Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wii U review: Fast Racing Neo

In an era where futuristic arcade racers like F-Zero and Hydro Thunder have largely disappeared, Fast Racing Neo seeks to reignite that spark of wonder and excitement these titles of yesteryear once offered. At first glance, Fast Racing Neo might look like a direct F-Zero successor under a different name and from a different developer. The game boasts a dozen hover racing vehicles, tracks vary from desert domains to space stations, slick ice-capped mountains, mining facilities connected by giant tubes, and jungle vistas with ninety degree inclines.

Each of these vehicles handles a bit different from the next. Some are quick on acceleration, but have lower top speeds, and vice versa. Some handle sharp turns on a dime, while others have longer and heavier frames that force a larger turn radius. But each vehicle is capable of blazing through gorgeous environments at incredible speeds, all without dropping the framerate below a perfect sixty frames per second. It’s a bit of a shame that the vehicles can not be given alternate color schemes, but their names and designs do well to pay homage to the era of gaming that inspired them.

Track layouts similarly feel the part of F-Zero GX’s offerings, and are, in some cases, even more challenging when attempted at the higher speed settings. Not unlike Mario Kart, the Subsonic, Supersonic, and Hypersonic ‘difficulties’ have less of an impact on the capabilities of the opponent racers’ A.I., but rather increase the speed at which everyone zips along the track. Fast Racing Neo avoids a ‘rubber-band’ catch-up system, so there are rarely rival racers that follow closely behind you for the four tracks within any single cup. This of course also means that you as a player still need to shoot for the front of the pack, as the overall rankings are less predictable than in other arcade racers.

Fast Racing Neo controls with buttery-smooth precision, though as mentioned, no two vehicles control in quite the same fashion, so it may take a few runs to get the feel for which vehicle is best suited to your personal play style. Similarly, each course dishes out something new as you progress, and the best way to beat the competition is learning a track’s ins and outs through a trial-by-fire approach. Fast Racing Neo, oddly enough, also gives a nod or two to Ikaruga and other shoot-‘em-up games, with the incorporation of a color-shift system. Certain boost and jump pads are blue, others orange, and you must shift between the two on the fly to make the most of these. Jewels scattered across the track, meanwhile, will fill up your boost gauge, which you can then utilize whenever you so choose.

In the event that you crash while attempting a jump, the game quickly respawns you at the section of the race track closest to where your machine exploded. You are granted a small amount of boost to try and catch back up with the competition. An unlockable Hero Mode ups the difficulty even further, as it demands players manage their boost meter as a shield meter as well (not unlike the F-Zero series), as well as finish in first place to further progress. It’s a bonus mode for the most determined of players, those who haved proved their skill by completing all of the previous difficult settings.

Fast Racing Neo does include online play, wherein players vote from a limited selection of courses. Their vote is then cast into a pool with the votes from each of the other players, and selected roulette-style, not unlike Mario Kart Wii’s online selection process. However, there is currently no way to vote for the difficulty/speed setting, and the game appears to default to the lower end of that. Despite rather bare-bones menus, the game makes up for this with vehicles and courses being covered in gorgeous, shiny visuals, making Fast Racing Neo one of the best looking titles on any console this generation yet. The techno soundtrack is a great, adrenaline-pumping match to the game’s sci-fi setting, and further cements Fast Racing Neo as a worthy successor to a genre that has largely fallen into obscurity.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Gaming, Anime, and Comic Book Update: "See You, Space Cowboy..."

2015 saw many major titles delayed into the following year. From Star Fox Zero, to the new Legend of Zelda, and even Persona 5, the holiday game offerings for this Fall and Winter were slim compared to years past. Those aforementioned Wii U titles, as well as the Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem title, will certainly be purchases for me this coming year. I also recently picked up Xenoblade Chronicles X. While I’ve spent a decent amount of time with it already, given how long the game is reported to be, I highly doubt I will get around to reviewing it until January, at the very earliest.

Fast Racing Neo, meanwhile, will likely be my last game review to be posted for 2015. It has managed to impress me so greatly that I have no doubt that it will land in my top 5 games for the year. I also recently purchased SteamWorld Heist for the 3DS, which is reported to last around 13 hours or so. I’m not sure if I will get a chance to write up a review for that game by the end of the year, so for the time being, given how I intend to continue devoting most of my gaming time for the next month or so to Xenoblade Chronicles X. Also on the radar for early 2016 will be Shin Megami Tensei IV, as I recently added it to my 3DS library as it was on sale in the eShop. I’ve never played a core SMT title before, but my experiences with the Persona series that spun off of it have been largely positive thus far.

On the anime front, while I did manage to start a number of series this year, I didn’t finish nearly as many as I had hoped. This was due in part to my trying to juggle too many series at once, and also partly due to personal events outside of the blog that demanded my attention more so than my viewing of these anime. As such, I hope to deliver quite a few anime reviews early next year, but am expecting to cut my year-end anime countdown to a ‘top 3’ this year, instead of my usual ‘top 5’.

On the comic book front, however, I manage to crank out quite a few more reviews than I initially expected. The short-lived nature of many of Marvel’s Secret Wars spinoff series helped bump the overall number of comic book reviews up significantly, while I was still able to devote time to more intense and lengthy reading material, like Black Science and Age of Apocalypse. I still have a number of comics that I picked up at this year’s Grand Rapids Comic-Con that I have not yet begun to read through, and those will most likely make for some of my earliest comic book reviews in 2016. The remainder of the year, meanwhile, remains largely ambiguous. No doubt I will continue reading Black Science, Tokyo Ghost, Nova, and Guardians of the Galaxy, but there are a couple of series I’ve had my eye on that may serve to replace Saga on my reading list.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Limit Break: Why Splitting the Final Fantasy VII Remake into Multiple Parts May Be a Good Thing

The initial reveal of the Final Fantasy VII remake was met with seemingly unanimous applause just a few months ago. Now that details of its release format and gameplay have been revealed, it seems fans have become a bit divided over this bold reimagining. I have yet to complete the original PS1 version of Final Fantasy VII, but the good third or so of it that I have played, I very much enjoyed. I still prefer Final Fantasy IV, but I cannot deny how well VII has aged, nor can I deny its role as one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed video games of all time.

Which brings me to my first point: given just how well-liked Final Fantasy VII is, someone somewhere was going to be let down with at least one decision or another. It’s the nature of the beast, and probably part of the reason that Square Enix was so apprehensive to try and recreate this game in years past. Even less heavily altered updates to classic games like the 3DS ports of the N64 Legend of Zelda titles were met with criticisms regarding changes made to their save systems and the inclusion of helpful hints for gamers who may have been too young to have experienced Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask during their original release.

Also, Final Fantasy VII is a very large game, in both scale and assets. This can be said about most Final Fantasy titles, yes, but each of the areas that Cloud and company visit are full of detail, with many rooms or sections to explore, not to mention the vast expanses beyond the walls of Midgar. And given that the developers intend to add more content than was originally included in the PS1 release, it kind of makes sense that they would want to take their time and stagger the release process instead of dropping it all at once, with less content than they had planned. So long as the remake of Final Fantasy VII is released in reasonably-sized chunks at a relatively consistent rate, I see no problem with this plan. If anything, the feedback Square Enix receives from each installment will help to improve their efforts on the next one.

I admit, I’m not entirely sold on their decision to utilize a new battle system. In my opinion, ATB is one of the best battle systems in any JRPG to date, and as the old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” At the same time, the recent gameplay trailer only offered us quick glimpses of the new battle system, and I don’t think anyone outside of Square Enix is entirely sure as to how the combat works just yet.

I’m a big fan of the character designs for Cloud and Barret. Barret is a reasonably-proportioned human instead of some cartoonish hulking goliath, while Cloud looks tall and thin, much like his in-battle character model from the PS1 version. I feel their voices are also incredibly appropriate, and so far (fingers crossed that this carries on through the rest of the remake) Barret does not appear to act the part of the racist caricature that he was in an era gone by. Obviously, only time will tell how the ultimate end product looks and plays, but I feel that this remake has quite the potential to do its original incarnation justice, and perhaps even improve upon some of the world’s locations and character interactions.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Comic Book review: Age of Apocalypse, Volume One

Considered by some to be one of the best Marvel event series of the 1990s, X-Men: Age of Apocalypse tells the story of an alternate history where Charles Xavier was killed by his psychotic son Legion decades before his school for gifted children could provide a safe haven for troubled youth, and before the legendary X-Men could become a fighting force for good among mutant and humans alike. Instead, Xavier’s death provides Apocalypse and his loyal horsemen a clear path to launch a campaign against humankind, keeping with the all-powerful mutant’s beliefs in ‘survival of the fittest’. Born of Apocalypse’s conquest is a dire future, where humans are corralled into pens like cattle, where mutants are hunted to either be hired into Apocalypse’s ranks or killed for opposing him, and where one Erik Lensherr champions the causes of his old friend Xavier and forms his own team of X-Men.

What is so captivating about the Age of Apocalypse story is the manner in which it takes familiar characters, partnerships, and rivalries, and turns them on their heads. Magneto is now a hero, an icon among those mutants who would dare to stand against Apocalypse and strike back at his dystopian regime. Rogue is Magneto’s wife, and together they have a child whom they name after the late Charles Xavier. Logan is still survivor of the Weapon X program, but is never referred to as Wolverine, and loses one of his hands in a battle with Cyclops, the latter of whom works for Apocalypse under Sinister as one of their most trusted officers. Nate Grey, the X-Man, is a highly powered telekinetic who travels with a band of misfit performers including Toad, Sauron, and Forge, while Sabretooth, Wild Child, Blink, Iceman, and Morph round out Magento’s team of X-Men.

It’s a dark, gritty vision of the X-Men, but rarely feels like it is pushing an ‘edginess’ simply for the sake of selling to older teenage audience. The dialogue is appropriate to the setting, while remaining overall friendly to readers of a broad age range. Character and environment artwork maintain a consistent direction throughout, though each artist does add their own slight spins on these faces and places with which readers will spend many hours.

What is unusual about this first numbered volume in the Age of Apocalypse series is that it gathers a strangely disjointed collection of issues together. Unlike the later volumes, the span of time that is passing across the issues collected in this first trade paperback is hard to pin down. Likewise, it would appear that certain events from issues placed toward the back of this volume actually occur simultaneous or even before issues that are placed near the front. Some of the storylines in this first volume lend a significant amount to establishing the characters and state of the world in Age of Apocalypse. Others, like Blink’s solo romp through the Negative Zone wherein she loses her memories and is caught up in a power struggle between Blastaar and Annihilus’ loyalists, add very little to the core plot, acting as largely uninteresting (sometimes annoying) distractions.

Still, Age of Apocalypse is a wildly engrossing story, and even with its shortcomings, this first collected volume offers some genuinely enjoyable subplots. Its disorganized nature simply falls a bit short of the quality of the later volumes. For those who enjoyed the Prelude or random issues of the later Age of Apocalypse tale, I can assure you that the series only gets better from here.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Armor Wars (2015)

Technopolis, as its name implies, is a sprawling hyper-futuristic metro, where all citizens are forces to wear variants of the Iron Man armor to prevent themselves from contracting a lethal virus that was unleashed on the region many years prior. Tony Stark is resident baron, and often clashes with his brother Arno. James Rhodes is Tecnopolis’ designated Thor, wielding a giant hammer and shiny Asgardian-inspired mechanical suit. And young Kiri Oshiro and Lila Rhodes, both resourceful teens who know a thing or two about tinkering with and repurposing the tech of these armored suits, begin unraveling the mysteries surrounding the death of Kiri’s boyfriend Peter Urich, aka Spyder-Man.

James Rhodes, meanwhile, begins his own investigation into the death of Spyder-Man, suspecting that Kingpin Wilson Fisk might have some involvement. Meanwhile, Arno Stark begins sending reconnaissance troops like Stingray to scope out just what his brother Tony, Kiri, Lila, or anyone else who may have interacted with Spyder-Man are up to. These interwoven plot threads make for a decently compelling narrative, while also preventing the story from becoming too convoluted.

Armor Wars is a standout entry among the Secret Wars spinoffs for the manner in which it handles its processes of world-building. The constant threat of being exposed to the natural world paints an eerie world where humans grow to accept rocket-powered machinery as an extension of themselves. Armor Wars also offers a few really strong plot twists, while simultaneously avoiding playing on a scale too grandiose for its own coherence.

The theme of where man ends and machine begins is certainly common to Iron Man-centric tales, but it is fresh to see a large portion of the story through the eyes of youth Kiri and Lila. There are a couple of points where the story slows down more than is perhaps ideal for Armor Wars' overarching plot, pacing which would be better-suited for a series that is not limited to a five issue run. Overall, however, Armor Wars is an enjoyable read, a dark mystery driving toward an action-packed climax. Of all the Secret Wars spinoffs, Armor Wars performs as one of the best at keeping itself within manageable boundaries of narrative pacing and character development.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Comic Book review: A-Force

The island of Arcadia is nothing short of a paradise, a peaceful city that has largely managed to avoid the chaos of other Battleworld realms like those seen in Age of Apocalypse or Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies. Thanks to the watchful protectors of the all-female A-Force team, the residents of Arcadia have long felt safe, as any threats to their home have quickly been subdued by Medusa, Dazzler, Loki, Captain Marvel, America, Nico, and Baroness She-Hulk.

When a giant shark appears in the waters of Arcadia’s bay and threatens the populous, the A-Force springs into action, but the overly energetic America throws the beast too far beyond the borders of Arcadia, and past the giant wall that divides the monstrosities of the Deadlands from the rest of Battleworld. This act is a direct violation of Doom’s laws, and the Thors descend upon Arcadia to take America away, to have her answer for this crime. She-Hulk attempts to plea with the Thors, but they warn her that any attempt to interfere will be viewed as a movement against Doom. She-Hulk tells America to be strong, but as America is taken away by the Thors, the other members of the A-Force are clearly shaken, and some begin to question She-Hulk’s right to lead as baroness of Arcadia.

A-Force provides a wonderful blend of a few different genres. Of course there is plenty of action from this troupe of butt-kicking ladies, but there is also a vivid sense of adventure and self-exploration for Nico, who has lost her friend America to the technicalities of Doom’s laws, yet just as soon gains a friend in the form a mysterious visitor from the stars. This newcomer to Arcadia will leave a significant impact on all of the A-Force members, and is as much a curious, endearing character as she is pivotal plot device, despite only having a few lines of dialogue for the entirety of this limited series.

The older A-Force members, on the other hand, have vastly differing outlooks on the situation at hand, and some suspect that America’s forcible removal from Arcadia may be the result of foul play from somewhere within Arcadia. She-Hulk may be baroness of the realm, but her comrades are not afraid to challenge her authority if they believe she is not appropriately grasping the situation at hand. The blend of personalities within the A-Force is fresh and makes for some very compelling interactions – Dazzler always has some pep in her step, She-Hulk is the tough-as-nails leader, and though she may butt heads with Medusa on occasion, both present reasonable arguments for their actions, and are equally strong-willed individuals.

The single major setback in A-Force is one that seems to be a common hindrance among many of the other Secret Wars tie-ins, in that it is merely a five-issue run. One particular subplot feels like its endgame is somewhat rushed in the final chapter. That said, the handful of conflicts that the A-Force does face are paced quite well, and the series’ length does allow for the rest of its story to be resolved with reasonable satisfaction by the time the last pages are reached. If anything, A-Force is one such limited series that I wanted to see carry on, as there is plenty of opportunity for more fun, exciting adventures to be had with this female fighting force. And as luck would have it, A-Force is now among the series Marvel has announced will be continuing as part of the post-Secret Wars relaunch.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Comic Book review: Ghost Racers

Within Battleworld, there exists the Killiseum, an arena where all manner of deadly sporting events are held. Notable among them are the lethal, high-speed free-for-alls that pit a half-dozen Ghost Racers against one another. Classic Ghost Rider characters like Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch take to their flaming bikes, dodging environmental hazards that stand between them and the finish line. But the main character, and hero of the day, is Robbie Reyes, the most recent host to have taken up the mantle of the Ghost Rider before the collapse of the multiverse resulted in the formation of Battleworld.

Much like his introduction in the Marvel NOW! series, Robbie Reyes is a caring older sibling to his brother Gabe, their parents absent, and their home located in a neighborhood that is anything but glamorous. Robbie takes to the race in his sporty muscle car, with the spirit Eli guiding him, and is currently the favored racer. But those who lose are subjected to a number of torture devices below the Killiseum. The Ghost Racers are also – to a certain degree – under the control of the sadistic Arcade, and should one of them get out of line, he can easily sick the others on them. All of this makes for a considerable threat when Robbie and Eli hatch a plan to escape Arcade’s perverse sport once and for all.

The art direction and dialogue in this limited series wonderfully match the grungy atmosphere that has often been associated with the Ghost Rider comics, as well as other Marvel tales aimed at teen audiences on up. Character designs do well to present a variety of Ghost Rider styles, while also paying homage to the series’ long history. Ghost Racers is not an overly-complicated story, but it does present a sufficient number of hurdles for Robbie to overcome. As lead protagonist, Robbie is just as likeable a character as in his Marvel NOW! debut. Ghost Racers proves an entertaining read – one that is surprisingly well-paced, given its smaller scope when compared to many of the other Secret Wars tie-ins.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Age of Apocalypse (2015)

Set in a similar dystopian future realm as the original 1990s comic run of the same name, the Battleworld warzone of Age of Apocalypse sees the titular mutant overlord attempting to quash any rebels that might rise up against his new world order. Apocalypse’s ideology is that of ‘survival of the fittest’ and believes mutants superior to homo-sapiens in every possible way. Apocalypse relies on his loyal horsemen, as well as twisted and villainous versions of otherwise-iconic heroes like Beast to carry out his will.

The 1990s run of Age of Apocalypse spanned practically every conceivable X-Men series of the era, and to this day remains an epic undertaking of the Marvel brand. Therefore, it was inevitable that this 2015 Secret Wars tie-in was destined to fall short of the original’s magnificence. With only five issues to deliver its own spin on the Age of Apocalypse narrative, this 2015 story does more ‘telling’ than it does ‘showing’, expecting that readers are already familiar with the themes of survival, alliances of necessity, the path of anti-heroes, and fighting for what little hope remains in a bleak future despite overwhelming odds, that were at play in the 1990s run.

Age of Apocalypse significantly shakes up a familiar cast. Iceman, Rogue, Sinister, and Weapon X (aka Wolverine) are all present, but play significantly smaller roles than before. Instead of having a child with Rogue, Magneto is married to Emma Frost, while Captain Marvel, Namor, and other non-mutants are worked into the narrative, but not necessarily in ways that benefit the story. While this new Age of Apocalypse limited series does throw a couple of major curve balls into the mix, the final chapter feels like an afterthought, tacked on as an idea that sounds better in theory than in actual application.

The art style is solid throughout, while the environments are appropriately dark and dreary. However, given that the X-Men and the readers alike are fully aware that Apocalypse’s domain is but one of many that make up Battlworld, the dire atmosphere that permeated throughout the 1990s original is almost entirely lost. Age of Apocalypse is a quick read that serves to deliver its own self-contained narrative well enough, but similarly is a tad generic, and lacks the spark of imagination and intrigue sported by some of the other Secret Wars tie-ins.

My rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Comic Book review: Thanos Rising

A limited five-issue series, Thanos Rising steps back in time to the formative years of the Mad Titan. The story displays his birth, his youth, his teenage years, and the eventual murderous streak that would leave him obsessed with death – both the act and the mystical character of the same name. The art throughout is superb, highlighting bright, metallic surfaces on Thanos’ home moon of Titan, while damp caverns are displayed through rugged inking and the ruins of annihilated worlds convey a haunting air.

Thanos is born into a society that knows no war, no conflict. They are a people of science, and despite Thanos’ unusual purple skin and dark eyes, his father, Mentor, takes to him just as he would his other son, Eros. Thanos’ mother, on the other hand, is immediately horrified by the sight of her child, believing there is something very wrong within him, and attempts to kill him with a knife. She is stopped, and spends many of her years institutionalized. During this time, Thanos grows into a curious, incredibly intelligent child. He seeks to make friends with other students his age, and grows queasy at the idea of dissecting lizards for his studies – a far cry from the cosmic villain he will eventually become.

One girl in particular catches Thanos’ attention, and continues to over the years. She is, in many ways, his enabler, convincing him even at a young age to carry out acts that will result in bloodshed, beginning with a group of lizards who attacked his friends during their exploration of one of Titan’s otherwise-off-limits caves. Thanos Rising has excellent pacing throughout, as each chapter jumps ahead years at a time to the most pivotal moments of the Mad Titan’s rise to infamy. Each section slows down to highlight Thanos as a character – his motives and personality, as well as his gradual embrace of murder, first justifying it as a means to try and discover that which sets beings of higher intelligence apart from animals. But when Thanos receives no answers from his gruesome handiwork, he comes to admit that he finds murder an enjoyable task.

As an adult, Thanos leaves his legacy on many a planet, fathering children with seemingly countless females of varying races. Thanos also makes his mark by joining a crew of space pirates and daring to challenge their leader. For Thanos is not content with mere pillage and plunder – he would see worlds break before him. Thanos Rising presents compelling and appropriate justifications for how would come to earn his reputation and title as ‘The Mad Titan’. His estrangement from his father does not come to pass until the final chapter, but it bears significant weight on the narrative of Thanos Rising, as well as the many conquests Thanos will ultimately carry out. The only oversight in Thanos Rising is the decision to not incorporate Thanos’ brother Eros into his development – he is mentioned once or twice, but never makes a physical appearance, and given how well the late-story clash between Thanos and his father played out, it could have raised the quality of this story even more.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Comic Book review: Inhumans: Attilan Rising

The Inhumans have long stood among the strangest of Marvel’s organized costumed supers, living in a secret society which utilizes hyper-advanced technology, and subjecting themselves to the gene-altering Terrigen Mists as a coming-of-age ritual. It is curious, then, that the Battleworld series focused on the Inhumans turns this familiar formula on its head. In this strikingly different version of the Inhumans tale, Black Bolt is host of the Quiet Room, a bar which permits many of Battleworld’s denizens entrance for drinks and company, provided they do not start any quarrels within its walls. In truth, the Quiet Room is a front for Black Bolt’s growing rebellion against Baron Medusa and her Doom loyalists.

Medusa, meanwhile, has access to the highly-advance technologies commonplace in previous Inhumans comics. She is devoutly loyal to Doom’s law – more so than many of Battleworld’s other resident Barons. And she is ever-suspicious of the Quiet Room, believing that it more than what it appears. Sending in one of her most trusted spies, Kamala Khan, Medusa hopes to expose any dissenters and quash their aspirations before they can move against her.

On Black Bolt’s side are his ever-trustworthy compatriots Karnak and the 1602 version of Matt Murdock, as well as a patrol that consists of young Inhumans, a Hulk, and G-Man, a Ghost Rider who appears to hail from the Marvel Noir universe. As luck (or perhaps a lack thereof) would have it, G-Man and company’s activities are what first tip Medusa off to the possibility that Black Bolt may be plotting against her, but there are plenty more twists and turns that come to play throughout the course of this story.

Inhumans: Attilan Rising begins with a style not unlike the Marvel Noir stories. The dangerous game of ‘cat versus mouse’ that Black Bolt and Medusa are playing builds the suspense as the sell one another bold-faced lies. The first two chapters are something of a slow burn, taking additional time to craft this unusual vision of the Inhuman conflict. But by the conclusion of issue three, Inhumans: Attilan Rising picks up its pace and its intensity, and delivers a few key powerful twists that significantly improve the quality of the narrative. Inhumans: Attilan Rising’s slow start should not discourage readers from seeing the five-issue series through to its conclusion, because the explosive series of events that make up its finale are well worth the price of admission.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Comic Book review: All-New Ghost Rider, Volume One: Engines of Vengeance

Robbie Reyes lives with his younger paraplegic brother Gabe in a crime and violence-ridden part of Los Angeles. Robbie does his best to look after his brother, being his apparent only family in the area, but has to juggle high school, his low-paying job as an auto mechanic, and the dangers of the neighborhood. He hopes to save up enough money to move both himself and his brother to a safer residence, and often has to ask one of the teachers at Gabe’s elementary school if she can babysit while Robbie works extra hours.

Local bullies throw a wrench in Robbie’s plans when they decide to push Gabe out of his wheelchair and steal it, taunting him and calling him names. Robbie, furious over this, tries to fight the bullies and reclaim the wheelchair, but is outnumbered and promptly has his face beaten and bloodied. After returning Gabe home, Robbie hatches a half-baked plan to ‘borrow’ (without asking) a sporty muscle car from a nearby house for the evening, in order to compete in a street race and win some hefty cash. But shortly after the race gets underway, Robbie finds himself being tailed by thugs who work for a criminal drug dealer that owns the very car that Robbie stole. Cornered in alleyway, Robbie steps out of the car, only to be gunned down and killed on the spot.

However, a spirit named Eli revives Robbie, healing his prior wounds, and giving him the powers of a Ghost Rider. Robbie is then able to chase down some of the goons who tried to finish him off, but others still escape. Armed with the ability to phase through structures and teleport to the car he stole, Robbie regains his ride from the thugs, and lets Eli inform him on how to make the most of his newfound Ghost Rider powers.

Robbie is so likeable at an early stage in this series because of how much he sacrifices for his brother. He is a genuinely selfless protagonist, telling his brother not to go outdoors after dark because people play unsafely with firecrackers (guns, in actuality), and not putting up with a pawn shop owner who would like nothing more than to cheat Robbie out of every penny he’s got just to get Gabe a subpar replacement wheelchair. Robbie is one of the only students in his class that puts forth real effort, and his teacher greatly respects Robbie’s maturity and desire to create a better environment for himself and Gabe. All of this makes for a very interesting contrast to the general chaotic, violent, and terrifying visage of the Ghost Rider, though Robbie’s bodiless soul of a companion Eli seems to understand his host’s vindications quite well.

That said, there are a few moments where Eli proposes more violent, cure-all solutions for the problems plaguing Robbie’s neighborhood. While Robbie does well to opt for alternate solutions where few people are hurt, save for gun-toting thugs and armored drug runners, it presents an interesting contrast that could be extrapolated upon in future volumes as an ‘inner demon’ conflict. This first volume of All-New Ghost Rider is smart to paint its conflict on a relatively small scale, and the last page feels like it has given proper closure to Robbie Reyes’ origin story. Come what may, this first volume of All-New Ghost Rider is a brilliant start to a series that has so much more potential, and is among the strongest of the Marvel NOW! relaunches.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Comic Book review: Guardians of Knowhere

While the majority of the Battleworld series spun out of the thread that is Marvel’s 2015 Secret Wars remain largely self-contained narratives, Guardians of Knowhere ranks among the most limited in scale. Given the far-flung cosmic adventures typical of the Guardians of the Galaxy, it is initially a bit jarring for the story to adopt such a format, though understandably necessary, given the four-issue limit. Guardians of Knowhere is a strikingly appropriate title – while there are cosmically-supercharged showdowns afoot, they occur exclusively on the severed head of a Celestial known as Knowhere, which orbits Battleworld, and where the Guardians have made their base of operations. Nothing exists in the star-sprinkled skies beyond Knowhere – something which greatly disturbs Gamora.

Gamora is seemingly the only member of the Guardians that has any recollection of the world as it once was, before God Emperor Doom forged Battleworld from the remains of dozens of shattered realities. But her memories are similarly fragmented, and though she recalls names like ‘Groot’ and ‘Quill’, she has no faces to place with them, no context. Teaming up with Drax, Rocket, and Mantis, Gamora takes on some of Knowhere’s more ruthless scoundrels, adhering to no rules, only her incredible skills as a warrior. The Nova Corps, meanwhile, are a more by-the-books peacekeeping force, consisting of Nova, Captain Marvel, Adam Warlock, Iron Man, and Agent Venom, and often coming onto the scene to clean up after the guardians and take thieves and murderers into custody.

When Gamora’s questioning of the truths everyone else so easily buys into upsets Knowhere’s appointed Thor, Angela, Gamora is warned that what she speaks of goes against all that Doom has created, and is nothing shy of heresy. Still, Gamora insists that this reality around her is a façade, the memories of a time and place gone by haunting her so intensely. Sandwiching these standoffs between Gamora and Angela are two encounters with Guardians of Knowhere’s major villains – Yotat, and a second unnamed female alien. They are presented in strikingly different airs, with Yotat being some thug who ended up on the wrong side of a transaction now desiring revenge and subsequently bulking up, courtesy of spacey drugs and tech. The second alien foe is almost entirely shrouded in mystery – she is never given a name, and despite her stellar aesthetic and intimidating skill set, her motives are not made clear, either.

Of all the Battleworld storylines I’ve been exposed to, Guardians of Knowhere is the one most strangled by its own limited issue count. The series effectively paints two entirely unrelated encounters the Guardians have with threats to their home, but never really gives an indication of what the other Guardians are fighting for. Is it because their lives on Knowhere are all Drax, Rocket, and Mantis have ever known? Quite possibly, but they take a backseat to Gamora so frequently, it’s easy to completely forget their presence at times. Guardians of Knowhere is easily among the most visually-pleasing of all the Battleworld series. It’s just a shame that the narrative is largely nothing-achieving, with the last chapter feeling as though it were the first half of a two-part arc that was never finished.

My rating: 6.25 (out of 10)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Comic Book review: X-Men ’92

The Battleworld that God Emperor Doom forged at the start of Secret Wars is a patchwork of many wildly different realms. Many are based off of classic Marvel storylines, or even some of the more recent comic book arcs. But X-Men ’92 is the only comic among them to be based off a television show that was, itself, based off a comic book. X-Men ’92 sees the bright yellow and dark blue costumes of the 1990s Fox series return in the form of ink and paper, along with all the snappy one-liners and cheesy-yet-endearing character portrayals of everyone’s favorite mutant heroes and heroines.

In the realm of Westchester, Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants have been defeated, and the healing process of the human populous coming to accept the X-Men among them is already underway. The story opens with a friendly game of ‘Extreme Lazer Tag’ inside the local shopping mall, with Jubilee claiming the high score. But the relaxed afternoon is interrupted by one rogue Sentinel, among the last of its kind, and still determined to wipe out mutantkind. Causing a scene as they take down the mechanized giant, the X-Men are sternly greeted by Baron Robert Kelly, who informs them of a place known as the Clear Mountain Institute, a rehabilitation facility for their former mutant foes. Supposedly, former Brotherhood members including Sabretooth, Toad, and Blob have gone to this Clear Mountain Institute willingly, seeking to renounce their villainous ways, but the X-Men are not so sure.

They travel to the Institute, where they are greeted by its head of operations, one Cassandra Nova, who offers to provide the mutants with a tour of the facilities. Despite their run-ins with former foes being entirely peaceful within the facility, both Wolverine and Cyclops get the feeling that something isn’t right. Jubilee is separated from her older teammates, and distracts herself by playing the X-Men arcade game (yes, the one that existed in our own reality of 1992, and featured Colossus, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Dazzler, Wolverine, and Storm). Meanwhile, the X-Men are given an up-close and personal look at Cassandra Nova’s rehabilitation machinery, but not in the way they had hoped, as they are taken to a place known as the Mind Field, where Cassandra Nova is able to manipulate their thoughts, and attempts to break their self-images into more cooperative, obedient individuals.

X-Men ’92 is endearingly self-aware of its setting and the appropriate tone to lend to its narrative. It pokes fun at its roots a number of times, with Jubilee remarking that she finds Dazzler’s costume in the arcade game to be quite tacky. X-Men '92 also breaks the fourth wall, cracking jokes that are, just one panel later, deemed to be too mature for readers, and are subsequently marked out in red ink before receiving a stamp of approval (a jab at the restrictions of using certain words in children’s shows that Marvel and Fox agreed to in 1990s). The dialogue is expertly handled as well, treading a line that allows both younger readers and longtime fans to find equal enjoyment from this superhero action-comedy period-piece.

The second issue is the weakest link in the four-part story, as it suffers from a repetition. By the time readers are nine or so pages in, it shouldn’t be too difficult for them to detect where the rest of the second issue will go. Thankfully, the third issue picks up the slack, bringing the X-Force members onto the scene to rescue their X-Men allies, with Deadpool in tow. And the fourth and final issue provides one explosive finale that is sure to geek out more than a few fans of the X-Men, with its absurd escalation of action, as well as a number of cameos by iconic characters – some of whom previously appeared in the 1990s cartoon, and others who did not (but have nonetheless been adapted into this comic book reimagining). X-Men ’92 is a riot; as much a love letter to the classic cartoon as it is a parody of it. And with Marvel having picked up X-Men ‘92 as one of their new ongoing series in 2016, the potential for future adventures and zippy dialogue holds wealth of potential.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Comic Book Update: "Bub, I'm the best at what I do!"

Most of the Secret Wars tie-in series I had been following have just recently wrapped up. It’s been a brief, but wild ride. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each of these series, for the very different narratives and characters they bring to the table, even if they did only last four or five issues a piece. Obviously the most high-stakes story lies with God Emperor Doom, the central figure that has cobbled all these realms of Battleworld together, but it’s been fun to branch out and explore series I might not have otherwise been so keen on investing the time and money into.

Age of Apocalypse still has one issue remaining in its 2015 reimagining. Meanwhile, Armor Wars (2015), Ghost Racers, Guardians of Knowhere, X-Men ’92, and Inhumans: Attilan Rising have all come to a close. I’ve already posted my review for Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies, which concluded last month, and which you can read here. As for the other previously mentioned series, expect reviews for them to gradually trickle out between now and the end of October.

The mid-1990s run of the original Age of Apocalypse will resume as my priority reading material. Expect reviews of the first and second numbered trade paperback releases soon. I also plan to post (somewhat long-overdue) reviews for the fifth volume of the Marvel NOW! Nova series, as well as Thanos: The Infinity Relativity, and I recently completed the third trade paperback volume of Captain Marvel. Beyond those, I will likely pick up the sixth volume of Nova, and the fifth volume of Guardians of the Galaxy later this Fall. There may also be a few odd additions to my comic book library that I purchase at this weekend’s Grand Rapids Comic-Con. Either way, expect all of the comics listed above to be among the last series I will be reading and writing reviews for between now and December 31st, as I believe that a reasonable stack for this one-man production to appropriately cover in the months that remain before year's end.

Monday, October 12, 2015

3DS review: Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D

Metal Gear Solid 3, the tale of how Naked Snake set out on the path to become Big Boss, and the effective starting point of the entire Metal Gear legacy, received a 3DS port early in the handheld’s life cycle. Much like Star Fox 64 3D, Ocarina of Time 3D, and Majora’s Mask 3D, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D is taken directly from its console version and reworked to fit the control scheme of the 3DS. However, unlike those other 3DS re-releases, Snake Eater 3D does not see any graphical upgrades from the Playstation 2 original. Which is not to say that the game is any less aesthetically pleasing or immersive than ten years ago, when it debuted – the jungles are lush and dense with greenery, the animals active, and the wandering patrols a constant threat to Snake’s location being exposed. The frame rate does, unfortunately, dip a bit during cutscenes where there are many characters or events on screen at the same time. Gameplay, however, is never hampered by this.

The touch screen is utilized wonderfully, as the stylus can be used to easily access Snake’s codec, medical supplies, and food items. Weapons and items have also been relegated to the touch screen, and nine of each can be set to be on-hand at any given time, while another icon allows you to swap those out with additional items that Snake picks up and stores in his supply pack. This cuts down significantly on switching up Snake’s loadouts, which were previously managed via a scroll wheel on the PS2 and HD Collection releases.

Snake can also draw his weapons and put them away with a press of the right shoulder button. However, a simple tap of the shoulder button will not suffice – you have to hold it down for a brief second, otherwise the input may not take. Given the stealth-heavy nature of Snake Eater 3D, this rarely proves problematic, save for a couple of the boss fights, wherein it can be mildly frustrating as you dodge attacks and attempt to quickly react to Snake’s supernaturally-powered foes. While not necessary for playing Snake Eater 3D, the 3DS’ Circle Pad Pro attachment is highly recommended for anyone already familiar with the button and joystick layouts on the home console releases. All in all, though, despite being a port of a game that whose original release was never designed with a handheld in mind, Snake Eater 3D runs very well on the system, and the new control scheme is handled wonderfully – far better than some would have suspected.

The voice acting is, of course, just as great as it was a decade ago on the PS2. David Hayter’s iconic Snake voice keeps players company for the majority of the adventure, with humor from support members Major Zero and Para-Medic often flying right over his head. Suzetta Minet portrays the sultry and quick-witted EVA, Neil Ross puts forth a commanding performance as sadistic villain Colonel Volgin, while Josh Keaton’s depiction of a young Ocelot is one of a lovable try-hard who often slips up in his own attempts to impress his superiors. A few new sequences of dialogue have been added to this 3DS release, covering the updated control scheme. All of the spoken dialogue, as well as the iconic soundtrack and titular theme song, come across clear and clean through the 3DS’ speakers.

Equally memorable to the voice work in Snake Eater 3D are the boss encounters with the members of the Cobra Unit. They remain as intense and varied as ever, seeing no alterations from their PS2 counterparts. More seasoned veterans of the Metal Gear series will likely opt for as stealthy a playthrough as possible, maximizing their camouflage percentage by pairing patterns and face paint to the surrounding environment to better avoid detection. The 3DS' camera can be utilized to make new camo patterns for Snake, though these are not as complex in nature as the game's pre-loaded camo options, and will always default to registering as the most prominent color within the picture that was taken, ignoring any less prominent colors that are a part of that same image.

For those new to the Metal Gear play style, there are plenty of weapons beyond the default silenced tranquilizer pistol that can be found in the jungle, including an AK-47, a short-barrel shotgun, an SDV sniper rifle, and a more lethal handgun, to name a few - just don't expect a warm welcome from Volgin's GRU forces if you fire loudly in their direction. Plenty of additional items and food rations can be missed, should you choose not to devote time to exploration. The 3DS' gyroscope is briefly used to balance Snake on branches and bridges, while the hidden collect-a-thon Kerotan statues have been replaced with the likeness of Mario’s green pal Yoshi.

A first time playthrough of Snake Eater 3D will likely push close to the twenty hour mark, while players who have beaten Snake Eater in the past and simply want a quick retread can finish the game in less than fifteen. Snake Eater 3D does see a few technical hang-ups, and some very minor control oversights, but more often than not it excels as yet another great handheld port of a console classic in the 3DS' library. And at the end of the day, it remains the greatest Metal Gear story ever told.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Top 5 Comic Books of 2014

Though I only started posting my comic reviews to this blog earlier this year, I first started uploading them to my YouTube channel back in 2012, beginning with Y: The Last Man and Saga. However, they did not become a regular part of my channel’s uploads until 2014, and that year saw quite a few video reviews. Below are my picks for the five best comic books that I read last year. Rest assured, I will be posting a list of the five best comic books I’ve read in 2015 this December, but I first wanted to go back and give credit where credit is due on last year’s reads. (Note: in the same vein as my year-end top five lists for best video games and anime, not all of these comic books were actually released in 2014, rather they were comic books that I read between January and December of 2014.)

#5 – Nova (volumes 1-3): One of the strongest runs in the Marvel NOW! series, Nova carries on many of the themes that drew me to the Spider-Man comics years ago, before the webslinger’s plotlines became so convoluted and of a sub-par quality. Picking up the mantle of Richard Rider and the now-annihilated Nova Corps, young Sam Alexander slowly familiarizes himself with the cosmic powers of becoming a human rocket. Sam is a wonderfully likeable kid – he stumbles in the company of long-established heroes like Beta Ray Bill and Rocket Raccoon, he has to balance the cosmic adventures of heroism with his school studies and helping his mom with household chores, and he’s willing to admit his faults and learn from them to become better as the new Nova one day at a time.

#4 – Annihilation: The first major pillar of Marvel’s mid-2000s cosmic renaissance, Annihilation lays the foundation for the eventual formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, the tensions that would lead to the War of Kings breaking out, and the eventual invasion from the Cancerverse in The Thanos Imperative. Annihilation opts to place some of Marvel’s stranger cosmic heroes and villains in the spotlight, with tales centered on Drax the Destroyer, last surviving Nova Corps member Richard Rider, shamed warrior Super Skrull, lawful extremist Ronan the Accuser, and the many heralds of Galactus. Annihilus and his insectoid army seek to devour everything in the galaxy, and with the events of Civil War playing out on Earth, Richard Rider must (reluctantly) step up to the plate as the champion and leader the galaxy needs during one of their darkest hours.

#3 – Inhumans: One of Marvel’s more bizarre cultures, The Inhumans’ future-tech and medieval hierarchy saw a revival in the late 1990s. This series, spearheaded by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee, focuses on the Inhuman society and the way the royal family keeps the city of Attilan in order, far away from the prying eyes of mankind and other superhumans. The Terrigen Mists proves a weird, but compelling rite of passage for young Inhumans once they reach maturity, and what lies in the future of each Inhuman is a greater unknown factor than even the mutants of The X-Men face on a regular basis. This Inhumans series is brilliant for its uncompromising choice to focus almost exclusively on its titular culture – Reed Richards and Namor both have minor cameos, but the remaining ninety-five percent of this story is focused on conveying just how secretive the lives of the Inhumans are, and what desperate measures a gun-jumping military division will go to in order to try and topple the fabled city of Attilan.

#2 – Venom: Reinventing one of Spider-Man’s most popular villains/rivals is no small task, and the Flash Thompson-led series (penned by Rick Remender, and later Cullen Bunn) is a bold new vision for the symbiote soldier that pays off in spades. Having returned from his military service, and having lost both of his legs in the line of duty, Flash Thompson spends many of his nights emptying bottles of alchohol, until he is presented with a highly-classified opportunity to make use of the Venom symbiote’s powers as a black-ops super soldier. Flash is sent in to the most hostile of hot zones, ordered to rescue civilians caught in the cross fire and quash enemy forces, but it isn’t long before he discovers the involvement of sadistic supervillain Jack O’Lantern, and subsequently picks up a thread that will eventually lead him to a criminal organization so closely tied to the missions Venom is tasked with putting an end to. Venom is very smart in its writing, and hones in on the difficult balance of Flash Thompson’s personal life and romance with Betty Brant, with his tactical operations as Agent Venom, ever-aware of the fact that his employers have placed a kill-switch on him in the event that the Symbiote gains control and runs rampant. Venom is one of the best examples of Marvel taking a character of relatively minor importance, rounding them out, and giving them their own series wherein they are not only consistently human and imperfect in nature, but where they emerge to stand so tall in the company of long-established heroes and villains.

#1 – Age of Ultron: An alternate history where Ultron bested the Avengers in one fell swoop, few heroes remain to challenge the vengeful A.I. The remaining Marvel heroes are battered, beaten, and have practically no plans for taking down Ultron, until Captain America comes up with a desperate plan. I found the cast of Age of Ultron a wonderful mix of the more mainstream heroes and some of the less iconic Marvel characters. Age of Ultron does not present a ‘who’s who’ of the most physically powerful of characters in Marvel history, rather a collective of the most quick-witted and capable during the descending mechanical apocalypse, or those who simply lucked out in not being at the epicenter of Ultron’s attack. Gone are Hulk, Thor, three members of the Fantastic Four, and the majority of the X-Men. Tony Stark’s sanity begins to slip, Cap’s faith in his own leadership abilities waver, and an uneasy alliance is struck between Red Hulk, Black Panther, and Taskmaster. Age of Ultron paints a bleak picture, a seemingly unwinnable scenario, and the extreme measures that these heroes are willing to go in order to return the world to some semblance of its state prior to Ultron’s takeover.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Comic Book review: Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Volume One: Priceless

When Marvel acquired the rights to Angela, formerly a character from Image’s Spawn comics, they chose to place her in the company of the Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a bold move, to be sure, but she felt right at home in that cosmic setting. Angela was hell on legs, able to best most of the Guardians in battle before befriending them, and carrying on a flirtatious rivalry with Gamora. It was a gamble that paid off in spades, as Angela was able to flourish in her own identity, playing off the Guardians wonderfully, while still feeling as though there was plenty of potential for development down the road.

Enter Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, a series wherein Angela is the main character, rediscovering her Asgardian roots, and quickly finding herself on the run from her long-lost brothers Odinson and Loki. Her crime? Stealing her younger sister, eventual heir to the Asgardian throne, and leaping through the nine realms with the baby in tow. Also in Angela’s company is Sera, a former angel who lived not unlike a monk among the few male angels before leaving on her adventures with Angela. At some point before the start of this first volume, Sera was killed, only to be mysteriously resurrected, and Angela’s desire to know why and how Sera returned to the land of the living serves as a secondary mystery.

There is a lot going on in this first trade paperback volume – too much, in fact. While Odinson and Loki are shown as the initial pursuers, some of the forces of Hel also chase after Angela, Sera, and the baby, while the story flashes back every so often to Asgard to explore Odin and his views on this very complicated family reunion. Yet, there is actually quite a limited amount of time spent in Heven. Only during the last couple of chapters do Angela and Sera actually enter the realm of the Angels, a place which boasts more future-tech than myth and magic. Given how significant a change-up to the previously-established nine realms this new tenth one is, Marvel could have easily devoted an entire trade paperback volume solely to Angela’s roots and the history of the angels.

Angela’s portrayal sees an odd reversal from how she was depicted in the Guardians of the Galaxy comics. She’s still willing to cut down anyone who challenges her, but has lost much of the ferocity she was once known and feared for. Instead, she preaches the system of repayment that the angels apparently base all of their actions around – if someone asks her for a favor, Angela will oblige, but only after reminding them that they must eventually offer her something of a similar value (whether said offering is a physical object or action). It’s an interesting concept, but one that wholly contradicts her presentation in the Guardians comics.

Angela: Asgard’s Assassin is quite heavily steeped in the mythos of the Thor comics, and current events from Odinson’s life. The Thor comics have long existed within their own sphere, to a certain degree, separate from the more closely-interwoven storylines of Avengers members, the X-Men, and most of the other Earth-based heroes. The same can be said of cosmic Marvel – much as Nova, Captain Marvel, and the Guardians of the Galaxy might cross paths with one another, Asgardians tend to stick to the realm of might and magic, save for Thor’s frequent team-ups with Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and the other core Avengers members. Nine times out of ten, there is so much lore at play in the Thor comics that it is difficult, even discouraging for newcomers to jump on board, and while Angela: Asgard’s Assassin is not quite as explicit an offender in this regard, there is still a decent portion of backstory that is barely even glossed over, with the assumption that readers are up to speed on recent Asgardian history.

Angela does earn herself a radical new outfit by the end of this trade paperback collection, and the action sequences are plenty exciting to look at. But as a character, Angela performs best when she receives the spotlight for more than just violent actions. Future storylines centered around this fallen angel will prove far better if their narratives are not so restricted to the current events of the Asgardians.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Top 10 Vocal Tracks in the Metal Gear Series (#10-6)

Earlier this year, I wrote up two top five lists for songs from the Metal Gear series. One was focused on orchestrated tracks, while the other was focused on the series’ vocal tracks. While I still feel the selections I chose for both of those lists are deserving of the rankings that I assigned them, there are other Metal Gear theme songs that I feel deserve mentions. As such, I have crafted a follow-up to the vocal track list – a ‘part two’, if you will. If you missed the original list featuring the top five vocal tracks, you can check it out here.

#10 – The Stains of Time (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance): Though Metal Gear Rising boasted a loud and bombastic soundtrack during its early hours, The Stains of Time is reflective of the way in which the narrative begins to ramp up, and the themes at play head into darker territory. Monsoon is certainly one of the more freakish boss characters Raiden squares off against, having his entire body segemented into small pieces, allowing him to split apart and reform as he makes quick strikes with his octagon sais. The music and battle only become more intense, as Monsoon hurls military vehicles at Raiden, while the cyborg ninja protagonist ultimately embraces his inner demons, letting Jack the Ripper run free in order to inflict greater damage on Monsoon chop him up into even smaller pieces from which he cannot reassemble.

#9 – Rules of Nature (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance): While perhaps not officially the main theme of Metal Gear Rising, Rules of Nature is certainly one of the most popular tracks to come from the game. Rules of Nature accompanies one of Raiden’s first boss battles, against a towering Metal Gear Ray. During the first stage of this fight, Raiden slashes the Metal Gear’s armor off, and uses his cyborg enhancements to hurl it through the air. Later on, the Metal Gear takes a second attempt at besting Raiden, only for the cyborg ninja to jump across the barrage of missiles it fires his way, sprint straight down the side of a crumbling clock tower, and finish the mechanized foe off for good. Rules of Nature is an unapologetic, fast-paced adrenaline rush that perfectly encapsulates this battle, and the overall vibe of Metal Gear Rising.

#8 – Heavens Divide (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker): Heavens Divide begins softly, not unlike Portable Ops’ main theme of Calling to the Night. But it gradually picks up pace and volume, delivering a message about Snake taking responsibility for his past and present, and his forging his own path toward the future. While Snake Eater was the major turning point whereby Naked Snake lost faith in his home country and government, Peace Walker focuses on Snake’s taking the title of Big Boss to heart, training an organized military and setting forth on a path to finally lay to rest his internal struggles with The Boss’ actions from ten years prior. Heavens Divide weaves a tale of loss and sorrow, resulting in the eventual solidification of Big Boss’ ideals and determination to create a military without a nation.

#7 – A Phantom Pain (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain): A Phantom Pain’s dark atmosphere and synth sounds are a wonderful mash-up for a few reasons. First and foremost, the lyrics are reflect loss, lingering pain, and the self-destructive nature of revenge, themes which affect all of The Phantom Pain’s major players, in some form or another. Secondly, its choice of instrumentation, with heavy emphasis on keyboard and electric guitar, are perfect matches for the game’s 1980s setting, as is one so-close-to-being-cheesy-that-it’s-great saxophone solo. A Phantom Pain deals with the search for oneself after the jarring losses of battle – whether physical or psychological – have been stacked, and the impact that has on someone and their peers.

# 6 – Sins of the Father (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain): The most thematically appropriate vocal track in the series since Snake Eater’s self-titled theme song, Sins of the Father is a powerful, commanding tune. Its lyrics paint the dark path Punished ‘Venom’ Snake will embark upon, while haunting wails beautifully match the tumultuous backdrops of the Afghanistan desert and the African jungle. Listening to the lyrics after following The Phantom Pain’s story to its conclusion further reveals just how specific to the game’s events Sins of the Father truly is.

Comic Book review: Uncanny Avengers, Volume One: The Red Shadow

As part of the Marvel NOW! movement, Uncanny Avengers sees a new Avengers team, dubbed the Avengers Unity Squad, emerge from the recent death of Charles Xavier, a crippling loss to both the superhuman and mutant communities alike. The first issue opens with Wolverine delivering a speech at Xavier’s memorial service, reminiscing on how Xavier saw so much potential in him and every other student that came through his school’s doors, and that despite their efforts, Wolverine does not feel that believers in Charles Xavier’s ideals have managed to properly make it a reality. It’s Wolverine at perhaps his most likeable – a straight-shooter who doesn’t soften his blows, but at the same time does not go out of his way to pick fights with others if they simply disagree with him, and refrains from his once-feral tendencies.

The story then cuts to Havok, who is visiting his brother Cyclops in a S.H.I.E.L.D. maximum security cell, as Cyclops was apparently the one directly responsible for Xavier’s death. While this first volume of Uncanny Avengers does well to set the stage for future conflicts, this scene presents one oversight where new readers are not given enough context to understand the full series of events that led to Cyclops killing Xavier, only that Cyclops doesn’t seem to be all too upset by his actions, while Havok believes the human-mutant relationship is at risk for being further strained. It is not long after that Havok is visited by Captain America and Thor, with the red, white, and blue icon asking Havok if he would like to join the Avengers as the leader of a new team.

The pacing that this first trade paperback of Uncanny Avengers adopts is notably slower than other first entries in the Marvel NOW! lineup. By the time the fifth and final issue in this collection comes to a conclusion, the team has still not fully formed, as certain members are reluctant to get along with one another – more specifically, Rogue and Scarlet Witch, with the former holding a grudge over the later for the ‘No More Mutants’ event. Scarlet Witch, meanwhile, maintains that there are greater things at play than Rogue can perceive, and is even painted as more of an antagonist early on, before she is faced with a greater threat facing the Avengers and the community of Marvel heroes at large. Even Captain America has to be reminded of the fact that Havok is the man in charge on a couple of occasions.

Red Skull is this volume’s primary villain, and his Nazi roots resurface in spades as he attempts to influence the masses of New York into spilling one another’s blood in order to wipe out the 'mutant menace'. With Charles Xavier dead, Red Skull has extracted the psychic brain of the famous X-Men leader, and fused it to his own, granting him incredible powers of persuasion and deception over the Avengers Unity Team. He is able to penetrate Captain America’s mind briefly, leading to an argument in the heat of battle between the star-spangled Avenger and Havok. Perhaps even more threatening are the similarly persuasive abilities of one of Red Skull's henchmen, Honest John, who influences Thor to do battle with his former friends and allies.

The other minor villains that Red Skull employs are considerably less memorable, and appear in a limited number of panels. Almost half of this first volume is devoted to the Avengers’ battle with Red Skull, and the press conference that follows, wherein Havok feels that transparency will be their best option if they hope to convince the public that Charles Xavier’s vision lives on, and that they can put their faith in a mutant-superhuman team like the Avengers Unity Squad. Red Skull is cunning and devious a villain as ever, while the dialogue between all of the major characters in Uncanny Avengers properly reflects the team's growing pains. That said, it would have been nice for this story to cover a little more ground, because even though it has the makings of a strong origin for this new Avengers team, it feels like merely the first half of said origin story. All of which is made doubly odd, considering how much later portions of the story tease events to come, specifically from the events of Marvel’s AXIS crossover event.

My rating: 7.25

Monday, September 28, 2015

Xbox 360 review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Nine years after the sabotage and destruction of Mother Base that acted as the cliffhanger ending of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain opens with Big Boss awakening in a hospital to the shocking discovery that there is a shard of metal lodged in his skull and his left arm is missing from the elbow down. As a doctor explains the situation to him, tries to calm him down, and ease him back into the land of the living, word that ‘V has come to' quickly spreads, and it is not long before the hospital is besieged by heavily-armed forces. Barely able to stand, Big Boss, aka Punished ‘Venom’ Snake struggles to regain his ability to walk, while a mysterious bandaged friend calling himself Ishmael acts as his guide out of the hospital.

The route is dangerous, as the militant forces have orders to shoot everyone in the hospital, and Ishmael and Snake encounter what appears to be a flaming projection of Volgin, the Soviet colonel from Operation: Snake Eater. This first leg of the journey is largely an interactive story segment which teaches players the basic controls as they pertain to The Phantom Pain’s stealth and combat techniques. The escalation of events beyond the player’s control is intense, and ultimately the two patients are forced to dupe their would-be assassins, steal an ambulance, and avoid a pursuing helicopter before crashing through a roadblock. Snake passes out for a brief period, and awakens to find no trace of Ishmael, but rather is introduced to Revolver Ocelot, his contact from the newly-reconstructed Mother Base. Ocelot and Snake board a freighter ship to waters near the Seychelles Isles, where XO Kazuhira Miller ordered the new Mother Base be constructed in Snake’s absence.

The first orders of business in setting the stage for events to come are equipping Snake with all of his familiar gear, as well as a new robotic arm, and explaining to players (whether they previously experienced Ground Zeroes or not) that Skull Face is still at large, commanding XOF as a rogue agency no longer tied to the United States government. It’s just the right amount of information and story content to dish out to players this early on. The massive open world exploration element is kept in perspective, for the time being, as Ocelot informs Snake that Miller ran into some trouble during his most recent operation, and likely only has a few days to live before his Soviet captors decide they are through trying to interrogate him.

Each mission Snake embarks on during the game’s first eight hours or so is set in Afghanistan, where tall cliffs limit the number of available routes, but large rocks and hilly terrain offer sufficient cover for Snake, even as he rides past enemy outposts in D-Horse’s saddle. Afghanistan is, as Ocelot informs Snake, a big place, and there is great deal of time spent simply travelling from one location to another early on, though destroying anti-air radar emplacements can open up new landing zones for Mother Base’s helicopters. This map is also a stark contrast in design to the later-accessible African border region between Angola and Zaire, which is technically smaller in size overall, but the open plains and dense jungle provide Snake with a greater freedom to immediately drop in and explore, take on side-ops, and scope out enemy patrols.

Any misgivings about the open-world gameplay adopted by The Phantom Pain should be put to rest. The ability to rely completely on stealth is just as strong as ever, and plenty satisfying to boot. For players who wish to go loud and shoot up a base of enemies with automatic weapons, however, The Phantom Pain does not punish this approach, provided you have something of a plan in mind before storming a heavily-fortified base. More than any Metal Gear title before it, The Phantom Pain offers some truly creative solutions for players who can think on the fly and adapt to the situation as it changes. While Ground Zeroes felt incredibly limited in its scope and restricted in its freedom of play, The Phantom Pain welcomes experimentation, and on the off chance that you are killed in action and receive a ‘game over’ screen, it is always fair, placing responsibility on the player and their choices both in the moment and prior to engaging the enemy.

Enemies are quite a bit smarter than in previous Metal Gear titles, and will receive helmets, shields, and full body armor as word spreads of Snake besting their comrades. The Phantom Pain is somewhat forgiving, though, as the moment an enemy spots you does not immediately put all nearby soldiers on alert. Instead, Snake is granted a brief window to tranquilize, kill, or (provided he is close enough) perform a CQC takedown on the soldier that spotted him. This addition is most appreciated when infiltrating fortresses with high walls that prevent Snake from properly scoping out all enemies therein. The weather and time of day also play important roles in the enemy’s visibility. Obviously, nighttime is ideal for infiltration missions, as enemy soldiers have a smaller field of view away from light sources, and rain storms in Africa further obscure their vision. Dust storms will occasionally whip up in Afghanistan, lasting approximately two minutes at a time, and practically cover the entire area in a thick, blowing cloud – this can prove a double-edged sword, as the enemy is practically blind, but if Snake has not scanned the area beforehand, so too is he.

There is also a great deal of freedom in which weapons and gear Snake takes into battle with him. Grenade launchers, RPGs, and explosives like C4 are generally best-suited to missions that require the destruction of heavily armored vehicles, as they are among the most expensive to equip. But the sheer number of these that can be developed, along with assault rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, pistols, grenades, and camo patterns is astounding, and further reinforces the notion that you can play The Phantom Pain virtually any way you like. The ability to develop certain items is restricted until you have added sufficient personnel to Mother Base’s R&D team, and of course, each individual item costs GMP, the game’s monetary value that is earned in large sums upon the completion of each main game mission and side-op. Some of the wackier loadout options, like the Rocket Arm and cardboard boxes decked out with supermodel posters or anime characters, prove the most entertaining, despite perhaps not being universally practical.

Mother Base is divided into more than a half-dozen struts, each of which can be further built up over time. It does cost a great deal of GMP and resources like fuel, metals, and biological materials to expand Mother Base, but the benefits are more than worth the lengthy wait times between each addition. Building more platforms for your Intel team means that they can offer you greater information about your surroundings, while R&D will develop new weapons and gear more quickly if they have the space to support a larger team, and so forth.

GMP is also spent calling in fire support from your helicopter and for retrieving prisoners, unconscious enemy troops, wildlife, and vehicles alike with the Fulton balloon system, and it is a good idea to maintain a healthy amount of GMP at all times, as dipping into negative numbers means that Mother Base soldiers may leave due to dissatisfaction with the way Snake is running the show. Conversely, the more Snake displays heroism and grows Mother Base, the more likely volunteers are to show up on his doorstep, requesting to join his Diamond Dog forces. Each and every Mother Base soldier displays a specific set of traits, making some better suited for particular teams, and ill-suited for others. Some also boast unique abilities that can lessen or increase the likelihood of fights breaking out, and even perform special moves should players choose to take control of these characters for missions over Snake. Mother Base troops will have their morale increased upon visits home by Snake, and while there isn’t a ton to do on Mother Base, players can scour each platform for diamonds to up their GMP, engage in shooting range side-ops, and stumble across some cleverly-placed easter eggs.

While D-Horse is the first ‘buddy’ character Snake is allowed to deploy with into missions, the trusty steed’s fast gallop can be swapped for three other buddies, each with their own unique support roles. D-Dog, a wild pup that Snake encounters in Afghanistan, grows up under the training of Ocelot, and can eventually be utilized as a radar for detecting the exact location of all nearby enemies, wild animals, and plant life. While D-Dog’s default loadout allows him the option to distract enemy soldiers, he can later be outfitted with a knife or stun baton for stealthy enemy takedowns.

Quiet, the voiceless Sniper, moves at inhuman speeds, similarly scoping out enemy patrols from a distance, and picking them off one by one per Snake’s orders. Quiet is best utilized by players who prefer direct intervention, or who want a backup plan in case the enemy bears down on Snake with everything at their disposal. Quiet’s standard sniper rifle can be swapped for a tranquilizer rifle, while her alternate outfits are more aesthetically amusing than they are situation-sensitive. Finally, Huey’s D-Walker offers a travel speed slightly slower than that of D-Horse, but with offensive options like a gatling gun and rocket launcher, as well as a defensive buffer to the front. Each ‘buddy’ will be recalled from the field if they take too many hits, however, and this will subsequently weaken Snake’s bond with them, while properly utilizing their abilities and ensuring their safety will strengthen Snake’s bond with them.

The main missions during the first act of The Phantom Pain are largely concerned with piecing together the puzzle of Skull Face’s master plan, one ‘weapon to surpass Metal Gear’. While the pacing of the game is spot-on, the story sequences – one of the Metal Gear series’ most popular and famous offerings – are sparse until the second act. While it is appreciated that The Phantom Pain does not bog players down with extensive cutscenes as Guns of the Patriots once did, MGSV cuts back on its narrative a bit too much. Metal Gear villains have long held a commanding presence in their respective games, and Skull Face is no different, walking a fine line between theatrically confident and cunningly evil. But when his plan is revealed in full, it is underwhelming, and offers too much room for error.

The second half of The Phantom Pain does increase the frequency with which the story is sprinkled in. Kaz becomes increasingly suspicious of Huey, believing he was responsible for the security breach that destroyed the old Mother Base. Quiet finds the soldiers on Mother Base are not all keen on her presence, calling her a freak and generally distrusting her. And Snake is forced to carry out some very heavy actions that, while perhaps necessary, are important steps in painting both himself and the forces of Outer Heaven as more of villains than heroes by the time the events of the first Metal Gear occur.

The Phantom Pain fills in the last major gap of time between the era of Big Boss and the era of Solid Snake, and as such, is less concerned with presenting grand revelations pertaining to the series at large than most other Metal Gear titles. The events of The Phantom Pain are guided in large part by what transpired in both Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes, and ultimately the endgame plays most prominently into the events of Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and Metal Gear Solid. Some of The Phantom Pain’s strongest moments lie in its second act, but so too do its greatest faults. Roughly half of the second act’s main missions are simply retreads of missions taken on during the first act, with higher difficulty settings or more specific rules in place. In addition, the penultimate chapter that would otherwise provide The Phantom Pain with a clean, complete finale is entirely absent, leaving a humongous plot point hanging with no resolution.

Boss fights are also quite sparse in The Phantom Pain, though the handful that are present pay homage to previous titles in the series. A sniper duel between Snake and Quiet mirrors that of the battle with The End in Snake Eater, and the general design and abilities of Metal Gear Sahelanthropus offer throwbacks to Metal Gear Rex from the PS1’s Metal Gear Solid. One particular close-quarters battle with Skull Face’s elite Skulls unit even incorporates quick-time reactions reminiscent of Metal Gear Rising.

Side-ops are entertaining, more relaxed distractions from The Phantom Pain’s main missions, offering up goofy scenarios like tracking down a legendary bear to tranquilize and bring back to Mother Base’s animal sanctuary, or infiltrating a Soviet-occupied base to rescue a sheep via fulton balloon extraction. Other side-ops are more run of the mill fanfare, such as extracting prisoners, and destroying heavy infantry or armored patrol units. Side ops typically require less careful planning of Snake’s loadouts beforehand, and it can be easy to find yourself burning through three, five, or ten at a time, in-between The Phantom Pain’s main missions.

While Metal Gear Online may not yet be up and running, The Phantom Pain does offer an online component in the form of an F.O.B. invasion. F.O.B.s, or forward-operating bases, can be constructed in waters beyond the main Mother Base, and serve to further establish Big Boss’ presence to the outside world. Snake can infiltrate an enemy base for a GMP reward, depending on how well he manages to sneak past the troops stationed there, but your own base(s) will similarly be potential targets for other players to invade. F.O.B. invasions are an interesting afterthought, but they lack substance, and do not return as high-value rewards as the deployment missions Snake can send Mother Base soldiers on against CPU forces.

Many fans were, understandably, disappointed to hear that longtime voice of Snake, David Hayter, would not be returning to reprise the character in MGSV. It’s difficult to fully accept Kiefer Sutherland as the new voice of Snake, not because of the quality of his performance, but because of how infrequently he adds anything to the conversation. On the whole, Kiefer Sutherland does a sufficient job of carrying such an iconic role, but would be far more memorable if he spoke more than a few words at any given juncture – a stark contrast to Hayter’s rather talkative portrayal of Snake in every other major Metal Gear entry. As a rippling effect of this, Snake frequently comes across as more of an observer of events unfolding on Mother Base and during his missions than an active participant, at least during cutscenes and other scripted sequences.

Robin Atkin Downes and Troy Baker put forth strong performances as Kazuhira Miller and Ocelot, respectively. Downes does a phenomenal job at conveying Miller’s desire for revenge, and the hatred he harbors towards Skull Face’s XOF forces for destroying the old Mother Base, yet still maintains a strong-willed presence and great degree of faith and respect in Snake, even if he does attempt to go over his head during a few key instances. There is a constant tension in the air whenever Snake and Miller are present in the same scene, due in no small part to Downes’ performance. Troy Baker, meanwhile, manages to present Ocelot in the prime of his adulthood, without sounding too similar to other middle-aged roles he’s performed in the past, like The Last of Us’ Joel or Bioshock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt. Baker gives the famous gunslinger an appropriately deeper voice than Josh Keaton’s performance of a youthful Ocelot in Snake Eater, but dials back a few notches from Patric Zimmerman’s famous raspy voice from Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty, and Guns of the Patriots.

As Snake explores Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region, he will receive cassette tapes – some that are delivered by Miller and Ocelot containing mission-sensitive information, and others that contain musical tracks. Many of the audio tapes will prove a real treat to hardcore Metal Gear fans, referencing events from Snake Eater and Peace Walker, while others provide greater context to Skull Face’s motives and the origins of XOF. Playing Metal Gear theme songs of yesteryear while carrying out missions delivers a good dose of nostalgia, but blasting one of the many hidden 80s pop and rock tapes can make for some wacky, thoroughly amusing moments. Better yet, you can set any of these songs to blast from your helicopter’s speaker system, so as to bear down on unsuspecting enemies with rockets launching to the tunes of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”, The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love”, Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy” or Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”.

As for the original orchestrated soundtrack, The Phantom Pain’s musical stylings deviate a surprising degree from those in previous games. The few reprises of classic Metal Gear themes that do sneak their way in to the mix are quite subdued. Sins of the Father, meanwhile, is a powerful and commanding vocal track, with lyrics that are among the most thematically-appropriate to a Metal Gear title since Snake Eater’s self-titled jazzy James Bond-esque number.

The Fox Engine once again outdoes itself, as The Phantom Pain looks shockingly good, even on a last-generation console like the Xbox 360. There are some minor shortcomings when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One versions, such as certain textures sporting less detail and requiring the occasional bump-in load. As the game installs on the system’s hard drive prior to your first play session, load times between missions are kept to a reasonable speed. Draw distances are superb, offering Snake the ability yo scope out vast distances, provided the terrain does not obscure his field of vision. The blurred distance effects are nowhere near as harsh on the eyes in the Xbox 360 version as they are on the PS4 or the Xbox One. I never stumbled across any noticeable dips in frame rate, and only encountered one odd, non-threatening glitch during my playthrough – very much appreciated, given the track record of other contemporary open world games.

In addition to catering to any play style you like, The Phantom Pain reflects player loadouts and time away on missions within cutscenes. When Snake begins an interaction with Ocelot and Kaz, he’ll be wearing whichever camo pattern players last dressed the legendary soldier in. If Snake has been taking to more direct means of intervention, shooting up enemy soldiers, his face will be streaked with blood, while even a long series of stealth ops will depict Snake with sweat dripping from his brow.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is far from a perfect game. The lessened focus on a complex narrative will likely leave veteran fans hungry for more, especially with the knowledge that the final leg of Snake’s journey is left incomplete. That said, the story elements that are at play prove, by and large, of the same carefully-calculated nature that Kojima is known for. The few major twists that come to pass are masterfully executed, and the nigh-on perfect gameplay The Phantom Pain sports certainly helps ease the pain of the elements that are absent. The Phantom Pain travels to some dark places, with plot points that teeter closer to reality than other games in the series. While The Phantom Pain may not be the definitive masterpiece fans had hoped would cap off Hideo Kojima’s nearly-thirty-year run of directing the Metal Gear series, it is still one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this year. It’s a shame that the circumstances surrounding Konami, Kojima, and the game’s development process did not pan out more smoothly, as the full, completed vision for The Phantom Pain would have no doubt earned a considerably higher overall score.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)
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