Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Annihilation: Conquest

If Annihilation made me a fan of Marvel’s cosmic universe, then Annihilation: Conquest sealed that marriage and my love of these characters and the outstanding creative team of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.

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!

Annihilation conquest omnibusWriters: Dan Abentt, Andy Lanning, Christos Gage, Keith Giffen, Javier Grillo-Marxuach

Artists: Mike PerkinsPaul Pelletier, Tom Raney, Timothy Green, Mike Lilly, Kyle Hotz, Sean Chen

Issues: Annihilation: Conquest Prologue, Annihilation: Conquest – Star-Lord #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest – Quasar #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest – Wraith #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest #1-6, Nova #1-12, Nova Annual #1

 

Large-scale, blockbuster sequels are not solely in the realm of Hollywood movies. After the successful kick-start to Marvel’s cosmic universe via the epic Annihilation event in 2006-07, Marvel immediately responded with an equally epic and far-reaching special event called Annihilation: Conquest (2007-08). Building upon the characters and consequences from Annihilation, Conquest manages to be the rare sequel that keeps up with and even in many ways surpasses its predecessor thanks to superior limited series tie-ins, fantastic and consistent art, and a Game of Thrones-style plot with multiple cosmic heroes on varying missions to stop Ultron and the Phalanx.

In terms of these Final Thoughts I’ll be covering the entire event, as I did with Annihilation. That’s 30+ issues! A new omnibus (releasing this Summer) includes the ridiculous amount of issues I listed above, yet like its predecessor it’s still a refreshingly self-contained event compared to the Earth-bound stuff like Civil War. So strap yourselves in for my biggest Marvel Comics Final Thoughts yet!

The only ongoing series that was born out of Annihilation was a new Nova solo-series. The first two volumes (12 issues + annual) tie in to Annihilation: Conquest, and they’re utterly fantastic. Nova (Richard Rider) quickly evolved from a hero I really hadn’t even heard of (being completely unaware of most Marvel Cosmic stuff before I read Annihilation) to one of my new favorite Marvel heroes. He’s selfless, brave, and compassionate. Like the MCU Captain America, he also exemplifies the average human who was given extraordinary powers, and uses them solely to help others.

He’s also the last surviving member of the Nova Corp after the galactic peace-keeping armada was completely obliterated by the Annihilation Wave. In the process he absorbed the consciousness/super computer of the Xandarian Worldmind – basically his JARVIS that constantly gives him advice, berates him, and generally acts as a fun foil and unwitting partner in their galactic adventures.

Nova #3

In his first issue Nova is trying his best to be a one-man army, zipping around the universe with his boosted powers from the Worldmind, helping refugee colonies and defeating pockets of annihilation forces. Finally he pushes himself to near exhaustion, and Worldmind suggests he take a little break and return to earth.

Issues #2-3 are technically labeled as Initiative tie-ins, syncing them up with the post-Civil War era of Marvel continuity. In other words when Nova returns to say hi to his parents (who are not too pleased to see him), Iron Man shows up at his door and gives him 24 hours to register. Nova catches up on the Civil War shenanigans, and it’s a fun perspective to see such a major event reduced to a blip when compared to the insane galaxy-destroying event that Nova was just a part of.

Nova gets to talk a bit to his former New Warriors teammates and even briefly fights the Thunderbolts. He quickly realizes that Earth is not the place for him and returns to his life in space where things make sense, in their own way.

Issues #4-7 directly involve the events of Annihilation: Conquest, or at least the prologue. In the prologue issue Peter Quilll a.k.a. Star-Lord, man (Who?) arrives on the Kree Homeworld of Hala to upload a new defense system. The Kree want to be more pro-active in preventing anything like Annihilus’ sudden and devastating invasion from happening again. Unfortunately for everyone the system is really the Phalanx in disguise – a technorganic race that’s obsessed with assimilating everyone into its ranks.

The Phalanx’s invasion of Hala is nearly instantaneous as citizens either run or quickly become assimilated (denoted in this case by static-colored eyes and yellow-outlined dialogue bubbles). The prologue does a great job setting up the immediate threat of the Phalanx along with the various lead-in mini-series of Star-Lord, Quasar, and Wraith. A forcefield is erected around Kree space, keeping everyone in and out and while the Phalanx spreads and builds, leaving a nice sense of urgency and desperation to our few heroes caught inside.

Nova is busy responding to the Kree distress call when the forcefield is created. He’s forced to flee to prevent becoming infected in the battle, and runs headlong into the new forcefield before he can stop. Critically injured he falls to a remote Kree outpost on another planet that had been stranded since the Annihilation War. Reduced to a smoking crater, the Worldmind actually abandons ship and gives its power to another – Ko-Rel, the captain and leader of the survivors.

nova #10 coverWhile Nova is healed by the Kree medical facilities, the newly minted Nova Prime Ko-Rel immediately has her work cut out for her as a small war party of Phalanx attack the outpost, lead by an infected Gamora. Gamora acts as the primary antagonist throughout Nova’s volumes, an interesting twist considering their former romantic and competitive history.

Gamora sneaks into the medical lab while Ko-Rel fights off the Phalanx, murders a bunch of poor Kree soldiers and kisses Richard Rider, infecting him with the Transmode Virus that turns people into slaves of the Phalanx. Interestingly, we find out later that the Phalanx purposefully leave in a modicum of free will, as they find that organic life is much more willing to accept assimilation and be more effective if they have it. Considering most of our advantages over such robot/hive-mind type enemies are our free will, it’s a frightening though that the Phalanx are willing to be so adaptive.

Worldmind freaks out and orders Ko-Rel to now go kill Nova so the Phalanx can’t get their hands on it. The two have a fun battle of dueling rocket-powered people before it looks like Ko-Rel has the upper hand – before she’s stabbed in the back by Gamora. I was pretty bummed as they were giving just enough backstory and personality to make Ko-Rel a likable character, and I was hoping she’d become the first recruit to the new Nova Corps.

Instead her death releases the rest of the Worldmind back to Nova, where its able to put the virus in remission and allow him to regain control. Fly away, Nova! Gamora continues her hunt along with fellow Phalanx-infected warrior Drax. Drax unfortunately suffers from Too Many Characters syndrome (see Game of Thrones). His role is greatly diminished from the previous cosmic event into Gamora’s partner in hunting Nova.

In Nova’s second volume, “Knowhere,” Rider had opened an emergency stargate to escape the forcefield, and ended up at the edge of the universe. Specifically the gigantic celestial head of a dead god known as Knowhere (seen in the 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy film). The first few issues chronicle Nova’s little side adventure in Knowhere, involving an evil zombifying creature known as Abyss and an Avengers-style team from another planet. It’s a bit of a departure from the ongoing story of Annihilation: Conquest, and indeed Drax and Gamora don’t even catch up to Nova until he leaves.

nova #8

“Knowhere” introduces us to the best Marvel character ever – Cosmo, the thickly Russian-accented telepathic half Labrador/half Golden Retriever mix. Yup, a talking dog in a little space outfit. In his first ever appearance Cosmo is hilarious and wonderful (and surprisingly powerful) and I was devastated that he didn’t become a permanent sidekick of Nova’s, opting instead to remain on Knowhere where he’ll become an awesome addition to the Guardians of the Galaxy series that launches after Annihilation: Conquest. You’re the best, Cosmo.

From Cosmo Nova learns the location of the home planet of the Technarchy, the race that created the Phalanx. At this point the virus has been wrecking havoc on Nova’s systems, and it’s taking more and more of the Worldmind’s power to keep it at bay (leaving Nova weaker and weaker). The sense of urgency and hopelessness reaches a tense level of crescendo just as Nova reaches the nearly abandoned planet of Kvch.

If you’re reading Nova on Marvel Unlimited, make sure you read the Nova Annual issue between #10 and #11, it’s really fantastic. The Annual provides both a fun backstory or Nova’s origin as well as a What If that catapults us decades into the future as Nova, with a new Nova Corp armada, attempts to liberate a fully infected Earth from the Phalanx.

nova annual

The whole issue ends up being a mindfuck as the virus was fully attempting to gain control by attacking Richard’s mind, and was a wonderfully emotional and informative ride. Likewise issue #10 is also a bit isolated as it centers on Nova’s and Gamora’s relationship as the two fight their way out of a cosmic monster that’s eaten them on their way to Kvch. Their love-hate camaraderie is intensified thanks to Gamora’s constant “give in to the Phalanx” spiel. I like Gamora as a character but I can’t say I’m a fan of her ridiculous bathing suit outfit that barely covers up the naughty bits. Cool hooded cape though.

Dying on Kvch with the virus taking hold things look bleak for our hero when a blast from the past is able to heal him. Warlock, technarch and former member of the New Warriors welcomes Nova to his home planet. Having never read New Warriors I actually recognized the character from that one episode of X-Men: The Animated Series that also involved a Phalanx invasion. Warlock is on Kvch having found and raised a child, attempting to impart the more pacifist style that Warlock’s mutant strain (and time on Earth) had imprinted upon him.

Nova tries to get Warlock to aid him and help fight the Phlanx but he refuses. Gamora and Drax catch up only to be turned into a spire and summon an elder Technarch to the planet, a giant and powerful monstrosity. Nova tries to keep it at bay while the others escape. Warlock sacrifices himself to fully heal Nova of the virus that had been killing him since issue #5 while his son Tryo escapes, only to return and charge right at the monster. The plan works and Tyro takes over the creature’s body, restoring Warlock, Gamora, and Drax back to full health and free of the virus. Healed and bolstered with new allies, Nova and company return to Kree space to mount an assault on Hala.

nova #12All of this happens concurrently with the events of Annihilation: Conquest’s lead-in mini-series and event itself. Nova’s issues can be read independently as he only shows up in the final issue of Conquest. By giving him his own side adventures while still tying it altogether with the greater event, Nova’s series becomes an exciting ride that gets to keep the desperation surrounding the event while expanding the Marvel Cosmic Universe into new and exciting places. Both Knowhere and Kvch are fun new locations, and it was wonderful meeting new characters like Cosmo and seeing old characters like Warlock used in meaningful and logical ways.

But wait, there’s more! Like Annihilation before it, Conquest includes several four-issue limited series based on the major characters of the event that take place between the Prologue and the event itself. Unlike Annihilation, they’re all pretty good!

Annihilation: Conquest – Star-Lord begins with Peter Quill’s recovery from having been brutally attacked on Hala during the invasion. The Kree resistance patches him up, removes all his goofy cyberware, and tasks with him taking a team of criminals and prisoners into the heart of the Phalanx spire to destroy it from the inside. Star-Lord recruits his team that would eventually become the Guardians of the Galaxy later on. For now it consists of Bug, Mantis, Deathcry, Rocket Racoon, Groot, and Captain Universe.

The team goes through the typical drama of folks of wildly different backgrounds being thrust together. Deathcry is even killed by friendly fire from Captain Universe as she goes feral for, to put it in gamer terms, kill-stealing. The series is action-packed but the art isn’t very good and I didn’t find the overall plot all that interesting. It mostly serves to introduce us to this freedom-fighting team on Hala and it’s surprisingly the weakest of the mini-series.

Quasar’s series centers around Phyla-Vell, daughter of Mar-Vell, the former cosmic hero Captain Marvel. I’m wholly unaware of her family’s adventures and drama but thankfully the series focuses less on her history and more on her present situation. Adorned with the powerful quantum bands she had taken from Annihilus at the end of Annihilation (can you tell you really have to read Annihilation first), the new Quasar and her lover Moondragon (Heather Douglas, daughter of Drax and powerful telepath) live in a secluded temple in Kree space. When the Phalanx attack, she’s given a mysterious message to find the savior.

Quasar and Moondragon’s quest quickly resembles a Dungeons and Dragons style adventure as they fight giant space monsters and help defend outposts from the Phalanx. During a particular exciting moment, Heather’s incessant headaches reach a climax during a pitched battle, and she permanent transforms into a literal dragon! The plot isn’t too heavy though we are given a fun villain in the form of a Phalanx-infected Super Adaptoid, a robotic foe that can mimic the abilities of any of the Avengers.

quasar #4

Phyla-Vell’s quantum bands are running out of power thanks to the forcefield cutting her off from the Universe’s energy, give a nice sense of desperation that I enjoyed from Nova. The real treat, however, comes from the incredibly fun artwork. Seemingly more suited for a fantasy epic rather than a comic space opera, artist Mike Lilly does a fantastic job drawing giant two-page spreads of exciting battles and events.

The plot does become integral to setting up Conquest as Quasar and Moondragon defeat the Adaptoid and awaken Adam Warlock, the supremely powerful cosmic being that’s gone toe-to-toe with Thanos, and plays an important role in the upcoming liberation.

With the third lead-in Marvel attempted to introduce an entirely new character – Wraith. Wraith could be described as Goth Clint Eastwood. Looking like a vampire-dark elf wearing a poncho, he’s got a powerful weapon that can change form and a motorcycle that flies through space. Basically he’s that dorky kind of cool that was very prevalent in the 90s, but doesn’t seem entirely out of place here.

His backstory as an orphaned child is uninteresting and his powerset of a weird negative fear energy is confusing. Luckily his comic quickly throws him headfirst into the Phalanx and the war on Hala, making his lead-in the most directly involved in the grand event. He’s captured and tortured by the Phalanx-infected Ronan, then breaks free and escapes with Annihilation stars Super-Skrull and Paxagoria. The three of them join up with the resistance on Hala to mount a full on attack on the Phalanx armada. Their goal – to stop Ronan and the Phalanx from sending out a psychic wave (from their semi-dead god/super computer) that will shut down all the Kree.

wraith #3

Wraith is a goofy character who even has the black dialogue boxes a la Venom, but his supporting cast is fun. The mini-series is almost as much about Ronan as it is Wraith, as we see him struggle with enslavement and the semi-freedom he’s afforded. It ends up being another fun, short, action-packed story, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it.

And now, finally, we reach the main six issue event. Annihilation: Conquest’s first issue ends with a massive HOLY CRAP moment, as it’s revealed that the mastermind behind the Phalanx’s sudden power upgrades and efficiency is none other than Earth-born Ultron! Considering my previous experience with Ultron was when he awkwardly took over Iron Man’s body and turned female in Mighty Avengers, I was pleased to see him in full traditional robot regalia, and menacing as all hell.

annihilation conquest #1 ultronThroughout the adventure our various groups that were introduced in the lead-ins are separated and all fighting the war in their own way. Star-Lord and the proto-Guardians team remain on Hala as an insurgency force, pretty much fighting Phalanx forces nonstop. Wraith, along with the freed Ronan and the rest of their group travel to a world that had been ceded to the remaining Annihilation forces to ask their former foes to join with them against the Phalanx. Quasar and company meet up with the High Evolutionary (who created Adam Warlock) and end up directly battling Ultron on several occasions. Nova has his own crazy adventures as he searches for a cure to the virus.

There’s a lot going on and interestingly none of their paths actually cross until the final issue or two. Like their lead-ins, Star-Lord’s story is again probably the least interesting, as they continue the good fight on Hala. They do manage to take down the giant spire with a plan involving Groot growing to massive proportions and then blowing up. The team is given only the bare minimum of growth and character development, and Peter Quill is just not a super interesting character yet. The team is also given the role of Most Character Deaths to make the situation more dire, as the incredibly dorky Captain Universe goes down, while Mantis is severely injured (and the aforementioned Groot explosion).

Quasar’s adventures become the most interesting. The High Evolutionary is a powerful figure in the Marvel Universe, neither good nor evil but very interested in biology. There’s a large battle when Ultron attacks, and he ends up punching Moondragon through the chest as she dives to protect Phyla-Vell. Noooo! I loved that character, but it’s nice to see a villain that actually kills people (at least to the extent that people can be killed in comics).

Near the end Ultron is able to get the High Evolutionary to help him download himself into Adam Warlock’s body, creating a near unstoppable union of robotic and organic abilities. This new view of organic life being useful instead of loathed by Ultron and the Phalanx is what makes them so formidable and frightening.

annihilation conquest #6 endIt all comes down to an exciting finale as Nova shows up in the nick of time. Warlock (the afro-sporting technarch dude) infects Ultron with the mutant virus strain that makes him unique, shutting him out of Adam Warlock’s body. Ronan and company then screw everything up by planning on taking Hala down to wipe the Phalanx out using a virus-proofed sentry army, but it goes horribly wrong, Paxagoria is taken over and killed by Ultron, and he proceeds to add the sentries to his body, growing massive in size.

In the end it takes a combination of Adam Warlock harnessing the freed souls of Hala (freed by the spire’s destruction), Wraith using his weird energy trapping powers, and Quasar focusing the souls into her Diablo-esque energy sword and killing Ultron. Yep, Quasar gets the killing blow. Seeing as she lost the person most important to her, it was a satisfying moment of badass revenge.

As a direct sequel to Annihilation, Conquest does kind of rehash the concept of a group of disparate heroes fighting against an unstoppable force. It would also be tricky to jump into it without first reading Annihilation, as most of the characters and the overall situation of the universe are directly referenced throughout. Ultimately I found Annihilation: Conquest even more satisfying than its predecessor, and one of my favorite Marvel events.

The multiple story approach remains logical and exciting, showing the devastating events from multiple angles and situations. The lead-ins are also very well done, and unlike Annihilation are all pretty integral into the main story. As the sole extra series tie-in Nova is probably the best part of the whole experience, which is not usually the case for solo character tie-ins. Ultron is a fantastic villain with logical motivations and suitably menacing dialogue and even more enigmatic characters like Adam Warlock are explained well enough to bring newer Marvel Cosmic converts like myself up to speed.

If Annihilation made me a fan of Marvel’s cosmic universe, then Annihilation: Conquest sealed that marriage and my love of these characters and the outstanding creative team of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Now, bring on the Guardians of the Galaxy!

annihilation conquest #2

Shadowrun 5E “Road Rage” Session 4 Report

Our runners fight off a pack of ghouls in some dark tunnels and finally make it to the docks where drama on how to get in ensues.

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

Read “Road Rage” Session 1 Report
Read “Road Rage” Session 2 Report
Read “Road Rage” Session 3 Report

Thus far in our sophomore adventure combat has been a major focus. Each scene has revolved around a big encounter as my runners make their perilous journey to the docks in downtown Seattle. I’ve attempted to give each battle a very different feel and situation, from a hostage crisis to a chase scene on a highway to a creepy ghoul infestation in some darkened tunnels.

This session began just as the ghouls began attacking my players after they’d cleared the blockage for their vehicles. I rolled Initiative for both the few ghouls that the players had discovered as well that ones still to come, hidden via the GM layer. I rolled sneak checks for each hidden ghoul and gave the players a chance to spot them. The idea was to give a sense of dread and foreboding as more and more of the creatures approached from the darkness. Unfortunately once combat began I couldn’t roll worth shit!

Road Rage Scene 3 tunnel combat

Seriously, I probably had my worst rolls ever as a GM during this lengthy combat encounter that lasted a good two hours (nearly the entire length of our session). Ghouls were my players’ first real encounter with a feral monster-type enemy. As a GM they’re pretty easy to control even with nearly a dozen of them, simply charging at the nearest foe with their claws. I’ve never seen so many ties in my life. So many Ghouls connected with the runners’ armor only to bounce off. It was becoming an ongoing joke!

The ghouls’ main strengths lie in their surprisingly high attack roll and their numbers, neither of which did much good with my rolling. My runners, meanwhile were able to almost completely slaughter them using teamwork and coordination, especially the Falkirk- Saran pair that was on the South (left) side of the tunnel. The players did have an edge with having their two NPC allies that I controlled, one of whom was completely worthless while the other got two one-hit-kills by herself – wow. Ironic that my best rolls were for the players’ ally.

The one nasty outcome was that Ursev, the troll shaman, was rendered unconscious thanks to continued spellcasting drain and the few hits I was able to get with the pack of ghouls on the North side. Mauta the street samurai was able to use her First Aid (and a point of Edge) to revive him back to consciousness, and I let the players heal a bit of stun damage as they continued their journey out of the tunnels and into the docks.

Road Rage Scene 4 docks entrance

I was pleased to see that the tunnel combat didn’t take up the entirety of the session, though it came close. Combat can be fun in its own way, but as a GM I very much enjoyed the sudden drama that cropped up at the end as my players frantically deliberated on how to approach the heavily guarded entrance to the dockyard.

Mauta chose this opportunity to reveal more of her dangerous past with Ares, whom the players were attempting to sell the shipment to. At the same time Saran the decker impulsively leapt across the shipping containers, over the barbed wire fence and landing on the other side. That one is probably going to be saddled with some kind of ‘loose cannon’ Negative Quality very soon!

We ended it just as a plan was seemingly being put together, even though team leader Falkirk was wholly unaware of it! I absolutely love these unexpected moments of panic, drama, and deliberation – the kind of fantastic questioning and role-playing that can only be born from a live game in the middle of the action. Next week’s session should be very interesting, and should mark the end of our runners’ action-packed escort mission.

New Article – Survival Games Without the Horror

Exploring a new genre on the rise – single player Survival Games that emphasize exploration and crafting instead of hordes of monsters or other players.

Read my full article on Pixelkin.org >>

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Minecraft’s incredible popularity and unique gameplay mechanics have spawned entirely new genres of games. Some games, like Terraria and Starbound, take the world-crafting and multiplayer aspects of Minecraft in new directions. Others focus more on surviving against the world by discovering resources and building your own tools.

Survival games rarely explore the human vs. nature conflict. Most first-person games pit you against hordes of zombies, aliens, or the occasionally terrifying zombie alien. Your survival is directly proportional to the floating gun in front of you. Thankfully the genre has grown and expanded to include a variety of experiences. All use gameplay mechanics and concepts birthed from Minecraft. One quick glance at Steam’s store reveals dozens of options that rely more on surviving against nature than hordes of undead.

I’ve found two that are particularly intriguing. Stranded Deep and Subnautica are indie games that are part of the Early Access program.

Read my full article on Pixelkin.org >>

Shadowrun 5E “Road Rage” Session 3 Report

Our adventures continue as our players fend off a troll biker gang in a high-speed chase, then flee to some abandoned tunnels and run into even more danger.

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

Read “Road Rage” Session 1 Report
Read “Road Rage” Session 2 Report

A lot can go wrong with video capturing and live streaming. I suppose I’ve been lucky thus far to run into a minimum of issues. Unfortunately fate reared its ugly head during last night’s session: my streaming program Open Broadcaster Software crashed multiple times and ended up corrupting over half the recorded video. Ironically I was disconnected at one point, which forced a reconnect and seemed to fix my issue, leaving us with at least some video – a good 45 minutes worth in fact. Thus the above video represents the second half of our adventure last night, with the first half (most of the highway battle) lost to to the ether.

But you can always read about it here! Our third session in the “Road Rage” adventure picked up right in the middle of the exciting highway chase combat scene that had unfolded at the end of last week’s session. My players had to fend off half a dozen troll bikers with mounted AK’s and zero interest in talking.

I had our missing player from last week roll Initiative along with the rest, and a forced Pilot Ground Craft test put him right in the thick of the battle on a stolen motorcycle. The combat reached some much more interesting outcomes as one of the troll bikers leapt from his bike onto the armored truck to set a demolition charge, while another succeeded in a Cut-Off chase maneuver, forcing my NPC truck driver, Crank, to make an emergency test. He failed and slammed into a car in front of him, spinning that poor car into the guardrail, doing further damage to the truck and losing speed.

The players continued to take shots at the trolls and were slowly gaining some ground. After all the heavy attacks on the truck, a panicked Crank suggested they need to get off the highway and flee to the abandoned tunnels to escape the gang. At that point the gang was reduced to only two trolls, and as I anticipated the players were reticent to suddenly change course. That’s when more troll gangers appeared on the opposite side of the highway, read to cross over at the next median break and join the fray.

shadowrun troll biker

I definitely wanted to create a tense action-packed atmosphere, and make the situation dangerous and dire enough to warrant the players essentially fleeing the battlefield despite their steady progress. The players themselves had taken hardly any damage but both vehicles had taken a toll, and I emphasized the danger of the damaged truck continuing at these speeds.

The players agreed, and fled to the nearby tunnels using a GM-directed ‘cutscene’. The tunnels were almost the antithesis of the highway – slow and spooky. Light and visibility suddenly became a big factor, and I quickly found that my players grew frustrated with the overbearing Fog of War. Considering I can use the GM layer to hide creatures and objects, it was probably a bit much.

The way forward was blocked by a broken down truck, and it was a fun opportunity for the players to divvy up what they wanted to do – some kept watch, some helped move the truck, and others explored the dark corners of the tunnel. I made sure to constantly ask what everyone was doing, as an attack was imminent.

Road Rage Scene 3 tunnel

The session ended just as a lone ghoul approached from the edge of the tunnel, while another pair of players stumbled upon a pair of them in a dark hole. Going straight from one non-negotiable combat scenario to another may prove a bit too much, but I’m hoping they provide such varying experiences as to remain enjoyable as our players continue their hard-fought journey.

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

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-Factor: The Complete Collection Vol. 2

This second volume ends up as a mixed bag, faltering in the middle but then ending with a fantastic story at the end, giving me high hopes for X-Factor’s future.

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

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


x-factor volume 2Writer:
 Peter David

Artists: Pablo Raimondi (#13-17, 21-24, 28, 31, The Quick and the Dead), Koi Pham (#18-20), Valentine De Landro (#29-30, 32, Layla Miller)

Issues: X-Factor #13-24, 28-32, X-Factor: The Quick and the Dead One-Shot, X-Factor: Layla Miller One-Shot

 

X-Factor’s first twelve issues, collected as The Complete Collection Vol. 1 was a resounding success. Peter David’s quirky team is immensely varied and entertaining and the overarching plot of the mysterious and evil corporation that exploited mutants provided a great hook and a satisfying conclusion.

The team’s adventures continued in a second large collected volume, though it awkwardly includes issues before and after the major X-Men crossover event Messiah Complex. In the “Many Lives of Madrox,” (#13-16) Jamie continues his quest to reabsorb the numerous dupes he’s sent out in the world. Many of have them have been living varied lives for years, including a SHIELD agent that gets Jamie captured by Hydra, with hilarious results.

My favorite duplicate had carved himself a nice quiet life as a pastor with a wife and two kids, and Jamie’s sudden intrusion into this life creates some lovely drama. Ultimately Jamie makes the right decision to let it be, but the implications that his dupes have created these meaningful lives is part of why I find his mutant power and his personality so interesting.

x-factor #16There’s also an ongoing side story involving the rest of the team and X-Cell, a mutant terrorist group full of ex-mutants, and that story hits center stage in the next arc, “X-Cell” (#17-20). Quicksilver joins up with the leader to start handing out his power-restoring terrigen crystals he stole from the Inhumans in Son of M. The plot eventually reaches its climax as X-Factor attacks them to rescue Rictor and Layla (the latter doesn’t really need rescuing, she knows stuff).

There’s a few fun battles but straight-forward action has never been X-Factor’s strong suit, and unfortunately the art takes a huge nose dive when a different artist takes over (thankfully only for that arc). It’s fun seeing Rahne/Wolfsbane go full berserker wolf-mode, though.

In “The Isolationist” (#21-24), X-Factor is approached by a mysterious figure known as Josef Huber, an isolated telepath that takes drug to quiet the voices in his heads. Oh, and apparently he has every mutant power. He wishes to put mutants on the endangered species list, forcing the government to protect them and possibly overturning the superhero registration act. In reality he just wants to gather them together to kill them all, so the telepaths will no longer drive him crazy.

Huber’s a surprisingly interesting villain, and Peter David opts to write the last two issues from his perspective (with copious amounts of noir-appropriate monologuing) in lieu of a backstory, and it works quite well. Unfortunately things wrap up far too swiftly  after a lengthy build-up, and in the end Huber escapes after a brief battle with the depowered but oddly immune Rictor.

“The Only Game in Town” (#28-32) takes place after the mega crossover event X-Men: Messiah Complex. Messiah Complex is absolutely critical reading to know what the new situation is for X-Factor, namely: Jamie now has a tattooed “M” over his right eye as a souvenir from his time traveling sojourn, quirky clairvoyant Layla Miller is trapped in a dystopian future where mutants are put in concentration camps, and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane) is leaving X-Factor to join X-Force.

The entire arc is put under the “Divided We Stand” era that is the X-Men and associates’ post-Messiah Complex fallout. Given that Messiah Complex is fairly integral to X-Factor’s story moving forward, it’s strange that this second collected volume would include issues all around it. Provided you’ve read it, however, this epilogue story arc is just fantastic, and really shows off Peter David’s incredible skills as a writer. The art remains fantastically shadowy and mostly consistent, despite the workload trading off between two artists.

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Since our small cast is now smaller than ever, we get even more time to delve into their lives and relationships. Siryn’s pregnant with Jamie’s child! Guido turns down the O*N*E’s job offer. Rictor is fully prepared to quit on X-Factor after Rahne quits on him. It’s delicious character-focused drama that gets interrupted when X-Factor is attacked by Arcade, who was in turn hired by the Purifier that Rictor duped to infiltrate the organization during Messiah Complex.

The team quickly comes together and goes into full on crisis mode after Arcade sets off a series of bombs while trapping all of Mutant Town in a fiery forcefield. It’s fun seeing them all react and save people, and Madrox’s ongoing (and excellent) inner monologue reinforces the fact that a crisis brings them together when they needed it most. The arc ends in an uplifting theme as they celebrate the pregnancy and leave Mutant Town before O*N*E’s Valerie Cooper can arrest or forcibly register them.

Two one-shots are also included, The Quick and the Dead and Layla Miller, both written by Peter David. The Quick and the Dead centers on Quicksilver’s incarceration and subsequent escape after the events of “X-Cell.” I’ve grown incredibly sick of Quicksilver’s self-pitying, selfish, and frankly evil behavior ever since the House of M. Seeing him having a mental breakdown in prison wasn’t exactly riveting, and the strange and sudden return of his speed powers was just confusing and weird.

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Layla Miller is much more interesting, but no less confusing as it takes place in the 80 year, dystopian future that Layla had become trapped in. She escapes from the concentration camp in a supremely funny and suitable manner (falling space debris!) then goes to visit future-cyborg Cyclops and his daughter Ruby. Yeah, I was lost too. Layla manages to incite an entire rebellion against the mutant-oppressive government. I’m not entirely sure if any of it matters but it’s fun seeing Layla be Layla, and I hope she can rejoin the team soon.

This second volume ends up as a mixed bag compared to the first, faltering in the middle but then ending with a supremely fantastic story at the end, giving me high hopes for X-Factor’s future. The cast is so damn likable and the writing comes across like one of your favorite comedy-drama TV shows. Still one of my favorite comic series to read.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Moon Knight (2006), Vol. 1-2

For a blatant Batman knock-off, Moon Knight is surprisingly interesting and enjoyable as it delves head-first into psychological issues and bloody violence.

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!

moon knight the bottomWriter: Charlie Huston

Artists: David Finch (#1-8), Mico Suayan (#9-12), Tomm Coker (#13)

Issues: Moon Knight (2006), #1-13

 

“Where to?”
“The city.”
“What do we look for?”
“Trouble.”

Despite thinking of myself as a Batman fan, I’ve barely read any actual Batman comics. I grew up with the early 90s, award-winning Batman: The Animated Series, not to mention the rise of Tim Burton’s Batman films and most recently the fantastic Batman Arkham games. The rich guy with all the toys and a traumatic past devotes his life to being a hero – who doesn’t like Batman? Even Marvel wanted to get in on that, and thus Moon Knight was born.

I’d never even heard of Moon Knight until he was listed as a playable character in Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Surprisingly created back in the 70s, the character enjoyed his first solo series in the 80s and throughout the 90s, never reaching the massive success of his DC counterpart. And make no mistake, Moon Knight is very much a Batman rip-off – he’s got the money, the underground lair, the moon-shaped weapons and vehicles. He operates at night and primarily takes out street criminals, and he enjoys making a statement and causing fear and pain even more than rescuing people.

In 2006 a new Moon Knight series was launched for the first time in years, chronicling the character’s return to action after a crippling attack with a villain. As a jumping on point it’s a bit heavy and confusing, layered in with lots of backstory and character details regarding Marc Spector, his past, and his allies and enemies.

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The actual story is told in a supremely cool, gritty, and dark style. At the end of issue #1 it’s revealed that the action-packed opening scene was really just  Marc Spector reminiscing while he lay in a wheelchair popping pills and wallowing in self-pity. Psychological torture is a major theme of the series as Marc wrestles with who he is and whether or not his moon god is real or just a part of his fractured psyche.

Marc’s legs were blown out during a nasty encounter with Raoul Bushman, his nemesis and former fellow mercenary from his past. During the horribly blood encounter, which is told through flashbacks, Marc is near death but finds the strength to take Bushman down by ripping his face off with a crescent knife. This becomes a major catalyst for Marc as he begins seeing the horrifyingly faceless Bushman constantly. The grotesque ghoul identifies as Khonshu, the moon god that first resurrected Marc and bestowed his gifts.

Much of the first arc, “The Bottom,” (#1-6) is saddled with setting up Moon Knight’s new status as a retired, former vigilante and his new supporting cast of friends and enemies. Marc doesn’t even wear the costume and become Moon Knight again until issue #6 as he comes to grips with his violent and frankly sadistic personality. The theme of whether or not Marc is crazy is explored throughout, and the consensus seems to be that he’s pretty damn crazy – a surprisingly refreshing take on a Marvel hero.

moon knight #4Moon Knight’s friends and relationships are particularly well done. He still pines for ex-girlfriend Marlene, and his best friend is still his other merc buddy Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul is French and gay, and his supportive relationship with Marc and romantic relationship with another man (who later becomes Marc’s physical therapist) are handled with a refreshing amount of maturity, and given plenty of time to develop and grow.

My favorite character was one that I had to look up on wikipedia what his actual name was – Profile, who can read people instantly, learning their fears, wants, desires, etc. The hilariously quippy, chain-smoking Profile is first used by a shadowy organization who wants to get rid of Moon Knight once and for all, and they act as the primary villains for the first arc. Really though, Marc is his own worst enemy as the focus remains on his own inner demons thanks to the many taunts of faceless not-really-there Bushman.

I loved the dark-but-heroic art by the fantastic David Finch (New Avengers). It presents an effective combination of noir-ish blacks and grays with sharp punctuations of Moon Knight’s white costume. I love the emphasis on extreme close-ups and the use of sweat, tears, blood, and smoke to convey the dark themes. The effects of Profile’s abilities in reading people is also presented in a very clever, fun format as he sees neon words and signs floating around people, literally shaping who they are. Marc Spector is drawn like a chiseled, scarred 80s action-hero, which combined with his violent outbursts and mental breakdowns make him a frightening person for anyone to interact with.

The second volume, featuring the story arc “Midnight Sun,” (#7-12) technically act as tie-ins to the then-ongoing superhero Civil War and afterward the Initiative. Marc (who spends a great deal of the comic series not in costume) is visited by a rotating cast of guest-stars, including Captain America, Iron Man, and Punisher. Mostly it’s a fun way to see how the rest of the Marvel Universe views Moon Knight, and in turn allow Marc to push everyone away and generally be a violent asshole to everyone. It should come as no surprise that he and Punisher have a mostly friendly chat while Punisher is busy murdering people, heh.

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The story falters a bit when it tries to do a Pulp Fiction, out of order narrative involving another villain from Moon Knight’s past. His former sidekick has become the villain Midnight, a very talkative, admittidly funny Joker-type that is obssessed with his former mentor. The later issues all jumble together with Moon Knight finding his lair in the sewers, attacking him, being captured and fighting back all told in a confusing, out or order style. The comic was heavy enough as it is in exploring mental issues and a very unstable protagonist; having to flip back and forth between multiple pages to try and piece the story together was a bit too much.

David Finch unfortunately left after eight issues. The new artist did a reasonable job in replicating the dark, moody style but it wasn’t quite the same. The story wraps up in issue #12 but the volume contains a final one-off in issue #13 with a completely new artist with a very bizarre style. The art becomes impossibly dark and even abstracted in parts, making it quite difficult to discern what is happening in a lot of panels. The story involves Marc going in to register for the Initiative, and it’s a fun example of how Profile’s powers can be used to manipulate others.

For a blatant Batman knock-off, Moon Knight is surprisingly interesting and enjoyable. The singular focus on Marc as a fairly horrible person who happens to be a vigilante is fascinating, and the focus on dark, bloody action separates it from most of the bright and glitzy Marvel fare. Despite some confusing story moments I’m definitely enjoying this series. I look forward to catching up on Moon Knight as apparently he sticks around permanently this time.

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Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – South Park: The Stick of Truth

A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

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: Obsidian Entertainment (with South Park Digital Studios)

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 4, 2014

south-park-the-stick-of-truth

I was slightly late to my South Park fandom. The first season aired back in the ancient era of 1997, and I’d written it off as a silly Beavis and Butthead style adult cartoon. While it was quite silly and full of shock value, I didn’t begin seeing its incredibly clever social commentary and political skewering until several years later. Around the time South Park was in its fifth or sixth season I caught up on all the episodes, and I’ve been a diehard fan ever since.

To say I was looking forward to South Park: The Stick of Truth is a big understatement. Developed by beloved RPG developer Obsidian, they were tasked with directly collaborating with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in creating an epic RPG with the look and feel of the show. Licensed games usually fare poorly in their translation to gaming, but all the previews looked fantastic, and The Stick of Truth made it onto my Most Anticipated Games lists….for 2012, 2013, and 2014!

The game had been stuck in development hell for years after its proud announcement, partly due to the dissolution of then-publisher THQ and its acquisition by Ubisoft. Heavily licensed game plus long, tumultuous development typically results in disaster. I’m pleased to say that not only does South Park: The Stick of Truth defy expectations, but it’s easily one of the best licensed video games ever made.

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From the moment you jump into the character creator the art style and animations completely absorb you into the world of South Park. The show’s unique 2D cutout animation is in full glorious display, and for the first time you can actually walk around and explore the modest open world of the town. Exploring the town of South Park brought me endless joy (and made me pine for a Simpsons-Springfield equivalent game). Everything is right where you think it is, from the South Park Mall to each boys’ cookie-cutter houses in a row.

The initial hook of the story is related to Season 17’s “Black Friday” trilogy, which ended with direct teases to The Stick of Truth. Though South Park goes in some very funny and dark places with its social commentary and pop culture references, my personal favorite episodes are when the kids are play-acting extravagant events and adventures. They juxtapose their incredibly imaginative and increasingly creative adventures with the equally mundane and crazy backdrop of their lives and town.

The Stick of Truth runs with this theme perfectly as most of the kids in town are playing a Dungeons & Dragons style real-world fantasy game using costumes and household objects as weapons. Entire factions are drawn up, war parties are formed, and you as the new kid in town are thrown into the middle of it. In fact, much of the main story missions are heavily inspired from BioWare’s RPGs as you gather allies from other factions such as the goth kids, the kindergartners, and even the girls. Eventually you’re forced to choose a side between Cartman’s humans and Kyle’s elves, though an even darker event causes the boys to join forces in the end.

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Meanwhile you’re free to explore the entire town at you leisure, with only a few locations blocked off Metroidvania-style until you acquire new abilities. The town is a treasure-trove of recognizable locations and hidden goodies, with just the right amount of side quests to add some additional adventuring without overwhelming you with superfluous tasks. I did enjoy collecting friends on Facebook; not only is it fun to find and talk to people but acquiring friends unlocks passive perks.

Loot is everywhere. By halfway through the game I was equipping new weapons and armor sets just about every 15 or 20 minutes, and each one has slots for equipping patches and “strap-ons” to modify them further to suit your needs. It’s an embarrassment of riches and partly lead to the overpowered feeling I quickly gained for most combat encounters.

Combat is designed similarly to Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games. When you run into an enemy, be they ginger kids, hobos, mongorians, or nazi zombies, the game shifts to a turn-based JRPG-style battlefield where you take turns using melee, ranged, magic and special abilities. Your magical abilities, of course, are powerful fart attacks that you acquire throughout the game, and are also used to access new areas in the world.

Combat is supported by active button-prompts, letting you dodge attacks and do more damage with the right timing. Abilities utilize active button prompts in various ways, like spinning the joystick to wind up Butters’ hammer throw, or mashing all the buttons to get Cartman to scream various obscenities when he unleashes his electrical V-Chip powers a la South Park: The Movie.

The emphasis on speed and efficiency over tactical depth matches well with the overall gameplay. That’s not to say there weren’t some deep systems involved. Multiple debuffs and status effects were very important in affecting opponents, such as Grossed Out and Pissed Off, and elemental damage could be added to weapons to further take advantage of a foe’s weakness. Armor and shields also played into the combat; often I had to adjust my strategies and weapon mods depending on the area and enemies I was facing.

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Once I learned the various combat systems I breezed through most encounters without much trouble. At the end of combat both health and power points are fully restored, allowing you to unleash your powers as much as you see fit. Consumables are also incredibly prolific, and since using one doesn’t take up your turn you can quickly pop a health or buffing potion and still attack.

You’re allowed one supportive party member from a familiar roster of the main cast to join you, and not only can you switch them out on the fly, you can switch them out right in the middle of combat. While you can’t change out their equipment, each hero comes with their own abilities, and I found them all to be fairly useful in different situations. Battles go quickly but the animations are so much fun, and the enemy variety decent enough that they remained enjoyable throughout my 15 hour adventure.

The main story takes place over three days, with each day ending in a large event resembling a dungeon crawl. The first day ends with the classic South Park aliens abducting you, complete with lots of anal probing – resulting in a new anal probe satellite dish to teleport to new places. The story goes in all kinds of really fun, really messed up places – very much appropriate to the series. From infiltrating an abortion clinic and fending off an outbreak of nazi zombie fetuses, to fighting underpants gnomes right under your very noisy, very graphic sex-having parents, the game never shies away from the hilarious shock value that the show is infamous for.

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In addition to the many, many references around every corner, dialogue session, and cutscenes the game even adds its own funny jokes, like an incredibly funny on-going gag about Taco Bell as the cover-up to the UFO crash and presenting Canada as a hilariously pixelated 8-bit overworld style map.

It all ends in a fantastic final assault on Clyde’s fortress of doom (a giant tower in his backyard). Throughout several big story missions in the game you’re pitted within the backdrop of an ongoing battle, and I loved how various environmental traps and abilities could be used to affect foes before ever engaging them in combat, sometimes taking whole groups out completely. Seeing the the various kids so passionately involved in their role-playing is pure fun, and the absurdity and seriousness of it all is a fantastic combination that is quintessential South Park. Fans of the show and RPGs rejoice, for we have been blessed with an amazing adaptation.

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Pros

  • Art Style and animations are perfect recreations of the South Park style
  • Just as shocking and hilarious as the TV show
  • Surprisingly deep combat system that never wears out its welcome
  • Tons of loot and customization options
  • Exploring the town is sheer joy for fans
  • Perfectly paced, with just the right combination of linear story missions and open world exploration and side quests

Cons

  • Other than a few boss battles, combat is pretty easy
  • Summons and Fart Magic are almost entirely unnecessary
  • At 15hrs it’s a bit short for a standard RPG, and a few plot threads or events feel a bit rushed or edited (only one crab person in the whole game)

Final Say: A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.