Monday, July 4, 2016

Arc Reactor: Unfollow - 140 Characters



Last year we saw Vertigo attempt its annual 'relaunch' of the brand, and this time it seemed to be a bit more successful. There were a good number of titles that seemed interesting with great creative teams behind them. Clean Room, Survivors Club, Sheriff of Babylon and Unfollow all had clever premises and sharp talent behind them. I was a big fan of Lauren Beaukes' novels, so I decided to check out Survivors Club, but ended up dropping it after three muddled and confusing issues. Now that this wave of titles has had a chance to release their first trades, I started out by grabbing the first volume of Unfollow, written by Rob Williams with art by Michael Dowling (and an issue by guest artist R. M. Guerra).

Unfollow is basically Battle Royale meets Willy Wonka in the age of social media. The series tells the story of 'The 140,' the people chosen to split the fortune of the dying creator of the social media website Headspace. All 140 winners are taken to an island, where they are told the catch: if any of them dies, that person's share is split among the survivors.

This seems like simple enough of a premise, but what makes this shine is the characters involved. While it obviously can't focus on all 140 of the people chosen, the series does a great job of giving us a small cast of main characters that we will be following. They all seem fully fleshed out and play well off of each other. Even in the first six issues presented here, they have already set up some interesting confrontations down the road between the principal players.

There's also a very good balance of tone throughout the book. They use little Twitter-like messages as captions throughout, and those do a great job of putting this in the context of the critique of social media, which is wonderfully woven into the narrative. The straight up paranoid-horror of which-of-us-will-try-to-murder-the-others-first is great, but there is also a small amount of surrealness added to it with the inclusion of a mysterious masked antagonist and semi-frequent hallucinations. There's also an good amount of philosophizing about the nature of humanity during the course of the characters' interactions, which appeals to me.

With how much I liked this comic, I wish I had given this a try rather than Survivors Club. The characters are varied, the plot is fast-paced and engaging and the commentary on society is razor-sharp. I'll be eagerly anticipating volume two, as I can't wait to see where Williams takes the story.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Conjuring 2 - Review



While there are many long running series in the genre, horror movies are not necessarily known for having high quality sequels. I absolutely loved the first Conjuring film, and I really think that James Wan is one of the sharpest directors in the genre. Despite that, I wasn't really super excited about the prospect of a second film, even though Wan was involved. At least, not until the week of. I found myself remembering how thoroughly I enjoyed the first one. Positive reviews started to roll in, so I headed to the theater to check it out.

Much to my surprise, the Conjuring 2 is probably a better movie than the first one, even though I would say it's slightly less terrifying. The films follow a similar structure: opening with the Warrens dealing with a famous haunting (Annabelle in the first one, Amittyville in the second), start showing the new family experiencing some crazy stuff, then get the Warrens involved. What sets the Conjuring movies apart is the fact that the writers manage to give both the family and the Warrens a good heart to build the movie around. This one improves on the first by giving an interesting through line that connects the Warrens to the haunting attacking the family. This makes a huge difference, and really makes the film feel more cohesive than the first.

While I do think that it's not as scary as the first one, that doesn't mean there aren't some amazingly creepy set pieces throughout. Wan really understands how to direct a horror scene, and does a lot of important things to build the atmosphere perfectly. I love the way that he uses a long take in the beginning to set up the space of the house that will be haunted. This way, you completely understand where things are in relation to everyone else when the spooky stuff is going down. It's such a simple thing to do, but it really enhances the film. There's also some wonderful imagery throughout the film, including the demonic nun and the crooked man.

I'm really glad that I took the leap and tried this one out. I love seeing horror movies in the theaters because it's such an immersive experience, and this is horror at it's finest. The series is nothing innovative (I would say that Wan's Insidious series offers more new ideas, but isn't quite as refined), but this is horror polished to perfection. I think that Wan is not only one of the finest horror directors, but rather one of the most solid directors working right now. I'm moderately excited to see what he does with Aquaman, but I'm more excited to see what kind of horror thing he gets into after that.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

E3: Sony Press Conference Reaction

This year I have been more caught up in the E3 hype than usual. For some reason, I feel more connected to the industry this year, so this year I decided to check out some of the press conferences live. I watched the Bethesda conference on Sunday, but being a Playstation guy, I was very excited for the Sony conference on Monday.

I watched it live and was blown away. Sony played trailer after trailer of new, awesome looking games, many of them available in VR. I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the best trailers that were shown during the conference, though I won't talk about everything (the most notable one not below was the VR for Star Wars). NOTE: This is not necessarily ranked by anticipation for the game, but rather by the impact of the trailer.

8. DAYS GONE
Bend Studios is one of Sony's first party studios that's been quiet for the longest, and we were all waiting for them to drop their newest game. There had been a rumor that the game was called Dead Don't Ride and was about a biker in the zombie apocalypse. Turns out that rumor was half right. Days Gone (which I don't quite like as much as the name Dead Don't Ride) gives me a bit of a Last of Us vibe, but the biker gang angle seems like it will make the game distinct enough. The initial trailer didn't do a ton for me, but the gameplay demo that they closed the conference with really showed off just how many zombies the game will throw at you, which definitely sets the game apart on both a technical and scale level. I'm not super hyped, but I'd be willing to be convinced that this will be the next big thing.



7. GOD OF WAR
I have never really been a God of War fan, despite being very interested in Greek mythology. Kratos always seemed to be such a one dimensional, uninteresting character, and the gameplay seemed to follow that mold. This game definitely looked like a change from that. The father-son angle really made it look like a completely different game. The idea that Kratos still has 'anger issues,' but is trying to raise his son not to entirely follow in his footsteps. Not only does this new emotional angle really help get me interested in the franchise, the idea that you are now taking creatures from Norse mythology is definitely a huge step in making this something new and fresh. The combat did look a bit like a slower version of Bloodborne, so I hope that it's something that will jive with me gameplay-wise.



6. CALL OF DUTY: INFINITE WARFARE
I was really freaking out during this gameplay trailer while they were walking us through all this jaw-dropping. You go from dog fighting in spaceships to floating around in space, grappling from place to place. The seamless transitions, the cool weapons, the epic scope, everything made this feel awesome. Then BOOM: Call of Duty. I was really surprised at that reveal at the very end. There has been so much controversy around the negative reaction to the reveal trailer that this was the PERFECT way to get people excited for this game again. Everything looked so fresh and exciting. It will be interesting to see if this is something that they can keep up throughout the entirety of a campaign, or if this translates to multiplayer well. Hopefully everything works out, because this was the first time I've ever been super impressed with a Call of Duty game.




5. HORIZON: ZERO DAWN
This game and the next one were things that I've already had on my radar since their announcements, but it was nice to see more in-depth looks at them. Since it was revealed at last year's E3, Horizon has been at the top of my 'most anticipated' list. It's so awesome to see Sony put one of their biggest first party studios behind a bold new IP, and after seeing this gameplay trailer, it's paying off in spades.




4. DETROIT: BECOME HUMAN
David Cage and Quantic Dream have a mixed track record in my mind. Indigo Prophecy was a decent game with great ideas and an awful ending. Heavy Rain is one of my favorite PS3 games, but doesn't quite stick the landing. Beyond: Two Souls looked so far out there that I never bothered checking it out. That said, Detroit has really wowed me. I'm a big sucker for stories about AI, and seeing a completely new android character that will be playable in the game was really awesome. The footage they showed of all the permutations of how the situation played out was fascinating. The first trailer for the game did a lot for me, but after seeing this new one, I can't wait to get my hands on this game.



3. SPIDER-MAN
I had heard the rumors that this was coming, but it was still awesome to see this. It has been so long since we've gotten a really great Spider-Man title, and I think that Insomniac is an excellent choice to bring Spider-Man back to the video game forefront. Sony is obviously putting a lot of emphasis on this game, as it is a PS4 exclusive, so I'm confident that this will end up being THE definitive Spider-Man game, in the way that Arkham Asylum was for Batman when that was released.



2. DEATH STRANDING
As many of you may know, the sting of P.T./Silent Hills' cancellation still hurts me, but now that Kojima is on his own I can't wait to see what he does. Him walking out was probably the biggest excitement moment of the whole press conference. While the trailer clearly wasn't any gameplay, since the game isn't really even in proper development, it definitely demonstrates the mood that they're going for. I'm so intrigued by what was shown here, and I can't wait to pick through this trailer for find all sorts of clues to what this is going to be about. Anything with Kojima's name I'm all in for, and I'm ecstatic to see him working on an original IP.



1. RESIDENT EVIL 7
This one completely caught me by surprise. The trailer really went for that P.T. vibe, with you walking around a super creepy house. I loved the look and atmosphere of the trailer, along with some wonderful music to set the mood. When they dropped the title at the end, it was the perfectly holy crap moment. It looked nothing like recent Resident Evil games, and that couldn't be a better thing for me. I've always been a bigger fan of the earlier RE games, with the focus on exploration in a creepy setting, and this looks like it will bring it back to the roots in a fresh way. Not only was this trailer impressive, at the end they announced that not only was it coming out this coming January, but there was a demo available immediately. This trailer exemplifies how to bring a franchise back with a huge impact. As much as I want to see more from this game, I'm going to try to stay as in the dark as I can so everything in the game is just as surprising as this trailer.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Comics to TV: Preacher & Outcast

With the success of The Walking Dead, it seems that many stations are scrambling to find the next big comic book property, and I've been very interested in what comics get optioned. Two of the more anticipated ones debuted recently: Preacher and Outcast. Preacher is a title that has been in development hell for quite some time under various showrunners before finally coming to fruition on AMC. On the other end of the spectrum you have Outcast, which is a book that's only a few years old and was optioned right when the series debuted because of the success author Robert Kirkman has with The Walking Dead. Both were made available for free on the Playstation Network, so I got a chance to check them out.



PREACHER

Preacher is one of the Vertigo Holy Trinity (along with Sandman and Invisible) that got me into reading non-superhero comics back when I started reading seriously in college, so this property means a lot to me. Going into it, I had tempered expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised with the result. The television show diverts from the comic fairly strongly. Surprisingly, we actually get to see Jesse acting as the town's preacher, and it seems he will continue to do so for the foreseeable future (he had already abandoned his profession at the start of the comics).

There were some really exciting sequences throughout the pilot, particularly the introductions of Tulip and Cassidy. Being a TV show, it can be hard to guess how much care will be put into action sequences, but it seems that they are really going all out to make this show into something polished, yet gritty.

The thing that the show does great is that it gets the characters down without following them to the letter. For me, that's a refreshing way to do things, especially since I haven't picked up the source material in several years. They also manage to nail the tone of the show, finding the right balance between dark humor and disturbing horror. I'll be interested to see how some of the other characters trickle into the series, especially important ones like the Saint of Killer (my personal favorite) and Herr Starr.



OUTCAST

Where Preacher did things differently than the comic, while staying true to the tone, Outcast goes a different route and does a very faithful adaptation of the book's first story issue. While it does pad out many scenes and expand the dialog quite a bit, this pilot is almost beat-for-beat the same as the double-length first chapter of the comic.

I think the strongest aspect of the TV show (and, by extension, the comic) is that the horror is based so much in emotion and complex characters. The story of Kyle Barnes is really a tragic one; he's known to the world both an abuser and an abuse victim, but both are actually caused by an evil force that he struggles to comprehend. The characterization of Reverend Anderson is also outstanding. There are so many little touches to his character that make him so much more fleshed out than other priest archetypes.

The show is actually legitimately creepy as well, thanks in large part to the direction of Adam Wingard, who directed films such as You're Next and The Guest. The dark atmosphere of Paul Azaceta's artwork is translated perfectly to the small screen. It's a very quite and contemplative creepy, making the moments of shocking violence all the more impactful.

Both of these shows are easy to recommend. It's really great to live in a television landscape where both classic comics and contemporary ones are adapted with such a level of care, especially ones that aren't of the superhero variety.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Captain America: Civil War - Review



This seems to be the year of Superhero Slugfests. We first had Batman vs Superman, now we've got Civil War, then we'll have X-Men: Apocalypse, which features mutant becoming Apocalypse's Horsemen. Heroes fighting heroes is a classic trope in comic books, so it's cool to see this really coming to a head in films. I'll definitely say that I think Captain America: Civil War pulls this concept off in a stronger fashion than BvS.

Captain America: Civil War does an amazing job at trying to be a ton of different things. It picks up on threads that were introduced in Winter Soldier, with the real center of the action focusing on the hunt for Bucky and what to do with him. While it is trying to continue the Captain America series, it also acts as an Avengers film as well, since it features almost all of the Marvel Universe roster (minus Thor and Hulk). Not only that, but the movie also takes on the task of introducing two big characters: Black Panther and Spider-Man. It's a lot of plates to be spinning, but for the most part, it does it admirably.

I think the strongest thing about the movie is how the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man plays out. They both have a logical reason for choosing their sides on the issue at hand (whether or not the Avengers should have government oversight). They do a really nice job throughout the movie of explaining why the others join each side, but I feel like the real core comes down to Rogers and Stark, a dynamic that has been challenged throughout lots of the Marvel films.

I loved the way they built up the Winter Soldier as a really credible threat. Even though he's just an enhanced soldier with a robotic arm, there are a ton of scenes that believable show why he's such a big deal in a world where gods exist alongside alien creatures. While the villain, Zemo, wasn't really the focus of the film, he did a great job of finding a way to use the Winter Solider to drive a wedge into the Avengers. He was a really simple character, but his motivation and plans were just enough to work in the film.

The two big introductions are handled wonderfully. Even though it kinda feels like the addition of Spider-Man was a bit tacked on, it still fits in well and does an amazing job of creating a full version of the character with limited screen time. Based on what we see here, this is probably the best on-screen interpretation of the character, and doesn't waste your time with fully explaining everything about him. Black Panther does an awesome job of holding his own in the film. He kinda does his own thing throughout, which is great, and also shows why he's a big threat even though he's just 'a guy in a suit with some claws.' He's got a wonderful emotional hook throughout, and I can't wait to see more from his character.

The action scenes in this film were on another level. While I was watching the opening scene, I realized that I could just watch a series of 30 minute films that are just about the Avengers going out and taking down villains all over the world. The way they find to have each of the members work together and play off each other is amazing and really helps set it apart from the normal solo Marvel films. Some of the action gets a bit too shaky cam, but overall, it's exhilarating.

The biggest and most talked about action scene in the film is the big showdown at the airport where Team Iron Man clashes with Team Captain America. It's a fantastic scene that really shows off the powers of all the characters involved and gives them all something to do. While there could be a more simple version of this scene (I feel like trimming a couple characters out of the movie would have benefited the plot just a touch), there were so many wonderful moments throughout that I don't think I'd want to change anything. Surprisingly, the two biggest standouts in this scene were Spider-Man and Ant-Man.

Even though that airport sequence was the big showdown, the movies smartly focuses its climax on Iron Man, Captain America and the Winter Solider. Right when the movie is in danger of going a bit off the rails, it snaps right back into the main character based conflict in a super smart way that leaves the Avengers in a really different spot for future films.

I really want to applaud the Marvel Cinematic Universe for being brave enough to really shake things up in big ways that will have to be dealt with in future films. They started doing things like that with Winter Solider and the destruction of SHIELD, and they just keep getting bolder. Civil War definitely ranks up there with the top tier of Marvel's films, and it makes me very excited to see what the Russo's will do in their two part Avengers film.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Review



There was a long period of time where I wasn't even sure if I was going to try to make it out to the theater to see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I was disheartened by the direction that the DC Universe decided to go in after the grim and dower Man of Steel, and the huge slate of films they announced without having laid a substantial groundwork was very worrying. Despite the negative reviews, I heard enough good things from friends to make my way out to the theater to see it.

The movie starts off doing something that most people wanted to see in Man of Steel: dealing with the consequences of Superman's battle with Zod. We see that sequence from the viewpoint of Bruce Wayne, who is running around the ground level of Metropolis attempting to save employees of Wayne Enterprises. It's easily the film's most effective sequence, creating real world consequences for the over-the-top battle between titans.

If only the rest of the film kept up the same level of quality. I guess first I'll mention the other things I liked. Everyone in the film was well cast, particularly Ben Affleck as Batman. Snyder also creates some really nice visuals in the film, especially in the way he interprets the characters. Batman's costume and build is just perfect for the old grizzled version of the character represented here. I will also say that the movie is thematically consistent throughout. It definitely picks and tone and doubles down on it.

Unfortunately the tone that it chooses does nothing for me at all. I know that Batman is a darker hero, but this version of the character makes the Dark Knight look like Spider-Man. In this film, we have a violent Batman that has no problem killing people during the course of a car chase and even goes as far as to brand criminals with the intention of them getting killed in prison. He also very quickly decides that since Superman is so powerful, he has to be murdered. For someone who is supposed to be the guy who can solve his way out of anything, it seems weird that he immediately settles on the most extreme measure as his only method of dealing with Superman.

The film also makes weird choices with Superman. There are some really great ideas about the world trying to figure out how to react to a being with that much power that isn't under the control of any nation. Much of the plot involves Superman being questioned in the public eye after he's associated with some big disasters. Again, great idea, but I feel pretty much every one of these problems he faces could have been solved by simply talking for a couple minutes, yet he remains publicly silent.

This highlights one of the main problems with the film: no one acts like a real person and instead acts however the plot needs them to act. It is very obvious that Lex Luthor is manipulating things from the background, but not even the world's greatest detective realizes it. It's very frustrating to watch, and only escalates as the film goes on. I feel like the titular battle could have been avoided completely if there would have been a little bit of dialog beforehand.

There are some interesting action sequences, but ultimately they feel perfunctory. When Batman and Superman are fighting, you kinda know how it's going to end before it's over. The final battle is made a bit more fun because of the electric introduction of Wonder Woman, who leaps onto the screen in the films most fist pumping moment. Even without spending a lot of screen time building her up, she believably holds her own with the other two leads.

When the movie ended, my wife looked over to me and said, "Well that wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be." That was about as positive as we were on the film, and it's only degraded in my mind. Much like The Dark Knight Rises, the more I think on the film, the more I realize how the plot doesn't hold together and how the dumb the characters act. I tried to stay in the film as characters were doing odd things, but my suspension of disbelief was never rewarded. I wonder what the R-rated cut of the film looks like, but I can't imagine that another half hour of footage would do anything to repair the already overlong film.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Metal Gear Solid War Journal - MGS1



I'm really amazed how much of this game I actually remember from when I played it. Metal Gear Solid came in out September 1998, when I was the ripe age of 14. I remember snapping the game up immediately when it came out and devouring it as fast as my teenage self could. Even now as I was playing the game with my wife watching, I could accurately tell her what was coming up before it happened. There were a couple stretches of the game that I didn't really remember, but for the most part my several playthroughs when it came out were memorable enough that I could remember it 18 years later.

One of the biggest deals about MGS at the time was the sheer technical prowess of the production. It was a fairly late cycle game on the first Playstation, so this was the system at its finest. Gone were the pre-rendered backgrounds seen in such technical marvels as the Resident Evil series, replaced by fully polygonal worlds. This technique allowed for a much more cinematic presentation, giving the camera freedom to move throughout the world rather than being stuck in a static position. MGS was also one of the most extensively voiced games that I played at this time, with (for the most part) movie level voice acting.

The movie-like aspects of the game carried over into its plot. This was easily the most intricately plotted video game I had played at this point, and it did so in a near-future sci-fi setting in a relatively real-world fashion. MGS in an improbable combination of a spy movie, anime and political statement about the nature of war in the nuclear age. I had never seen anything like that in a game before (the most heavily plotted game I had played at this point was FFVII), and this resonated with me immediately. The plot of the game is presented through numerous cut scenes as well as codec transmissions. These are just audio conversations accompanied by pictures of the characters talking. This shouldn't be something that works at all, since it's such a visual medium, but these are somehow still engaging.

It's interesting that I've talked this long about the game without mentioning at all how it plays. MGS promised "Tactical Espionage Action," and that's pretty much what it delivers. The most revolutionary element of the gameplay to me was the semi-realistic way that stealth was handled. The introduction to the game did an amazing job of showing you how everything works at a perfect pace. Little touches like guards being able to track you by your footprints in the snow really went a long way to impressing me with the game's dedication to realism. While the stealth works well, there are a lot of other things about the gameplay that really are limited looking at it from a modern perspective. the top-down point of view is a bit limiting when you are trying to get a big overview of the area that you are attempting to sneak through. This view really makes the shooting difficult as well, creating a lot of frustration during certain boss fights. At times, there appears to be very little gameplay between cut scenes, but it never detracts from the overall quality of the game.

The game's awesome story really succeeds because it features a ton of memorable characters. Solid Snake, our protagonist, is one of the most iconic characters in video games. Not only is he an incredibly capable (and bad-ass) character, he's also got a lot of depth to him. At the beginning of the game, he's attempting to live a peaceful life, but gets dragged back into a life of war. Kojima uses his character in relation to others in order to discuss the effects war has on both the world and on the individual.

The villainous members of FOXHOUND are equally compelling. Each of them are given a Mega Man X style animal-themed code name and have their own unique personality and visual gimmicks. The most memorable of all of them is clearly Psycho Mantis, a floating dude in a gas mask and bondage gear who messes with the player directly. This was the first time I had really experienced something in a video game that so blatantly broke the fourth wall, and when he asked me to put my controller down and 'moved it with his mind' by using the vibration function, I was blown away.

These memorable character all lead to some really great boss battles. Each one felt unique and had a puzzle solving element to it. While they were mostly entertaining, I do feel like they sometimes chose to make bosses more difficult by just giving them more health, which lead to some frustration when you would get caught by a bad camera angle really close to finishing someone off.

My favorite set piece of the game is the entire end stretch. I feel like I could write an entire essay on how epic it is. It starts off forcing you to fight the titular Metal Gear, the giant nuke-launching robot you were sent in to neutralize. It's a tough battle, but you eventually take it down using a rocket launcher and quick reflexes. After that you are knocked out and dragged on top of the downed mech. Liquid Snake, your nemesis throughout the whole game, reveals that you are both clones of Big Boss, the villain of the previous games and the greatest soldier of all time. He then forces you into a shirtless fistfight while a bomb is counting down to the destruction of both of them. While the hand-to-hand gameplay doesn't exactly hold up, there is nothing I can think of that is more epic than two clones duking it out on a giant mech while a bomb timer ticks away. After that you jump into a white knuckle car chase to escape the facility. It all feels right out of a Hollywood blockbuster, and it was unreal to be playing something like this for 14-year-old me.

One thing I realized during this playthrough is that even though this felt like the start of a franchise, it really drew on Metal Gear 1 and 2 (which were released for the MSX2). Since the game was so exposition-heavy, it didn't feel out of place for them to give you large chunks of information about characters from the previous games, and even though I wasn't familiar with the originals, the inclusion of the characters made the game feel that much more meaningful, like it was part of this myth that had been going on forever. It's very much the feeling you get from Star Wars: Force Awakens; you don't need to know the previous games inside and out, but there is more emotional resonance for those who are completely familiar with it.

I'm so glad that I had this gap in my gaming schedule to start making this trip through the Metal Gear Solid series. Playing this game after all these years has reminded me of why I feel in love with games in the first place, giving me a bigger appreciation of what is possible in today's space. Can't wait to get through MGS2, as I'm finding I remember that one a lot less than this one.