War of Kings

War of Kings (Hardcover ed.)
by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Marvel Comics

War of Kings is the latest in Abnett & Lanning’s (helpfully referred hereafter by their fan moniker DnA) cosmic saga that has rewritten a corner of the Marvel universe that gets little to no attention from anyone but hardcore comic fans. Starting with Annihilation and Annhilation: Conquest and branching off into their ongoing Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy books, DnA have take characters with potential but no history and made their story the best and most consistent of the comics Marvel has published in the last five years.

War of Kings is the story of the Kree/Shi’ar War and the personal battle between their two emperors, Black Bolt of the Inhumans and Vulcan (brother to Cyclops and Havok of the X-Men). If that sentence just went totally over your head, then you’re not ready to read War of Kings. Go get Annihilation and start at the beginning of this epic. That point is really the biggest complaint about WoK. The story and writing are excellent as always, but where the Annihilation books felt like you could just jump in and learn about these characters as they go, WoK (probably by the very fact that it uses characters with a lot more continuity baggage) is a chapter in the saga and one that doesn’t stand as well on it’s own. The art is also inconsistent and unspectacular, proving distracting from the story at times.

This isn’t to say the book isn’t worth checking out. Marvel does a great job with their hardcovers and this one includes not only the WoK issues but the Darkhawk miniseries that ran alongside it and a few other one-shots. The bar that DnA aim for at this stage is really the one they set for themselves and by that standard WoK falls a bit short, but is still necessary reading for fans of Marvel’s cosmic characters.

7.75/10

Summon the Heroes

There was a time in my life when sports consumed literally 95% of my attention. If I hadn’t needed the other 5% for motor control, it would have been spent poring over box scores, baseball cards, and roster updates. I was a complete OCD freak and here was this entire area in which that was encouraged rather than medicated with all the enthusiasm of a napalm drop. I was completely in love with sports. Then came the labor stoppages. The baseball strike that canceled the World Series. High school students going straight to the NBA and turning it into a league of tattooed, petulant felons. NFL players whose violence bleeds off the field and into society. Steroids. DAMN Steroids to hell for ruining baseball. I watched Sportscenter three times a day at one point, but when it became more of a legal show than a highlights program, I stopped. Couldn’t tell you when I last saw it. What I’m leading up to is this: the Olympics are my last stand of sports fanaticism.

Oh shut up. Yes, I know steroids have been poisoning the games long before they started blowing up sluggers like Paul Bunyan dolls. Yes, it’s nationalist. Yes, it’s commercialized out the wazoo. I somehow do not care. I still want to watch every second of coverage. I long for Bob Costas to explain curling to me. Bring it on! I want it now! Because whatever taint mars the goal, the goal of the Olympics is one of the best ideas in the history of modern man: get everyone in the world together, take a minute to breathe, play some games, and watch the magic that ensues. Do the games fall short of that? Frequently. But they overcome drug scandals, terrorism, and political infighting. Just the fact that they occur is a miracle of cooperation. Iraq, Israel, and Iran all walk into the stadium within feet of each other…..and nothing happens. They’re not just a sporting event. The games are a statement of the best of what humanity can be. So if this blog runs a bit sportier than it usually will, it’s because instead of consuming media I will be watching Olympic coverage. I’ll be rooting for our athletes and the medals will be great. But stories will happen. Moments will occur. Miracles big and small will be played out on the sporting stage, and if you let yourself see them, maybe they’ll give you hope. That’s what sports can do when they’re at their best. They lift your spirits (look at New Orleans after the Saints Super Bowl win last week). So summon the heroes! Let the games begin!

Mass Effect 2

MASS EFFECT 2 (XBOX 360)
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Mass Effect 2 is that-a day after completing it-I’m sitting here thinking about members of my crew that did not make it through the game’s harrowing final mission. I’m missing those characters and trying to think what I could have done to get them through the last stage of our journey together. Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic game that improves in every way over the original (which given how good ME1 is, might be a better compliment than my opener…shoot topped myself).

ME2 continues the story of Commander Shepherd, and by “continue” I mean that quite literally. While you can start anew, the game gives you the option to import your last ME1 save off your hard drive and, with it, all the choices and ramifications of your decisions in the last game. If a character died in ME1, you won’t see it in the sequel. However, if you made a different choice, and the character lived, don’t be surprised to see familiar faces from your old crew pop up as you journey through the galaxy. I’m sitting on my couch playing a game in 2010 and decisions I made back in 2007 when I played Mass Effect are effecting my gameplay. In 2013 the same process will happen with Mass Effect 3. This customization of story creates replay value not only for ME2 but for all the games in the series. Choices have consequences in this world.

“Universe” rather, because that’s what BioWare has developed here. This universe is so deep and so interesting that it can stand along Star Trek and Star Wars. Those are the only comparable fictional scifi universes that have the depth, complexity, and history of Mass Effect’s. It’s only a matter of time before this property is turned into a TV or movie franchise and with Avatar giving Hollywood scifi fever, it won’t be long.

While some familiar faces from ME will be joining you again, you’ll spend the majority of the game recruiting and gaining the loyalty of a brand new crew for the game’s mission. The characters are diverse and memorable. You spend a lot of time talking in BioWare games, but it’s a tribute to how well the dialogue and story are written that it never feels like a chore to check in with a crewmate and learn more about their past. Vastly improved are the physical movements of the characters during conversations. They don’t merely stand and talk mechanically. Characters gesture, they move around, slump against nearby objects, and interact with the surroundings in a way that makes the conversation much more realistic.

Gameplay is much more like shooter than the first game. There’s nothing at all wrong with this as sometimes you felt like a spectator during the combat in ME1. It’s easy to control the actions of your squadmates or you can trust the AI to handle them and focus on Shepherd’s actions. There’s less customization and RPG elements evident in the combat. You’ll only earn XP for completing missions, but the achievements are such that you feel rewarded for exploring the different combat options and progressing your weapons and skills. Mass Effect didn’t have many flaws, but BioWare addressed all of them. Repetitive side missions? Gone and replaced by a good variety of rabbit trails to chase. The graphics are updated and look extremely sharp. The biggest complaint by far was the number of elevators that the first game used to load new areas. There are no elevators. The elevators are gone. Loading screens take their place, but you’ll see an overview of the area you’re in and the progress of the characters to the new section, which is a whole lot better than awkwardly staring and your squad during interminable elevator rides.

While fantastic, the game is not perfect. There has to be a better way to harvest minerals (which you’ll need to upgrade the ship, weapons, and character skills) than slowly scanning planets and launching probes. I finished my playthrough in 39 hours and somehow the game felt short to me. I wanted to land on all of those planets and I’m so convinced by the game’s universal depth that I can’t believe there aren’t adventures waiting down there for me to have. My complaints, though, are quibbles. Mass Effect 2 has laid down an early gauntlet for Game of the Year. It’s an addictive, engrossing gaming experience that no gamer can pass up.

9.75/10

10G – You Have Received Validation

How much cooler would life be if it was like an Xbox game? I’m not so much thinking of consequence free violence or 12 year old Halo veterans screaming “PWND!” into your ear so much as I’m thinking of achievements. For anyone who doesn’t know (and if I’ve already swept past you with “pwnd”, this possibly might not be a blog directed at your demographic) all Xbox 360 games come with achievements that you unlock by doing certain tasks in game. The tasks can be as simple as pushing the START button or as daunting as slaying 10,000 zombies. These achievements in turn give you points which are connected to your gamertag which accumulate into a total gamerscore.

Doubtlessly it’s an indication of how obsessed I am by this phenomenon that I can tell you what my gamerscore is literally at any time. I mumble it in my sleep. Perhaps it has something to do with having no money. I can tell myself, “I may not be saving for retirement, but you did get 50G for deflecting an arrow with your knife in Resident Evil 5.” The achievements are heralded by a very pleasing bloop noise and it has turned itself into a system of Pavlovian validation for me. I have a crap day at work, go home and fire up the box, play whatever I’m playing and wait for a bloop. The bloop means I have accomplished something and now I may feel better about myself. Oh I’m not kidding. I know how it sounds (it sounds like a bloop), but that’s where I am.

Now, sure, I could wean myself off of this achievement addiction. But life doesn’t have achievements. Oh, shut up, yes I know it does, I have a graduate degree, but there was a conspicuous lack of blooping when I went up on stage to get it. Besides, it’s not milestones that I need achievements for (I can always bloop under my breath if I feel itchy). I need achievements exactly like the one up top that I will freely admit I stole from someone with graphic design talent. If I heard a bloop when I got to work on time, took out the trash, exercised, or cleaned up after the dogs, then I think my motivation would increase tenfold. Since Microsoft owns the world, I see no reason this couldn’t be downloaded into reality (along with bugs and security loopholes that will take years of patches to fix) posthaste. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go *bloop* 15G – Blog Completed.

When I Woke Today Suddenly Nothing Happened

You know those plans we have for life, the universe, and everything? What happened to those? Why is it as life rolls along it seems the list of things we mean to do versus the list that actually gets accomplished tilts freakishly towards the slow kid side of the see saw? I turned 30 this year so maybe that’s why I think about these things more often. I recall when I did turn 30 that many people told me how little a deal it was and how it truly signified nothing at all but a number. Clearly lying to 29 year olds is some kind of sadistic initiation test, because it is a big deal. It has been to me. It’s also coincided quite spectacularly with the shittiest year of my life. What I’m babbling on towards is that I’m in an angsty (my word, no you cannot have it) place.

That all comes off a bit whiny and I don’t even want this to be about me for the most part. My whole life I’ve dealt with the entirely too real world by escaping into others-stories. Whether they be books, comics, movies, TV shows, video games, or whatever, I find it more comfortable in the lands of make believe than I do my own. From time to time, I’ll use this blog to try to push some of my thoughts on these stories out of my head and make room for more practical things (here I’m referring more towards things like the infinite lives code for the old NES Contra than I am, say, remembering to change my oil). Perhaps some will find it interesting; perhaps not.

By the way, in case you give me credit I totally don’t deserve, the title of the blog and this first entry are from my new life theme song by the brilliant Colin Hay.

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