Saturday, April 27, 2013

Once Burned twice noticed...

I have an on again/off again relationship with Burn Notice.  I am a male, and when men reach certain points in their lives something happens.  We start really getting in to movies about Tall Ships, we start really getting in to TV Shows about spies, and we start reading Tom Clancey books.  I've passed check points one and two but not three.  Burn Notice is (or was) my answer to the spy thing.  It's sort of realistic portrayal of being a black books operative was interesting. 

The thing is the first two or three seasons had some compelling aspects but the last two seasons have basically boiled down to Michael loves Fiona (the most unconvincing "Irish" person you could find, I mean you got a British actor that's not the same as an Irish one and why not get one who could at least do an Irish accent, I don't care if she was on an episode of 90210 and don't get me started on her shoes!)  So he doesn't want ANYTHING to happen to her, but he needs to resolve this problem.  All the time Fiona (and Sam and Jessie and his mom) implore him to "Do the right thing" what that means I have no freaking clue AND rehash the "we don't leave anyone behind" mantra.  So he has a choice, let a friend/family member die or get arrested or what ever OR he can throw himself on his knife and sacrifice his desire for the rest. 

At the end of this season, like the end of previous seasons we see Michael once again having sacrificed himself for the lives of the others.  What would have happened if he didn't was pretty clear either life in prison or death.  No ifs ands or buts, pretty clear which Fiona indicated earlier was "unacceptable" how did he do it?  "Struck a deal" but what was the alternative?  The thing is if this happened once that'd be one thing but literally it's a loop the exact same narrative on a seasonal cycle and it's frankly stale.  My guess is he's working on a new black book operation for the CIA with the "Gang" as the operatives to bring down Ansel's organization because we're going to find out it's a Hydra-esque organization so he's back with The Agency and that's going to be our next cycle.  But here's the thing.  That's the cycle from two seasons ago, and last season was a repeat of season 1 and 2's narrative. 

They've run out of stories to tell and they need to end it.  It's just getting old, and they never told us what happened to Sugar.  I mean come on, we all love that adorable scamp of a third rate drug dealer with a heart of cocaine.  You don't just drop a secondary character has been disappeared by a rogue CIA agency when Micheal is CONSTANTANTLY reminding us of the "guilt" he feels for hurting people in his wake and then do NOTHING about it as that's entirely incongruous with his character to date (my guess is they either forgot and it was sloppy story telling or they'll fold him in to the team next season either way I'm only 40% sure I'll be back to find out).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Funny Pages

Hey gang. It's gonna be a little mix of last weeks books and this weeks books for this round of reviews.

Guardians of the Galaxy 1

Okay so this is the first issue. For real this time. Seriously. Ignore the 0.1 issue that came out last month. Well don't ignore it, but don't think of that as the first issue. This is the first issue. Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven bring us the real first issue of Guardians of the Galaxy an it's kind of just meh.
Star-lord Peter Quill is back from the Cancerverse. How? Don't know. They really don't say. Other than a quick mention in the first few pages that Quill fought Thanos, the Annihilation mini isn't really touched upon. Now Star-lord is on a mission to protect earth from his father and a coalition of alien races that have declared that earth is off limits and on its own. A move that apparently puts earth in prime position to be invaded. Star-lord gathers up the old gang, consisting of Gammora, Drax, Groot, and my personal fave Rocket Raccoon. Oh Iron Man is there too. Why? Cross polination would be my best guess. Together they’re going to keep earth safe from the dangers of Aliens like the Badoon, or Thanos, or any other number of Jim Starlin era space based baddie. It's an interesting idea and I'm curious to see here Bendis takes it, but it doesn't strike the same resonance as the last volume of Guardian. Gone is the slightly wacky feel to the book, such as Cosmo the telepathic Russian space dog. Also gone is Star-lord’s kick ass costume. Replaced by a rather simple costume that doesn't have the same umph as the prior masked almost WWI German suit.
Bendis-speak is in full swing here. It tends to stick out like a sore thumb amongst this cast. In all honestly I feel that Bendis isn't suited for this type of story. He's a ground level writer. He can’t seem to make the big concept work in most cases.  Even when he was on Avengers his best stories tended to be a little more down to earth.
Steve McNiven’s art is passable. He's not delivering his worst like in the mini-series Nemesis he did with Mark Millar, but he isn't delivering his A game art like Civil War (coincidentally also with Mark Millar).
Marvel is pushing their cosmic titles in a big way. With a Guardians of the Galaxy movie coming out next year I see why they're pushing a more mainstream version of the book. That would be all right for the casual reader. But for those who have been with Guardians of the Galaxy or the characters involved for a while, it does fall a little short.


East of West 1

Is it a western? Is it science fiction? Is it a story about the apocalypse? Yes. Yes it is. This is an alternate history tale with cowboys, indians, chairman Mao, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta bring their genre bending tale of the Horseman Death as he cuts a bloody path across an America unlike we’ve ever seen.
With this issue Hickman is really laying out the world which the story takes place. But in typical Hickman fashion he isn't exactly laying all his cards on the table. The story opens with three of the four horsemen waking as children, short their fellow rider Death. The story then skips to some exposition about a very different United States and a very different civil war. Jump again to the missing Death in a very different form as his brethren. A cowboy clad all in white aiming to kill the president of the United States.
Nick Dragotta shows a very different side of his art compared to his most recent FF work. Jumping from epic vistas and landscapes, to very brutal but intimate moment of the white rider. His work seems to be a lot more polished here. Not that his FF run was bad in anyway but the art seems to be a little tighter than previously.
Hickman’s work tends to be head trippy and not for a casual reader. Pax Romana, Red Mass for Mars, even his Fantastic Four run is an investment in time but always works out and is worth the read.


All New X-Men 10

When All New X-Men was announced I (along with a lot of other X-fans) had some concerns. It had some major strikes against it. Brian Michael Bendis’s Avengers  had become somewhat stale. He had done too many Avengers titles for too long, and later issues had really shown that the joy was gone. I didn't really want to see that brought to an X book. The title was spinning out of the somewhat mediocre Avengers vs. X-Men. I was also nervous this new X-Men book was going to affect Jason Aaron’s fantastic Wolverine and the X-Men. But what worried me the most about All New X-Men was the overall premise. Modern day Beast goes back in time and brings the original teenage X-Men back to the future (and yes there have been several references to the movie over the series). But Bendis surprised me. He surprised the hell out of me.
He took what could have been an awful mess of a book and made it work. As I stated earlier with Guardians of the Galaxy, Bendis works on a street level with his characters. He doesn't do well with the big concept stories. But he nailed it in All New X-Men.
This issue focuses on Mystique, Sabertooth, and the newly freed from prison Lady Mastermind robbing a bank truck. Bendis is building to a major showdown between Mystique’s crew and the original 5 heroes. And when it goes down it'll be good. Meanwhile over at The Jean Grey School modern Cyclops shows up to try to recruit from Wolverine’s school. The exchange between sides does get a little Bendis-y dialogue wise but doesn't get too hampered. We get an interesting exchange between young and old Cyclops. And we are left with a cliffhanger that has left me curious in a way that I haven't felt about a next issue in a long while.
Now Stuart Immonen. Oh my god on a scooter Stuart Immonen. This man is one of the best artists working in the industry. His art in this issue is phenomenal. He had a short break with David Marquez capably filling in. But man is it good to see him back in these pages.
I absolutely love Wolverine and the X-Men and didn't want All New X-Men to come along and futz Wolverine’s title up. Thankfully both titles work well off each other. Toss in Bendis’ sister book Uncanny X-Men and the X Universe is in the best shape it's been in years.


Abe Sapien Dark and Terrible 1

For an Abe Sapien book there is surprisingly little Abe Sapien in this book. This book goes a long way to introduce the reader to where we are in the Hellboy/BPRD Universe. Recapping the problems plaguing the Earth. What's happened to Abe to bring us to this point. This may be an attempt to draw in a new reader but with a lot of BPRD books or various titles within the  Hellboy universe but they may end up feeling like their drowning in information. There's a lot to know with these comics. They are all tied to each other. It can be argued that Hellboy continuity is as vast and extensive as say the Star Wars universe.
Abe Sapien is somewhat of a fan favorite but unfortunately I'm not one of them. I've never liked him as much as I have the ironically down to earth Hellboy, or the impressionable Roger the Homunculus, or even the ghostly Johann Krauss. This first issue doesn't do much to change that. Even in recent months where Abe has changed and evolved and there is a mystery as to why, I find myself not all that concerned.
The writers Mike Mignola, and Scott Allie, as well as artist Simon Fiumara do a capable job. The book isn't bad. It's just nothing really remarkable. And where the Hellboy universe is right now they need to do more than just kind of coast. This being the first issue in a new ongoing they are obviously going to be moving to something big but to grab you and keep you they need to make more of an impact coming out of the gate.


~ Nick

Monday, April 1, 2013

BioShock Infinite – Washed in the blood of the lamb

I will try to keep this review of the game as spoiler free as possible, but there may be plot points divulged that may take away from the surprises so if you want to enter this untouched I’ll say in short this is a game that must be played.  Now for the longer version, if you have ever studied quantum physics or read any Robert Heinlein books like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, or The Number of the Beast you’ll be familiar with the literary conceit used to drive the story of BioShock Infinite forward.  BioShock like Assasin’s Creed has taken core scientific and philosophical facts and reshaped them in to marvelous fiction, where Assasin’s Creed makes a J.J. Abrams bombast BioShock creates a more nuanced Nolanesque experience.  In this case, Quantum Mechanics (also known as Quantum Physics or Quantum Theory) started to coagulate in to the branch of physics today with Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis in 1900 and the philosophical interpretations by Niles Bohr regarding causality.  Quantum physics has long been a device in the sci-fi genre to allow for the use of alternate realities or dimensions.  In this case, we’re taking science and twisting it a touch to make it fit the reality and allow for a deep story and unlike Heinlein’s twisted time travel/dimension hopping stories of men going back in time to have sex with their mothers to get them pregnant with themselves, or uncomfortably sexually liberated family units traveling in flying cars we’re given something meatier and more compelling.

For the purposes of this review I’m going to break the content in to three sections, the first is technological focusing on the code behind the game’s visuals and sound, the second component will be mechanical discussing the gameplay elements, and the final component will be artistic and wrapped up with a summary concluding my thoughts on the work, given BioShock’s legacy and the importance people may place on the story that way you can skip the last portion if you’re afraid of spoilers (anything mentioned up until now can be gleaned from trailers so no need to apologize yet).

At the end of a console generation we are reaching the limits of hardware on the two consoles but that doesn’t prevent a compelling experience.  The visuals for the game, on all three platforms, are impressive.  It’s quite easy to make a game that’s full of shadows and darkness and imparts an emotional weight but when using light it is a much more difficult medium.  Like watercolours a lot of people paint in it, but few do it well.  The setting of Columbia as the city in the clouds means you will by necessity be creating a setting full of light and sunshine, the temptation is to just crank the bloom up to 100 and go from there but that wasn’t done here.  The use of light is handled amazingly, like BioShock the Irrational Games team relied on the workhorse Unreal Engine (this time the Unreal 3 engine) tweaking and modifying it. 

Due to its setting they went with a stylized design that gave them maximum flexibility.  There are far more realistic looking games even using the same engine but the fluidity and lighting effects would probably not have been possible if they had strived for that degree of visual detail.  The use of diffuse lighting, haze and the prudent use of bloom create a stunning and smooth running experience.  The water and lighting techniques are stunning compared to the first BioShock which in comparison looks flat but between platforms you can see truly see the differences, the lack of aliasing on the Xbox makes for a “jaggy” experience which is to be expected, the PlayStation 3 while better for the “jaggies” and has a more realistic lighting experience than the 360 neither can hold a candle to the atmospheric quality of the PC.  That all being said, not a one of them is so far to make it a bad experience on any platform, all three are visually compelling and hold their own.  With no multiplayer component it’s a safe bet to purchase this for your favourite platform of choice.

Now, the Mechanics are a different story.  The gameplay mechanics of BioShock and in this case BioShock Infinite’s spiritual grandparents System Shock and System Shock 2, System Shock 2’s complex and deep leveling system created an experience where you felt you had real control over your character and through this franchise an immersion in to the environment.  BioShock (the first) gave you plasmids and weapon customization but it felt like that depth from its predecessor was a mere puddle compared to the ocean of options available.  BioShock Infinite attempts to resolve this, while removing the hacking component which felt out of place in the Diselpunk world of BioShock and would seem even more ridiculous in the Steampunk setting of Columbia Elizabeth is used to take care of these chores but in its place Vigors (the Plasmids of this game) and guns are much more customizable than their predecessors in the first two BioShock games.  Given your ability swap between two vigors to create “Combo” effects it makes for an interesting and fun mechanic.  Though still lacking the depth of System Shock it’s still a fun experience and it’s recommended you spend those Silver Eagles to power up your abilities as soon as possible since they and your tweaked out guns will be needed.

The only real problem I found is one of accuracy, being primarily a PC gamer I’m used to the mouse and keyboard accuracy but even compared to other FPS games on the consoles BioShock has always been “drifty” and that’s still the case here, if you value accuracy not play on the consoles.  That being said the “snap aim” feature that’s a mainstay of modern console shooters is here.  For those unfamiliar, get nearly on target; click the “aim” button.  This will snap to iron sights or targeting scope and then quickly pop off your shot.  You have about a half second or so where you’ll be snapped to right on target, with a hand cannon properly supplemented this can mean a one shot kill.  Even with this help it's still very tricky especially when you're trying to use the "sky-lines" a series of roller coasters that you can skim along adding an interesting layer to combat. The good thing is, with Elizabeth scrounging for ammo in the background I rarely found myself in need.  Even in the most intense firefights I only needed to switch out weapons from my favourite pairings (hand cannon and shotgun for high power and room clearing capability or hand cannon and pistol for high power and rapid accurate fire).  You’ll find your magic combo but once I got my hands on that hand cannon I was pretty much set for the game.

On the topic of Elizabeth, thankfully there was mechanic built in where you were required to protect her.  She didn’t take damage and took care of herself, in fact during the heat of combat she will scour the battlefield and when you are running low on health, ammo or salts (the “mana” for your vigors) toss you a refill.  While this is great, and her ability to pick locks removes the annoying and distracting hacking elements it does also at times take some of the challenge out of the game.  Having played on Normal this may be less of an issue in harder play throughs or 1999 mode (the souped up super hard mode which from what I understand changes baseline health, ammo distribution and gives you less flexibility with your vigors so choose wisely).

Now, the story, as mentioned previously the BioShock series is known for its compelling source material.  In the first two stories you were dealing with Objectivism and Rand’s philosophical hypocrisy.  Interestingly the game was released at the same time as the rise of the Tea Party who make Rand their godhead.  This game on the other hand makes a study of American Exceptionalism, a political philosophy that places America as a “unique” country.  One of the first “modern” nations and due to its foundation on the basis of liberty and democracy places it in a role as an “evangelist” this is then tied to sibling philosophies of Manifest Destiny (the belief that America should “spread through the New World” and was the battle cry of the Jacksonian Democrats.  Combined with the Evangelical movement and it’s early days at the turn of the century it is a compelling back drop which also paints an ugly picture of those Jacksonian Democrats and the realities of the time, let’s just say if you were a Jew, Black, Asian or Irish Columbia would not have been a happy place for you.  The thing is, in 1912, these were the realities of the time.  You are Booker Dewitt, a veteran of the battle of Wounded Knee one of the more shameful chapters of American history.  You have fallen on bad times and you’re a man on a mission.  “Give us the girl, and wipe away the debt” is your mantra. 

It starts as a pretty straight forward “Recue the princess” plot… just you’re a gambling debt laden former Pinkerton detective/thug who’s trying to just get out from under whatever he’s under.  You find yourself in this Rockwell painting of a world but there’s puss under the surface of this shiny wound.  The Vox Populi are a workers movement, unlike the first BioShock which used Communism/Big Government as the boogieman Andrew Ryan was fighting Vox Populi are a group who’s goals seem noble enough.  Equality and fairness, but in fact are a segment of the Anarchist movement which was thriving and a major source of labour strife during the early part of the 20th century.  And this is where the BioShock games truly thrive; who could have thought a videogame could use American Exceptionalism, the Anarchist Movement, Quantum Physics, and Pinkerton detectives to tell a story let alone one with echos of current American politics in the same way the original BioShock.  This is what art and storytelling in gaming should strive towards, social commentary of a truly literate and meaningful way.

As the story unfolds, you build a rapport with Booker.  His running commentary gives us something we didn’t have in previous BioShock entries, a sense of character to our avatar.  Not just a running death machine that lets out a few grunts but someone we can sympathise with who doesn’t seem to quite know what he’s there for other than to get the girl and get to New York.  Soon after entering Columbia you notice it’s not like elsewhere in the world.  Vigors grant people exceptional power and upon meeting the young woman Elizabeth you find she has an even more exceptional power.  One to open “tears” in the fabric of space/time and if you pay attention to when you first meet her in combination with an earlier Barbershop song you’ll see one of the interesting clues, it’s almost like a Discworld gag about how some things just drift through the multiverse.  One of the first tears opened is to Paris, but a Paris with an interesting Cinema sign that any Star Wars fan worth their salts will immediately know is not quite right.

The story progresses with you and Elizabeth slowly forming a partnership, then a friendship, and finally a genuine affection for one another.  In a touching moment you even take the time to sing together if you pick up the guitar at the right time.  This makes her more than a plot element or a pet used to fetch health and bullets but a character you genuinely care for.  By the beginning of the third act I was truly desperate to save her, but I also was starting to see the patterns and I knew where this story was going but I had to continue it was that compelling because I wanted it to not be true.  Like the film 12 Monkeys I knew how this was going to end but I had to see it through to see if there would be some kind of last minute twist but mainly because I loved these characters so much I was there with them for the ride.  Whilst not as bleak as 12 Monkeys it’s pretty darn tragic at times and really has a gravitas few other games come close to.  The conclusion is a satisfying (if philosophically loaded) one that may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was like a Joss Whedon story it’s one that the players need, not the one they want and for an industry that’s build on sequels it was a pretty ballsy decision for the development team to make in how they ended it..  That being said how they will fold in the pending DLC is beyond me.  Messing with this story at this point would seem disrespectful but the lucky thing is when it comes to the multiverse and quantum mechanics there are always more dimensions to explore.  Let’s just hope it shies away from the ridiculous Evil George Washington that Assasin’s Creed 3 went for and does something more meaningful.

In conclusion, visually compelling and while not the most mechanically sound this is a game worth
owning and even more importantly worth playing more than once.  There are layers plummed, there are echos of some of the finest sci-fi ever written with characters that are interesting and nuanced and you can even feel pity for and find yourself sympathising with people even as you hate them for what they’ve done.  Added to this are your own pair of cats who walk through walls, just of a very Cheshire nature a compelling mix of story, gameplay and art that makes every second a pleasure.  One recommendation though, when you do play it makes sure to sit through the credits.  There are more than a few treats to behold for the ear and the eye.  And any game where you get to watch a Gatling gun wielding robot Lincoln fight a Gatling gun wielding robot Washington is too cool for school.

~ Matt Ardill