Saturday, December 19, 2009

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul (comics)

Writers: Grant Morrison, Paul Dini, Peter Milligan, Fabian Necieza
Artists: Tony Daniel, Ryan Benjamin, Freddie Williams II, Don Kramer
Collects: Batman #670-671, Batman Annual #26, Robin #168-169, pages of Robin Annual #7, Nightwing #138-139, Detective Comics 838-839

"Too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the soup."

If you've been out of the womb for more than ten minutes then you've probably heard that one. It's a very common saying, but it's common for a reason; eighty percent of the time it's spot on. This goes for comics too. Especially crossovers. In fairness, it's possible to buck the trend, as Batman himself has had several well done crossovers.

This is not one of them.

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul is a story that is pretty much summed up by it's name; Ra's Al Ghul is dead, but he got better. It was a story that was almost inevitable. After all, refusing to die is pretty much Ra's entire deal. Still, inevitable doesn't mean it will be good, but this story had every reason to succeed; after all, it's headed up by crazed Scottish genius Grant Morrison and Paul Dini, who was regular writer of Batman: The Animated Series.

But those two aren't the only writers involved; and therein lies the problem.

After a couple of prologue chapters - the first of which being pretty decent while the material from the Robin annual being just awful - the story kicks into high gear with the actual prologue issue, written by Grant Morrison. In a brilliant move, Grant skips the resurrection entirely; when the story kicks off, Ra's is already alive, though decaying, and wants to take over Damians body. Obviously, the lovable little bastard has a few issues with that. It's a pretty quick moving prologue that sets the stage nicely for something that could just be great.

Then we get to the next issue - a Robin issue - and it all goes to hell.

This crossover fails in large part because of the Robin and Nightwing issues. Most of them end up embroiled in a subplot where Robin contemplates using the Lazarus pits to bring his dead friends and family back to life. We've been to that well who the hell knows how many times before and in this story it simply comes across as a tedious way of bringing in the Robin and Nightwing ongoings into the crossover for old times sake. Any scenes from those issues worth the time involves - surprise, surprise - Ra's and Batman, while said subplot succeeds in doing little more than breaking up the flow of the story.

Really, this crossover brought up a problem that I wasn't surprised cropped up but was still dismayed to see. Such being that aside from Grant and to some small extent Paul Dini, no one involved in the writing actually understood the character of Damian at the time of publication. It's not entirely their fault - when this was serialized it was only the second real story with Damian - but the other two main writers miss the point of him completely. Under Grants pen, Damian is a spoiled heir to the Batman dynasty who can be a prick, but carries some semblance of his fathers goodness in him, just desperately needing the guiding hand to help him. A mini-Batman, really, with intense loyalty to his father, whom he strives to take after. Under Milligan and Nicieza, however, he's depicted as little more than a spoiled prick with no redeeming qualities whom golden boys Dick and Tim have to pull out of the fire numerous times while lamenting that the world would probably be better off without him.

The Batman and Detective issues, however, are what convince me that this crossover could have been great. They're chock full of great moments, especially in Grants chapters. Mostly spotlit on Batman and Ra's, these issues display the respect between the two better than any of the others seemed to. The fight between Batman and Sensei in Batman was also something else. The idea of a two minute master of combat is nigh genius, as is the revelation of the tie's between Ra's and Sensei. Grant chapters are the best of the bunch and are where you get the sense that there really were good ideas buried by the other chapters. Dini's chapters are a bit spottier, but he still manages to keep up a decent pace with Grant, even if he doesn't completely understand Damian himself. Had the Robin and Nightwing titles not been involved, I really believe this story could have worked.

However, story problems aren't all of the stories worries; the art pretty much kicks any remaining value out of it.

The best artist of the bunch is Tony Daniel, without question. I've pretty much followed his work over the course of his Teen Titans run, watching him improve. This was his first work with Grant Morrison and while the art wasn't perfect, the improvement can be seen here too. If nothing else, his work was the cleanest and easiest to look at, leaving me satisfied and looking forward to see him improve even more over time.

Everyone else pretty much just drags his work down. The worst of all the artists involved is easily the work of Ryan Benjamin. His work is craggly and unappealing, with odd choices to display motion as well as broken storytelling. His work is a stark, unappealing contrast to the work of Tony Daniel, so much so that such art really had no business being used in conjunction with an artist with such a strikingly different style.

The other artists are far more competant, but each of them carries a style that they do not even try to mesh with the rest. Every chapter has a drastic shift in art, jarring you out of the story like an icy slap in the face. The worst of all seems to be the depiction of zombie Ra's; no one save Tony Daniel seems to have a clear vision for what zombified Ra's should look like, from fat and chunky to one with a face not even resembling Ra's. It's appalling and a textbook example of how not to do the art in a crossover; it's like the various artists didn't even try to mesh with one another or follow each other's lead.

Which again brings me back to how bloated this crossover feels. Give Don Kramer to Dini's issues, cut out Robin and Nightwing completely then add an extra issue of Batman and Detective each and this could have worked. As it stands, this crossover feels like a bunch of other writers ruining Morrison and Dini's good time, to say nothing of the artists who simply can't keep up.

Had this been only Morrison and Dini's show, I think this could really have been a fun story. As it is it's inherently skippable; thankfully - aside from the appearance of Damian and a mention of the ritual Bruce underwent in 52 - this story has little relation and no bearing on Grant Morrison's overall Batman run. The scene where Batman rips Sensei's staff out of his side and nails him with it was awesome enough that I didn't feel like I completely wasted my cash, but I doubt the few moments of that excellence will do the same for you. Don't waste your money.

My Opinion: Skip It

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mirrors Edge (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3, PC
Developers: EA DICE
Genre: First Person Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: November 12th, 2008

This game reeled me in on premise alone. I'll admit to anyone who asks that I'm something of a sucker for Cyberpunk - Blade Runner is easily one of my all time favorite films, and let's not even get into the work of the man who inspired it, Phillip K. Dick - and this game is definitely playing with some of the trappings. So I checked it out.

Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed; but it has to be said that it wasn't an entirely smooth ride.

What initially got me to try the game - the story - is ultimately where the game finds some of it's faults, which I'll get into later. You play as Faith, a runner in the utopian city. Runners are basically what you might expect; your modern day message courier delivering messages the old fashioned way. Any other way is monitored by the cities government, meaning any attempts to organize any sort of rebellion in the modern ways is little more than a good way to get yourself caught. Suddenly, the cops begin actively pursuing runners - whom they'd mostly left alone - with guns blazing. Faith's sister is framed for murder and before you know it Faith is in hot water too, trying to escape capture and figure out the conspiracy at work. It's pretty distinctly cyberpunk in a lot of ways; you'll recognize the oppressive government, a clean, future-esque city, overzealous government monitoring folks and common citizens rebelling against this oppresive regime in the only way they know how.

The graphics are clean and crisp. The city really does look futuristic in it's own way. You're not going to see any major technology leaps beyond what we have today - you're not going to be seeing any flying cars, for instance - but the city itself looks unnaturally bright and clean. So colorful and eye-popping that the city looks as artificial as you know it is below the surface. Everything looks smooth and there were few to no glitches in the game graphically. The game simply looks pretty, without a shadow of a doubt.

The sound is give or take, however. You can hear Faith panting and grunting as well as the sounds of the city quite clearly. Voice acting is perfectly fine and inoffensive to the ears. But music-wise the game doesn't have a lot to offer. Quite a bit boils down to variations of the main theme, muted mood music or no music at all. It's rather telling to me that as I write this review up, I can barely even recall any of what I heard; that's not a good sign of a great soundtrack at all.

Controls are great. The general scheme takes some getting used to - whenever any game takes the jump action off one of the face buttons I'm thrown for a loop for at least ten minutes - but the learning curve is far from steep; once you get the hang of it, which should take no longer than the tutorial, pulling off even advanced moves slowly begins to become second nature. Everything is responsive and tight, allowing you to pull off sweet moves with the right timing and find quicker ways to a goal than you might have thought possible. "Running" never really gets old in this game, which is a signal to me that what they've got works.

If the game has shortcomings, it lies in the story. The general job of the runners - transferring messages by hand - is literally all but forgotten directly after the prologue level wraps, barely to be more than referenced again. Also, the general naivety of the principal characters is somewhat off-putting. It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out why the police might suddenly start opening fire on runners - yeah, a totalitarian government is really going to allow people to actively resist it forever - yet it seems like a great big mystery to the characters, whom can't seem to put two and two together. The same thing goes for the framing. It's not much of a secret conspiracy if the folks at home can guess the gist of what's going on by the end of the first real mission. Also, many of the side characters are cookie cutter; you can pretty much tell who the backstabbers are as soon as you meet them and anyone without that sort of importance to the story are around for short bits before being dispatched.

Adding insult to injury, the game literally ends when things have finally progressed to a point where everything has gotten interesting; this is the kind of thing that absolutely pissed me off with the PS2/X-Box generations BLACK and the annoyance for such things hasn't lessened in the meantime.

Then there are the cut scenes. This one's kind of baffling. For story related bits between levels, the game switches over the simplistic anime cutscenes to tell it's story. It's a pretty jarring transition; the in-game graphics don't even look remotely like the 2D animation used. I'm not sure why this was chosen; the in-game engine and graphics are just fine, so why isn't that being used? It simply sticks out as something that should not have been.

On top of that, this game is impossibly short. There are only nine actual levels, not including the prologue. Most of the levels aren't really all that long either, especially when you're perpetually moving forward as you do in this game. The first playthrough can literally be finished in an afternoon. Obviously, this isn't an RPG, but a game with a length like that just shouldn't happen; this isn't the days of the Sega Genesis, where games of that sort of length for full price were perfectly fine.

For any normal game, the length would have killed it; but there are plenty of things that save this game. It's actually nice to have the "level" structure of old back; in an age where everything is free roam these days, it's a welcome change that I didn't realize I'd missed until I played this. Why this is important is that much of the games best parts outside of the story rely on distinctly old fashioned fun.

Speed runs in particular are a pillar that this game celebrates. One of the modes outside of the story is, well, speed run. Basically, you pick a story level and you use every trick you've learned to blaze through it as fast as possible, aiming to finish under a target time. I'd forgotten how ridiculously fun this sort of thing can be; the addition of leaderboards - a common and usually insignificant thing in most games these days - hits home an old school, arcade feel that is often missing from todays games. The same thing goes for the "Time Trials", which are small sections of the games stages with goals attached. The fun that can be gleaned from these modes cannot be understated; the old fashioned desire to beat your own score or a friends score really extends the life of an otherwise short game.

The reason these modes - and the story too, in fact - can also lie in the level design. Truth be told, the game is somewhat linear; sometimes there's no choice in path to take and you're always running towards the same goal. However, the structure of the game makes everything feel a lot freer than it should. While you're always going towards the same goal, each level is like a giant parkour playground; the ways to get there feel more plentiful than they are thanks to vaults, jumps, ziplines and walls everywhere that can springboard you towards these goals in new and sometimes faster ways. You rarely have time to consider linearity or even recognize it.

One other thing I appreciated was the lack of emphasis on guns. Let's face it; we're overflowing with First Person Shooters. You can't fire a nine millimeter in a game shop without hitting the latest First Person gorefest. Thankfully, this game is not about that. If anything, disarming and using the guns your enemies take is somewhat discouraged. With almost any gun aside from a pistol or an SMG, your movement is limited and you cannot do most of your parkour tricks that get you out of the jams you find yourself in. This is not a shooter and the game really plays that up in it's basic structure; it really helps the game feel fresh in a game market overflowing with first person games.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

This game has a lot of potential. It seems to be set up as a new franchise and I truly hope that's the case. This game is held back by it's shortcomings, but there's plenty there to build upon in a sequel. The core mechanics are there and there's a framework for success, it just needs a lot of polish and thought. Hopefully a sequel releases and can take advantage of the promise inherent. Recommended for a rental at the least; if you can get it for a bargin though, it's worth the money.