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SimCity developer’s forgotten oil refinery simulator is now playable online

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SimRefinery, an all-but-forgotten oil refinery simulator from the studio behind SimCity, has been rediscovered and uploaded to the web as a playable game, ArsTechnica reports. The existence of the game came to light last month after it appeared in a wide-ranging report about Maxis’ little-known business simulations division. Now, however, an anonymous user has uploaded the game to the Internet Archive, where it’s actually playable in a browser thanks to a built-in DOSBox emulator.

The game’s discovery came about after Ars covered a lengthy report about Maxis Business Simulations, the SimCity studio’s attempt at making business-focused simulators. Soon, one anonymous Ars commentor reported that they actually had a copy of SimRefinery, obtained via a chimerical engineering friend of theirs. Now they’ve uploaded the game to the Internet Archive, so it’s free for everyone to explore.

It’s fairly simple to start playing the game directly in your browser.
Screenshot: Internet Archive

SimRefinery is clearly unfinished, and I was quickly faced with numerous graphical glitches when I tried to play it for myself. Instructions or documentation of any kind are also pretty limited, making it hard to get a handle on what’s going on.

The copy of SimRefinery was found on an old 3.5 inch disk with a simple white sticker printed with the game’s name and the logo of Maxis, SimCity’s developer. Reportedly, the game was never meant to teach people how to run an oil refinery. Instead, Chevron, the energy corporation who commissioned Maxis to make the prototype, wanted a game that could show off how an oil refinery works at a high level.

Although the game is pretty difficult to play in its current state, it’s a satisfying conclusion to a great story. You can find more screenshots from the game over at ArsTechnica, or try playing the game for yourself on the Internet Archive.

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HBO Max is getting a Batman spinoff show based on the upcoming Robert Pattinson movie

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HBO Max has announced a new TV series focused on the Gotham City Police Department, which will be a spinoff of Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman film (which is set to star Robert Pattinson at Bruce Wayne / Batman).

The new series will be set in the same world as Reeves’ film and will be produced by Reeves and Dylan Clark (who’s also producing The Batman). Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter is set to write the series.

The series promises to “build upon the motion picture’s examination of the anatomy of corruption in Gotham City” and “further explore the myriad of compelling and complex characters of Gotham,” with the goal of launching a “new Batman universe across multiple platforms.”

The new TV series emphasizes how important DC properties are to the overall HBO Max strategy. By tying a TV series to its next big Batman film, Warner Bros. is hoping to leverage the popularity of its DC characters to help drive subscribers to the new streaming service. It’s a similar motivation that’s fueling the slate of already-announced DC series coming to the platform and the upcoming release of the Snyder Cut of Justice League that’s planned for next year.

The Batman isn’t the only property that WarnerMedia is looking to expand to HBO Max. The company is also set to try a similar experiment with its upcoming Dune adaptation. It’s already announced a spinoff for HBO Max, Dune: The Sisterhood, which will explore the larger world of Dune and the characters in it. It will be produced by Dune director Denis Villeneuve.

WarnerMedia isn’t the only company trying to tie its blockbusters to streaming: it’s a cornerstone of Disney’s strategy for Disney Plus, too, which has emphasized its Star Wars series (like The Mandalorian) and the upcoming Marvel shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier or Loki as ways to drive subscriptions.

There’s no release date yet for the upcoming Gotham PD HBO Max series; The Batman is scheduled to release on October 1st, 2021.

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The world is finally coming around to Starship Troopers

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The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.

The movie: Starship Troopers (1997)

The future: Two hundred years from now, Earth is governed by the United Citizen Federation, a new world order where people are defined as either citizens or civilians. To be a citizen, you must enlist in the UCF marines, which will earn you the respect of your peers and the right to vote. Not much is divulged about the lives of those not enlisted; it’s implied they don’t really matter much. Everyone wants to be a good citizen, everyone wants to enlist.

The UCF needs a steady stream of recruits, too: they’re in a seemingly endless war against the Bugs. If they have a proper name, no one is told. They’re just hostile, overwhelming, and need killing. If they were provoked, the UCF does not care.

Starship Troopers follows a group of new recruits from the end of their compulsory schooling to their enlisting in various branches of the military. All-American jock Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) becomes an infantryman, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) becomes a pilot, and his weirdo pal Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems to have psychic powers, joins the military’s Intelligence division.

Viewers see the future through their eyes, and it’s one forged on the equitable distribution of violence. Voting is violence, and those who use actual force are the only ones qualified to exercise that privilege. Women and men are equals in this militaristic future: they bleed the same, play on the same arena football teams, and buy into the jingoistic propaganda with equal enthusiasm. They don’t question their roles, the war they fight in, or the fascistic nature of their government, their uniforms, their attitudes. All that matters is that they fight, and they’ll gladly die in a war that doesn’t make sense.

The past: Upon its release in November 1997, Starship Troopers almost immediately flopped. Audiences and critics hated it. Roger Ebert called it “the most violent kiddie movie ever made” in his two-star review. Ebert conceded director Paul Verhoeven seemed to be angling for a satire of fascism but argued the film lacked humanity, considering its action soulless spectacle.

It didn’t help that the movie arrived in a tremendous year for film. Titanic would steamroll box offices a month later, and the preceding months saw more successful genre fare like The Fifth Element and The Lost World: Jurassic Park rake in millions. Perhaps Star Wars didn’t help, either: in 1997, the Special Editions had been released both theatrically and on home video, and the mean contrast of Verhoeven’s film might have been difficult to swallow.

Starship Troopers seems to be an obvious satire now, but the movie and its marketing mostly played things straight. It was an unpretentious sci-fi action film with a $100 million budget and great special effects. Why shouldn’t it be fun? And in the heady glow of late-’90s American prosperity, it wasn’t particularly obvious that the people Starship Troopers was critiquing might have been us.

The present: As Atlantic writer Calum Marsh noted in 2013, the tide has been slowly turning on Starship Troopers. Like a lot of prescient satire, the times changed until the movie’s point was made for it, and its targets became obvious — even though its story in retrospect could not have been more plain.

Revisiting the film in 2018, Verhoeven stressed how Starship Troopers consciously evoked the iconography of fascism on every level, from the casting of blond and square-jawed Casper Van Dien in the lead over known names like Matt Damon to the uniforms they wore.

“I decided to make a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism,” Verhoeven said, citing the United States’ refusal to limit firearms and the escalating number of executions in Texas under then-governor George W. Bush as aspects of American policy that could easily give way to fascism.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, David Roth argues that the movie is especially potent in 2020, as American institutions have all but failed, with fascism the only avenue for them to persist.

“For most of Starship Troopers, humanity, in every possible facet, gets its ass kicked. A culture that reveres and communicates exclusively through violence—a culture very much like one that responds to peaceful protests with indiscriminate police brutality, or whose pandemic strategy is to “dominate” an unreasoning virus—keeps running up against its own self-imposed limitations,” Roth writes. “It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.”

It’s worth noting that it’s still easy to misinterpret Starship Troopers if you’re not necessarily expecting satire. There is nothing to compare the fascistic UCF against other than the bugs — aliens shaped like things we already abhor, who don’t speak or seem to want anything other than to be left alone. It’s full of long, corny action, characters who don’t seem to think about much, and very little growth.

On this level, it’s a mindless blockbuster that’s easy to ignore, which is precisely the problem. It’s been easy to ignore our society’s very obvious ills. The atrocities of 2020 are not abnormalities or acts of God; they’re the logical conclusion to decades of careful work on the part of some and negligence on the part of others. The rot is slow, like the online propaganda videos that Starship Troopers uses for exposition that all end with a link asking “would you like to know more?” It’s a shadow of the way algorithms would serve as accelerant for radicalization nearly a decade before YouTube.

Starship Troopers asserts that the spectacle is the point. Its final act, a last, desperate push to clear out a bug stronghold, is exceedingly dull and senseless, violence made mundane. It plays it straight with no clever asides for the audience to pick up on, no character to channel the experience through, no one to ask the viewer why they have this urge to find this violence meaningful, for having the temerity to think that violence would have a meaning. I’m here to see the fireworks, and rare is the blockbuster that is interested in forcing me to question that.

Besides, would people even care? If we gave the Avengers an S.S. paint job, would people love them any less? We don’t just cheer for the “good guys” with guns anymore, but the ones with literal superpowers, and they’ve taken over the world.

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Deadly Premonition 2 leans into the best and worst parts of the original cult classic

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An unexpected sequel

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is almost as awkward to review as Deadly Premonition must have been to follow up. So let me just get this part out of the way: Deadly Premonition fans, by which I mean people who genuinely, unironically liked Deadly Premonition, may well dig this game. It is delirious in most of the same ways as its predecessor, from the surreal writing to the endlessly twisting plot.

Should anyone else play it? Well, no.

One reason is simple. Another is more complex. The simple reason is that anyone who didn’t play Deadly Premonition will have no idea what is going on in this game, which serves as both a sequel and prequel while making no attempt to explain itself to newcomers. But the thornier problem is that Deadly Premonition 2 is, by any reasonable standard, a deeply flawed game to an even greater degree than its predecessor, and uninitiated players are unlikely to be as forgiving a decade on.

The original Deadly Premonition found an unusual path to Western fandom. While it was a full-priced release in Japan under the name Red Seeds Profile, the US version got a new title and a $20 price point that reflected its low budget and less than impressive production values. The critical response was mixed, to say the least — IGN famously gave it a 2/10 — but word soon spread about this bizarre Twin Peaks-influenced survival horror game from Japan. It’s now considered a true cult classic.

I often hear the phrase “so bad it’s good” or comparisons to The Room thrown around in reference to Deadly Premonition, and I think that’s way off. The Room is a terrible movie made by someone who had too much money and no self-awareness, which is what ultimately makes it watchable. Deadly Premonition, however, is a great game at its core. It had terrible graphics, awful voice acting, and clumsy combat, sure, but most of its flaws were a consequence of its budget. The writer and director, Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro, knew exactly what he was going for. There is nothing like Deadly Premonition’s unhinged blend of horror, comedy, and pop-culture references, and for many, the technical flaws only added to the B-movie charm.

Deadly Premonition 2 doesn’t get let off so easily. This is a Switch-exclusive release, and no one ever expected a sequel to happen, so it is fair to say that Nintendo’s backing for the project probably exceeds whatever collection of shoestrings was used to fund the original. Despite this, Deadly Premonition 2 is a technical disaster. It adopts a new semi-cel-shaded art style reminiscent of Swery’s Xbox One game D4, and it does look relatively sharp on the Switch’s screen. But the overall aesthetic is a visual mess, and the performance often drops well below 20 frames per second.

Judging by reactions I’ve seen to previews of Deadly Premonition 2, fans of the original may well argue that this is exactly what they’d expect or even hope for. Swery himself has publicly dismissed concerns about the frame rate. And I admit it would have been a little weird to see a Deadly Premonition sequel out of nowhere with photorealistic graphics at 4K / 60fps. But I would argue that it’s even weirder to see a console-exclusive game in 2020 that looks and runs like this. It made me nauseous at times. The total lack of an invert-look option did not help matters.

I’m reminded of my time reporting a Polygon feature on the history of the low-budget Earth Defense Force series, which is notorious for its inversely proportional relationship between frames per second and giant alien bugs on-screen. “From my perspective, if I asked the player if they want a very stable and conservative gameplay experience, or something extraordinary with some technical issues, which game would they prefer?” director Takehiro Homma asked me. “I think the latter is more appealing.”

Deadly Premonition 2 is not showing me anything extraordinary. Often, it’s just showing a dude talking to himself at a dinner table with admittedly witty dialogue, and the frame rate still somehow suffers. Things get even worse when he steps outside on his skateboard. If anything, the original Deadly Premonition had better performance.

Deadly Premonition 2’s core conceit is essentially a direct lift from the first season of True Detective, where you follow a young sleuth in the past and catch up with his ragged, world-weary form in the present for another perspective on the main story. (The past scenes are also set in Louisiana, just to drive the reference home.)

The game plays out in an open world of sorts, letting you explore a small town and gather information on a murder — although the detective elements are more about finding things on the map than using any actual brainwork. There is also combat, as with the first game, and unsurprisingly, it isn’t very good here either.

I could tell you more about how Deadly Premonition 2 plays, but really the answer is just “badly,” and that won’t — and shouldn’t — put off anyone who wants to play it anyway. I do enjoy the characters and the world and the overwhelming sense that everything has been scooped directly out of Swery’s id with a shovel. I don’t think any of that is an excuse for releasing a game that feels like it’s running on a PS2 emulator, but I know there are people who won’t mind. As some guy once said, time is a flat circle. This game repeats what came before it — for better and worse.

Deadly Premonition 2 reminds me of last year’s Shenmue III. That was a similarly unlikely sequel that played on nostalgia; the overall visuals were updated, but the simple character models and knowingly cheesy voice acting felt of a part with the decades-old predecessors. Deadly Premonition 2, in turn, certainly does what it can to re-create the experience of playing the original game.

But the difference with Shenmue is that those games were technical marvels at the time, so deliberately evoking that Dreamcast-era vibe makes a certain degree of sense today. Deadly Premonition was great despite its technical issues, not because of them. I’m not asking for a AAA-standard sequel, but it would have been nice if Deadly Premonition 2 felt fit for purpose as a Switch game.

Still, as a Deadly Premonition game, I have to say that A Blessing In Disguise hits the spot. If you liked what was actually good about the predecessor — the writing, the sense of humor, and the multilayered plot — this is a reasonable sequel. I just wish it had improved on the things that weren’t so great instead of leaning into them.

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is available now on the Nintendo Switch.

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