Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thing I'm Enjoying About Champions Online and a Few Problems With Them

I like the fact that the team took the design philosophy from City of Heroes that worked (quick to play, easy to pick up, lots of customization for the player, and minimal grinding with the exception of special player rewards for those who do them) and expanded it further. It was the idea that playing the game is the reward rather than reaching the top level or finding the special items and it makes the game very friendly to people who don't necessarily have a lot of time. It's a concept that makes the game poison to those who obsess over their MMO's but there is a market of people out there who want that kind of thing that is barely being serviced.

I'm enjoying the huge creative zone design. It feels like a comic from the 1980's to me; still holding onto the cheesy lunacy dreamed up in the 1960's for kids but trying to dress it up in something for a slightly older audience. So you've got Monster Island with giant monsters, Dr. Moreau, and a fallen ancient empire in a volcano. Or in the desert a Hulk-knock off leaps around and fights whatever (player or enemy) happens to be underneath him when he lands whether it's the secret base where there's a UFO, Westworld style amusement park, or the ghost town. The maps and enemies are wonderfully, cheerfully, crazy as you'd want in a superhero game.

The problem is that there's just too few. There are a couple of gaps in content with the game at the moment and only five zones. Champions needs at least twice as much content as it currently has mainly because it's so much fun playing with different kinds of characters; when every character has to do nearly everything then it isn't as fun to change from your flying fire guy to your robotic battle suit guy.

On the other hand there's giant piles of supervillains to fight. If there was one thing City of Heroes lacked it was villains. Now there's a supervillain around every corner and quite a few just wandering the map. In one mission I even came across an entire team of Soviet supervillains that I wasn't expecting. There's a lot of them even without making your own and many of them come back.

I like the variety of powers and how you can mix and match pretty much anything. On the other hand I'm not happy with how the buff and debuff abilities are generally weaker. There aren't a lot of them at the moment (at least ones not tied to attacks) and the game really needs a bit more of those for flexibility in character design.

Speaking of character design, the fact that the customization has gone even further is great. They took a terrific system and made it better by allowing asymmetrical options.

So in short, I'm having fun playing but there's too little there for the time being. Maybe six months from now once the new MMO problems have died down it'll be really spectacular.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review - Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 1

Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 1
Written by Greg Rucka; Art by Steve Rolston, Brian Hurtt, and Leandro Fernandez
2002 Eisner Winner for Best New Series

I need to clear this up before I do anything else: the Eisner award was just for Rucka and Rolston. Hurt and Fernandez each provided art for later story arcs that are included in the book.

Spy stories tend to either be whirlwind adventure stories where the secret agent fights criminal organizations in a two-fisted style or paranoid cold war thrillers where no one can be trusted to be exactly what they seem. There are a few stories that take another direction and look at the everyday world of operatives. The working man's espionage agent who clocks in at nine, leaves at five, deals with the usual office politics, and occasionally has to go to some unpleasant corner of the world on a boring business trip.

And that's Queen & Country in a nutshell. There are occasional bits of action but it tends to be the exception instead of the rule. The second operation in the book, for example, is run with out a shot being fired. It's a book about MI6 as a workplace rather than globe-trotting adventures.

Within MI6 is the special services division, a group of three operatives and their support staff who are brought in to deal with especially sensitive situations. The book opens with an off the book favor to the CIA where one of the operatives assassinates an arms dealer. This leads to the Russian mafia performing a rocket attack on SIS headquarters in downtown London. The section chief decides that an attack on the home office cannot be tolerated so despite the fact that operating on British soil is illegal they take steps to bring the organization down.

The next time out a pair of the operatives go to Afghanistan to recover some missing intelligence before the Taliban can locate it. The last storyline included is the most traditional of the stories in the book and features the group trying to unravel and stop a terrorist plot.

The key difference with Queen & Country and most other books about spies is that Queen & Country often places the emphasis on the details outside the operation. It's about the politicking to get permission for a controversial decision, the jurisdictional conflicts between branches of the government, how the British class division can interfere in the workplace. The waiting for that three a.m. phone call to say that everything is okay is just as important as slipping through the border undetected.

Rucka outdoes himself with his cast in Queen & Country. Most of the stories focus on the lone female operative in the special services division. On the surface she appears to be the standard tough woman who is emotionally dead and capable of taking down any man. It quickly becomes clear that this is a facade; it's the role she's expected to play and so she does it while being pushed to her mental limits.

The biggest downside in Queen & Country is the artwork. I was never really satisfied with any of the artists in this book. None of them are really bad but they all pulled me out of the story at different points.

Rolston, to start at the beginning, has a very clean style that could be thought of as "cartoony". He does a great job with facial expressions but sometimes the figures he drew were distorted in just the right way to make the character look like they suddenly turned into a child. Fernandez, whose work comprises the conclusion of the book, does terrific stuff with heavy shadows combined with tiny ink lines around the white areas. Individually it looks phenominal but he also uses some wildly exaggerated figures that tends to make all the characters look grotesque. It also has the effect of muddying some of the actions. As for Hurtt, his big crime is simply being unmemorable; he gets the job done and does a decent job but not so well that it stands out.

Queen & Country is a terrific series thanks to Rucka approaching the usual spy material from a slightly different angle. The Definitive Edition gives you a lot of bang for your buck with three story arcs, a full twelve issues, worth of material. I enjoyed it enough from the first volume to order the other three.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review - Whiteout: Melt

Whiteout: Melt
Written by Greg Rucka; art by Steve Lieber
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series

The movie adaptation of Whiteout was released last week to unanimous critical response. The critics all responded that it was one of the worst movies of the year. Fortunately I didn't have a first hand experience with the movie but I am disappointed. The original Whiteout graphic novel was an interesting crime story blended with a particularly exotic environment. The movie on the other hand apparently abandons that story in favor of one that is loosely based on Whiteout: Melt which was the start of that film's problems.

After getting to the bottom of Antarctica's first crime spree Marshal Carrie Stetko is called in to look into an explosion at a Russian research station. There she finds that the Russians had been storing a nuclear bomb there in violation of international treaties. That bomb has been stolen by commandos who set out across the ice flows to escape. Stetko and a Russian agent pursue them into the dangerous Antarctic wilderness.

If there's one phrase that's going to put me to sleep it's "stolen nuclear bomb". It's gotten to the point that if a real world terrorist organization actually did this I'd have to mock them for their lack of originality.

I'm not incredibly surprised that the movie took more from Melt than the original Whiteout; Melt reads like a pitch for a by-the-numbers Hollywood "thriller". It can't be a simple story of greed and murder so the stakes are a stolen nuclear bomb. You can't have a pair of women as the protagonists so there has to be a male lead. And obviously there has to be some romantic spice to it no matter how implausible it is for the two of them to get together. Those details about how difficult the Antarctic environment is to deal with that are critical plot points in the original are just too hard to convey; better to just have a blizzard and a crevasse which everyone can understand.

The best aspects of Melt go back to the original Whiteout. It is made clear early on in the story that despite being commandos the villains are inadequately prepared for Antarctica. The Siberian winter and the arctic are practically mild compared to the conditions on Antarctic plateau. The pursuit that makes up the majority of the story is not as foolishly lopsided as it may appear at first glance since those highly trained soldiers drop like flies to the cold.

I have to give Steve Lieber a lot of credit for his work here. Superficially it doesn't look like much. His artwork is perfectly competent but it doesn't have a lot "Wow" factor. Then when you consider that he's working with near featureless white landscapes with characters who spend most of the time bundled up and it becomes clear just how much skill it takes to do this story well. The way that he managed to present all of action so smoothly is phenominal.

I'm being a bit hard on Melt with the comparisons to the first miniseries. That's mainly because the original was a fairly good story and the plot of Melt is just adequate. Lieber does a terrific job with what he's given but the scope of the story prevents it from being an artistic triumph. So my recommendation is to read the first Whiteout. If you like it then you may want to follow it up with Melt though if you skip the sequel you aren't really missing anything.