Category Archives: Video Games

What channels can I invest in?

The American ideal is based on accumulating riches. What you invest in determines your success, whether it’s paying for a child’s school, insuring a comfortable retirement, or achieving life-changing financial freedom. It’s not simply about picking winning stocks or deciding between stocks and bonds. It’s actually making the best investing decisions possible depending on your objectives. Or, to put it another way, when you’ll be reliant on the profits from your assets.

Let’s look at some of the most popular investment vehicles in more detail. They may not all be suitable for you right now, but the greatest investments for your needs can alter over time.

Let’s get started.

  • Stocks
  • bonds
  • tax-advantaged assets like retirement accounts
  • Investing in real estate

Why are stocks such a wonderful investment for nearly everyone?

Stocks should be owned by almost everyone. This is because stocks have continuously proven to be the most effective way for the typical person to accumulate money over time. Over the last four decades, equities in the United States have outperformed bonds, savings yields, and gold. Almost every 10-year period in the last century has seen stocks beat most other investment types.

Why have equities in the United States proven to be such good investments? Because as a stockholder, you own a business; as that business gets bigger and more profitable, and as the global economy grows, you own a business that becomes more valuable. Dividends are paid to shareholders in several circumstances.

As an example, consider the last twelve years. Even during two of history’s most severe recessions, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSEMKT:SPY), a good proxy for the stock market as a whole, has outperformed gold and bonds:

This is why most people’s portfolios should be built on stocks. The amount of stock that makes sense varies from person to person.

For example, someone in their 30s who is planning for retirement should invest almost entirely in equities to weather decades of market volatility. Someone in their 70s should own some stocks for growth; the average 70-something American will live into their 80s, but they should protect assets they’ll need in the next five years by investing bonds and holding cash.

With stocks, there are two basic dangers:

Volatility: Stock values can move dramatically in a short amount of time. If you need to sell your stocks in a hurry, this puts you at risk.
Permanent losses: Stockholders are business owners, and businesses fail from time to time. Bondholders, contractors, vendors, and suppliers will be paid first if a company goes bankrupt. Stockholders get whatever is left over, assuming there is any. Understanding your financial goals can help you restrict your risk to the two items listed above.

Managing Volatility

If you have a child heading to college in a year or two, or if you want to retire in a few years, your objective should no longer be to maximize development — it should be to maximize income.

Instead, it should be about safeguarding your assets. It’s time to move your money out of equities and into bonds and cash over the next several years.

If your objectives are years away, you can protect yourself against market volatility by doing nothing. Stocks provided extraordinary returns for investors who bought and held them through two of the biggest market disasters in history.

Keeping permanent losses at bay

The greatest method to minimize irreversible losses is to invest in a diversified portfolio that does not have too much of your money invested in a single firm, industry, or end market. This diversification will help you restrict your losses to just a few bad stock picks, while your biggest winnings will more than makeup for them.

Consider this: If you invest the same amount in 20 stocks and one of them goes bankrupt, the most you can lose is 5% of your investment. Now, if one of those stocks increases in value by 2,000 percent, it will not only compensate for that one loser but will also double the value of your entire portfolio. Diversification can protect you from permanent losses and give you exposure to more wealth-building stocks.

Bonds: Why Should You Invest In Them?

The most critical stage, in the long run, is to increase money. Bonds, which are loans to a firm or government, can help you keep your wealth once you’ve built it and are closer to your financial goal.

Bonds can be divided into three categories:

  • Corporate bonds are bonds issued by businesses.
  • State and local governments issue municipal bonds.
  • The US government issues Treasury notes, bonds, and banknotes.

When compared to the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (NYSEMKT:BND), which owns short- and long-term bonds, and the iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF (NASDAQ:SHY), which owns the most stable treasury bonds, here is a current illustration of how bonds can be valuable investments:

While stocks were plummeting hard and fast, bonds fared far better, as the chart indicates, because a bond’s worth — the face value plus the promised interest — is simple to compute and thus significantly less volatile.

Bonds that fit your timetable will secure assets you’ll be relying on in the short term as you grow closer to your financial goals.

Why should you invest in real estate and how should you do it?


For most people, real estate investing may appear to be out of reach. That is true if you mean purchasing a complete commercial property. There are, however, opportunities for people of all financial levels to invest in and profit from real estate.

Furthermore, just like owning great firms, owning high-quality, productive real estate can be a fantastic way to generate wealth, and commercial real estate has historically been anti-cyclical to recessions. It’s frequently regarded as a more secure and steady investment than stocks.

The most accessible way to invest in real estate is through publicly traded REITs, or real estate investment trusts. REITs trade on stock market exchanges just like other public companies. Here are some examples:

  • American Tower (NYSE:AMT) owns and manages communications sites, primarily cell phone towers.
  • Public Storage (NYSE:PSA) owns almost 3,000 self-storage properties in the U.S. and Europe.
  • AvalonBay Communities (NYSE:AVB) is one of the largest apartment and multifamily residential property owners in the U.S.

REITs are great income investments since they don’t have to pay corporate taxes if they pay out at least 90% of their net income in dividends.

It is now easier than ever to invest in commercial real estate development projects. Legislation has made it lawful for real estate developers to crowdfund funds for their projects in recent years. As a result, individual investors seeking to participate in real estate development have raised billions of dollars.

Investing in crowdfunded real estate requires more funds, and unlike public REITs, where you can readily purchase and sell shares, you may not be able to touch your money until the project is completed. Furthermore, there’s a chance the developer won’t follow through, and you’ll lose money. However, the potential returns and income from real estate are enticing, and it has been out of reach for the majority of people until lately. This is changing thanks to crowdsourcing.

Invest in tax-advantaged brokerage accounts.


Where you invest is just as important as having the correct investments to help you achieve your financial goals. The truth is that most people don’t think about the tax implications of their investments, which can cause you to fall short of your financial goals.

Simply simply, a little tax planning can save you a lot of money. Here are some examples of different types of accounts you might want to consider using when you begin your investing adventure. Except for a taxable brokerage account, your investments grow tax-free in each of these accounts.

The biggest takeaway here is that you should choose the appropriate kind of account based on what you’re investing for. For instance:

  • 401(k) – For employed retirement savers
  • SEP IRA/Solo 401(k) – For self-employed retirement savers
  • Traditional IRA – For retirement savers
  • Roth IRA – For retirement savers
  • Taxable brokerage – For savers with additional cash to invest beyond retirement/college savings account needs or limits
  • Coverdell ESA – For college savers
  • 529 College Savings – For college savers

Here are a few other things to consider, depending on why you’re investing:

  • It’s a no-brainer to take advantage of employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, at least to the extent that your employer will match your contributions.
  • Building up tax-free income in retirement is a wonderful method to help ensure your financial future if your earnings enable you to contribute to a Roth IRA.
  • Using the Coverdell and 529 college savings plans’ Roth-like benefits eliminates the tax burden, allowing you to put more money toward your school.
  • A taxable brokerage account is a great way to save money for other investments or to supplement your retirement savings.

The bottom line is that each individual’s situation is unique. To make the greatest investment option to meet your financial goals, you must examine your investment time horizon, anticipated return, and risk tolerance.

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F1 2021 Full Review

The world of F1 was set to be transformed this year, thanks to the prospect of radical new regulations and cars. However, like so many things during the pandemic, the changes were delayed until 2022 – leaving F1 in a 12-month holding pattern. The real-life F1 2021 season seemed poised to offer few surprises, but the reality is that this season has so far been the most interesting championship in years.

Funnily enough, it’s this backdrop that Codemasters has found itself competing against with its own fictional drama, introducing a fully-fledged story mode to F1 2021 for the first time in the series. The end result falls a little short of being as dramatic as the real thing, but it’s a well-executed and welcome new way to play that joins the series’ wide array of existing modes and makes for another excellent package – albeit one that needs a bit of extra content to bring it in line with the real-life 2021 season.

Codemasters flirted with the concept of a story mode two years ago in F1 2019 with its brief, F2-themed intro and its curated set of late-race scenarios and first-person cutscenes. There, however, it was simply a short sequence of events bolted onto the beginning of the standard career experience. In F1 2021 the story is a standalone mode akin to The Journey from FIFA 17 to 19, or Fight Night Champion’s titular Champion Mode – although it’s never quite as sentimental as the former or as rousing as the latter.

F1 2021: Get to the Point

Dubbed Braking Point, F1 2021’s story focuses on a pair of very different drivers: rookie Aiden Jackson, a talented Brit who still has some key things to learn about the F1 paddock, and Casper Akkerman, a Dutch journeyman with an illustrious career that’s mostly behind him. Depending on your choice, Jackson and Akkerman will race for one of five selectable teams – Williams, Haas, Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri, and Racing Point (which becomes Aston Martin during the story). These fictional drivers will unseat the real-life drivers in your choice of team, but the rest of the grid will be made up of actual F1 stars from the 2020 and 2021 seasons – except for one. Another driver from one of the four remaining selectable teams will be replaced with Codemasters’ resident F1 reptile, Devon Butler, who returns from his brief appearance as the antagonist at the beginning of F1 2019 for a slightly bigger role this time around.

The smiling face of a man who has not been punched enough.

Beginning in F2 in 2019, Braking Point sees Jackson graduate to F1 for 2020, where he immediately clashes with old dog Akkerman after a careless on-track incident. The discord between the two is only exacerbated by Akkerman’s general saltiness at what he perceives as preferential treatment for Jackson, much to the chagrin of likable team liaison Brian Doyle (and much to the delight of the devious Devon Butler).

The races in Braking Point vary from lights to flag events to mid-race situations, each with different challenges to achieve. You may be salvaging positions after some earlier misfortune, catching a certain car within a specific number of laps, or finishing ahead of a nominated team. All of these racing scenarios are weaved into the needs of the story itself, which plays out via both cutscenes and a series of phone calls. The cutscenes are well done, particularly considering they’re really unlike anything Codemasters’ F1 team have attempted before, and there’s a decent authenticity to the performances overall.


The cutscenes are well done, particularly considering they’re really unlike anything Codemasters’ F1 team have attempted before, and there’s a decent authenticity to the performances overall. It’s also cute seeing real F1 superstars popping up on the periphery of Jackson and Akkerman’s story.

Braking Point does take quite a while to build to any real crescendo, though, and once it does it wraps up rather rapidly. I was particularly surprised that I ultimately knew very little about Jackson by the end. If this is the launchpad for further stories tracking Jackson’s journey, and it definitely feels like it is, it’d be nice to know more about his backstory.

The obvious need to keep Braking Point all-ages appropriate also makes it feel a little blunted, especially when compared to Netflix’s infamously candid F1 docuseries Drive to Survive. For instance, there’s certainly nothing here as fiery as Grosjean’s heartstopping Bahrain crash, or as metaphorically fiery as Guenther Steiner’s door getting ‘fok smashed’.

The equally happy face of man whose office door is safe for another day.

Braking Point also ignores the COVID-19 crisis that had a huge impact on the 2020 and 2021 F1 seasons and includes races which never happened – which is a little incongruous if you dwell on it – but I did quite enjoy how it temporarily turns back the clock to revisit 2020’s car and driver combinations. Watching Ricciardo change from Renault to McLaren and Renault change from… Renault to Alpine reminded me a little of the multi-season nature of the fan favourite F1 Challenge ’99-’02 (known as F1 Career Challenge on consoles). Coincidentally enough, that was actually the last F1 game published by EA before this one.

F1 2021: Keep ‘Em Automated

Sadly, you can’t start the standard career modes a few seasons ago in the same way as Braking Point, but there have been a lot of other tweaks to these modes that I found welcome as a returning player of many years.

The ability to run quick, automated practice programs from a selection of tabs is a great addition, since they really had become quite a grind. It feels far, far better than skipping them outright, sacrificing the resource points, and diving straight into qualifying – which I’ve been tempted to do regularly over the last couple of years. I found the new option to leave the R&D to the AI useful also, even though the R&D system has had a nice facelift. Facility building can also be automated, but I stayed in charge of that to make sure the AI didn’t blow all my cash before I had a chance to lure Danny Ric to my team a few seasons in.

Building a fast car and letting Dan Ricciardo win a championship is officially my new hobby.

F1 2021 also introduces a new Expert setting that allows you to really fine-tune the career experience to suit the pace you want to play at. You can still toggle assists on and calibrate the AI to your own needs, but selecting the Expert environment opens up a raft of options, including the severity of mechanical faults you might suffer, the rate at which you and the AI teams accumulate resource points and cash, and how damage is calculated. You can accelerate your rise to the pinnacle of F1 or make it incredibly, incredibly hard; it’s up to you. You can accelerate your rise to the pinnacle of F1 or make it incredibly, incredibly hard; it’s up to you.


Damage deserves an additional mention because it’s much more nuanced than ever before, which improves the racing by dialling up the consequences. Damage to your floor, barge boards, or side pods, for instance, will create drag and have a noticeable effect on your top speed. Tyre damage is more convincing, too; brush a wall too heavily and it’s possible for tyres to become completely delaminated, with the belt ripped from the sidewall.

While the novelty has worn off slightly after bursting onto the scene in F1 2020, My Team is still a brilliant mode, and Codemasters has done well to prune some the ageing cutscenes that clashed with the fact you’re actually the team owner (although there are still celebratory vignettes here that are at least five or six years old by now). The livery editing is very limited by modern standards, though, and it’d be great if sponsor decals only vanished from your car if you chose not to re-sign them. As it stands, every time sponsor contracts expire you still have to go and manually place their decals back on your car. It’s a weird annoyance considering everything else is so streamlined.

F1 2021 also introduces a pair of brand new two-player career modes, where you can link up with a friend to play as either rivals or teammates (Contracts mode allows both players to independently sign up with the team of their choice, whilst co-op mode ensures your friend automatically follows you wherever you sign). Co-op in particular feels like the online extension of how I found myself playing splitscreen when it was added back to the series last year. Splitscreen has returned but it’s separate from the two-player career modes, which are online-based.

Handling feels broadly similar to F1 2020 though the cars feel a little more responsive when moving laterally and are on more of a knife’s edge when it comes to grabbing too much curb at the wrong moment. Bottom out on a curb, or simply unsettle the aero balance enough, and the rear will whip around quick smart, so F1 2021 demands an exact touch.

F1 2021 features no classic cars for the first time in many years so I won’t argue it’s the best-sounding F1 game to date without any V8s on deck. To be fair, however, there definitely has been some work on the sound this year, and the noticeably more prominent transmission whine adds a fine extra layer to the richness of the car audio.

I do think it is the best-looking F1 game to date, however, and the enhancements here are across the board. The cars look excellent (particularly when carrying subtle racing damage), character models are much improved, and trackside detail is the most granular I’ve seen. Off-track surfaces like grass have received a big leap in fidelity.

On the topic of tracks, F1 2021 is missing several tracks it needed to be able to accurately simulate the 2021 season from the get-go. That said, Imola, Portimao, and the new Jeddah street circuit are reportedly coming free at some point this year. That the real sport can pivot faster than the video game is an unfortunate reality of game development, but F1 2021 currently falls some distance short of being able to properly represent this year’s season.

Verdict

F1 2021 is the best-looking and most customisable instalment of the long-running Codemasters series to date, and the ability to tinker under the hood of the core career experience and play co-op with a friend is very welcome. With the addition of Braking Point it’s also arguably the boldest F1 game so far. The characterisation is a little underdone and the E for Everyone approach means it’s quite an airbrushed take on the F1 world compared to Netflix’s tense and profanity-laden Drive to Survive, but injecting a story mode into the F1 series was a risk well worth taking and I’m certainly looking forward to more of it.

Sonic Colors Ultimate on Switch Full Review

Being a Sonic fan is hard. The Blue Blur has starred in quite a few legitimately great games over the years, but he’s also been in just about as many clunkers that tanked his reputation. Sonic has especially struggled when it’s come to his forays into 3D environments, yet there was an all too brief period from about 2008-2011 where it seemed that Sonic Team almost had a solid idea of what they wanted a 3D Sonic game to be. Sonic Colors released at the pinnacle of that era and at the time was lauded for raising the bar and representing a promising new direction for the often troubled ‘hog. Now, nearly ten years later, it’s been given a re-release as Sonic Colors Ultimate, and we can confidently say that this is still one of the best 3D Sonic games out there. Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Sonic Colors overview:

The narrative primarily sticks to the classic duo of Sonic and Tails, as they travel to Eggman’s new outer space amusement park to investigate any signs of nefarious wrongdoing. It doesn’t take long for them to find out that he’s exploiting a secret race of aliens called Wisps to power the park (and an evil space laser), so they endeavor to travel to all the planets to free the Wisps and save the day. It’s not a terribly in-depth story, but many of the jokes still land well and the pleasantly lighthearted nature of it fits the freeform style of gameplay. At the very least, it’s refreshing to play a Sonic game that doesn’t take itself too seriously or get bogged down in actually trying to tell an emotional story.

Gameplay in Sonic Colors follows the often divisive ‘boost’ formula that most modern 3D Sonic games have taken after, and while there are some notable cracks in its design, it often manages to properly sell that sense of manic speed that the developers were clearly going for. Many stages will have you guiding Sonic along relatively flat, runway-like paths that give him plenty of room to go full throttle, while quick reaction times are often needed to deftly dart around or attack any obstructions that may come up in his path. Dispatching any of the easily defeated robots in your way will give you a small hit of boost power that you can then use to break the sound barrier and turn Sonic into a virtually invincible comet that barrels through everything he touches.

It may sound rather mindless—in many instances it is—but the key thing here is that the level designs often reward quick reflexes and muscle memory with more speed. For example, a lot of stages will have some low curbs scattered around for these high-speed segments that trip Sonic up and bring him to a halting stop if he connects with them. It’s not big deal if you hit one, but it can be quite a buzzkill when you were just rolling around at the speed of sound and suddenly have to build back up from zero again. However, if you’ve got quick enough reflexes or have played the level enough that you know when these hazards are coming, you can easily skip over them with a brief tap of the jump button and continue sailing through. Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

When you consider that the main game can be beaten in a little over five hours, it’s clear that the main joy of Sonic Colors is found not in clearing stages, but in excelling at them. It’s a thrilling feeling when you pull off that perfect run of a level and shave 30 seconds off your old record, but more importantly, there’s a great deal of satisfaction found throughout the run as you nail each obstacle and platforming section that you’ve practiced countless times.

Bearing this in mind, Sonic Colors is the sort of game that appeals best to players that don’t require much extrinsic motivation to have fun. Sure, there are plenty of unlockables and secrets to collect across all the levels, but focusing too much on those things will rob you of the intended experience and the enjoyment it can bring. This is a game about constantly being better than your former self, about learning the shortcuts and executing the tricks you need to bolt through these levels quicker than greased lightning. In this regard, Sonic Colors is comfortably one of the best 3D Sonic games.

Things often come apart, however, when you get pulled into one of the many 2D sections that are seamlessly strewn throughout each level. When Sonic Colors goes 2D, things usually slow way down and the focus turns to a more precise and careful kind of platforming. This is fine in theory, giving Sonic brief stints where he slows down certainly introduces some variety to the level designs, but the problem is that the physics clearly aren’t tuned right for the kind of precision that’s being called for. Sonic’s inertia feels off and ironically sluggish, almost akin to Donkey Kong in the recent Donkey Kong Country games. Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

It takes some time to get to grips with Sonic’s 2D controls, and while things do get a little better as you acclimate, they never feel right. These 2D segments are typically rather short before you get back on the road, so they don’t drag down the overall experience too much, but this is one aspect of Sonic Colors that definitely could’ve used a little more love in the development stages.

Of course, everything up to this point could more or less apply to any 3D Sonic game, but the big innovation that Sonic Colors brought to the table were Wisp power ups. These multicolored little aliens not only serve as the core of the plot, they also each have different temporary abilities that grant Sonic new mobility options. One wisp, for example, turns him into a drill that can quickly bore through special sections of the ground that lead to new collectables and pathways. Another turns him into a spiked ball that can stick to walls.

None of the abilities radically change the way you play—and they’re only in use for a few seconds at a time—but the Wisps greatly aid in making the level designs more complex and interesting. You’re unlocking new Wisps pretty much throughout the entire game and they’re retroactively added in to older stages, which means that there’s almost always another pathway or secret that you’ll need to come back for later once you get the right Wisp unlocked. Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

It wouldn’t be an ‘Ultimate’ release without some new bells and whistles, and fortunately Sonic Colors doesn’t disappoint in this regard. The most notable new addition is the integration of large coins scattered throughout each level that can be collected and later spent on new cosmetic customizations for Sonic. You can change things like his shoes or his boost mode aura, and there are quite a few options for each category. Similarly, there are some optional races you can participate in against Metal Sonic that lead to even more unlockables. This customization aspect certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but we rather appreciated how it adds a little more content and rewards for those that like to collect things.

The last major addition is a new Wisp called Jade Ghost, which gives Sonic the ability to fly and phase through walls. Some levels have been tweaked to better accommodate this frankly broken ability, but it mostly functions as an easier way of accessing some hard to reach places. It overall feels like a nice addition to the gameplay loop, even if it doesn’t particularly shake things up all that much.

Presentation is probably the area where Sonic Colors stumbles the most, as it feels more like an enhanced port of the Wii original than a proper remaster. Unlike other consoles, Sonic Colors only runs at 30FPS on Switch (though it is stable) and the graphical improvements feel relatively minimal. Nothing in the game looks bad, of course, quite the opposite for gorgeous courses like Sweet Mountain or Planet Wisp. The issue is simply that it feels like more could’ve been done to showcase the improvements that hardware evolution over the last ten years has brought. This is more of a half step than it is a giant leap. Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Similarly, the newly remixed music leaves a lot to be desired. The original soundtrack is still present in most levels and sounds just as good as ever, but the new versions sound different just for the sake of being different. In most respects, then, Sonic Colors Ultimate won’t wow you with what it can do with the Switch hardware, which feels rather disappointing considering the opportunity here.

Conclusion

Sonic Colors Ultimate is a well-executed revisit of a high point in Sonic’s long career. Most of the quality here stems from the content of the original, rather than the new additions and tweaks for this re-release. Things like the Jade Ghost and extra customization options are welcome, but not game changing, and the musical and graphical improvements are minimal. At the end of the day, though, this is still a well-performing, portable version of a classic and that’s arguably all that it needs to be. We’d give this one a recommendation, then, to anyone who has yet to experience Sonic Colors, as this is certainly the best and easiest way to try it out. If you’re a fan of the original, we’d still say it’s worth a punt — you’ll still love the game on Switch. Just be aware that this isn’t a massive overhaul of what came before.

Tactical roguelike Synthetik 2 will be out in November

Tactical roguelike Synthetik 2  Review: The original Tactical roguelike Synthetik was a shooter that put a lot of thought into the act of shooting. It had active reloads and a recoil mechanic designed to discourage running and gunning, and guns that could jam or overheat—it really wanted you to get a feel for the act of pulling the trigger. Also, you were an android in an alternate 1985 who was fighting the robotic servants of the Machine Gods, just in case you were afraid it was a dry game of fussy realism.

Tactical roguelike Synthetik 2 was first announced with an Early Access release planned for August, but had to be delayed. Berlin studio Flow Fire Games has now announced Synthetik 2 will arrive in Early Access on November 11, with a new trailer that reiterates the story setup before getting into the good stuff. By the good stuff I mean dropping the beat while a whole lot of robots get shot up. There’s a spinning sawblade enemy that looks like it came right out of Disc Room, and also jets that I’m sure will be fun to shoot out of the sky.

Tactical roguelike Synthetik 2 is adding three new factions, the Machine S.A.T Police Forces, Chrono Squad, and the Shock Troops, and promises to have “Near-infinite replay value thanks to a fresh new progression system combined with new unpredictable environments with random elements, and endless options on how to arm and upgrade yourself.” It’ll also have integrated mod support, and four-player co-op.

Deltarune Chapter 2 Review

Just an hour into Deltarune Chapter 2, “A Cyber’s World,” the game’s sullen hero, Kris, is negotiating a deal with a monster made of website popups, looking for blue checks (yes, the ones from Twitter), and playing video games with a fighting-game-obsessed, wine-drinking robot Queen whose favorite tagline is “lmao.” All the while, a catchy chiptune soundtrack bumps in the background.

This sense of humor is par for the course for developer Toby Fox. In his latest release, Deltarune Chapter 2, Fox picks up after the cliff-hanger of Chapter 1 only to throw players directly into a cyberspace-inspired city. Players are Kris, exploring the world alongside their friends, Susie, and Ralsei — the same heroes from Chapter 1 — and fight through a series of tough, bullet-hell challenges. Though the battle mechanics feel similar, this chapter complicates the moral and ethical questions posed by the game’s predecessor, Undertale, while adding to the story started in Chapter 1. Fox also lays the groundwork for a giant sweeping adventure, one that explores another section of Deltarune’s growing world. And despite being a harsh challenge, it’s a world that still feels very welcoming.

Though Undertale did give players the option to show mercy or to kill, the game sent a strong message against killing monsters. Undertale encourages a non-violent route, where none of the monsters should be vanquished, and players are more mindful of the impact of their choices. But this also made the game more challenging: when you don’t kill monsters, you don’t level up. Your base stats, like health, remain unchanged, making for a difficult time surviving in later battles.

Deltarune Chapter 2 moral stance isn’t totally different, but this time players are on their own when deciding when to show mercy to monsters, and when to fight back. In Chapter 2 certain enemies are worth slaying, like a despotic king who still retaliates when shown mercy. It’s a contrast to Undertale’s more straightforward, purely pacifism-driven play.

Image: Toby Fox

Like Fox’s other games, Deltarune Chapter 2 battles are unique arcade bullet hells, where every monster’s quirks are expressed in their attacks and lines during play. (And like UndertaleDeltarune’s battles get harder if players refuse to vanquish their foes). In one boss battle, the three heroes fight three monsters who all have speakers for heads, and navigate a barrage of groovy attacks that look like musical notes. For another boss fight, Berdly spams you with deadly A+ papers because he’s a know-it-all at school.

 

Fox’s bullet-hell RPG is as tough as ever, which makes it harder to decide whether to show mercy or fight monsters. These bullet-hell battles feel all the more difficult when the game is more morally ambiguous, suggesting it’s OK to kill some monsters (which would make the fight easier). A boss fight with Spamton, the monster who spams you with nearly illegible pop-ups with messages like “MEET LOCAL SINGLES” as you fight him, knocked me on my ass more than once. I ended up figuring it out, and I stuck it out for his golden personality. But it did make me wonder if I would have the patience to figure it out with future characters, rather than just fighting them.

Deltarune Chapter 2 gives players another factor to consider when picking whether or not to spare a monster. This latest chapter introduces a “recruiting” system, which is similar to the Shin Megami Tensei or Persona series, where sparing monsters allows players to recruit them to the team. They may help us out at points, by lending their power in a fight. As we recruit monsters by sparing them, we populate a new town filled with all our friends.

Image: Toby Fox

Still, despite the challenge, the game embraces players with open arms. At the beginning of Chapter 2, Ralsei makes cute bedrooms for Susie and Kris based on their favorite colors and tells them, “I’d be happy if this place … could be like a second home to you.” These scenes made Deltarune Chapter 2 feel like a kind of second home. Supporting the idea that these games can be an escape and a source of comfort, Fox released Chapter 2 for free and ahead of its initial release date. “The world has been really tough for everybody recently,” Fox said on the game’s website.

Of course, this is just one chapter. This is not the conclusion of a conversation, but rather the start of one. Fox warmly brings us into his worlds, but some core questions remain: Which characters get to feel comforted by these worlds? (Certainly not our dear hero, Kris.) What are the implications of our actions? In Deltarune Chapter 2 our choices matter. But the story is still ongoing, and we don’t quite know how these choices will affect the characters. For now, players will just have to wait until the next three chapters come out.

Pokemon UNITE Review!

POKEMON UNITE (FOR NINTENDO SWITCH) SPECS

Product Games PlatformNintendo Switch
Product Games GenreAction
Product Games ESRB RatingE for Everybody

I’ll never forgive Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, or MOBAs, for all but replacing the real-time strategy genre. As a long-time fan of games like StarCraft and Command & Conquer, the MOBA genre comes off as a weird, glorified mod. However, millions of people disagree. MOBA remains one of the most popular genres, so popular that now Pikachu and friends are getting in on the action. Pokemon Unite is a free-to-play Nintendo Switch game (eventually coming to mobile) that uses the “pocket monsters” to make the infamously complex genre far more accessible. While MOBA masters may want something prettier and with more depth, Pokemon Unite is a fine jumping on point for beginners.

Gotta Jungle ‘Em All

Pokemon Unite’s 5v5, team-based battles recall Dota 2, League of Legends, and other MOBAs that dominate the esports scene. In fact, Pokemon Unite’s formula tweaks make each match feel more like a lighthearted sport instead of an abstract clash of armies. Each player controls their own partner Pokemon. You roam the map, battling both wild Pokemon and Pokemon on the opposing team. You accrue energy with each small victory, and you earn points when you slam dunk that energy into an opponent’s goal zone. Whoever earns the most points wins. You don’t see scores until the very end, so you’ll never know exactly where you stand in the match. I like how this keeps tension high and encourages you to give it your all until the end.

By ditching MOBA gameplay mainstays, such as defensive towers and creep minions, Pokemon Unite sacrifices some of the genre’s strategic depth. Maybe the game’s meta needs more time to develop, but I found early battles incredibly straightforward and a bit repetitive. League of Legends: Wild Rift simplifies League of Legends for mobile, but still requires lots of strategizing. However, if you, like me, often find MOBAs needlessly complicated, Pokemon Unite’s simplicity becomes its strength. I appreciated being able to jump into a few ten-minute matches without watching hours of tutorial videos. 

That said, Pokemon Unite has many variables to consider. For example, you choose between multiple, three-lane maps. When you score enough points in an enemy goal zone, you destroy it, which forces you to move to a different target to keep up your offense. Destroying an enemy goal also lets you move faster in enemy territory, and during a match’s second half, you can use a Super Jump pad to more easily move around. Vanquishing an exceptionally powerful wild Pokemon, like the legendary Zapdos, empowers your team with a helpful buff. 

The Pokemon you and teammates pick dramatically change how you approach battle. Each monster comes with its own specialty and difficulty level. Cinderace is a beginner-friendly, ranged attacker who kicks fireballs at foes. Zeraora is a melee-focused speedster for experts. The game tells you if your team lacks a key role. I’m sure there’s already a tier list. 

Pokemon gain access to new moves as they win battles. Certain Pokemon also evolve into the stronger forms. Start a match with Bulbasaur, end up with Venasaur. Elemental attacks, from volt tackles to flame sweeps, feel distinct and true to the source material. The game also plays just fine with a controller, automating many actions to keep you from pressing one button over and over again. 

Pay Up, Pikachu

Pokemon Unite is a co-production with Chinese mega-corp Tencent, in case you were wondering why the companies went with a genre as profitable as MOBAs for this Pokemon spin-off. Not long after this Switch release, the game will come to mobile phones. Thanks to crossplay, people on all platforms can play together, which is great. However, once you realize that Pokemon Unite is essentially a free-to-play mobile game, its other flaws make much more sense.

Just by playing the game you accrue in-game currency to unlock new Pokemon, and certain Pokemon are made available for free for a limited time. However, you must pay real money to quickly purchase permanent access to the Pokemon you really want. At launch, there are about 20 Pokemon available, and more are already on the way.

That’s not the only way to spend money. Pokemon Unite features a battle pass with rewards to unlock, alongside your daily log-in mission prizes. You can also buy new outfits for you and your Pokemon, as well as equippable items.

Some items, like the healing potion, operate on a cooldown. Other items, Held items, give your Pokemon perks, such as a strength stat increase or the ability to recover health with each goal. You must pay extra to unlock additional item slots or upgrade items. It still feels like paying for a leg up. A basic defensive item costs 1,000 coins. The maximum amount of coins you can earn in a week is 2,100. But if you drop $20 for 1,000 gems and buy 1,000 item enhancers, you can level up that item a great deal.

I also wish the game’s production value was a little higher. The visuals are pleasant enough; you can’t really ruin iconic Pokemon character designs. Still, the graphics feel like something from a mobile game, not the same console that brought us the beautiful New Pokemon Snap or the competent Pokemon Sword and Shield. Even the game’s flashiest attacks, the ultimate Unite moves, aren’t particularly impressive. According to the in-game FPS counter, the game runs at 30 frames per second in handheld mode and 60 frames per second when docked. I never saw those frame rates fluctuate, so competitive players shouldn’t worry about inconsistent performance. You actually change these defaults, but the game recommends against it.

The Very Best?

Thanks to its well-integrated Pokemon hooks, Pokemon Unite does a better job than, say, Heroes of the Storm, of arguing the merits of a kinder, simpler MOBA. You don’t need to know what “ganking” means to have fun pulling off an awesome Pikachu play. You may hit a wall, either from the free-to-play mechanics or your own desire to graduate to something more substantial, but there’s no better play to begin your journey toward MOBA mastery.   

Pokemon Unite (for Nintendo Switch)

PROS

  • Accessible mechanics for its genre
  • Each Pokemon feels distinct
  • Crossplay with upcoming mobile versions

CONS

  • Bland visuals
  • Typical free-to-play annoyances
  • Could use a few more strategic options

Early Impressions of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous

Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous beings with a daunting boss fight, the kind that makes mere mortals tremble in their boots. I’m not talking about some hulking beast, although one does turn up quite quickly – I’m talking about a bewildering and terrifying character creation system with its legions of numbers and arcane terms. By the time the game starts proper, I already feel like I’ve had my head kicked in by some demonic foe. In the game’s defence it explains everything in detail, it’s just that to a Pathfinder noob like me those details might as well be written in Latin. While the visual customization is quite limited, there are approximately 25 different classes, along with sub-classes.

There are numerous achievements, skills, and abilities from which to choose. In brief, this CRPG in which you command a group of six has a lot going on, and it’s probably only for folks who can devote dozens upon dozens of hours to it.

The issue I had was that I felt like I was making decisions blindly because I didn’t know how the game would play or how any of these creative options would turn out. After ten hours, I’m still not confident that my jumbled character design will work well. Perhaps I should have started over with one of the prefabricated character builds to get a better understanding of how Wrath of the Righteous works before rerolling my own character.

Eventually I settled on something simple: a human Paladin, focused on being at the fore of every fight, soaking up the blows and occasionally healing allies. Adventurous, certainly not, but a solid choice for my first journey into the world of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, a world I know nothing about. Having first been published in 2009, the Pathfinder RPG, which was based upon D&D’s third edition, has got a lot of built up lore. As for this videogame, it’s actually a follow-up to 2017’s Pathfinder: Kingmaker, so going in I wasn’t sure how lost I was going to be.

The answer is…extremely. To the game’s credit, it provides a wealth of information, and there are numerous names to hover the mouse over in dialogue to bring up supplementary windows containing all the information you require. And I’m confident you’ll be able to follow the plot: you’re the Chosen One, demons appear, destroy the city, and now you must save the world using a glowing sword you found underneath. However, you’ll have to deal with a lot of thick vocabulary made up of made-up names, places, events, and characters. It’s like attempting to read a dictionary with an alphabet you recognise, but the words it produces are completely foreign. Who is this mysterious figure? Why is that? What is that? Huh.

From here on, I might amble into small spoiler territory. Nothing serious, just the initial few hours of this massive game, but they are they. You have been warned.

Having fallen underground during that whole demon invasion thing, my first goal is to get back to the surface. It isn’t long before I’m teaming up with a helpful Paladin and stumbling across a few other survivors. Shortly after that, I’ve got myself some new friends in the form of Mongrels, a group living under the city for generations. Lann is half-lizard, with scales and horns adorning one side of his body, and his friend Wenduag appears to have giant spider legs sprouting out of her back. I can’t say I’m exactly comforted by this fact, and it isn’t long before Wenduag shows herself to be less of a paragon of virtue that Lann. For now, only one of these two are going to be joining me on my grand adventure. After I opt to side with Lann and display the mysterious Light of Heaven to the Mongrel chief, Wenduag vanishes. She turns up again later where it transpires she’s been siding with the demons and has taken part in some rather unsavoury rituals. Turns out the spider legs were a bit of a give away, really.

Naturally, I do eventually drag myself and my small band of misfits out of the underground and back up into a city swarming with demons. Along the way, I learn the harsh reality everything in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is controlled by a roll of the dice. Skill checks, attacks, dodges, it’s all dictated by a virtual roll and that might be the part that has taken me the longest to get to grips with. I always struggle a bit with having control taken from me, and playing Pathfinder is a bit like XCOM where even the most easy looking attack can miss completely. It can lead to some hilariously stupid situations, though, like when I cast a grease spell at a gate, and watched as everyone passing through had to make a skill check save. What resulted was a pile of enemies and even allies all lying on the floor, looking like they were taking a nap mid-fight. It’s tough work being a cultist.

Mind you, it was a bit less funny when outside of combat one of my party ambled into a grease pull and then proceeded to make several dozen failed skill checks to get up. With no enemies around I wound up waiting for a few minutes until he managed to haul himself to his feet. Needless to say, I’ve become a bit more careful with how and where I magic up some grease.

In short, I’ve been loading a lot of saves because sometimes Lady Luck kicks me in the dick. My Paladin and Seelah have charged into fights only to be knocked out in 2 swift strikes. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially when that pill is made up of stats and die rolls that I’m trying to figure out. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is a complicated game, both a strength and a weakness.

Ah yes, my party. There’s Seelah, the former street urchin turned Paladin who is always cheerful; Lann, the half-lizard half-human looking goofball who has lived underground his entire life; Ember, the child-like Elf witch who was burned at the stake; Camellia, the noble lady has proven handy in fights but also appears to be hiding something sinister; Daeran. a nobleman who happily admits to getting pleasure from being an asshole; Nenio, whose gimmick is being a scientist and trying to break everything down into stats and figures. In total, there’s 15 recruitable companions, provided you count Finnean the talking weapon who I stumbled across in my adventures.

So far, they’re an interesting bunch. I can’t say I’ve seen much depth in them so far over the course of ten hours, but considering this is seemingly a 50+ title there’s still plenty of time to get to know them and embark on character specific quests and storylines. From what little I’ve gleaned, their personalities are well-defined and I’m already developing favourites. Lann, for example, mows down fools with his bow like a kid munches candy. Sneaky thief Woljif has proven pretty handy, too, and packs some good spells. I’m excited to see how my views on these people change, how my party composition switches as I build them up and try to find good roles for them.

I don’t know if I’m as excited about the combat, though. I love that you can swap between real-time or turn-based action, and recommend turn-based just so you can read the combat log on the side of the screen and use the data to get more comfortable with how everything works. Apart from that, though, I haven’t found the combat too compelling. The decisions I’m making in fights don’t feel difficult or tactically challenging. The complications come from what buffs to use and when, whether limited use spells and items should be deployed and so on. Those choices are interesting, but everything else falls a little flat at the moment.

Something I’m not convinced about is how the game is handling morality. At the start you’re asked to choose from a few different options, like Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Evil and so on, although that doesn’t mean you can’t make decisions which go against these things sometimes. However, the options I’ve seen so far don’t really work in the context of the rest of the game. Most of the time, the option is just to kill people, which is certainly evil but it doesn’t fit with the story, nor make sense when you’re Paladin companion doesn’t immediately rip you to pieces. Using killing as the primary option for making “evil” choices feels like the most basic, barebones form of morality. The Mass Effect series did it far better, keeping its Renegade options believable in the overall universe. Sure, you could be a jerk, but it still always fit within the confines of the story and world. From what Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous has shown me so far, its take on morality and choices is very, very simplistic.

I can’t help but feel I’m going to wind up writing a review for this one before I’ve even managed to finish the game. It’s that big. It’s that grand. At around ten hours in I’m only just hitting the first big battle, a huge event that made me shut off the game in irritation because it’s a long, gruelling fight with no chance to save. There are many more elements to be introduced, including some sort of bigger strategy element where you can command armies.

So, at this early stage, could I recommend Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous? Yeah, I probably would. It isn’t for everyone, though. This is a game for those willing to take their time, for those who like to soak up everything they can and relish the idea of an adventure that’s going to span dozens and dozens of hours across numerous quests. However, it does need to be noted that the Steam forums are reporting a lot of problems with the game, especially after act 3. Reports of save data vanishing, characters falling through the floor and becoming unusuable, abilities not working correctly, memory leaks and more all tarnish my own early recommendation. I can’t speak about these issues more, though, because I haven’t ran into anything major yet, and it could take me another week or two to get into act 3 and beyond. So, for now, be wary and do your research before splashing the cash.

Best of Xbox Game Pass – DOOM 2016

It would be easy to endorse DOOM Eternal, the 2020 successor to the DOOM 2016 reboot that amps up the action and complicates the gaming mechanics even further. Although it is arguably the superior game, I can’t help but feel DOOM 2016 is a little more pure. Why not start at the beginning as they’re both on Game Pass?

So, no, that isn’t correct. DOOM 2016 is a video game franchise that has been active since 1993 and has become a gaming legend. However, it took a long vacation in 2005, following the publication of DOOM 3’s final expansion pack, which surprised everyone. DOOM 3 was a huge hit, selling over 3.5 million copies and becoming id Software’s biggest release. DOOM 3: BFG Edition, a remastered version of DOOM 3, made a brief comeback in 2012, before the franchise was relegated to Hell.

DOOM 2016 overview: It’s no easy effort to bring back something as famous, as legendary as DOOM. id Software and Bethesda set out to do just that, bringing the Doom Slayer’s tattered and broken carcass out of Hellscape and back into the world, where they could rebuild it from the ground up. The original brain is still present, but the body is a sleek blend of current technology and muscles, all of which are built around a skeleton made of pure fucking anger. Machine Games has put several little speakers within that menacing physique, which are always blasting out smashing heavy metal music. The Doom Slayer would be the corporeal embodiment of heavy metal music.

I could tell the storey in a few lines, but it would be about as useful as a condom vending machine in a rabbit warren. DOOM 2016 keeps the narrative light and in the background so you can focus all of your creative energy on annihilating demons with some of the smoothest, juiciest, kick-assiest first-person shooting in videogames. The controls are as tight as the Rock’s, the firearms sound more violent than someone reading a love poem in German, and the whole thing moves at a speed that would make Sonic take a break. It’s not about cowering under cover like a coward — it’s all about speed, strafing, accuracy, and health packs, baby.

DOOM 2016 has a beautiful simplicity about it that I admire. It believes that its gameplay will keep you captivated, and that belief is well-founded. It’s a game that’s a lot of fun to play, and the foes are all unique and hard. The A.I. doesn’t get nearly enough credit for making every combat scenario a total delight. It’s abrasive, quick, and violent. It doesn’t give you time to catch your breath, turning every bout into a few minutes of pure adrenaline.

DOOM reappeared with a bang and a flurry of blood and shattered limbs. It’s also insane to consider that Microsoft now owns some of the biggest names in the FPS genre, including DOOM, Wolfenstein, Quake, and Halo. Those are famous franchises that anyone who understands anything about videogame history should respect, and while Halo is on the decline, DOOM and Wolfenstein are still going strong. Now all that’s left is for Quake to make a comeback.

Play DOOM 2016. Bask in the ultra-violence. Revel in the music. Let the gameplay absorb into your very soul. Let the Doom Slayer take you to Hell, baby.

10 Lessons Learned from the Pandemic, and a Way Forward: Report

The federal government is taking “steps in the right direction” to help control this pandemic, but there have been many hard lessons learned, according to a new report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

The report’s authors call for “coordinated federal leadership to improve the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This is among 10 recommendations that address what AAMC views as systemic inadequacies in the nation’s COVID-19 response that can help advise policy makers on how to better prepare for the next pandemic.

The recommendations are:

  1. The White House must lead the charge and ensure coordination among departments and agencies.
  2. The federal government must engage industry and research universities at the outset, commit to purchasing needed supplies and therapeutics in advance.
  3. The federal government must ensure an effective supply chain for critical goods and materials.
  4. Congress must appropriate needed funding to meet public health needs.
  5. Federal and state governments must relax regulatory restrictions on clinical care during a national emergency.
  6. Both government and the private sector must invest in needed data infrastructure.
  7. Federal and state policies must increase supply and well-being of physicians and other health professional.
  8. Congress must continue to commit to basic and clinical research.
  9. Federal government should expand and improve health insurance coverage.
  10. Stakeholders must commit to improving equity and patient-centered care through community engagement.

Current Crisis “Avoidable”

Although the Biden administration’s COVID-19 strategy is moving in the right direction, says Atul Grover, MD, executive director of the AAMC Research and Action Institute, the branch of the association that prepared the report, “the severity of this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic was avoidable.”

According to the report, only the federal government can provide the level of coordination that is needed across states and international borders to fight the virus successfully.

“The response should not rely on a piecemeal approach that varies by locality and region.”

In the absence of clear federal leadership during the pandemic’s earlier phase, the report states, “key policies were either absent or conflicting across states, counties, and municipalities. Without federal direction and coordination, states were forced to compete against each other (and, sometimes, against the federal government) for supplies.”

As a recent Kaiser Health News report shows, the states are still falling short on the COVID-19 front: for example, at least 26 states have restricted the ability of their public health authorities to take action against COVID in various ways.

In an interview with Medscape Medical News, William Schaffner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, agrees on the need for the federal government to lead the COVID fight.

Noting that the cooperation of states with each other and with the national government is voluntary, Schaffner asserted that “subcontracting [the COVID response] to the states doesn’t work. That results in chaos and a crazy quilt of responses that persists to this day.”

Inadequate Control of COVID Effort

Within the federal government, the AAMC report maintains, the White House must be directly in charge of coordinating the fight against the pandemic. The AAMC calls for the establishment of a top-level office or a coordinating team to lead the COVID effort, similar to what was done during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak.

Earlier this year, President Biden appointed Jeffrey Zients as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, succeeding Deborah Birx, MD, in that role.

“Jeff and his team are doing a good job,” Grover said. “But the reason I think we could be doing a better job is that the messaging has not been consistent across agencies and across the federal government.

“Jeff may not have the authority to overrule individual decisions and to ensure that all decisions are integrated across organizations. Maybe that is happening, but it’s not clear to those of us who are not in the meetings every day. At a minimum, we’ve got to get the messaging right, and it needs to be more transparent.”

Grover cites a recent press conference by the CDC about the national strategy for vaccine booster shots.

“No one from the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] was there,” he said. “Theoretically, FDA has signed off on boosters, but their scientists were caught off guard. The administration’s messaging needs to be consistent, and that would be more likely if someone were in charge of these agencies overall.”

Schaffner said he prefers not to comment on this point, “but I won’t argue with the observation.”

Supplies Still not Adequate

In light of the medical supply shortages that have plagued the COVID-19 response, the AAMC report recommends that the federal government ensure an effective supply chain for all critical goods and materials, starting with the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), which was created in 1999 to supplement state and local medical supplies during public health emergencies.

“The SNS should enable the nation to support care for a minimum number of critically ill patients until the federal government can assure an adequate functional supply chain for a short period of time,” the AAMC report states.

The SNS was not replenished after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and wasn’t prepared for the COVID-19 emergency, according to the report.

“Despite having built up the supply over the last year, the nation is just one major outbreak or incident away from another monumental shortage of very basic needs such as gloves, masks, and gowns.”

Grover said the national stockpile now has more gowns and gloves than it did at the pandemic’s start. But he’s concerned about what might happen if a new type of pathogen emerged.

“If we were to face the same kind of COVID surge we’re now facing in the unvaccinated communities more broadly across the U.S. — for example, if we got another variant that was even more infectious or deadly — I’m not sure we’d be prepared.”

Just-in-Time Purchasing

Hospitals were caught short when COVID struck because of their just-in-time supply chain approach, which relied on punctual deliveries of new supplies and equipment, the report states. Of course, when demand soared and every provider was competing for scarce supplies, that didn’t happen.

Now, Grover pointed out, there is still no central system to keep track of where PPE, ventilators, oxygen tanks, and other critical items are in the supply chains of hospitals and physician practices.

So, even if policymakers determined that the nation should use both the SNS and private locations to stockpile enough supplies to care for a certain number of patients for a period of time, there wouldn’t be any way to determine what was on hand or where it was stored.

Moreover, while hospitals have built up their stockpiles to prepare for new COVID surges, he expects them to go back to just-in-time purchasing when the pandemic wanes. Although healthcare organizations want to take good care of patients, they have financial and physical constraints on how many supplies they can store, Grover said.

Testing Conundrum

An analogous challenge exists for companies that make COVID-19 tests, Grover said.

“The testing companies don’t want to produce more than they’re going to be able to sell. They’re a for-profit industry.”

Partly as a result, the nation has never had as many tests as it needs, according to the report.

To solve this problem, the report authors suggest that the federal government take an approach similar to that of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed (OWS), which used advance funding and vaccine pre-purchases to spur development.

“The CDC is unlikely to meet testing demands in future outbreaks and pandemics using existing public health lab partnerships, even under the best conditions. Industry was reluctant to mass produce testing kits for fear demand would fail to materialize; an OWS-like advance purchasing strategy and investment in private production could have reduced the spread of COVID-19 and will be critical in mitigating a future outbreak or pandemic.”

Public Health Infrastructure

The report also calls for Congress to appropriate “robust and continuous funding for public health infrastructure…Chronic underfunding of public health has hurt the nation’s emergency preparedness framework and contributes to health inequity.”

This applies not only to federal funding, but also to state and local funding, which has primarily been allocated on a crisis-response basis, the report states.

Grover is glad that the fiscal 2022 budget legislation includes $15 billion to finance this infrastructure, but that’s only a start, he said.

Schaffner stressed the importance of improving the IT infrastructure of public health agencies.

“We need a better, higher-quality mechanism for quickly gathering critical data from doctors’ offices and hospitals and sending that information through a public health stream so it can be gathered.

“Today, data come in at the national level, sometimes slowly, sometimes in fragmented fashion, from different jurisdictions around the country, and it’s very difficult to make secure statements and plan effectively.”

Schaffner agrees with the report’s emphasis on the need for long-term planning to prepare for the next pandemic but is pessimistic about the odds of it occurring.

“This challenges us as Americans. We have notoriously short attention spans. And we like to put difficult things behind us and look to the future,” he said.

NY Facing Health Care Shortages as Vaccine Mandate Starts

New York officials are bracing for staff shortages as the COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers begins today.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is considering a variety of options, including a state of emergency declaration to bring in licensed health care professionals from other states and health care workers from the National Guard.

“I am monitoring the staffing situation closely and we have a plan to increase our health care workforce and help alleviate the burdens on our hospitals and other health care facilities,” she told CBS News.

“I commend all of the health care workers who have stepped up to get themselves vaccinated, and I urge all remaining health care workers who are unvaccinated to do so now so they can continue providing care,” she said.

About 84% of hospital employees in New York were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Wednesday. In adult care facilities, 81% of staff were fully vaccinated, along with 77% of staff at nursing home facilities.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in August that all health care workers are required to receive their first vaccine dose by Sept. 27. The regulation applies to out-of-state and contract medical staff as well.

Those who are fired because they don’t get vaccinated won’t be able to receive unemployment insurance without a valid medical exemption, CBS News reported.

“People who will not get vaccinated are the only reason that this country and these communities and our cities have not been able to be fully engaged in a state of normalcy,” Hochul said.

Several groups have filed lawsuits to challenge the vaccine mandate, including the Civil Service Employees Association and members of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

On Friday, a federal judge delayed a vaccine mandate for New York City teachers that was slated to also start on Monday.

A panel of judges will review the mandate on Wednesday, which city officials hope to resolve quickly. The education department told principals on Saturday morning that they should prepare for the possibility of the vaccine mandate going into effect later this week.

“We’re confident our vaccine mandate will continue to be upheld once all the facts have been presented because that is the level of protection our students and staff deserve,” Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the department, told The Associated Press

About 82% of education department employees are vaccinated, including 88% of teachers, the AP reported. Unions representing New York City principals and teachers have warned that the mandate could lead to staff shortages.

However, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that the city is ready.

“We’ve been planning all along. We have a lot of substitutes ready,” he said. “We are ready, even to the tune of, if we need thousands, we have thousands.”

MFA Stock Review & Analysis

The mortgage real estate investment trust (REIT) space has been hammered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even agency mortgage REITs have been slammed by margin calls and depreciating assets. As markets elsewhere start to recover, some are asking: Is it safe to reenter the mREIT waters?

For some mREITS operating right now, perhaps. For others, absolutely not. 

MFA Financial (NYSE:MFA) is a mortgage REIT that invests mainly in non-government guaranteed mortgage-backed securities and mortgages. The company does have some agency (i.e. government-guaranteed) exposure, but it is only about 11% of its assets. MFA has been beaten up even worse than the typical mREIT and is down 81% year to date. The company has gone into forbearance with its repo counterparties and suspended its dividend. Forbearance means the company has been unable to meet its margin calls and has agreed with its counterparties to hold off liquidating until a specified date. 

What is a repurchase agreement?

Pretty much every mortgage REIT has been hit by margin calls. The REITs that mainly invest in government-guaranteed mortgage-backed securities have been able to find a way to meet the margin calls, largely by selling investments. The ones like MFA have not been able to sell investments due to a lack of liquidity in the markets. Mortgage REITs generally finance their investments by using what is called a repurchase agreement (also called a repo). Here’s how they work.

Say a mortgage REIT buys $100 million worth of mortgage-backed securities in the market and wants to buy more. It approaches a bank and asks about entering into a repurchase agreement. The bank says that it will do a 360-day repo at a 5% haircut. What that means is the mortgage REIT “sells” those securities to the bank for $95 million and then agrees to buy them back in a year at $100 million. The idea would be for the REIT to take that $95 million and go out and buy more securities. If the mortgage REIT is unable to pay back the loan, the bank has the securities worth $100 million as collateral and can use that to make itself whole. Under normal circumstances, this whole process works smoothly. 

Margin calls and forbearance

Unfortunately for the mortgage REIT sector, the value of the collateral (i.e. the $100 million worth of securities) began to depreciate. When it looks like the value of the collateral is in danger of falling below the value of the loan, the bank will ask for more collateral (usually cash). If the REIT cannot come up with the cash, then the bank has the right to sell that collateral in the market to make itself whole. Note this is identical to what happens if you trade on margin and fail to meet your margin call: Your broker will sell your stock to pay off the loan.

Most of MFA’s portfolio consists of illiquid securities and whole loans, which are hard to trade even in a normal market. It is extremely hard to find buyers right now because every mortgage REIT is in the same boat. So, MFA entered into a forbearance agreement with its bankers where they agree not to sell the collateral while MFA tries to figure a way out of its predicament. MFA has been selling assets and using the proceeds to pay off repurchase agreements but has only sold about 8% of the portfolio. MFA’s forbearance agreement with its bankers ends on June 1. 

Not a suitable investment for the long-term investor

Buying MFA now is like buying a stock on the edge of bankruptcy. The stock may or may not be worth something. As of Dec. 31, MFA had $13.6 billion in assets and $10.2 billion in debt. If the value of these assets falls by 25%, then the company is theoretically bankrupt. While fundamentals matter, in an illiquid market like we have right now, forced sellers never get full price. That is where MFA is right now. Until we have closure on where MFA is with its creditors and its portfolio, the stock is simply not something a long-term fundamental investor should consider.