Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dragon Age: Origins (Awakening)

If you're anything like me, you enjoy a good story with interesting characters you can really empathise with - not just in the obvious media like books, TV, comics and cinema, but also in video games. And, if you are like me in that respect, you don't need me to tell you how good Dragon Age: Origins was. You'll already have played it. Two or three times, probably!

Dragon Age: Origins (Awakening) is the add-on pack for that game. It was released back in March but, having read a few reviews which essentially declared it good but flawed, I decided to wait for the price to drop before buying it. Well, the price has now dropped (£20 on Amazon!) and so, as from today, I've beome the proud owner of Awakening and I can once again re-enter the world of darkspawn and do some more slaying of ogres, archdemons and dragons!

So, what about those flaws? Well, I'm only just over an hour in but the first thing that struck me was that the graphics are certainly not state-of-the-art. That's to be expected, of course. The original game was so long in development that, especially on the console versions, improvements in graphics capability simply passed it by, leaving it looking a little last generation. And, being an add-on pack rather than a fully fledged sequel, Awakening uses the same engine. It's a flaw, yes, but not one that should spoil your enjoyment of the game.

Much has also been made of the fact that, with one exception (Ohgren the dwarf), the party members from the original game do not appear in this instalment. Maybe it's because I left a long gap between finishing Origins and buying Awakening but, to be honest, so far I haven't missed them.

You start the game with one companion (Mhairi, a pretty uptight female warrior) and I don't think I'm giving away any critical spoilers if I tell you that, within the first hour or so of play, you gain two more additions to the party: Anders (a mage) and the returning Ohgren.

The inclusion of both these members has been criticised: Ohgren because, for many players, he seems to have been their least favourite character from Origins, and Anders because he's too similar to Alistair. Again, from what I've seen and played so far, I'd say those criticisms are exaggerated. Ohgren is a lot more humorous this time round and Anders has a nice line in sarcasm. His problem, I think, is not so much that he really is like Alistair (his personality is far more cynical and less weak-willed), but that he looks very much like Alistair (bad design on Bioware's part!) and that he's voiced by the same actor, blunting the effect of some of his more biting observations.

As a starting party, these characters are more than adequate and, from the reviews I've read, even the game's critics seem to agree that the party members I've yet to recruit are the more interesting ones. All in all, then, as far as the characters are concerned, the game seems poised to live up to the high standards set by its predecessor.

At this stage it's too early for me to say anything meaningful about the story. The darkspawn are still abroad and, from the very first minutes of the game, you're thrown into combat with them. Game play is unchanged from Origins and, especially if you import a character from that game, these early nasties won't present you with any problem at all.

Inevitably, however, there is a suggestion that they're being led by something new. Quite what that "something" is will doubtless have to be unravelled as the game progresses but it's probably safe to assume that, whatever it is, you'll be doing battle with it before the closing credits roll. Adventure beckons!

So, as far as I can tell from the limited amount of the game I've played so far, it seems to me that the early reviews were a little harsh on Awakening, a fair assessment of the game's merits possibly being affected by the cost. The console versions were priced at £30-£35 on first release and, if you price an add-on pack that close to the price of a full sequel, every minor complaint is going to irritate all the more. For my part, having bought it for £20, I've enjoyed every minute of my first hour's play and I can't wait to play more. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Shades - death and the maiden!

Oh, look. It's another page from my online graphic novel Shades. Just click on the image below to see the full size version!
I think earlier entries in this blog have introduced you to all these characters already. For those in need of a quick refresher, however: The girl is a psychic teenager called Becky Allen. In the second panel, she is about to be sacrificed (for reasons you'll really have to read the full comic to understand!) Her spirit, meanwhile, is trapped in the spirit world. That's it there, in Panels 2 and 4. The naked character sporting tattoos and fighting a nasty green monster-thingy is the spirit of a prehistoric mystic known as "the Shaman". He's fighting to save poor Becky. Oh, and the nasty green monster-thingy is a spirit known as a "Lure". See - that wasn't so hard to understand, was it?!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Etta Candy - the disappearing woman

There's a lot written about the way female characters are portrayed in mainstream comics and, for the most part, it's pretty negative and very confused. The most common complaint is that the women all tend to have idealised body-shapes, conveniently glossing over the fact that the male heroes also have physiques that look as if they'd be very comfortable on the set of a porn movie. Since she was first created as Wonder Woman's loyal sidekick in the 1940s, however, Etta Candy has been a notable exception to the rule.

As created by William Moulton Marston, Etta was plain and ... well, not to put too fine a point on it, fat. She was seldom seen without a box of chocolates (candy) under her arm and much of her dialogue consisted of saying she'd much rather be eating candy than ... well, whatever it was she was actually doing at the time. She was the comedy sidekick.

But she was also much more. She was courageous, bold and fiercely loyal. Her more attractive and slimmer companions at the Holliday College readily accepted her leadership and frequently followed her into danger. While Steve Trevor regularly needed saving by Wonder Woman, Etta Candy was far more likely to be leading a charge of her own, beating up Nazi spies and helping to thwart their evil schemes. Yes, as the title character, Wonder Woman was inevitably the ideal of feminine beauty but with Etta Candy, Marston was telling us that ordinary women could also be just as brave and resourceful - inspirational even.

Following a confused series of reinventions through the 1960s, the character became known to people outside the closed little community that is comic fandom, as a result of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman TV series of the 1970s. The TV version of Etta (played by Beatrice Colen) was plump rather than fat and, although she was still clearly there to provide comic relief, the show decided not to make fun of her weight. Instead, the writers portrayed her as a woman of very limited intelligence, presumably in the belief that - in an age when women's rights were the order of the day - ridiculing women for being stupid was more acceptable than mocking their size! The saddest thing about the TV version, however, was that she was completely stripped of her bravery and willingness to stand at Wonder Woman's side in battle. She was still a likeable character but there was little to her other than the comedy trimmings.

With George Perez's relaunch of the Wonder Woman title in 1987, he re-established Etta Candy as a courageous, resourceful woman every bit as willing and able to fight side-by-side with the rest of the Wonder Woman cast. She was still plump and was described as unattractive, but these traits were no longer used as a device to elicit cheap laughs. She worked for the military, no longer obsessed over chocolate, and was comfortable with who she was. She had, in effect, come of age.

Apparently, however, the powers at DC now believe that Marston and Perez both got it wrong. In the Wonder Woman animated movie, Etta is a slim and attractive secretary who gets what she wants by using her feminine allure rather than her own abilities while, in her latest comics incarnation, Etta has been recast as a super-spy, complete with stereotypical porn-star physique and spray-on cat-suit.

Now, I've nothing against idealised women in comics, any more than I have anything against idealised male characters. They are and, as in any other mass medium, probably always will be the norm. If DC had wanted to create a new female super-spy and had made that character drop-dead gorgeous, it would have been pretty unimaginative but I'd have had no complaint. The shame here is that someone has made a conscious decision to take an existing character who did not fit the standard mould and has deliberately changed her into something bland and derivative. The message, it seems, is that the feminist critics were right all along. DC really does have no place for heroines who aren't beautiful and brimming with silicon-enhanced sex appeal.

The most surprising aspect of this change, however, is that it's happened on Gail Simone's watch. When it was announced that Simone would be assigned to the Wonder Woman title, much was made of the fact that she was the first woman writer to be given the post on a permanent basis. Implicit was the idea that only women could really understand how to write female characters. As laughable as that argument was even at the time (just imagine the outrage there'd be, if anyone dared suggest that only men could write male characters!), Simone had built up a strong reputation on Birds of Prey and so hopes for the future of the title were high.

Now, I don't claim to have read everything Simone has written for Wonder Woman but, from what I have seen, she's done a good job. Nothing to justify the wild optimism that followed her appointment, perhaps, but certainly as good as anything produced by the other writers assigned to this title in recent years. The glamming-up of Etta Candy, however, stands out as a huge step backwards for female characters and, given the writer's credentials, is especially ironic.

We'll probably never know whether it was Simone's own decision to rob Etta of her individuality, or whether it was yet another decision forced on a writer by an imagination-impaired editor. Either way, if you're a female reader whose body-shape fails to match up to the Amazonian ideal, you're no longer going to find a kindred spirit in the pages of a Wonder Woman comic. And, if you can't find one there, I guess you're going to be hard-pressed to find one anywhere within the DCU. She's just ... disappeared!