Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mighty Avengers: Secret Invasion Book One

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Alex Maleev, Khoi Pham, John Romita Jr.
Collects: Mighty Avengers #12-15

So, yeah. Secret Invasion. Kinda sucked, sad to say. So what the hell am I doing reading a tie-in? Curiosity, mostly. The bulk of Secret Invasions intrigue had to do with who was a Skrull and when they had replaced the real McCoy. The main series offered almost none of that, so what the hell. May as well read a tie-in volume and see if the whole thing could have been as interesting as I thought, right?

This is the first of two Secret Invasion tie-in volumes for Mighty Avengers. Collects four of the eight tie-in issues. Why only four? Well, if they did the whole eight, they wouldn't be able to milk the consumer for another fifteen bucks SRP, now would they?

The tie-ins are kind of scatter-shot, it seems. They jump around a lot and don't offer any kind of continuous narrative. It's more a snapshot of different characters leading up to Secret Invasion, basically showing in detail how folks were abducted, when and why. As such, much of it is very continuity heavy. If you haven't really kept up with Marvel around this time, you're not going to get a lot out of this; it seems to assume you've been reading a lot of Marvel comics, looking for clues.

The first two issues collected here follow Nick Fury from his disappearance post Secret Wars on. It's really the best story of the volume; and I enjoyed it more than I did Secret Invasion itself, which ended up being a giant extended fight and little else. We see Fury catch wind of the invasion long before the heroes did, quickly settling in to save the world yet again. We see the start of the Caterpillars - who are part of the Secret Warriors series - and even get a playful jab or two at Samuel Jacks-I mean Ultimate Nick Fury.

The only thing wrong with it is that it feels less like a direct tie-in and more a proper prequel to the invasion itself or at least the start of one, seeing as it's two issues here. Perhaps it would have been better served as an actual prequel mini? Or maybe not, I dunno; after all, Fury and his troops ended up being little more than several more bodies in the fray of Secret Invasion anyways. The event should have just been about Nick Fury going undercover and turning back the invasion before the other heroes even knew what the deal was. That probably wouldn't have sold as much though.

These two issues sees Bendis work with one of his best collaborators - and the favorite of many fans - Alex Maleev. His art is dirty and grimy, which is really best suited for crime comics. Thankfully, this story fits right in his wheelhouse. Removed from the colorful superheroics, this story is a bit darker and more street level. Maleev does good work, though it's not entirely my favorite stuff.

The next issue is a one-off about what the Skrulls want to do about the Sentry, which amounts to "shift into the Void and the dude will totally freak". It feels like a waste of an issue to me. It's understandable that the Skrulls would be concerned about Captain Overpowered Schizo, but Secret Invasion made it clear enough that the Skrulls had tricked Sentry - being the easily manipulated wreck he is - without a whole issue dedicated to Skrulls standing around going "dude, we should totally tweak the headcase".

Khoi Pham does the art and it's rather respectable. Nothing spectacular though. Some of his faces are just way too funny, though they're clearly not intended to be. Sentry's "NOOOOO" face late in the issue is just too much.

Rounding out this thin volume is a whole issue dedicated to how the Skrulls totally roped in Hank Pym, got him out of the way and replaced him. We get the gist of his life as it went wrong before the switch - his wife's a drunkard and then leaves him when he gets irritated because she won't take her drunk ass to bed and sleep it off - and then he cheats on The Drunken Wasp with some blond university student. Pym's clearly kind of a sleaze; that or he's a moron who doesn't exactly seem to understand that cheating on the boozer is probably not the best reaction. I won't spoil how he's replaced, but come on, you've probably figured it out by this point in the description.

JRjr. does the art. He seems to be rather polarizing, but I like what I saw here. It's just a shame there isn't much for him to work with here. It's very much a talky issue with only a quick bit of action late in the book; Pym goes down like a wuss before anything interesting can happen.

Here's the problem. While the first two issues are fine, the second two don't work quite as well. They're exactly what I feared we'd get when it became clear the flashbacks would be separate from the main story. They're padded as all get out to fill twenty two pages, all based around continuity minutia and how so-and-so got jacked. There's a lot in the latter two issues that could have been a part of Secret Invasion proper and compressed down to a couple of panels; instead, they take one very minor cog and throw a full issue behind it.

What we're left with is a feeling that a lot of nothing happened with a few little nuggets of gold buried within. I genuinely like the Nick Fury half of this volume - though I've got no clue how much more of it there is - but the other stuff feels like it's been ruined by circumstance. Still, all of it held my attention. I'm not sure how I feel about all of this, because I've got issues with the book and yet I actually feel like I got more out of it than Secret Invasion itself. Yet again, there's the feeling that Bendis might have had a great story on his hands had the crucial elements not been scattered to the four winds.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Okay, but only half of this volume feels genuinely good on its own merits. More evidence Bendis had a grand plan in mind that I genuinely wish had worked out. I really enjoyed the Fury stuff, but I'm not sure it's worth buying this for.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (comics)

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Andy Kubert
Collects: Batman #685, Detective Comics #852 plus Gaiman penned stories from Secret Origins #36, Secret Origins Special #1 and Batman: Black and White #2

I imagine that if there's one thing comic fans - myself included - never thought they'd see, it's a counterpart to Alan Moore's Superman story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow". Love it or hate it, that work is considered one of the seminal Superman stories, so that's a tough pedigree to live up to and you'd think it would scare off most writers. But here it is; and I guess if you could get anyone to do such a story short of Alan Moore himself - which, you know, would never happen at this point - Neil Gaiman would be a pretty safe bet.

Batman is dead. To the surprise of few. Now his closest allies and fiercest villains gather at his funeral to swap stories of how the Caped Crusader died while the spirit of the man himself watches.

Gaiman isn't quite content to just ape Alan Moore. While Moore's story was something of a capstone to the Silver Age Superman - his last story, as it were - Gaiman takes a bit more timeless an approach. Everything is presented as the base ideals or concepts. It's not the literal death of the character, but the death and funeral of an iteration of Batman. It's every death of Batman in one. There isn't just one version of any character attending either; in some pages, you might spot two Jokers. All there to tell a story about the death of a Batman.

Gaiman himself notes in the foreword that this is his final Batman story, or how he would end it if this were truly to be the last Batman story. But the message of Gaimans "last Batman story" is clear. There is no final Batman story, because Batman lives forever.

It's fitting, not just because that's a point Grant Morrison had been hammering home in the regular stories at the time, but also because there's never really an end to characters like Batman. Someone always picks up the pen and tells a new tale. Even histories great characters no longer under corporate ownership - where they're sometimes brought back if only to keep copyright going - find their way into new adventures. See Dracula, for an example. One way or another, the characters are reborn, or see new life. Batman can stand among these characters, these larger than life rich fictional myths, so it feels right that the final Batman story is that there is no final Batman story.

There's still some interpretation left to the reader, though. Is the tale also an allegory for the cycles of rebirth and reinterpretation the character has gone through? In some ways, is it a musing on the nature of stories in general? A commentary on how every person has a way of telling a story, writ large? Or are we simply thinking too much about it and it's just a loving homage to a character that's lasted well over seventy years of continuous publication? It could be any of those things, or maybe not.

So overall, what Neil Gaimans written is a story that has a timeless feel. Perhaps one of an instant classic, maybe? When it's all said and done, the story doesn't vastly change how you'll look at the character or rock your world. But it feels enduring, like something that will stand the test of time. So perhaps naming it after the Alan Moore story wasn't a folly after all. It feels like something that will hold up in a similar way, relevance be damned.

If I have a problem with the story at all, it's that I felt it would have been nice to see more of the tales told of Batmans death, but that strikes me as nitpicking.

While I've given all this praise to Neil Gaiman, I have to talk some about Andy Kubert. I have my reservations. Even here, a couple panels feel a little too iffy for my liking, usually whenever we're zoomed out from a group of characters, which is a problem that cropped up in Batman & Son as well. But I am a fan of his Batman work. Aside from that problem, it feels like he's on another level here, beyond what he had already been doing.

Within, he actively apes the styles of classic Batman artists from the past, such as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang and Neal Adams to great effect. He doesn't quite achieve the chameleon effect of certain other top shelf artists, but his linework does a respectable job of it. To me, Andy Kubert fits with Batman like a glove and it makes me hope to see more of his work on the character in the future. It just works for me.

Some extra's round out the package, because the actual story was only two issues long and someone in the collected editions department clearly recognized that they needed a hell of a lot more than that to put out a hardcover or trade. These include pretty much every story Gaiman did with the Batman mythos, mostly concerning the villains. They're good reads - not sure if the Poison Ivy one or the Riddler one is my favorite of them - but not essential reading. That and I really don't think the art is the greatest for two of the three. Add some Andy Kubert sketches, stir briskly and viola.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Overall, this is a great read. I kind of wish it were a bit longer, but the short length works well for it. While not perfect, it's a fine package and well worth a purchase.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance (comics)

Writer: Joe Casey
Artists: ChrisCross, Eduardo Pansica
Collects: Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #1-6

Of the four aftermath miniseries, this was actually the one I gave a damn about prior to release. The other ones sounded okay, but Grant Morrison characters? Actually being used? That had my attention; if this was Marvel they would have faded to the background for years or have been retconned out with the majority of Morrisons work*.

The Super Young Team really are something else. Pop culture superhero wannabe's one and all, the group is like an amplified form of Booster Gold from his glory hog days. Always seeking fame, fortune and fabulousness, they're far from typical superheroes, initially doing it for more self absorbed reasons. Even their costumes are different, acting like a manner of cosplay gone horribly wrong, mostly mashing together ideas born of the American superheroes of DC.

Picking up from Final Crisis, the team seems to want to take superheroics seriously. Unfortunately for them, their fame is becoming something of a nuisance. Their publicist has them pushed from one flashy media event to another, often keeping them from the opportunity for real heroics, and there's literally no news whatsoever about the state of Japan after the crisis. They obviously need to find out what's going on, but make no mistake, they want to be fabulous while they do it.

Joe Casey does some interesting things here. One part I liked was how he relayed Most Excellent Superbats thoughts through a twitter feed. It makes a lot of sense, really; these heroes are on top of all trends and immersed in pop culture. That and the young tend to fancy themselves invincible and don't put too much thought into their actions online.

The writer also has the story staged as an opportunity for the team to prove themselves, in a way. We often see throughout the story that, despite their celebrity status, the Super Young Team aren't exactly taken seriously, even by their supposed fans. An older Japanese hero berates them, calling them a shame of their hero community, some partygoers more or less call them a bunch of nobodies. The Super Young Team actually want to be heroes now, but they're at a point where no one takes them seriously. It's a pretty good underdog setup mixed in with a bit of generational conflict.

Also of note is how the miniseries is structured. Casey decides to take a different route, making about half the mini almost like standalone adventures. Sure, there's the overarching plot that runs through the whole thing, but each of the first several issues introduces a new conflict, setting and villain to be taken care of by the end of it. The last two more or less wrap up the bigger plotlines that had been simmering in the background.

It's an interesting direction to take a mini. Comics have been slowly moving away from strictly "writing for the trade" - we've recently seen the return of three to four issue arcs instead of six all the time - but mini's, especially six issue ones, traditionally tell one overall story. Run did this - to stick with an example within the same grouping of minis - and while the titles of the issues tried to give the impression of two issue arcs within the six issues, Escape was really just one long confusing mess. I appreciated it's structure and wouldn't mind seeing more of it.

So storywise, the book does rather well. It's the art that's a problem. Chriscross seems to flitter from decent, workable art to odd stuff that doesn't quite feel right. I'm not a fan. But that would be tolerable if he did the whole thing; a story can save a book from lackluster art. Sadly, he had a fill-in artist.

Unlike Escape, the art just doesn't pull together. There, the three issue pencilers managed to settle on a relatively consistent style among them, to the point where if you weren't really looking, you might not notice too much difference between them at first glance. Dance doesn't fare as well. Chriscross and Pansicas work look nothing alike, making for jarring shifts in the midst of the mini. I didn't like what I was seeing to begin with, then they decide they're going to throw in another artist who doesn't fare a lot better.

The story manages to pull through, but the art hurdles actively work against it. I'm generally more forgiving if the work is particularly good, but I genuinely did not feel like what I was looking at was either artists best. I really didn't care for what I saw. Perhaps deadline troubles brought this about? Either way it's a problem.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

I'm genuinely intrigued by the Super Young Team and I wouldn't mind seeing more. Only next time, I'd prefer it if the art held up it's end of the bargain. What's here is a decent story, but the art really does bring it down. It might be worth a look if, like me, you want to see more of Super Young Team. I can't really recommend it with art troubles like this, however.

* Why yes, I am bitter about New X-Men. Why do you ask?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sonic Rivals (video game)

Platform: PSP
Developers: Backbone Entertainment
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: November 24th, 2006

No kidding? Sonic has a game on the PSP? Who woulda thunk it? Anyone with a firing synapse, actually. It's not like Sonic has missed a console since Sega went third party. So here we are with his first PSP outing. Is it any good?

First off, I'm actually kind of surprised it took so long for Sega to put out a game like this. Rivals is less "action platformer" and more a racing game with platforming elements. It echoes some of the familiar bits of gameplay from the 2D classics filtered through a race to the finish line. Seems like a no brainer, dunnit? I mean, hell, Sega had done the concept before with multiplayer of the classic Sonics, making it surprising they hadn't tried a full game of it before.

So, you know, Eggman's up to his dirty tricks again. Apparently he went out and bought himself a spiffy new camera at Best Buy or whatever store he hasn't been thrown out of yet. Naturally the first thing he's going to do is piss off his nemesis with it. Only, gasp, this camera turns whatever it takes a picture of into a little card, including Amy and Tails. Now, Sonic doesn't think this is really the way his friends should be treated, so it's time to go beat up fat people again. But then, a twist; now a bunch of Sonic wannabe's plus Knuckles are after him too, so naturally the way to settle this is by racing.

The term "team-up" is apparently lost on all of them.

The story's alright for what it is. It's really just an excuse to get four characters to race one another. It kind of makes everyone look pretty dumb though. I mean, they're all after a fat dude with a hilarious mustache. A couple of them are friends or at least on decent terms. Shouldn't they be helping each other, or at least not getting in each others way? Shouldn't they at least try to have a conversation before deciding "ha ha, I'm totally faster than you, I'll catch him first"? Apparently this doesn't occur to them until the rotund doctor decides he's going to turn the planet into a card.

I guess in Sonics world, love interests, best friends and huge gems being turned into trading cards isn't reason enough to work together. Nope, racing is clearly the superior option. It's all fun and games until somebody turns the planet into a card. If you ask me their priorities are a little screwed up.

Music and sound fare alright. None of it's really spectacular, but the actual stage music is pretty nice. There are also some sound clips, but they're not a big deal; it's a shock to get a voice clip with more than one word. At the very least, Tails is a card for most of the game, so I don't have to worry about wanting to strangle him as previously. The graphics are decent, but ultimately far from noteworthy.

The gameplay's technically sound, but while the basics work out, the other stuff does it's best to sink it. For one thing, this games a rubber band racer. No matter what you do, no matter how well you play, that sum bitch is going to catch up to you and kick you in the shins. Whoever is in second place suddenly becomes faster than the guy in first, so even if you play perfectly chances are good he's going to catch up.

There are power-ups to help keep them from passing you, but they don't always help. I really hate this kind of crap because it just takes skill out of the equation. When this sort of thing is done, it's usually done under the guise of keeping the challenge up or the game fair, but it's an artificial fix that actually makes things worse. I hate it when racing games do it, so you can imagine how much I cared for it here.

The level design this go around is pretty respectable. They usually have three different paths to go by - top, middle and lowest - similar to the classics, only streamlined for racing. This only succeeds in making them less interesting, but for racing tracks, they're not horrible. A bonus is that bottomless pits are less of a hassle here; the only real penalty for falling in one is losing a couple seconds while you respawn, a far cry from the pain they usually are.

Here's where the trouble really starts. You've got four playable characters - including Silver, a character whom Sonic '06 was in the process of ensuring we probably won't see again - each with their own story. But aside from a signature power-up-triggered move, that's the only thing different about them. They all play exactly the same, with no strengths or weaknesses among them. It's a problem the franchise had for a while, in that the developers never seemed to understand that having multiple playable characters meant nothing if they played exactly the same.

Compounding the problem is that the levels are exactly the same for each of them, with no variations whatsoever. If you want to play through all four storylines, you essentially have to play through the game four times, through the exact same levels in the exact same order. Since the levels aren't interesting enough to be worth replaying much, this means you're going to get bored around when you finish your second run through with another character.

There isn't the now-traditional last story in this game either, which means the only incentive for completing all four is to play as Metal Sonic. He doesn't even have his own story, so it's not really much of a prize. The game tries to add replay value through collectible cards, but it doesn't quite get the job done, since the game itself gives little reason to want to play more to get them all. There are challenge modes for each stage as well, but it's difficult enough just to force your way through the six levels four times for each story, so it's not exactly an attractive option. Add in an utterly worthless Grand Prix mode - to unlock a cup, you literally have to complete every single challenge for a level - and you have a game that tries to add replay value but utterly fails.

The game is enjoyable for a bit though. The first playthrough is at least mildly entertaining. I get the feeling this game would have been more enjoyable if it were a more traditional Sonic platformer, however. The sixth and final level, you race against time instead of a "rival", so it feels more like a regular Sonic stage. The time limit is relatively strict, but still, it feels different and a bit more enjoyable. What could have been.

The Score: 6 out of 10

In all, there's about an afternoons worth of fun here, but that's about it. You're really best served just playing it for Sonic story and then putting it down, because you'll have seen most of the game. It may be worth a rental. I just wouldn't recommend buying it unless you found it for dirt cheap.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Final Crisis Aftermath: Run (comics)

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artist: Freddie Williams II
Collects: Final Crisis Aftermath: Run #1-6

In the midst of Final Crisis, the Human Flame got his "revenge" on his nemesis. But the Crisis ended and it turns out that having one of the heroes murdered in cold blood is probably a bad plan. So the two-bit never-was decides it's time to go on the run from pretty much everyone and bumbles his way from one predicament to the next.

Now, it's not often that we get a bonafide villain centric comic; a lot of it being due to the problems said concept brings up. If we get anything of the sort, there's usually an anti-hero slant added to the character or it focuses on the positive qualities. See Secret Six for one example; most of its members are former villains who have since moved more towards shades of gray.

Not here. The Human Flame is a bonafide, Grade-A douchebag. Halfway through the first issue - about when he ties up his ex and steals her car right in front of his kid - it becomes crystal clear that there is absolutely nothing redeeming about him. He's nothing but a thug with delusions of grandeur. Not exactly someone you could write an ongoing about, but for a mini like this, he's just what the doctor ordered.

See, Run is very heavy on the dark comedy. Human Flame is a worthless loser, a fact the story never fails show in a variety of ways. So we watch as he screws himself over time and time again, usually with bloody results. No matter what he does or what he gains, his tendency to be a scumbag causes him to blow it. He's his own worst enemy and it's fun to watch him fail repeatedly at villainy.

The comedy Sturges shoots for isn't just dark, its quite physical. Run almost verges on Looney Tunes-ian in regards to the slapstick. Things the Human Flame uses blow up, money burns, he runs out a three story window and smacks the pavement and so on. It's depraved, physical comedy enacted on the type of human being whom - though you would never admit it - you would want to see get his just desserts if you met him in real life.

It's easier to laugh at these sort of things when your protagonist is such a prick, which is why Sturges made the right call here. Doing it with a more heroic figure - or even an anti-hero - doesn't quite work. After all, if you like the character, do you really want to see one of Flashes rogues knock his teeth out? Not to mention that the Human Flame is about as Z list as you get in regards to villains - as are a bunch of other loser villains he hooks up with in the story - so you can do whatever you want to him. I doubt this could have worked with any other character; even some C list villains have some manner of potential or popularity that can keep a writer from going all out. Sturges doesn't have to worry about such things and he makes the most of it.

I can't mention the successes of this book without mentioning the art. Freddie Williams II really outdid himself here. When I mentioned earlier that the book becomes almost Looney Tunes-esque in it's slapstick, a good bit of that is because of his art. He shows almost everything that happens to the Human Flame. He doesn't seem to skip on the detail anywhere, even a particularly gruesome two pages where Human Flame wakes up in the midst of his "upgrade". I can't say enough good things about the art; without this level of work I doubt it would have worked as it does.

All the elements combine to make a fun read, though I imagine it's not for everyone. If you need a likable protagonist to care about the proceedings or aren't partial to dark humor, this one might fall flat for you. Otherwise this is a well constructed tale that feels like it winds down about where it should. I'm not sure we'll ever see a book starring the Human Flame again - I'm almost shocked they did this one, since it's literally a mini about a nobody villain - but if Sturges ever wants to write this sort of thing some more I'd be glad to pick it up. Something like this every once in a while might be nice.

The Score: 8 out of 10

This isn't a book that's going to rock your world. It's not a book that really "matters", at least not to the greater continuity. It's probably not going to win any "best of" awards either. But that's not a good way to judge it. If you like fun, dark comedy then you could do so much worse than this. I had a good time; to me, that counts quite a bit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape (comics)

Writer: Ivan Brandon
Artists: Marco Rudy, Cliff Richards
Collects: Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape #1-6

As they usually do with events, DC decided to push out a few "aftermath" mini's in the wake of Final Crisis. Four of them, this go around. A funny thing I noticed in discussions is that the four tend to split people right down the middle. The average seems to be that everyone has two they loved and two they hated, with no one mini being universally hated.

Well, I can tell you this; Escape is not going to be one of my two.

So Tom Tresser, otherwise known as Nemesis, is drugged and abducted from his home. He wakes up in an unfamiliar place where the very laws of reality seem to have no hold. He has only one plan. To escape.

This is a tough review to do. Part of that has to do with being unsure that I really have anything to say that Iceberg Lounge and Collected Editions didn't say already; obviously, opinions are going to overlap from time to time, but I find myself skittish about reviewing something if I don't feel like I've got anything new to say. But another large part of the problem is that part of me just doesn't even want to think on it. This book is kind of like the kid who's a perpetual screw-up, but tries hard enough that you can't hate him even if you don't want to be around him because he's so freaking odd.

This is a hell of a difficult read. There's a very real feeling when reading this that what you're witnessing is just chaos birthed onto the comic page. But the difference between the good kind of difficult read and the bad is what lies in between the lines. The best kind are those that aren't linear, but at least have something under the hood. With similarly unconventionally told stories, there are meanings to everything and nothing is by accident. But this story feels the exact opposite.

The trouble is that the story doesn't seem to have a real plan in mind. Some writers have proven that the general framework of storytelling is very flexible as long as you get your point across and give everything the reader needs to figure it all out. Escape is way off on the other end of the spectrum, seeming to hold its cards too close to the chest and choosing to be complex for the sake of complexity. It's like a maze with no real path to the exit, the only way to get there being if you teleported to it.

The end result is one of the most unfortunate attempts at an nontraditional narrative I think I've read in a long while. Which is sad, as not everyone in the business really chooses to experiment. What makes the whole thing even more disappointing is that there were points in the book - like, say, when you realize what's caused the "jumps" from one scene to the next - where it seems like things are headed somewhere and that there's a solid foundation beneath, but eventually that feeling gives way. If there was a plan or point to all this, the writer tried so hard to make Escape a different kind of read that he completely obscured it from view.

Luckily, there is a positive quality or two to speak of. The cast of the book is good. Pretty much all of DC's spy characters and organizations are present, from Suicide Squad members to Checkmate on down the line. I loved Greg Ruckas Checkmate series, so even just seeing some of the characters again is nice. There's also a fair bit of fun continuity mining; though I'm not sure just what the hell the Kirby stuff had to do with anything aside from the fact that Final Crisis used it too. There's also some fun "meta" moments, as when it's pointed out that Nemesis has been nothing but a supporting player in someone elses stories while over the course of this story becomes something more; I'm pretty sure that's a clear jab at the then recently ended relationship he had with Wonder Woman that made him a regular presence in her book.

It's also worth mentioning that this volume at least attempts to follow the precedent set by its associated event. It's an unfortunate fact that aftermath stories tied to events don't always have a lot to do with what the associated event was trying to accomplish. Grant Morrison is known for being unconventional in his writing, which I've felt is a large part of why he's popular and why he also has detractors. This mini seems to try to follow his lead; I appreciate that the effort was made, even if it didn't work out.

The art's not so bad. It's held up by Marco Rudy, Cliff Richards and Neil Edwards, the last of whom would go on to do some of Johnathan Hickmans Fantastic Four issues. Despite the number of artists, they do a respectable job of mimicking one another, making it tougher to notice when there's an artist change without looking at the credits. There's the occasional exception - sometimes you may notice a face doesn't look exactly the same as previously, but for the most part it's seamless. If you're going to have more than one artist on a miniseries - which, mind you, I'd prefer not to happen - this is generally how it should be done.

The Score: 5 out of 10

It's unfortunate, but this mini feels like a spectacular failure. There's complex and then there's confusing; and this book is definitely the latter. Skip it. It's not worth the trouble.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Metro 2033 (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, PC
Developers: 4A Games
Genre: Survival Horror, First Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: March 16th, 2010

Post-apocalyptic futures aren't exactly the norm for video games, or at least they weren't for the longest time. Sure, the Fallout games have delivered it, but they don't exactly play it straight; dark humor is the order of the day in those games and the outlandish isn't out of place there. So here comes Metro 2033 - based off a Russian novel - to help fill the void.

After nuclear war ravaged the world, survivors in Moscow retreated to the metro tunnels beneath the city. Unable to live on the surface, they made a life for themselves there, with different stations all through the metro becoming like underground cities, interacting with one another through the many tunnels. But the nuclear war had other effects. Monsters now roam the tunnels, threatening the stations. Your own station, Exhibition is besieged by a new threat, the Dark Ones. When encountered, those who survive the encounter are left broken, their minds scarred. Your station now on the brink of annihilation, it falls to you to traverse the tunnels - and occasionally the irradiated city topside - to get to Polis station for help. It won't be easy.

Despite the presence of monsters, anomalies and ghosts, the game feels relatively realistic. Part of it has to do with game mechanics, but another part of it is that it feels like what you might expect to happen after a nuke or two was dropped nearby. The metro tunnels are the only habitable places - at least for a good long while - and they still carry danger, while even a short jaunt up to the surface world is always an ordeal. Even the currency speaks to the dangerous world your character inhabits; pre-war military grade ammo serves as money to the denizens of the metro and while you can fire it, firing money is probably not the greatest plan ever devised. It feels like a world that's been sent to hell, with what survived struggling to etch out a living in the fiery flames.

That it feels this way is important, because it adds a lot to the experience. The game shoots for an immersive package and on the whole it manages to achieve its goal. Things like checking your objectives, for example. Instead of an objectives screen, you bring out your personal journal - while the gameplay is still going, I might add - to check them. Need more light to read it? Good thing you've got your trusty lighter. Going into irradiated areas - or going up to the surface, where the air is toxic - requires a gas mask, which is as important as a gun in this world; almost everyone, especially people outside the stations, has one on hand. HUD icons aren't even necessary here. Need to check your filters or how hidden you are? Simple as pushing a button to bring up your watch. Want to know where to go? Good thing your journal has a handy compass. You don't need to pause the game to do much of anything; almost everything is done in-game.

In what seems like the pink elephant of game design these days, the developers decided to make this game level based. You're continuously moving forward on your path to save your home station, overcoming hurdles as you run across them. There are towns along the way - almost always a converted metro station - but each is akin to a breather along the way, allowing you to exchange your ammo for weapon upgrades and other tools you may need to survive. While the structure may be a bit more traditional, you don't have to worry about play time. This is still a relatively beefy game, containing seven chapters and a prologue, with the majority of them having five to seven levels including "towns". I thought it was a good design choice, if only because it keeps the story moving and that most major console games seem to shoot for a sandbox style of play these days.

Some of what I liked best about the game are the little things. The gas masks in particular require that you find filters, allowing you to stay topside longer. When a filter gets low, your mask is fogged up before a fresh filter is placed. The gas mask can also take damage; and if broken while in toxic areas, you have twenty seconds to find a replacement or you're screwed. There's also a charger in the game, used for charging your batteries. Both the night vision goggles and the flashlight use the batteries, so when power is low, you need to pull out the charger to boost it back up. The more you charge, the brighter your flashlight becomes. Your enemies are also as vulnerable to the environment as you are; if you're outside and you knock their mask off their head with a well placed shot, they too will eventually die from the toxic air. When you escort a child by carrying him on your shoulders, the aiming speed and such change to simulate the extra difficulty. Touches like that are just cool.

Levels are mixed up just enough to keep things from feeling stale. With levels involving human targets, you can opt for the stealth route rather than Rambo tactics. With some of them, it's probably a really good idea; not just to save ammo, but also because eight or nine Nazi's sending a hail of lead your way is a pretty reliable way to die. How the hell Nazi's were in Moscow when the bombs hit is anyones guess, really, but the pricks tend to hit you in groups. Some levels are even of the "rail shooter" variety; you'll typically be riding shotgun on a handcart, trying to keep monsters from overwhelming the cart.

On the whole, there isn't a lot wrong with the game. The controls are of the standard variety layout for First Person Shooters, but they're responsive and feel tight. I saw few to no glitches, which is a very welcome thing in an era where games are dumped to shelves with numerous bugs. Really, it's just a great game; one that proves that making a great, lengthy game can be done with the old fashioned method of "levels". Seems like a foreign concept these days, doesn't it?

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

This is probably my surprise of the year in gaming. It's great from top to bottom and is well worth your money. I definitely recommend it.