As a gamer and strategy junkie, I have a high-octane love for the sport of American Football.
That probably surprises some people that are used to hearing me talk about Dungeons and Dragons and the Fallout franchise. But the truth is, football is a real-time strategy board game using the most dynamic pawns imaginable: humans.
There’s a stereotype that football is only for meatheads, jocks, and Average Joe’s, and no self-respecting Geek would associate with such a brutish display of <gasp> physical competition.
But listen, haters: Football is cerebral first and physical second. The field is a chess board. Player positions mirror class systems in an RPG. And if you’ve ever planted a bomb in your enemy’s base in an MMO, you’ve scored a Touchdown.
You might not see it if you only read the headlines about off-field behavior, or catch highlight reels on accident when the news comes on after The Orville. But there is a depth to this game that only true brilliance can comprehend (Go). There is beauty in its play-calling, personnel groupings, and situational theory (Final Fantasy). It’s a game of math and statistics (D&D), and physics and wit (Portal). It’s outsmarting your opponents (Chess), supplanting their expectations (Werewolf), and matching up skill sets in order to eliminate threats (Magic: The Gathering).
But it’s human. There is heart, and RNG, and chaos. It’s the ultimate 4X/Roguelike mash-up.
Okay. Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, let’s get to the topic at hand.
Let’s talk about the NFL’s greatest failure as an organization: The Pro Bowl.
There are very few things that the Pro Bowl does well, so we’ll start there. The highlight (sadly) is Scheduling. Fitting the game in on the otherwise vacant weekend between the Conference Championship and the Super Bowl is the right move. Before 2009 the Probowl was played AFTER the Super Bowl, which encouraged its irrelevance. The Super Bowl is a natural bookend to the season, and fans can mentally and emotionally decompress when it’s over. Playing one more “just for fun” game afterwards doesn’t make sense, and besides, there’s an empty week just sitting there between the conference finals and the Big Game. Kudos on their recent scheduling placement, it should remain.
Likewise, moving the game out of Hawaii has been the right move. Football should be played in its relevant market, and although the fine denizens of Hawaii probably enjoyed getting a taste, it felt too removed from the action for most NFL fans. (Take note International Series schedulers!)
This leads directly into our first area that needs to change:
1. Location. Orlando is not a traditional NFL market. Let an NFL stadium have the honor of hosting the game. Let it be played in a city that has an established and excited fanbase. Make it Super Bowl Junior.
2. Skill Challenges. The Skills Showdown is the most exciting and interesting part of the event. So it’s completely baffling that they show it on Thursday evening when nobody is around to watch it. This is fun, relaxing, entertaining tv; It’s Saturday afternoon programming. Move the skills section to a reasonable time slot on the weekend and watch the ratings climb.
3. MORE Skills Challenges. While we’re on the topic, let’s just say it: The actual Pro Bowl game is boring. So let’s spruce it up by adding more of the fun and excitement! Add more interesting events, trick catch competitions, showcases and rivalries. Hell, throw some Combine events in there, let us see what these All-Stars can really do. This should be the focus of the event; a fan-friendly entertaining circus of hijinks and next-level competition. Think Slam Dunk Contest with footballs.
4. Rules. We all know why the rules are the way they are in the Pro Bowl. Nobody wants to see their favorite player get injured in a meaningless game. But remember that this is an exhibition match, it only exists to entertain fans. So if the players aren’t going to be going full speed, let’s give them something fun to do. Add 4-point Field Goal zones near the sidelines. Allow Holding and Pass Interference. Let each team forward lateral once per down. And as far as making the players themselves more in to it, I propose…
5. The Swap. The highlight of this year’s game was seeing offensive players on defence and defensive players getting carries. Instead of just peppering this in for a couple of plays, let’s bake it right into the game: In the second half, offense and defense switch. It would turn the game on its head, fill the arena with cheers and laughs, and give fans something special to look forward to. And plus, what defensive back hasn’t dreamed of being placed out wide on offense and burning the competition for a receiving touchdown?! Maybe the Tight End has a sack-dance all queued up for a wild occasion. This is the type of thing that can create memories.
6. The Fans. It’s no secret that most great hobbies (and cultures!) are ruined by the very people that Stan them. There is no greater enemy to the NFL than the fans themselves. By giving them a third of the votes you can be guaranteed to see the likes of Jason Garrett on the sidelines even if his team goes 4-12. Why? Because the fans, especially in big markets, just vote in their guys instead of the actual best and most deserving players in the league. It devolves into a popularity contest, or a war of populations. Neither of these things are conducive to accurately producing a best-of-the-season lineup in the so-called All-Star game. Give them, say, a fifth of the vote. Or let a qualified committee whittle it down to two choices at each position and let the fans be the tie-breaker. This isn’t Prom, it’s a reward for outstanding play.
Do I think any of these changes will someday be implemented? Probably not. But there is nothing outlandish or unreasonable here (except maybe that forward lateral thing.) But one thing is certain: Something’s gotta change, or this game will end up being just a footnote in NFL history for the next generation.
*Matty usually writes about board games, video games, and scifi/fantasy media. He only devolves into a football troglodyte for 5 months out of the year.
Perhaps the first thing one has to reconcile when reviewing the latest season of Doctor Who is “What do we call it?” Is it Series 11 or Season 11? Season 37? Is it 13th Doctor Season 1? Depending on which fan site/VOD service/wiki article you look at you might get a different answer, but that’s due to the absolutely enormous history and longevity of the show. To add to the confusion, Classic Era seasons had multiple “Serials” within each season, and video collections in certain regions use different numbering schemes. Seasons, serials, series…It’s convoluted.
If you step into the TARDIS and do some timey-wimey stuff, you can end up in 1963 when the first season of the show aired. Over the next quarter of a century (give or take a year) the show assembled 26 seasons, ending with the Seventh Doctor in 1989. This is known as the Classic Era. In the mid-nineties (1996) there was a short resurrection in the form of a TV movie that featured the Eighth Doctor.
Although the story of the Doctor still continued in other various mediums over this time, it was a long 9 years of television drought before we’d see the Doctor on the small screen again. This modern Revived Era began with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor in 2005, and with it came a labeling convention change, proclaiming itself Series 1. The Revived Era has continued unbroken to present day, with Doctors Ten through Twelve chalking up 9 more seasons (Series 2-10.) Still with me?
That makes the 2018 season with the Thirteenth Doctor “Series 11.”
So there it is. We got there! Series 11.
Series 11 continues right where the Series 10 Christmas Special “Twice Upon A Time” concludes (at least from The Doctor’s point of view) with a newly regenerated 13th Doctor tumbling through the sky and landing on a train in Sheffield. This is, of course, where chance has laid the path for our soon-to-be-new companions, and first contact with something that will prove to be a series villain. The Doctor, for her part, will end up spending A LOT of time in Sheffield over the next 10 episodes, and Earth at large.
It’s immediately clear to longtime watchers that Series 11 is something different. It’s a soft reboot, for all intents and purposes. There are sweeping vistas of the countryside coupled with impatient synth music, a cast that could perhaps be described as The Representation Checklist Superfriends, and a general sense of rebirth and retelling. This will not be adventure as usual: there will be lessons, and “art” and desperate grasping for relevance with The Kids. It’s like a random group of Tumblr users were forced to watch Stranger Things on a loop for two weeks and then told “You’re the production crew now, go make Doctor Who. And for gods sakes, make it go viral.” Who cares about story when you can instead talk politics and get lots of smug self-satisfied likes?
If I sound salty, you’re misreading. The cinematography is striking, the score moody and pregnant in all the right ways. The casting is phenomenal. The politics are thoughtful, reasonable, factually correct, and perfectly aligned with my own.
The writing just sucks.
For every victory of presentation there is hurried pacing that ruins it. For every academy-award-winning performance there is trite pandering and heavy-handed exposition. The action sequences, the witty banter, the fantastic locales and creatures…It’s like someone wrote these things using only the dictionary definition of “fun” but having never experienced it firsthand. It’s lifeless, dry, forced. It’s mimicry without respect.
The failure in the writing is a greater tragedy because of the steadfast support around it. Tosin Cole, who plays the confident-in-his-restrictions Ryan Sinclair, delivers performance after performance of heartfelt realism. He portrays a character that one can simultaneously sympathize with and look up to. At times he exhibits a tangible frustration that is delivered to the viewer via true empathy, and other times he is the life-coach we all need, cheering us on and telling us we can do it. His quiet character moments are the only times in the series when the writing slows down long enough to let us make a true connection, to allow the careful cinematography to capture real moments, and deliver scenes that the synth background music accurately scores. When I am brought to tears (which, admittedly, is all too often while ingesting cinema these days) Tosin Cole is usually on screen.
Yaz (Mandip Gill) is the immediately likable embodiment of capability. She commands respect without demanding it, and carries herself with an air of trustworthiness. Anything you ask of Yaz will be done, and done correctly. Perhaps that’s the major problem with her character’s presence on the show: there’s not much for her to do. Often times this character with a deep and interesting backstory is left to the wayside, or separated from the group in what amounts to “side quests.” The writers just don’t know what to do with her. There are three other main characters, after all, and that’s a lot of bodies and personalities to juggle in a scene. The successful past formula of “1 Doctor 1 Companion” has been altered here, and perhaps we now know why that system was in place. It CAN be done with more regulars, of course; Captain Jack Harkness was essentially a second companion for many episodes in the early years of the Revived Era, and his presence made every episode better. Rory was along for the ride during the majority of the Matt Smith years, and he never stretched the writing thin. Yaz, however, feels like an afterthought, a chore of a ball to keep in the air. It’s unfortunate for a character that could easily be the star of her own series. It would almost feel more natural to have her in a sort of Torchwood-esque spinoff roll, keeping the streets of Sheffield safe as she balances the life of a police officer with the secret knowledge of the vast cosmos that constantly attempt to encroach on Earth. Use her or dump her, don’t leave her standing in the peripheral next season.
Graham (Bradley Walsh) brings a unique element to the group, both as a character and with the actor’s comedic background. At times a foil, at other times a representation of endurance in the face of adversity, Walsh tinges every performance with subtle humor and determination. Graham’s connection to the group is anchored in his relationship with Ryan, a minor plot vein that pays off with the most impact overall, even beyond the season’s “main” storyline. His episode-centric presence is perhaps less necessary than even Yaz’s, but it’s through his plotline with Ryan that both characters gain relevance and experience real personal growth, cementing him in the cast. He occasionally bumps heads with the Doctor, which makes him all the more interesting, but there is a constant feeling that the Tardis could leave without him at any time.
And finally there is Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor. A long overdue gender swap lands big with this casting, as Whittaker immediately embodies the Doctor with a natural swiftness unseen in previous iterations. A prophetic line in the first episode of the season has Whittaker suffering from temporary amnesia and spouting off “I’m looking for a doctor.” She found her. I’ve never before been so immediately accepting of a regeneration. Jodie Whittaker IS the Doctor. I didn’t have to get over the abruptness of physical changes or “warm up” to her version. There was none of this “eh, this doesn’t feel like the Doctor” that I’ve had with so many others (even those I eventually came to adore.)
But that’s not to say that the Doctor she was handed was perfect. Or rather, the opposite: she’s TOO perfect. The writers have not given Whittaker enough room to stretch the character out, to seek it’s dark corners or hidden undercurrents. This Doctor is 100% righteous and infallible all the time. It presents an unrealistic hero and one that comes across as shallow and empty. Although I do love her unwavering and unapologetic desire to do “right,” I worry that the one-sidedness will grow tiresome and repetitive without some more depth and exploration. The heroes I react to the most are those that choose righteousness in spite of shortcomings and temptation to the contrary, not those that are inborn beacons of perfection without effort.
To say that the writing is terrible is unfair. It’s not terrible. It’s not without its triumphs and brilliance. The season as a whole may seem rushed and hollow, but it’s bookended by solid episodes that really show what this version can be. Sometimes it’s the editing that fails. It largely lacks those quiet peaceful moments of character study that helps an audience form bonds with the people on screen. The synth tracks can often be a distraction, or an unfit pairing with the true mood of the scene. And there’s too much just running around for running around’s sake, with the Doctor rattling off long monologues of clumsy exposition (“Of course! The <insert aliens> have <insert scifi-y element> that make the <reasonable course of action> impossible!”) And then, of course, there’s the politics…
Representation is an important thing. It’s something that every show SHOULD have. It’s certainly one that Doctor Who has done well at times in the recent past, with numerous companions of varying color, gender, and sexuality. I mean, it had a major recurring queer character in 2005! It didn’t shy away from it, either. It was just natural. Captain Jack told us it was okay to be unabashedly bisexual. Martha Jones told us that WOC were not just background characters, they were doctors and scientists and stars. Bill showed us that a young black lesbian and an old white man can be COMPANIONS. This is the reason representation in media is so important, it lets us see ourselves on the screen. What the show never did in those days–nor does any show EVER need to do–is say “Look at how diverse we are, love us for it.” Representation is not just a nice gesture. It’s not a way to sell products. It’s a NECESSITY. It should be the default. You don’t get to celebrate yourself for it, and that’s what this season feels like it’s doing.
Every politically-charged theme or bit of dialogue is a pat-on-the-back to the writers and show-runners. In fact, so much of this is shoe-horned into the plot that a natural flow of story and theme is difficult to maintain. Between trying to prove how woke it is, AND trying to make every action sequence entirely riveting, AND trying to mimic whatever the current hit show on Netflix is, AND trying so hard to not be the Doctor Who of the past because young people won’t watch it…well there isn’t time for much else but to catch the audience up through Scooby-Doo style exposition. It becomes a field-medic patch job. It forces the writing to be lazy, or hurried, or just plain…plain. Or, as in the case of the New Year’s special, it forces the writer’s to completely reinvent the Daleks. It’s one thing to freshen up a series; it’s another thing to destroy canon.
You don’t have to reinvent the show to be successful. This isn’t about locking in to a system of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, either. It’s not a “New Star Wars” situation. It’s okay to change and grow and evolve; in fact, it’s vital to. The Doctor herself says it best: “We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” There’s a duality there. It’s not just a heavy-handed plea to audience members and critics to put the burden of the show’s appeal upon their own shoulders (which it is.) It is also a warning from a self-aware fictional character to her new caretakers: please do this thing right. For all of us.
As a self-described landlubber that is just now playing (and reviewing) a game that came out close to 10 months ago, I don’t know if I have anything truly original to add to the discussion. Sea Of Thieves, by now, has been reviewed and dissected and “Let’s Played” a rum-barrel’s worth already, so repeating what seems to be a common consensus of observations feels almost pointless. Still, I’m gonna do it. ‘Cause I want to. It’s MY blog, and I’m Captain here! So hoist that anchor and swab the sails or whatever!
For some background in case you haven’t seen the game, you and your friends (or other players online if you are the kind of pirate that sails alone) work as the crew of a pirate vessel, manning the sails and setting courses, out to uncover buried treasure and defeat other pirates along the way. You design your pirate, pick your ship, gather your crew, and set out into the open ocean, seeking the island on your treasure map to fill your coffers. It’s a fun concept, and one that thematically comes with some well-recognized and built-in tropes.
The first thing you are likely to notice is that the game is absolutely beautiful. Rare has done a phenomenal job here with everything from water textures to fish scales. It’s also an incredible social experiment for teamwork and group role play. These points are pretty much universally agreed upon, but there are short-comings that pop up across the board, too: It does feel like an unfinished game. It plays more like an early-access title, where the bones are in place and the skin is holding everything where it should be, but there just aren’t that many organs in the body yet. It’s missing content, and a variety of content, to be specific.
One place the game falls short is in the item system. You essentially start the game with every item you will ever use, from shovel, to concertina, to flintlock. You can spend in-game gold to purchase new skins for these items, but you can never augment them, change them mechanically in any way, or ever encounter new items to use. An upgrade system patched in for tools, weapons, or your pirate in general would go along way to making this a return-play title. As it stands you only make money in order to buy more cosmetic skins, which is not a recipe for a long life cycle. If those skins meant something–if buying a different flintlock pistol had an actual in-game effect for damage or rate of fire or accuracy–then grinding it out would feel more beneficial. I’d spend 5,000 gold for a spyglass that zoomed in farther; I’m not so inclined to pay it for an identical spyglass that just has a different color trim.
A very strong positive in the item discussion is the music aspect. Having musical instruments to play during down-times–in harmony together no less!– is absolutely fantastic. It’s my favorite innovation for any game in years. The bottom line, however, is that like many other things in the game, there just isn’t enough of it. There are only three instruments and four songs, so you will burn through the variety quickly. If I had my druthers there would be a few more instruments and a ton more songs. This isn’t just a passing thought, I’ve thought a lot about how it could be implemented in a more engaging way! First, you would start with only one instrument, and have several more that you could buy, giving you a reason to spend your hard-pillaged gold when you get back to port. New songs could be unlocked from quests, or by leveling up with a certain faction, and having an option to purchase or uncover sheet music would be interesting. Perhaps new songs could be unlocked when you buy new instruments (or new skins for your existing instruments.) THEN it would mean something. Hell, I’d grind for weeks just to unlock new songs.
Interaction with other crews can be a fun and rewarding experience. I was boarded by another crew once that just wanted to make an alliance with me, and after agreeing we shared our subsequent gold rewards for the remainder of the play session. When encountering others in-game there’s this moment of “Are we going to be friends or enemies?” where you size each other up, swords drawn, apprehensive and wary. And then when the voice chat kicks in, which is directional and area based (use game chat, not party chat!) you can diplomacize your way through.
Of course, this is a game about pirates! So often times you’ll be scrapping and broadsiding and looting and killing each other. It can occasionally be frustrating when, for the third mission in a row, another crew sinks your ship or runs off with your treasure chests before you can turn them in, but that’s part of what the game is all about. Sometimes the best way to defend against pirates is to become a pirate.
The act of sailing itself feels very rewarding and almost therapeutic. Working together to navigate, keep the wind, and decide when and where to drop anchor gives a rush of excitement to each and every mission, even if its just to collect chickens. You might find yourselves at each other’s throats one moment, and reveling in your impressive synergy the next. It’s a tiny social experiment each time you set sail for a new destination.
You’ll find each crew member must fill a role. The helmsman can’t see where they’re going, so the navigator will have to bark cardinal directions and headings from the map room, while the lookout in the crows nest or up on the bow tells them how to avoid rocks and unmarked land masses and other ships, while the deck hand raises, lowers, and angles the sails for optimal speed and handling. It forces you to work together and communicate clearly, and when it doesn’t work you could be in for hilarious results. As good as it feels to get your crew working together like a well-oiled machine, it is sometimes even more entertaining to fight over directions and crash your ship into a jetty of rocks.
Rare has put a lot of their strengths into this game, which is to say creating bright, fun, cartoony visuals and lighthearted comedic fun. But don’t let that superficial take fool you: Sea Of Thieves is chock-full of some of the most amazing and shockingly beautiful visuals you’re likely to see in a video game. The rolling waves and water spray are hands down the best I’ve ever seen, and there have been a multitude of sunrises, sunsets, and storms that took my breath away. I often found myself staring into the distance, mystified, instead of steering my galleon away from the rocks that were about to kill us all.
Overall the game is just a little too friendly. Dying, and even sinking your ship, has absolutely no penalty associated with it other than the loss of time. You don’t lose gold, you don’t lose stats, you don’t lose reputation. Just the time it takes to regenerate your ship. You don’t even have to buy a new one! Ships are free! Of course any treasure chests you had on board will sink too, but you’ll get a resupply of bananas and cannonballs and wood for free, and there are always new chests to uncover. But this no-consequences approach coupled with the fact that there are absolutely no upgrades or perks for items or sailors, makes for a “beginner friendly” feeling at all points of the game. You don’t feel rewarded for grinding, and PVP will always be the same equal experience. It’s a bit of a let down.
And then, of course, there are the huge difficulty swings. While this almost makes the last paragraph seem dubious, the game sets you up to feel comfortable and fair, with your experience being hamstringed by PVP balance, only to suddenly dump you into a fight with a Kraken on the edge of an erupting volcano where you have absolutely no chance of victory. And since you’ll never upgrade your ship or equipment, there’s no clear path for overcoming these high-difficulty obstacles. It seems greatly imbalanced for a game that has presented itself as “all about balance.”
There are a few other personal gripes I have about the way you interact with the world. For example, when you’re on an island you can’t see what the island’s name is, even if you have the map in your hand. It tells you on-screen when you approach but there isn’t any other way to check it once you do. The mission picking mechanic doesn’t work well, either. There’s some missions that use the captain’s table for a vote and others that don’t. You can’t highlight what mission you’re on. You can’t put multiple missions down to vote on. It needs to be addressed.
Pushing rowboats around needs fixed. We managed to get several of them stuck over a couple days of playing, with no way to back them up or push them off the spit. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to pivot around in place or row backwards (at least we couldn’t discover a way.)
The interface does a lot of heavy lifting, but there are some minor inconveniences. It’s hard to switch to bananas, your only healing agent, when you’re in the middle of a fight, something you’ll most certainly have to do. Patching holes in your ship is also unintuitive, as it forces you to highlight wood planks in the item wheel specifically instead of just checking if you have any in your inventory. The game doesn’t ask you to take this extra step for loading cannonballs, so it’s a surprising and frustrating discovery when you first go to patch a hole and the UI tells you that you need wood planks, even though you clearly have five.
It would be very nice to have a little feedback for the player when you’re doing damage. You are never shown how much each weapon dishes out, and often you can’t even tell if you hit your opponent or not. It makes some fights drag and feel futile. Players like to weigh the pros and cons of different weapons, and know that when they hit they are actually doing damage.
I also encountered two major bugs while playing. The first one displayed the buttons on screen incorrectly when giving me instructions. For example it might say “Press Y To Sell Chest” but I actually had to press “X” on my controller. This happened on multiple occasions and for different interactions. Secondly, a very major glitch took place that left me unable to interact with objects at all. I couldn’t steer the ship, I couldn’t look at the map, I couldn’t fire the cannons. I was reduced to a glorified look-out for a chunk of my time while other crew members did all the interacting. It seemed like Beta build stuff that shouldn’t be occurring this far into the development cycle.
So how do you suppress those feelings of frustration and anxiety in-game? Well, there’s grog! Grog drinking is fun and immersive, and it’s one of the best “drunk-mode” sequences I’ve seen, with random stumbling and swaying visuals, accompanied by sailor hiccups and burps. But after the first two or so times you’ll probably not do it again, unless it’s to purposefully frustrate your shipmates or your streaming audience. Unlike in real life, there are no mechanical benefits to drinking grog. It’s just funny.
To counteract some of that recent negativity, let me throw down some other positive things. Clouds in the shape of things is awesome. The bullhorn affect on group chat was a fun and surprising detail. I learned Port and Starboard, Bow and Stern! I kinda learned how to sail! Honestly, this game had me looking up terminology and techniques for a real-life skill that I had previously never had an ounce of interest in. That’s pretty cool.
I don’t say this often (in fact, I don’t think I’ve EVER said it before) but Sea Of Thieves would actually benefit from following the Free-2-Play model. It’s an online multiplayer game, after all, with only cosmetic upgrades to spend your in-game currency on. Paying for it like a normal full-release game, even at a reduced price tag…just isn’t reasonable. People will spend money for in-game cosmetics, Fortnite has proven that. You can keep PVP even and fair–you don’t have to venture into that despicable Pay-2-Win category–and still make money off the product. This seems like a game that would become exponentially better the more people were playing it. A Microsoft exclusive release at $60 for an online multiplayer game…Yeah, this was a marketing problem that hopefully hasn’t sunk an otherwise entertaining and well-made game.
The final word is: It’s a terrific game, loaded with fantastic details and interesting concepts and breath-taking vistas and thoughtful interactions. Is it worth playing? Absolutely! I had a BLAST playing it. But will I keep coming back to it? Will it be a return-title that I just can’t help but play over and over again? Probably not. Not in its current state, at any rate. With more content, more depth, and more motivation to upgrade and grind it could be a tremendously addictive game, full of replay value and months of enjoyment, but for now I’ll hang up my captain’s hat and retire from sea life with the riches I’ve already acquired.
Here’s a gameplay montage of one of my play sessions with friends from my YouTube channel (yeah, go subscribe!) PG-13 for language.