Top 10 Survival Tips for State of Decay 2 for XBox One

State of Decay 2 Poster

A friend recently brought to my attention that my Gamer Card indicates that when you stitch together all the hours I’ve spent playing State of Decay 2, on XBox One, I’ve played for more than five days straight.  This does not surprise me. If I include the original, or the newest Heartland expansion game, it’s probably weeks.

This is probably my #1 game of 2019, as it embodies the kind of qualities that hold my rapt attention: A) It’s strategic, with an element of planning and resource management, B) it’s also action-oriented, with learnable hand-to-hand and gun combat that improves with XP, and C), it’s customizable, which is to say you can easily imagine the inner lives of characters and customize them to match it.  To play is, in its own way, to tell a story about the creation (and sometimes destruction) of a survivor community. Wrap all this in moments of nail-biting, shout-at-the-TV intensity, and you’ve got a recipe for classic zombie horror, done well.

In this storytelling sense, the game plays on two levels: what’s actually happening, mathematically, and what you imagine would be happening.   For example, idiosyncratic character details, that Ed has a background in “roofing” and that makes him more likely to be good at construction for your defensive wall. Karen, on the other hand, has traits that make her disagreeable–understandable, since her husband was killed, but she’s starting fights and damaging morale. On the plus side, Deshawn gives “good backrubs” which turn out to add  bonuses to group cohesion, a topic which is of itself a constant worry. I’ve never seen Deshawn give those backrubs, but I have to imagine them, because I know they work and the bonus is nontrivial.  Dozens of these types of micro-interactions play in any given moment, and they literally govern the survival of the community.  If Karen’s attitude doesn’t change, Karen is going to find herself exiled or euthanized, and Karen is going to die.

There is no saving in this game.  When characters die, it’s permanent.  It’s routinely unfair. Characters can die when you aren’t actively playing them, they die when you aren’t paying attention, I’m pretty sure I’ve had characters die while I wasn’t even playing.  Putting too much energy in one character is a recipe for guaranteed heartbreak. This is a game about the creation of a community, and not all of them are going to make it. In all the instances that I’ve won the game, my communities had completely turned over; none of my original community members survived until the end, and were replaced by people I’d picked up in the course of play.  There’s no predicting who makes it.

This game is high-stress.

To say this is combination is addictive is to understate the devastating impact this game has had on my life.  I’ve won, multiple times, multiple ways. I’ve also lost entire communities–been wiped out completely–only to restart a new community the same evening.  And every time a character has died, every time, I am on my feet, shouting at the television, jamming controller buttons like a lab rat releasing cocaine into the water dispenser.

I would spare you this pain.  To that end, I’ve written the guide I wished I had when I started, and ordered the rules according to descending importance.  Follow these, and your survival is as assured as it’s possible to be. Indeed, most times a character dies, it will be easy to trace your error back to which rule you broke.  With that in mind:

Rule #10: Sell to Win

Money in State of Decay takes the form of Influence, a catch-all metric that describes your relative power in the Valley.  Gain Influence by destroying enemies and performing missions. It also provides subtle benefits: a community with good amenities is going to attract more visitors, and have more opportunities to invite in new members.  Influence is spent when you create bases, outposts, buy radio support or vehicles, and via trade of items.

Influence is also a relative proxy for experience, since it’s mainly achieved via completing tasks.  However, there are certain bases that can build high value trade items, such as beer or whiskey. You should make some of this stuff whenever you can, and keep some in your trunk to sell to any traders or neighbors for influence.  

There is no other move in the game that can change your fortunes as quickly as a trunkload of sales.  Aside from dying.

Rule #9 An Ally Instead, Avoids the Undead 

Characters start out as weaklings.  Until your character is at least a little experienced with combat, they need to go in pairs.  When possible, enlist an ally from a nearby community. You should always be doing this if you have a ton of Influence.  If they die, it doesn’t affect your community as directly.   Note that you can also take two from your community and hire a neighbor for up to three, under the right circumstances.  This is ideal for clearing out plague hearts or infested zones.

Use allies wisely.  There are certain hard-to-find skills one can outsource to other communities, at no cost to your own.  The best examples of this are Auto Mechanics and Doctors. They sell repair kits, materials and meds, and as neighbors instead of roommates, won’t subtract from your resources, like food or beds.  

If you invite neighbors in and your place gets too crowded, it hurts morale.  Sometimes a character will remark on this, saying something like “I’m glad we’ve met all these new people, but do they all have to live here?”  No, they don’t.

Should you recruit them to your own community, when the time arises?  No, not unless you have an Infirmary or an Auto Repair shop in your base.  Otherwise, they are more effective in their own facility. Keep them safe, and they’ll provide bonuses to your community and specialized actions such as vehicle delivery and sniper support.  They also make valuable trading partners. And when they call–answer.

Rule #8 Train, Read, Explore

Characters advance with XP that can only be gained by exploring the valley.  Some skills, like agriculture, construction, engineering, or craftsmanship, are incredibly useful but rarely available early in the game.  It’s going to take a while to accumulate that experience. Other skills are constantly accumulated (fighting, cardio), but literally stand between your character and certain death, and need practice, quickly.

Cardio is probably the easiest to get.  If you push your character to run whenever they can, leveling up this skill is a breeze.  At the second tier of XP, I recommend Acrobatics for fighters and Marathon for scouts. 

Fighting and shooting are likewise unavoidable, so they will appreciate on their own, but they are also the skills that keep you from being euthanized by your bunkmates.  Both can be improved with the right facilities: a fitness gym or a gun range. If you can’t spare the construction plots, build only the fighting gym. When your characters are sufficiently good at fighting, replace the gym with a gun range.  Being good at guns is something you as a player can perform on the character’s behalf with controller skills, but a low fighting rating means you haven’t unlocked moves critical to any survivor’s skillset. Even pushing a zombie off is really difficult at the lower levels.  Build this facility and run the training constantly. 

When you get the option to specialize, choose swordsmanship.  Two high-level swordsmen on a mission can make short work of the average horde.  

Exploring and opening boxes is what improves your wits, Scouting, Stealth and Resourcefulness all come up here, and this also determines how quiet your Survivor will be while rifling through boxes, and reduces the frequency of search-breakage.  

Books will level up any given skill, but there is no reliable way to know which books will work for which characters, it’s usually something tangentially related to their pre-war job: someone with a green thumb might be able to use a gardening book, a bartender might be able to use a cookbook.  Accumulate these in your base and wait for someone to join who can benefit from them.  

Rule #7 Keep Close to the Car

This is exactly what it sounds like.  Repeat after me: the car is your most powerful weapon.  

You’ll need it to get yourself and your NPCs out of swarms, to range anywhere beyond your starting point.  If you can, build superior, Mad Max-style vehicles like the Vandito at every opportunity and keep them in good repair.

When I think of how my characters have died, it’s often while traveling, but fewer occurred during on-foot missions than you would expect.  What often happens is that from one minute to the next, the car we are driving is suddenly rendered useless: we hit a bloater and need to jump, we crash, we are immobilized by a juggernaut, the car catches fire or explodes, or we’re tossed from the vehicle by attackers.  So we are very suddenly wounded and battling out of a swarm that was inevitably attracted by all the noise. These are incredibly dangerous situations, often ending in character injury or death.  

By contrast, missions that begin on foot usually proceed slowly and carefully, with a lot of close calls but more sneaking than fighting.  The key difference is the sudden surprise.

Always keep a gas can and especially a toolbox in the trunk of your car.  Seek out cars with big trunks. And then never get more than 150 feet from the car unless you are foraging for more of the aforementioned gas and kit.  Conversely, if the car is near-destroyed and you don’t think it’s going to make it, abandon ship and don’t look back.

Take care of your car, because it will keep you alive.  

Rule #6 Place Your Base in the Right Place

This one was so important, I needed to make it rhyme.

Outposts offer a few critical strategic benefits.  You can access your storage box from any base, so all bases share all items.  Items created in your main base go directly into the inventory and are instantly available at any of your outposts.  This move will save your life more than any other. Build plague cures at your home base and have them available where you need them!  Trade out broken weapons for fresh ones! Get more medicine, more explosives! This is the only reason most of my characters have survived.

The downsides are that bases can’t accept rucksacks, only your home base can do that, and any actions that need to be performed in-person need to be done at the home base, such as repairing equipped weapons or receiving personalized medical attention.

As to placement: look at the map, find the strategic choke-points where you anticipate moving your campaign, and put your bases there or on whatever resource you want that base to supply (fuel, food, etc) closest to there.  As you move around the map, add forward outposts. Make sure to upgrade your command center and install radio antennae to increase the number of outposts allowed. I think the maximum is six.

Outposts are also the only place outside your base where you can switch the controlling character.  Don’t be shy about this–if someone is injured and needs time to recuperate from a head wound or gas inhalation, bench her, and swap in someone healthier.   The non-active character can heal in the background.

Rule #5 Distract, Delay, Destroy

Combat tactics in State of Decay 2 are probably lengthy enough topic to merit a separate post, but the game makes use of fireworks as tactical devices called distractors. What distractors do, is to instantly command the attention of any zombie within earshot by way of loud noises.  That means unless they are involved in direct combat with you, they’ll wander over to the distractor, e.g. a cluster of fireworks popping away on the ground. (Alas, Ferals and Juggernauts are immune to these charms.)  

This is generally very effective, but overwhelming if poorly planned.  The trick, of course, is to use the distraction to flee. This is the single best way to escape a horde attack, or at least buy yourself a moment’s time.  Hit them with a molotov while they are clustered around the distractor. I find this to be about 80% effective.

Distractors, especially paired with timed explosives, make for some interesting possibilities.  Some are extremely loud, some are extremely visible, some are silent and just emit a lot of light, which makes them useful on stealth missions. But all of them work to get you out of a jam, or set up enemies to be knocked down.

That makes distractors an absolutely essential part of your arsenal.

Rule #4 A Sample a Day, Keeps the Plague Away

I had been playing for almost a year when I finally noticed the option in the (Heartland) infirmary to “eliminate infection.”  This isn’t a cure, mind you, and won’t work if the character has a full-blown, red infection. If the infection meter is still white, however, the meter clears completely.

Now, curing a red infection costs 1 Plague Cure vial, which itself needs 3 plague samples and 1 Med to be created. Eliminating all signs of early infection, however, only costs 1 plague sample.  This is an incredible value as samples are commonly found, but meds are rare.

Given that almost every instance of combat increases the character’s infection meter, this is an essential move, and should be done every time you return to base as basic hygiene.  Use your meds to heal from actual injuries, instead.

Rule #3 Have No Fear with The Right Gear.  

There are things that you need to carry on your person, and items that should be kept in the car.  These vary based on the mission. For an assault on a plague heart, for example, I might do something like:

On your person:

  1. 3 Distractors
  2. 3 Painkillers
  3. 3 Light explosives
  4. 1 Bladed weapon
  5. 1 Ranged weapon, suppressed
  6. 1 Pistol, suppressed

In the car:

  1. Gas
  2. Toolkit
  3. Plague cure

For silent, 1-man missions or hunting trips, you can switch the rifle for a crossbow, for a foraging trip, switch to a larger backpack.

Rule #2: All Jobs Are Two-Person Jobs

As I wrote in my Tactical guide to X-Com 2, “two is one, one is none.”  You need two players for any dangerous mission the same way you need two divers in case of sharks.  Can the other diver help you? Not really, but they do offer an alternative for your enemies to eat, giving you the option to run away.  Often, you need this time to reload. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of fighting off one of Heartland’s Blood Ferals or Juggernauts with a revolver or even a crossbow, your chances of survival are extremely low without a partner.  Partners also let you to carry more.

Rule #:1 Live By Day, Die By Night 

In the world of airline safety, the safety measures in place are so effective, that for something to go wrong with the plane, it takes more than just one system failure for a crash.  At least two things need to simultaneously go wrong, a so called “error cascade” needs to take place in order to create the conditions for an emergency. This game (Heartland in particular) works very much the same way: once you become competent at understanding its basic beats, a lot of time can pass with no real danger.  You can become calm, complacent. Suddenly, an enormous horde overruns your base, a Juggernaut comes barreling in, a Feral joins him, and in your haste to escape you run into a Bloater, detonating its poison cloud. In that scenario, without swift, decisive action, 1 or more characters will certainly die.  An error has cascaded into a series of other errors, and has become a crisis.

Going out at night is your first error.  The game does a lot of good work creating a sense of dread, manipulating camera angles and deploying lonely groans from the dark.  Bloaters lie in wait on porches, in roadways, just in the bushes. Screamers stumble into headlights on the road, shrieking skyward.  Glowing red eyes pour out of the black, and the swarm is upon you.  

Anyone who plays State of Decay knows that as the classic “dread” situation, but by night it’s a lot harder to know how many enemies there are, where and how far away they are, what lies around the next corner or where safety is.  Everything becomes much more immediate and unplanned, chopping at enemy after enemy with no clear sense of where to go.

It’s often necessary to go out at night to complete some mission or another; here’s work that has to get done.  But, try to run out the clock as best you can until daylight. This should be the part of the game where you do most of your construction work and base management, leaving assaults to happen by the light of day.  Make sure to enable your base with power, one of the worst things that can happen is a siege attack by night, where you don’t know where the enemy is coming from and can’t see what you’re shooting at, and end up wasting ammunition shooting at your own people.  In Heartland you will be besieged several times by very strong groups of enemies. You will lose people at these times unless you can get to the rooftops and make an escape, or have prepared with traps and fire. Best to have this happen by day.

Be ready.

Top 10 XCOM2 Tactics for Beginners

XCOM2 title card.

I love XCOM.  I came to it via the iPad, and played XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the couch, watching TV, on a plane, basically everywhere.  It is, in my opinion, the best game available on the iPad except for the expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within, which significantly enriches its predecessor.

In the original XCOM, you manage a secret government military strike team dedicated to combating a slow alien invasion.  The game has two dimensions: tactical, turn-based combat and team/base management, where you determine what facilities to construct, how to manage your budget, garner the  support of critical allies, and balance your strategic goals against urgent missions, all against the backdrop of a ticking doomsday clock.

The drama, of course, comes from the customization, the leveling-up, and the difficulty.  As characters survive missions,  they are promoted through the ranks, given new abilities and stats.  You grow attached to them, you choose thier weapons and upgrades, their color palette, psychic or cybernetic abilities, their name, codename, even their hairstyle (or hat/helmet).  You come to rely on them, understand which are fast, which are lucky, which are good or bad shots, and which should close the deal with a sword.  You come to rely on them.  Then, in moments of high drama, they are inevitably killed, to be replaced with the next up-and-coming rookie.  This can be heart-wrenching, especially if, like me, you try to keep the number of saved games to a minimum.  (For you stalwarts, the Ironman mode disables the ability to save games entirely, but I don’t think I could take it, emotionally.)

XCOM operatives saddened by an empty chair on the ride home.
XCOM operatives saddened by an empty chair on the ride home.

So, I’ve followed it closely and was thrilled when XCOM2 became available for XBox One (not yet on iPad, of course.)   And now, XCOM2 has its own expansion  advertised on social media: War of the Chosen.

One thing that wasn’t available when I first started playing XCOM2 was a tactical guide for beginners.  I’m at best a very part-time gamer and don’t have a ton of experience with turn-based strategy, but XCOM is less about ground strategy– moving heavy units around a board, but more about small unit tactics.  So I wrote this for people like me, bearing in mind that I expect these rules to continue to be perfectly serviceable to War of the Chosen.

Obviously, this guide will make no sense if you don’t play XCOM.

Here are the Basics, for new players:

  1. Thou Shalt Protect Thyself First.

    A Ranger opts for full cover.
    A Ranger opts for full cover.

    That means the primary goal of each turn should be to make sure the character is provided with the best cover available.  That means even if you have a kill-shot lined up, take care of protecting yourself first, otherwise you’re just lining up someone else’s kill-shot.  If it takes a few turns to put down the enemy, fine.

  2. Seek the High Ground, Seek the Flank.

    An enemy heavy MEC is successfully flanked by a grenadier.
    An enemy heavy MEC is successfully flanked by a grenadier.

    Look, your odds can increase by as much as 50%.  Snipers should always be seeking high ground and should be as far away from the battle as is practical– use Spider Armor to help with this.  Everyone should always be seekeing the flank.  Seriously, the main point of the game is to flank your enemies.  That’s really it.

  3. Don’t Follow Turn Order.  One of the great features of XCOM’s turn-based combat is that anyone on the team can go first or last, there is no fixed order.  That means although Frank is set to move next, you can defer Frank, and have everyone else move first, coming back to Frank’s move last.  This is your single most important move.  Your most powerful weapon is your ability to determine when a turn is used, when a special weapon is deployed, when a movement is made, who gets the kill-shot.  Always give kill-shots to rookies, where possible, so they can level up faster.  Turn order is tyranny, and you don’t have to follow it.
  4. Watch Your Loadouts.

    Preparing to choose the best loadouts for a mission.
    Preparing to choose the best loadouts for a mission.

    Loadouts should be catered to the objectives of the mission, and anticipate the enemies you expect to find.  If you think there will be a Sectopod, a decoy will save your life.  If you anticipate Vipers or Arachnids, you will be poisoned.  Lots of robots?  Heavy armor?  Armor-piercing rounds.  Pack accordingly.

  5. Stick Together.

    A tight squad grouping as the team moves toward the action.
    A tight squad grouping as the team moves toward the action.

    When you are moving across the board, keep the group tight.  The single worst move you can make is to unintentionally reveal an enemy squad that you aren’t ready for.  This can be avoided by moving tightly (and using battle scanners!).  If you encounter enemies, stop moving.  DO NOT press on beyond that point!  Remember what the Navy SEALs say about swim buddies: two is one, one is none.”

  6. Recover friends and weapons.  An advancement in XCOM2 is that wounded or unconscious friends can be carried.  While it’s not usually useful to carry dead operatives, if it is possible in the constraints of time and distance, this is the only way to recover armor, weapons and utilities, which are otherwise lost for good.  Carried soldiers limit the amount of actions you can take, but they don’t restrict your movement.
  7. Use the element of surprise.

    A Viper and an Andromedon are caught in a trap.
    A Viper and an Andromedon are caught in a trap.

    When attacking an unsuspecting enemy, the attacking move should be the last move in the round.  All of the previous turns should be to set-up the position of your squad (ideally a mix of flanking and elevated positions) and set their moves to “overwatch.”  When the final shot is made, usually by a sniper, the enemies will run– triggering overwatch fire.  With enemy squads of three basic enemies, this will often take out as many as two enemies, sometimes all three!  Other enemy units are not necessarily notified, so if you kill all three, you are still concealed.

  8. Watch the Clock.

    A ranger sets the explosive charges to complete the mission.
    A ranger sets the explosive charges to complete the mission.

    Each game type (set the bomb, rescue/assassinate, retaliation strikes, protect the device, hack the device, etc.) have different rule constraints.  Some types have a turn clock: 10 turns to accomplish this task, or something similar.  You live and die by this clock.  You should know how you plan to move, every single turn.  However, do not let this feeling interfere in other game types: if you aren’t on the clock, take your time and position yourself as advantageously as possible.

  9. Know when to fight, know when to run.

    A grenadier opts for the better part of valor by evac'ing from the combat zone.
    A grenadier opts for the better part of valor by evac’ing from the combat zone.

    Another typical rookie move is to think every battle has to be fought.  Many battles will make obvious that this is not the case: look for time clocks or enemy reinforcements, which often signal that the point is not to win by killing all opponents– if you try, you will be killed.  In many cases, reinforcements will keep coming every three turns or so.  Get the message and complete the actual objective.  A critical point is: learn how to call for evac.  A good trick is to call for evac if a squadmate is certain to die within a few turns, such as by poison, or acid, and to just evac them.  Come back to that planted evac point when the objective has been completed.  Another good strategy is to send back wounded rookies who have been promoted but are likely to be killed.   They will keep the promotion!  Many objectives can be completed without securing the area.  While the Mission is considered a “Failure,” the Objective is considered completed, and usually that’s all that is needed.  (The Chairman will still be pleased.)

  10. Protect Your Veterans.  This is so, so important.  Rookies come and go.  Squaddies come and go.  But veterans represent a substantial investment of time and energy, they have significant battlefield advantages that Rookies can’t match, and they unlock squad bonuses in the Guerrilla Training School.  So give the rookies the shit jobs. Put them in front.  Make them prove themselves.  And do your best to get your veterans off the field alive.  You can’t do this all the time.  You can’t even do it most of the time.  But consider it a priority.

What are your best tactics? Share in the comments!

Super Fly! Where Daredevil Went Wrong

dd-2011I’m a longtime Daredevil fan. I liked the comic: “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” in the 80’s and 90’s. It had ninja action, the ‘blind radar’ shtick, acrobatics, a dark, urban severity. I wanted to love Netflix’s version of it. In the end, I just liked it. Tepidly. As in, “Yeah, pretty much, I guess.”

Where did they go wrong?

How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero

Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns.  Here are some ways to know you are dealing with a comic archetype.

Costume

Daredevil's red costume.
Daredevil’s red costume.

Any good hero has a costume that protects his identity.  The mask, a necessary staple, allows the hero to be more than the individual, and helps to cement their particular iconic language.  If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern.  Color also does a lot of work here, and Daredevil, while the interlocking DD of his logo is red-on-red, the entire costume is (in the comics) a very full red color.  From a brand standpoint, Daredevil ‘owns’ the color red in the Marvel universe, the way Facebook ‘owns’ blue on a web page.  Single-color costumes are rare, and the DD costume is the rare exception.

Another detail that almost always fails the transition to from comics to cinema  is the comic convention of white eyes.  Masked superheroes are typically drawn with no visible pupils or irises, whereas in their cinematic versions, eyes are shown as, well, eyes, with the actors possibly face-painted beneath the mask to soften the gap between mask and face.  In DD’s case, they used red glass.  The Daredevil of the comics series had another interesting detail here, as the mask was a single piece of fabric that covered his eyes, because he is blind.  It was never well-explained why his enemies never seemed to catch on.

Daredevil's 'ninja' costume.
Daredevil’s ‘ninja’ costume.

In the Netflix series, Daredevil wore a black ninja-like costume for most of season 1.  Officially, he had no costume until the very last episode.  Clearly, the writers wanted to hook the audience by making the process of acquiring it a plot-point, and part of me believes they felt they needed to lay the trap and get the audience committed before showing them a costume that a less invested audience might find stupid-looking or silly,  knowing poor costume choices have sunk plenty of franchises.

As a plot-point, it works.  The costume looks great, and it answers a question that the series in constantly asking itself, i.e. “how can this guy take another beating?” The answer: lightweight body-armor.  But that also means they spend 90% of the first season not establishing the foundations of the iconography and visual palette that a superhero series needs.

Weapon

This is critical.  The way the hero fights tells us everything about his personal style.  Does he fight hand-to-hand?  With a sword?  A gun?  A boomerang?  A shield?

In Daredevil’s case,  his weapon is his billy club.  Concealed as a blind man’s cane, the billy club is a multipurpose weapon.  Its foundation is a multi-part staff: two, sometimes three separate staves. It also doubles as nunchuks, can be rejoined as a single piece to make a staff, it’s wired to a climbing grapnel, and seems to have retractable cording of varying length.  It’s strong enough to be used as a climbing tool and block bullets,  but light enough to be thrown, ricochet off of walls, spin, bounce and block. A versatile weapon that is also instrumental in getting around town.  So far so good.

Once again, the creators of Marvel’s Daredevil apparently thought this could be withheld until the last episodes of the second season.  I get what they are trying to do, but I’m shocked they as TV people thought they had that kind of time.  Aaron Sorkin has observed that a play is the hardest entertainment to abandon,  and a TV show is the easiest.  And yet this seems like a decision that could only ever be made on a show the creators were certain people would binge-watch.  What are you saving the ammunition for?

Instead, we’re left with punch after punch after punch.  Had  Daredevil had this weapon to start, not only would we have been able to use the fighting style he’s known for,  we would have been able to avoid a lot of the ‘bloody beatdown syndrome’  the show seemed to suffer from, and seen more of the way he is supposed to travel in the bargain.

Travel

Heroes travel in style.  James Bond has his Aston Martin.  Batman has the Batmobile.  Spider-Man and Iron Man hit a double here by having their means of travel also double as an offensive weapon.  On the topic of Spider-Man or Iron Man, their means of travel is also something they needed to master, and as their mastery is earned, becomes something the audience is allowed to share in the exhilaration of.

Even Superman.

Daredevil’s means of travel is especially exhilarating, a mixture of aerialism and urban free running, in which he combines his cables and acrobatic maneuvers to make the cityscape into a personal obstacle course.  He leaps from rooftops, vaults walls, flips from fire escapes, swings from water towers, and catches clotheslines and flagpoles. A typically dynamic Daredevil pose is one that puts him in an impossible, death-defying aerial maneuver, especially on the comic’s covers, which always raise the question, “how is he going to land that?”

Daredevil cover.
Daredevil cover.

Why was this not taken advantage of more frequently in the TV show? Obviously it is difficult to do, and some amount of special-effects will be needed.  But this isn’t under-seasoned, it’s a total omission.  With the exception of a car chase in which Matt Murdock follows a Triad car to a drug warehouse, there is essentially no acrobatics on the show whatsoever, except for the occasional Kung-Fu flip.  This is a miss, and a huge part of what makes Daredevil, well, you know.

Any reason these guys couldn’t be put in a red suit for the occasional key stunt?

Flavor

Daredevil never had the same clear essence as a lot of other properties.   He’s often called Marvel’s Batman, so consider. Batman has already been done, and re-done. You’ll notice that each time Batman is re-imagined, a new aspect of flavor is drawn out. The original TV series was comedic, and had a rollicking, self-aware aspect with a ludicrous ‘rogues gallery’ of  villains. The Keaton movies were self-serious, but ballooned, gothic, almost stagelike in their dark melodrama. The Schumacher versions were neon, toy circuses.  The cartoons are timeless, intertwining classic cars and 30’s clothing with the elements of modern life, such as cell phones and the internet. The video games are high-tech, showcasing the slick weaponry and vehicles. The Nolan films are the most human-scaled, a moody introspection on a very troubled man named Bruce, who has this weird, obsessive thing that he does. Each incarnation takes a different vantage point, each makes a specific evolution with its times, and yet all of them are recognizably the same character.

Daredevil has a comic, a movie, and now a TV show, and only the comic has ever really managed to scrape the essence of something distinct and original, whereas the other media offer a photo carousel of snapshots we’ve seen before and better in other places.

For my money, the peak Daredevil era was the 70’s-80’s. Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for the Man Without Fear, but this was a rehash. I also have to absolutely point out the work done here by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s, as well as Brubaker. If anything made him cinematic, ready for TV primetime, their work was it.

What is the flavor?

The Street.  This is one area where he really has it down.  Daredevil is Hell’s Kitchen the way Batman is Gotham.   Hell’s Kitchen is fully realized, with its own history and backstory, supporting characters, bystanders.  Ironically, it suffers perhaps from being too fully realized: since it corresponds to a real place,  and that real place has essentially gentrified into history, the cables needed to suspend disbelief here show signs of  strain.

Here’s a version that never was: Director Joe Carnahan’s pitch which places the story in 1973.  Carnahan gave us a sizzle reel that encapsulates everything about the era that Daredevil was born into, and the flavor that he absorbed.

Seeing this really drives the point home that it’s possible that the character, at his best, symbolized a bygone New York that it’s  just impossible to sell in a modern context, when Hell’s Kitchen is now called “Clinton” and the Manhattan of The Warriors, Super Fly and Death Wish is long, long gone.

The senses.  Yes, Daredevil is blind.  More importantly, however, all of his other senses are superior, and he has radar finely-grained enough to block arrows and bullets with his club.  That means whenever we encounter a scene from his perspective, it should have a sound profile, a scent palette.  It should be tactile and raise the skin.  Is should happen,  not bounded but peripheral vision and the direction of his head, but in a 360-degree, sonar-like totality, with no upside-down or right-side-up.  He does not see the world in the way that we do, and this should present a director with constant opportunity for new creative executions.

This was, frankly, almost totally overlooked on the show. Aside from the occasions where the protagonist can hear off-camera antagonists, there’s a disappointing thinness to the sense-palette, which seems like an chance for any interested director to have a lot of fun.  Whoops.

Ninjas.  by ninjas I mean less oriental mysticism, which is really Iron Fist’s and Shiang-Chi’s territory, and more just what we can call ‘antagonists of phenomenal prowess.’  One of the most magical elements of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is that yes, there are secret Ninja societies like the Hand,  but there are also vagrants with baseball bats who perform at a supernatural level (Wildboys), S&M Swordswomen (Typhoid Mary), Mafia assassins galore (Bullseye), government super-mercenaries (Bullet, Shotgun, Bushwhacker).  These are the kind of fights that happen at hand-to-hand scale and are interdependent with his aerial skills.  The crimes Daredevil solves are street crimes, not megavillains.

Typhoid Mary
Typhoid Mary and Daredevil lay down their arms.

Sex.  The Daredevil brand has always been more adult, compared to the infinitely-adolescent Spider-Man.  The action on the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen often gets hot, with love triangles and forbidden encounters and a near-infinite supply of Femme Fatales.  Elektra,  Black Widow, Typhoid Mary, Karen Page, Black Cat have all graced the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen.  Somehow, things never work out.

Sacrifice.  Characters in Daredevil die.  Sometimes they are broken before they die.  Karen Page’s character in the comics undergoes one of the most Requiem for a Dream-like descents of any modern comics character, as the Kingpin has her strung out on drugs and performing in porn for drug money before she contracts AIDS and ultimately dies from an overdose.  Matt Murdock suffers, and the people around him suffer, too.  This was something the TV show didn’t shy away from,  although they wisely kept Karen Page’s character in-play, as one of the lighter elements in an otherwise heavy show.  Curiously, the Ben Urich character does not die in the comics,  whereas in the Netflix show, he does.

Righteousness.  Daredevil isn’t one of those heroes who suffers from too much introspection or crises-of-clarity.  He sees a problem,  he punches it.  He will always do what he sees as “the right thing” even when it isn’t the heroic thing.  He once pointed what he thought was a loaded gun at the Punisher and pulled the trigger.  He became the King of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld in a  misconceived attempt to reduce crime.  He has a very, very well-developed sense of right and wrong, especially so long as what he intends to do is what he thinks is ‘right.’  So far as I know,  Daredevil is the only hero who has had other heroes stage an intervention to tell him “you’re out of control,  chill the hell out,” to which be basically told them to screw themselves.  This isn’t a guy you want getting his hands on Sauron’s ring.  He will (and has) turn NYC into Hell on Earth if he thinks it will reduce muggings.  It is not a coincidence that Daredevil  is loaded with Catholic iconography, and that the character Matt Murdock is himself Catholic.  Self-doubt isn’t the issue, here.

As to these characteristics, With the exception of the sense palette, I tip my hat.  The Netflix series actually really nailed the rest of the elements. However, they are out of balance.  The resulting product is too dark.

The magic of Daredevil relies on the interplay between excitement and dread.  Exhilaration– as expressed by weightlessness, aerialism,  daring, unbounded physical restraint– against dread: the bureaucratic confinement of the legal system, the will of the powerful, the terrorizing, the Kingpins.   That victory against all odds– even for the poorest,  the underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks, the handicapped and underestimated– victory is possible if you have the heart,  the will, and the fearlessness.  The show delivers on its fair share of dread, but unfortunately, where the counterbalance of exhilaration is called for, they deliver mere violence instead.  The result is, disappointingly, more weight. One of these ingredients is overpowering, and the other, the other seems to have been almost totally forgotten.

There’s plenty to thrill here, and accolades the fight scenes have received are well-deserved.  But as to whether anyone has yet quite captured the essence of what this character was at his best, unfortunately that note still hasn’t been struck.  There’s still season 3.  I guess.