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Treated & Released: Continental Divide (1981)

-By Kyle Martinak

Sometimes there’s a movie that embodies the twisted, hellish image of a grisly crime scene. For that, I’ve done Cinema Autopsies. The purpose was to not just expose a movie for being bad, but to determine why it is, and who caused such a trainwreck.

But as my hero George Carlin pointed out once, there are always more wounded than dead in any good catastrophe. In the spirit of that, I’ll now examine some movies that didn’t die a terrible death but rather those that were treated and released. Another point about this title, it has to do with a facet of filmmaking that I find really interesting: timing. A movie can sometimes live and die by the time of year it is released upon the masses, and these are some movies that suffered because of bad timing. Sometimes it’s undeservedly so, and other times it isn’t. But time makes fools of everyone, including Harvey Weinstein.

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Continental Divide – Austere in Autumn (Sept. 18, 1981)

September is a hard month to pin down when describing moviegoing habits. We all know that the summer is for big blockbuster adventure films, and typically you should release your holiday family comedies and acclaimed book adaptations sometime in between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This stuff isn’t brain surgery. But September is one of the “dump months” for some studios. It’s that special time of year where no one is really going to the movies much, so you should probably use it to get rid of big stinkers or anything with a tiny budget that can break even with a measly $20 million.

In short, September is the time for dud comedies, dull dramas, and more recently the cheapo “found footage” or “reality TV” films.

Now, let’s go back in time to the simple days of 1981. John Belushi is a huge star thanks to his party animal image from “Saturday Night Live,” Animal House, and The Blues Brothers. Meanwhile, Lawrence Kasdan is the wunderkind screenwriter who has made a name for himself on movies that pay homage to long-gone genres. When the two were combined, magic unfortunately did not occur.

Continental Divide, while not a gem, is not a bad movie at all. It’s just the wrong movie in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the John McClane of underwhelming romantic comedies. The big marketing push for this flick was that Belushi and co-star Blair Brown were going to be the next Audrey Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Not really in terms of iconography or performance, but in terms of chemistry and “opposites attract” appeal.

Wow. What a beautiful, earnest gamble on the part of Universal Studios and producer Steven Spielberg. Let’s take the guy who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back and let him write a dignified, dialogue-heavy romance where our boyish male hero is the fat guy on cocaine who normally screams at everyone and falls down a lot. No one would have ever tried this in the 1990s with Chris Farley, or the “aughts” with Jack Black, or now with someone like TJ Miller. And those last two guys don’t even have the insane party-tornado reputation.

Now, the reason no one would ever try that again is because Continental Divide was a big apathetic shrug for critics and did incredibly modest business. It opened at No. 1 against schlocky tell-all Mommie Dearest and the still-potent draw of Kasdan’s own directorial debut Body Heat. But this was September; all the romance needed to open at No. 1 was $3 million.

All formulaic marketing strategy aside, what type of moviegoers choose a movie like Continental Divide in mid-September? Sure, it’s a nice quiet movie to detox off of a summer that included Indiana Jones, two different werewolves, James Bond, Superman, and some sort of Cannonball Run. But it’s more romance than comedy. This is a movie that belonged somewhere between February and April, when love is in the air and when Bill Murray and Dudley Moore respectively hadn’t just made two uproarious comedies that set the course for the rest of the decade. If this had been a big, bombastic Belushi comedy it might have done to September what Deadpool did to February, but there was no chance because of the material.

The 1980s were a navel-gazing set of years, and that’s reflected in the cinema of the time. It seemed like every movie was, in part, a nostalgia grab for the Baby Boomers who were flush with cash and drugs. This might sound familiar to anyone in 2016 who is weary of having to experience 1997 again, complete with the upcoming Power Rangers reboot and Jeff Goldblum leading a sci-fi action blockbuster. Anyway, Continental Divide was yet another throwback to a genre that was a product of its time. While far from being considered a screwball comedy, there are elements of the bygone subgenre. There is a type of class war between Belushi’s Chicago reporter and Brown’s reclusive Rocky Mountain eagle expert. The lush landscapes and Belushi’s fleeing the city to avoid retribution from crooked politicos has such an air of escapism. And the “battle of the sexes” taking place in the wilderness that challenges his masculinity with her expertise is something out of the ‘30s and ‘40s, certainly.

Kasdan’s ability to bring forgotten genres bubbling back to the cultural conversation of film was due for a miss, I suppose, and this was always going to be the prime candidate. After all, the fantasy/space opera and the archeologist swashbuckler were ideas that were simultaneously old fashioned and fresh to the audience. Meanwhile, Continental Divide arrived with a sleepy premise and misguided casting to deliver a final product that seemed overly safe and old pat to audiences at the time. As a result, the film couldn’t give a jolt to the audience or the release slate.

Not many folks remember this movie. It did Kasdan no favors and was easily overshadowed by the rest of his banner year. Brown caught a Golden Globe nod for her performance but never headlined a movie again. And the movie served as the figurative nail in Belushi’s literal coffin; he was dead six months later. Now, Continental Divide sits next to Belushi’s other 1981 film Neighbors as a duology of debatably fruitless experimentation in the last year of his life.

Ultimately, the release date was not the direct cause of this so much as a microcosm of all the mitigating factors; I would argue that releasing Continental Divide in September is far less damaging than releasing the movie in 1981 at all. Roll this movie back to 1979, though, and who knows?

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Part-Time Gamers Review: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

By Neil Jimenez

When Mirror’s Edge made its debut in 2008, I was struck by how they made first-person platforming feel good. It had a wonderful sense of speed, simple to understand controls, and a more unique vision of the future than most sci-fi of today gives us. However, it was also deeply flawed, most notably by the inclusion of guns that turned the combat into a subpar first-person shooter that slowed down the action. With Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, we get to return to a world where the clean and minimalist aesthetics of the iStore become the norm, where the corporations are the government, and where beneath it all is a state based on surveillance and repression.

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Faith actually has a lot in common with Jon Snow.

While Catalyst improves upon the original in almost every respect, the narrative is slightly worse. The game opens with Faith Conners, the player character, getting let out of juvenile prison. Within minutes she is getting back to being on the wrong side of the law and running across rooftops just like the good old days. At least, I assume that is true, because of how many characters told me I used to be a great runner. If this game was a sequel or even prequel, I would have more to go on, but the game is actually a complete narrative reboot. Combined with the push made to give the Mirror’s Edge franchise a presence across multiple mediums (there is a comic book series that tells the story about why Faith was in prison), the story feels incomplete. One prominent example is character Dogen, a crime boss, to whom Faith owes a lot of money because of something that happened before this game. The way Dogen treats Faith hints at a lot more than just owing money, but without that information, he ends up just seeming like a crazy person who sends you on a few missions. Another reason the story is lackluster compared to the first Mirror’s Edge stems from the biggest change Catalyst made; the open-world environment. To avoid any direct spoilers for the ending, I will just say that the climax and fallout from the narrative is swept under the rug in an extremely unsatisfying way.

However, making it an open-world environment does service the gameplay surprising well. Each area in of the map is constructed in a labyrinthine manner, allowing for many interesting routes from point A to point B. There are also lots of collectables scattered throughout the world, which highlight paths you might otherwise never notice or encourage figuring out the platforming puzzle to reach obscure areas. The only real problem with the world’s layout is the rather limited bridging between zones. Since the game gates off some zones with the grappling hook and its upgrades gained through the story, there are some bridges that must be traversed as the only way in or out. The biggest offender is the home base, which is not particularly interesting to run through, but required because of how the zones branch out from it.

When you open up the map, you will see a plethora of icons indicating side missions. Unfortunately, almost all boil down to a few variants of time trial. While the delivery missions flesh out the world by having the characters that give you the jobs talk to you a bit while you run, the fail conditions on these will cause the voice lines to repeat and become a bit annoying. The timed races that have a leaderboard focus are much less frustrating in this way, in part because they have no fail condition to force the restart, but also because their competitive nature lends itself well to a game about running fast. The story side missions are more interesting and varied, my favorite being the timed collection missions that set a smattering of glowing points around an environment and leave you alone to determine what path with allow you to grab them all.

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The main story missions, on the other hand, bring back the more focused platforming paths of the original game. What lets them stand out is the dynamic nature of the environments. Since the city is built to exist as a playground to explore and run through, it is very static and unchanging. The story missions are allowed to destroy walls, trigger elevators you’re not riding, and build the pressure in ways other than a timer on top of the screen. They also take you to locations that are not able to fit into the open-world so seamlessly without a reasonable way to get back down, such as a skyscraper.

Catalyst still suffers from the combat; it slows down the action in a game that is about speed. The first big thing to note is that guns are not useable as they were in the first game. They have been replaced with a two-button light and strong melee system, as well as “traversal attacks” that gain strength with your focus meter. The focus meter builds up with movement and is also used to solve the problem of ranged enemies by acting as a shield. This ends up working really well since it encourages continuous movement, the game’s strong point. While there are a few sections throughout the story that do require you to engage in the combat, not all of them are using the combat at its worst. In fact, the times I was most annoyed by the combat was when I could see that it could be skipped, but engaging with it meant I could actually line up the jump I needed. Another good use of the combat is when the enemies are spread through an environment like an added layer of the platforming obstacles.

A few of the other additions to this installment of the franchise are erratic in their success. One of the good ones is in the multiplayer functionality. While the game has many premade races and routes with leaderboards to compete with, they also allow you to create your own race challenges within the world. This is a neat addition, and the interface for creating them is quite simple; hit a button while running around to create a checkpoint that must be passed. Some of the more questionable additions to the game include the ability trees. The movement tree begins with almost 80% already unlocked, and a few of the later upgrades are minor increases to basic abilities, like climbing ladders faster. The combat tree has a few helpful abilities, but also ends up being mostly passive boosts to the damage of attacks. And the Gear tree mostly unlocks automatically through the story’s progression. The whole thing feels tacked on and rather unneeded.

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Their name might be XxBlazeit420, but they made a fun race.

I was most surprised by was the addition of a fast-travel system to teleport to different areas of the world. While these are commonplace in most open-world games, Mirror’s Edge is a game in which traversing the world is the primary form of engagement. The strangest thing about this is that unlocking the ability for fast travel to a zone is tied to the completion of a Gridnode. The Gridnodes are some of the most fun platforming puzzles in the game, requiring you to vertically scale the insides of these large computing centers. Each has a theme, and most have more than one viable path to ascend. Because the Gridnodes are so good, making them optional is a mistake. Having them unlock a way to circumvent the core mechanic of the game is just confusing.

“You have been given a rare second chance. Make sure not to squander it.” These are the closing words of a short pre-recorded speech playing as Faith exit from juvenile prison in the city of Glass. While she does not get more than 100 feet from juvie before messing up, the developers at DICE did great work with their second try at the Mirror’s Edge franchise. There are a lot of smart design choices to keep the focus on what makes the game good: the movement. The game is not perfect, but I had a wonderfully fun time with it. I just hope it doesn’t take another eight years to get more.

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Part-Time Gamers Episode 99

This week Matt and Neil talk a ton about E3; what they liked, what they missed, what surprised them, and more! Neil also squeezes in a little bit about Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and Matt has trouble tearing himself away from Overwatch.

Find more from Neil on twitter at @Neil_PTG

Find more from Matt on twitter at @AzumaGames

Please “like” the show on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/parttimegamers and subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss a single episode!

Music: “The Path of Heaven” by Neblix on OCremix.org

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Part-Time Gamers Episode 98

Matt returns from Fanime having entered into an Overwatch tournament, and Neil played more Overwatch than is probably good for him. They also talk about the Xbox “Scorpio” leaks and a few predictions about the upcoming E3.

Find more from Neil on twitter at @Neil_PTG

Find more from Matt on twitter at @AzumaGames

Please “like” the show on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/parttimegamers and subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss a single episode!

Music: “Lies Within Dreams” by LulzA on OCremix.org

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Part-Time Gamers Review: Battleborn

By Neil Jimenez

I’ve had fun playing Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games–MOBAs for short–like DOTA 2 and League of Legends for more than a decade. I also really enjoyed the Borderlands games that I’ve managed to play. Hearing that the Borderlands team were making a game in the style I love sounded like everything I could ask for. Unfortunately, Battleborn fails to keep its focus on what makes a good MOBA, and spreads itself thin with other content too.

The introduction to the world tells a tale of the universe going to darkness until there is only a single star left. All the civilizations that could get to that star did, and war broke out among them, as well as the Verelsi–the dark force around which the story mode revolves. Through all this fighting, heroes rise up and will be brought together to become the “Battleborn.” After hearing the same bad jokes every time you use one of your abilities, you will notice there are only two personality types a battleborn can be; the class clown and the badass class clown.

The game is an always-connected multiplayer game, first and foremost a competitive one, as indicated by the fact that the first selection on the main screen is the Versus Public option. From the start there are only seven heroes available for selection out of twenty-five total, and the character used for the tutorial is not among them. The game is also full of progression systems for each individual hero as well as for your overall account. By leveling up an individual character you can unlock more ability modification choices for that hero to select during a match. The account level progression will unlock more characters, although very slowly. After about 20 hours of play I was account level 13 and the last character unlocks at level 40. This means the fastest way to unlock most of the characters is through the story mode.

The story mode consists of eight cooperative missions, seven of which must be completed to do the finale. When you decide to play the story mode, Battleborn will begin searching for a team of other players for about five minutes, or less, if it finds four other people before that. If it does not find anyone else, it will just load you up as a single-player mission. Since it is possible for the game to load you into missions solo, I found it quite annoying that it would force me to wait the five minutes rather than give me the option to start alone right away. However, not finding other people can be more annoying since one of the characters unlocks by completing five co-op missions with at least one other player.

Once a team is found or the waiting time is over, three of the seven missions are randomly selected for the team to vote on which to play. Another particularly annoying occurrence happens once you have only one mission left to unlock the finale. If that mission does not random into the three options or the other players out vote you for one of the other missions, you are stuck playing through one you’ve already done again or you are that jerk who left the game. Luckily, the final mission has a separate queue for searching so you can at least guarantee attempting that one once you unlock it.

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This boss is one of the “badass” class clowns.

When it finally loads in, you get a short explanation about the mission, select characters from those you’ve already unlocked, and begin the mission. Each mission plays out with your team having a limited number of shared respawns to complete it, and they tend to take about 35 minutes. Just like in the competitive matches, your heroes start at level 1 and level up throughout the missions. Each of these level ups allows you to select modifications to your abilities and test them out in a less stressful environment than the competitive mode offers. A few of the story missions also have interesting bosses which mechanically resemble encounters closer to something out of a World of Warcraft raid, rather than the boring bullet sponges that the other half of the bosses boil down to. Unfortunately a few of the story missions contain some extremely poor design choices. For example, in one mission you must defend some towers from waves of enemies during the first 5 minutes of the mission, only to return to that zone to defend the same towers during the finale. The towers do not regenerate their defenses, which means if things go a bit wrong at the start and they are severely damaged, the finale becomes almost unbeatable. One enemy breaking through and hitting the towers will finish them off and fail the mission. Oh yeah, if a mission fails, that is it, no checkpoints, just back to the main menu to queue again and hope you can start the 35-minute mission over again from the start.

The competitive mode is divided into three game types: Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown. Each of these has a different set of rules and two unique maps to play on. Each of these modes also has separate queues for matchmaking. Though the wait time always said “short,” more than once I waited over 10 minutes to find a match. I can’t help but imagine that the queues would be significantly shorter for all modes if there was a way to search for any game type, instead of locking into a search for one at a time.

In Meltdown there are two paths of AI controlled units marching towards the enemy base. If they reach a point just past the middle without dying they are scored for points towards the 500 needed to win. When the team is halfway to winning, the path the AI units travel extends towards to the enemy base. This makes them require more protection before they can be scored. This mode was ok, but the focus on protecting your units pulls the action away from more interesting skirmishes. In Capture there are three zones of control, each of which gives your team points while they are held. First team to 1000 points wins. I found this mode to be the most fun, in part because the lack of AI units running around allowed for a lot more clarity during the team fights. However because friendly hitboxes block shots, despite no friendly fire, there are many cases where you really cannot do a lot to help your team. One big example of this problem comes with the hero Montana, who is about two-and-a-half times larger than anyone else. While he is one of the tanky characters and harder to kill, he also ends up being a shield for the enemies whenever he is at the frontline of the fighting, until he dies.

The real meat of Battleborn is in the Incursion mode, which makes sense since it is the most similar to other MOBA games. In it, each team has AI units marching towards the enemy defenses down a single path. Pushing your minions forward to reach the enemy defenses and lay siege to them will deplete enemy base’s life bar. Despite the problems I have with the size of the AI units–friendly or not–there was one thing that drove me up a wall more than any other. This mode has a hard stop to the match at the 30 minute mark. On its face, this does not sound like that bad of an idea; the fact that matches in DOTA 2 or League of Legends can go for over an hour can be an issue for the more casual player. Still, I never had a single match finish with a full depletion of the base’s health bar for either team. It was always a win or loss based on who had more base health left at the buzzer. A big part of what makes the competitive nature of MOBAs–and fighting games or really any competitive game–is the ability to mount a last ditch effort or major play that swings the game the other way for an amazing comeback. It is thrilling to be on or even watch a team pull out a victory from what seems like an insurmountable deficit. This hard limit on the length of matches really discourages and prevents comebacks from happening. This has made the bane of every MOBA–the leaver–even more common place in this one. And can you really blame them for leaving? There is no good reason to spend 10 more minutes in a game you have been steadily losing, even if your team just won a big fight and finally swung the momentum in their favor. It took the winning team 20 minutes to get this far, and you don’t have 20 minutes left to bring it back no matter how well you keep them off their feet. You can spend that 10 minutes finding a new match instead of wasting time in this one.

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You will spend a lot of time in menus while waiting for the game to find matches.

None of this is really bad enough to completely write off Battleborn. Unfortunately, there are many more details that detract from the experience. I mentioned the characters all have the same personalities, which is boring. What is worse, there are some wildly varied strengths among the abilities of characters. One example being the hero Ghalt, the last hero to unlock via account level. He wields shotguns that are strong at close range, can lay an invisible trap that will stun enemies for a few seconds, has a hook that can pull enemies to him and his trap, and can double his rate of fire as his ultimate. When you compare that to someone like Orendi, who is unlocked at the start, you find that there is a lot more synergy between the abilities for the unlockable characters. Orendi’s kit allows her to deal a burst of damage close in front of her which propels her away, summon a vertical pillar that deals damage to enemies in it, and for her ultimate, can summon that pillar horizontally for a long range nuke. This isn’t to say she isn’t effective at doing her job, dealing lots of damage to lots of people, but her abilities don’t chain together into some kind of combo the way Ghalt’s do. Seeing this kind of disparity in characters is problematic, and is exacerbated with the way matchmaking seems to work.

I mentioned waiting upwards of 10 minutes to find a match, but the matchmaking has issues beyond the wait time. When you queue it would first find other players for your team. I believe the biggest gap in account level I saw among my team was about 15 levels. Once a team is found it then searches for a team to play against, and it appears to be much less strict with who that is. The enemy team would still be within around 15 levels of each other, but I often found myself playing against teams with account levels in 80s. It is no surprise then to find that those teams often were using heroes I was still trying to unlock, and frankly heroes with more interesting and stronger ability kits.

Then you run into the actual level designs, which seem to be built too tightly together without much room for sneaking around enemies. This makes the melee assassin heroes—who deal lots of damage but are not good at survival–feel like they are at a distinct disadvantage as it is very hard to find a way to close the gap without long lines of sight for the enemies to spot you. On top of that, I found sections on all the maps where I would get stuck on the terrain despite knowing full well it was a traversable path. First-person shooters require a lot of fast movement, so getting stuck on something isn’t just detrimental, but frustrating. Then there is the gear system, which I honestly didn’t realize existed for the first eight hours or so. The currency collected in matches to upgrade defense turrets can also be used to purchase gear you’ve selected prior to the match, which can modify stats like attack speed or shield recharge rate. This gear is selected with a loadout in the “Command” selection off the main menu. This gear, as far as I could tell, was only found in the story mode from random drops or by purchasing loot packs with in game credits earned by playing matches. Note that these credits are not the same as the currency you are collecting inside of a match while actually playing the game. The entire gear system gives such minor passive boosts that it doesn’t feel like it is worth engaging in and doesn’t bring anything meaningful to the matches. Even if they effects were meaningful and you ran into a player who seemed like they were doing really well, there is no way to inspect them and see what gear they are using to pull that off, and no outward graphical changes to indicate them either.

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With careful examination of this image I noticed that I’m being attacked in melee from somewhere under those giant arms.

After all of this, the biggest thing holding back the competitive mode is actually the first-person perspective. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I came to realize why it was such an issue. The MOBA genre has traditionally spawned from real-time-strategy games with an eye-in-the-sky perspective over the battlefield. Being able to see everything in this way allows you to make moment-to-moment decisions with clear information. There are some abilities in this game with graphical effects that are huge and frankly blinding, if they are right in front of or completely surrounding you. Funny enough, those skills do not actually inflict the “blind” condition which IS a part of this game. When you have the eye-in-the-sky perspective, a melee enemy might jump in behind you to try and get a kill. You can see who it is and judge how to react. What makes the first-person perspective so bad is that you get a flashing indicator on the screen letting you know what direction you were damaged from, but no good information about what damaged you. You can glance at the map, but with more than one enemy on it, was it that enemy on the map farther behind you with a gun or that enemy in front of you casting a spell behind you that you can’t see? You cannot tell until you turn around, and in the case that it was a melee character, you might have gotten away by using a long refresh time ability immediately instead of running for cover while checking the map. These decisions are really hard to make in the moment without clear information. Super Monday Night Combat from 2012 also tried to mix shooters with MOBAs, but did it from a third-person perspective where you could always see your back and if someone was on it. While that game had its own issues, clarity of information was never one of them.

Battleborn is not a good game, which is really disappointing, since I wanted so badly to like it. It is a game riddled with poor design choices, boring and unbalanced characters, and too many systems that lock away content or fail to add meaningful value. If you wanted a fulfilling co-op story experience, go back and play the Borderlands games. Maybe you want a class based competitive shooter, but Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 do it better. Perhaps you were wanting to try out a MOBA, however DOTA 2 and League of Legends have been doing it better for years. And hell, if you were really hoping for a Shooter mixed with MOBAs, Super Monday Night Combat isn’t the only one that did it before.