe how fun it was while keeping it relatively short.

Again I want to reiterate the realism in this game. While going up against bots/other players, a single bullet can and will kill you (Insert Murphy's Laws Of Combat).

While I was playing, I noticed that arm strength is a real mechanic in this game, and if you keep your rifle up at the ready, you will sway a lot more than usual. In this case, I will introduce another mechanic to the gunplay. You can raise, lower, or ready your rifle from the hip before doing a breach and clear. You can even lean left and right out of cover to get a better shot without exposing most of your body.

If you want to go in with some stealth, you can find a panel and turn off the power to a building while your team readies at the door. While at the door, you can choose to open the door slowly and quietly while entering, keeping the element of surprise!

I will be honest, I had a lot of fun playing this game solo but wanted to try it out with a group of random people in co-op. Now I did have fun, but with all games, you will get a lot of people griefing you, but overall I had fun in the end.

Now I know I didn’t cover everything. I did that on purpose because I want you to try it out for yourself and discover what other mechanics are out there in Ground Branch.

So to finish off this article, if you are into tactical shooters where you need to think while playing, I would highly recommend this game. I do need to remind everyone that this game is in early access so everything is still subject to change! Have fun!!

Why Korean Movies and TV Shows Should Be on Your Watch List

I have to admit that Train to Busan wasn’t the first Korean movie I saw. It was actually The Host from acclaimed writer and director Bong Joon Ho. Back then, I don’t think I really appreciated that movie. I think I only watched it because everyone seemed to be talking about it. Years later, I went back and watched it again, and it was amazing. It gives a new shade to the monster genre and a depth that you probably didn’t even think was possible from a movie with a big monster in it. It’s not as much about the action as it is about the connection between the characters, the different relationships, and how they change. Although I have to admit, the action sequences are pretty damn good as well, especially the one at the beginning when the monster first attacks the people on the beach. But, I needed time (and an extra kick) to truly appreciate Bong Joon Ho’s movie. 


Gong Yoo (left) and Ma Dong-seok (right) in Train to Busan

In 2016 a new zombie movie rolled into the cinemas, and this time around, it came from Korea, not from the United States. It came at the right time when it seemed like that not even ‘The Walking Dead’ would be able to keep the zombie genre alive. In my personal opinion, Train to Busan single-handedly saved zombie films and is without question, the best one ever created. Yes, I know that is controversial to say, but I am standing by it with all my heart and soul. Once it came out, I managed to get it on Blu-Ray, watched it at least 50 times if not more, and I can’t get tired of it. I even got my hands on the novel version (it wasn’t an easy task).

I watched Seoul Station which plays in the same universe as Train to Busan and tells the story of how it all started in Seoul. This movie was such a huge success internationally as well, that we also got a second film called Peninsula which heavily involved the Americans, and not to throw any shade, but it sadly shows. Peninsula is nowhere near as great as Train to Busan was, and except for the opening scene on the ship, it fails on almost every level as it is heavily influenced by the simple curse of “More money, bigger effects and losing the heart and soul of the movie”. The characters are a bit flat and grey and they are your typical “genre characters”.

Not too long ago, we also got the news that James Wan (master of horror if you ask me) got the rights to create the American version of Train to Busan and I am not really happy with this news, to put it lightly. I love James Wan, respect him, and would LOVE to work with him one day, but I honestly wish that no one would ever touch Train to Busan. This movie was so good story-wise, in character building, and in the genre itself that it doesn’t need any remake/reboot. It needs to be left alone and exist perfectly on its own, please and thank you. I could go in-depth of why I think Train to Busan is the perfect zombie movie, but since I want to talk about other Korean movies and tv shows as well, I will link the video from the YouTube Channel ‘Wow Such Gaming’ in here because he explains it flawlessly:

After watching Train to Busan and falling in love with two actors Gong Yoo (he played the main character Seok-woo) and Ma Dong-seok (he played the absolute badass Sang-hwa) I did my usual ritual… I stalked them on IMDb and watched MANY of their movies and TV Shows. 

As I mentioned in my previous article, Ma Dong-seok will star in Marvel’s The Eternals this year, which I am overly excited about as it will be his first appearance in an American film. I would highly recommend some of his movies first for you all to fall in love with him. The two movies I love him in (besides Train to Busan of course) are two huge movies from Korea: Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days. In the first one, he only appears in the end but in the second one, he is one of the protagonists. These movies are mind-bending and I can guarantee you that they are very different from what you are used to. The first one tells the story of a firefighter who after his heroic death has to go through 7 trials in 7 hells over 49-days to disclose how he lived his life. He has the help of three guardians who are trying to succeed in defending him during the trials so he can be reincarnated as he is considered to be a model citizen. In the second movie, the Last 49 days we find out who the three guardians were in their life on Earth, and it is one of the most beautiful stories about how our lives can intertwine.

Watching these two movies made me realize why Korean movies are so appealing to me. The story-telling can be confusing at first because they are going deep from the beginning. They do not introduce their characters the same way other movies would, instead they go deep into the stories of their characters and the reason behind how they act during the main act. They don’t follow the so-called rules of story-telling. Therefore, when you fall in love with the characters on your screen it feels more natural, more human, as you find out who they really are and can get genuinely surprised when new characteristics are introduced through them. 

A TV Show I would like to recommend that stars Gong Yoo from Train to Busan, is called Sseulsseulhago Chalranhashin: Dokkaebi or as most people know it: Goblin. This series is mind-blowingly beautiful in every way possible: as a drama, as a romance, the cinematography, the story-telling, and the character building. It’s definitely a high peek of Korean television. Gong Yoo plays the titular character ‘Kim Shin’ aka ‘Goblin’ whose quest is to find a bride to break his immortal curse as he is a 939-year-old guardian of souls. It is at times heartbreaking, but all together just an absolutely breathtaking Korean TV drama. A must-watch. 

Still from the movie Forgotten

Netflix is a wonderful ally when it comes to Korean TV and Film, especially if you live outside of Korea. They have Korean originals and TV Shows and Movies (including the previously mentioned Along with the Gods) that are available to watch for the international crowd as well. The first Netflix original I saw was Forgotten. If you like heavily elaborate twists and true mind-bending… you HAVE TO watch this film. I adore Forgotten on the same level as Train to Busan (someone, please count how many times I already wrote down this title). Forgotten is about Jin-seok (played by Kang Ha-Neul) who’s brother returns after being abducted but he is a completely different person, so Jin-seok starts to search for the truth, and oh boy… the things he finds out and therefore we find out are so mind-blowing, that there’s no way you can guess ANY of the steps in this movie. It is masterfully done, every step, the way the story unfolds is something that should be taught to film students everywhere. It definitely changed my view on movies in a major way, especially on thrillers, as this counts as that. And what stands in the spotlight here as well? THE CHARACTERS. 

Another Netflix original I would very highly recommend to everyone is another TV Show called Kingdom. Kingdom is once again a major contender in the zombie genre BUT it plays during the Joseon period. It’s not just a simple zombie series, oh no… not even close, it is also a royal drama series with intricate story-telling and (once again) characters, who will very quickly grow on you and you can’t help but hold all your fingers crossed for them. This series easily knocks The Walking Dead out of the park, without any question. It focuses heavily on how greed is even worse than the dead coming back to life to bring chaos and destruction while also adding mystery and depth to its story. 

This article is very long. But hang with me as there are a few more titles that I need to mention as a must-see for anyone who would like to dive into Korean cinema (and oh boy, I hope you all do):

There are so many more Korean TV shows and films we could talk about, but I tried to highlight some of my favorites in this article. I’ve only really started to get into Korean cinema the past few years and I do regret not getting into it earlier. It’s so different from what I am used to that it is actually refreshing. I would give out a warning though… once you get in don’t be surprised if it completely sucks you in. As a matter of fact, I started learning Korean back in 2020 so I can watch and enjoy them without subtitles. 

Bong Joon Ho with his Oscars

Just to mention one last thing. Because I can’t leave without talking about it. Bong Joon Ho directed one of the best post-apocalyptic movies with a mostly American cast (khm… Chris Evans… khm) and I truly and fully believe that everyone should watch it. It’s called Snowpiercer and with it, you will glance into what Korean film-making and story-telling are like. It’s also worth it to mention that Bong Joon Ho is an executive producer on the SnowPiercer TV show on TNT as well. 

Why Should You Most Definitely Check Out The Mass Effect Trilogy?

I started playing Dragon Age in 2010. Whenever I started it, the usual logos came up, and the title, but before entering the main menu, another game’s trailer started to play automatically. Yes, that was a thing at that time. Anyway, that trailer was for Mass Effect 2. At first, I ignored it, but while I played Dragon Age, I fell in love with how you can create your own character, get to know the companions, and navigate through the story and make decisions. I started to wonder if maybe this Mass Effect game was the same. And that is how it all started. 

"The Normandy's crew was MY crew."

I quickly got my hands on both installments and got sucked into the world with the snap of a finger. By the time 2012 rolled in and it was time for the third game, I was a massive fan who had already played through the previous ones at least two to three times. I fell in love with the story and characters. The Normandy’s crew was MY crew. I felt like part of a family I never knew I needed. 

What are the things that make Mass Effect so special?  There are many answers to this question, and I will give you all of them because I really want people to get into these games. Trust me, it’ll be worth it. 

**WARNING- SPOILERS AHEAD**

 

The Story

We’re in the future. The year is 2183 when we first step onto the Normandy either as a Female or Male Shepard (we will come back to this point). At this point, humanity discovered and has been using devices called Mass Relays that make interstellar travel possible. This, of course, means that we also discovered Alien life and how rich the Milky Way galaxy is in reality. 

Garrus- Original artwork by LilyK

In the first game, we are sent on a routine mission to a human colony called Eden Prime and this is where the bigger story gets triggered. The colony is under attack by the Geth army ( Artificially Intelligent machines created by a race called the Quarians that have been rising up against them)  They are led by a rogue Spectre called Saren.

Spectres are agents entrusted with extraordinary authority by the Citadel Council, including the power of life and death over the inhabitants of the galaxy.”

The crew of the Normandy quickly realize the Geth are there for the same purpose. To recover an unearthed Prothean Beacon. Protheans play a big part in all three games. We soon find out that their beacons are actually warnings of a highly advanced machine race’s arrival. This race is called the Reapers. They return from the dark space every fifty thousand years to purge the galaxy. They are the big bad of these games, the ones that Shepard and her/his crew have to fight against to save the galaxy. The biggest problem facing Shepard is that no other civilization before has been able to defeat them. 

The stakes in the first game are high, but they are only the beginning of what’s to come. After defeating Saren (who is under Reaper control)  and the Geths, the second installment of the game brings in other minions of these machines, who are called the Collectors. 

They made a very interesting choice in this part; you see: Shepard dies at the beginning while saving the crew. Don’t panic though, Mass Effect isn’t like Dragon Age. We do get back our Shepard thanks to a company called Cerberus and their leader, the Illusive Man. But other than Joker, Garrus and Tali’Zorah, no one else actually joins from the original game, I mean, you do meet them and have missions with some of them, but they are not actually there with you in the final fight. This pissed me off a bit at first, but thankfully, the new crew is actually quite awesome as well. They managed to justify this decision pretty early on. The second game is much more complex in the story, character building, and even in the decisions, you have to make along the way. I will write about this more, but one of the greatest things in this story, for me, is the Illusive Man who’s played by the amazing Martin Sheen. 

The third game doesn’t mess around at all. The Reapers arrive. There’s nothing Shepard can do to stop them anymore. It is straight into the action. Throughout almost every mission, we are thrown into a war zone as the enemy is already everywhere. Every decision made in this game can mean life or death to one or the other. I will point out that Mass Effect said that all the decisions we made previously will matter. It is ultimately true, except for the final decision… The final decision was the part that pissed off many, including me. I replayed the third game many times since, always going for the best possible ending - which for me literally means Shepard taking a breath among the ruins of the Citadel - but it still makes me angry to think that after everything we go through, we can only win if we sacrifice ourselves. 

But!

  BUT!

 I might be able to forgive them since the surprise new Mass Effect game announcement and that trailer with Liara actually hints that the crew somehow is after Shepard? Possibly? Hopefully. We obviously don’t know what will happen yet exactly and I am guessing depending on which decision you made it will be different in ways, but I am hopeful. That trailer gave me a lot to look forward to and my Mass Effect loving heart is happier than ever. 

Creating Yourself

Key visual art for Female Shepard in Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect is a role-playing action game. This means that you get to design your own protagonist. I loved this in Dragon Age but oh, boy, do I love it here even more? YES. So, I can’t talk much about male Shepard as I always go for female Shepard. I mean… just listen to the badass voice of Jennifer Hale, who’s an absolute Queen, and honestly, whenever she talks in the game, I feel like I can literally achieve anything. She brings such depth to Commander Shepard that I didn’t think was possible. 

The creating process evolved a lot throughout all three games, but I am guessing that the remastered version will improve all of them even more. I loved the freedom it gave me to make Shepard as similar to myself as possible. At one playthrough I made her look like Angelina Jolie and I immediately fan-casted her as Shepard for a possible movie adaptation. (Please, Hollywood, don’t touch Mass Effect though, thank you). 

The Companions 

I would say, without an ounce of doubt, that the best part of these games is the crew and the relationship you build with them. You truly feel that they are your family by the end of the first game and that feeling will grow with each installment. When I enter the Mass Effect world, I am going home. Easy as that. 

The Illusive man

You know there’s a feature in these types of games that you can skip the conversations you’re having with the people? Well, I’ve never done that here. I love listening to the really well-written dialogues, stories they tell, and getting to know these characters. Even with the companions that don’t actually go on missions with you. 

I will start this off with one of the greatest characters in any video game. His name is Jeff “Joker” Moreau and he is played by Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Dads, Rat Race, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). You’ll want to protect him at all costs and you'll fall in love with him, I can promise you both of these things. Joker actually has Vrolik Syndrome which causes extreme brittleness in the bones and even with modern medicine, he has a hard time walking around. But this won’t stop him. He is confident in his abilities, he is funny, and he is lovable to a point where you feel like he is your little brother. Seth Green does such an amazing job with his character. Joker comes to life because of him and I really like the little conversations you can have with him. 

Of course in this game, you also have a chance to romance the characters. There are some restrictions here and there, but you actually have a lot of choices on who you can pick. My forever pick is Kaidan Alenko who’s played by Raphael Sbarge (Once Upon a Time, Risky Business, Prison Break). I actually fell in love with Raphael’s voice first. It’s a bit hoarse, deep, and for me very unique. Kaidan is a bit of a more typical character. I would compare him to other popular sad boys like Alistair from Dragon Age or Cullen from the same universe, but what can I say? I love sad boys. We all do, let’s be honest. 

Mass Effect 2 challenged my loyalty to Kaidan when they brought in the Drell assassin Thane Krios, played by Keythe Farley. 

Anderson in the original game and the remastered version

When I tell you all that the background stories they came up with for each and every character is amazing, I am not lying. I usually have one or two characters in a game I don’t really like. Here? I can’t even say that. The “bad guys” of the story are also interesting, they have depths, and they are not your (sadly) usual one-dimensional villains. It shows very early on in the first game. Maybe… maybe Udina is a bit of a more generic “bad guy”, but that’s something you can forgive as you play through the game. 

We actually have so many characters that I can’t mention all of them without making this an 18-page long essay, so I will highlight two more that have a special place in my heart and I will let you discover the rest for yourself. 

Mordin Solus is played by Michael Beattie and he is a Salarian geneticist who joins us in Mass Effect 2. I am pretty confident that he is the character who goes through the biggest change throughout the two games he is in. In the beginning, he doesn’t really see or understand the failures of his way, but as you talk more and more with him, he slowly starts to evolve. When we meet with him again in the third game, I think it’s honestly one of the biggest surprises. He changes for the better. One of the quotes I love from these games comes from him and it breaks my heart every time because the meaning of this line actually changes through the two games: 

“Had to be me” Mordin Solus in Mass Effect 3

 

Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

The Illusive Man is played by Martin Sheen (The West Wing, Apocalypse Now, The Departed). In my personal opinion, I firmly believe that the Illusive Man is one of the best antagonists ever created for a game. There. I said it. It’s not just because this is one of my favorite Martin Sheen performances, but also because his character also goes through a big change. There was always more to him than met the eyes. You always suspected his motives as being a bit more than questionable, but the big change comes in the final confrontation. If you chose the Paragon path, the talk with him is actually a bit heartbreaking. His character keeps reminding me of what Dr. Alan Grant says in Jurassic Park 3: 

“Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”

An honorable mention for the end is the character of Kai Leng from Mass Effect 3. He was played by Troy Baker and it was my introduction to his work. I can safely say that Mass Effect gave me a lot. 

Paragon or Renegade

Ashley in the original game and the remastered version

These two things are also very important in the game. You become a Paragon if you always do the right thing and Renegade if you still do the right thing but choose the “ruthless” path. Or you can move somewhere in the middle. A little intimidation never hurt nobody. However, the game becomes very specific at some decision-making points, meaning that the Paragon choice can have different consequences than the Renegade choice. This comes into play especially in the third game where a lot of things depend on which road you have chosen. I am always on the Paragon path because I don’t like being mean to others. I did try at one of the playthroughs, the whole being a bit of an ass to others deal, but I made Garrus upset and I couldn’t live with that thought. So, I can’t say too much on this, but I do know from other people’s playthroughs that there are definitely differences in some scenes depending on which road you took. 

Summary

There is so much content, history, and side quests in these games that I almost ended up writing a full eight pages just about the story. I could share so much and all I did was simply play these games and pay attention during the journey. I know the names even though I am horrible with names. If you were to introduce yourself to me, you can be 100% sure that two minutes later, it gets wiped from my memory. It’s just gone. You ask me about my Mass Effect crew; I'll throw all the knowledge I have on you. 

The creators at Bioware have my utmost respect. The world and the stories that they came up with, never fail to amaze me. I mean, just the simple fact that you can connect with these characters on such a deep level shows so much about how well it was all planned out. For me, these games will never get boring. They will mean comfort and love no matter what else is going on. So when N7 Day came around - (November 7th, when the creators and fans are celebrating Mass Effect together, in the game it’s Shepard’s Special Ops sign) - I literally jumped up and down screaming when they announced the remaster and the development of the new game.  

I can promise you this: If you decide to go on this journey, you will not regret it at all. You’ll grow to love the characters and the world they exist in very easily. The connection you’ll be able to make with everything here will be thanks to the role-playing nature the game has. The action sequences are stunning, the cinematics were way ahead of their time, even in the first game. I played these games first on my laptop. When I had to buy a new one, I replayed them again on the new one too. Now, I will have the remastered version on PS4 and I just can’t wait to jump back in again, even though I experienced it so many times now. It will be like playing with something new but still very familiar all over again. 

"Guide This One, Kalahira, And He Will Be A Companion To You As He Was To Me." 

- Thane

Create your own Mass Effect wallpaper on the official site: 

https://www.ea.com/games/mass-effect/mass-effect-legendary-edition/my-shepard-art-creator?utm_campaign=mele_hd_ww_ic_soco_twt_key-art&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&cid=68502&ts=1620278516695

Could Hellblade 2 be Xbox’s God of War?

I have often heard when someone plays Hellblade for the first time, they say something along the lines of “Oh wow, this is like God of War.” That always seemed not only flattering but a little insulting as it should be the other way around (Hellblade came out before God of War 2018, no offense to Cory Barlog and the masterpiece that is God of War). The point of the matter is that Hellblade 2 has great DNA and the potential to be an amazing single-player, narrative-driven experience, with rich and deep gameplay systems and in my mind, is a front runner for game of the year or even one of the best games ever made, and here is why.

The forthcoming Xbox exclusive could potentially be one of the greatest single-player adventure games for the platform on tier with PlayStation’s God of War.

Ninja Theory's acquisition announcement by Xbox E3 2018

Announced as an Xbox and PC exclusive at the 2019 Game Awards, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is the next installment from developer Ninja Theory. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is the much-anticipated sequel to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which was released in 2017 to much fan acclamation. This news came just a few short months after the announcement that the studio had been acquired by Microsoft as part of their plan to build on their first-party roster of studios. Hellblade was developed in-house and published on Ninja Theory’s dime, and yet they made something truly special. That being said, the original game left things to be desired, but that is why I, for one, am excited that the studio gets to make a sequel and with Microsoft's full support. So let me tell you why I am very much anticipating the forthcoming adventures of Senua.

Hellblade’s Significance

Hellblade is important as a video game for a couple of reasons: it directly deals with mental health and its stigmas. In recent years, it has been found that stigmas (a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance) around mental health and afflictions have a tendency to make the conditions worse than they were. Hellblade is one of few examples that looked to show people how it can feel to have a serious mental condition and what effect the behavior of others can have. Its success as a video game proves that creativity in the games industry is needed. Microsoft's acquisition of Ninja Theory not only recognizes the studio for the risks they took to develop Hellblade but also gives them the means to continue making smaller, more creative endeavors that push technology and gaming experiences in new ways. 

If you are like me, you may have noticed that the majority of games that have been released by major publishers over the past two console generations are very “same-y”. There is a reason for that. Most studios and publishers saw what the other guys were doing that was making money and said “that, I want that”. It’s like how after Die Hard came out in 1988, every action film after was Die Hard but on a bus or Die Hard but on a plane. Do you see where this is going?

Hellblade did something called proof of concept or demonstrating that an idea is feasible and desired. Hellblade’s director Tameem Antoniades set out to make a game that delivered a AAA experience while doing so with a smaller staff (roughly 20 people), a smaller budget, and while taking creative risks. In this case, a game that directly focuses on mental health and a main character that is experiencing deep emotional and mental trauma. This, as far as we know, will continue to be the drive and focus in Hellblade 2 but on a much larger scale.

Hellblade’s Release 

Hellblade was originally released on August 8th, 2017, on PlayStation Network and PC. Then, on Xbox in April 2018 and Switch in April 2019. It was sold for $29.99 USD, half the normal price of a standard game while trying to deliver as good of an experience as the standard $60 game. The release of Hellblade was purely digital as part of Ninja Theory’s Independent AAA structure that sought to cut out the middleman, in this case, the publisher. This allowed the game to be sold directly and provide a lower price point while still giving all profits from the game directly to Ninja Theory. Hellblade sold well beyond sales expectations as well as won three Game Awards and a stunning five BAFTA’s!

The Story of Senua

Disclaimer: For those who have not played Hellblade, the following section contains major plot points and spoilers.

Hellblade is a hack-and-slash adventure game that also blends elements of puzzle-solving and horror. The game tells the tale of a Pict warrior named Senua. Picts are a Celtic-speaking group of people that lived in northern Scotland during the early Middle Ages. Senua is on a journey to retrieve the soul of her dead lover Dillion from Helheim, who was sacrificed by Norse invaders to their gods in an execution ritual called the Blood Eagle. Google it, if you want to know how awful it is, or check out the (Blood Eagle) here.

 

Senua on her approach to Helheim

Through her adventures, you learn that Senua has an affliction known to her people as the darkness, which corrupts her mind and spreads plague and evil wherever she goes. Her father, a Druid and religious leader believes he is the only one who can help Senua. In doing so, he secludes her from her village and even confines her to a dark hole for a long period of time. This would make anyone go mad!

Hellblade introduces elements of gameplay that directly correlate to Senua’s psychosis. She sees patterns in the world and various runes are strewn through the environments that she sees in order to open the path in front of her. She hears voices in her head that are helping her as much as hindering. They voice a lot of what many of us are thinking and feeling in our own internal monologues, hope, fear, doubt, anger, and despair.

Senua’s psychosis is perpetuated by her father and the stigma it creates with the other villagers. When the village is hit with illness and plague, her father convinces everyone that it is Senua’s darkness that has bought it. She leaves the village to live in the woods to spare people from her affliction.

 

Druth telling Senua about his journey

Dillion, the man she loves, is the only one who doesn't see her as cursed or a monster. He tried to help her see past the stigma of her condition. When Senua returns, she finds Dillion murdered and her psychosis completely takes control. Throughout her travels, she sees Dillion’s spirit as a guide in the dark. She is also aided by the spirit of Druth, a man who lived amongst the Northmen as a slave until his death. Senua battles her demons manifested as shadowy versions of Northmen as well as various gods such as Surtr and Valraven. She ultimately must face Hela, the guardian of Helheim.

 

 

 

What makes it special

So why should you care about Hellblade, or Ninja Theory, or Xbox for that matter? Even if a game like Hellblade is not your “cup of tea” it is still important to all gamers and what the future holds. Ninja Theory took risks to make Hellblade on their own dollar and produced a phenomenal experience and thankfully they are getting recognized for what they achieved. Now, with Microsoft’s backing, they have the ability to further push the limits and technology used to make interactive experiences. For example, Project Mara and The Insight Project, both look to visualize and understand mental health and disorders in all-new ways. If you want to learn more about these projects you can visit https://ninjatheory.com/, https://theinsightproject.com/, or watch the video diary series The Dreadnaught Diaries on YouTube.

Senua listening to her mother's spirit

Ninja Theory is taking an approach to game development that many studios talk about doing but can’t. They are building smaller, more focused teams to work on each individual game while building new and experimental technologies to push art design to new lengths.

 

 

What the sequel could be and why

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 is still in development and little is known outside the teaser trailer and some information provided in Ninja Theory's Developer Diaries. What we do know is that the sequel will be set in Iceland and will have recreations of over 40 real world locations from Iceland. This already lends itself to some truly amazing level design and visual aesthetic for the game. The original game focuses heavily on exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat, and the average playthrough clocks in around 10-12 hours. Now that Ninja Theory has the support and ability to develop a deeper game than the first, it is entirely possible that the sequel could be more in line with God of War (PS4). If the next AAA game featuring Senua is fleshed out in a similar style to GOW, we could see Xbox finally have an answer to Sony’s monolithic franchise.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2010)
DmC: Devil May Cry (2013)

Ninja Theory has a great track record for deep combat (e.g. DmC: Devil May Cry and Heavenly Sword) as well as exploration via Enslaved. If that experience is applied to the next Hellblade, it could evolve to incredible heights and include some of the best systems within a game, all while telling a deep and personal story as the original did. As an independently developed game with such attention to detail, it comes as no surprise that the original game kept to its core concepts. It did not feature a lot of what most gamers are used to, such as upgradeable gear and weapons, open and explorable maps with hidden secrets, NPCs, and quest lines. This allows for so many opportunities for the sequel or even creating wholly new and unique gameplay elements.

Ninja Theory, as a game development studio, has delivered excellent games throughout most of its time. All while being under the thumb of a big publisher. When they decided that they had to go for broke with a project like Hellblade, they proved just how far they can go when the shadow of a controlling publisher is removed. Microsoft has recognized this talent and is now giving them license to continue doing what they do best but without fear of emptying their savings and closing their doors. This seems like a prime opportunity for Ninja Theory to rise to the ranks of Sony’s Santa Monica or Naughty Dog studios and with that make Hellblade 2 something truly great!

Have you played Hellblade? Are you looking forward to the sequel? Let us know in the comments below.

Watch the Trailer for Senua’s Saga Here

Getting Gritty with The Bad Batch

What do you get when cloning on Kamino goes bad in a good way? Answer: The Bad Batch. Fans of Star Wars: The Clone Wars love this maverick group of clone troopers so much they earned their own series on Disney+. I'm one of those fans, so I'm excited to share my love with you all, introduce you to the group, and give you my review of the debut episode of Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Star Wars: The Bad Batch logo

You don't have to have seen the other animated Star Wars shows to appreciate this new series. If you have, though, you'll find yourself picking out references to both Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. Full disclosure: I was skeptical about The Clone Wars through its original six seasons (2008-2014), and it wasn't until I fell in love with Rebels in 2015 that I finally decided to watch through The Clone Wars. To my surprise, I actually loved it! So my anticipation was high for The Bad Batch spin-off.

For a little background if you're not familiar with The Clone Wars, it's an animated series that tells the story between two Star Wars prequel films, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Disney decided to give series fans a much-desired Season 7 of The Clone Wars (Season 7) to wrap up the series. That was released in February 2020 exclusively on Disney+, and the story partially overlaps with Revenge of the Sith.

But who are The Bad Batch? The Clone Wars introduced a number of clone troopers with unique personalities brought to life by phenomenal voice performances from Dee Bradley Baker. Dee started with a basis of Temura Morrison's voice as Jango Fett and Commander Cody in the prequel films. He then extended that voice into something distinct for each clone. In the show's final season, we meet a group of four such clones that were genetic experiments by the cloners on Kamino. Cody called them "defective clones with desirable mutations," making them powerful assets if you're putting together a special operations team for a tough mission. And the Republic did just that, establishing Clone Force 99, a.k.a. "The Bad Batch," as a highly trained, highly successful team known for their unconventional methods.

The Bad Batch together in battle
The Bad Batch team up to face an army of battle droids back in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

In spite of some social media backlash I've seen about them being blatant character tropes, The Bad Batch was well-received in their 4-episode story arc kicking off The Clone Wars Season 7. We wanted to see more, and Disney and Lucasfilm obliged! Star Wars: The Bad Batch debuted on "Star Wars Day" (May 4) in 2021. Dee Bradley Baker might have his work cut out for him voicing all those unique characters, but what a great way to showcase his performances!

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

The rest of this article includes details about the final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the debut episode of Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Let me introduce you to the squad...

Hunter from Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Hunter leads the force. He may look like Rambo with the shaggy dark hair and head band, but his heightened senses make him more like Billy, the tracker character from Predator. Hunter is a master of martial skills and moves incredibly fast in his signature knife fighting style. As a leader, Hunter brings his tactical genius, knowing what each of his team members can do, how to keep them focused, and how to best coordinate their approach in any situation.

Wrecker from Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Wrecker is the stereotypical big strong guy with a heart of gold and a bundle of enthusiasm. Nothing fazes him as he faces ship crashes and enemy reinforcements as exciting challenges. He also doesn't think much before acting, assuming he can do some superhuman things in battle. And he's usually right. Wrecker is gregarious with his friends, and he's a big softie when it comes to sentimental things. It's hard not to love this guy, and he's easily my favorite.

Tech from Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Tech has enhanced intelligence and a talent for breaking into computers, hijacking electronics, and translating languages. He also has stereotypical "nerd" spectacles and a penchant for correcting people or dropping in bits of trivia during conversations. Besides being a seasoned fighter with dual blasters, Tech's accurate, on-the-fly calculations in battle help the rest of the team execute the perfect attack.

Crosshair from Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Crosshair is the silent type who always looks brooding and intense. His sniper skills and instincts are as superhuman as Wrecker's strength. And when he takes out his signature toothpick to speak, it's because there's something important to say. The Bad Batch fight scenes as a team show off Crosshair's brilliance and his ability to think several steps ahead.

Echo from Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Echo is a recurring elite clone trooper from the Clone Wars series who joined The Bad Batch at the end of their story arc in the show's final season. Presumed dead after an explosion, Echo was captured and enslaved as a cyborg so a corporation could gather and sell intelligence secrets from his mind. The Bad Batch helped rescue Echo, and Echo earned their trust by applying his new inside knowledge and droid-like computer port to turn the tide on the Anaxes battlefront. He's also proved that he's still a top commando on the battlefield.

This team has kicked off their new show with style. Star Wars: The Bad Batch comes in with guns blazing, full of action, humor, and heart. I won't recap the whole 70-minute debut episode here, I'll just reflect on some key plot points and my reactions and encourage you to check out the show. 

The Bad Batch on Kaller in Episode 1

To start off, I have to talk about how beautiful this animation is. Though the series is a spinoff from The Clone Wars, it's building on the major upgrades the series made to its animation in its final season. The character faces seem to be the only artifacts from its highly stylized early seasons. This newer animation uses focus effects, lens distortions, and brilliant camera movement as though on a 3D set with conventional live action film technology. It's easy to forget I'm watching animation instead of live action with CGI.

Caleb Dume from The Bad Batch
The first 10 minutes of the series included a certain padawan who Star Wars: Rebels fans will be very familiar with.

Corresponding with the final events of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, the first episode starts with The Bad Batch witnessing the infamous Order 66 and trying to make sense of what's going on around them. I was relieved that most of The Bad Batch aren't affected by the inhibitor chips implanted in clones' brains to guarantee they would follow Order 66. As the order goes out, the "regs" turn on their Jedi leaders and kill them. But in The Bad Batch, only Crosshair seems inclined to kill the Jedi, and he's confused as to why. None of the team knows what "Order 66" was until Tech does a little digging.

After The Bad Batch returns home to Kamino and starts testing the waters, Admiral Tarkin arrives. Stephen Stanton returns to his Clone Wars and Rebels role as Tarkin, a performance that adds a unique brand of sinister to the character. Tarkin is strongly inclined to discontinue using clones for the new Empire, and he seems to have it in for this defiant Clone Force 99. That is all except for Crosshair, who is affected enough by the inhibitor chip's programming to file a report about Hunter allowing a Jedi padawan to escape.

Tarkin and Lama Su
Admiral Tarkin and Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su observe Clone Force 99 in a training simulation.

Tarkin's actions usher in the first big story arc for the show. After reading Crosshair's report, Tarkin decides that Clone Force 99 needs to prove their loyalty to the Empire. Tarkin sends the team on a mission to take out some "insurgents" on Onderon. When Hunter discovers that the reported enemy is actually a small group of civilian refugees, including children and elderly folk, he orders the team to stand down. Meanwhile, Crosshair is itching to follow orders and getting increasingly irritated with Hunter. 

In that same sequence, Saw Gerrera explains that the refugees' only offense was resisting oppression from the new Empire. Fans of The Clone Wars, Rebels, and the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story should recognize Saw as the Republic-trained guerilla fighter who would eventually become a rebellion leader. Andrew Kishino reprises the role of Saw as he played it in The Clone Wars, which links perfectly with Forest Whitaker's performances in Rogue One and Rebels.

Saw Gerrera in The Bad Batch
Saw Gerrera hints at the rebellion to come.

The episode eventually leads to Tarkin isolating Crosshair and having the cloners intensify the effect of his inhibitor chip. They then send him to kill off his Bad Batch brothers before they escape punishment for treason. I have mixed feelings about this part of the story. On the one hand, it's a good setup to get the guys on the run and in opposition of the Empire while still having a reason to stay engaged: to bring Crosshair back to his senses. On the other hand, opening this way doesn't give a lot of time for new viewers to connect with who Crosshair was as a member of the team. To really get that, you'd have to go back and watch those first four episodes of The Clone Wars Season 7. This missing emotional link was my only major concern about the opening episode.

Omega from The Bad Batch
Omega introduces herself to The Bad Batch on Kamino.

Another thing I'm loving is this new character, Omega, performed by Michelle Ang. Omega is an adolescent female clone working as a medical assistant on Kamino. She follows The Bad Batch around, clearly knows a lot about them, and snoops into their things while they're away. At first, I was worried they were putting her in as the trope of an obsessed fan who's stalking is rewarded by becoming a member of the team. But we find out later that she's already one of them: an experimental clone with desirable mutations who has a strong desire to escape what's going on on Kamino. We don't know what those desirable traits are yet, but she's a crack shot with a blaster the first time she picks one up. I look forward to seeing more of Omega.

It's not a long wait to find out what's next: Episode 2 drops in its usual weekly time slot this Friday. While Episode 1 was long, I'm glad they didn't try to divide it up across three "normal" episodes (20-25 minutes each). The first big chunk of story took us from Order 66 to The Bad Batch being on the run, opposing the new Empire, and looking for a way to rescue their friend.

We know from the series trailer and other announcements that Ming-Na Wen has brought her live action role as Fennec Shand (introduced in The Mandalorian) into this animated series. She wasn't in the first episode, but I look forward to seeing where she comes in!

Fennec Shand, live action and animated
Ming-Na Wen as Fennec Shand in The Mandalorian (top) and The Bad Batch.

Star Wars: The Bad Batch is just the newest entry in a rich Star Wars universe, with a vast range of stories across film, TV, comics, novels, games, and more. I encourage all Star Wars fans to take time and indulge in the amazing stories that so many talented story writers have brought to life. Even older fans like myself can open their hearts and minds and find something they like about these newer stories and characters.

Look for my follow-up article on The Bad Batch when the season ends!

Have you seen The Bad Batch yet? What do you think so far? Got a favorite character? Let's chat in the comments below!

The Silver Lining for Google's Stadia Cloud

It's crazy to think how the internet has evolved throughout the years. It has gone from searching and sharing information to being able to stream TV and movies. In today's era, Google took the leap on being able to stream video games straight from your TV, computer, tablet, or even our phones! Google Stadia has gotten that ball rolling even while Amazon Luna and Xbox Cloud Gaming subscription services are still testing.

Screen capture from Google Stadia's library
Screen capture from scrolling through the Stadia game library.

Before we can move on, we have to address the big elephant in the room. Yes, Google has shut down their internal game studios that were planning to release first-party games for the Stadia. No, that doesn't mean that Stadia is going to a dark corner and die. Even though it's a huge blow to some gamers that are getting invested with their system (like me), Google still plans to work with other game publishers and developers to try and port their games to Stadia, including games like Madden NFL, Outriders, and the recently announced Resident Evil Village!

Now I'm not a huge specs guy, but a cloud-based Stadia server in a datacenter contains a custom x86 processor running at 2.7 GHz, 16GB of RAM, and a custom AMD GPU that can run at 10.7 teraFLOPS. In layman's terms, it's a beast. The main idea when the Stadia first came out back in 2019 was to be a stronger and faster console than the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro while trying to perform close to the PC power of 4K gaming. However, with the transitional phase of the next-gen PlayStation and Xbox, Stadia is still playing catch-up to get its name out there and let gamers know that the Stadia library is growing every month. Currently, the Stadia has AAA title games like Doom Eternal, Final Fantasy 15, and Resident Evil 7.

Screen capture from Stadia's infrastructure page
The growing map of data centers serving Google Stadia's infrastructure as of May 2021.

For gamers who are new to the platform, Stadia has different ways to get set up that make it easy. You can just go to stadia.google.com, set up an account to buy a game from their library, and start playing. From there, you can use any Bluetooth controller, including a PS4, Xbox, or a generic controller that will work on any PC, tablet, or smartphone. For example, I have run Destiny 2 on my laptop and smartphone wirelessly with no issues. 

Google Stadia Premiere Edition
Stadia Premiere Edition with Google Chromecast Ultra and a Stadia controller.

Another route you can go is to buy the Stadia Premiere Edition, which comes with the Google Chromecast Ultra and a Stadia controller that costs $99. The Chromecast Ultra is a 4K streaming device you can use to play your games on your TV, especially great if you have a 4K TV. What's really nice about the Chromecast Ultra is that it has an Ethernet port where you can use a physical cable to connect to your network router or modem for the best possible internet signal.

If you decide to try out that official Stadia controller, it may feel odd for an hour or so when trying to play a game. The best way I can describe the controller is that they decided to fuse the Xbox controller size with the PS4 button and analog sticks layout.

Everyone: once in a while Google does an insane promotion where you can get the kits for free! One of the previous promotions was if you were a YouTube Premium member for 3 months, you were eligible (that's how I got mine). The highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 release had the same type of promotion: if you preorder the game, you would get the kit for free. Stadia is also doing that same exact promotion for Resident Evil 8, too, from now to May 21, 2021 while supplies last.

Stadia Pro versatility across devices

Let's get down to the technical nitty gritty for you, the gamer. With Stadia being a cloud-based system, what sort of internet requirement do you need to at least play your games? At minimum you would need a bitrate of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) to play games at 720p quality, and 25 Mbps for 1080p. Wait, can't the Stadia stream games on 4K? The answer is yes, but there are 2 requirements to get 4K: (1) an internet speed of at least 35 Mbps and (2) an active Stadia Pro membership.

Stadia Pro logo

Hold up, what's Stadia Pro? The membership is actually very similar to the PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass memberships. It runs $10 dollars per month and includes monthly free games and discounts on some other games that are in their library. Keep in mind that there is a downside: if you discontinue the Stadia Pro membership, you lose all the free games you gained previous months.

I've laid out the general info about Stadia, but let me give you a bit of my personal take after using the console for a while.

When I first heard about Stadia, I thought it was a neat idea to have a cloud-based system. However, I knew the internet speed was going to be an issue for a lot of rural areas that do not have high speeds. I took the chance of getting Stadia based on the YouTube Premium promotion that I mentioned earlier, and I thought to myself I would only lose $10 to the Stadia Pro membership if the system became a bust for me. 

It only took about 10 minutes for me to set the Chromecast Ultra up to my TV and hook up the controller wirelessly. Now, keep in mind that I did a physical Ethernet cable setup between the Chromecast Ultra and my Google router (you can use any router) to ensure I have the fastest speed possible. I booted up Destiny 2 (the base game is free now) and was surprised to see how fast the load time was for me. I was also impressed with the crisp framerate and 4K graphics that were holding up over 2 hours of gameplay. The only hiccups I ran into were slight blurry visuals from a slight hiccup on my internet connection, which only lasted a few seconds. 

Playing Stadia games on a smartphone
Playing Stadia games on a smartphone that's hooked up to a controller.

I know what you're thinking, though: I was using that wired connection. What about going wireless?

I waited a few days to try out the wireless internet connection. Why did I wait? Stadia finally rolled out a convenient feature where you can automatically stream your game to YouTube with a few clicks. This works like the built-in features on the PS4 or Xbox for streaming to Twitch or YouTube. I actually had one of my friends watch the live stream that was at 1080p and 60 frames per second (fps). I played for an hour looking like an idiot trying to solve a puzzle in Destiny 2. Everything had a strong connection, and I did not experience any latency commands on my controller either. Take a look at the video below to see some gameplay footage I captured and put together. 

While Stadia had a tough initial launch in 2019, I'm excited with the direction they decided to move forward after closing down their studio. Google already announced that there will be over a 100 games to be released. Since I still haven't been able to get my hands on a PS5 or Xbox Series X systems, the Stadia will be the system I'll use as a next-gen until I am able to get my hands on a PS5.

Now is your chance to win a free Google Stadia! See the info below on how to enter. A winner will be picked randomly after the end of May. Contest eligible in the US.

Win A Google Stadia Kit

Missed Gems in Gaming: Singularity

I don’t remember when it was, but I picked up Singularity on a whim. I think it may have been on sale and looked interesting enough on the cover to warrant a purchase. I got it on Xbox 360, and I remember thinking this is so cool during my first playthrough. Though the game is a first-person shooter, a genre I am fairly familiar with and play frequently, Singularity had a twist I didn’t know about (and it's not a spoiler): 

Time travel! 

As someone who was obsessed with the Back to the Future series as a kid, time travel was always something I looked forward to in television, video games, and movies. That's why once I had finished Singularity I was surprised to find out that no one I knew had ever heard of it.

A noble action that changes history?

Singularity was released in 2010, developed by Raven Software (Quake 4), and was published by Activision (Spyro the Dragon, Destiny). You begin the game as character Captain Nathaniel Renko, a U.S. Recon Marine investigating an electromagnetic surge that took out a U.S. spy satellite. Renko crash-lands with his group on an island known as Katorga-12 after another electromagnetic surge takes out their helicopter. He finds his way into a building on Katorga-12, filled with audio recordings, an informational video about a strange substance known as E-99, and a giant statue of Joseph Stalin’s head. 

There, Renko is exposed to some sort of energy wave that transports him back to 1955 in a burning version of the building he was just in. The floor collapses, and a man falls through the hole. Renko instinctively saves the man’s life and is thanked by people referring to the man as “Demichev.” Then, he returns to the year 2010 only to discover that things in the room have changed. Instead of a statue of Stalin’s head, a statue of Demichev's head stood in its place.

The story is enhanced by the history of Katorga-12, E-99, and Demichev's takeover, told through audio and video clips throughout the game.

As you get started playing as Renko in the game, you're captured by Demichev's soldiers and rescued by a woman named Kathryn with a group called MIR-12. MIR-12 found a journal in the building stating that Renko was the key to ending Demichev's reign using something called the Time Manipulation Device. This TMD was developed by Doctor Victor Barisov, who Demichev killed in the past.

Your first task is to go back in time and save Barisov's life and use his TMD help to continue your larger mission: making sure Demichev does not end up in power.

You can use the TMD to open a rift in space-time.

When you first discover the TMD, its powers are very basic. Throughout the game, though, you're able to upgrade it to become more powerful and useful. It runs on a substance known as E-99, which is what caused Katorga-12 to go under instead of becoming the utopia the Soviet Union had hoped it would be. Once you have more power, the TMD can manipulate time, move objects back and forth in time, send a pulse to kill enemies, and much more. 

Throughout the game, you also have to fight off human enemies and mutated creatures alike by collecting ammunition and weapons. You must do everything you can to stop Demichev's rise.

This game is a lot of fun! 

Missions are challenging and enemies vary in difficulty.

I love going back and forth through time, seeing the past that shaped the present is interesting, and—my favorite part—manipulating objects through time. Can’t get onto a ledge because a stairway has disintegrated? Just use the TMD to take that part of the stairs back in time, and they will repair themselves. Trying to get past some spinning blades? Use the TMD to send a pulse at them to hold them in place for a few seconds while you slip through. Have an enemy you can’t quite take out? Use the TMD to pick up an explosive barrel and hurl it back towards them. The TMD works equally well as a weapon and as a manipulation device.

It’s widely known that the game had troubles with development, so much so that Activision almost canceled it altogether. After delays with the game in October 2010, they reduced the development to just one team at Raven. Once released, Singularity did well, but not well enough for Activision's standards, and they were disappointed. In contrast, player reviews are largely positive because while Singularity is similar to many first-person shooters, it has enough unique features to make it a singular game of its own.

Me doing my best on my “Singularity Sundays” stream.

While you never hear Renko's voice, the game does have a slew of well-known voice actors in the cast: Nolan North, Steve Blum, Graham McTavish, Yuri Lowenthal, Kari Wahlgren, and Troy Baker. 

The graphics aren't incredible by any means, but they do keep you involved in the story. And that story is enhanced by the history of Katorga-12, E-99, and Demichev's takeover told through audio and video clips throughout the game. Singularity gives you as much information as possible by packing the game with audio files, educational films, and notes.

Given its development and release hiccups, I can understand why this game slipped under the radar. But I hope more people discover it and give it a chance. Singularity is a fun and interesting game. It reminds me a lot of Bioshock, too, and if you like that kind of game, I urge you to give Singularity a chance. It's available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Steam.

Have you played Singularity? What other missed gems have you enjoyed and would recommend? Let's chat about them in the comments.

Sam & Nadine Watch a Show: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

This is a satirical series written from the perspective of Uncharted's Nadine Ross and Sam (Samuel) Drake.

So I just got home from lunch with Sam, where we discussed our weekly TV show. If you had asked me a few years ago if I would be chatting with a Drake over burgers about a television episode, I would have punched you in the nose. But Nathan was very straightforward about the fact that Sam needed something to do while in town–likely avoiding whichever nemesis is now tracking him down–and was going stir crazy without any exploring to do.

So Nathan recommended we watch The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and share our opinions. Like a buddy-watch. With a Drake. Insufferable. Only, I've been going out of my mind staying in one place as well, so I figured just one season wouldn't hurt.

Sam Wilson has a decision to make.

It turns out that Sam has not stayed up-to-date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At all. I know this because when talking about Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), instead of asking about his incredible recent tech upgrades, he said, "He was great as Kovacs in Altered Carbon."

"I thought so, too, but you probably remember him from Avengers: Endgame."

And Sam had the absolute irreverence to ask, "From what?"

"You know… ‘On your left?'" 

He gave me a blank look, and I had to stop myself from swatting the fries out of his hand. While I have seen every movie since the very first Iron Man, Sam has spent his free time online doing archeology research. What did he call himself, again? A "modern day historian." I've never heard such an overstatement in my life. 

I nearly lost it when I asked him if he had even taken the time to watch Spider-Man: Far From Home, considering that film ended the MCU's Phase Three, and he answered, "I'm getting around to it, right after I watch Captain America: Civil War."

Now that the Snap has been reversed, some people who lived through the Blip want a world without borders.

As if that's in proper order... It makes watching TFATWS with him nearly unbearable because I'm not quite sure he has any idea what's been going on in the franchise. 

When we started talking about the premiere episode, the first thing out of Sam's mouth was about the opening action scene. "Nothing short of show-stopping," he claimed. Then I made the mistake of asking him what he thought of Wilson's new wing suit. He said, "Has he always had Redwing?"

The nerve.

Bucky's day-to-day.

So I launched into an explanation of who Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) are and what they do in the MCU without giving him any spoilers in case he ever watches the other movies in correct order. In truth, I didn't have to share much since the show does their exposition very well. Once he was caught up, I could then explain why the show does such a thorough job of letting the audience know what each character has been up to since their last appearance.

"Oh, so that's why they took the time to follow Bucky through his day-to-day," Sam noted after I finished briefing him on Bucky's history with Steve and Hydra. "I was wondering why we got all those details, but it's a great way to put the viewer in the character's shoes."

Finally, we were getting somewhere. "Not to mention, it gives us more insight into how people are coping after the Blip. I still cannot imagine living through something like that."

Sam turned thoughtful. "It kinda makes you wonder who might've disappeared. If I were in these movies, would I even be here talking to you?"

What he said got me thinking. Would I have been dusted, or would I still be around to recommend games to Chloe, or listen to her hour-long rant about the quick time events in Little Hope?

I guess I must've looked sad, because Sam cracked some truly horrible joke about how he's seen a lot of dusty places over the years, so he'd feel right at home. I stole his ketchup as payment for making me sit through that sentence, and we launched into a discussion about how spending time with these characters really allows us to examine how they're coping with the many changes in their world. 

Karli Morgenthau leads the Flag-smashers.

"It makes for a smooth set up for the conflict they establish with the Flag-Smashers," Sam said. "Now that the Snap has been reversed, some people who lived through the Blip want a world without borders. It makes sense." He held up both hands. "Partly."

I shot him a curious look. "Partly, but they're resorting to anarchist tactics to make that happen."

"I expect Wilson and Bucky will stop 'em."

"We have no idea how the season is going to progress. I'm used to Marvel exceeding my expectations."

Sam agreed, and toward the last bit of our conversation, I explained I appreciated their social analogy at the end. He nodded and called the new, government-appointed Captain America a ridiculous fraud. Sam and Nathan are of the opinion Wilson should have kept the shield since apparently "the government will probably be using this new Cap as their own personal puppet." 

There’s nothing like a good ol’ buddy comedy.

By the time I asked Sam where he thought the story was going in the next episode, he was nearly done with his burger, and I was finishing up my fries. Just as I expected, he's excited for the team-up moment. I have to admit, I am looking forward to it a little, myself. 

"There's nothing like a good ol' buddy comedy," Sam said, chugging the rest of his soda as we prepped to leave. "Plus, since the writers made sure the audience understands each character's backstory separately before shoving them together, the team dynamic will be done well."

Introducing John Walker.

I raised Sam the fact that while there are sure to be moments of comedy throughout, a lot of the focus will be on the character's interpersonal struggles. "Not to mention, they now have to overcome the conflict introduced with this Captain America," I added. "I still feel like a traitor just for calling him that title."

Sam also found the scene shocking. "He's... John Walker, I believe?"

"How do you know that but not half of the other things that are going on?"

Sam shrugged. "Elena and Nathan wouldn't stop ranting about it, so I looked him up."

Team up!

It was a relief to hear I wasn't the only one put off by this new face. "It's an absolute insult to Captain America's name to replace a soldier who was willing to take on Thanos' entire army alone with someone who has never had to face a threat of that magnitude."

Sam nodded as he shouldered open the door and we went our separate ways until the next episode's recap lunch. On the ride home, I couldn't stop thinking about how watching even the first episode of this show has me missing Marvel's trinity more than I thought possible. I miss Tony, especially, because while he and Steve had their differences, I know the man who ended Thanos would make short work of such a cheap imitation.

All things considered, Sam and I are excited for the next episode. In fact, he sent a text just a few minutes ago reading, "As long as Wilson's kicking ass, I'm a happy camper."

So, what do you think of the show so far? Drop your thoughts in the comments.