Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Batman #700 review

Alright, so Batman #700. As you may or may not know, I'm not a single issue reader. I'm a trade man. I rarely make it to the comic shop. Usually only on special occasions. But this is a special issue, so it warranted a special trip to the shop. Also, it necessitates a review.

Let me tell you, Batman #700 is a goddamn trip and for me was a perfect celebration of the hero I've worshiped since childhood.

First off, let me tell you that I appreciated the structure of this anniversary issue greatly. Many milestone issues have a usual structure that you can pretty much set your clock by. Often there's a lead story that takes up a good three quarter of the pages, several couple-pages-a-pop stories from different creative teams plus bonus material in the back. For the most part, Grant Morrisons Batman #700 bucks that trend. While the back extras are there - some cool art from different artists along with a several page in depth look at the Bat cave - Morrison handles the entire story from start to finish, split up into three main chapters and a small extra one that each represent a different era of Batman. This is great, as Morrison hits many of the notes you might normally see in an anniversary ish in his main story.

The story itself is a bit more simple than many Morrison tales, and yet it's not. The story is a mix of murder mystery, generations and a hint of time travel. We start in the Silver Age trappings - Bruce as Bats, Dick as Robin and Joker as his goofier Silver Age self - hit the present - Dick and Damian in the respective roles - and finish in the apocalyptic future Gotham of Damian Wayne's Batman, with the connective tissue being the central mystery that unfolds in each time. There's nothing else that needs to be read to understand this story; the only link to current continuity is a mention of Dick and Damian looking for hints to find Bruce Wayne. It's a standalone story with everything you need to know in it's pages.

In this way, Grant Morrison really celebrates Batman and the legacy. Carried through different iterations of Batman, we get a sense of the history behind the cowl. But the final few pages are what really drive it home. To tell you what they are would spoil them - and I'm not even going to mention the joy inducing element of the Damian Wayne Batman chapter - but what it says about Batman is powerful.

In one story, Batman is boiled down and we come away with one message; no matter what, there's always hope, because Batman lives forever.

Artistically, the book is great for the most part. Tony Daniel handles the Silver Age-ish chapter. In some ways, it's an odd fit; his work looks a bit modern for a Silver Age flashback story. But it's still good. Frank Quitely turns in fantastic art for the "Present" chapter. Andy Kubert returns to illustrate the future we glimpsed on Batman #666, turning in some nice work as well. Finally, David Finch finishes the issue, illustrating the "... And Tomorrow" chapter. It's great stuff and the chapter breaks cleanly allow the shift to the different art styles for each chapter.

To say it's a total homerun is a bit misleading though. Unfortunately, it seems Frank Quitely couldn't finish three or so pages in time. So the last couple pages of the "Present" chapter is filled in by Scott Kollins. Usually his work is good - and here he takes on an interesting painterly style for those last few pages - but it's jarringly different from the rest of the chapters art. I imagine it's going to be jarring for some people. The ball was definitely dropped here; it's a small blemish on something otherwise excellent. Thankfully, everything else is awesome enough to forgive it.

The extra stuff at the back is nice as well. For the money, we get a bunch of different Batman drawings by all sorts of artists; an interesting and eclectic assortment to be certain. There's also several pages showing an in depth look at the current Bat cave handled by Freddie Williams II. Not Earth shattering stuff, but some cool stuff to look at after the main story.

All in all, I'd call this anniversary issue a success. It truly felt to me like a celebration of things that make Batman among the greatest fictional heroes of all time. In the past, some of Batman's anniversary issues have been tied into other things - #500 had Jean Paul Valley under the cowl while #600 was a part of that long running Fugitive storyline - but this one is great and truly standalone. Grant Morrison does it again, to no surprise of mine.

As cliche or corny as it may be to say this, here's to seven hundred more.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Op/Ed: DC and the Legacy Concept need a divorce

You know, once upon a time, I actually used to think the legacy concept was pretty cool. A highlight of DC. New, younger characters take on the mantles of the old one and attempt to bring their legacy to new places. That a company seemingly based itself around it kind of pleased me. I'd be like some other fans; bringing it up whenever I list what I liked about the DC Universe.

Kind of funny how your opinion can change over the course of a year or two.

DC's seen quite a bit of restoration lately of the best known iterations of it's heroes. Hal Jordan seems to be the one that ramped it into high gear. Now we have Barry Allen back as well, once one of the untouchables in the dead pool. Ray Palmer's even back as the Atom; of course, DC stupidly killed off replacement Ryan Choi, which unsurprisingly set the internet off yet again. Legacy doesn't seem quite so important now, does it? Despite, of course, the fact that DC still uses the damn word left and right in just about any press release. They've even got a damn book out called "DC: Legacies".

It needs to stop.

The legacy concept is really nothing more than a smokescreen, but no one seems to realize it. When you strip it down to it's essence, it's a buzzword mostly used as a differentiater from Marvel and their more "grounded" approach. Does the legacy concept really mean that much to DC? It might, but the company needs to realize something we all should. The legacy concept is nothing more than a short term boon that causes grave complications down the road.

Let's look at it from the ground first. On paper, the idea sounds good. A universe of heroes where the mantles are passed down amongst a line of heroes who become a part of it's legacy. Sounds good right? In a finite story it would be. Like all things that sound good on paper, when you put it into practice, the problems start.

Replacing a hero is tricky business. Right from the start you're causing problems. When you replace a hero with a new, shinier version, you are going to piss someone off. I'm sorry. It's going to happen. Not an issue when you deal with lower tier heroes like Blue Beetle - hell, Jamie's probably better known and more popular than Ted Kord ever was - but doing it to the bigger heroes is nothing but trouble. Even if the character takes off - take Kyle Rayner, for example, who is a relatively popular hero in the Green Lantern mythos - you're still angering a great many others to do it. We'll stay out of the circumstances surrounding Kyle's introduction, since that's a whole 'nother powderkeg.

In truth, when you do that, you've placed a time limit on how long they can carry that title. Is it really a mystery why DC has gone back to the most recognizable versions of their heroes? I don't think so. I mean, who really gives a goddamn about Conner Hawke aside from a small group of people? What about the most recent Firestorm? The only complaint I ever hear about him being dropped back in the equation is that now it's no longer someone with ethnicity; and while I'm all for a more diverse DCU, if that's the main reason people don't want him shunted off, I find it kind of dumb.

DC doesn't seem to get that replacing the most recognizable version with a new guy just never really works out. The most recognizable and successful shift that they ever did was with Wally West becoming the Flash and it took a defining run by Mark Waid to really cement it. Surprise surprise, here comes Barry Allen back. The worst part? It just undermines the last bit of credibility the legacy concept had in the DCU. The only change that stuck? The switchover from Barry to Wally. The Flash was the only true legacy of the DC universe; now that it's reverted, it's hard not to see the concept as a joke.

On top of that, a lot of the replacements are inferior characters. Sure, you've got your Jamie Reyes, but for every one of him there's a Conner Hawke, a whoever-the-post-OYL-Aquaman-was and a Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel/Shazam. Even if they're not, they've got the unfortunate distinction of riding on the coat-tails of the previous one. What's the number one story you can do with a new hero in an old mantle? Trying to live up to the legacy of the old one. After that, unless you've radically changed the concept and made a new world surrounding them, it's someone else playing with the previous guys toys and it's rarely ever as good. Then the old guy inevitably comes back and just what the hell do you do with the replacement? Kill him? Limbo? Both options will piss off the fans the replacement does have. See Wally West at the moment; DC seems to have no freaking clue what to do with him right now. Give him a new identity? Not going to please his fans. They see him as the Flash and think it's his rightful title. Give him the Flash title? Well, then what can you do to possibly please Barry Allen fans?

All this ends up causing strife in the fanbase. Sure, we all love Kyle Rayner. Hence why a lot of folks did not want Hal back. But then there are just as many, if not more, who did want Hal Jordan back. Don't they have as much right to want the old guy back? But then what about the new guy? Which leads to "which one is better", which leads to bitterness, fan entitlement, arguments and anguish all around. All to give somebody elses gimmick to someone new. You don't see things like wrestling pull this crap for good reason; could anyone really stand an argument about which is the better Rock or Stone Cold? Imagine trying to give a new guy the Hulk Hogan name and gimmick.

It's a useless move, on top of all that. How many of DC's huge stars were born of legacies? You could say two if you wanted to go the Green Lantern and Flash argument, but they did not replace; Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were a radical shift of the concept to the point where the only real similarities were basic powers and a name. Besides which, the originals are still around. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow and so on were not born of legacies. So where's the benefit here? Instead of creating new characters - which admittedly would have to sink or swim - DC replaces old ones with new characters for the quick benefit of name recognition. Please tell me someone other than me sees this as retarded.

Then there's the point where you put established heroes under another persons identity. That just makes things even worse. Now not only have you replaced the old guy, but you've put on the back burner the mythos surrounding the replacement in his other identity. Cool for the short term, but eventually you're doing nothing more than deliberately not using the toys you've created. See Dick Grayson currently as Batman; keep him under the cowl and everything built in the twenty years under the Nightwing identity is put on the back burner, because it has no place in the Batman trappings. But ahh, then you have the problem of "someone else playing in another dudes world". Not really a wonder that Grant Morrison took the "change the entire feel and create new stuff" route for his story of Dick filling in for Batman, but even that can't sustain forever without keeping valuable toys in the toybox.

Then multiply all that by the fact that this "generational" BS causes aging problems with the heroes that aren't replaced and you may as well just shoot yourself in the foot with a gun and save yourself the trouble.

I understand why DC tries this. Really, I do. It's not easy to get new characters to work in comics. Call them small minded if you will - I certainly have a low opinion of fans in general - but they're not likely to outright buy into new characters. It takes a good amount of luck and exposure to hit the right note and it's never guaranteed. With putting someone new under an established identity, it brings instant cred and recognizability to build them with. You've got a much better chance of surviving and being fleshed out under an established property than you do on your own. But it just doesn't work.

In the past twenty years, how many great new characters have been created? Not many, right? Most of the great ones were put under established identities. Where are they now? Kyle Rayner lucked out; the Green Lantern Corps is a concept that allows for several Green Lanterns. Guys like Conner Hawke and Ryan Choi aren't that lucky. Then the old guys come back and what are you left with? Supporting cast at best. Not new heroes. The safe bet of the "legacy" produces horrid results if we want to face facts. Throwing new heroes out there may be a calculated risk, but when it pays off, if pays off big; when you stick with a legacy, you may get some recognition for the characters, but you guarantee yourself problems down the road unless the original character under the cowl was forgettable or just a bad character.

To sum it up, DC and "legacies" need a divorce. Over time I've slowly come to realize just what a spiderweb of bullcrap the very concept spins. I now honestly feel it has little place in most superhero concepts. Just think, this concept has dominated comics in a way since that dreaded, horrid age we call the 90's. Worked out great, dinnit?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, Playstation 3
Developer: Rockstar North
Genre: Sandbox Action-Adventure
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: April 29th, 2008

It's been rated ten out of ten by many magazines across the board. Critically, it's acclaimed; I've seen some people call it 2008's perfect game. As usual, Rockstar created a firestorm among the gaming populous.

With that in mind, it has to be said; Grand Theft Auto IV may be the most over-rated game in years.

I realize that's a lofty statement to make in the very first paragraph, but it's not a conclusion I came to lightly. I played Grand Theft Auto from as far back as before it hit 3D with the third installment. Needless to say I'm a fan. But the Grand Theft Auto franchise is synonymous with top notch quality; so when it disappoints, it disappoints big.

None of this is to say that the game is bad. But the franchise may well be it's own worst enemy. The last full installment of the franchise was San Andreas, which is without a doubt the pinnicle of the franchise thus far. The games have gotten progressively better over time. So with that, you expect each installment to top the last. Grand Theft Auto IV just doesn't manage, falling short of the lofty heights the franchise achieved with San Andreas.

To start with the good, it must be said that Grand Theft Auto IV contains one of Rockstars most fully realized stories to date. It's probably the best one so far as well; only San Andreas can really measure up, but I felt that in this respect, IV reigned supreme. You follow Niko Bellic, an immigrant into Liberty City relatively fresh from horrifying experiences in war. He's looking for something and he may not be entirely sure what it is himself, be it a fresh start, achieving the American Dream, escaping his past or maybe to simply settle his past outright. Niko feels relatively real as a character; he's conflicted, the things he ends up doing in Liberty City weighing on his conscience, which is a marked contrast to previous protagonists. He wants to make ends meet alongside his goofy cousin but always seems pulled into the seedier elements of the city. To put it simply, the story feels very human in a way previous games did not and in this respect the game is something of a triumph. Rockstar also delivers their usual cast of memorable characters that you won't soon forget.

Graphics are good, but not great. Perhaps it's just me, but the game did not look as sharp as I had hoped it would. It's not a huge issue, however; it's still leaps and bounds past San Andreas in this department. Also, Liberty City truly is lovingly based on New York City. The detail in the city in comparison to the real thing is awe-inspiring and at times almost eerie. There should be a lot of props given for the attention to detail given.

The sound is great, as always. Voice acting works very well, as expected. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of real life music across it's many radio stations, as is common with the series, from ZZ Top to Bob Marley, so there's always something to listen to that might suit your taste. The talk show stations are back, including Lazlow and are suitably amusing.

How the game plays is pretty much how it always has, but with improvements. Driving and aiming are on the triggers now though. Perhaps the biggest improvement in the area of gameplay is the gunplay. Whereas in previous games it was at times cumbersome, it's gotten something of an overhaul in this one. Stick sensitivity is used for aiming to great results; now, when you lock on to an enemy you can use the right stick to fine tune to specific body parts while a hard flick or press in a direction will cycle to the closest enemy in that direction. This leaves it so that if you get good enough you'll be headshotting fools left and right; a very useful ability in later missions in the game. Other minor improvements stick out as well; you can now free-aim while driving in cars, tires will actually rip off the rims when shot out and it's a good idea not to collide with most things at top speed anymore, because you will go flying out the windshield now when that happens. On top of that is a taxi system that will allow you to zoom to a destination instantly.

Instead of a pager or an uncontrollable cellphone, in game messages now center around an in-game cellphone that you have full control over this time, which is another welcome addition. This brings along a massive improvement in replaying missions after you die; no longer will you need to hit the marker again, trip skip or whatever thing was done in the past. After you die, you immediately get a text message asking if you want to try again; confirm and bam, mission engaged. The cell phone can also be used to call cops or paramedics to your immediate area via 911, which is useful for obvious reasons. On top of that, the cell phone allows you to keep track of all the friends and dates in the game; hanging out with them is as simple as getting a phone call to set it up, or you could just buzz up a character to talk, about recent missions or otherwise. Hanging out with friends opens up a bunch of activities, from bowling to pool to playing darts, all fun in their own right. There's also an in-game internet system now that's good for some chuckles, with the usual Rockstar parody of social issues and the media.

In other words, the core experience has received some very welcome very needed and long overdue revisions to improve things; but sadly, the core experience is where the improvements end, as too many small things wrong add up elsewhere.

As I earlier praised the story for being probably the best in the franchise so far, it's not without it's failures. Some plot points are dropped to some degree as the game goes on. Some are minor and usually on purpose, but there's one very late in the game that practically slaps you in the face. A character is introduced early in the game as significant to Niko's past and the character makes Niko's life hell. But before the end of the game, this character and the plot points he represents simply vanish from the game entirely. Most of Niko's story in the game involves his past and his attempts to both put it to rest and wrestle it out, so to have a decent part of it introduced and not concluded is just sloppy.

As far as the gameplay itself goes, the story also somewhat hampers it. The plot is such a street level, low fish in the pond story of crime that it presents something of a glass ceiling. The more outrageous and fun elements of past GTA's have no part because of it and mission variety plummets to a absolute minimum. Missions now tend to boil down to going to someplace and killing folks, chasing someone down, retrieving something or some combination of them with a variable or two. Unlike previous games, rarely is something new thrown into the mix, so it gets very old, very, very fast. Halfway through the game, some missions can simply get outright boring.

Worse still, much from past games have been removed outright. A short list of things removed entirely are planes (helicopters are still present), parachuting, the stat's system from San Andreas, owning property, types of vehicles are halved and many of the special, more outlandish vehicles from past games are gone. Clothing options are carved down to a paltry amount, choosing different fighting styles is another culled option, the RPG style system for upgrading proficiency in things like weapons, burglery, car modification and gang warfare/territory dynamic are all gone. Oh, and Rampages are absent entirely. This is only what I can remember. The amount of features from past games that are missing is both staggering and horrifying. To this end, Liberty City at times feels somewhat dull and devoid of fun; there can be so little to see and do anymore that it feels like the franchise has taken a massive step backwards to the GTA III level, maybe even further. If this were simply a case of "cutting the fat" it would be one thing, but there is way too much lost in transition.

On top of that, a lot of what remains is neutered. The side jobs that were around in past games are also reduced in number; the paramedic and firefighter missions in particular are nowhere to be seen. The ones that remain carry little incentive to bother with. Whereas there were rewards for going the distance with side jobs - things like weapons in the safehouse, upgraded health, upgraded armor capacity and so on - you receive absolutely nothing for completing the side jobs this time. Just achievements. That's it. If you could care less about those there's little reason to bother with most side activities aside from some cash, which you'll get more than enough of once the missions get a head of steam.

Speaking of which, with many of the downgrades, money becomes as useless as it was in GTA III, where it wasn't much more than a glorified score counter. There's next to nothing to buy with it except guns, ammo, food, cab rides and hookers. It may as well amount to a score, because it serves little purpose otherwise. All of which I just mentioned in the past few paragraphs are just the subtractions I can remember. If I were to go back through and check for other things the game lost in transition - not to mention small things it does wrong - we could be here all night.

It may seem unfair to compare the game so heavily to other games, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Grand Theft Auto is a premiere franchise with high expectations. When the game offers as little as a typical GTA clone when the franchise often took leaps forward in the past, it's damn noticeable. Even just sticking to the franchise itself, there hasn't been as little to do since Grand Theft Auto III; and even that features things this game didn't.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mentioned that the franchises long time annoyance - graphical pop-up - is still around. It's not quite as bad as in the past, but as always if you go too fast the texture will be gone from the surroundings for a couple seconds. It's been seven years, a full console generation and four games since Grand Theft Auto jumped to 3D. That this is still not under control after all that time seems outright insane.

This game made me feel massive disappointment. Seriously, I often enjoy games despite their flaws and I'm much kinder to some games than some of my friends. I rarely feel the kind of disappointment and boredom this game brought. From Rockstar no less. What the hell happened?

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

The basics are there, but at heart, Grand Theft Auto IV just doesn't cut it. Compared to the past games in the franchise, it falls so far short that it's maddening. But it's not a bad game. There's still enjoyment to be had, but it may take warming up to; I personally lost interest in the game the first time or two I'd played it before finally getting in a groove with it. Recommended, but with the added note not to expect the heights the franchise has achieved in the past; if you do, you're bound to walk away very disappointed. Grand Theft Auto IV just does not live up to the standards the franchise itself set in the past.