Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Thunderbolts Ultimate Collection

Thanks to some fantastic art, killer action scenes and wonderful characterization, this new Thunderbolts run was easily the best thing to come out of Civil War.

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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!

Thunderbolts ultimate collectionWriter: Warren Ellis

Artist: Mike Deodato

Issues: Thunderbolts (2006) #110-121, Civil War: The Initiative #1

House of M had created lots of interesting new series, both limited and ongoing for the X-Men and various mutant teams, but Civil War, marvel’s next big crossover event, didn’t seem to achieve the same level of success with its new series. The event itself was a resounding success and the aftermath changed the state of the Marvel universe for years afterward. The one series to receive a major post-Civil War makeover was Thunderbolts, the dysfunctional team of former supervillains that leapt at the chance to join Tony Stark’s gestapo and hunt down unregistered heroes.

The issues leading up to the Warren Ellis and Mike Dodato run were a confusing mess for someone like me that tried to jump in at issue #100, and their Civil War tie-ins were nothing special. In the one-shot Civil War: The Initiative (included in the Ultimate Collection TPB) we’re introduced and teased to this new Thunderbolts team, lead by Norman Osborne (Green Goblin), consisting of Songbird, Moonstone, Radioactive Man, Swordsman, Venom, Penance, and Bullseye. They take down their fleeing unregistered hero with ruthless efficiency and professional organization – not at all what happens during their official run when Warren Ellis takes over to jump start this series into one of the most action-packed and interesting series I’ve ever read beginning with issue #110.

“Faith in Monsters” (#110-115) actually starts off a bit slow. Ellis takes his time introducing the D-list heroes that our nanite-controlled ex-villain team are tasked with apprehending. Frankly I don’t need several pages of Jack Flagg’s emotional state, nor American Eagle talking politics. The drama bubbling up within Thunderbolts Mountain is much more interesting. These individuals are mostly volatile, conniving, and a few meds or pokes away from going crazy and murdering everyone (save for previous Thunderbolts members Songbird and Radioactive Man, the only two that seem to want the team to work).

thunderbolts #114

Each team member fills out an important role, both on the team and in the drama. Venom is the caged animal, the giant beast that’s drawn like a rippling Hulk. Penance is pure firepower, though his emotional state and character drama makes him dangerously unreliable. Bullseye is the ace in the hole – yes, Warren Ellis somehow makes Bullseye a terrifying psychopath. He’s so dangerous and unpredictable they don’t even use him on the regular team – he’s unleashed when no one else is around for when things get really out of hand.

The reason Bullseye is kept in the shadows is because Thunderbolts is a very marketable, TV friendly task force. Ellis embraces the political implications and discussions that naturally follow the state of fear in The Initiative era of a post-Civil War Marvel universe. Montage panels of political talking heads are used in nearly every issue to discuss the ethics of using former villains as a government task force. Norman Osborne and Moonstone have to constantly wrestle with running the team while also putting on an appropriate show for the TV cameras (which is ironic considering the Civil War’s inciting incident started because of a superhero reality TV show).

thunderbolts #111bThe real treat throughout the entire run is the incredible art by Mike Deodato. Artistic preference can be a difficult thing to vocalize, but most people know what they like and what they don’t. Often I come across art styles that I hate and love, but never encountered anything that completely blew me away in every other page. Deodato is a god living amongst mere mortals. The staging of panels in action scenes is brilliant and inventive – often laying them slightly askew to give a sense of motion, or layering them into a bigger, two-page spread dripping in explosions, scene-filling characters or brutal fight scenes.

Few times when comic characters fight do I believe anyone’s actually getting hurt, but Deodato excels at really putting characters through the ringer. In the first arc alone, Bullseye has his neck snapped, Swordsman is shoved through a window and into a television, and Venom tears the arm off of the Steel Spider. It’s exhilarating in a way few action-packed comics come close to achieving. I’m sure it helps that the roster is much more malleable than traditional Avengers or X-Men teams as well.

thunderbolts #115

“Caged Angels” (#116-121) switches focus from the team fighting and capturing heroes on the streets (and mostly fucking it up spectacularly) to fighting each other. A group of telepaths cleverly get themselves captured on purpose, then begin wrecking mental havoc with our already edgy anti-heroes.

Penance nearly kills a heckling prisoner before Moonstone knocks him out. Norman begins seeing the Green Goblin mask beckoning to him in his desk drawer. Swordsman goes off the deep end, shaving his head and bribing the guards and blowing up the Thunderbolts plane. Venom’s inner animal is unleashed, fully taking control of Mac Gargan’s body and devouring guards left and right.

thunderbolts #119c

 

Everything builds up to an epic climax when Norman finally dons the Green Goblin uniform and goes after Swordsman (who managed to take down Venom). He’s portrayed as very Joker-like, relishing in his insanity. Soon it’s just Songbird and Green Goblin left, and the two have a knock down, drag out fight that ends with both on the ground.

thunderbolts #120Bullseye actually saves them all. After his neck was snapped in the previous arc, he spent the majority of the comic being repaired and steps onto the stage to swiftly kill the imprisoned telepaths after all hell has broken loose. Surprisingly the team is still together in the aftermath and they manage to keep everything that happened under wraps, writing off Green Goblin’s appearance as pure rumor and conjecture.

The art throughout these action-packed scenes is nothing short of stunning. Warren Ellis does a great job making these characters interesting, and drawing a line between likeable (Songbird, Radioactive Man, Penance) and detestable (everyone else) while still making everyone fun to watch and read about it.

Penance particularly has a wonderful side story involving Doc Samson delving into his own psychosis and hang-ups (he’s indirectly responsible for the explosion at Stamford, which triggered the SRA and the Civil War). What could’ve been a sad-sack character is actually made starkly relatable and very human.

Sadly this Ultimate Collection ended Deodato and Ellis’ run on Thunderbolts; it will be interesting to see how different creative teams continue to breath success into the series, as it ran for an incredible six years (going all the way to 2012).

Thanks to some fantastic art, killer action scenes and wonderful characterization, this new Thunderbolts run was easily the best thing to come out of Civil War. My only complaint was that it really should’ve started over with a new #1 numbering system, as it’s completely different from the previous Thunderbolts team, story, and creative staff. Highly recommended if you love amazing art and interested in an unconventional super-team when some of Marvel’s most dangerous villains try to work together.

thunderbolts #111

 

Shadowrun 5E “Not With a Whimper” Session 1 Report

For our first Shadowrun role-playing session I throw our street-level runners in the middle of some good old-fashioned gang warfare, cyberpunk style.

Note that since my players will read these I have to avoid spoilers and background information while the current mission is still in session. Look for our epilogue episode and write-up for more in-depth analysis and feedback.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

Last month I teased a return to online, live streaming tabletop role-playing, and last night marked our first official session in the wonderful world of Shadowrun. It was also the first time I GM’d a session outside of the Quick Start beginner mission.

Although a bit overwhelming, I decided to write our first mission from scratch. I have a bunch of well-written and interesting missions to pick from various source books and I plan on eventually using them either mostly verbatim or heavily borrowing their themes in the future. For our first mission, however, I wanted something that would introduce our new players into the world of Shadowrun, provide an action-packed introduction, and throw our street-level runners in the middle of some good old-fashioned gang warfare.

So our runners all coincidentally found each other at a bar, and then I had a bomb go off.

The resulting chaos and destruction provided many opportunities for role-playing, and I was pleased to see that everyone snapped into hero mode and tried to help the injured NPCs. I didn’t put too much prep time into this initial scenario, allowing the players to guide the action, and I came up with random injuries and deaths for NPCs on the fly.

Redd's Bar

Most importantly the players rescued Jeremiah Redd, the owner of the bar, and followed him into the awaiting DocWagon vehicle to receive treatment and hear his job offer. I had a contingency plan in case they didn’t want to enter but thankfully we could go with my initial plans. This lead to an interesting close-range fight inside the moving all-terrain ambulance as our DocWagon medics turned out to be hostile.

The feaux medics were horribly outnumbered (only three total, and one was driving the whole time) so I figured it would be a fairly quick outcome. Combat lasted longer than I expected, and when the shotgun wielder emerged from the cockpit and nearly killed the runners’ beefy troll shaman in a single blast, I was growing worried. Thankfully the player used an Edge point to re-roll the fails, and managed to cut the damage in half. The rest of the team sprang into action raining down bullets and leaping with knives, while the decker smartly attempted to wrest control of the vehicle.

The uniquely crammed quarters proved interesting but sadly I hadn’t built a proper map or grid, instead using a stock photo of the vehicle. I certainly didn’t expect combat to be as long or involved as it ended up being, and we were just moving tokens around a picture. I did have a pretty good grasp of how the inside looked, and could describe the area and situation after each initiative pass.

Doc Wagon Vehicle

Surprisingly the players were not nearly as violent as I expected, attempting to reason with their foes and trying to get them to surrender. I didn’t expect that, and the enemies were having none of it, fighting to the bloody end (which they quickly received). The driver finally surrendered after a successful Charisma check and looked behind him to see the runners standing over his fallen comrades. The decker brought the vehicle to a stop after it had nearly careened out of control (I was very close to crashing the players – they nearly gave control back to the driver to make him pull over and stop the car – ha!)

We ended our session right as the vehicle came to a stop at an unknown location, with one of the foes still alive. It’ll be interesting to see what information they can pry from their captive, and see what Redd has to say about all this. It’s been a rollercoaster ride so far and the players have barely had a chance to even talk to each other yet (they made their characters separately), which was part of the plan. I anticipate that this run will take another two sessions based on how far they got, and so far seemed like everyone has really enjoyed it. Kudos to Roll20 for being such an easy to use system, and the amazingly convenient built-in character sheets that handle tons of macros and details so we can focus on the fun.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Silent War

The Inhumans star in this follow-up to Son of M takes that takes way too long to get going and is muddled with a distractingly bizarre art style.

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!

silent war coverWriter: David Hine

Artist: Frazer Irving

Issues: Silent War (2007) #1-6

I’ve never held much interest in the Inhumans, but with the way current Marvel events are heading (especially in Agents of SHIELD), learning and reading more about them is becoming increasingly necessary. I find the Inhumans to be a poor man’s mutants – only more secluded and isolationist, with a bunch of archaic social policies and royal family drama.

Silent War is a direct sequel to the events in previous Inhumans-centric limited series Son of M, where Quicksilver stole the sacred Terrigen Crystals (which give Inhumans their powers) and Black Bolt declared war on the US after the government wouldn’t return them. What could have been an action-packed affair takes way too long to get going; Black Bolt is rendered far too impotent and uncertain, and it’s all muddled with a distractedly bizarre art style that makes every character look tiny, weak, and uninteresting.

The war begins in earnest when a small team lead by Gorgon disguise themselves and infiltrate a concert hall. With Jolen the plant master’s help they disable everyone inside and attempt to tell the world about how they were wronged and the crystals were stolen. Unfortunately Jolen ends up going a bit too far and murders a bunch of innocent people left and right, and they’re quickly subduded by the Fantastic Four.

Black Bolt teleports down with a larger team trying to reach the crystals in the pentagon, but they’re deflected to Antarctica and met by the Sentry, who talks to Black Bolt about mutually assured destruction. I’ve spoken previously about how much the Sentry annoys me as the uber-powerful hero that can solve any crisis, and I was really hoping Black Bolt would wipe the floor with him.

silent war #1Unfortunately David Hine spends the majority of the story sowing doubt and uncertainty into Black Bolt’s actions. His wife Medusa can’t read his wishes any more like she used to, and he often acts irrationally and violently. It’s difficult to interpret because Black bolt can never speak. So much as a whisper causes huge amounts of destruction. Despite his lack of characterization, I always considered Black Bolt my favorite Inhuman. A stoic leader who leads by sheer will and actions rather than words, and who has the wherewithal to know when to not use his powers. It’s incredibly annoying then to have Black Bolt portrayed in such a negative, pitying light throughout the story.

The one interesting aspect to Silent War’s writing is that each issue is written from the perspective of a different character, not unlike chapters from A Song of Ice and Fire. Most are Inhumans and most are pretty boring, like Crystal who gets zero agency outside of her jerk ex-husband Quicksilver and mysterious daughter Luna, and Medusa, Black Bolt’s wife and confidant who spends her entire issue having an emotional affair with Black Bolt’s evil brother Maximus.

silent war #5Eventually the humans, lead by Maria Hill, begin experimenting with using Terrigenesis on humans, creating temporary super soldiers with a very limited life span. The Inhumans launch a full scale attack and the Mighty Avengers are soon called to defend against them, finally giving us a satisfying battle in issue #5.

The Inhumans send in a dimensional hopping member (they’re like mutants in that they can have all kinds of interesting and random powers) to free the captured team from the first issue and retrieve the crystals. The Sentry purposefully sits out of the entire fight – credit to him for believing giving them the crystals back would stop the war.

It’s not that simple, however, and the pentagon orders the newly created super soldiers to invade the Inhuman city of Attilan, currently located on the moon. Another battle takes place that’s over way too quickly, and one of the soldiers sets off a major bomb, destroying much of the city. From the ashes Black Bolt’s manipulative brother rises, having seduced Medusa and others with his ‘powers of suggestion.’ The whole thing ends in a very weird place, with only Black Bolt and Luna immune to Maximus’ will, and the evil brother seemingly becoming the new leader of the Inhumans.

As a follow-up to Son of M, Silent War does explore the war that’s so impressively teased at the end of that series, but it takes so long to get going that the majority of the story is just boring. The Inhumans’ meeting with Quicksilver is dumb and pointless (though I enjoyed the mini-guest starring by X-Factor’s Layla and Jamie). The standard Inhumans’ infighting is limited to Maximus’s effortless rise to power, and the first four issues are just a slow plod to get to the invasion that’s over in a single issue.

Worst of all is the odd art style. Characters are washed out and tiny in every frame, and I wished the cover artist had been used to do the actual comic, as a good (or at least decent) art style can certainly save a mediocre story. With both story and art being so disappointing, it’s difficult to recommend Silent War to all but the biggest Inhuman fans.

silent war #6

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Black Panther (2005), Vol. 4-5

T’Challa and his new temporary team of half the Fantastic Four are dropped into increasingly insane scenarios and situations that range from crazy stupid to crazy 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!

black panther cover four the hard wayWriter: Reginald Hudlin

Artist: Francis Portela

Issues: Black Panther (2005) #26-34

The young but resolute Wakandian king went through a flurry of activity in the previous two volumes: a largely publicized but loving marriage to Storm of the X-Men, joining with Captain America and the anti-SRA rebels in the Civil War, and going on a globe-trotting political world tour to several major powers and factions.

Unfortunately these next two volumes illustrate that nobody really knows what to do with Black Panther when there’s not a major crossover event happening for him to join and lend his incredible resources. Reginald Hudlin puts T’Challa and his new temporary team of half the Fantastic Four in increasingly insane scenarios and situations that range from crazy stupid to crazy fun.

In “Four the Hard Way” (#26-30) T’Challa and Ororo join the Fantastic Four as the new husband-wife replacements for Reed and Sue (who are taking a little vacation after their spat during the Civil War). I don’t read Fantastic Four, and issue #27 takes place after an arc in FF that leaves the group with these weird golden teleporting frogs. A monstrous insect figure breaks out of Stark’s Negative Zone prison and terrorizes the Baxter Building, and the team gets teleported away during the fight.

black panther #26

They land on a skrull planet in the crazy alternate Marvel Zombies Universe. I don’t mind zombies but there’s a weird disconnect with the gore-less Marvel. Also the zombies were far more verbose than I had assumed they would be, making it more silly and dumb than anything. For my first foray into the Marvel Zombies, it was not great, and we spend far too much time with them as they eat all the poor skrulls.

“Little Green Men” (#31-34) starts with the tiresome mind-fuck villain of Psycho Man that gets into T’Challa’s head, but his love for Storm is too strong to turn them against each other. Cheesy, sure, but I do appreciate their genuinely solid relationship.

black panther #32The story picks up considerably as the frogs teleport them again – this time to the correct universe but a different planet. A skrull planet that has modeled itself after 30s era gangsters on one half, and 60 eras Civil Rights movement on the other.

Apparently the Fantastic Four have been here before, and Thing fought in the gladiatorial battles. Just to recap – alien world with anachronistic prohibition era gangsters in flying cars with alien gladiators. Most of the team is captured save for Storm, who joins up with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to lead the revolution. It’s completely insane and wacky, but at least a lot more fun and interesting than the zombie thing.

Francis Portela’s style isn’t bad but it’s mostly forgettable. The bright colors and lack of shading fit the tone of the light-hearted silliness of their alternate world/universe adventures, though it also exacerbates the problem with the Avenger Zombies. The action sequences are a lot of fun though, particuarly T’Challa fighting in the alien arena, and the team fighting the skrull (and later skrull-zombified) Fantastic Four. Storm is also given several opportunities to unleash the awesome destructive potential of her powers, and it’s pretty damn satisfying.

Both volumes are incredibly forgettable and pretty dumb. It’s a disappointing follow-up to what I thought was an increase in Black Panther becoming more of a major character in the wider Marvel Universe. Joining the Fantastic Four is an interesting move, but immediately puts them in situations that remind me why I don’t read FF – silly plots (even for comic standards) involving alternate universes and golden teleporting frogs that may or may not be malevolent. As far as solo series go, Black Panther is becoming increasingly skippable. This whole series would only last another six issues, ending during the 2008 crossover event Secret Invasion.

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.

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.