Isla Pena: More Teeth

I hadn’t played Jurassic World: Evolution much since I was last writing about it in July of this year. But I’m a sucker for this franchise, and it doesn’t take much of a promotion to draw me back in. This time around, it was simply the build-up to the release of the Switch version of the game–and no, I did not purchase the Switch version after I’d already bought all the content on PC; I have some restraint. I did, however, decide to get back to the Challenge mode a bit.

This Saturday, I loaded the Challenge mode save I’d last seriously pursued in July, before I dropped out and moved on to other things in my spare time. I found myself picking up the controls as though I’d never left the game, and I remembered some of the more advanced management tactics I had finally gotten a firm grasp on in almost as little time. My particular challenge was to get to five stars in medium difficulty on Isla Pena while releasing only carnivores. I therefore hoped to get two achievements for a single five-star run (beating any Challenge for one, beating Isla Pena on medium or higher with only carnivores for the other). Back in July, I’d named my save file for this unique challenge “MORE TEETH,” which I thought was sort of cute because, you know…

I didn’t manage to get to five stars within the level’s suggested par time, but I did get to five stars in just under four and a half hours total time, dealing with a variety of crises big and small that climaxed with a thrillingly destructive storm complete with twister and the resultant chaos of various carnivores rampaging across the island, and I secured the two achievements.

I had fun, as usual. I think this is a game I’ll keep finding reasons to come back to over the months–maybe even the years. I have no idea whether I’ll ever get the final four achievements on Steam, though, especially given that three require timed Challenge-mode completions. And I strongly doubt that I’ll ever unlock all the dinosaur skins that would require completing every island on the highest difficulty at least once. There’s still a lot left to check off in the game, then, but it’s rather repetitive in nature. Get to five stars on islands I’ve already played through, dealing with a slightly different contract assignment system and the extra costs of the steadily increasing Hammond Foundation fee, again and again and again.

The reason I have returned yet again to the game, then, has very little to do with completionism at this point. Instead, I genuinely end up having fun, sometimes for hours at a time. I still manage to experience moments of awe, curiosity, and excitement with this game. I picked the featured image for this post not because it was a moment of great excitement but because the moment of rolling through a jungle canopy in a ranger Jeep and coming out at the edge of a small pond, seeing my pack of Velociraptors settling down to sleep for the night on the other end, and snapping a picture with the ranger’s camera just felt special and peaceful and unique; the more I play the game, the more these little moments of simulated animal behavior and dynamic interactions with them at ground level are what really stand out to me, although I’ll never get over the explosive excitement of a park in the midst of a tropical storm. There’s always going to be something to continue to engage me with this game. Perhaps the only thing to draw me away for good would be a bigger, better sequel…

On a slightly different note, writing this post made me realize that I apparently never wrote anything about my experiences with all the DLC. It looks like I last seriously wrote about JW:E when playing through the base game again earlier this year with some of the new updates that had been made available over time. By the end of July, I’d played through everything. I should probably fix that oversight at some point, huh?

Review – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

I finished the campaign in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider a few weeks back, spending under 20 hours with it. For the concluding chapter in the Kaldwin saga and a title that focuses so squarely on the bizarre deity at the center of its dark magic system, Death of the Outsider (DO) felt small and almost quiet, more like an expansion to Dishonored 2 (D2) than its own game.

The heavy influence of Dishonored 2 is obvious. Mission structures, black market shops, and the central city of Karnaca are all transplants from the preceding title. And the story itself wraps up dangling elements from D2, as Meagan Foster, readopting the identity of Billie Lurk, reunites with her former assassin master Daud and takes over his quixotic quest to kill a god, to put an end to the schemes of the Outsider. The game offers some new gameplay elements, with a newly tweaked set of powers that are all made available early on and the ability to talk to rats, although it plays more or less like every other game in this series, with the option for players to lean into stealth or assault, lethality or mercy. Ultimately, DO is to D2 as the Daud-focused expansions were to the original game, further cementing the character of this game as that of expansion title rather than a pure standalone.

While you still have the option to kill or spare characters (and as usual, I chose far more sparing than killing), your choices just don’t seem to matter as much to the texture of the game or course of the story. That said, the story was largely enjoyable, even though I often lost sight of objectives as I sunk focus into completing most of the side quests available in each level in the form of bounties.

The most interesting element of DO is that it feels like the world has broken a bit since the time-and-space altering events of D2. The magical realm of the Void has leaked out into the physical world, and Billie has somehow become a focal point for this change. She slips between two realities, one in which she lost her arm and eye years ago in a fight with a guard (reflecting her appearance in D2) and one in which she avoided the incident. Other details, like her appearance with former friends from her D2 backstory, also appear to slip between realities based on magical divergences in the timeline. Over the course of the game, the split realities seem to fuse together, but I never really saw much direct attempt to explain this. On the other hand, there was maybe too much explanation of just who and what the Outsider was. But even with the big focus on a literal deity, the stakes seem low for Billie: does she fulfill her mentor’s last wishes or not? Of course, the threat of death is ever-present, but there is nothing to resolve her history of many tragedies and losses; friends and loves and rivals are in the past, and she has only this god-killing objective before her, with nothing in sight beyond that goal. There is not much hope of her feeling like a more complete person by the end of the game, and if there was a big explanation for her role as a central figure in the timeline split, it was never made clear to me. To discuss a huge spoiler, I did feel that Billie and Daud made peace with each other and gave the world and the Outsider a fresh start by choosing to make him mortal again instead of killing him. Without seeing the other ending, I can’t say for sure how Billie or Daud would be left if they went through with the murder, but I think they’d be stuck in an unfulfilled rut.

All told, Death of the Outsider was a fun game, but its interesting premises were unfortunately executed in a somewhat muted way. Dishonored 2 remains the high point of the series for me, but I guess I’d put it this way: if you play only one Dishonored game, play Dishonored 2, and if you play that, then you might as well cap it off with Death of the Outsider as well.

Mando 2.2-2.3

I don’t think I’m going to do episode-by-episode reactions for this season of The Mandalorian, but I’m loving the new season so far. The newly introduced characters are fun (especially Frog Lady), and I was stoked to see the returning characters from other Mandalorian-themed Star Wars projects. I’m super-eager to see the character now sure to enter the series by the end of this season after a name drop in Chapter 11, and I like the tight focus on a clear quest that this season has, with a concrete end goal for Din Djarin.

I’m finding that my reactions so far are reinforced by larger fan chatter, so I just don’t feel especially compelled to post a reaction each time that’s in line with what everyone else is more or less saying. The big topic right now still seems to be the egg-eating from Chapter 10. For what it’s worth, I thought it was darkly humorous but also quite troubling, as even unfertilized, they were still the spawn of a sentient species. (While I think diverse writers’ rooms are important, I’m a little confused that this is being used as an example of the problems of an all-male writers’ room because I don’t think sensitivity about fertility/reproduction or violence against fellow sentient beings is something unique to non-cis/hetero men–after all, while I know this sounds like “not all men,” I still have to point out that these are issues I tend to be sensitive about!) Chapter 11 gives the Child the opportunity to gain a little bit of a new perspective, not only literally getting consumed like an egg in a terrifying moment of danger but also spending some pleasant quality time with the Frog Family and their new tadpole. I thought that latter element was sweet, redemptive, and a good opportunity for the kiddo to gain some needed empathy to contrast with all the violence Din regularly exposes them to.

I imagine this is another topic already heavily covered, but I am also glad to see the show finally acknowledge and explain the rift in Mandalorian cultures that has produced such an extremist sect with its fundamentalist values. The comparison to the development of real-world religious extremism among oppressed and marginalized minority groups is obvious. It’s kind of funny to me that Din was so deeply taken in by this cult and isolated from alternative worldviews that he didn’t even realize he was in an extremist cult, or that there were other sorts of Mandalorians! We’ve already seen moments in which he clearly wrestled with the hardline code of the Watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him remove his helmet by the end of this season. Conveniently, Din’s involvement in what amounts to a hardcore cult in backwater systems of the Outer Rim also explains why he’s relatively ignorant about the Jedi, a religious order that is all-too-familiar to the more mainstream Mandalorians.

That’s all I have to say for now. But if I find something else I’d like to discuss in future episodes, you can bet I’ll share it!

Review: The Guilty Die Twice

The Guilty Die Twice: A Legal ThrillerThe Guilty Die Twice: A Legal Thriller by Don Hartshorn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a potential review. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of writing a review that is ultimately unfavorable, even though it’s more likely than usual that the publisher or, even worse, the author might read this. I don’t think I was the target audience for this book after all. If you like legal thrillers or law dramas, I think you should stop right here. My review isn’t going to do you any good! You might well enjoy this book, especially as a breezy weekend read! But if you tend to find your tastes might align with mine, then feel free to continue on. (Note that some spoilers will follow.)

The eye-catching synopsis on the back of the book begins, “Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two attorney brothers. Two sides to the story.” One would anticipate family rivalry, high drama, courtroom antics, and perhaps a morbid tale of murder and moral compromise. But the book sketches this in only the broadest strokes, and at the end of the day, there is really only one side to the story.

The two brothers are Jake and Travis Lynch. One’s a prosecutor, and the other’s a struggling attorney handling mostly pro bono work in private practice. They had a falling out over ten years ago because of the events surrounding a capital murder investigation and trial. Now they’re forced back together, as Jake prosecutes the cringingly named “Rich Kid Murders” and Travis defends the kid from the other side of town charged with their deaths. The book is basically split between the perspectives of Jake, Travis, and the alleged murderer, Sam. Its central tension revolves around two mysteries: who actually killed the “rich kids,” and what happened between Jake and Travis? As you might imagine, a novel hung on mysteries that are easily answered by the three viewpoint characters reads as annoyingly drawn out. And it’s not much of a mystery about the murders, as we have everything that happened but who pulled the trigger early on, and Sam is an unrepentant sociopath. So my primary motivation in reading was to figure out what exactly happened between Jake and Travis.

Here’s the thing, though. Travis is presented as a moralistic crusader who refused to compromise his conscience even though it cost him his family. But the truth is anything but that. Spoiler: as a law clerk, he began to doubt the justification of the death penalty, and he used that doubt as its own justification to unethically obtain and conceal evidence from his brother to fruitlessly attempt to prevent the conviction and execution of an irredeemable sociopath. Ten years later, he once more finds himself handling another irredeemable sociopath, having decided that this was somehow important and uniquely his responsibility. Never mind that he has never prosecuted or defended a capital murder case in the intervening years, or that he seems in way over his head, or that he desperately needs paying clients and his pregnant wife is increasingly anxious because he’d rather devote himself to every pro bono cause (to the point that he puts off a scheduled appointment at one point because some non-paying walk-ins showed up!), or that there are surely better choices for a defender in Austin. And by the end of the book, without much reason to do so, he finds himself questioning his opposition to capital punishment after all, while dropping his self-enforced exile from his family and considering getting into the family business. In other words, the final moments show that he’s been engaging in a bit of poverty tourism for a decade, living in a poor part of town by choice and forming romantic notions about the lives of the impoverished, only to be prepared to jump right into the benefits of his family heritage as soon as anyone from his family makes more than a half-hearted gesture to bring him back into the fold. His bitterness about his family’s lifestyle chafes even more in retrospect, knowing where he ends up by the end–especially since he also spends quite a bit of the book denying the substantial privilege of his upbringing that even a life of pro bono work simply would not erase.

You’d think that I had something against a person like Travis, or that I’m perhaps fervently pro-death penalty. No, I have my own family drama, and I too can be a bit of a bleeding heart with an opposition to the death penalty. But Travis’s pigheaded, narrowminded perspective made him a drag to read.

On the other hand, Jake is initially presented as a raging asshole prone to heavy drinking. He is those things, but he’s also a devoted husband, father, and son. He’s clever, he’s analytical, he’s good at seeing through motivations. He’s surprisingly willing to see the talent in others, including a transparent ass-kissing lackey in the office and even his own brother. By the end, Jake had become my favorite character. Still, I was tired of the toxic masculinity oozing from Jake, Travis, and Sam. They all were arrogant, overconfident, and prone to expressing only anger openly.

The moments where Jake and Travis interacted with their family were probably the best in the book and felt the most honest. Family dynamics are complicated, even when they shouldn’t be, and author Don Hartshorn does a good job of portraying that. But even though they are the most interesting and have the most emotional stakes, they unfortunately don’t occupy as much of the novel as sections engaging with local politicking and the murder case.

Hartshorn almost inadvertently wrote two potentially very interesting women. One is Christine Morton, a hard-as-nails reporter who unfortunately is mostly described as blonde and attractive, even as she does a great job as an investigator, and she is treated with hate and derision by both brothers, although the novel never provides a great motivation for that hate. Toward the end, Christine and Jake almost become allies, and I imagined a more interesting relationship for them in which they were professional rivals (bloodhound journalist versus prosecutor with an iron grip over his office) but had a reluctant, almost weary respect for each other. That never quite materializes, and even though Christine helps Jake, she’s left to seem “foiled” by him in the end. The other interesting woman barely appears at all. Bonnie Wong occupies a single scene as a defense attorney for one of the other kids charged with the murders. She’s presented as antagonistic, at least from Travis’s viewpoint, but she offers a good if obvious strategy, while Travis enters the meeting apparently deciding the best way for his client to win is to simply blame everything on the co-defendant without much support. Bonnie doesn’t like Travis. She clearly views him as an inferior attorney. She remembers how he withheld the evidence, and he obviously hasn’t made any waves since then. But she still tries to treat him with courtesy and tries to extend an olive branch to build a better case for both defendants. She’s not actually allowed to do anything else in the book, though, as her defendant quickly exits the picture for reasons I won’t disclose here, one of the few twists I won’t touch on in case you do decide to read this.

Most of the other characters are forgetful, though I mostly remember the women–unfortunately, especially the brothers’ wives–as deceitful, manipulative, and interested in vicarious power and wealth. Not great. There are other problematic moments. Hartshorn, who is white, largely writes white characters, but he has depicted Sam the killer as Korean. We don’t get to know Sam that well, and we don’t really understand his family background; his parents are supposed to be sympathetic, and yet they somehow raised not one but two sociopathic criminals who end up entangled in the criminal justice system for crimes they gleefully committed. Hartshorn makes awkward choices in how he describes Sam, for instance having Sam observe early on his “unmistakably Asian features in the rear window” of a car. More broadly, Hartshorn seems interested in making stabs at complicated issues like socioeconomic and racial inequities and the imperfect nature of the justice system, but the only one really taking any time to reflect on these issues is Travis, whose views are remarkably shallow and self-centered (as I’ve described above), and the individuals allegedly crushed by an unfair society who are now lashing out in rage are both portrayed as sociopaths with no particular motivation for their violent lifestyles.

Another bizarre element is that the book almost feels like a 2000’s period piece, even though it appears to be in the present day. The law offices are very reliant on paper still, for some reason, and at one point a character literally closes a cell phone, like it’s an old flip phone. The bizarre, amorphous time period stuck out to me. But it doesn’t warrant more comment than that.

The Guilty Die Twice isn’t painfully bad; while I didn’t often have much motivation to keep reading, it wasn’t a struggle to turn the pages when I made time for it. But its weak points crowd out its strengths, and when we all have such limited attention spans and so many sources of potential entertainment, I just don’t think that I can recommend this particular one.

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Out with the old, in with the new–thank god

I’m glad to see that Joe Biden appears to be set to be the next President of the United States, but I’m really, really, really thrilled to see that Donald Trump appears to be approaching the end of his presidency after one term, leaving a legacy as an impeached president who lost the popular vote twice. It’s disappointing to see that so many people still clung to Trump to the bitter end, whether because they liked his personality or liked his policies or liked his implicit (and sometimes not-so-implicit) blessing to openly foment white nationalist domestic terrorism or simply because they always voted Republican. And while our antiquated, autocratic electoral college system (and delays in processing and counting absentee votes) made the election seem way closer than it should have been, Biden did have more votes for him than for any other president ever, so that’s something.

While we’ve still got a couple months to play out while Trump and his allies insist he won as they pursue pointless and mostly meritless litigation, and while we might be looking at another Republican-majority Senate playing eternal opposition party, and while I’m already over the hot takes from centrists and “moderate” Republicans that the lesson Dems should learn is to cooperate with them yet again rather than build on and listen to their progressive base, I’m feeling hopeful about the future. That’s a good Sunday feeling.

The Mandalorian Returns: 2.1

Okay, yes, no “post” this “weekend” but I’d been so caught up with work and the conference that I’d forgotten The Mandalorian Season 2 started today and now I’ve watched the first episode and I’m all excited.

Good start. Good score. Good cinematography. Lots of good tension-building and quite a good bit of levity. Good Baby Yoda. Good balance of new and returning characters (I love the return of Amy Sedaris’s character).

Most of the rest of the stuff I loved consists of spoilers. So I guess watch the episode first? I just want to holler about it, real quick.

I am impressed and a little surprised that they actually kept the Cobb Vanth story from the Aftermath books. Maybe that’d been confirmed before the new season’s airing, but I haven’t been paying attention. And it’s not exactly the same Cobb Vanth that we see from Aftermath. The story’s a little different. Two tellings, two different versions. Is the version presented in Aftermath the “truer” version, or is Cobb’s story to Din Djarin as told in flashbacks in this episode the right one? It doesn’t really matter. (Wookieepedia, true to form, attempts to force together a single narrative, but I don’t think it quite makes sense and is unnecessary.) Timothy Olyphant is a great casting choice. I love Timothy Olyphant in what I see him in, but I’ve not seen the things he’s probably best known for–that’d be Justified and Deadwood, right? I should change that.

I loved this version of Cobb. I loved his developing relationship with the Mandalorian. I loved that they parted ways with Din having yet another ally to call on if needed. I loved the moment when Mando whacks Cobb’s jetpack and he flails off in a briefly comical echo of Boba Fett’s demise.

I loved seeing further personification and complexity applied to the Tusken Raiders. I loved the Western vibes. I’m a little over Tatooine, but if they can maybe stop coming back here all the time, I’ll have loved what they did with it, how they made it familiar yet fresh, shown from a different angle.

I loved the mysterious appearance of Temuera Morrison at the end. Is he Boba Fett, surviving as a lone wanderer in the Tatooine wastes? Is he some other Fett clone who just so happens to have taken up residence in Boba’s presumed final resting place? How will he connect to the larger events in the show?

I learned over last season to just let the show build at its own pace. It’ll get to where it wants to go in time, and it’ll surely surprise me with how it uses the foundations it’s set up along the way–things and people and places I didn’t even realize were supposed to be foundational.

Bottom line: I love that Mando’s back!

Level 100 in RFA; no post next week

I’m going to a virtual professional conference this week, and I’m going to be using some of today and a lot of this week’s evenings to catch up on some normal work stuff. So I don’t think I’ll have a post at all next weekend, and this weekend I don’t really have the motivation to write anything longer than this.

I do, however, want to call attention to the fact that I’ve now surpassed Level 100 in Ring Fit Adventure. Woohoo! I’ve actually made it to level 101, because my last fight today was against some Rare Hoplins, whose beefy experience drop was heightened further by the use of an experience-enhancing potion. So I jumped from 99 to 101 by the end of that encounter. But it’s not as eventful a milestone, so I’m here to celebrate LEVEL 100!!