Image Comics Final Thoughts – Saga, Vol. 1

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Of course, occasionally I may even explore comics outside of Marvel if they come highly recommended or simply peak my interest. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

Saga #1Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Issues: Saga #1-6

The story of Romeo and Juliet is the classic tale as old as time. It’s note quite as cliché and overused as Man Gets Revenge for Murdered Family, and the actual tale of Love Conquers All usually takes a backseat to the tragedy and hardships that both characters face. In Saga, comic superstars Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples successfully craft the timeless tale of two star-crossed lovers in a wildly creative sci-fi universe by grounding all the characters and events in very human emotions.

The biggest wrench that Vaughan throws into the story serves as both the opening hook and brilliant past-tense narrator: the birth of Hazel, the love child between former prison guard Alana and prisoner of war Marko. Alana is a winged native of Landfall, the largest planet in their galaxy and technologically advanced. Marko hails from Landfall’s only moon, Wreath, home to a race of horned magic-users. Both races are distinctively different yet still very humanoid, and I especially liked that there’s a lot of racial diversity within the groups (different kinds of wings and horn styles).

With two such different people in relative close proximity, war was inevitable. Since directly annihilating one side could send the other spinning out of orbit, the war between Landfall and Wreath has been mostly been outsourced to other planets, and other races.

Saga #1 actionThe first six issues follow Marko, Alana and Hazel as they attempt to find a spaceship and get off the backwater planet of Cleave. While making their way through hostile territory they are also being hunted by both sides. Landfall sends Prince Robot IV, a humanoid creature with a decidedly retro-sci-fi look of a tv screen for a head (who’s softcore sex with his robot wife should cement the series as Mature Audiences Only). Wreath hires an infamous bounty hunter from the Freelancers called The Will (a generally normal looking dude) with a giant hairless cat called Lying Cat. It can, uh, tell when you’re lying, and has some great scenes with The Will despite its very limited vocabulary.

Neither of our hunters quite reach our fated pair; that honor goes to another freelancer and former love interest of The Will, The Stalk, one of the most inventive and unsettling alien creatures I’ve ever seen. Half-spider woman wouldn’t even come close to doing the creative art work justice. Fiona Staples’ heavy shading and pencils take a few pages to get used to but I absolutely loved her emotive facial expressions and character focus as much as the violent action scenes.

A sci-fi world full of wonderfully bizarre creatures could easily get lost in its own spectacle, but Vaughan keeps everything incredibly grounded by focusing on Marko and Alana’s very human survival stories, both in keeping their relationship together and surviving the hostile world around them. The casual and strong language is also refreshing and keeps everyone in the story much more realistic.

By the end of the first volume, Marko took down an entire platoon by himself (then swore off violence…again), Hazel is bonded with the upper torso of a teenage ghost named Izabel (her first babysitter!) and they find passage off of Cleave in a tree-like spaceship. A fun cliffhanger suddenly adds Marko’s parents into the mix as they’re summoned onto the ship, and I can’t wait to read more of their adventures.

saga-no-killing

Saga came highly recommended and I can easily see why. The world is incredibly interesting and adheres wonderfully to the ‘show, don’t tell’ creed as it teases out information and characters only as needed. The small cast keeps the focus tight, and it’s an interesting balancing act keeping the A-B-C stories of Marko/Alana, Prince Robot IV, and The Will hovering around each other. Vaughan’s writing is wonderfully human and real, and I absolutely adored Staples’ art work. If you enjoy character-driven sci-fi adventures, especially the struggles that a new relationship and a child can bring layered into a new universe, Saga is an absolute delight.

 

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Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Uncanny X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

rise and fall of the shi'ar empireWriter: Ed Brubaker

Artists: Billy Tan, Clayton Henry

Issues: Uncanny X-Men (1963) #475-486

“We have to end this threat…he has to die. And X-Men don’t kill, so I guess we aren’t X-Men anymore. We’re what my brother turned us into.”

The X-Men return to space! Some of them anyway. In fact, the X-Men have been in and out of space for decades, ever since Chris Claremont first introduced the Phoenix Force and Shi’ar Empire back in the 80s. Having at least vague knowledge of the triangular-coifed Shi’ar would help immensely toward understanding the events of this book, as beloved comic writer Ed Brubaker takes over Uncanny X-Men beginning with this epic space adventure.

The massive twelve issue story arc, titled “Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire,” is actually a follow-up to Brubaker’s limited series story, X-Men: Deadly Genesis, which was by far the best story to emerge from the ashes of House of M and the Decimation of mutants on Earth. I won’t rehash it here since you can read my Final Thoughts on Deadly Genesis, but suffice to say it’s very much required reading to know what the hell is going on.

The end of Deadly Genesis had a very pissed off Vulcan, the third Summers brother that Professor X tried to use to save his original team, flying off into space to get his revenge on the man that had murdered his mother and made him into a child slave – Emperor D’ken of the Shi’ar Empire.

Having been frozen in space for quite some time, Vulcan isn’t quite up on his Shi’ar current events. D’ken is in a coma, and the Empire is ruled by the much kinder Lilandra, former lover and bride of Professor Charles Xavier. The seeds of discontent have grown for years, however, and Vulcan’s arrival in Shi’ar space sparks the growing dissidents to make their move and depose Lilandra.

The story arc is told in an awkward A-B style, with the X-Men’s journey into space taking up the brunt of the time, while every 3rd or 4th issue focuses on Vulcan’s personal journey to the Empire. Vulcan kills entire spaceships and commandeers another, but when the rebels of the Shi’ar send the Imperial Guard after him, it equals an insane battle that ends with Vulcan getting his eyeball punched out by Gladiator. After he’s imprisoned they engineer his own escape along with Lilandra and D’ken’s long-lost sister Deathbird, and the two fall in love over mutual love of hatred and destruction (I’m sure that’ll last).

uncanny x-men #475 team

Meanwhile the X-Men take their sweet time finding a spaceship, getting into space and creating their own stargates to travel. The new team that Xavier chooses includes Rachel Grey, Havok, Polaris, Nightcrawler, Warpath and Darwin. Darwin was introduced in Deadly Genesis as part of Vulcan’s team, and whose mutant power is what kept Vulcan alive all these years in space. He’s both guilt-ridden over his former friend and teammate and armed with a desire to help everyone even though he’s pretty green when it comes to combat. His ability to quickly adapt to any situation becomes quite invaluable, especially in as hostile environment as space, and I enjoyed his earnest and selfless demeanor.

Warpath is Brubaker’s attempt at bringing in an old character and making him relevant again, but he never quite worked for me. As the team’s brawler he comes off as a poor man’s Wolverine (armed with heightened senses and vibranium daggers). He’s full of rage and super aggressive in every situation, which mostly just comes off as immature and tiresome, especially with cooler heads like Nightcrawler around.

Brubaker excels at relationships; maybe not to the extent of Joss Whedon’s phenomenal writing of Kitty Pryde/Colossus and Emma Frost/Cyclops in Astonishing X-Men, but he does attempt to repair the relationship between Havok and Polaris (one of those cute ‘kiss me you fool’ scenes) as well as giving us a new love interest for Rachel Grey in the Shi’ar phoenix hunter Korvus.

uncanny x-men #479

Korvus is armed with a silly Final Fantasy-esque giant sword, and unleashed by the Shi’ar to hunt down Rachel Grey. From the events in previous story arc “The End of Greys,” Rachel was hunted by a Shi’ar death squad and though survived, was branded with a mystical tattoo, acting like a beacon for the Shi’ar in their constant attempt to eradicate all possibility of the deadly Phoenix Force’s return. Their battle ends with some typical mind-linkage that’s involved with engaging telepaths, and Korvus’ change of heart (in more ways than one) is a nice evolution and addition to the team.

The story is filled with crazy cool action sequences and Billy Tan’s art style excels at giant two-page spreads involving an orgy of character battles and explosions. I don’t quite want to call it the Michael Bay of comics as lots of folks hate on Bay, but I definitely felt like the art and action helped elevate the otherwise okay story-telling. Tan’s style doesn’t bother much with facial features or emotions, in fact most of the eyes in combat tend to be white or glowing and most of the emotions that are displayed are of the RAAARRGGGHHH style.

uncanny x-men #484Despite lots of fun action sequences to keep the story hopping – the X-Men fighting Skrulls, Vulcan fighting the Imperial Guard, the X-Men teaming up with the Starjammers to assault a Shi’ar prison, Vulcan and Deathbird fighting off waves of Shi’ar – everything is building to a final showdown between the X-Men and Vulcan. Deathbird actually succeeds in quelling Vulcan’s adolescent and frankly lame and tiresome rage-induced revenge, and Vulcan is eventually convinced to repair D’ken’s mind and wake him up. D’ken responds by letting Vulcan and Deathbird wed and have them serve under him as Shi’ar’s returning mad emperor.

The climax involves the wedding and subsequent torture and death of Xavier, who was captured early on in the adventure (Darwin spends quite a bit of time sneaking in and mounting a rescue but it amounts to nothing as they’re both captured anyway). The X-Men, allied with Corsair (Papa Summers) and the Starjammers, attack in an enormously cool action setpiece that includes spaceships exploding in the background, lots of redshirt Shi’ars dying, and everyone getting their assess kicked.

Just when D’ken has the upper hand, Vulcan surprises no one and murders him (brutally, slowly cooking and melting his flesh). Corsair attempts to intervene when Vulcan is poised to do the same to Lilandra, and Vulcan murders him as well, causing Havok to go ape shit and the action starts getting even crazier as half the X-Men mount a rescue of Professor X and the rest take on Vulcan.

With the combined powers of Rachel Grey (able to manipulate telekinetic energy on a molecular level – hot damn she’s powerful), Polaris (powers restored and augmented by Apocalypse during the “Blood of Apocalypse” story), Havok and Korvus they’re finally able to subdue Vulcan and he’s forced to flee with Deathbird. At the epilogue he crowns himself emperor of the Shi’ar, and would go on to become a major player in future cosmic events, making Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire have less of an ending and more of a change in the status quo.

uncanny x-men #476

The other important fallout is that our team is separated. Lilandra programs their ship to take them back to Earth after they rescue Professor X, along with Warpath, Nightcrawler, Darwin and Starjammer cat-lady Hepzibah (and former lover of Corsair). Xavier gets his telepathic powers back thanks to exposure to the M’kraan crystal, but otherwise our heroes are left with a profound sense of loss and defeat. Those left in space join the Starjammers, effectively writing Havok, Polaris and Marvel Girl out of X-Men for awhile while they continue to hunt Vulcan, and Havok radios home with that rather badass message I quoted in the beginning.

Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire is a neat idea and a fun culmination of the seeds planted in  Deadly Genesis. Putting a new X-Men team through some massive battles in space with super-powerful cosmic characters like the Starjammers and Imperial Guard are a ton of fun, and Billy Tan crafts some mind-blowing artwork. Individual character moments are used sparingly, and the whole story seems very unlike what I was used to seeing from Brubaker from his excellent work on Captain America (which is much more subdued and introspective).

The focus is always on the action, and it works because the action is so damn exhilarating. The climax is over-the-top and satisfying and I like that it separated the team in the end, but it’s a shame that the whole adventure is left without a real ending or resolution. Vulcan and the Starjammers would continue in X-Men: Emperor Vulcan and X-Men: Kingbreaker, and I believe Vulcan is also involved in the cosmic event War of Kings – all of which spill out over the next two years.

If you’re okay with turning off your brain and focusing more on the action, not unlike many Summer blockbuster movies, Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire can be a lot of fun – though I highly recommend reading X-Men: Deadly Genesis for some much-needed background on Vulcan and Darwin.

uncanny x-men #482

 

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Risk of Rain

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Hopoo Games

Publisher: Chucklefish

Release Date: November 8, 2013

Risk of Rain represents a bit of an anomaly amongst my backlogged games. I knew next to nothing about it when I purchased and subsequently put it on the schedule for Rogue’s Adventures. Two factors inspired my quick decision: a trustworthy friend played it and loved it, and it was published by Starbound developer Chucklefish. Say what you will about Starbound’s rocky development but I really love that company’s visual style, and they seem particularly attuned to 2D games that revel in retro-pixel art.

Risk of Rain is about as indie as you can get. It was developed by two college students and would go on to win the Best Student Game Award at the Independent Games Festival in 2014. A successful Kickstarter campaign in mid 2013 allowed them to expand gameplay features and most impressively, add an incredible soundtrack by Chris Christodoulou that absolutely blew me away with every track. Seriously I’m going to need to own this soundtrack.

When I started Risk of Rain I was completely lost. The intro clip shows a spaceship being taken over by a mysterious figure, and your character is unceremoniously dropped onto a hostile alien planet, armed only with the keyboard controls and your starting characters abilities. Note: I quickly switched to an Xbox 360 controller as the keyboard controls are inadequate are best.

I’ve played a ton of roguelikes before. In fact, a roguelike has made my Top Ten Games of the Year lists in each of the last three years: Dungeon of the Endless in 2014, Rogue Legacy in 2013 and FTL and Spelunky in 2012. Risk of Rain would have been in close contention with that company thanks to a perfect balance of time and difficulty, multiple playable characters with different abilities and an addictive learning curve and reward system.

Although you start over every time you die, like many modern roguelikes you unlock new things with every playthrough, helping take the sting out of dying and allowing each run to give you some progress. Numerous challenges can be completed like killing foes or reaching a certain milestone that unlock additional random items and characters. Items can be purchased in random treasure chests or dropped from boss monsters, most giving an insanely wide range of passive effects, such as freezing foes that touch you, healing you if you stand still and the very crucial shield that adds an additional health bar.

Gameplay is as intuitive as any 2D platformer, with a few important features. You spawn into a world as a tiny pixelated commando. A timer in the upper right begins counting up and updates your difficulty every five minutes, beginning with ‘Very Easy,’ and enemies begin spawning in. In the beginning you’ll face simple lizard-people and crabs that can be swiftly dealt with, but soon hardier and trickier enemies appear, like the imps that teleport to you or the spitters that fire a cannon shot out of their mouths. Each stage has its own enemy types, though future stages do rely too much on simple color palette switches and bigger stats on the same enemies.

Instead of giving you loot to equip, every character class has four unique abilities based on cooldowns. The commando is fairly boring with three abilities that fire his gun in a slightly different way and a fourth move that lets him dodge and roll forward. I found the first hour or so of the game a bit of a slog as the commando just isn’t very interesting to play as you rely on the same four abilities the entire time (plus the occasional activated item you can loot, but you can only carry one of).

Each stage (which are sadly not randomly generated, unlike every single other roguelike I’ve played) contains a portal that must be activated. Turning it on summons a gigantic boss as well as 90 seconds of constantly spawning enemies, creating a fun and chaotic climax at the end of each stage. After four stages (usually taking at least 30 minutes total) you can choose to go to the final stage or go through each stage again at the harder difficulty in the hopes to gain more experience and items. The final level aboard the ship offers a welcome new aesthetic, and opening each door amounts to several climactic battles throughout the stage leading up to the final, multi-stage boss fight.

Once I began unlocking additional characters the game really started to mesh with me. The Enforcer is instantly much more fun with a combination shotgun and shield. Using his abilities you have to become very aware of your positioning with the enemy and effectively time your shots. I also had a lot of fun playing the rapid-fire Bandit and the sentry turret/mine-laying Engineer.

It’s with the Engineer that I was able to actually beat the game, though with the major caveat that I was playing cooperatively with a friend at the time. Like Dungeon of the Endless, Risk of Rain seamlessly incorporates cooperative multiplayer into the action. We weren’t quite sure if the difficulty scaled to the number of players, and the on-screen action gets so chaotic in the later stages that it can be tricky to decipher just what the hell is going on – even dropping my 60fps in half during some particularly insane moments, and impressive feat for a pixelated game made in Game Maker.

While every roguelike has a fairly steep learning curve (many of which, I suspect, keep some folks away from the genre altogether), Risk of Rain utilizes it to dole out awards at a steady pace. Unlocking items allows them to spawn into the world and there’s no limit to how many you can hold (the passive ones; you can still only hold one active item). By the end of my winning run I had over two dozen various effects, and it’s fun to go through that classic RPG evolution of weak as a paper sack to god-like superhero in the space of an hour.

That perfectly balanced difficulty is what kept me coming back. The beginning when that first boss spawns from the portal you’re in awe, and probably going to die. Stick with it, unlock some items and purchase them from random chests and you’ll soon persevere, only to die in the next world, and then the next. Getting a little farther each time is addictive; unlocking challenges, items and additional characters with vastly different abilities and skillsets helps make Risk of Rain one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played, and all that works perfectly well cooperatively (if you have the patience to set up port forwarding on your router that is).

If you can get on board with the tiny pixels on screen and scale the initial learning curve (and get beyond the lame starting character) Risk of Rain is a fantastic experience, and highly recommended for fans of roguelikes and hardcore platformers. Do and try and bring a friend or two as well.

Pros

  • Perfectly balanced roguelike
  • Constantly unlocking items and characters is a rewarding treadmill
  • Multiple classes offer vastly different gameplay experiences
  • Cooperative multiplayer works beautifully
  • Amazing soundtrack

Cons

  • Art style makes it difficult to tell what’s going on during chaotic battles
  • Keyboard controls are atrocious – use a controller!
  • Starter character isn’t very fun

 

Final Say: A hardcore roguelike platformer that rewards persistence and skill as much as random luck. Play cooperatively for maximum fun.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

planet-hulkWriter: Greg Pak

Artist: Carlo Pagulayan, Aaron Lopresti

Issues: The Incredible Hulk (1999) #92-105, Giant-Size Hulk #1

“We are all war bound now. Embrace your brothers. Or I’ll kill you myself.”

I’ve never been a big Hulk fan. The whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing seems pretty played out, and most of his stories just come down to HULK SMASH – not there’s anything wrong with that.

I decided to give The Incredible Hulk a try, as Hulk’s story post-House of M would take him on two wild events between late 2005 and the end of 2007 – the epic 14-issue spanning, alien world-setting Planet Hulk, followed by his vengeful return to Earth in World War Hulk.

I started with with the few issues that precede the Planet Hulk storyline to test the waters (#88-91). Bruce wakes up from his House of M ordeals and eventually exiles himself to Alaska, where he attempts to eke out a meager existence with minimal human interaction. It doesn’t last of course, and Nick Fury finds him and tricks him into stopping a renegade satellite weapon.

After defeating the sentient robot thing, Hulk climbs into a shuttle for the return trip, only to be unceremoniously catapulted further into space. The talking heads of the recently revealed Illuminati from New Avengers appear on screen, offering pithy remarks about Hulk’s destructiveness, and how this is the best way to solve it.

The ship’s tracking coordinates go awry when it suddenly hits a black hole, and Hulk is deposited on an alien world teeming with sentient life – not the peaceful planet he was meant to land on. Weakened by the trip through the “Great Portal,” Hulk is immediately captured by the slaver Imperials and dumped into the Great Arena.

Planet Hulk #92

Thus begins one of the coolest story concepts I’ve ever seen for a superhero comic – Combining the classic freedom fighter plot threads of Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and Braveheart with an exotic alien planet, putting Hulk through the ringer of sacrifice, betrayal, despair, hope, love and of course, anger.

Planet Hulk is one of the coolest comic book volumes I’ve ever read. It helps that the entire trade is a whopping fourteen issues long, allowing writer Grek Pak to not only tell his entire epic but really dive into the culture, religion, politics and characters of his own crafted world of Sakaar.

Structurally the massive volume is broken up into four story arcs, beginning with “Exile” (#92-95). This is the full on Gladiator story as Hulk is enslaved with the advanced technology of the Imperials, the pink, humanoid rulers of Sakaar. During Hulk’s first combat trial he easily defeats everything they throw at him, and the Emperor deigns to jump into the arena and fight him himself, adorned in full combat mech armor. The fight is called off after Hulk cuts the Emperor, and this simple act stats a chain reaction of dissidents and rebellion throughout the Empire.

Even more importantly, Hulk’s blood in the arena causes a rare plant to sprout up from the ground, aligning with a prophecy involving the Sakaarson and the Worldbreaker. Essentially, many begin seeing Hulk as the second coming of <insert your favorite deity or demi-god here> and further galvanizes the populace to the one they call The Green Scar.

planet hulk #93Hulk soon enters a gigantic royal rumble filled with all sorts of spiffy alien creatures. Sakaar is home to many types of beasts and people, and the giant black hole deposits all manner of creatures and technology on the planet as well. Once six of them are left standing, they form a warbound troupe, pledging to work together and watch each other’s backs (or carapaces) for the coming battles.

Hulk’s allies are Imperials Elloe (daughter of a denounced politician) and her bodyguard Skavin (who’s death in the next fight galvanizes our new team), Miek of the insectoid Natives, giant stone-man Korg, Hiroim of the Shadow People and a nameless Brood (which eventually calls herself No-Name). This ragtag group ends up forging a bond of brotherhood throughout their trials, and they soon look to Hulk as their fearless leader.

At the climax of “Exile,” Hulk and his warbound company battle the Silver Surfer, who’s also been sucked into the Great Portal and enslaved (preceding his involvement in Annihilation). Hulk wins the battle but spares the Surfer’s life, and Norin Radd responds by destroying all the implanted discs that the Imperials were using to control everyone. The warbound make their escape as Hulk smashes down the walls of the arena, leading to the “Anarchy” story line as our heroes attempt to survive in the wilds while being hunted by the Empire.

planet hulk #95

Bruce Banner does make one minor appearance in the Planet Hulk tie-in of Giant-Size Hulk (included in the TPB) in the form of a dream sequence. It’s a fun little interlude where Banner and Hulk attempt to wrest control from one another, and ultimately Hulk remains in charge as Banner’s all alone, whereas Hulk has found friends, meaning and purpose as leader of a growing rebellion.

“Anarchy” explores much of the past of our warbound heroes that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen had Planet Hulk been a normally truncated six issue or so story. It’s fun seeing them cross paths with the Marvelverse, such as Korg landing on Earth and meeting Thor when his people invaded, and the Brood being one of many who hunted the X-Men when they descended into the depths of Broodworld.

Miek gets the biggest secondary character arc out of the bunch. The former comic relief, four-armed insectoid has a slavish devotion to Hulk as well as a vengeful streak for what the Imperials have done to his people, including finding his brothers chained up as slaves in a pit during their exodus. In the middle of “Anarchy” Miek metamorphoses into the ‘king’ form of his people, becoming about three times as large and utterly badass, and his desire of blood for blood clashes well with the rest of the group.

planet hulk #99Hulk becomes a leader and protector of his people and he witnesses first-hand that bloody vengence isn’t always the answer. His biggest evolution comes from Caiera the Oldstrong, a powerful Shadow woman who acts as the Emperor’s right hand and a main antagonist for our heroes. However, when the Emperor finally doles out his ultimate solution for the pesky rebels – releasing a formerly defeated, now weaponized army of creatures called the Spikes, she switches sides to combat the atrocity.

As if countless alien creatures weren’t enough, the Spikes introduce a sci-fi zombie element to the playing field as they suck out all organic life and leave their victims as mindless, misshapen killers. The Spikes represent an armageddon-level threat to the planet, and Caiera finally sees the Emperor as truly insane.

In the beginning of “Allegiance” Hulk is able to split the ground and submerge much of the Spike army into lava beneath the planet’s surface. They’re still coming, though, and Hulk begins gathering allies in earnest. First he goes to the enigmatic, grey-skinned Shadow People and retrieves their ancient battleship that brought them to this planet. Then he does what many thought impossible and talks to the elder Spikes.

Turns out they are in fact a sentient race that feeds on dying stars, and their hunger had driven them insane enough to feed on all life. Hulk makes a pact with them and with a giant parasitic-zombie army at his side, they turn the tide on the Emperor.

The final battle involves a lot of satisfying HULK SMASH moments, and in his dying breath the Emperor attempts to destroy the planet right beneath their feet. Hulk responds by diving into the lava pits and moving the very plates, shifting the planet’s surface back into alignment. If that wasn’t enough, he then fulfills his side of the bargain and lets the Spike Elders feed on him for several days, saving everyone from the Spikes as they peacefully leave the planet afterward.

planet hulk #100

Hulk had become a true hero and icon of the people and they soon crown him king. Caiera had also fallen in love with him, and their short-lived peace and loving relationship is showcased at the end of “Allegiance” and the beginning of the final story, “Armageddon.”

Hulk finally has a place he can call home and can begin to rebuild. Even when factions like the remaining Imperials (led by Elloe) and Natives (led by Miek) attempt to fight each other, Hulk intervenes, showing them the pointlessness of their fighting and forging a better path.

It’s hard not to root for Hulk every step of the way, as he goes from gladiatorial monster to rebellious leader to king of the planet, always struggling with who he is. I’d never before seen this side of the green monster as he falls in love and finally knows peace.

Alas, it is not to be. Planet Hulk turns into a crushing tragedy as all that work was for nothing when the ship that brought Hulk begins beeping out in warning of the warp core failing. Hulk tries to rush to it and hurl it into space but it’s too late, the ship detonates with the power of several nuclear warheads, torching all life and condemning the crumbling planet.

Caiera melts away in his arms and Hulk is stricken with more grief than he’s ever felt. He wishes he could die with the rest of them, when out of the ashes flies his battleship, filled with his warbound brothers and sisters. They give him purpose once again – to take revenge on those that sent him here and destroyed all he grew to hold dear, and the life he might have had.

Planet hulk #105
He fears nothing but his own wrath.

The self-contained Planet Hulk bleeds directly into the Marvel-wide event World War Hulk. Due to my love of the writing and art I quickly ordered the physical TPB and I’m excited to jump in and totally root for Hulk to kick everyone’s asses. Planet Hulk turned me into a huge fan of the big green guy, and I’m very impressed at how well a massive space story was given ample room to grow and flourish. If you love action-packed comics with neat sci-fi aliens and cultures, you need to read Planet Hulk.

 

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-23: Target X

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

x-23 target xWriters: Craig Kyle, Chris Yost

Artist: Michael Choi

Issues: X-23: Target X #1-6

Laura Kinney was made from the modified DNA of the original Weapon X, Wolverine. The organization could only duplicate the X chromosome and so doubled it, essentially creating a cloned daughter of Weapon X. A geneticist named Sarah Kinney, newly brought on to the program, offered to carry the child, and when born she was immediately conditioned to be an emotionless assassin, as the mother struggled with her duties to science and her job and basic human empathy with her daughter.

That whole story is told in the amazing limited series X-23: Innocence Lost, which details her birth and childhood at the Weapon X facility, training as a brutal killing machine and eventual escape. X-23’s first appearance was actually in the animated series X-Men: Evolution and has since become a popular comic book character, not unlike DC Comic’s Harley Quinn.

I skipped writing about Innocence Lost as I was in the middle of lots of other comics at the time, but I definitely want to give special mention to Target X, as I was blown away by just how gripping the story was and the fantastic art style.

The story picks up right where Innocence Lost left off – Laura has murdered her mother after she was exposed to the trigger scent that causes her to kill with mindless ferocity, just after escaping and destroying the facility that was her horrifying home throughout her childhood. Reinforcements show up to try and apprehend her, but she kills them, and buries Kimura (X-23’s sadistic and indestructible handler) under an avalanche of snow.

Laura goes to the only place she knows of outside of the facility: her Aunt’s family in San Francisco. During the events of Innocence Lost, Laura had saved her little cousin Megan from a child predator, and the memory drives her to find sanctuary there.

x-23 target x #2Megan is now a young teenager and a troubled one – she’s haunted by memories of the abduction, dressing in a goth-style and generally acting sullen and moody. Her relationship with her parents is strained, but Laura’s sudden arrival helps her out of her mental shell and the two become friends – as friendly as an emotionally damaged young woman and a trained killer can be. Their relationship is a nice focus of the middle of the story, and there’s some funny bits as Laura proves her frightening real world knowledge of languages, anatomy and military structure to her horrified teachers at school.

Pretending to be a somewhat normal teenager is destined to fail, and the organization that created X-23 aren’t about to give up on her. Turns out that Megan’s mom and Laura’s aunt’s boyfriend Desmond is an undercover operative, and he plans to use the trigger scent to make X-23 kill them. It doesn’t go exactly as planned: he drug’s the aunt’s tea but it also gets splashed on himself when Megan and Laura come home. X-23’s eyes go red and she brutally kills him, while Megan grabs her mom and rushes to the shower in one of the tensest scenes I’ve ever thumbed through in a comic.

x-23 target x #5Having Laura’s major weakness as a chemical that turns her into a mindless killing machine is both terrifying and intriguing. She can never fully trust herself and knows she’s a danger to others. After defeating waves of soldiers and the return of Kimura, Laura escapes with Megan and her mom, getting them across the Canadian border before they have to say their tearful goodbyes. Laura’s emotions are often stunted and she rarely speaks, but in this rain-soaked scene she emotes with gut-wrenching pain, regret and sacrifice as she says her goodbyes to the only people that ever cared about her (minus her mom I guess, though that was complicated).

The story wraps up after five issues but a final epilogue in the sixth has X-23 confront Wolverine, the reason for existence, outside of the mansion. Since it’s a comic book they immediately fight, and X-23 mostly kicks his ass in a spectacularly well-constructed fight scene (to be fair, Logan doesn’t really want to fight her). Turns out Wolverine knows all about her story, as her mom sent him a letter of her confession detailing the events at the facility. He suggests she join Xavier’s as a place she’ll be both safe (ha) and happy (eh).

The invitation is cut short when SHIELD arrives and Captain America personally captures her while Wolverine tries to draw them off. The entire series is written as Laura telling these events to Steve Rogers and Matt Murdock (Daredevil, as her counsel) as they grill her about what happened, and more importantly if she takes responsibility for the countless lives she’s taken. It’s a fun way to frame the story, and eventually Rogers and Murdock fight about what to do with this young killer.

Ultimately Captain America decides to hand her over to SHIELD, and Laura goes willingly. On the way he realizes that SHIELD will most likely use her as the weapon she was designed to be, and decides to let her go. Bit of a risky move considering she is deadly and lacks basic human moral fiber, but Target X does do a great job giving her a bit of humanity and making it impossible not to cheer for her.

x-23 target x #6

By filling in the gaps between Innocence Lost and when Laura joins the New X-Men, we get an entertaining and informative glimpse into who she is. Michael Choi’s art is phenomenal, particularly how he draws faces and soulful eyes. Steve Rogers has never looked so thoughtful. I’m beginning to really enjoy these limited series, with their well-paced storylines and intriguing character focus (see also Son of M and X-Men: Deadly Genesis). If you’re at all interested in learning more about X-23, I highly recommend X-23: Target X, though you may want to start with X-23: Innocence Lost so you’re not lost on previous events.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – New X-Men: Childhood’s End, Vol. 3-4

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

new x-men #28 coverWriters: Craig Kyle, Chris Yost

Artist: Paco Medina

Issues: New X-Men (2004-2008) #28-36

There were two important loose threads left dangling after the catastrophic events of New X-Men’s previous arc, when William Stryker led his Purifiers on an all out assault on Xavier’s School.

The first is that while Stryker himself perished at the hands of Elixir, his Purifier’s live on, led by one of his disciples. They would lick their wounds and take a backseat as the second would take center stage – Nimrod, the time-traveling mutant-hunting sentinel from the future, had escaped his imprisonment.

Stryker had used Nimrod’s memory banks to predict the future and form his cult, but Nimrod held no love for the fanatics, escaping and heading to Dallas, Texas to force his original builder, Forge, to repair him. The New X-Men are on the case as the older veterans basically blow them off, dismissing Nimrod and telling them to stay put, which always works great with teenagers. Our young heroes launch their own secret mission to rescue Forge after he contacts Nori (Surge) using the gauntlets he built her, and we get a chance to see our burgeoning team on their own for the first time.

“Nimrod” is short and sweet with a simple set-up that leads our heroes into a fun battle with Nimrod and a small army of mini-sentinels. It was awesome seeing them coordinate their abilities and strengths, especially in the final battle against Nimrod, requiring Mercury to peel open his chest while Surge overloads his time-traveling matrix to send him into another time line.

new x-men #30

In the battle Laura (X-23) is grievously wounded and she’s not healing (which isn’t quite explained), so Hellion grabs her and attempts to fly all the way back across the country. Emma Frost touches Hellion’s mind and unlocks his full telekinetic powers, letting him get back to the base while hinting at the huge potential of his powers. Elixir is able to heal her, which also snaps him out of his funk after murdering Stryker. Laura then begins falling for Hellion in her own adorably awkward, sociopathic way, which leads directly to the next story arc, “Mercury Falling.”

If I may digress for a moment, one of my favorite scenes happens early in issue #28 (which occurs in the middle of Civil War), when Iron Man and Ms. Marvel show up at the X-Mansion and not so tactfully ask the X-Men to register with the new Superhuman Registration Act. Emma Frost, whom I kind of hated in the previous two volumes of New X-Men due to her outright hatred and loathing of X-23 (whom I love), has an amazing monologue response that essentially boils down to “Where the hell were the Avengers when they were invading our home and murdering our children? Get the fuck out.” It’s one of those fist-pumping moments and Frost completely won me over, even more so with her actions in the epilogue of the next story.

“Mercury Falling” starts with Cessily (Mercury) taking Laura out for coffee in a nicely normal teenage manner – Cess had correctly seen that Laura had feelings for Hellion and wanted to talk to her about it. Of course this being a comic book and them being mutants it doesn’t end well, as the same organization that bred, tortured and crafted X-23 attack them. The two girls fight them off as best they can, but Laura learns the hard way that they’re not after her – they’re after Mercury.

Mercury is captured while Laura escapes. She immediately grabs her things to go hunt her down when Hellion finds her and insists on helping. His flight power comes in really handy so she quickly acquiesces, and much of the story becomes about their hunt for the organization.

new x-men #35If you’re already preparing your eye rolls in anticipation of this turning into a sappy teenage love story, fear not. The pair are quite focused on the mission at hand, and we get to explore a bit more of their personalities. Namely that Laura has zero compunctions about straight up killing anyone in their way – even executing criminals after they give up the information they need. Hellion is horrified and tries to explain that killing people is wrong, reminding me of John Connor trying to explain the same concept to The Terminator.

Eventually the powerful duo make it to the facility, and begin kicking people’s asses left and right. Kimura, an assassin with indestructible skin and X-23’s former handler and arch-nemesis, is able to subdue Laura, but Hellion responds by blasting her about 20 miles away, heh. The organization reveal their plan after torturing poor Mercury over the last few issues – stealing her liquid metal skin and bonding it to monstrous, mutant-hunting beasts.

Luckily the rest of the New X-Men show up along with the Astonishing X-Men team and are able to defeat most of the Predator X beasts (one of them escapes to create another dangling plot thread). Mercury is haunted by the events and Laura feels ashamed and guilty, heart-breakingly telling Emma Frost that she was right – she should never have come to the mansion.

In the epilogue Emma approaches Kimura just as her sniper’s gun is trained on Laura being hugged by Cessily. She shuts down her body mentally, then cruelly removes the only good memory she has (her grandmother), and finally forces Kimura to help X-23 instead of hinder her every step of the way. Essentially she gets her super villain on to completely dominate another, and it is freaking awesome. Another fist-pumping moment for the former White Queen.

Both “Nimrod” and “Mercury Falling” are fun little four part stories (Issue #32 is a one-off) that show off a ton of fun action-adventure sequences and do a great job showcasing our heroes in dangerous situations. It’s a bit of a bummer that “Mercury Falling” focuses almost solely on Hellion and X-23, as I’d prefer to see the whole team work together again, but I adore X-23’s character and it’s hard to complain when she takes center stage.

Apparently Issue #32 acts as a big plot hook that affects the X-Men three years in the future, with the X-Necrosha story line (in fact, that issue is included in the X-Necrosha trade paperback). Talk about your dangling plot threads! It reveals what happened to Whither, a student that fled the mansion back when I first jumped on to New X-Men in issue #20, as he meets up with a mysterious woman who’s also all about death. It’s not terribly interesting on its own but I imagine becomes quite interesting once I finally get to that story.

new x-men #31

New X-Men continues to be one of my favorite series. Paco Medina’s art shows off a crisp, bright look that meshes well with the youthful tone. I’m continually impressed with how writers Chris Kyle and Craig Yost don’t rely on simple teenage drama, instead sending the new heroes on their own adventures and finding their way with their own story lines, while somehow remaining grounded in current Marvel events and situations.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 21, 2013

I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns. One of my all time favorite films remains one of my childhood favorites – 1993’s Tombstone. The gunfights, the one-liners, the larger than life characters all created an indelible interest in a genre that had long since waned from mainstream appeal. Indeed to be a big fan of Westerns necessitates being a fan of classic cinema, and as a film student in college I was afforded lots of opportunities to dive into the worlds of Sergio Leone and John Wayne.

Despite a brief resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s, Westerns have become a rare breed, and rarer still among gaming. You can probably count the number of Western-setting games made in the last ten years on one or two hands, making magnum opus’ like Red Dead Redemption all the more special (Side Note: Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite game of the last 15 years).

Part of the problem with those few Western games is that they are almost all exclusively shooters, and the guns of the era don’t lend themselves to a whole lot of variety. I’m personally not crazy about first person shooters in general; I enjoy the BioShock series much more for the story-telling than the gameplay, and I stopped trying to keep up with most competitive shooters years ago (I do enjoy the occasional cooperative romp, like Evolve).

Thus I’d never given the Call of Juarez series a chance, and even less so when the previous entry abandoned its Western setting for a modern one (yawn). Gunslinger was released in 2013 as a shorter spin-off and was lauded for its polished gameplay and humorously unreliable narrator. I was intrigued at the low cost of entry, both the literal cost and the relatively short length, and wanted to give it a try.

Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter that regales his tales of adventure (and mass murder) to a table of bar patrons. Silas reveals that he and his brothers were left for dead by a gang of outlaws, and as the sole survivor he went down a dark path of vengeance and blood – which pretty much sounds like the story hook of most Westerns and video games in general.

Silas’ adventures take him to just about every classic Western location you could think of – from Apache-filled canyons to trains, steamboats, mountain passes, dynamite-filled caves and of course, classic small town shoot-outs. Each level offers a fun new location and while the graphics engine isn’t necessarily the prettiest, developer Techland gets a lot of mileage out of the vast expanses and gorgeous vistas that dominate most backdrops.

Missions are short and sweet, mostly clocking in at maybe 30 minutes. Exploration is minimal and most of the time is spent simply following the obvious paths laid about before you, dispatching waves of gun-toting outlaws and bandits. Gameplay is very similar to those on-rails light gun arcade games as enemies pop up out of cover. A concentration bar can be used to slow down the action in a classic ‘bullet time’ effect, painting targets red and making many of the more chaotic sections much more bearable.

Silas is limited to carrying his revolvers and either a shotgun or rifle. Variety in guns is not a strong suit for most Western games (though Red Dead Redemption performed admirably). Revolvers come in three varieties, letting you choose whether you prefer range, accuracy or rate of fire, while I found the rifle vastly superior to the 2-barrel shotgun in nearly every situation.

Since every game has to have some sort of RPG-like progression system, Gunslinger lets you level up and put skill points into three separate trees (with two paths each), focusing on either revolvers, rifles or shotguns. New custom guns can be unlocked and many skills help rack up the combo points as well as enable perks like carrying more ammo and reloading faster. I went with the rifle skills first as long range combat seemed like the best way to go most of the time (other than occasionally spelunking in caves).

Even on Normal mode Silas can’t take a whole lot of hits, and goes down pretty quick. I had to replay quite a few sections, and some multiple times just to survive. Many climactic moments have you surrounded by a dozen or more enemies and missing a shot or two can be fatal. A few gatling gun boss sections also leave little room for error. Thankfully checkpoints are frequent and easy; I never had any complaints after dying and starting almost right where I died.

One of my favorite features were in the collectibles. Silas can find Nuggets of Truth hidden around the world, and since each level is fairly linear finding them is pretty easy. These Secrets reveal little three or four page stories on various famous historical figures, gangs and places that Silas runs into during his storied adventures. I stopped and read every single one of them. Hats off to the developer, as they were fun and informative addition.

Of course our anti-hero ends up running into just about every famous Western hero and outlaw you’ve ever heard of. His career as a bounty hunter tasks him with taking on the Cowboys and Johnny Ringo, the Jesse James gang, the Dalton Brothers and even a climatic Mexican standoff with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Gunslinger could’ve easily painted a contrived story inserting all these famous characters and narratives willy-nilly, but I found it maintained a nice balance of homage and loving respect for the genre, and built upon the real world stories to insert Silas into them in clever and not entirely reality-breaking ways. Kind of how Forrest Gump ended up at a lot of famous events – Silas Greaves is the Forrest Gump of Western heroes.

The concept of an unreliable narrator isn’t new, but it’s used in some fun ways, including the classic “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention” moment. Silas’ stories get a little too outlandish for our bar patrons, and when they call him out he sometimes recants, and things magically change before your eyes. It’s also used to occasionally hinder or provide progress (“Suddenly, I spotted a ladder”). It’s a lot of fun thanks to some great voice acting, and Silas is a surprisingly deep character.

Call of Juarez Gunslinger is only about six hours long, and even then you could easily finish faster if you are good at first person shooters and didn’t care about collecting the Nuggets of Truth. With gameplay that’s little more involved than a light gun arcade game the real strengths lie in the Western theme, which permeates every facet of the game, from the famous characters to the tired tropes to the wonderfully varied but still thematically appropriate level design. Gunslinger could be a tougher game to recommend if you don’t know your spaghetti Westerns from your John Wayne flicks, but for Western fans and those that enjoy a more narrative-focused shooter it’s a surprisingly rewarding treat.

Pros

  • Western themes are used to their utmost potential
  • Silas’ narration is fun, funny and a neat way to anchor the story
  • Collectibles offer rewarding and fun historical lessons and stories
  • Short length and frequent location changes helps keep the limited gameplay fresh

Cons

  • Basic gameplay doesn’t evolve that much over the course of the game
  • Shotguns seem woefully inept next to rifles

 

Final Say: A short and sweet shooter that takes full advantage of its fantastic Western theming.