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)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Comic Book review: Saga, Volume 5

It’s now been multiple years since Alana and Marko began their life on the run from the many factions that view their hybrid child Hazel as a bargaining chip or threat to galactic stability. As the fourth volume saw Alana, her mother, and Hazel forcibly separated from Marko thanks to the actions of one misguided and extreme janitor, this fifth volume bounces back and forth between the ferocity with which Alana will defend her daughter and the uneasy alliance forged between Marko, the now-exiled Prince Robot IV, coastal rancher Ghus, and thespian/drug addict Yuma. There is a also, a secondary plot concerning The Brand, Sophie, Lying Cat, and Gwendolyn, as they search for a means to revitalize The Will, who is still out of commission.

This fifth volume of Saga does well to focus the spotlight back on Alana and Marko more so than the previous two volumes did, but it does teeter back and forth in uncertainty as to whether or not it wants to redeem these two main protagonists. While they may be worlds apart from each other for the majority of this most recent volume, their thoughts of one another do weigh heavily, as their last interaction before they were torn apart was one of confrontation and hurtful words. And yet, while Alana does appear to bear some degree of regret over her exchange with Marko, her cunning and maternal defensiveness are somewhat undercut by the fact that she doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about anyone other than her own family. Marko, meanwhile, decides to turn to the drugs he so abhorred to escape his feelings of guilt over losing track of his family, and even displays a savage nature from seemingly out of nowhere.

While not nearly as overwhelmed in its attempts to juggle multiple story threads as the previous volume, this latest entry still feels a bit thinly stretch as more characters are introduced to the already burgeoning cast. Many of these newcomers see their stage exits by the end of this fifth volume, but it’s still almost too much on the plate when you consider the number of characters who have held minimal importance on the larger plot for the past two volumes. And at the end of this collection, there’s merely more cliffhangers and open-ended threads, with not but a few subplots being resolved by this trade paperback’s conclusion.

While Saga’s adult language and ‘edgier’ presentation factor were amusing early on, they have since become obnoxious elements of its identity. The series tries too hard to jam vulgarities into every other sentence, and the sexual imagery is largely without purpose – it’s perfectly acceptable to explore the relationship Marko and Alana forged during or even prior to Hazel’s conception, but it’s wholly unnecessary to show the act of a dragon fellating itself for a cheap laugh or ‘shock value’. While not as sour an entry as the fourth trade paperback, this fifth volume of Saga only does so much to return the series to the spark of imagination and intrigue, as well as the focused path that were so prominent in its first two collected volumes. As much as I wanted to continue enjoying Saga, I feel these most recent releases have turned me off to the series enough that I can confidently state that this is the end of my investment in Brian K. Vaughan's space opera.

My rating: 5.5 (out of 10)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Comic Book review: Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies

Among the wilder concepts to come of Marvel’s 2015 Secret Wars event is the four-part Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies. On the far edge of Battleworld, a giant wall has been constructed to keep the more problematic creations from Marvel’s comic history quarantined – those problems, of course, being the undead hordes of Marvel Zombies fame and the ever-evolving rage-filled A.I. known as Ultron. The Zombies wish only to devour those individuals who are tossed into their so-called Deadlands as punishment by the Thors for breaking God Emperor Doom’s laws, while Ultron seeks to eradicate the zombies and their impure nature in his quest to perfect this no-man’s land.

While this is certainly a curious pairing, it would prove a tiring conflict very quickly were a third party not introduced. At the start of this limited series, a version of Hank Pym from the wild west town of Timely is banished to the Deadlands. With little to defend himself and limited knowledge of the Battleworld realms beyond Timely, Hank would most certainly be a goner, were it not for the arrival of Vision, Simon Williams, and Jim Hammond. The trio rescues Hank Pym, bringing him to their makeshift fortress/home in the middle of this desolate region, with the hopes that he might be able to create a counter to Ultron and his devious machinations.

This stranger-in-a-strange-land Hank Pym is, naturally, taken aback, having practically zero knowledge of their modern technology. But he did manage to partially construct a clockwork equivalent of Ultron once upon a time, and, after some convincing, agrees to aid these three synthetic men. Vision, Simon Williams, and Jim Hammond, are not the only three whose lives are factored into Pym’s decision, as there are many other survivors living in their shielded community – most notably, the love interests of these three heroes.

What lends Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies to be a more compelling tale than the cover art might let on is the juxtaposition of this bleak environment and its terrifying armies with a focus on classic Marvel heroes, all of whom have previously struggled with the concept of what it means to be a man versus what it means to be a machine, and where they fall in that spectrum. Hank Pym, meanwhile, is more so the tether that binds the story together.

There are some more frequently vocal members of the undead hordes, which lends the zombies some personality beyond shambling, starving husks. And the situation becomes even more so dire when Ultron proposes a plan that could unleash both armies on the rest of Battleworld. At four issues in length, Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies has nearly-perfect pacing. It incorporates daring science projects, golden age heroism, and a nicely varied but appropriately-contained cast. It has fun with its diverse roots, embracing its oddities and weaving an entertaining and well-rounded narrative.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Comic Book review: X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Prelude

Before Age of Apocalypse’s wildly different vision of the X-Men universe properly came into its own, Charles Xavier’s insane son Legion awoke from his long coma to find he had gained some degree of control over the multiple personalities swimming around in his head – enough control, that is, to formulate a plan to travel back in time to kill Magneto and alter the present day, but enough foresight to consider the ramifications of such a major rewriting of mutant history. The buildup to Legion actually putting his plan into action is something of a slow burn, but an effective one just the same. Seeing all of the major X-Men and a handful of both their allies and enemies as they are most well-known makes the transition to their dystopian Age of Apocalypse counterparts all the more powerful, as the contrasts between these are often drastic. Similarly, it offers better context to readers not as intimately familiar with the X-Men legacy.

There are two prominent points in history that this Prelude volume covers: the ‘present day’ before Legion’s actions cause a rewrite of the history of the X-Men readers once knew, and the past when Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) shared a newly-forged friendship and were only just becoming familiar with the emergence of mutants around the globe. It is both insightful and amusing to see the relationship these two prominent leaders shared in their younger days, with Charles exhibiting more aggressive and impulsive behavior at times, and Magneto questioning the extent of the power other mutants could possess. While it is clear that these two do not share a perfectly matching view on the world and the struggles that it might one day face, there is a mutual respect that serves to shape Magneto’s ideologies in the later volumes of Age of Apocalypse.

Given how dark and desperate the world has become by the time volumes one through four of Age of Apocalypse roll around, it should come as no surprise that the X-Men, despite their best efforts, fail to stop Legion’s plans. However, these events do not play out in a predictable manner, as Mystique is the first to attempt to kill Legion in his comatose state, only to be thwarted by the members of X-Factor. The fact that different parties of mutants spend enough of their time squaring off against one another as opposed to focusing solely on Legion, as well as the fact that the extent of Legion’s powers are largely unknown until late in this Prelude, are what grant him the upper hand.

The X-Men throw nearly every plan that can scramble together on such short notice once the past becomes threatened by Legion’s intent to kill Magneto and alter the present. Cable and Domino are called upon, and both Charles and Jean attempt to maintain a psychic link with the mutants in the past. When the final hour is upon these heroes, they share a few somber, yet appropriately intimate exchanges with one another, before an awe and terror-inspiring wave wipes over the Earth, erasing the world as it once was and putting the Age of Apocalypse in its place.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Top five video games and anime of 2015 - Spring and Summer contenders

We are now more than halfway through 2015, and I feel that my contenders for this year’s best anime and video game picks are currently fewer and further between than in years past. I have only come across a couple of games that really blew me away, and one in particular was a title that I did not expect to impress me as nearly much as it managed to. There are, however, a few major titles releasing this Fall and Winter that may very well find their way on to the final, year-end list, including Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Star Fox Zero. On the anime side of things, there’s certainly been a clear front-runner since the year began, while other series have managed to offer me pleasant surprises with shorter episode counts.

- Video Games -

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - Persona Q combines the dungeon-mapping and exploration elements of the Etrian Odyssey series with the familiar faces and Persona abilities from the third and fourth numbered entries in the Persona series. Persona Q is, in many ways, a game that is directly aimed at established fans of the series, offering callbacks to events that transpired in Persona 3 and Persona 4 Yet, it does well to establish an engaging narrative all its own. The lack of Social Link depth is unfortunate, but all the same, Persona Q is one of the most jam-packed and wonderfully enjoyable spinoff games of its caliber.

Splatoon - The fictional hosts of this game, Callie and Marie, tell players to stay fresh, and that’s exactly what Splatoon is – a fresh culmination of third-person shooting, action-adventure, platforming, and slight puzzle design, all wrapped up in a wildly inventive, punky aquatic vision of Tokyo, where online multiplayer is the primary focus. The soundtrack is kickin’, the neon ink colors bright and a blast to splatter over every inch of the map, and the community focus incredibly strong.

Shadows of the Damned - Delivering a simpler, more singularly-focused tale than other Suda51 creations, Shadows of the Damned sees the grindhouse-inspired demon hunter Garcia Hotspur racing headfirst into the depths of hell to save his true love. Weaving a curiously cohesive string of environments together to create a fresh vision of hell, and offering tight gameplay the focuses on three core weapons and their occasional uses for solving puzzles, Shadows of the Damned is a surprisingly solid entry in the legacy of Grasshopper Manufacture, even if its crude sense of humor falls flat from time to time.

- Anime -

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders (Egyptian Arc) - What is currently poised to take the cake as this year’s best-of-the-best anime, the second half of Stardust Crusaders has managed to ORAORAORA the competition and climb the ranks as one of my all-time favorite anime series. It’s a masterful follow-up to the first half of Stardust Crusaders, an adaptation which was already an incredible improvement over the wonderfully-realized animated telling of the first two arcs of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. The series keeps on improving as it progresses, and I couldn’t be more pleased with this love letter to the Jojo’s fanbase.

Ninja Slayer - Despite a rocky start, this goofy, sometimes off-the-wall homage to action anime of the late 1980s and early 1990s has proved consistently entertaining since. Drastic changes in animation style and quality poke fun at limited budgets from the era that Ninja Slayer draws so much of its inspiration from, and the exchanges of greetings that foes share prior to each violent encounter puts a smile on my face as character designs proves increasingly more silly. Ninja Slayer knows when to play its cards properly, balancing wacky humor with kickass action sequences.

Mobile Suit Victory Gundam - Victory Gundam has aged surprisingly well given its early 1990s debut. Sure, there are a handful of gaps in logic and corny sequences, but by and large, Victory Gundam plays the part of a spiritual successor to Zeta Gundam, pitting a rebellious group of ragtag teens and young adults against the cruel and violent expansion of the Zanscare Empire. The hand-drawn animation also impresses with its lack of reliance on stock footage, and the soundtrack haunts with its soft, yet still imposing melodies.

Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine - A throwback to the classic action and espionage of one of anime’s oldest and most iconic series, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine combines flash and flair of a bygone era with contemporary writing techniques for a smart, sexy, and thoroughly enjoyable telling of the earliest encounters between Lupin, Jigen, Goemon, Inspector Zenigata, and the titular Fujiko. The art style is gorgeous, retaining the traditional character designs with gorgeous lighting effects, harsh shadows, and an overall presentation factor that continues to impress with subtle impacts on the larger product.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...