Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top 5 Multiplayer Maps in Halo: Reach

While it may have been Bungie’s swan song to the Halo franchise, Halo: Reach also marked the culmination of all their efforts over the nine years they spent crafting conflict of the Human-Covenant War. Though the narrative of Reach may have opted to go back in time, acting as a precursor to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, the gameplay combined many of the best elements from the other games. Players were limited to one gun at a time, something that had not been a staple of the franchise for nine years, but the faster turnaround on reloads and mobility offered a satisfactory handling in the vein of Halo 2. Meanwhile, Halo 3’s equipment came into its own in the form of more well-balanced and practical loadouts that could be selected at the start of a multiplayer round (with some equipment options more heavily emphasized for certain gametypes). Playlists catered to a variety of fan-favorite game types, while also introducing a few new modes, encouraging community content via the incredibly user-friendly Forge World, and even added in a cleaner take on the Firefight mode first tested in Halo 3: ODST. Halo: Reach’s launch may have been marked by a somewhat smaller offering of multiplayer maps than fans were used to, but this was counteracted in part by the offerings of Forge World as well as the general polish on the maps that were readily available at launch. As was the case with the preceding Halo games, though, some of my personal favorite maps did not see the light of day until months later, when the DLC packs were released.

#5 – Boneyard: Among the multiplayer offerings in Halo: Reach were two new game types, Headhunter and Invasion. Invasion settled halfway between the Team Objective and Big Team Battle playlists, pitting teams of six or more against one another. While one team attempted to capture one of two points designated on the map at a time, the other defended in hopes that they could thwart the invaders’ three-stage assault. Boneyard was a massive map, with multiple structures that provided many high vantage points for the defending Spartans, while the invading team of Elites relied on their more varied loadouts and the long distance from one objective point to the other to try and breach the shipyard’s defenses. Boneyard was also a rare breed, in that, while it ranked among the largest Reach had to offer, the hollowed-out ship situated at the center, the warehouse off to the far side, and the large sections of cover that littered the dirt below encouraged strategic play. No vehicle, nor any particular weapon loadout, guaranteed a longstanding advantage over the competition, given the multiple routes players could use to push on through from one end to the other, and this proved similarly in the more pure and free-form Big Team Battles.

#4 – Anchor 9: While it was amusing to see how Bungie managed to work in most of the multiplayer maps that shipped with the retail release of Reach into the campaign missions in a genuinely cohesive manner, Some of the DLC maps were arguably a better illustration of Bungie’s creativity in design. Anchor 9 took a look inside the UNSC docking station orbiting Reach that was introduced in the mission Long Night of Solace. The map took advantage of the game’s previously-established low-gravity physics, offering a section that ran the far edge of the map for players to land heavy strikes on foes as they attempted quick pushes toward the other base. The more roundabout method of traversing the medium size map required players to duck behind crates and make use of Anchor 9’s power weapons. Defending bases, meanwhile, was a matter of one team making the most of their high ground, and the limited cover from short hallways, narrow staircases, and mounted turrets that came with said territory. While rounds of Capture the Flag on Anchor 9 formed somewhat predictable strategies on part of the attacking team, Slayer matches were anything but, and the kill count could suddenly shift with players capitalizing on the element of surprise.

#3 – Reflection: There are certainly a few patterns in my choices of favorite maps thus far, one of the most noteworthy being the return to my Halo 2 roots. Ivory Tower was a map that I had always enjoyed in its original Halo 2 incarnation, but one that never quite matched up to my previously detailed favorites. It’s almost wholly unchanged remake, Reflection, was a great pick for Bungie to include in Halo: Reach, as the equipment functions add an extra dynamic to the small-scale, multi-level map, improving the balance in the advantages opposing teams have. Reflection is at its best during Slayer matches, but variants for Infection and Headhunter run quite smooth as well. The map looks gorgeous to boot, with a gold glow setting in over nearly every reflective texture on the appropriately titled map.

#2 – Powerhouse: Despite its large, open and round center, most of Powerhouse’s kills were earned within the structures set off to the sides, as well as along the top ring of the water reservoir. Over-confident players might attempt to scope out player’s locations on the map by using the jetpack, but this typically resulted in their being swiftly shot down. Powerhouse’s semi-symmetrical design and medium size offered a great setting for SWAT, Team Slayer, and Rumble Pit matches, with the later two often resulting in kills from less traditional weapons. Lobbing grenades around corners and bouncing them off walls to finish off a foe who crouched in hiding just out of sight at the bottom of one of the staircases was always satisfying, while curiously enough the Needler proved one of the most prized weapons that players would scramble for at the start of a match.

#1 – Condemned: Unfortunately pushed to the wayside after the Anniversary playlist updates, Condemned was a map that I loved for all of the same reasons I enjoyed Halo 3's Orbital – coincidentally, they share a similar aesthetic, both falling into the territory of UNSC space stations. Condemned’s semi-symmetrical layout offered some emphasis on the stage’s more powerful weapons, but not as consistently as maps originating from a similar school of thought. The most frantic scuffles often took place in the low-gravity center, where the rockets spawned. The switch between normal gravity and the slower jumps of outer space played a more consistently impactful role here than they did on Anchor 9, as the low-gravity environment was situated at the center of the map. Every shot counted as much as every lunge across this middle portion did, setting an extra layer of tension over team-based matches, and demanding a greater degree of care in lining up headshots or making sure your weapon loadout could provide an advantage as you floated through the muffled space, sectioned off from the normal conditions of the outer ring.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Comic Book review: Moon Knight: The Death of Marc Spector

My review of Moon Knight: The Death of Marc Spector. Written by Mike Benson and Peter Milligan, illustrated by Mark Texeira, Javier Saltares, and Laurence Campbell.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

"You Look Terrible, Snake" #2 - Halo 4

"Don't make a girl a promise... if you know you can't keep it." - Cortana (Halo 2)

The release of Halo: Reach marked the end of Bungie’s exclusivity contract with Microsoft, and the end of their days developing Halo games, as they looked towards new frontiers with their next project, Destiny. But Halo was destined to remain a property under the ownership of Microsoft, who had created a department specifically for continuing the Halo storyline, dubbed 343 Industries. 343 Industries would be tasked not only with the development of future games in the bestelling series, but weaving tales for novels, comic books, and live action series that helped to fill the gaps between games. During the Bungie era, there were a number of Halo novels written that provided greater context to the Spartan program, the UNSC vs. Insurrectionist conflict that preceded the Human-Covenant War, and explored other Forerunner artifacts that Doctor Halsey had examined prior to the crew of The Pillar of Autumn stumbling across Alpha Halo at the beginning of the first game.

As part of the buildup to the 343 Industries-directed Halo 4, which would signal the start of the new ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’, two novel trilogies were launched. The first dealt with a UNSC team known as Kilo Five, and took place in the then-present day of the Halo universe, bridging the gap between Halo 3 and Halo 4, and exploring the fragile peace that existed between the Human race and their reluctant Sangheili comrades. This trilogy would go on to explain how some of the Sangheili grew restless in the post-war peace time, and opted to splinter off into their own faction to continue their warrior-like ways in seeking out Forerunner artifacts, thus setting the stage for Master Chief’s unexpected encounter with antagonistic Elites and Grunts early in Halo 4. The other trilogy of novels went far back in time to provide a direct narrative of the last days of the Forerunner empire, setting up for Halo 4’s major plotline that saw the return of the Ur-Didact and his desire to wipe humankind from the galaxy, under the belief that they proved the greatest threat to its stability in the absence of The Flood.

Many of Halo 4's highest points come courtesy of the Didact being such an intimidating villain.

While I personally found the Forerunner trilogy to be among the best Halo tie-in novels released to date, there was something exceptionally odd about their being so contextually important to the events of Halo 4. The same went for the Kilo Five trilogy – sure, I had read these precursor texts as my anticipation for the new game built, but in the grand scheme of things, only a small portion of the Halo fanbase would go out of their way to acquire and read these novels. Previous Halo novels like Ghosts of Onyx, Contact Harvest, The Fall of Reach, and The Cole Protocol did well to expand upon the existing universe, but not a single one of these was necessary reading in order to grasp the context of the games. Anyone could play from Halo: Combat Evolved up through Halo 3 and successfully gather the core of Master Chief’s story – the aforementioned novels provided further backstory to other characters and events, the majority of which preceded the events of the games by many years. But both the Forerunner and Kilo Five trilogies were so tightly connected to the narrative of Halo 4, I find it a wonder the delivery of the single-player campaign managed to come across as well as it did.

Consider this required reading material.

Halo 4’s campaign is incredibly short-lived, even when compared to the games that came before it. Yet, it hits high notes from start to finish, with Master Chief’s race to stop the Didact’s plans standing strong as the core conflict of the game. It’s quite surprising, in fact, that this smaller-scale and more personal battle between two men out of their own time handles so convincingly in a series that has long been about a large-scale conflict between an alien conglomerate and the human military. The game delivers a satisfying conclusion that wraps up its own story without too much in the way of cliffhanger content, yet leaves enough doors open the ensure future games and associated media have sufficient material to draw from.

The combination of the campaign being so brief, yet so well-written, certainly left me with somewhat complicated feelings toward it, and perhaps more importantly, toward the future of the franchise under the banner of 343 Industries. But with Bungie veteran Frank O’Connor relocating to the 343 Industries team, I was hopeful that Halo 4’s story was more a reflection of the studio wanting to play things safe during their first proper outing than a signifier that the series would teeter toward the realm of Metal Gear with a highly complicated narrative than would be as spun up in the core games as it would any and all spinoff material. While the former may very well have been the case for the campaign mode, the online multiplayer and Spartan Ops modes revealed an uglier truth.

The Halo games have provided me with a ludicrous number of hours of entertainment in online play. From Halo 2 onward, friends and I would take part in a variety of Slayer and objective-based matches, from the close quarters of Lockout and Turf, to the vehicular carnage on Valhalla and Sandtrap, to the new game types of Invasion and Headhunter introduced in Halo: Reach. Halo retained a unique identity in the online multiplayer scene. While Halo 3 and Halo: Reach both offered players the option to alter the appearance of their multiplayer Spartan avatar, these were purely for aesthetic purposes, and no restrictions on unlocks were associated with any weapons or ability loadouts. Halo 4, however, painted a much different picture – one that wandered a tad too far into the realm of every other first-person shooter on the market for my own tastes.

Highly-detailed Spartan armor cannot disguise the huge steps backwards the competitive multiplayer took.

Better weapons and abilities were unlocked at higher levels, and this sucked a large amount of the fun from the multiplayer experience. Ordinance drops of heavy weapons rewarding the winning team even more of an edge over the competition led team matches to feel incredibly lopsided. The map layouts either evoked rather direct memories of their Halo 3 and Reach predecessors, in that their designs deviated so little from what had already been established, or were too outlandish and impractical for more than one or two game types. While I abhor the competitive multiplayer format of practically every other major first-person shooter, I think it is worth mentioning that I actually performed quite well in the majority of the Halo 4 Slayer matches I did play. But the lack of enjoyment I found from them led me to abandon them so quickly, that my objective with Halo 4 became solely focused on completing the campaign, a feat which was completed in a grand total of three sittings – and I was by no means attempting to rush through it.

Spartan Ops was an abysmal series of short missions that lacked any inspiration in either design or narrative, asking little more of you, the player, than to kill every enemy along the path from point A to point B. To think that Spartan Ops replaced the spectacular horde mode that was Firefight boggled my mind, especially considering how well-received Reach's Firefight was by the Halo community. Maybe the later updates that Spartan Ops received offered more interesting missions, but one playthrough of all the default missions left me with a foul opinion of them. Perhaps if they had been included alongside the Firefight mode, I might not have received them so poorly.

Spartan Ops: for when you want to team up with friends to tackle repeatedly lackluster missions.

With all of these factors combined, it was abundantly apparent to me that 343 Industries had lost sight of what Halo was really all about somewhere during the development of this new game – at least with regards to every facet of this project outside of the campaign. But even there, the lack of consideration to how easily audiences would be able to settle into the new narrative was a significant oversight on the part of Halo’s new management. Since the release of Halo 4, 343 Industries has gone on record as stating that they will do better with the next installment in the series, though what specific points they intend to improve on remains to be seen. The push for current storylines in both tie-in novels and comic books to emphasize rebellious factions of both Sangheili and Humans leaves me concerned that Halo 5 might see Master Chief fighting other human soldiers as opposed to the Promethean Knights or some other kind of Forerunner combatants.

While I wasn’t particularly hot on the notion of fighting Elites and Grunts again for the sake of convenience in 343 Industries not having to design a whole new slew of foes, I understand that something familiar needed to be retained to avoid wholly alienating longtime fans. But the potential for future games to teeter even further into the realm of Call of Duty or Battlefield by having Master Chief fighting militarized human forces is a truly upsetting notion. With any luck, the team at 343 Industries will recognize how much the Halo community loved the old multiplayer format, and return to the series’ roots with Halo 5: Guardians, as Halo’s online component has always accounted for a good half of its identity.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Comic Book review: Avengers: Mythos

My review of Avengers: Mythos, a retelling of many classic origins of the Avengers members. Written by Paul Jenkins, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, Adam Glass, Mike Benson, Sean McKeever, and Kathryn Immonen, illustrated by Paolo Rivera, Stephanie Hans, Stephane Perger, Dalibor Talajic, Mirco Pierfederici, and Al Barrionuevo.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Thanos: The Infinity Revelation

My review of Thanos: The Infinity Revelation. Written and illustrated by Jim Starlin, additional illustrations by Andy Smith and Frank D'Armata.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Y: The Last Man, Volumes Nine and Ten

My review of the ninth and tenth volumes of Y: The Last Man. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Pia Guerra.

Volume Nine: Motherland
Volume Ten: Whys and Wherefores

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Top 5 Multiplayer Maps in Halo 3

I have never been quite as big a fan of the multiplayer in Halo 3 as I have of the multiplayer in Bungie’s other three major Halo creations. The equipment was clunky and unbalanced, an awkward first step on the road to Reach’s more carefully-designed loadouts. Certain weapons, like the Mauler and Incendiary Grenades did not see much in the way of practical application in the company of their more well-established brethren, while the Assault Rifle’s return was largely moot in the presence of the obviously superior Battle Rifle. Halo 3 also played host to Snowbound, one of my least favorite Halo multiplayer maps to date. Yet, I still found online matches with friends to be quite enjoyable, and the playlist offerings only seemed to get better as time passed, with the official adoption of Grifball and Infection, as well as thirteen new maps offered as DLC. While my memories of Halo 3 may not be quite as fond as those I made while playing Halo 2 or Halo: Reach, the game still offered some solid map designs, and the five below stand out to me as being among the best Halo 3 had to offer.

#5 – High Ground: One of the earliest Halo 3 maps to see the light of day, High Ground first debuted as part of the game’s multiplayer beta. While the base set at the top of the hill does make a good defensive post for Capture the Flag and Assault, the damaged sections of the wall offer multiple openings for invaders to navigate on foot and open the main gate, giving their teammates a more direct route into the small fortress. When the gate is closed, matches, these objective-based matches often turn into battles of attrition, if not careful (or even simply lucky) timing for making a push inward. Once the gate is opened, however, the pacing of the matches speed up dramatically, increasing the tension and often forcing the defending team to carefully ration their heavy weaponry and grenades.

#4 – Foundry: Halo 3’s handling of the Forge customization mode may not have been as fully-realized nor as user-friendly as its counterpart in Halo: Reach, but it did allow players to make all sorts of wacky alterations to pre-existing maps, swapping out weapons and vehicles, and adding in blockades, turrets, and new equipment in places these had previously not been. However, Halo 3’s Forge mode did not properly come into its own until the release of Foundry. Set within a large warehouse, players were effectively given a blank canvas with which to build whatever structures they so desired with the allotted shipping containers, bridge pieces, staircases, and energy barriers. Players could also seal off the hallway that ran along the back end of the map between the bases in order to force more strategic team play, or leave them open to encourage unexpected rushes from either side during free-for-all matches. Foundry offered an unprecedented degree of freedom to fans, and a number of community creations were later adopted into official matchmaking playlists. That said, the default configuration was a great starting point for all of this, as its multiple areas of cover worked into a maze-like series of containers and platforms made for plenty of enjoyable matches.

#3 – Blackout: While its predecessor Lockout was one of the most popular Halo 2 maps, I’ve long since preferred the slightly wider ramps and platforms of Blackout, as well as this Halo 3 remake’s darker aesthetic. Having Lockout set along a the side of a cliff in a frozen tundra was certainly a cool design choice (no pun intended), but reimagining it as a lone weather station standing high above an arctic ocean gave it a greater sense of isolation and dread. The nighttime setting and lack of any other landmarks save for a distant glacial wall further emphasizes this notion. While small team-based Slayer, Swat, and Sniper matches fit the close-quarters map well, free-for-all Rumble Pit matches proved particularly great, as there is really no safe place to hide, given the open design of all the interconnecting areas of the structure. Just because you are crouched in a corner with the shotgun doesn’t mean that another player couldn’t easily lob a plasma grenade your way and stick it to your helmet, and just because you’ve nabbed the sniper rifle doesn’t mean someone else wasn’t tailing you as you made your way up the winding ramp just to beat you down as soon as you feel confident in its ability to earn you one-hit kill headshots.

#2 – Ghost Town: Something of a successor to Halo 2’s Turf, Ghost Town’s series of small buildings filled with small areas of cover and plenty of nooks and crannies to navigate made for some great small-scale skirmishes. Making a blind run across the outer bridges during a SWAT match was ill-advised, while backing into a corner with your shotgun at the ready during an Infection match was a strategy that would only last until either your ammo was depleted or the infected team overwhelmed your position in the central building. Players were most frequently mobile during Rumble Pit matches, as each of the dilapidated jungle structures offered unique vantage points over other areas of the map, and their multiple entrances meant that, while quick escapes were not out of the question, neither was the chance that an opponent could sneak up behind them and either beat them down or earn an easy kill with the stick of a plasma grenade.

#1 – Orbital: Set high above the Earth along one of the space tethers, Orbital is a brightly-lit, yet eerily abandoned UNSC dock. Players must exercise caution when peering around its tight corners or leaving the cover of crates to push forward down its two longest hallways set on separate floors of the structure, each offering a direct route to the respective team bases that also leaves incoming opponents very exposed. Stairwells and incredibly narrow server access tunnels to the sides offer alternate routes to those more patient in their approach strategies, while those who prefer a higher risk-reward play style can attempt to rush the opposing team’s base with a Mongoose, though the latter often results in spectacular explosions before these vehicles can get too far. The high ground certainly provides a straight line of fire upon those rounding the lower corners, but the low ceilings of Orbital’s tunnels make it difficult to fire too far down the approach path from above. The limited view to either side also makes it difficult to get a read on opponents from this vantage, and it is best to utilize it for quick tosses of grenades or two shots from the rocket launcher before abandoning the post for better defenses.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Top 5 Multiplayer Maps in Halo 2

My picks for the five best multiplayer maps from each of the Bungie-developed Halo titles continues with Halo 2, the game that is primarily responsible for my getting hooked on the video game series and its groundbreaking online multiplayer. Halo 2 was important not just for me as a gamer, but for console gaming as a whole. It was one of the first games to realize the full potential that online gaming on a home console had, with specialized matchmaking playlists, the ability to organize clans with friends, and the option to host custom game modes. My heyday with Halo 2 took place during my high school years, not long after its original release. To this day, I still consider Halo 2 to have the best overall multiplayer experience of any of the games in the franchise, a feat which is due in no small part to the wonderful selection of maps that were shipped with the game, as well as those that were later made available as downloadable content. With the other Halo titles, narrowing the multiplayer maps down to a mere five was relatively easy. But the consistently high quality in the design of Halo 2’s multiplayer maps made this process far and away the most challenging portion in writing this series of articles. While the five below certainly stand out as being among my all-time favorite Halo multiplayer maps, know that nearly every other Halo 2 map still stands as a strong accomplishment in my eyes.

#5 – Terminal: I’ve long been a fan of maps that incorporate vehicles into their layout, but do not rely expressly upon them for a lone gimmick. Terminal is one such map, falling somewhere between medium and large-scale, and allowing players to traverse its urban environment a few different ways. As previously mentioned, a couple of vehicles will spawn at the respective bases, and depending on the game type, can result in either one team attempting to defend their prized flag with the slow heavy shots of a Wraith, or the more agile dances of Warthog versus Ghost. A parking structure provides a good vantage point for snipers to pick off opponents from a nearby base, though the open nature of the parking structure coupled with the fact that the shotgun spawn point is located just down ramp means that snipers need to be ready to abandon said post at a moment’s notice. The more open spaces near the opposite base and the train station tend to host most of the close-quarters firefights, though players need to be aware of the lightning-fast trains that come barreling through from time to time, potentially running them over as one of the few active stage hazards worked into a Halo multiplayer map. And of course, the muffled chatter over the station's loudspeakers give Terminal an extra dash of personality.

#4 – Turf: A map great for Team Slayer, Swat, and Rumble Pit matches, Turf combined many elements of its close-quarters predecessors like Ivory Tower and Lockout, and placed them in a narrow urban environment. The map is, oddly enough, set up on something of an angle, with one of the far corners being a more open street level spawn point for Turf’s lone Warthog, while the complete opposite end of the map has, perhaps fittingly, a complete opposite setup, with tight corners, small archways to hide behind, and a handful of very small raised areas to gain a birds-eye-view of the action below. The difference between the raised sections in Turf and those in other maps, is that here, they only grant you so much of a visual leg-up on the competition. Crevices that offer you the best opportunity to spring a surprise attack on an opposing player can just as easily be death traps if a player spots you and decides to lob a grenade up into your tiny hiding space. Meanwhile, the raised ridge that runs along the inside of the streets provides a better view of everything and everyone below, but leaves you exposed from practically all sides.

#3 – Midship: Classic Halo map design at its finest, Midship is a jack-of-all-trades death pit. Its rounded small interior makes for fast-paced Slayer matches, while the outlying ramps and lifts ensure that players will have to keep a close eye on their radar at all times. Three pillars in the center, along with rounded roof covers on opposite ends of the map provide limited cover, and though the bowl-shaped center does offer the most direct route from one team’s base to the other, flag and bomb handlers should be wary of the excessive amount of fire they will call upon themselves the moment they are spotted.

#2 – Headlong: With the updated graphical capabilities of Halo 2 came more impressive level details, many of which carried over from the single player missions into the multiplayer maps. The warm glow of New Mombassa’s industrial environment makes for one of the most aesthetically impressive large-scale maps in the Halo series. The grungy construction site of Headlong has plenty of different pathways that capitalize on both big-team vehicular carnage and smaller-scale tactical matches. Headlong’s handling of four-on-four sniper matches is arguably unmatched by any other Halo map to date, as the varying heights of the different structures and the many corridors and stairwells of each perpetuates a tense air of uncertainty, with players constantly scanning the area for foes, wary that remaining in one spot for too long will make them an easy target.

#1 – Relic: While not all large-scale maps in the Halo games are made equal, Relic stands out as a map that - despite appearances - works beautifully with many different gametypes. The giant central structure offers up some of the most intense, strategic, and just plain fun objective matches – more specifically, Capture the Flag and Assault. While one team spawns within the raised structure and must use its limited fortifications to their advantage in defending the far edge objective point, the other team pushes forward from the beach, able to collect power weapons along the way and even lay down fire upon foes from a hovering sniper nest. Relic does typically spawn a few vehicles, but they serve greater purpose as transport to the central structure rather than for full-on assaults against enemy team members. Making a daring escape from the fortress as you carry the flag in the passenger seat of a Warthog is an exhilarating experience, one that few other maps of this size have managed to evoke so consistently.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Comic Book review: Saga, Volumes Three and Four

My review of the third and fourth volumes Saga. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples.

My rating for volume three: 7 (out of 10)
My rating for volume four: 3.5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Ant-Man: Season One

My review of Ant-Man: Season One. Written by Tom DeFalco, illustrated by Horacio Domingues.

My rating: 5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Inhumanity

My review of Marvel's Inhumanity event. Written by Matt Fraction, Mark Waid, Brian Michael Bendis, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Warren Ellis, Keiron Gillen, Al Ewing, Sam Humphries, Matt Kindt, Christos Gage, and Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Olivier Coipel, Nick Bradshaw, Todd Nauck, Clay Mann, Seth Mann, Miguel Sepulveda, Jheremy Raapack, Tom Grummett, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Karl Kesel, Andrew Hennessy, Kris Anka, Matteo Buffagni, Paco Diaz, Augustin Padilla, Greg Land, Andre Lima Araujo, Paul Davidson, Stephanie Hans, and Simon Bianchi.

My rating: 4.5 (out of 10)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Top 5 Multiplayer Maps in Halo: Combat Evolved

The number of hours I have put into online multiplayer in the Halo series has grown far beyond my estimation. There have been some great games I’ve played over the years, as well as the occasional round where I got my butt handed to me (the latter being more frequent during my early days with the franchise). There have also been a number of multiplayer maps that have stood out to me over the years, be it due to their layout, their aesthetic appeal, their practicality for a myriad of different game types, or simply fond memories I have from playing with friends. This collection of ‘top five’ lists will highlight my five favorite maps from across the four Bungie-developed Halo games (Halo 3: ODST will not be included, as it did not have competitive multiplayer of its own, instead offering extra maps to those who owned Halo 3 while simultaneously kicking off the cooperative Firefight mode). While remakes of older Halo maps are eligible for these lists, I will not be double-dipping and placing both the original version of a map and its remake, lest things become lopsided in favor of one map or another (example: if Midship were to make the cut for my Halo 2 map list, its remake of Heretic would not be eligible for the Halo 3 list, but if Longest did not make the cut for my Halo: CE list, then Elongation would still be eligible for the Halo 2 list). I will be tackling these titles in chronological order of their release, which naturally places Halo: Combat Evolved at the start of this series.

#5 – Sidewinder: Halo: Combat Evolved is the Bungie Halo title I have sunk the least amount of time into, especially with regards to multiplayer. Part of this is due to the fact that Halo: CE did not include any sort of Xbox Live functionality, though the fact that Halo 2 had already been released by the time I got into the franchise played a greater factor in my having less direct exposure to the first game in the series. For being something of an afterthought, the multiplayer in Halo: Combat Evolved is surprisingly solid. True, some of the stages feel a little more inclined toward one gimmick or another than their successors did, as is the case with Sidewinder, a wintery map that places heavy emphasis on vehicular combat. There’s a certain charm to Sidewinder that lends its cold, desolate landscape to stand out among the other maps packaged with Combat Evolved. Sure, the bases might be small and a tad impractical, but there’s something genuinely impressive about the large scale of this arena, about taking the Scorpion tank for a drive up to the opposing team’s front door, and about how much of an important step this map would be in shaping the design of future maps centered around large team-oriented game types.

#4 – Derelict: Similar in size and format to Wizard, Derelict design was a shining example of smart design choices in small space in the company of Wizard’s shortcomings. Whereas Wizard consisted of a series of platforms and ramps circling the outside of the arena, Derelict’s platforms spread from the center out, offering better small covered spaces for those low on health quickly duck behind and plan their next course of action. While the high ground may have provided a better vantage of the arena, it did not guarantee safety, as the open format of the platforms meant that players could aim their sights up or lob grenades at foes on that raised section with relative ease. Derelict offered up small-scale matches that demanded player be able to think quickly in the midst of frenetic firefights, and was a great setting for both fast-paced team matches and more chaotic free-for-all bouts.

#3 – Damnation: Designing maps that are more long than they are wide is always a tricky process, but Halo: Combat Evolved offered up a couple with these schools of thought in mind. Whereas Longest was a more literal set of adjacent hallways, Damnation mixed things up a bit with varying height to its walkways and a distinctly alien design aesthetic. A more open area consisting of gaps between platforms and the general non-linear design seen in Damnation placed special emphasis on carefully plotting your next move, as well as making the most out of the stage’s power weapons. Though it took an decade for the map to return to Halo multiplayer in any form, the Halo: Reach remake known as Penance did little to alter the map’s design, embracing even the faint purple coloration of the original and pushing for a full-blown Covenant aesthetic.

#2 – Battle Creek: Set in relatively close quarters, Battle Creek generally pits two teams of four against one another, granting each a home base that is just as effective for housing a flag as it is for defending against enemy team members. The geography of the map is simple, yet effective, with a small creek running through the middle and a rocky arch that runs diagonal through the center space, situated between the opposing bases. While the original Halo: Combat Evolved’s graphical prowess may not hold a candle to that of its Xbox successor Halo 2, Battle Creek is one of those rare maps that is still holds a particular visual charm all these many years later. While the crew at Bungie may not have expected the multiplayer aspect of the Halo games to really take off at the launch of this Xbox-exclusive property, it’s thanks to maps like Battle Creek that the original Halo: Combat Evolved’s system link matches gained such popularity and pushed for the sequel to have such a heavy emphasis on the Xbox Live functionality.

#1 – Blood Gulch: Arguably the most iconic of all multiplayer maps across the Halo franchise, Blood Gulch has seen multiple remakes in sequel games since its initial debut. A wide expanse sets the stage for vehicular combat, while the two bases on opposite ends of the valley make for great objective-based skirmishes with larger teams. Meanwhile, snipers can use the snaking ridges to their advantage, furthering the importance of team strategy, while still offering plenty of space to engage in fun matches with plenty of carnage. There’s a reason that Blood Gulch has returned time and time again, whether as a slight reimagining in the form of Halo 2’s Coagulation or a Forge World variant in Halo: Reach – its design is just too darn perfect to ignore.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Comic Book review: War of Kings

My review of Marvel's War of Kings event comic. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, illustrated by Paul Pelletier and Bong Dazo.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Venom: Toxin With a Vengeance and The Land Where Killers Dwell

My review of Venom: Toxin With a Vengeance and Venom: The Land Where Killers Dwell. Written by Cullen Bunn.

Venom: Toxin With a Vengeance - Illustrated by Declan Shalvey.
Venom: The Land Where Killers Dwell - Illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Pepe Larraz, Kim Jacinto, and Jorge Coelho.

Comic Book review: Y: The Last Man, Volumes Six through Eight

My review of Y: The Last Man, volumes six, seven, and eight. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Pia Guerra.

Volume Six: Girl on Girl
Volume Seven: Paper Dolls
Volume Eight: Kimono Dragons

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Anime Update: The Red Comet and Star Platinum

Yesterday, I watched the first entry in the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin series of films. While I would not say that this first episode kicked things off to quite as strong a start as the most recent Universal Century OVA, Unicorn Gundam, it was a well-written and entertaining view nonetheless. Despite the name matching up with the recently-popularized manga retelling of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, which expands upon the story of the One Year War, this four-part anime release appears to be a prequel to that, seeing all the major players rise to their respective iconic roles.

This first film, Blue-Eyed Casval, deals almost exclusively with characters in the space colonies who will ultimately end up fighting for the Principality of Zeon, namely the Zabi family and Zeon Zum Deikun’s children, Casval and Artesia, who would later come to be better known as Sayla Mass and Char Aznable respectively. To finally see Zeon Zum Deikun’s death and the rising political tensions that led to the Zabi family’s rise to power and eventual declaration of war on the Earth Federation was long-overdue but no less impactful animated sequence as the first major events leading up to the One Year War. I certainly enjoyed seeing a younger Ramba Ral worked into the story, as his actions gave me a greater degree of respect for him as a character, while Char’s determination and focus at such a young age set the wheels in motion for his plans to exact revenge on the Zabi family for the death of his father. The occasional overly cartoony moments might appeal to younger audiences, but I found them a bit unnatural, even clunky in execution, given the more serious and tense atmosphere of Blue-Eyed Casval on the whole.

Despite my habit of sometimes picking up a longer anime series to view, watching for a while, moving on to another anime, then coming back again many months later to pick up where I last left off, I am now a mere five episodes from the finale of Victory Gundam. I intend to finish this soon, as I want to give the current G-Reko series a shot, but not before I’ve finished my viewing of Victory. While Gundam AGE and the Build Fighters series both failed to entice me, G-Reco’s highly-creative mobile suit designs and certain sensibilities that seemingly harken back to Turn A Gundam have me intrigued. As G-Reco is currently airing and thus not yet complete, I will likely balance my viewing of that with at least one other anime – be it one of the two remaining Gundam series I have yet to watch in full (Mobile Suit Gundam, ZZ Gundam) or something entirely unrelated to Bandai and Sunrise’s long-running franchise.

I’m still loving the current run of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, and if the most recent two-part encounter with D’arby the Gambler was any indication, the best episodes may yet lie on the horizon. Strong as the series has been since the beginning, the first season of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure displayed a similar increase in quality in later episodes, with the Battle Tendency arc being more of both a visual and narrative spectacle than its precursor, Phantom Blood. While I was plugging away at Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 this Winter, it has since been removed from Netflix’s offerings, and thus I will have to find another means of viewing the series if I intend to see it to completion.

I found myself rather disappointed with the original Ghost in the Shell’s narrative suddenly dropping off at the end of the 1995 film, but the recent reimagining known as Ghost in the Shell: Arise is currently available on Netflix, and I decided to give the first hour-long episode a try. Unfortunately, it did as little to keep me entertained as the few episodes of Stand Alone Complex I have seen ever did. Arise’s blundering gaps in logic as well as its obsession with not including viewers in on what would seem like prominent chunks of information have led me to effectively resign the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise as one of those properties that thinks itself much smarter than it actually is, and subsequently a property that I will not be wasting any more of my time on.

I intend to take my time with the third season of Sgt. Frog, as it is the last season that was localized by Funimation for North American release. There is a strong chance that I may see this third season to completion by the end of the year and review it accordingly, as I do love the series’ wacky humor in its pop culture references and the general behavior of the characters. With all of this in mind, the rest of the year is largely a blank slate with regards to my anime viewing plans, as Unicorn Gundam has entirely wrapped up, and other recent series I was viewing, like The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, I have since completed.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Comic Book review: Moon Knight, Volumes One and Two

My review of volumes of one and two of Moon Knight, from the 2011-2012 series. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Alex Maleev.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Comic Book review: Infinity

My review of Marvel's Infinity crossover event. Written by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Spencer, and Jason Latour, illustrated by Jim Cheung, Jerome Opena, Dustin Weaver, Mike Deodato, Stefano Caselli, Leinil Yu, Marco Rudy, Marco Checchetto, Augustin Alessio, and Rock-He Kim.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Avengers: Endless Wartime

My review of Avengers: Endless Wartime. Written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Mike McKone.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Age of Ultron Companion

My review of the Age of Ultron Companion. Written by Al Ewing, Matt Fraction, Cullen Bunn, Christos Gage, Kathryn Immonen, Gerry Duggan, Rick Remender, Matt Kindt, and Mark Waid, illustrated by Butch Guice, Andre Araujo, Phil Jimenez, Dexter Soy, Amilcar Pinna, Adam Kubert, and Paco Medina.

My rating: 5.75 (out of 10)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Top 5 Instrumental Tracks in the Metal Gear Series

The Metal Gear franchise has long stood among the greatest of video games, due in no small part to its deep and involved narrative that carries on in increasingly complex ways from one entry to the next. With each new game comes an equally impressive soundtrack, which fittingly also tend to rank among the best this entertainment medium has to offer. Below are my personal picks for the five best instrumental tracks in the entire Metal Gear franchise, following up on my previous list of the series' five best vocal tracks.

#5 – Yell Dead Cell (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty): While perhaps simpler in its arrangement as a tense techno action tune, Yell Dead Cell does well in helping to establish the atmosphere of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty early on. While The Sons of Liberty may be the sequel’s stand-ins for Foxhound, they operate on very different ideals and significantly more advanced tech. There may be fewer representatives in Dead Cell, yet each feels threatening due to the strikingly different skill sets and arsenals they possess. Yell Dead Cell is a classic, catchy tune, and given the in-game scenarios it is attributed to, a great way to help set the stage for the MGS sequel.

#4 – Eva’s Reminiscence (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): A slow burn to a sultry, soft jazz number, Eva’s Reminiscence is a perfect match to the character is represents. The song may rely on a much longer buildup than other Metal Gear tunes before its 1960s spy movie soundtrack style is revealed, but Eva’s story progression is delivered in a very similar fashion. She is a mysterious ally to Snake during his mission to take down Colonel Volgin’s Shagohod, but always seems to be withholding information from him, teasing Snake during each of their encounters. As the game enters its epilogue sequences, Eva’s true nature is revealed, leaving a bittersweet impact on both Snake and the player.

#3 – Zero Allies! (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker): Utilizing a sampling of the classic MGS2 theme scored by Harry Gregson-Williams, Zero Allies! is more than a mere throwback to the games that preceded it. It is an encapsulation of the Peace Walker story – the theme of Naked Snake transitioning into Big Boss and wrestling with his complicated history with The Boss, as well as the sense of desperation and intense tactical espionage as the private army of Militaires Sans Frontieres builds itself up in the face of an ever-delicate balance of global politics. It also opens with some of the some echoes reminiscent of a couple of other Peace Walker tunes, namely Clients and Mother Base, and to that end plays into the stealthy construction of Mother Base and the mysterious nature of a steady recruitment of soldiers to Big Boss’ cause.

#2 – On The Ground – Battle in the Jungle (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): A successor to the stealth and detection themes of the two previous Metal Gear Solid titles, Snake Eater takes its soundtrack to a whole new level with a tune that can be as frequently-changing as the situations Naked Snake finds himself in. Keeping a low profile in Metal Gear Solid 3 is a much more complex and involved ordeal than in the games that came before it, as Snake must rely on camouflage patterns as he traverses harsh jungle terrain – both enemy soldiers and wildlife posing a threat to him. Snake’s need to nourish his body and patch himself up on the go similarly leads to MGS3’s more involved gameplay, and juggling these multiple facets leads to a more complex yet more so rewarding gaming experience than many other entries in the series. This tune is more than an accompaniment to the moments when GRU soldiers spot Snake crawling through some tall grass – it’s an audible representation of the situation at hand, the general atmosphere surrounding Snake.

#1 – Debriefing (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): The last leg of the Metal Gear Solid 3 epilogue offers a full and striking reveal of The Boss’ role in the larger picture. It is lead into by the information that Eva leaves Snake before she hits the road, and she details how The Boss let her in on certain details during the time they spent together in Groznyj Grad. Snake’s history with The Boss is described as being intimate and complicated, as they spent years of their lives together training on the battlefield, which is why Snake was so frustrated and confused by her apparent defection to Volgin’s political uprising. Debriefing is the song that plays over the final page of the Snake Eater story, the last hurrah before The Boss’ legacy can be paid tribute to, then laid to rest. It is largely responsible to those final moments of the game being so emotionally charged, and is part of – what I consider to be – one of the greatest cinematic moments in video game history.

Comic Book review: Annihilation Omnibus

My review of the Annihilation Omnibus, which collects all of the events tied into Marvel's Annihilation crossover event storyline including Drax the Destroyer, Nova, Silver Surfer, Super-Skrull, Ronan, Heralds of Galactus, and Annihilation Nova Corps Files.

Drax the Destroyer - Witten by Keith Giffen, illustrated by Mitch Breitweiser and Brian Reber
Annihilation Prologue - Written by Keith Giffen, illustrated by Scott Kolins, Ariel Olivetti, and June Chung
Annihilation: Nova - Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, illustrated by Kev Walker, Rick Magyar, and Brian Reber
Annihilation: Silver Surfer - Written by Keith Giffen, illustrated by Renato Arlem and June Chung
Annihilation: Super-Skrull - Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, illustrated by Greg Titus and Chris Sotomayor
Annihilation: Ronan - Written by Simon Furman, illustrated by Jorge Lucas and Dave McCaig
Annihilation - Written by Keith Giffen, illustrated by Andrea Di Vito and Laura Villari
Annihilation: Heralds of Galactus - Written by Christos N. Gage, Stuart Moore, and Keith Giffen, illustrated by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini, June Chung, Mike McKone, Laura Villari, Scott Kolins, Andrew Di Vito, and Paul Mounts

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Venom: The Savage Six and Devil's Pack

My review of the third and fourth entries in the Flash Thompson Venom saga, Venom: The Savage Six and Venom: Devil's Pack.

Venom: The Savage Six - Written by Rick Remender and Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Kev Walker, Lan Medina, and Declan Shalvey
Venom: Devil's Pack - Written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Thony Silas

Comic Book review: Saga, Volumes One and Two

My review of the first two volumes of Saga. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples.

My rating for volume one: 7.5 (out of 10)
My rating for volume two: 8 (out of 10)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Top 10 Vocal Tracks in the Metal Gear Series (#5-1)

The Metal Gear franchise has long stood among the greatest of video games, due in no small part to its deep and involved narrative that carries on in increasingly complex ways from one entry to the next. With each new game comes an equally impressive soundtrack, which fittingly also tend to rank among the best this entertainment medium has to offer. Below are my personal picks for the five best vocal tracks in the entire Metal Gear franchise. With the release of The Phantom Pain, I have also created a follow-up to this list, detailing the vocal tracks I feel are deserving of spots numbers six through ten, which you can read here.

#5 – A Stranger I Remain (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance): One of the few Revengeance tracks to steer clear of screamo lyrics and thrash riffs, A Stranger I Remain is not only a solid metal track with a beautiful blend of haunting vocals and a heavy, fast-paced guitar part, it’s also a song very befitting the character it represents. Mistral’s theme provides a great accompaniment to someone as imperfect as Raiden. It’s rather curious that MGR gets so much right in their presentation of the Mistral boss fight, as it is so early in the game – much in the way of the gameplay, visuals, and music that make up the later boss encounters fail to reach the fantastic culmination witnessed in the Mistral encounter.

#4 – Calling to the Night (Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops): One of the few Metal Gear Solid titles I have not played, this tune seems to have transcended its platform to become recognized as one of the more memorable tunes in the series. Of the two major MGS releases on the PSP, Portable Ops was largely overshadowed by Peace Walker, yet this tune continues to appear on fan compilations of favorite tracklistings from the franchise. And rightfully so – it’s a melancholy tune that is very fitting for Naked Snake post-Snake Eater. He has to effectively rediscover who he is and make a name for himself, so that by the time that the events of Peace Walker roll around, he and his private army are fully prepared for the greater challenges that lie ahead.

#3 – Red Sun (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance): Sundowner ended up being one of my least favorite characters in Metal Gear Rising, both with regards to his hillbilly personality and a boss fight that felt significantly less inspired than the company of Monsoon, Mistral, and Blade Wolf. However, his theme song utilized deep vocals and a slightly grungier rock sound, all while maintaining the hardcore metal appeal of Revengeance’s soundtrack. Red Sun’s lyrics offer metaphors that are perhaps a bit more thinly veiled than the game’s other vocal tracks, but it’s certainly a catchy number, one that I have found myself listening to many times since completing Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

#2 – The Best is Yet to Come (Metal Gear Solid): I often favor many of the softer, slower vocal tracks from the Metal Gear series because they tend to convey the emotional burdens carried by Solid Snake and Naked Snake better than the fast-paced and loud tracks. Those are great for stealth and action sequences, sure, but at the end of the day, when it’s time to gaze back upon everything Snake has accomplished, every hurdle he’s had to overcome, every friend and foe that has fallen along the way, there’s really no other track that better embodies the gravity of all that than The Best is Yet to Come. It's a reminder of the trial he has surpassed, and those that lie still lie ahead.

#1 – Snake Eater (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): Snake Eater is one of those tracks that is equal parts silly and epic. It’s a deliberate throwback to James Bond theme songs (some of which boast more cheesy lyrics than others), as can only work in a Cold War setting featuring a one-man army. Snake Eater has long been my favorite entry in the Metal Gear franchise, as its perfect combination of stealth and action elements, deeply human story, and unique sense of style result in a product that transcends what most video games, films, and novels can deliver. There’s really no other medium in which Snake Eater would work to such an effective degree, and there’s no other song that could make the introduction so memorable. Snake Eater presently stands as one of my all-time favorite video game theme songs, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so for many years to come.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Comic Book review: Nova, Volume Four: Original Sin

My review of Nova, Volume Four: Original Sin. Written by Gerry Duggan, illustrated by Paco Medina, David Baldeon, and Frederico Santagati.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

"You Look Terrible, Snake" #1 - Final Fantasy X

“You look terrible, Snake. You haven’t aged well.” – Gray Fox (Metal Gear Solid)

You may have noticed how the vast majority of the games I review on this blog end up with scores of a ‘7 out of 10’ or higher. Being that this is a one-man show, I typically find that any game I feel is going to score considerably lower than that is something I’d prefer not to waste my time on. There are the occasional anomalies – within the last year I scored The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds a 6.75, while Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes fared even poorer, earning a 4.5, though to be fair, both of those titles were considerably shorter than many of the other games I completed in 2014.

This is the start of a new series of articles, one that will likely be delivered infrequently, as I don’t want to come across as a downer too often. That said, this series will explore games that left me thoroughly disappointed for a number of reasons. Some of these games were still solid products on the whole, but failed to deliver on key design points. Others are total stinkers in my book, and I have a hunch that some of you will not agree with my take on at least a few of the titles to come. But that’s one of the great things about reviewing video games – for as much time as I might spend picking a game apart and voicing a negative opinion of it, there is someone else out there who hails it as one of their personal favorites, and vice-versa. With all that out of the way, the first game in this series will be Final Fantasy X.

My familiarity with the core Final Fantasy series was, until about five years ago, practically nonexistent. I could have told you which box art went with which game, that I understood the seventh game in the series was heralded by many as one of the best video game releases of all time, and that the tenth entry was supposed to be a strong contender as well. During my college years, I decided to pick up some used copies of a handful of Final Fantasy titles, after having played FFXIII, the DS remake of FFIV, and the Wii Virtual Console re-release of the original Final Fantasy. FFVII and FFX were the two among these gently-used purchases that I was most eager to experience, and were the two titles that had most frequently been recommended to me.

I think it important to point out that I did not (nor do I have any intention to) finish Final Fantasy X. I am, however, very much aware of the fact that any meaty JRPG like those in the Final Fantasy series require patience to grow accustomed to and allow the story to take shape. And so I waited. And waited. And waited, all the while slowly growing to realize how much I did not enjoy the experience. The battle system was unnecessarily obtuse in design, making encounters with foes boring, even sometimes frustrating. The freedom to level characters up as you so desired was one of the best mechanics in the game, and I certainly appreciated its role as predecessor to FFXIII’s crystarium, but its value was brought down by the fact that the characters I had to choose from were an uninspired and cliché lot.

At least Auron is alright as the stand-in for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Lulu was a one-dimensional byproduct of the emo/goth subculture of the early 2000s, snapping at Wakka for his saying something that upset her, yet leaving Tidus and myself in the dark as to why such a response was necessary or justified, let alone how she was supposedly a deep character with a complicated past tying into Wakka's own. Meanwhile, Kimahri’s strong silent and mysterious nature coupled with his tall and furry body made him a dead ringer as a Chewbacca wannabe. Tidus proved obnoxious one moment, with his inhuman laugh and awkward bumbling through conversations with Yuna and Lulu, then super flat and unconvincing the next, as his dialogue served to imply genuine concern or curiosity regarding his comrades and the journey ahead, yet the way these lines were delivered showed just how uninterested the cast members were with this whole ordeal. Auron, the one character that I actually gravitated toward and wanted to learn more about, was denied time in the spotlight over and over. While I realize much of this was likely due for dramatic buildup for a later plot twist, the lack of information I was being fed eventually led me to give up on caring about him as well.

I similarly found myself in a position of not giving two hoots about impossible-hair-sporting Seymour Guado. I loved the ‘bring it on’ attitude Golbez and his four most trusted generals displayed in FFIV, the laser-faced monstrosity that was Barthendelus in FFXIII; heck, even Caius Ballad was an entertaining (if not a tad shallow) extremist in his attempts to defy time and fate. While FFVII’s Sephiroth is arguably more important as a plot device than multifaceted foe, the compounding of his and Jenova’s involvement in the plot made for an ever-mysterious, yet consistently compelling major plot thread. In FFX, Seymour is just sort of a cocky and generally unlikeable individual. He only gets what he wants on account of his social status and charms, and has seemingly never been told ‘no’ by anyone. The idea that so many people held him in high regard was a mystery to me, as I was given no basis as to why he was supposed to be so well-received, and thus similarly the idea that there was a complex ‘love-to-hate-this-guy’ dynamic at play was entirely lost. As far as I was concerned, Seymour was even more boring and uncharismatic as most of the core cast members.

Seymour's hairdo is one of the dumbest video game character design points I have ever seen.

Which in turn, added to my not caring about the world, its people, or the story at large. With a game that requires so much time to complete, and that places its conflict on such a large scale, one would hope it would utilize its heroes, villains, culture, and major plot points to craft something larger than the sum of its parts. But with so many paper-thin aspects to this creative vision, it resulted in the overall product lacking any real entertaining direction, which in turn, killed my desire to continue forward with it. Giant fish that signals the end of an era? Bring it up here and there, but fail to elaborate on it when the opportunity presents itself. Blitzball? An abysmal mess that is as messy in concept as it is in execution. Each time the game was presented ample opportunity to flesh out its narrative and elaborate on what was happening and attempt to convince me as to why I should be the slightest bit invested, it casually cruised right past them.

But perhaps Final Fantasy X’s greatest sin comes from the lack of freedom in picking a play style that suits you. I understand that many older RPGs tend to focus on a core cast, emphasizing them as the game progresses. FFIV did this, but it did it well, as the game chugs along at such a pace that you are allotted plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the abilities of the White Mages, the Knights, the Summoners, and so forth, that when you reach the later legs of the journey, you are well-versed in strategizing with Kain, Cecil, Rosa, Rydia, and Edge. Each has their own specific skill set, yes, but they also offer sufficient flexibility that you are not simply going through the motions as picking the one end-all be-all path to success.

FFXIII, while host to a smaller playable cast, emphasizes two to three skill trees per character, allowing Snow to offer up his Ravager and Sentinel skills to the part, Fang to juggle Commando and Saboteur, and Hope to try his hand at both Medic and Synergist. Of course late in the game, the other three trees per character that were deemed ‘less than ideal’ are expanded upon, but by the time that portion of the adventure is reached, each character has effectively already come into his/her primary roles. FFX, on the other hand, is designed with the mentality of the player adhering to how the game believes it should be played, with a very odd and unbalanced set of roles to select from. Both Kimahri and Auron fit the heavy-hitter physical attackers, while Tidus is meant to be the sort of middle ground 'knight', albeit with significantly less impressive results that Cloud, Lightning, Cecil, or even that which the vanilla Knights from FFI offered up.

The OG Black Mage/Summoner, Rydia of Mist.

 Wakka’s enchanted weaponry gets the job done early on, but also caps out too soon for any long-term use to be a worthwhile consideration. Meanwhile, Lulu is the most pathetic excuse for a Black Mage I’ve encountered in any JRPG I’ve played to date. For a while, I thought perhaps I was simply being too harsh toward her skill set, considering I had only recently completed FFIV before I started FFX, and that it would be one heck of a tall order for anyone to stack up to Rydia. Yet, Yuna does just fine with her White Mage/Summoner combo, as unorthodox as it might be. And yeah, of course Yuna is going to have weaker defense than most of her comrades, but while Lulu is intended to be a glass cannon, her shots are practically nonexistent. Hell, the blue-robed and yellow-eyed sprites from FFI put up a bombastic display in comparison, and their attacks – while still specialized – are nowhere near as expansive as any of the Final Fantasy titles that followed.

The soundtrack is great – in my opinion, one of the best in the series. And both the graphical and art direction stood out to me as early hooks that made me want to get lost and immersed in this game’s story and style. Final Fantasy X was a game that I wanted so desperately to enjoy, and it failed me in spades.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Comic Book review: The Amazing Spider-Man: Spider-Island

My review of The Amazing Spider-Man: Spider-Island. Written by Dan Slott and Rick Remender, illustrated by Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli, and Tom Fowler.

My rating: 4.5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Deadpool Kills Deadpool

My review of Deadpool Kills Deadpool. Written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Salva Espin.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Y: The Last Man, Volumes Four and Five

My review of the fourth and fifth volumes of Y: The Last Man. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Pia Guerra.

Volume Four: Safeword
Volume Five: Ring of Truth

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anime review: Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine

A recent entry in the long-running Lupin the Third franchise, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine turns back the clock to a time when the now-iconic cast were - at best - mere acquaintances. As the title implies, the story gives Fujiko Mine center stage, but the ins and outs of how Lupin, Jigen, Goemon, and Inspector Zenigata came to cross paths and establish a history with one another does factor quite heavily into the progression of this series. In this regard, the story feels appropriate as an early chapter in the adventures of Lupin and friends, though the fact that Zenigata has already been on Lupin and Fujiko’s cases at the start of the series means that this is not the very beginning of the crew’s wacky misadventures.

This position in the Lupin the Third timeline works largely to its advantage, as it does not feel the need to spend an excessive amount of time explaining who these characters are. Instead, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine prefers to show just how extravagant Lupin’s heists can be as he busts out of an ocean-front temple on a giant rocket-propelled statue, and displays Fujiko using her feminine wiles and bombshell looks to pry information and riches alike from her latest victims. While early episodes may lead viewers to believe that each heist exists as a separate event with the only common factors being involvement from Fujiko, Lupin, Zenigata, and so forth, the truth is that there is an underlying plot that weaves each of the episodes together, though it is not revealed until past the series' halfway point.

It is appropriate, then, that this entry in the Lupin saga is considerably more serious in tone, and darker in atmosphere throughout than most of its predecessors. While Lupin and Jigen often find themselves up against improbable odds, and improvise crazy solutions time and time again, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine sets aside plenty of time to explore just what makes each of these characters tick and why. Most compelling, of course, is the story of Fujiko herself, which is given considerably more screen time than her companions/rivals, but even Zenigata’s obsessions with tracking down these thieves makes for exciting introspection.

The 1960s and 70s atmosphere still thrives in this 2012 release, with funky and jazzy tunes accompanying brightly clashing colors. Thick outlines and the impossible lanky proportions of the characters look great with updated digital animation technology, while still echoing back to their classic hand-drawn origins. The characters, meanwhile, remain largely true to their 1960s debut, with slight updates to make them more appropriate for the setting of the story as well as modern audiences. While Lupin still has his eye on Fujiko throughout this latest anime series, he views her more as the end-all prize, one that he is seemingly aware that he will likely never obtain but still attempts to impress/outdo her for the thrill of the challenge. Lupin does not, however, constantly ogle bikini-clad girls, and his heists – utterly bonkers and visually spectacular as they may be – appear to have a decent degree of planning and thought put into them, even when he is forced to improvise or revert to backups. It becomes especially obvious in later episodes that Lupin's constant crossing of paths with Fujiko is for a purpose that is both higher and more selfless than monetary pay - he is perhaps the individual most intrigued with her past, and the series makes it quite clear that he genuinely wants to help her uncover the mysteries that are tied to this, even if it means butting heads with her and engaging in firefights along the way.

In accordance with its 60s/70s sense of style, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine aligns some of its episodes close to real-world events from that era. One episode in particular sees Fujiko travel in the company of a man who serves as a fictional counterpart to Fidel Castro, and her involvement in a subplot to transport him safely to a United Nations hearing while fighter jets tail their plane and the threat of a war breaking out hangs in the balance. It’s a bit more on-the-nose with regards to how it handles the Cold War setting than most other episodes, one of which sees the characters winding down into the dark depths of an Egyptian tomb, while another explores one of Fujiko’s many aliases in the form of a schoolteacher at an all-girl’s academy.

New to this Lupin tale is Oscar, a young police lieutenant who serves as Zenigata’s second-in-command. He bears a short and rather feminine frame, which leads to him adopting a few disguises over the course of the series. While his inclusion does add a greater sense of danger for Lupin, Fujiko and company as they now have two major pursuers instead of one, his dynamic with the rest of the cast only goes so far. Oscar has some obsessive tendencies, to the point where he has to be reminded where the line of duty is and if crossing it is worth jeopardizing his career or the safety of his fellow officers. He also displays a great deal of spite toward Fujiko, as he is jealous of her taking up so much of Zenigata’s attention, a man who he not only looks up to in a professional sense, but is seemingly romantically attracted to as well.

For a modern Lupin the Third anime, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine has plenty of familiar faces and antics to offer, while also presenting characters in new lights. It is a series that builds off what has previously been established as well-received trademarks of the Lupin saga, and adds some darker story elements into the mix. The late episodes in particular delve into strange territory that one would typically not associate with Lupin the Third, yet it pays off in spades. Other experimental content in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine may prove more hit-or-miss, but the core of this series is a strong showing, and plenty of fun to boot.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Comic Book review: Venom, Volumes One and Two

My review of the first two volumes in the Venom series, starring Peter Parker's former schoolmate Flash Thompson as Agent Venom.

Volume One: Venom - Written by Rick Remender, illustrated by Tony Moore and Tom Fowler.
Volume Two: Circle of Four - Written by Rick Remender, Rob Williams, and Jeff Parker, illustrated by Lan Medina

Comic Book review: Nova, Volumes Two and Three

My review of the second and third volumes of Nova.

Volume Two: Rookie Season - Written by Zeb Wells, illustrated by Paco Medina and Carlo Barberi.
Volume Three: Nova Corpse - Written by Gerry Duggan, illustrated by Paco Medina and David Baldeon.

My rating for volume two: 8 (out of 10)
My rating for volume three: 9 (out of 10)

Comic Book review: Y: The Last Man, Volumes One through Three

My review of the first three volumes of Y: The Last Man. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Pia Guerra.

Volume One: Unmanned
Volume Two: Cycles
Volume Three: One Small Step

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Anime review: Persona 3: The Movie - #1: Spring of Birth

Following the release of the anime adaptation of Atlus’ well-received Persona 4, film trilogy was announced adapt the story of its predecessor, Persona 3. The first of these films, titled Spring of Birth, serves primarily to set the stage for all that is to come, introducing some of the major characters, teasing the eventual inclusion of others, and familiarizing viewers with the concept of the Dark Hour and Tartarus. While it may cut out a great deal of the content that falls between major plot points, this first installment in the movie trilogy does a solid job at hitting all of the important notes, though its pacing is admittedly a bit odd.

The story begins much like its video game counterpart, with the mostly-silent protagonist (given the name of Makoto Yuuki for the purpose that other characters will constantly be engaging in conversations with or about him) moving into co-ed dorms near Gekkoukan High and experiencing some strange phenomenon. Every night at midnight, clocks, vehicles, and all manner of machinery stop and most people are sealed away in coffins, entering a sort of stasis during a period known as the Dark Hour. The Dark Hour is effectively an hour-long span of time that is only perceived by those with special potential, namely individuals who can all upon Personas to aid them in battle against otherworldly monsters known as Shadows.

On the night of a full moon, these Shadows become notably stronger and more aggressive than usual, breaking out of their natural territory within the fortress of Tartarus, and taking to the streets of the outside world. It is upon one such night that protagonist Makoto Yuuki finds himself in the company of his peers and classmates Mitsuru Kiriho, Akihiko Sanada, and Yukari Takeba, as the Shadows are bearing down upon their dormitory building. Not fully understanding the nature of these Shadow monsters or his schoolmate’s operations with the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (S.E.E.S. for short), Makoto almost instinctively reaches for an Evoker, a gun-shaped device that the S.E.E.S. members rely on, and uses it to summon his first Persona.

What follows, naturally, is an action-packed beat down of the Shadows by Makoto’s Persona, dubbed Orpheus. But there is seemingly something sinister that lurks within his Persona, as – shortly before Makoto passes out from exhaustion – it transforms into a menacing creature that appears to bear some sort of skeletal face and spreads its coffin-shaped wings. Not long after, Makoto recovers and is formerly inducted into S.E.E.S. His peers make a point to bring up that relying too heavily on one’s Persona can be problematic, yet Makoto’s visits to the ethereal Velvet Room make it apparent that his ability to summon multiple Personas makes him an anomaly among Persona users.

From there, the movie takes on two very different approaches to crafting the world and characters or Persona 3 – when highlighting new party members like Fuuka and Junpei, the story’s pacing slows significantly to explain their importance to the operations of S.E.E.S., as well as give viewers a strong impression of their character traits and personal values. This makes their inclusion all the more meaningful, and is one of the film’s greatest strengths, and should provide some relief for any Persona fans who were concerned that this three-film adaptation might attempt to do too much in too brief a time span. Even Shinjiro sees some inclusion in the film, helping to solidify his inevitable recruitment to the S.E.E.S. cause in the second film, while Koromaru and Ken both make brief cameos during the opening credits.

On the other hand, the film barrels past the everyday school studies, athletics and club activities, and time spent out on the town. The anime adaptation of Persona 4 similarly kept its focus on the major story points, but still slowed down every once in a while to explore the Inaba locals and the small yet personal rewards Yu Narukami and his teenage crew of investigators earned as a result of their setting aside time to tackle minor requests. In this first Persona 3 film, the most direct involvement with teachers, classmates, and non-S.E.E.S. peers comes in the form of brief montages. While these sequences do show Makoto taking part in some school activities and even meeting up with Junpei for an afternoon at the arcade, it doesn’t offer as solid an immersion in Gekkoukan High or its surrounding locales.

The animation is solid throughout – arguably better than the Persona 4 anime, in most cases. Character renders have seen significant updates in terms of their level of detail and fluid motions from the cutscenes that played out during the original Persona 3 video game. The splotchy dark watercolor look of the invading Dark Hour on previously-established environments does a great job of presenting these areas as both familiar and alien. Meanwhile the few portions of Tartarus that are shown present it as a labyrinth fortress, with elegant floors, arched windows, and dull lighting emanating from wall-mounted candles. The soundtrack brings back a number of the video games’ upbeat and peppy tunes, as well as some of the more dire, heavy rock-influenced songs, with remixes sprinkled throughout (some significantly altered, others with more subtle tweaks).

Spring of Birth is not a perfect adaptation of the Persona 3 story, and its hour-and-a-half runtime begs the question as to how successful the two following films will adapt the later legs of the video game source material. The material that the film does cut out may not have left a major impact on the core plot of Persona 3, but it does rob the film of some of the video game’s unique quirks, as well as any connections between the S.E.E.S. members and their non-Persona-adept classmates. The major points that it does focus on, however, are handled quite well, and go a long way in establishing connections between the S.E.E.S. members, as well as painting the Shadows of Tartarus as an ever-looming threat, even if one scene late in the film is drawn out to an agonizing length and almost laughably bad presentation.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...