Sunday, October 23, 2016

Plants vs. Zombies Heroes Review (iOS)

Everyone knows Plants vs. Zombies. The original app/game released in 2009 and since then just about every living person has tried their hand in defending their front lawn from incessant zombies. While the game was loads of fun and involved some strategic thinking, it got old after awhile. A second PvZ title involving time travel was launched 4 years later, but contained more of the same gameplay we had grown accustomed to.

With Plants vs. Zombies Heroes we’re given a fresh experience that dives into the Collectible Card Game (CCG) genre. Gone is the tower defense formula that PvZ made itself known for and instead comes a game similar to the likes of Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic: The Gathering, the Pokemon Trading Card Game and of course Hearthstone.

Like those games, the player is encouraged to put together their best 40 card deck in hopes of defeating their opponents in a duel. To start they pick their hero from either the plant side or the zombie side. The matches will always consist of a plant team going up against a zombie team and there are 10 Heroes that can be used on either side. While there’s only a couple of heroes available from the get-go, more can be unlocked as the game is played more.

Once a hero is chosen, the player will then construct their deck based on the cards that are available to them. One thing to note is that each hero has 2 different colors associated with them and they can only use cards that share a color with them in their decks. For example the zombie hero Super Brainz has the attributes of Brainy and Sneaky so he can only use cards that are pink and black in his deck. Making decks with each hero will allow players to use other cards that may not be available to them if they only play as a specific hero like Super Brainz.

As you continue to play, more cards with different abilities can be unlocked by purchasing in-game booster packs with either in-game currency or real money. The more you play, the more currency you’ll earn allowing you to buy more packs and have more cards at your disposal to make better decks. Real money can be dished out to speed up the process, but I haven’t put a single cent into the game yet and have still unlocked a ton of new cards.

That’s a major part of what makes PvZ Heroes so great. Your deck is constantly getting better by subbing out your old cards with the new rarer cards you earn. Opening a pack to find a card that would fit perfectly in your Solar Flare Sunflower deck is rewarding and provides a great incentive to keep playing especially if you want to beat the pants, or should I say plants, off of real players.

Here’s how the gameplay works. Each battle has the same goal, deplete your opponent’s 20 life points before they depletes yours. The layout of each battle shows a top-down view of the playing field with the Zombie hero on one side and the Plant hero on the other side and is played vertically. Just like the original PvZ, there are 5 lanes in which you can place your plants or zombies, 3 of which are normal ground level lanes and then 1 elevated and 1 water lane. Some plants and zombies receive attack bonuses or have abilities that are specific to the elevated lane while others are deemed as aquatic and are the only ones that can be placed in the water lane.

Each round always plays out the same way with the zombie team playing their zombie(creature) cards first, followed by the plant team playing their plants and other cards (power-up/damage/draw cards). After the plants team plays, the zombie team is then given an opportunity to play “trick” cards that can either weaken or destroy plants, power-up and move their zombies to a better spot on the board or even allow them to draw cards. At the end of each round, plants and zombies that are in the same lane will attack each other, so strategy must be used to calculate how plants and zombies will match up given their attack power and life totals. If a lane is vacant on one side while there is a plant or zombie on the other side that creature will do damage to the opposing player’s hero. 

It makes for good fun as you’ll never know exactly what cards are in each deck you’ll face, making planning a strategy all the more enticing. That along with the seemingly endless amount of different cards that can be found in booster packs (not sure if they’ll add more as time goes on) make this a game I’ll be playing for the foreseeable future.

While the single player mode is great for learning the basics and seeing how some cards work together, the online multiplayer is where the game truly shines. Outsmarting a real opponent that put together a deck just like you is so much more rewarding and fun than defeating a computer player. Some of the matches I had with online opponents were teeth-grittingly close and had me at the edge of my seat, especially one where I only had 1 life left on my hero that I won. Another opponent who I outplayed even rage-quitted on me before I could hit his hero with the final blow. Matchmaking was also problem free as I found an opponent pretty quickly each time. At the time of this writing though there seems to be a lot more Plant players than Zombie players, so I stick with my Electric Boogaloo Zombie deck most of the time to ensure I can always find an opponent.

Plants vs. Zombies Heroes is my new favorite addiction and I can’t wait to defeat even more difficult opponents online! I just wonder how much staying power it will have and if  (and how often) new cards will be released making its lasting appeal uncertain for now.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Monday, October 10, 2016

Sum 41 - 13 Voices Review

Since the 9th grade, I've been a Sum 41 fan. When their first album All Killer No Filler was released in 2001, it was hard not to fall in love with songs like "In Too Deep," "Fat Lip" and "Motivation." As a teenager in my first year of high school, this was one of the first albums I owned and a catchy one at that.

Through the 15 years from then to now I've bought every CD put out by the band and listened religiously to each one. I still even occasionally play songs from each album on my car rides. So where does Deryck and the rest of the Sums (including Dave Brownsound!) latest offering land in the spectrum of all that is Sum 41? Does it ride with the greats like Chuck and Does This Look Infected?, or does it fall flat like the atrocity that was Underclass Hero?

The short answer...somewhere in the middle.

Sum 41 original members Steve Jocz, Cone McCaslin, Deryck Whibley and Dave Baksh

Here's a brief history lesson in Sum 41: Originally consisting of these 4 guys, Baksh (aka Brownsound) left the band in 2006 to work with his new band and was replaced with Tom Thacker on guitars. Later Jocz (Stevo 32) left the band in 2013 and was replaced with Frank Zummo on drums in 2015. It was that same year that Baksh later rejoined the band to contribute his heavy ass-kicking guitar solos and riffs to Sum 41 once more.

With Dave Baksh once again as part of the lineup, the sound found in 13 Voices has undergone a significant overhaul when compared with the two albums that came out before it, Underclass Hero and Screaming Bloody Murder.

That being said let's get into the songs that comprise 13 Voices, which I will divide up into chunks:

Intro (First 3 songs on the album)
Consists of: "A Murder of Crows"/"Goddamn I'm Dead Again"/"Fake My Own Death"

Wow...just wow. Easily the best part of the album is the beginning. These 3 tracks made me fall in love with Sum 41 all over again. Starting with "A Murder of Crows," the subtle lead up into the heavy guitar riffs coupled with the powerfully mesmerizing drums and Deryck once again at the helm of his band is simply breathtaking. This leads right into "Goddamn I'm Dead Again," a perfect combination of Deryck's energized lyrics and Dave's quick fingers on the guitar, an absence that was sorely missed. From there we head into "Fake My Own Death," the first single off of 13 Voices, and a great one at that. The song takes everything we have loved about Sum 41 through the years and amplifies it, but more importantly Deryck, Cone and Dave are all jamming out together in full force. Easily my favorite song off the album. It also doesn't hurt that they poke fun at popular internet memes in the video.

A still from the "Fake My Own Death" music video 

Middle (Songs 4-7)
Consists of: "Breaking the Chain"/"There Will Be Blood"/"13 Voices"/"War"

This is where 13 Voices starts to lose some steam. While I like "Breaking the Chain," it sounds a little too much like a Linkin Park song to me, both in formula and execution. Don't get me wrong I like Linkin Park, it's just that Sum 41 never had this LP sort of sound to any of their songs so it threw me off. Not the worst song on the album by any stretch, inspirational even, just not my favorite. "There Will Be Blood" takes the prize of worst song on 13 Voices. I'm not sure what to make of it. It sounds like a mashing together of multiple Pop/Punk bands into one very messy song that doesn't really know its own identity. Even Dave Baksh's guitar playing can't save this one. Next we have "13 Voices," which starts out almost as an intermission song smack-dab in the middle of the album and then quickly turns into an adrenaline fueled guitar and drum pairing followed up by Deryck's vocals. I can't help but feel this one sounds a lot like some of their previously released songs, especially from Screaming Bloody Murder. Kind of a let down when you know they can come up with more original ideas for songs. Last, but not least in this block is "War," another inspirational piece telling of how Deryck overcame Alcoholism and became a stronger, better person with his sobriety and while the message of the song is a good one, it didn't provide me with much of a spark like some of the other songs did.

 While "War" provides some insight into Deryck's struggle with Alcoholism, it's kind of boring
End (Songs 8-10)
Consists of: "God Save Us All (Death to POP)"/"The Fall and the Rise"/"Twisted by Design"

The 8th track comes in the lackluster song of "God Save Us All (Death to POP)," another song that sounds like Sum 41 is trying to copy another band's style, almost as if they worked together with Green Day on this one. Nothing too memorable about it, although I would consider it a good song to get my blood pumping on the treadmill while at the gym. Next we have "The Fall and the Rise," a joint effort by all the guys contributing their vocals along with a catchy guitar riff and drums that compliment it all nicely. Unfortunately this one also reminds me of Linkin Park and a song that appeared on Sum's Underclass Hero album. As a result it doesn't feel original and kind of like we got the short end of the stick on this one. Last we have "Twisted by Design," another one of my favorite songs. Deryck's delivery is spot on and the band plays well together on this final hurrah of 13 Voices, easily one of the better songs off the album.

While 13 Voices only has 10 tracks, the version of it sold at Target has an additional 4 bonus tracks, which I'll talk about below.

Bonus (11-14)
Consists of: "Better Days"/"Black Eyes"/"War (Acoustic)"/"Breaking the Chain (Acoustic)"

"Better Days" offers another fast-paced Sum song and is catchy. Only about 2 minutes in length, but good nonetheless. "Black Eyes" sounds a lot like "Count Your Last Blessings" from Underclass Hero, not bad though. The acoustic versions of "War" and "Breaking the Chain" on the other hand are fantastic. I always felt acoustic versions of songs had more emotion within them and Deryck succeeds in performing two songs that I feel are both better than their originals with this added realness and peaceful guitar strums accompanying them.

So where would I put 13 Voices in the Sum 41 catalog? Here is my list of Sum 41 albums from most to least favorite:

1. Chuck
2. Does this Look Infected
3. All Killer No Filler
4. 13 Voices
5. Screaming Bloody Murder
6. Underclass Hero

There you have it. 13 Voices is simply a good Sum 41 album that fairs better than their last two album releases due to Dave (Brownsound) Baksh's return to the band in all his guitar playing glory. The absence of Stevo on drums is a bummer though as I would have loved to have the original band all back together again.

I give 13 Voices 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Scary Shows, Games & Movies (Day 1) - Salem (WGN)

October is finally upon us, meaning pumpkin spice flavored everything and cuddling up to a scary movie (or TV show) on our couches. There's also plenty of video games to play to get us in the spirit of Halloween. To get into the spookiness of the month, I decided to do a post every couple of days in October discussing the games I'm currently playing and the TV shows and movies that are filling up my Netflix queue this month, in celebration of the paranormal and nightmare inducing scenarios we've come to love over the years.

Today I finished up season 2 of the WGN series Salem. The show is entirely fictional and loosely based on the events of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. It follows the story of Mary Walton, a young woman who is deeply in love with a man by the name of John Alden. Before they could leave Salem together and escape the grasp of the strict Puritan rule, John is sent to fight in the war against the Indians, separating the two from each other. Alone and pregnant with John's child, Mary ends up offering her unborn son to the Devil to avoid persecution and ridicule from the townspeople for having relations without being married. As a result her soul now belongs to the Devil and she is destined to become a witch.

She marries the head of the town George Sibley and becomes Mrs. Sibley, the most powerful woman in Salem. She then hexes her husband by putting her frog familiar down his throat, making him incapable of speech. In his silence she rules in his stead and influences the witch trials in the witches favor. Along the way she also has to deal with the other witches that live in Salem, including the ones that are trying to overthrow her as leader of the witches.

The show is all good fun and offers a unique take on the events that took place in Salem during that time. There's plenty of bloody and grotesque situations that arise as witches mercilessly use the Puritans to do their bidding, including killing one another. Salem is marvelously macabre and definitely not for those with weak stomachs or who get squeamish easily. Not to mention some of the great backstabbing situations that occur among the witches, including some magical duels that would put Harry Potter to shame.

If you like brutal violence and sex scenes then Salem may be the show for you. I would put it in the same category as Game of Thrones. Also if you're a fan of witches and exorcism type horror.

The first two seasons of Salem are available to stream on Netflix and contain 13 episodes each. Season 3 will premiere on Wednesday, November 2nd on WGN.