Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Another week of comics has come and gone and we are left with a great title from Image Comics as pick of the week.  While Hawkeye put up a good fight (might be the best comic design out today), it fell just a bit short of the humor that was infused into Uncanny Skullkickers.

Pick of the Week: Uncanny Skullkickers #1 - I will be the first to admit that I have not read much Skullkickers in the past.  The few issues I cruised were quite refreshing.  Nice tongue in cheek humor, good fantasy elements, interesting cast of characters, and some good action.  For whatever reason I never really got into the title.

This week, author Jim Zub, takes a nice jab at some of the larger publishers by releasing an issue that breaths new life into the series.  "We figured out what our series was missing: Adjectives!" is sprawled across the top of the cover and this issue is a natural jumping on point as it is the "first issue, again!".  

The first couple of pages provide a nice background leading up to the events of this book and we are quickly informed that we are going to be treated to bonus content.  This comic features two stories in one!  In the recap we learn that the Dwarf has drowned and at the bottom of each page there is a panel of him floating in the ocean to verify his status.  He is dead.

Meanwhile, Rex (a man) and Kusia (an elf) are washed up on an Island and scramble for survival.  We are treated to a "good times jungle exploration montage", some evil turtles get "re-extincted", and Rex gets relieves some stress through an inanimate object attack. 

The hook at the end of this book is enough to bring me back for issue #2 and may cause me to go back and read the back issues.  In the end you have a witty book that provides moments of genuine laughter and has an interesting cast of characters.  Throw in some creative baddies and jabs at other publishers and I am on board.

The Rest:
Hawkeye #8 - Bro, the guys in track suits have more reason to hate Clint Barton after the hijinks this month that left Hawkeye in prison, in what is the best looking comic on the market today.

Young Avengers #2 - I am guessing that the Young Avengers have not watched Fringe as they don't appear to know the risk of saving someone from another dimension and the impact it might have.

Deadpool Killustrated #2 - Lacking the charm of the first issue, it still entertained and a gauntlet including Beowulf and Mulan spearheaded by Sherlock Holmes is waiting for Deadpool in issue #3.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Microreview [book]: Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein

I often romanticize the notion of sitting down on a lazy Sunday with a classic SF novel I bought for under $2 at a used bookstore. Several attempts to go through with this, though, have foundered on an iceberg of hack writing, outdated social norms and the naive optimism about science, technology and "progress" that permeates so much pre-New Wave SF. So it was with some trepidation that I began Orphans of the Sky, a novel structured as two novellas by Robert Heinlein, an author I know primarily (and not positively) from the militarist novel Starship Troopers to the more interesting, but tediously smug Stranger in a Strange Land.

Orphans of the Sky tells the story of Hugh Hoyland, an illiterate peasant living on a generation starship whose inhabitants have long-since forgotten the purpose of their voyage (or even that they are on a voyage). The "crew" live on the high-weight decks of the ship, and are organized into a highly stratified and rigidly patriarchal society dominated by "scientists," who are really priests of a sort, and whose religious texts are the ship's technical manuals. The lower-weight decks are the home of "the muties," a group named either for their descent from the plotters of a long-ago mutiny or for the frequency of genetic mutations among them (which don't exist among the crew because they commit infanticide whenever a mutation occurs).

Hugh, being an intelligent young person, is promoted to the position of scientist, and quickly falls in with a group of hyper-rationalists that want to supplant the more superstitious officers ahead of them and then wipe out the muties. Before the plan can be realized, though, Hugh is taken captive by Bobo, a short, none too bright but fierce mutie, and Joe-Jim Gregory, his two-headed dilettante master. In captivity, High comes to learn of the ship's real nature, and its mission to reach the star system of Far Centaurus. He returns to the high-weight decks to "convert" the ship's officers, setting off a complex chain of political events that result in a crisis the ship has not seen since the days of the original mutiny.

So How Was it?

Perhaps it was the depressed expectations, but I actually enjoyed Orphans of the Sky a lot more than I expected to. It is written in the hack style, but it's fairly efficient and clean and thus perfectly suitable to that idle Sunday. It's unfortunate that Heinlein switches between third-person restrictive and third-person omniscient, especially as the latter appears directly addressed to an audience of Earth-bound contemporaries to the central characters, who presumably would never hear of their story. I found this annoying.

Then there's the whole "dated social norms" thing. I'd imagine that if someone were to write the character of Bobo today, they would not describe him as a "pinhead dwarf moron." This is partially mitigated by the fact that Bobo is possibly the most relatable and likable character in the book, but only partially. And gender relations in the book, for that matter, are positively neolithic. Heinlein does provide an explanation for this--the crew live in a highly-stratified priest society, and severe oppression of women is an integral part of its power structure, as it was for many historical analogues. But even as Hugh and his associates grow enlightened about many things, they never even consider the women except as an afterthought. And over in mutie country, whose residents are meant to be wildling-style "free folk," there's really only one woman--and she's an old crone who makes knives for everyone else and appears in exactly one scene. Maybe there's a touch of realism there, given how long it's taken/is taking real actual human societies to treat women as equal citizens, but the sausage-fest dynamic is seriously dated and seriously corny.

If you can give Heinlein a "that was then/this is now" pass, or can rationalize the misogyny in Orphans of the Sky as the intellectually justified function of the societies he is describing, then you'll probably find the rest of the book to be an enjoyable and at times thought provoking adventure story. I particularly liked how he resisted making either the crew or the muties "the good society"--actually, they are both terribly unfair. And there's a relatively interesting take on post-revolutionary politics that, while not quite up to Animal Farm standards, is still more subtle and nuanced than most Cold War-era parables about communism.

In the end, though, while this did satisfy my urge for a quickly-digestable SF classic, the good stuff isn't good enough for me to look past all the frustrating anachronisms.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for it only cost $1.75 and I bought it at my favorite SF specialist second-hand bookshop; +1 for being a solid all-around adventure story that had some intelligence and thoughtfulness to it.

Penalties: -1 for the distracting switches to third-person omniscient; -1 for the near total absence of women characters; -1 for not even giving them a tiny modicum of subjectivity when they do appear.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. "Average" or "Mediocre." Take your pick.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Microreview [film]: The Baby

The Meat:

The Baby is the kind of movie where after each take, you get the feeling everybody involved hung their heads a little and whispered under their breath "How the hell did I wind up here?" Lead actress Anjanette Comer had worked with Marlon Brando, composer Gerald Fried was probably wondering if Stanley Kubrick would ever take him back after scoring that guy's first four movies, and the colossal Ruth Roman, who had worked with Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, and Alfred Hitchcock, probably had to drive past her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to get to the set each day. Director Ted Post (who directed one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes) probably didn't give too much of a damn, since this was only one of about 11 directing gigs he had from 1971-1973, actress Marianna Hill probably got the taste out of her mouth playing Fredo's wife in The Godfather, Part II, but during the making of this bad-boy (pun intended), I'm pretty sure everybody involved felt like there were in the blackest night of career disintegration. Here's why:

The Baby is about a social worker, Ann, grieving the loss of her husband and throwing herself back into her work with a vengeance. She takes on a particularly challenging case regarding the Wadsworth family -- a domineering mother, two busty daughters, and son Baby, a twenty-something-year-old man who is apparently mentally handicapped and still lives as a baby. You know, crib, diapers, sucking at a reluctant babysitter's tit, the whole thing. Ann doesn't believe that Baby's really handicapped, but that "negative reinforcement" from the crazy mom is responsible for his arrested development. She's not privy to one sister poking him repeatedly with a cattle prod for attempting to speak or stand, or the other sister climbing naked into the crib with him while he sleeps, but Ann appears to be onto something. Suffice to say, drinks will be drugged, multiple women hog-tied, throats slashed, and people will be ambushed with hatchets and meat cleavers. Which is I'm sure exactly where you saw this whole thing going, right?

The film's poster and reputation suggest a depraved horror movie, possibly in the lunatic matriarch sub-genre along with Tallulah Bankhead's nutty Mrs. Trefoile in Die! Die! My Darling, and user reviews suggest a twisted psychodrama with a shock ending along the lines of Sleepaway Camp, but this movie isn't really either of those things. It tries to be a little of each, and throws in a hint of possible inbred frolicking, but that's dropped as quickly as a nonsensical reversal of roles (who's really crazy here?) is picked up. I don't really want to spoil the ending in case you see it, but, seriously, just don't bother seeing it.

The Math

Objective Quality: 3/10

Bonuses: +1 for the cello-based score, which was inappropriately evocative of Bergman

Penalties: -1 for the series of twist endings, none of which make sense; -1 for the start/stop nature of the various transgressions/depravities trotted out in the movie

Cult Movie Coefficient: 2/10. Just bad.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Monday, February 25, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division Eps 5-7

Hello! This is my first entry since switching from the once-a-week to once-every-three-weeks format, so bear with me. In case you are just getting on board, here are my reviews for Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3 and Episode 4. To summarize, "book good/interludes kind of annoying" for a cumulate score of 7.5/10. So how are the next three?

The Meats and the Maths

Episode 5Tales from the Clarke

Remember Captain Coloma from way back in Episode 1? That would be the gruff-but-caring Captain who's all righteous but really cares most about her crew. If you recognize that characterization, then it's because you read it in my review of Leviathan Wakes, and recall the phrase as criticism of that book's reliance of stock characters. Only, Captain Coloma isn't a stock character. Or maybe she sort of is, but it doesn't really matter because she's interesting! That's right--a female authority figure who is actually interesting! The fact that this excites me shows how low the bar is set for gender relations in science fiction and fantasy, but credit Scalzi with taking the obvious stock character, making her a woman and then making that an asset. Basically any scene with Coloma is gold, and here we get a whole chapter--a whole chapter whose plot is convoluted and full of irritating America-in-space-isms, but which is rendered compelling by the fact that it's about Coloma. Fingers crossed that we get at least one more chapter from her perspective.

[INPUT 8/10 (+1 for Coloma; -1 for baseball...really?) OUTPUT 8/10]

Episode 6: The Back Channel

At this point I'm giving up on the whole "this is like a serialized TV show" idea, because it's just not. Why? Because in six episodes to date, three are interludes that don't feature any of the central characters. And that does create problems for The Human Division specifically as a serialized novel (there is, after all, a very good reason why TV shows don't really do this). But unlike the frustrating interlude we get in Episode 4, this one is a total blast to read. It's definitely the funniest entry so far, and introduces a great character in Hafte Sorvalh--advisor to Conclave leader General Gau and lover of churros. You can really feel Scalzi hitting his stride at this point.

[INPUT 8/10 (+1 for Sorvalh and the churros; +1 for space neo-nazi douchebags being just as fun to shit on as regular neo-nazi douchebags; -1 for it's another interlude) OUTPUT 9/10]

Episode 7: The Dog King

Now this one's just silly. And centers on a little dog wearing a crown. I won't say anymore, because then I might spoil the episode for you, and that wouldn't be any fun, would it. Suffice to say, Wilson, Schmidt and the rest get into a mess, hijinks ensue, diplomatic relations are threatened and a wacky solution emerges that just might solve everyone's problems in one fell swoop. Does that sound like your kind of thing? Sometimes it is my kind of thing, like when I'm sleep deprived and watching The Big Bang Theory because it's easy and kind of funny and I know exactly what to expect. Or Psych because it's silly and full of references to things no one remembers unless their approximately my age, like Terence Trent D'arby. But I ask more from books than television, and prefer Scalzi's writing when the humor isn't quite so upfront and center. So yeah, this one is funny, but kind of unsatisfying as well.

[INPUT 6/10 (+1 for yes, it is genuinely funny; -1 for but I was expecting a bit more than just wacky comedy) OUTPUT 6/10]

Cumulative Score - Episodes 1-7: 7.57

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dead Space 3

the end is near!

We've finally come to it, the final installment in the Dead Space trilogy. Engineer and protagonist Isaac Clarke has managed to survive the Ishimura. He made it through the Sprawl and its Unitologist fanatics. Now it's time to go to the marker homeworld and finish this thing!  Reviews for this game are all over the place with Game Informer giving it a 98, Xbox Magazine giving it a 70, and VideoGamer giving it a 50. Read on to see what your friendly neighborhood gamer-nerd feels on the subject!

so what happens?!

First off, let me say that this section contains some spoilers, so if you haven't finished the game yet and don't want me to ruin it for you, skip on down to the next heading. The game has a great opening. It drops you into the action just like Dead Space 2. It starts with you playing as someone other than Isaac Clarke for the first time. You're an EarthGov private on an ice-covered planet called Tau Volantis, which we later learn is the marker homeworld. You retrieve something called "the codex" and return in to your commanding officer who promptly shoots you, destroys the codex, then puts a bullet in his own head. The action then switches to Isaac and there's barely enough time to get your bearings before you come under attack from Unitologist forces trying to kill the one person who can destroy the markers and save 

You manage to escape and trace Ellie (your ex-girlfriend and fellow marker-hater) to an iceberg of a planet that is the marker homeworld, Tau Volantis. Upon arrival, your ship is torn apart by space mines and you must salvage parts from various other abandoned ships in the vicinity to reach the planet's surface. This provided some of the most fun portions of gameplay as you fly through space in your suit collecting the needed parts. Finally, you are able to reach Tau Volantis and start your mission to destroy the markers. 

Unfortunately, you were followed to the planet by Danick, the psychopathic Unitologist leader bent on releasing the markers' full power on mankind, thereby transforming us all into necromorphs. He believes it is the next step in human evolution. His Unitologist forces are trying to stop you at every turn. You also face a veritable army of necromorphs, many of which you will recognize from previous games while others are new to the franchise. Some of my favorite battles in the game came from fights between you, the Unitologists, and the necromorphs. Many times you could lay back and let one side finish off the other, then just clean up what's left. I won't cover every last detail, but the gist is that you find out you can re-create the codex and use it on "The Machine". This machine can activate all the markers and lead to the destruction of mankind, but it also has the power to destroy them all. Why the markers would create their own self-destruct mechanism is beyond me, but let's suspend our disbelief for a bit on that point. Suffice it to say you are left in a battle that will either destroy the entire human race or save all of mankind. 

The Dead Space franchise borrows heavily from other classic sci-fi movies. It's the perfect mix of Alien and Event Horizon with a smidge of The Thing thrown in for good measure (The Kurt Russell version. I refuse to watch the re-make on general principle). The variation in environments is a welcome addition to the third installment of Dead Space. In the first one, you spent all your time on the Ishimura. The second takes place almost entirely on the massive space station known as the Sprawl. This one starts on Tau Volantis, then moves to Isaac's apartment in an EarthGov colony, then to a spaceship, then into actual space itself, and finally back down to Tau Volantis. The game also includes side quests, an option not available in the previous two. They help take away some of the linear feel of the previous games, giving the player less of a feeling of a pre-determined outcome. 

It turns out that the ancient alien race Isaac thought created the markers was actually being attacked by them, just like humanity. Rather than let the markers destroy all life in the galaxy, they flash-froze Tau Volantis and themselves in a single day to stop the Convergence (the previously described destruction of all life). They're a little fuzzy on how they managed to flash-freeze an entire planet, but again, this is science fiction. Disbelief suspension is part and parcel to the genre. Do you really believe that pudgy little extra terrestrials can make bicycles fly with their minds? It doesn't matter. You cheered as loud as I did when E.T. helped Elliott and his crew get past that police roadblock. 

Somewhat similar to the Reapers in Mass Effect, the markers allow species throughout the universe to grow and thrive for millennia, then awaken to destroy them. The only difference being that the markers somehow feed on the species they're destroying for sustenance. The Reapers were destroying all life in the galaxy as some sort of cosmic reset button. It also shares something in common with Game of Thrones in that the writers weren't scared to kill off seemingly vital characters. This adds depth, emotional involvement, and gravitas to the game. I won't reveal how it ends in case some of you ignored the spoiler warning above. Suffice it to say I feel that this was an enjoyable and believable end to EA's fantastic sci-fi horror franchise. 


For the final chapter in the Dead Space trilogy, the developers completely overhauled the weapon and upgrade systems. You are even able to craft your own weapons at benches in order to match your personal style of play. As you can see in the picture above, a main difference is the addition of over/under weapons. Reminiscent of Ripley's duct-taped pulse rifle/flamethrower combination in Aliens, this allows players to have a rifle and a line gun in the same weapon. Aiming and pressing the right trigger fires the rifle, left trigger fires the line gun. 

The weapon upgrade system was easy to learn and easily superior to previous games. Not only can you build your own custom weapons, but you regularly find upgrade chips that can be attached to any gun to improve its performance. These improve damage, rate of fire, clip size, and reload speed. Depending on the type of weapon, you could add anywhere from two to eight of these chips to your gun. The weapon crafting options allow a player to have both long range and short range attack options in a single gun. This was especially helpful when being attacked by a gang of necromorphs. I would start out firing a rifle at them from a distance, but as they closed in I used a shotgun to dispatch the former humans without having to take precious seconds to switch weapons. In case you're not familiar with Dead Space, the markers turn humans into necromorphs. These necromorphs can turn other humans into the monsters pretty much the same way zombies do, by taking a big bite out of their flesh. 

There was a LOT more loot in this game than the previous two. I suspect it is an unintended consequence of the weapon crafting/upgrade system. Instead of just picking up health packs and ammo, you're picking up health packs, ammo, weapon schematics, upgrade chips, weapon parts, and elements used to craft both weapon parts and necessary items. This led to a vastly larger amount of looting. It also inspired me to search every area as intently as an OCD patient preparing to lock the house and go to bed. Personally, I loved it. Who doesn't love finding loot? However, the basic needs of the game's crafting system were beyond the ability of the environment to provide. The answer? Scavenger bots. These little puppies are acquired as you play and scout the area around you for items needed for crafting. After 5-10 minutes of scavenging, they return to the weapon bench and await your arrival, loot in hand. While they don't add a lot to the gameplay experience, they were necessary to keep loot collection at a reasonable and believable level while still providing enough raw materials to make crafting fun and useful. 

so the ride's got more accessories, but how does she handle? 

Short answer? Better than the previous models but there is still some small room for improvement. The actual gameplay isn't much different from Dead Space 1 and 2. Although it was part of both the previous games, stomping and dismembering dead necromorphs never got old. I would enjoy it even if loot didn't pop out of their corpses. Nothing was more pleasing than detaching part of a dead necromorph and using kinesis to hurl it at a live one (kinesis being a gravity tool equipped to your suit that is used to move objects). One of the highlights of the game for me were the early missions in space. Mines and aliens aside, who wouldn't want to fly through space in a protective booster suit? 

There are several small "puzzle" games sprinkled throughout Dead Space 3. In other games this type of addition can be annoying, but here it was a nice change of pace from battling necromorphs and Unitologists. They didn't get in the way of the experience and, if anything, add to the player's immersion in the story. One exception was the large, ancient alien doors near the end of the game (don't worry, no spoilers). The player had to place three symbols in the correct order on nearby panels to open the blockages. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the order, so you are left simply trying combination after combination until you lucked into the right one. However, it was a minor inconvenience in an otherwise effective set of puzzles included in the larger game. 

Elevators and airlocks are present throughout the game. They are a cleverly used way to disguise the fact that the console is loading up the next area you're about to enter. It helps continuity by never forcing the player to watch a loading screen and causing a break in the flow of action. My one knock on them is that any items carried into an elevator seem to magically disappear once you press the button. I tried to carry a mounted buck's head with me (don't ask) into the next area in order to use the horns as a weapon, but as soon as I hit the "up" button, it vanished. Another thing I found mildly annoying was the inability to backtrack in certain situations. Doors that you had previously used with no problem became locked and you were no longer allowed to enter. I backtracked 9/10ths of the way through one level to reach a loot room, only to find the last door impassable. That said, I only encountered this issue once in the entire 20+ hours of gameplay. 

in summation

I thoroughly enjoyed this game, as much or more so than the previous two. I really don't understand why the reviews have been so mixed. This one got a 76 on (a review aggregating site that averages all reviews into a single score) whereas Dead Space 1 and 2 got a 90 and 89, respectively. There were enough additions to make it feel like an improvement over the previous iterations without deviating too far from the base experience. The addition of side missions and tougher enemies kept it from getting stale. They also added a cooperative element so that you can play with a friend. I'm looking forward to my second playthrough in co-op mode as soon as my gaming buddy finishes his first campaign (Hurry up, Greg!). In short, Dead Space 3 is a fantastic cap to the best sci-fi/horror franchise of this generation. 

the math

Objective Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the mostly successful tweaks made to an already enjoyable gameplay system.

Penalties: -1 for a few plot holes that you just have to let go lest they hurt the experience. 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. Very high quality/standout in its category.

Read about our scoring system, in which average is a 5/10, here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Kassa Gambit by M.C. Planck

The Meat

The Kassa Gambit is M.C. Planck's debut work, a slim 288-paged science fiction novel published by Tor. Set in the distant future after the ecological collapse of Earth, The Kassa Gambit tells a story of humanity after its spread throughout much of the known universe. After colonizing hundreds of planets, humans have realized that they are no doubt alone in the universe. After ages of space travel, other sentient beings have not been found.  

The destruction of the small farming planet of Kassa throws this into doubt, and brings two unlikely souls together: one, Prudence Falling, the young captain of a tramp freighter (along with her ragtag crew); the other, Kyle Daspar, a police officer from Altair Prime who is in fact a double agent against the League, the interstellar government of mankind. While flying rescue missions on Kassa, they discover what looks to be an alien spaceship, crashed and abandoned after the attack. This leads Prudence and Kyle on a thrilling adventure spanning multiple worlds, one in which they slowly realize that an alien invasion is the least of humanity's concerns.   

M.C. Planck has a way with words. He develops a fast-paced plot that whips the reader along a story filled with political intrigue. Planck also unfolds the plot and introduces the complex worlds and politics of the League in an accessible way, so any prospective reader will not feel lost while reading this book. In doing so, Planck has created an interesting, albeit well-trodden, story that has two people (engaged in a budding romance) seek to defy the odds and stop a plot that threatens the known universe. 

In some ways, The Kassa Gambit is a blend of old and new. It is both a throwback to an older style of space opera, but feels based in no small part on recent TV shows like Firefly [Prudence's crew, after all, is a ragtag group seeking to escape notice of the fascist government, the League]. Moreover, The Kassa Gambit features a well-trodden story of a small crew trying to save the universe, but does it with a rampant pessimism (disguised as realism) that pervades modern science fiction. Once the heroes learn what they are up against, they find themselves fighting for the evil they know over the evil they don't. A repugnant interstellar government [fascism] doesn't look so bad when it is threatened by an even more repugnant system [communism?], after all.

Overall, The Kassa Gambit is a fun read. The world building is interesting and well done for a book this thin, and I particularly enjoyed Planck's explanation of the economics and methods of space travel, from gravitics to fusion and nodes for interstellar travel. Further, the writing is clear as a summer day. Placnk really succeeds in what he sets out to do: he has created an entertaining political thriller, a fun space opera set in the distant future.

That said, I do have a few quibbles with the story. The romance between Prudence and Kyle feels forced from the outset. Granted, I recognize that some people are attracted to each other from their first encounter. But it is surprising how quickly Kyle turns from enemy to possible lover. The romance became simply unbelievable at times. Who would pause and deeply kiss their significant other instead of escaping a dangerous situation? I would not. But Prudence and Kyle do... what they were thinking is beyond me. 

And I also felt a bit slighted by the fact that the book had a deus ex machina ending, which I do not want to spoil for our fearless readers. But just put it this way, the book loses points on the way it ends, not to mention its unsatisfactory epilogue. In the end, there are a number of forehead-slapping moments that detract from the broader story.  

Nonetheless, The Kassa Gambit is a worthwhile read for newcomers or fans of space opera. It is well paced, fun, and an overall light read. And had it ended as well as it started, Planck would have gotten even a higher score. I look forward to checking out M.C. Planck's future work!        

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Penalties: -1 for Prudence and Kyle's unbelievable romance; -1 for the book's deus ex machina 

Bonuses: +1 for interesting nerdy discussion of node travel, gravitics, and fusion; +1 for Dejae (though I could equally give Dejae +1 million)

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience"

Read about our scoring system, in which average is a 5/10, here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Another Thursday is upon us and I am going to try something new this week.  The pick of the week will be graced with an in-depth review and the rest get one sentence.  I thought it was time to mix things up a bit so here we go with a new format.  Let me know what you think. 

Pick of the Week:
Daredevil #23 - Mark Waid's run on Daredevil is nothing short of phenomenal.  Between issues I forget how much I have enjoyed him at the helm and how much raw emotion is at the heart of the Daredevil story.

The issue opens lightly with Daredevil treating Foggy to a night of whatever he wishes.  In a scene that makes you feel fuzzy, because it is what any of us would do, Foggy asks Daredevil to swing him around town.  We are treated to some humorous shots of Foggy clinging on to Daredevil and they swing around.

At the core of this issue is Foggy's current medical problems.  He is having a lot of symptoms that sound like cancer and he is looking to his old friend Matt Murdock for support.  The problem is that Murdock has been less than reliable causing Foggy to brave all of this on his own.

The side plot to this story is one that fascinates me because it reminds me of my son.  Whenever he hears of a hero's origin (Flash getting struck by lightning, Spider-man and the infamous spider bite, etc.) he always secretly hopes that will happen to him.  "Daddy, if I get struck by lightning will I be fast like the Flash?"  I think we are all a little guilty of this at one point or another, and a sinister force in New York has the same thought.  As circumstances always have to be perfect, this individual is conducting trials of prisoners going through Daredevil's origin to see if they can gain his radar ability.  The image of the hooded prisoners waiting their turn to save someone from being hit by a truck only to be covered in chemicals and have their eyes burned depicts this as a gruesome reality and not a childhood fantasy. 

This distracts the reader and you are left thinking that Murdock let down his friend once again as he is dealing with an army of Daredevil-esque thugs.  To remain spoiler free I am going to wrap things up here.  Go read Daredevil.  If you missed Waid's current run pick up the trades or get the back issues on ComiXology.  You won't be disappointed. 

The Rest:
Saga #10 - Brian K. Vaughan remains the master of creating bizarre and fascinating creatures and Fiona Staples remains the only artist who can do them justice.

Deadpool #5 - Deadpool stabs zombie Regan in the belly in outer space to which Regan says, "Mommy, my tummy is a boo-boo!"

Mind MGMT #8 - Henry Lyme is rounding up ex-Management agents (including a twin who shares power with her sister and a musician who can back up his files on demo tapes) as he tries to prevent the reformation of Management before the Eraser strikes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Microreview [film]: Invisible Invaders

The Meat:

If you could distill 50s sci-fi B-movies down to their most basic and lovable essence, the hooch you'd be cooking in your bathtub would look a lot like Invisible Invaders. From nuclear accidents to menacing aliens standing in for Communists, from poor effects and the rampant exploitation of stock footage, and from Army brass that just doesn't get it to zombies to John Carradine, this movie's got everything but Ray Harryhausen stop-motion.

After a noted scientist (Carradine) blows himself up during an atomic experiment, one of his colleagues, a Dr. Penner, goes to an Army general to plead that the atomic program be used only for peace, but to no avail. Then, the night of Carradine's funeral, the filmmakers introduce the only practical effect they were able to accomplish -- dirt moving by itself in mimicry of two shuffling, shambling invisible feet. The shuffle-tracks lead to Carradine's fresh grave, and suddenly, the blown-up doctor's totally unmarked corpse shows up at Penner's house, the reanimated puppet of invisible aliens who will be taking over the earth in 24 hours. But when Penner doesn't manage to secure a global surrender in the time allotted, the aliens take matters into their own hands by reanimating a crash victim and sending him into the PA booth during a local ice hockey game to frighten all the Earthlings. Because the producers had stock footage of a hockey game.

This hockey-based warning proves ineffective, though (they should've tried throwing octopi on the ice), so the aliens go ahead and attack, an event which is narrated to coincide with other available stock footage, including that of WWII bombings, factory fires, and the planned demolition of tenement buildings. The aliens then reanimate the dead (yes! zombies!), who walk over a hill in a group of about ten. A tough-but-fair Army guard grabs Dr. Penner, his daughter, and her odd little fiance, and whisks them off to an underground science bunker designed to withstand atomic war. The zombies then walk over the hill again. Dr. Penner, et al, begin working out theories for how to stop the zombies and/or aliens, which really isn't that interesting. But the zombies walk over the hill again, and our intrepid team of humanity's last hope is worried they'll soon find their way into the science bunker. Which was designed to survive nuclear war. Whatever, whatever, the zombies walk over the hill again, good guys win, and in closing we are told that the moral of the story is that all the nations of Earth can work together. Because the producers had some stock footage of the United Nations.

I had fun with this one. You can catch it on Netflix Instant or YouTube.

The Math

Objective Quality: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for the aliens using what appears to be Plan 9.5 from Outer Space; +1 for the hilariously obvious and rarely appropriate use of stock footage; +1 for the shambling, invisible feet that just shove dirt up in front of them over, and over, and over again; +1 for changing the definition of "shooting a man in cold blood" to mean "shooting a guy who's currently trying to kill you with a shotgun"

Penalties: -1 for the odd little fiance's brief bout with total insanity, before a punch in the jaw fixes him right up

Cult Movie Coefficient: 7/10. A mostly enjoyable experience.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Destiny: Bungie's New Franchise

Back in the early days of the XBOX, I loved me some Halo. Since then, though, it's been a series of diminishing returns, mirroring the largely static development of the FPS since the big innovations of the late 90s/early 00s. Sure there have been some standouts since, but for the most part we're still playing the same game we were when Halo launched in 2001.

Developer Bungie says they understand that, and want to take the shooter to new dimensions, both in terms of storytelling and gameplay. The setup itself is generic SF shooter. As per IGN:

That world is a post-apocalyptic earth. Humanity has been nearly wiped out, but saved by the extraterrestrial protection of The Traveler, a gigantic white globe that now floats claustrophobically close above the planet’s last safe city – a place where humanity’s greatest minds have come together. Over time, humans have regained their technological mojo and again taken to exploring the stars of our own galaxy: Mars, Venus, the Moon, etc. Except now various forms of alien life seek to stamp out humanity once and for all, and it’s up to you as a Guardian to help stop them and keep earth safe.

But then it gets interesting somewhat worrying unclear:

Though Destiny’s actual plot is likened to a series of novels that will each house self-contained stories over the course of the franchise’s planned decade-long lifecycle, Bungie narrative director Joseph Staten noted, “One lesson that’s critical is that the most important stories we tell aren’t going to be told by us. They’re going to be told by players – their personal legends built from shared adventures.”

As far as I can tell from the IGN article, Bungie is aiming for a plot-driven MMO format, kind of like the one Bioware uses in The Old Republic. There are lots of different plot threads, rather than a single, unified storyline, and you experience them cooperatively within the context of a broader conflict spanning the entire massively multiplayer universe. It's a cool idea, though not exactly brand new either. From Forbes:

Destiny aims to be a living, breathing world. You can hop from post-apocalyptic Chicago to Mars and back again and hang out in the various world hubs in between fighting against or alongside other players. They’re not using the word “MMO” or its variant, “MMOFPS,” but the terms “social” and “questing” are being thrown around enough so that the descriptors don’t seem entirely inaccurate.

Of course, what would an announcement from Bungie be without a bunch of as-of-yet-undeserved hyperbole? Wired pre-emptively announces the franchise as the developer's "next masterpiece," but nevertheless manages to highlight some of the outstanding questions that remain:

Representatives from both Bungie and Activision gave vague answers when Wired pressed for further details, often stating that they “were not ready” to discuss specifics. Whether that means those things are still being kept from the press, or whether they have not yet been determined by the development team, was unclear. 
Questions currently unanswered: How will players communicate? How will players interact with each other outside of combat? What content exists in the non-combat “safe zones”? Subscriptions may be out, but what about in-app purchases? Will player versus player combat be available? Will the game ship on a disc or be download only? Will its persistent world allow Xbox and PlayStation gamers to play together? What content and interactions will be possible via smartphones and tablets (which Bungie alluded to)? Will the fancy new tools be licensed to other developers?

Regardless, it does sound promising, and at this point in a cycle of unending sequels and rehashed gameplay devices, risks are greatly appreciated. Plus the rendered art looks gorgeous. 

Gallery and Video

Monday, February 18, 2013

Adventures in Indie Publishing: Is Crowdfunding the Future of Publishing?

In the last couple years, crowdfunding has become one of the premier ways of funding projects. Across the board, there are some great advantages to this. The project might not have a place being funded by traditional investors or companies, or too risky for them to consider it. It might just be small, a one-off thing, or something else beneath the notice of larger, monied entities.

As pertains to this glorious site, there are a multitude of projects worthy of your time and attention- comics, tabletop and video games, movies and books. I could talk ramble for days about any, but (predictably) I want to address books (and, quite frankly, it’s the more interesting crowdfunding subject).

For reference, on Kickstarter, a publishing project is far less likely to be funded than almost any other category (thanks to Bart Leib for calculating the % funded/odds of success for publishing). Given the success a lot of projects see in the other areas (comics and games leap to mind), why is this?

Goals are set too high: Last month I broke down how much it costs to publish a book. If the goal is $15,000, where exactly is that money going? Funding physical printing, perhaps, but even that raises questions. Start with an epub and go from there.

Your book isn’t worth $50: While there are a lot of cool rewards I have seen associated with books (cover art prints, signed copies, shirts, stickers, etc), in the end you’re paying for a book. If those additional rewards raise the pledge amount, the dollars won’t flow.

Just who are you, anyway? The majority of projects on Kickstarter have no name recognition behind them (which is why they’re on Kickstarter in the first place). But in light of the above, it makes it a little hard to throw money at a no-name author, especially if it seems overpriced or suspect.

Over-marketing. Or under marketing, for that matter. Some creators put their project up and expect it to be an instant sensation (Kickstarter does not put as many eyes on a project as you might think). Others spam their social media to the point where no one wants to hear about it. There’s not a magic bullet for it, but marketing probably makes a huge difference.

Saturation: It’s harder to stand out from the crowd on a page full of books. There are less pictures to catch the eye and set a project apart. Within games, for example, you have a myriad of choices- board game, card game, RPG, tiles, the list goes on. A book is, well, a book. The description will virtually always follow the same formula- plot, with a little background. There is almost no way to tell if it will be good when stretched over 50,000+ words. You are, in essence, asked to judge a book by its cover- which may not even be completed yet.

So while numerous novels have fallen victim to the above problems, one area that has seemed to do well are short story collections and anthologies. Unidentified Funny Stories jumps to mind, as does Crossed Genres, which raised nearly four times its goal. Short collections and anthologies address most of the problems above- the authors will have some reputation behind them, or at least you can sample the writing. The goals are far easier to tie into the book, and saturation is less of a problem, since you’re paying for a bunch of stories anyway.

So is it the future? Probably not, but it's definitely a part of it.

Brian White runs Fireside Magazine, a monthly multi-genre magazine, which is in the midst of a Kickstarter to fund it’s second year, and has already seen a trio of successful campaigns for its first three issues. He was kind enough to play along for...

Five Questions with Brian White

1. With crowdfunding short story collections, how do you handle submissions?

For our first three issues, most of our stories were from writers who we invited to be in Fireside. It made sense to have writers lined up ahead of time so that potential backers could see who they would be getting stories from. It also made sense, since we were starting the magazine from scratch, to have the writers lined up rather than first going through submissions.

After we funded our second issue, we felt like we were in a place to start taking submissions. We were open for a month and picked up eight stories, one of which we used in Issue Three. The other seven will be appearing during Year Two, if our Kickstarter is funded.

Also, if the Kickstarter is funded, we plan on opening to submissions for flash fiction on March 15. We will be running two pieces of flash in each monthly issue, and all of those slots are open.

2. With your recent shift from crowdfunding each issue to now funding an entire year, where do you see Fireside after that year- and even further down the road?

After funding three issues one at a time last year, we hope funding an entire year at once will put us on a more stable footing and create certainty for both our readers and for the magazine. We also hope to use this breathing room to give us time to shift from crowdfunding to subscriptions as our main source of cash.

3. What do you feel the key factors are for a crowdfunding campaign to be successful?

I think the main thing goes back to something Amanda Palmer said last year: if you want to crowdfund, first you need a crowd. Kickstarters and other crowdfunding projects live and die by word of mouth. You have to at least have a core group of people interested in what you are doing. They become your base, and they support you both with pledges and by spreading the word to their friends and on their social networks. Besides the logistics, that is another reason we have had writers lined up before a Kickstarter: they each bring their own crowds. It's a lot easier to sell a magazine if you have a built-in audience of the writers' fans to sell it to.

It's also important to stay on top of the campaign and not be afraid to market it heavily during whatever time period it is up. I know some people hesitate to flog their Kickstarter or whatever too much, but you have to keep it out there in front of people because it can take more than one exposure to it to generate a pledge. You can of course do too much and people will tune you out; but there is a balance.

Finally, having a good range of rewards, starting with your basic product, and the working up through a variety of premium extras that give people lots of entry points, pledge-wise. If you have big gaps in the reward prices, say from $25 to $100, you might end up just getting that $25 when someone would be interested in pledging $50 or $75.

4. How do you think crowdfunding will affect publishing in general in the coming years?

I think that crowdfunding, which has really exploded in the past year, will settle into being one of many ways for people to try to make a living creatively, along with traditional paths and things like self-publishing on Amazon. I don't know if the volume of projects will keep increasing, but I think it's here to stay. People like connecting directly with projects that interest them, and they like being a part of bringing them to life.

5. As someone who has ran multiple successful campaigns ad backs a lot of projects, any advice for the creators in the audience?

You have to have a clear, well-thought-out presentation of your idea. I've passed on backing a lot of projects that, when I look at their pitch, it is either unclear, or muddled, or has wildly unrealistic goals (either high or low) that show the creator hasn't thought through the fulfillment of the project. Tell people what you are doing, why it is important to you, and what they get out of it, and get out of the way. And, please, make sure you've thought through every dollar you need, and don't ask for a dollar more or less.

(Many thanks to Brian for taking the time to answer those- I have thoroughly enjoyed the first few issues and highly recommend backing the second year. Brain is also one of the more entertaining people on Twitter and you can catch back issues of Fireside on the website for free)

What I’m doing, in case you care:

Work on the Sprocket Books site rolls merrily along, and should be fully functional by the end of the week. I am already plotting next month's AiIP, which will talk about the rise of hybrid publishers, and not just my own plan to take over the world.

I am also taking next weekend, and hiding myself away in a cabin with a bottle of gin and my laptop to finish editing on the first 3024AD collection. So by the end of next week, there will be a firm release date and even more good news about what is to come.

As to that first collection, I struggle a little with how to describe it. It’s not a serial novel in the traditional sense, although is most certainly is a serial novel. But it has other stories there that only relate to the main story, or rather, cross paths with it. But they tie into other stories that are yet to come, so maybe the whole thing is one big serial. Take from that what you will. In any case, if you like hard science fiction, drama, intrigue and interstellar gentleman thieves, stay tuned.

What I’m reading, in case you care:

I just picked up Seven Wonders, by Adam Christopher on the recommendation of my friend Matt, and while I just started it, it is already scratching several itches. Superheroes are woefully under-explored in novel format and Adam seems to have done a great job. In fact, there is quite the list of books from Angry Robot in my (digital) to-be-read pile.

I mentioned awhile back I am working through Worlds Other Than These, I am still working on it, but it has my recommendation based purely on Moon Six, a clever take on time/dimension travel. Steven Baxter does a fantastic job of capturing the feelings in the story, mostly of isolation and loneliness. If you’re into that.

In case you missed it Friday, I want to read your stuff. Rather, I want to showcase quality indie/self-published books. So if you have one, send an email that meets the criteria (if you don’t read I will also assume you can’t write) and I will do my very best to check it out.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt

That's right, more Borderlands!

In this downloadable content for Borderlands 2, Sir Hammerlock, the bionic Aussie/Brit (I can't tell from the accent) has invited you to his hunting cabin for a weekend of taking down the biggest game that Pandora has to offer. The events take place after you've already dispatched Handsome Jack. Sir Hammerlock assumes you need a well-deserved break from fighting pirates and bikers so he invites you to his grotto for a nice vacation. Upon arrival you learn that Professor Nakayama, another madman bent on your destruction and devotee of the late Handsome Jack, wants you dead. He controls an army of native savages that carry out his bidding and attempt to help him wipe Handsome Jack's killer from the planet. 

sounds like fun, right?

And it was fun, just not in the same league as the other two Borderlands 2 DLC offerings. The native witch doctors presented a new challenge. Some fired electric balls of energy at you while others created tornadoes that could lift you off the ground while causing damage. Sadly, they were one of the few bright spots of the game. The new animals you hunt were mostly forgettable. The floating orbs that attack you at a whopping 2mph were downright annoying. Hammerlock isn't as fun to look at as Moxxi, not to mention his lack of a sense of humor. 

It's hard to understand how something with the exact same first-person shooter mechanics and loot-based play could fall so far short of its predecessors. It's a decent enough premise, but it simply doesn't live up in the writing department. In my lowly opinion, the thing that makes the Borderlands franchise stand out is the witty writing and its ability to cause full-on belly laughs. Claptrap's delusions of grandeur, Captain Scarlett's over-the-top sexuality, Mr. Torque's caricature of the WWE's finest, all were sources of seemingly never-ending hilarity. Unfortunately, no such character exists in Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt. Without a strong cornerstone of humor on which to build, this tends to feel more like your everyday alien planet FPS and not the standout entertainment we've come to expect from Gearbox and their Borderlands franchise. 

For one thing, it was considerably shorter in duration than the previous two DLC offerings. It felt like it only took half the time to complete when compared to Captain Scarlett or Mr. Torque. For another, it lacked the memorable characters of the other two. Professor Nakayama is funny at times, but mostly just a sad, second-rate enemy barely worthy of the title of nemesis. Neither the natives nor the animals you hunt can speak English, so the writers were limited in what they could do in the way of humorous dialogue. Sadly, that also limited my enjoyment of the gaming experience. 

a small letdown

Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt has a decent setup that, at its best, made me feel like I was back in Adventureland at Disneyland taking the Jungle Cruise down the Amazon river. Unfortunately, it's rarely at its best. Although it has its moments, Sir Hammerlock is easily the weakest of the Borderlands 2 DLC. If you haven't purchased the Season Pass granting access to all downloadable content, you might consider skipping this one and getting the first two DLC packages and waiting for the last one. It will cost the same as the Season Pass but you won't have to suffer Sir Hammerlock and his short, fairly pointless campaign. I hate to dog on Borderlands since it maybe my favorite franchise of this generation, but in this particular case it deserves a bit of a ribbing.  It makes sense to release the weakest DLC third, since most people recall the beginning and the end of almost everything better than they do the middle. However, playing a mediocre game add-on doesn't make anyone happy. We pay real money for these things and expect a little bit more, especially from Borderlands. Here's hoping they were saving the best for last!

the math

Objective Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for simply being more Borderlands. Even at its weakest, this is a fantastic franchise.

Penalties: -1 for being the weakest link I've seen in the Borderlands DLC (I didn't buy Moxxi's Underdome in the first one).

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore.