Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

Shadowrun Dragonfall is the definitive Shadowrun cRPG experience with a meaty campaign and lots of crucial improvements.

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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: Harebrained Schemes

Publisher: Harebrained Holdings

Release Date: September 18, 2014 (Director’s Cut), February 27, 2014 (Original Expansion)

My first real brush with the Shadowrun universe occurred with 2013’s crowdfunded release of Shadowrun: Returns. I was mostly unfamiliar with the 80s cyberpunk-meets-urban-fantasy world having only briefly tried out either the old SNES or Genesis games. I grew increasingly interested in that world and gameplay during its Kickstarter campaign (which I didn’t back at the time) and ended up purchasing and playing Shadowrun Returns right when it released in the Summer of 2013. I also cheated a bit and added it onto my then-schedule of backlogged games for Rogue’s Adventures (you can read my Final Thoughts on the game here).

Unfortunately I only had time to play the main campaign. Even at release they were new user-made adventures and runs being developed but I’ve yet to dive into any of them. Harebrained Schemes released an official expansion, Dragonfall in early 2014 that fixed a lot of Returns’ issues and added an all new, lengthier, and more satisfying campaign. It was free to those that already owned Shadowrun Returns (being part of their Kickstarter fulfillment). Later that year they released the Director’s Cut version as a stand-alone game that further added new content as well as iterating on the interface and other improvements.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut is the definitive Shadowrun experience. Aside from the actual tabletop role-playing version, Dragonfall presents the best form of playing through the wonderfully diverse and exciting world of Shadowrun.

Dragonfall utilizes the same Unity isometric engine found in many of the most popular modern cRPGs, including Wasteland 2 and the recently released Pillars of Eternity, but it’s also the most limiting and weakest implementation of those games. While a slight step up from Returns, Dragonfall continues to present mostly static maps (everyone stands around waiting for you to talk to them) and only a very specific amount of scripted objects that can be interacted with. Most of the puzzles are limited to finding passwords for a computer, with nearly every scenario and situation involving heavy amounts of combat.

Thankfully the combat is where Shadowrun Dragonfall really shines. Like its predecessor it operates on a turn-based action point system, though its scope is also limited compared to its contemporaries (Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin). With 2-3 points per character the action is more akin to XCOM where you can choose to move, take cover and fire off your weapon. Since it’s Shadowrun you get a ton of fun stuff to do, like flinging spells (both offensive and supportive), activating cybergear buffs and abilities, channeling Adept powers, summoning spirits, controlling drones, and hacking into the matrix. With a ton of varied abilities and an impressively clever AI that takes cover, moves to flank your team, and fires grenades when you bunch up, the combat remained fresh and fun throughout the lengthy 35hr+ campaign.

The single biggest improvement Dragonfall made was in your team structure and dynamic. Shadowrun Returns mostly told a personal story about your customized runner. A few story-based NPCs would occasionally join you, but mostly you hired from a pool of pre-generated runners for a fee. While it was fun to try out different combinations and set-ups, it never really felt like a team.

Dragonfall fixes all that and brings back the concept of an actual shadowrun team from the tabletop game. They’re featured heavily in the promotional artwork, consisting of Eiger the troll ex-military, no nonsense weapons specialist, Dietrich the ex-punk rocker tatooed shaman, Glory the heavily cyber-modified medic with a mysterious and dark past, and later Blitz the hot shot decker/rigger.

After the exciting opening mission, which begins with the classic run gone wrong, you’re given the leadership position of this ragtag crew that I quickly grew to love. Harebrained definitely takes a page out of other great RPG writers Bioware and Obsidian. Your crew has their own little base of operations and you’re free to walk around and talk to them learning more about their backgrounds and their hopes and fears a la every modern Bioware title.

You’re still free to hire additional runners to change the make-up of your team, but your own crew is free to take with you and they’re nicely balanced that I almost never felt the need to hire other random crew members. They also have their own skill trees where you can choose to improve from two different paths after every major mission, giving you further control and lending even more satisfying familiarity with your team.

Harebrained really does an amazing job with your team, and eventually they open up some interesting side missions that just involve them and your character. Blitz needs to score a big hit to pay off a big debt while Glory dives headfirst into her hellishly abusive past to hunt down the cult that twisted her. These character missions are some of the best in the game, focusing on particularly amazing story-telling and sequences.

Dragonfall commits the Baldur’s Gate II feaux pas of throwing up a large speed bump right when the main story is getting interesting. At an early avenue you’re forced to make money in order to continue on with the main story of a possibly resurrecting dragon. This middle section of going on missions to make money takes up the majority of game time, and while fun and very Shadowrun-appropriate, I still felt a major disconnect with the main story for much of the game.

Most runs have fun elements and quirks that make them memorable, from a powerful cyber-zombie that temporarily joins your team to investigating an abandoned research facility. Towards the end I was definitely antsy to get on with the main story, which teased the return of Firewing, a great dragon that was shot down years ago but who’s clues were mysteriously leading to her return.

The climactic final mission was all kinds of amazing, consisting of several huge areas, new tilesets and enemies and one of my favorite parts of any RPG – the chance to talk down the main villain using an extended dialogue session. It was incredibly satisfying and fun, and is much better integrated than Shadowrun Returns’ off the rails bug spirit finale.

Dragonfall doesn’t fix all of the underlying limitations that were present in Returns. It’s still incredibly annoying that you can’t manage your allies’ inventory (picking up items either goes to your inventory or your stash) and I mentioned before about the almost complete lack of puzzles and interactive objects (especially compared to the likes of other cRPGs). Dragonfall does make improvements where it can – now there are options to use your decker or your muscle in situations where your character lacks the needed skill but you brought someone that covers it. The interface is much improved and lets you see both your currently equipped weapons and your spells, items, cybergear etc with lots of nice keyboard shortcuts. Oh and you can also save anywhere now – a huge problem with the original game.

If you’re only going to play one Shadowrun turn-based RPG, definitely play the Director’s Cut of Shadowrun: Dragonfall. The meaty campaign is wonderful and the varied runs and core party members create a satisfying experience that echoes the tabletop adventure. The Shadowrun games are the perfect example of great indie games that I wish could be given more funding and time to create a truly stellar experience.

Based on my time with Dragonfall I quickly backed Harebrained Schemes’ second Kickstarter, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago. I’m thrilled that we keep getting these amazing little tactical RPGs, and the Shadowrun universe has become one of my absolute favorites in fiction.

 

Pros

  • Excellent and well balanced turn-based tactical combat
  • New core party members are a vast improvement over randomly hired runners
  • Fun and varied missions
  • Exciting and satisfying beginning and ending
  • Wonderfully thematic music and art style – Shadowrun world is fantastic
  • Top notch evocative writing, both dialogue and descriptive

 

Cons

  • Main Quest takes a backseat through the entire middle half of the game
  • Non-combat mechanics are still very limited
  • Still can’t adjust your party’s inventory mid-mission

 

Final Say: Shadowrun Dragonfall is the definitive Shadowrun cRPG experience with a meaty campaign and lots of crucial improvements.

Making Characters in Pillars of Eternity

Steam says I’ve already logged about three hours in the game, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve barely made it out of the character creator.

Pillars of Eternity released yesterday after two and a half years of development. I was a Kickstarter backer from back in 2012 and have very much been looking forward to this spiritual successor to the wonderful isometric ‘Infinity Engine’ games of the late 90s and early 2000s (Read my Final Thoughts on Baldur’s Gate II).

Steam says I’ve already logged about three hours in the game, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve barely made it out of the character creator. It’s so much fun making characters! Six races with 2-4 subraces each, 11 classes, half a dozen cultural backgrounds and dozens of portraits. I fell into the trap of finding an excellent file containing more excellent fantasy portraits, so now my options number in the hundreds!

I’ve purposefully kept myself mostly in the dark about the game, so I’ve also been looking up some basic information about class structure. I’m familiar with standard Dungeons and Dragons classes and archetypes, but Pillars of Eternity offers some new twists and concepts. Chanters are like song-twisting bards from Everquest (my favorite bard implementation ever), Ciphers manipulate souls in an intriguing psychic warrior way and Druids can shapeshift into monstrous were-beasts and still cast spells.

I still haven’t narrowed down whom I’ll be playing first, but thankfully Obsidian included the ability to hire your own party members (in addition to the story-based companions) so more than likely I’ll see them all at some point in a single playthrough.

Here’s Isabella, a Savannah Human Rogue hailing from the Deadfire Archipelago. She’s a sassy, hedonistic pirate and obviously based on the character from Dragon Age II. I’ve heard there’s no rogue companion in Pillars of Eternity so I could definitely see myself hiring her if I don’t pick her.

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Aumaua are the large, orc/viking/nordic folk that are all about the sea. They look kinda like the Na’vi from Avatar, and I love the exotic combination of blue skin and dreadlocks. I couldn’t find a decent male picture but the standard female Aumauan portrait is fantastic. Nuala is proud and serious, but in combat she becomes enters a terrifying rage-filled frenzy.

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The godlike race are like the aasamir and tieflings from D&D, only these are more tied to elementals instead of good/evil (like the gensai from later editions). They are a mixed bag in the character creator – the actual figure looks amazing with super unique head ornamentations, but the character portraits are horribly sparse. You can fudge a little bit and use a human portrait for an elf, but you really can’t replicate the crazy glowing blue hair and horns of the moon-gods or the insanely creepy eyeless masks of the death-gods.

Anyway, this female nature-godlike’s portrait is easily the best, and it fits a druid perfectly. Godlikes can actually be any race so I went with Orlan for a short and spunky look. She’s a nature-loving hippie that occasionally morphs into a giant were-stag for some hands-on action.

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In general the female portraits look much better than the males. Maybe it’s just because most of the men look like boring old fighters. I did find one fun concept – a pale elf chanter from the frozen ‘White that Wends.’ Definitely going with a death/undead theme as many of the cool chanter songs involve summoning skeletons and exploding corpses. Maybe he’s into death metal?

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As you can tell I’m more interested in character concepts and ideas rather than specifically min/maxing my stats. I plan on playing on Normal which should give me some breathing room in that regard, letting me play the character/race combo I want to rather than the one I need to. What kind of character will you play?

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Ms. Marvel (2006), Vol. 3-4

Ms. Marvel puts together her own strike force to hunt down bad guys, and the series hits its stride thanks to a fun supporting cast, numerous action-movie set-pieces and the wonderful art of Aaron Lopresti.

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!

Ms Marvel vol 3Writer: Brian Reed

Artists: Aaron Lopresti, Robert De La Torre (#11-12)

Issues: Ms. Marvel (2006) #11-24

Around the time of the Superhero Civil War in 2006, Carol Danvers was enjoying a successful revival. She had her own solo series (not exactly common for any female superhero at the time) and in 2007 was hand-picked by Tony Stark to lead the new Mighty Avengers team.

The first 10 issues (Volumes 1-2) of Ms. Marvel were a mixed bag as the series struggled to find its footing while dealing with the Civil War event. In volumes three and four we get a more proactive Carol as she puts together her own strike force to hunt down bad guys, and the series hits its stride thanks to a fun supporting cast, numerous action-movie set-pieces and the wonderful art of Aaron Lopresti.

Most of Volume Three includes the subtitling of The Initiative – referring to the period directly following the Civil War. Tony Stark wants Carol Danvers to lead his new official Avengers team. Carol agrees on one condition: that she be given her own special SHIELD taskforce. Carol’s a natural born leader but she’s also full of self-doubt and constantly pushing herself to be better, creating an interesting dynamic between her dialogue and her inner monologue.

Ms. Marvel’s desire to hunt bad guys before they become a threat stems from the first two issues, which revives old Avengers, AIM-baddie Doomsday Man. It mostly involves a lot of straightforward fighting, including against a bunch of zombified agents as well as the giant mech-body of Doomsday Man, and it’s fun as hell. Unfortunately Ms. Marvel’s spunky teenage sidekick that we met back during the Civil War issues in Volume Two (Araña) loses her fight and gets her carapace brutally torn off. Carol vows to hunt down villains before they can become major threats.

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Her first task is actually a selfish one, but it does tie up the loose end that is Arachne (Julia Carpenter), the superhero Spider-Woman that she apprehended during her Civil War tie-ins. Julia agrees to register and is released from the Negative Zone prison, and Carol helps her find her daughter. It’s fairly boring and unnecessary – I had enough of Arachne’s woes in the previous volume, but the side plot involving AIM and a DNA bomb nicely sets up the next exciting arc, and the first real test of Operation Lightning Storm.

In “Ready, A.I.M., Fire!” (#15-17) Ms. Marvel and her crew of SHIELD agents (and her frequent ally and co-star, the incredibly lame Wonder Man) go after a leader-less AIM group. Some of them are trying to protect and restore a dying MODOK, while others want to bring AIM into a new era. We’re introduced to some interesting inner workings of AIM and MODOK is always a fun, old-school mustache-twirling villain, but the real antagonist comes in the surprise form of MODOK’s son, the usurper of AIM.

ms marvel #17Ms. Marvel is able to defeat MODOK though she’s blasted with the DNA bomb, and once again we see her turn blue and miraculously heal, just as she did did while fighting zombies in the earlier story. She begins to suspect that something fishy may have happened in her encounter with the powerful blue alien named Cru in the very first volume. Brian Reed has a knack for rewarding his readers, weaving in numerous previous plot threads, characters, and events.

Volume Four, “Monster Smash,” includes two action-packed and fun stories that effectively showcase Ms. Marvel’s team and their globe-trotting agenda. “Puppets” (#18-20) trots out a very old Fantastic Four villain, Puppet Master.

He’s currently living out his retirement in a South American country doing what he does best – enslaving people using his clay voodoo statues. Though it’s not explicitly explained, it’s heavily implied that he’s keeping an inordinate amount of enslaved women for human trafficking. This doesn’t sit too well with Ms. Marvel, and she lets loose with an awesome fury, though first she has to battle through a few of Puppet Master’s enslaved superheroines.

The real treat is the introduction to Ms. Marvel’s new team additions. Since her run-in with AIM put one of her field agents in the hospital (and she’s still not comfortable with Araña joining her), she’s requested some super-powered help and receives the snarky android Machine Man and alien Sleepwalker. Sleepwalker is an alien host that lives in the dreams of Rick Sheridan (meaning he can only come out when Rick’s asleep or passed out) while Machine Man is basically Bender from Futurama. They’re both fantastic and entertaining and along with Agent Sum, Araña, and even Wonder Man create quite the motley crew.

ms marvel #20In a dark twist, Ms. Marvel defeats Puppet Master by actually letting him commit suicide via explosion (Dear villains: You can’t kill Ms. Marvel with explosions, she absorbs energy). She’s incredibly angry about what he did to those women and she ends up lying about what went down in her report. It’s a fascinating moment that makes her character all the more human, and I can’t help but continue to root for her every step of the way.

Her blue healing powers finally get explained in the incredibly action-packed second arc, “Monster and Marvel” (#21-24). The blue alien Cru from way back in her first issue had been partially absorbed, and she (it’s a she apparently) spends a lot of time inside Carol’s mind. She shows her destruction of her homeworld by the Brood and Ms. Marvel is taken to Monster Island where the two team-up to defeat the Brood that have made a nest there.

Once again Ms. Marvel is separated from her team, as she and Cru do a bunch of mind-melding stuff while they hunt the Brood Queen while the rest of the team plays catch-up only to fight a swarm of Brood. Brian Reed does his best Aliens impression with the Brood Queen, and Cru unlocks Carol’s cosmic-level powers, temporarily turning her into her goddess-like Binary persona.

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The action is satisfyingly large-scale and epic, and a wonderful finale to Ms. Marvel’s Operation Lighting Storm adventures (assuming they come to an end – the next volume are her Secret Invasion tie-ins). I generally enjoyed Reed’s story-telling and characterization of Carol Danvers. She’s a very public and powerful hero but she’s also extremely relatable and grounded. Her strike force helps give her something to do rather than just fall into a random series of adventures and I liked the large variety in locations and villains.

It also helps that I adore Aaron Lopresti’s art, who seems particularly well-suited to drawing aliens like the Brood (I loved his work on Planet Hulk). The same can’t be said of Greg Horn’s sexy Barbie-doll cover art, however. Thankfully it’s just the cover art but it also gives off the wrong impression both to the comic’s style and tone. If you enjoy Avengers-style action and want to see more of Ms. Marvel at her highest and lowest points, her solo series has proven more than satisfactory.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Mighty Avengers (2007), Vol. 1-2

Iron Man’s officially government-sanctioned Avengers team is born from the ashes of the Civil War, and it’s mostly stupid fun.

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!

mighty avengers 2007 coverWriter: Brian Michael Bendis

Artists: Frank Cho, Mark Bagley

Issues: Mighty Avengers (2007) #1-11

At the end of the superhero Civil War the rebellious New Avengers were defeated and went into hiding, spurring new SHIELD Director Tony Stark to sanction his own official Avengers team. He dubbed them the Mighty Avengers – inadvertently coined by Ms. Marvel.

Stark of course joins the team making him a bit of a Wolverine in this era in terms of how spread out he is: here in Mighty Avengers, his own solo Iron Man series, as a major character in Captain America, etc. He chooses Ms. Marvel to actually lead the team (given her military background and experience), and together the two pick and choose the best of the best.

In New Avengers the team came together organically over a major crisis – a supervillain prison breakout, and the heroes that showed up and worked together ended up forming a team amidst the chaos. None of that happens in Mighty Avengers; instead it goes the Armageddon route and simply goes around recruiting people in a page by page montage (with flashbacks to their recruitment throughout the first few issues). Carol and Tony discuss people like they’re trading cards (“we need a Wolverine”) and then go recruit them. It’s all a bit silly and not terribly interesting, but at least they select a fairly varied team in terms of power level and background.

The initial team that joins Ms. Marvel and Iron Man are The Wasp, The Sentry, Wonder Man, Black Widow and Ares (“He’s a Wolverine and a Thor!” Ugh). Before they can even get an official Welcome to the Group meeting, Iron Man is suddenly melted and transformed into a weird, naked lady version of Ultron after a seemingly random attack by Mole-man. In the “Ultron Initiative” (#1-6) Fem-Ultron hijacks some weather satellites and tries to wreck havoc on the whole planet, while our heroes unsuccessfully hurl themselves at it.

As a side note, I completely hate the Sentry. What started off as an interesting take on a Superman-level powerful hero with severe mental issues has devolved into a Get Out of Situation Free card for comic writers. He has the power of a thousand exploding suns! Great.

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The story is incredibly dumb and I detest the way Bendis writes each panel. He includes the inner thought bubble of all our heroes, sometimes in the middle of them talking. This makes every page have an insane amount of words and often makes just trying to suss out a single dialogue session a confusing mess. I generally like Bendis’ dialogue and writing but this method just fails spectacularly. Trying to do the inner monologue thing (normally reserved for solo books or single character focuses) for half a dozen characters is a nightmare and doesn’t add anything to the story.

I’m also not a fan of Frank Cho’s art work. It’s not terrible but it’s just slightly worse than what I consider base-line brightly colored action-adventure comic fair, and includes a hefty does of constant T&A from the women heroes that I wasn’t a big fan of.

To put a cherry on this ill-conceived return of Ultron (who mostly just stands there for five issues and occasionally throws a charging hero to the ground), they enlist the help of Hank Pym, Wasp’s ex-husband, to create a computer virus and introduce it to Ultron.

Yep, they Independence Day Ultron. Good job guys.

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As a side note I really enjoy how Bendis writes Hank and his dialogue with Janet is especially delicious, but even his enjoyable guest-starring isn’t enough to save this train-wreck of an opening story.

Volume 2, “Venom Bomb” (#7-11) is a massive improvement, picking up right after the last panel of New Avengers #31. Issue #7 has Spider-Woman showing up at Stark’s bedside with the glaring body of Skrull-Elektra. The titling of the issue has the Secret Invasion stamp on it, acting as an early prologue to the upcoming event. The entire issue is mostly just Stark and Jessica Drew talking about the ramifications of a possible secret Skrull invasion, and it’s actually pretty great.

Their talks end with Spider-Woman officially joining the Mighty Avengers, effectively switching sides, and Stark grants her a slot much to many of the team’s chagrin. Before anyone can really voice a complaint, something suspicious falls to earth from the wreckage of Stark’s weather satellites from the previous story arc. It’s a venom-style symbiote! Only this one acts like a virus and beings mutating everyone in New York City into Venom/Carnage monsters.

The Mighty Avengers are on the scene, and finally we get some action-packed scenes of our heroes kicking ass. Granted they soon have to pull up once they realize that all the monsters are really just possessed people. To create more chaos the New Avengers show up also as venom symbiote monsters (save Luke Cage), and there’s a funny bit where Wolverine’s healing factor keeps trying to push out the symbiote. Poor Wolverine.

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The whole thing is over in a single issue as Stark simply goes to his lab and synthesizes a cure, then blasts it over New York. Very anti-climactic and short, but it leads to the team discovering the “Venom Bomb” belonged to Dr. Doom, so it’s off to Latveria! As if battling hundreds of symbiotes weren’t enough our heroes throw down with hundreds of doom bots after Ares crashes a plane right into Doom’s castle.

No less than three full two-page spreads of the team fighting off doombots jump out as a lovely feast for the eyes. Mark Bagley is an improvement in the art department, and it’s very much that classic modern comic book feel that is very appropriate to the tone and feel of the series.

The attack on Doom (whom quickly becomes one of my favorite villains and I adore Bendis’ treatment of him) leads to he, Iron Man and Sentry being thrust back in time to the 60s via Doom’s time-travel device. While an opportunity for some funny and cheesy moments are mostly wasted, I did love the old Jack Kirby, Silver Age style in which the time-travel issue is drawn.

Like all their problems it’s solved with a combination of Stark’s ideas and Sentry’s insane power level and they quickly return to their time an issue later. The entire story arc of Volume 2 is a rapid fire of big events happening every single issue. If the idea was to make up for the lackluster and boring “Ultron Initiative” it definitely succeeds.

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Dr. Doom is finally apprehended as Iron Man gets his Respect Mah Authority moment. I’m annoyed that throughout these two first volumes the focus centers on Iron Man more than anyone else. I get that he’s obviously the most popular hero (although Ms. Marvel was also gaining popularity at this time with her own solo series) but as I mentioned before, Iron Man is damn near everywhere. As stupid as heroes like Ares and Wonder Man are (answer = very, very stupid) I wouldn’t mind seeing at least a bit more team dynamic, drama, in-fighting and characterization that’s in every other successful team-up book.

With too much focus on Iron Man, a silly team and a terrible first outing, Mighty Avengers is off to a very shaky start. It definitely feels like the Michael Bay of comic stories – some fun action if you can mostly shut your brain down. I did like the way that it incorporates the greater continuity and the nonstop action in the second volume is an admittedly fun ride. But, come on Tony, let the rest of the team do something every once in awhile.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Dr. Strange: The Oath

The Oath is the perfect introduction (or further reading) into who Dr. Strange is and why you should care about the Sorcerer Supreme.

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!

Dr Strange The OathWriter: Brian K. Vaughan

Artists: Marcos Martin

Issues: Dr. Strange: The Oath #1-5

Ex-surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme Dr. Stephen Strange is not a hugely popular Marvel hero, yet he crops up nearly everywhere as the resident magic expert. Any time a superhero has to deal with magical foes or spells or summoned creatures, they call Dr. Strange.

Despite his usefulness he hadn’t warranted a solo series since the mid 90s, instead cropping up in a few limited series but mostly as a recurring guest star in Amazing Spider-Man or joining the New Avengers after the Civil War.

My options for exploring Dr. Strange’s modern, solo adventures via Marvel Unlimited are, ironically, quite limited. Thankfully there’s one fairly high regarded series that explores Dr. Strange’s background and origin in five issues called The Oath.

Acting as a bridge between Civil War and Stephen’s stint with New Avengers (though the timing of the series really doesn’t matter), Dr. Strange is carried into the Night Nurse’s secretive, superhero friendly office by his apprentice Wong. Strange has been shot! A mercenary known as the Brigand stole a magical elixir that Strange had procured to heal Wong’s brain tumor, and the foe was armed with the magical mojo of Hitler’s own gun, penetrating Strange’s defenses. All of this is told by the good Doctor himself via his famous Astral Projection even as the Night Nurse operates on him.

The series is written by Brian K. Vaughan, whom I’ve previously had the pleasure of reading in Runaways and Saga. Vaughan’s style is incredibly relateable and down-to-earth. Dr. Strange’s background as a sorcerer is effectively given the broad strokes treatment and we’re allowed to peer into the kind of person that Stephen is and has become, rather than focus on what he can and can’t do with magic.

Stephen Strange’s personality and story closely mirrors that of Tony Stark. He began as an arrogant surgeon that cared only for money and furthering his own career, until a fateful car accident ruined his hands. Seeking to repair them by any means, he traveled to Tibet to learn the mystic arts, tutoring under an old wizard known as The Ancient One.

dr. strange #1And that’s pretty much it. Dr. Strange becomes a powerful sorcerer and vows to help people. The oath that the title refers to is the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors take – Strange is adamant about saving the life of his faithful servant and friend Wong. Since he can no longer operate with his hands, he uses his mystic knowledge to research a cure and goes into a crazy dimensional realm and defeat a giant monstrosity to recover a panacea – all in the span of a few pages.

Turns out this elixir not only would cure Wong’s cancer, but all cancer and illness everywhere on Earth. Dr. Strange first has it analyzed in a lab (though he practices magic, his background as a surgeon makes him amiable to the sciences) and it’s there that his secret is betrayed and he’s robbed. Strange goes on a quest with the dying Wong and the resolute Night Nurse to recover the elixir and discover the one who sent Brigand after him.

After some nifty scenes of spell-flinging and mind-ripping, Strange learns the identity of his true foe, an old colleague of his, Nicodemous West. Dr. West had been tracking down Strange to try and bring him back to the practice, and in doing so learned the same magical arts from The Ancient One. Thus Dr. West becomes the anti-Strange, a former surgeon turned magician, only West is still concerned with himself and money as he takes orders from a shady board of directors at a pharmaceutical company.

West and Strange’s confrontation is fun and satisfying, as they both get to sling guilt-trips and regrets at each other, as well as the interesting moral and scientific ramifications of suddenly introducing a mass cure to society. Ultimately their battle takes them to the rain-soaked rooftops (as all climactic fights should) and West produces an artifact that nullifies their magic. The two go mano y mano, and Strange reveals that Wong is both his apprentice and his master. After sustaining a few blows he proceeds to kick West’s ass with his superior kung fu. West slips and falls off the building, shattering the elixir on the ground below.

dr. strange #5

Predictably there is only a single drop left and our hero is forced to make a choice – take the time to reproduce it and provide a cure for all the world’s sicknesses, or heal his dying friend. Wong’s state had deteriorated over the course of the series lending a sense of immediacy and urgency to Strange’s quest, and by the time West falls he’s completely unconscious.

Strange saves the life of his dear friend, gains the respect and love of the Night Nurse (who never reveals her name) and warms his way into my heart. The Oath succeeds in delving into Dr. Strange’s background and personality while still providing a fun, action-packed adventure. New readers worrying about delving into a psychedelic, magic-fueled ride need not fear. Vaughan uses the magic stuff sparingly and keeps it easy to follow, while the focus remains on the strong characters and excellent supporting cast.

The only real bummer is the art style. Martin’s work isn’t bad at all, I just didn’t find it very memorable. I think it tries to evoke an old, Silver Age Jack Kirby style but mostly comes off as a little plain. Still the overall series is the perfect introduction (or further reading) into who Dr. Strange is and why you should care about the Sorcerer Supreme.

Dr. Strange #4

My Favorite Dragon Age Inquisition Companions

As much as I loved its insane amount of content, Dragon Age is still very much a BioWare RPG, and a large part of the experience lies in the well-written and interesting companions.

You can also read this post over on my Game Informer blog

Four Months and 75 hours later and I finally saw the credits roll on Dragon Age: Inquisition. I knew it was going to be a long one but releasing in November had the horrible side effect of trying to keep up with a sprawling RPG during the busy holiday season. Dear developers: Please release all 50 hour+ games in the Summer!

I’ve previously written on the problems of super long games but to be fair Dragon Age Inquisition is about as long as you want it to be. Felt like 70% of my time was spent just blissfully exploring the incredible amount of content that was offered, and I loved that I always had an overwhelming amount of areas to explore and quests to try. At some point I had to just force myself to get back on track with the main story (which I quickly outleveled) and ended up beating the game at level 20 with at least two areas barely explored (Hissing Wastes and Emerald Graves) and many more only half-finished.

As much as I loved the insane amount of content, Dragon Age is still very much a BioWare RPG, and a large part of the experience lies in the well-written and interesting companions. I thought I’d turn my thoughts on the game into a ranked list of all nine Dragon Age: Inquisition companions.

You can read more about my inquisitor and my predictions for the game here.

 

1) Cassandra

The very first companion you get is also the best, a concept that’s fairly common in RPGs. Your first friend and ally tends to be the most strongly written and the most directly tied into the main events of the story. As a former Seeker of Truth Cassandra embodies everything about a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style Paladin, but her steadfast honesty and confident demeanor made me quickly fall in love with her. She’s also incredibly useful on the battlefield serving as your initial tank and becoming quite adept and handling mages and demons once she unlocks her templar abilities. Despite playing a warrior myself I almost never left Skyhold without her, and she was the first one I’d always go to check with in between outings. At the end of my game she became Divine, and I was proud and confident that she would lead the Chantry and the world into a prosperous era.

2) Varric

Oddly enough I rarely ended up using Varric in Dragon Age II. I enjoyed his personality but my Hawke was a Rogue and I loved using Isabella, so Varric rarely got to come with me. In Inquisition I played a warrior, and archery skills were just as powerful, if not more so than Dragon Age II. Certainly attacking from range afforded him a bit more survivability and I loved his artificer tree and those flashy grenades he threw. Personality wise Varric is the ultimate best bud – friendly, loyal and constantly cracking jokes even in the midst of terror and dread. He was my go-to Rogue for most of the adventure and I was always glad to have his good-natured insight and Bianca’s power.

3) Vivienne

Most RPG companions tend to be various forms of the rogueish archetype, but Vivienne is almost a polar opposite. She’s calm, elegant, and not afraid to flaunt her stature and power. She could be perceived as power-hungry but ultimately she wants what’s best for the world, which typically happens to align with her own desires. I loved the way she talked, layering in ‘darling’ and ‘my dear’ in a deliciously disarming fashion, and her high cheekbones and flawless skin added to her regal look. I could also gush about her usefulness on the battlefield – as an ice mage she’s useful in just about every situation, and her knight enchanter specialization is easily the best in the game, turning her into an off-tank or secondary DPS if you want to run up and whack things with spectral swords. The mages in the Dragon Age world have always had the best abilities and Vivienne gets the best of those.

4) Dorian


Dorian’s story is so analogous to many real people’s it’s almost painful. Running away from his life and responsibilities in his not-quite-evil empire of Tevinter because his father threatened to change his sexuality via blood magic instantly endeared him to me, and he was the first companion I befriended. Dorian was funny, cultured, sassy and a powerful fire mage. Fire can both burn and fear people, making Dorian almost unfair to use against humanoids, and his necromancer skill tree gave him the always fun ability of Walking Bomb. I give Vivienne the slight edge but I ended up trading off between the two for the majority of my adventuring.

5) Cole

Cole is definitely the most interesting and different of the companions. As a spirit inhabiting a dead mage he’s similar in concept to what BioWare did with Anders and Justice in Dragon Age II but the execution is far more fascinating here. Battling the red templars means I got a full blown mission that introduced him and his creepy and poetic way of talking, and his skills as a shadowy assassin fills his personality quite well. I also quite enjoyed his character mission when you find the templar responsible for his death. Unfortunately in creating the guard system for warriors BioWare really left rogues behind – especially those that eschew archery to get up and hurt people. Cole had lots of fun abilities but required a high level of micro management. Still, I used him when I could (he’s especially fun in the story mission where you enter the fade).

6) Iron Bull

Bull! Gotta love the big fun-loving brute character, which BioWare seems to love as well. I never used Vega in Mass Effect 3, a dumb meat-head that got in the way of the much more interesting aliens, but Iron Bull is all kinds of awesome. Every team needs an Iron Bull – heavy cursing, heavy drinking but incredibly loyal, fun and powerful. Unfortunately as a 2handed warrior myself I rarely had room in my party for Iron Bull. When he eventually gains enough skill points to max out his ravager tree he becomes a huge DPS asset with more survivability thanks to the guard system. He was my go-to for dragon fights and I loved talking to him in Skyhold, I just rarely used him in the field. His rapport with his own company of badasses was really fun, too.

7) Blackwall

Blackwall went through an odd rollercoaster for me. Initially I hated him; he was the stoic, boring warrior and skills-wise he was almost exactly like Cassandra, whom I loved. Thus Blackwall was almost never used until he got his champion specialization. Of course then I chose champion for my 2handed warrior and I’d rather take Cassandra for her personality and differing abilities. His character mission was fascinating, however, and my female warrior was trying to romance him as he was surprisingly sweet and reverent toward the Inquisitor. By the end his story fell flat for me, however. I freed him from prison fairly late in the game and barely had any special conversations or scenes with him afterward. Annoyingly it wouldn’t let me continue my romance with him despite doing all his quests. Blackwall is the perfect example of an interesting concept but a poor execution.

8) Solas

The above seven companions I generally enjoyed, but now we get to the ones that just fell flat for me. As a mage that specializes in the fade Solas is very useful on the battlefield, so my main beef with him is simply that I loved the other two mages much more. Solas is aloof, haughty and dare I say a bit boring. It’s irksome that he apparently is way more tied into the main plot than I realized (the end scene caught me completely off guard) as I rarely ever talked to him and never did his character quest. Sorry Solas but haughty elf that looks like The Mummy just isn’t going to do it for me.

9) Sera

I could easily describe Sera as the Borderlands character. She’s zany, irreverent, chaotic and rude. Now, I like Borderlands and the characters in that universe, but she just didn’t fit in my Inquisition at all. I appreciate that there’s a prankster style character but I enjoyed Cole’s enigmatic gags and scenes much more than Sera’s annoying hatred of everything noble or privileged. I role-played my Inquisitor as a fairly serious warrior and leader, and Sera rubbed her in all the wrong ways. I nearly parted ways with her after a particularly heated argument. Don’t get me wrong, I love that her kind of character was included, and it would be boring if the particular kind of character I role-played got along swimmingly with everyone. Power wise she was worse than Varric in every way, and I much preferred Varric’s specialization.

 

All of the pictures here I captured myself from my game, save Cole whom I forgot to take a picture of. How appropriate!

And there it is! Another BioWare game completed. I loved my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition but due to the length don’t see myself replaying it anytime soon. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with the game and companions in the comments below.

You can also read this post over on my Game Informer blog

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Captain America: The Death of Captain America

The Death of Captain America is a massive twenty issue collected volume that tells the epic and satisfying arc of Steve’s void in an increasingly panicked country on the brink of anarchy.

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!

death of captain americaWriter: Ed Brubaker

Artists: Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Roberto De La Torre, Jackson Guice

Issues: Captain America (2004) #22-42, Winter Soldier: Winter Kills #1

Steve Rogers is dead. Long live Captain America!

You’d think that when your title character is murdered it would bring an end to that series. Steve Rogers’ Captain America is a legacy that will not be so easily snuffed. In the hands of skilled writer Ed Brubaker and one of my favorite comic artists Steve Epting, The Death of Captain America is a massive twenty issue collected volume that tells the epic and satisfying arc of Steve’s void in an increasingly panicked country on the brink of anarchy.

The Legacy of Captain America may have been a better title for the trade, as the eponymous death happens early on in issue #25. The first three issues (#22-24) are direct Civil War tie-ins, offering some side plots starring Agent 13, SHIELD and Cap. Most tie-ins are not great but Brubaker does a masterful job making these interesting while not derailing his own lengthy main plot that he’s been carefully constructing since the first issue.

There’s a several month gap between #24 and #25, and Cap’s series is briefly replaced with a single one-off issue called Winter Soldier: Winter Kills. It’s our first real glimpse into the mind of James “Bucky” Barnes and nicely foreshadows his future role as the new protagonist of the series. James is an amazing hero to root for; he’s got the tragic past in spades, he’s already lived a lifetime’s worth of memories and his moral fiber is deliciously sinewy. It’s revealed in an earlier Civil War tie-in that he’s directly working for Nick Fury (who’s been off the grid for years now) as a spy and adjusting to a somewhat normal life. Mostly we get a lot of flashbacks to World War II from Bucky’s point of view, and it’s a fascinating look at someone who idolized Steve and what he stood for more than anyone.

Captain America #25The death issue has become one of the more infamous comics in history. Hats off to Marvel for managing to create a huge media blitz and keep everything under wraps until it released. Steve’s on his way to trial after surrendering at the end of the Civil War, finally seeing that the cost was too high to keep fighting. He’s initially shot by Crossbones armed with a sniper rifle in a nearby building (very Kennedy), and then a brainwashed Agent 13/Sharon Carter (that would be Peggy’s niece) finishes the job with multiple gunshot wounds to the gut.

It’s a very stark and shockingly realistic event, made all the more powerful by Epting’s fantastic art. Every character looks real without dipping into crazy Uncanny Valley territory, and the heavy use of shading creates a wonderfully bleak and serious tone that has endured throughout the entire series up to this point.

Steve’s death created a mini-event in of itself, as the death of such a major character created shock waves in the Marvel Universe. Most of it is handily contained in the limited series Fallen Son, when various heroes mourn Steve’s death and go through the five stages of depression.

captain america #30“The Death of the Dream,” covers the first six issues following his death. Brubaker takes his time exploring his supporting cast and continuing to set up the intriguing plot. Every couple pages in each issue is given its own title and jumps around to different characters and events, creating a sporadic and scattered tone that fits well with everyone feeling lost after Steve’s death. Winter Soldier wants revenge on Iron Man. Falcon and Agent 13 hunt down Red Skull. Tony Stark finds Steve’s last will and testament and brings Black Widow on board. Sharon reels from her murderous act and continued brainwashed programming and we see the further machinations of Red Skull, Arnim Zola and Dr. Faustus’ evil alliance in bringing about this whole sequence of events.

It’s an interesting way to write what amounts to Act 1 of the lengthy story, and things are a bit slow until the next six issue arc. In “The Burden of Dreams,” Winter Soldier is freed from Dr. Faustus’ grasp (where he was being unsuccessfully tortured and programmed) by Sharon only to be swiftly captured by Iron Man and SHIELD. He breaks free and much of issue #33 is the two having a knock-down drag-out fight in the helicarrier. It ends with Bucky ripping off Iron Man’s helmet and pressing a gun to his head, as Stark holds his hands on either side of Bucky’s head, repulsor’s ready to liquefy his brain.

The two come to an understanding once Tony shows him the Steve’s letter, which beseeches Tony that someone needs to continue on his legacy. It doesn’t take much for the Winter Soldier to agree, mostly as he doesn’t want anyone else to do it, and in issue #34 we get our first glimpse at the new Captain America suit, worn by Cap’s old sidekick.

Bucky, former Winter Soldier now reluctant new Captain America takes center stage as the new protagonist of the series, with Black Widow as his primary partner and love interest. At this point the main plot really starts rocketing ahead as Sharon is firmly in the clutches of evil, Falcon supports Bucky/Widow, and the entire country goes through a rocky phase of near anarchy in the wake of the Civil War and Steve’s death, as well as the savvy political maneuverings of Red Skull. The Skull has been sharing a body with evil CEO Aleksander Lukin since the first trade volume, and he flexes his powers of influence in some startlingly realistic ways, subtly drawing the American people into a frenzy before unleashing his master plan – a presidential candidate in his backpocket.

captain america #34Brubaker’s style and overall tone of the series is very grounded in reality. Despite obviously taking place in a world of hundreds of super-powered people, alien invasions, dimensions, time travel, etc, Brubaker’s Captain America series has always focused on very relatable politics, people and situations. All of the supporting cast are just normal people with high amounts of training and badassness; no energy spewing death-dealers like in the Avengers, and it’s incredibly refreshing. Brubaker touches on this several times whenever Bucky engages someone in a fight – he’s not a super-soldier and a particularly tough battle will leave him exhausted and with broken ribs, making his struggles and battles all the more exhilarating.

Red Skull’s master plan is revealed in the final six-issue arc, “The Man Who Bought America.” Sharon Carter, former Agent 13 and Steve’s love interest is our window into our evil trinity, and Brubaker spends plenty of time letting us into the inner workings of this evil cabal hellbent on overthrowing the American government. A big part of Red Skull’s plan is to activate a former character in Cap’s past – the Captain America of the 1950s, later retconned to be an insane Cap-wannabe also known as The Grand Director.

Since the familiar story of Cap being frozen and flung forward in time creates a paradox with Cap running around briefly in the 50s fighting communists, it was retconned as an impostor who worshiped the original Captain America, even surgically altering his face and voice to mimic Steve Rogers. I had to look it up on Wikipedia but credit to Brubaker for smoothly explaining this odd character within the comics. He becomes a fairly major villain for Bucky and company though he’s definitely portrayed as a tragic, manipulated figure.

Speaking of tragic figures, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how Sharon’s arc is treated. First, she’s directly responsible for Steve’s death, though she was brainwashed by Dr. Faustus and acting on his orders. The events understandably haunts her, and we get uncomfortable shots of her crying in the shower and revisiting the scene over and over in her mind. She soon joins up with Dr. Faustus and with a shred of herself intact she frees the Winter Soldier. From there she’s psychologically tortured and rendered a slave to Dr. Faustus. Eventually she mounts an escape and fights with Sin, who had previously battled and been injured in a fight with Bucky but she’s quickly subdued again. Oh and she was also pregnant with Steve’s child but loses the baby in the knife fight with Sin when she plunges the knife into her own belly to stop the Red Skull from getting it. That is…pretty messed up.

captain america #38Thankfully she finally gets to do something during the climax. As Falcon and Widow mount an attack on the AIM base she escapes and shoots and kills Lukin/Red Skull (while an also escaped 1950s Cap kills Zola). It’s a violent but triumphant moment, but her whole storyline made me fairly uncomfortable for the most part, and I feel like her victimization as played up for dramatic effect is a tiresome trope. It’s also painfully obvious that Black Widow replaces her as Protagonist’s Love Interest as the only other woman of note in the entire series (besides Sin, Red Skull’s one-dimensional daughter). Credit to Epiting, however, for drawing the women just as shadowy and powerful as their male counterparts.

A major part of the climax is Bucky coming to terms with being the new Captain America. While everyone else attacks the AIM base, he goes to the presidential debates to foil an assassination attempt by Sin, becoming a hero in the process. Bucky, like Steve, cares more about doing the right thing than being a hero, though he begins to grasp the gravitas and power that the uniform wields.

Ultimately the country needs Captain America, especially a country teetering on the edge of economic collapse and anarchy. Brubaker really plays up the chaotic aspect of people in the streets, angry at the government, and peaks when Faustus’s other brainwashed SHIELD agents open fire on a group of protesters. Stark himself is used sparingly in the second half of the book, and the only time he’s actually in his suit fighting is during the one on one match with Winter Soldier before he recruits him.

The good guys win at the end and things wrap up nicely – almost too nicely. Skull and Zola are downloaded into another of Zola’s endless robots while Faustus betrays them in the end (activating Sharon’s GPS tracker which leads to the final assault) and escapes. Bucky is the new knife and gun-wielding Captain America (with a slightly different uniform that nicely shows off the old triangular shield of the 40s) and presumably continues to work for Stark and SHIELD without ever having to officially register (Bucky’s terms).

captain america #41

The Death of Captain America is one of the best trade paperbacks I’ve ever read. Right now I’d put it just under Planet Hulk on my personal list of favorites. Both gave their writers well over a dozen issues to tell massive and satisfying stories – in the case of Cap, 18 total issues jumping out of Steve’s death.

Even more impressive is that the plot threads had been layered in since the first issue back in the Winter Soldier volume. Brubaker not only had to craft a story without his title character, but created an all new one to take the mantle, and dare I say I loved everything about how James “Bucky” Barnes is portrayed. The supporting cast is fantastic, the villains are evil without being too cheesy, the world and story are grounded in political upheaval and government control and the action is always exciting and satisfying. Though you’ll definitely want to read the first volume, Captain America: Winter Soldier (and possibly Red Menace) first, The Death of Captain America comes as one of the most easily recommendable comic book stories and collected volumes I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.