Sunday, 4 December 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.3

Tremayne (Part 3)

By midday the market square was alive with shoppers bustling about their business, forming queues at the shops and crowding around the stalls, now festooned with banners, pennants and flags of every size and shape; mostly orange and blue, the colours of Tremayne's city crest, but punctuated here and there by the greens, purples and reds of the banners flown by foreign traders.

Perrick was in a good mood now. Around him traders from a dozen different island states barked, cajoled and entreated potential customers to examine their goods. This was what he lived for.

He'd been doing a brisk trade all morning, and had even managed to sell a particularly ugly vase he'd been forced to buy in order to secure some much needed food supplies some three months earlier, back on Sharrow's Bluff. A local antiques dealer had given him thirty-six shillings for it, more than twice the sum he'd paid. That trade alone had almost banished the distasteful memory of the woman who'd purchased the globe earlier in the day.

"All the way from the exotic String Islands," sang Perrick to the elderly man poring over a bundle of yellowing sheets of parchment. They were tied together at one corner by a ribbon of black lace. "Exquisite, aren't they?"

"Are they genuine?" grunted the old man, holding the pages up to his face, scrutinising the simple black illustrations closely. He had his nose pressed against a drawing of a landscape, a grassy plain lying scorched under a setting sun.

"Can't you tell?" enthused Perrick. "Just look at the penmanship. You won't find artistry like that anywhere in this hemisphere." He hesitated. A member of the City Guard was approaching the stall-holder to his right. Keeping the guard on the edge of his field of vision, he turned his attention back to the old man. "Every page a masterpiece in miniature. But you already know that, I can tell. A distinguished gentleman like yourself ... You have an unsurpassed appreciation of the fine arts."

The old man raised his eyes briefly, exchanged a glance with Perrick and turned his gaze back to the yellowed pages in his hands.

"You got a licence to trade here?" The guard stood before Perrick's neighbour, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

"Again? Really?" The trader threw his hands out in a gesture of exasperation. "You know damn well I've got a licence. I showed it to you just yesterday. Is it because I'm from Brael? Is that what this is about?"

The guard tightened his grip on his sword.

"I'm sorry for the inconvenience, sir. But I still need to see your papers. It's nothing personal. We'll be asking to see all the traders' licences."

A young servant girl handling the vegetables on the trader's stall looked up. She wiped her hands on her apron, already streaked with the grime and grease of a hard morning's work in the kitchens of one of the Hillside mansions.

"Is it about the Grand Marshall?" she asked. "Down in the Shanties, they're saying he's dead. That his nurse found him. Is that true?" The guard shifted uncomfortably under the woman's questioning.

"I can't comment on that, miss. Our investigation is ..."

"So, he is dead, then?" The merest hint of a smile flickered across the trader's face. He wouldn't be shedding any tears over Harlan's death but here, in the centre of Tremayne, wasn't the safest place to show the sense of satisfaction he felt. Harlan had been responsible for so much suffering. "Well, he'd been ill for a long time, I suppose."

Perrick allowed himself a discreet glance at the group gathering by the stall next to his. The prospect of overhearing scandalous gossip was already beginning to attract quite an audience. The trader was rummaging among the contents of a leather satchel slung low over his left hip. He withdrew three folded sheets of beige paper and passed them to the guard who squinted at the merchant’s name.

“Aker Dunbridge,” he said, reading the merchant’s name from the first of the permits. The merchant shrugged.

“Same as it was last time you guys checked it,” he muttered. The guard grunted something in reply that Perrick couldn't quite hear. Whatever he'd said, his irritation at the trader's casual attitude was evident.

"No, I mean is it genuine?" repeated the old man, turning another page of the bundle of parchment in his hands. "These pictures; do they work?"

Perrick didn't answer. His attention was focused entirely on the servant girl now. She was clearly excited, her eagerness to share what she knew growing with every person who joined the group around them.

"Illness had nothing to do with it," she replied. "Old Minette who works at a mansion just across the street from his, she said he was found with an eighteen inch blade stuck right in his chest. Had both his hands wrapped around the handle, she said."

"You're kidding!" Aker’s shock was clearly genuine. "He committed suicide?"

The guard shuffled his feet uncomfortably and glared at the girl. Loose talk at a sensitive time like this could easily lead to more serious unrest.

"We don't know that," he growled at her. He lowered his eyes from the trader to scrutnise the crumpled papers in his hand. They'd obviously been inspected many times before. "As I say, the investigation is ..."

"As if!" scoffed the maidservant. "He was weak as a kitten. Couldn't even hold a soup spoon, Minette said, so there's no way he could stick a bleeding great knife in his own chest. The blade went in six inches, I heard!"

Perrick felt a tugging at his sleeve.

"The pictures," persisted the old man. "Do they work?"

"Hmm? Yes, yes," confirmed Perrick. "Of course they work." Perrick was torn now. He did not wish to risk losing the sale, but he dearly wished to hear what more the girl had to say.

"You're not saying he was murdered?"

"Well, it looks like it," continued the girl. "But here's the funny thing: there was no sign of a break-in. Minette says ..." She cast her eyes around her audience, enjoying her chance to play to the crowd. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Minette says the guards suspect witchcraft!"

A gasp ran around the assembled onlookers.

"Superstition!" snapped the guard. "Tremayne hasn't had a confirmed case of witchcraft in over thirty years!" He thrust the trading permits back into Aker Dunbridge’s hands and turned to Perrick. "You!" he snapped. "Show me your papers."

Perrick obediently handed the guard his permits and licences.

"Still," he said," they do say it's quite common on some of the more remote islands."

"I know," grumbled the guard. "Like Grielle. Supposed to be rife there. But we don't get many visitors from those parts. If there are any in the city, they'll be rounded up soon enough." He ran his eyes over Perrick’s papers. The necessary stamps and signatures were all in order. "You know these are only valid for two more days?" he said.

"Sure," nodded Perrick. "I have to meet a buyer in Canto by the weekend. If I don't leave in the next couple of days, he'll be gone before I get there."

"Fine." The guard returned Perrick's papers. "Don't miss the tide," he said, and marched briskly off to question the stall holder standing to Perrick's left.

As the guard moved, Perrick's gaze fell on the cafe opposite. The owner had placed a few wooden tables outside, and a motley selection of individuals sat drinking the kind of coffee they only sold in self-important states like Tremayne: overpriced, as thick as treacle and strong enough to dissolve the lining of your stomach. At one of the tables a small man wearing a pair of round spectacles had lowered the newspaper he was reading to watch the guard's progress.

"Show me," muttered the old man, thrusting the sheaf of parchments in Perrick's face. "If these are genuine, you show me how they work."

With the guard gone, Perrick took barely a second to compose himself.

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure!" he said, his face beaming. "It's not often my humble wares attract the attention of so discerning an art-lover as yourself!" He glanced at the top drawing in the man's hands. It was a clever rendition of two ferrets, caught in the coils of a large and very menacing reptile. "Ah, one of my favourites! I'm always astonished at just how deftly a few simple lines can capture a moment like that. The look of ecstasy in the hunter's eyes; the fear and anticipation on the faces of his prey ..." He then leaned towards the old man, bringing his face so close, they were almost touching. "Now, turn the page anticlockwise and look at the picture again. Don't look at the lines. Focus on the spaces between the lines ..."

The look of consternation on the old man's face slowly gave way to a salacious grin.

"I can see two women!" he chortled, his delight at the discovery obvious. "And they're ... Oh my!" He looked hurriedly up from the parchments and offered them back to Perrick. "Oh, I don't think I could buy these!" he said apologetically. "They're a little too ..."

"Racy?" suggested Perrick. "I can see how they might seem that way. At first. To someone without the benefit of your obvious sophistication. But to an educated man, to a truly enlightened connoisseur of the fine arts such as yourself, to one who appreciates such things solely for their artistic merit ..."

"Ten shillings," said the old man.

"Twelve, and I'll gift-wrap them for you. Anyone seeing you carry them home will assume you've just bought a box of Sharrovian sweet meats."

"Eleven," whispered the old man, his eyes darting around to see if their conversation had been overheard.

Perrick took up a pair of scissors and drew out a length of scarlet ribbon from a spool hanging just above his head. He motioned for the old man to place the sheaf of parchments in the centre of a large sheet of paper lying on a stool to one side.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you," he smiled, his quick hands already at work wrapping the parcel.


(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Arkham City - I'm Batman ... again!

Batman may be DC's biggest brand, but even with the plethora of gadgets at his disposal, it took the caped crusader a long time to make a video game which was actually fun to play.

His breakthrough game was Arkham Asylum, a game which grasped the fact that it wasn't enough to feature the character and rely on die-hard comic fans buying it. When moving into a new medium like video games, the gameplay has to be fun and absorbing in its own right; the fact that the main character also appears in a dozen different comic titles should be almost irrelevant. Or at least the icing on - rather than the whole of - the cake.

Arkham Asylum did that. Sure, a lot of us bought it because it was a Batman game. But a lot of other gamers bought it even though they'd never read a Batman comic. Just as non-comic audiences went to see Nolan's The Dark Knight because they'd heard it was a good film, so gamers bought Arkham Asylum because they heard it was a good game.

The problem with a runaway success, however, is how to follow it up. As Bioware found with Dragon Age, there are a lot of expectations on a sequel and if the game is in any way inferior, the backlash can be bitter and - thanks to the internet - voluble. So, how does Arkham City compare to its predecessor?

Story

Unless you've been hibernating in your own Batcave for the last few months, you've probably read about this already. In short, however, a portion of Gotham City has been fenced off and turned into a huge "open plan" asylum, overseen by Hugo Strange. Various factions led by a wide assortment of Batman's classic foes vie for supremacy or simply pursue personal agendas, while the Joker still has plans for the titan formula which featured in the main plot of the first game. What this scenario provides, therefore, is a logical extension of the first game and a significantly larger game area. Exactly what you'd want from a sequel!

Gameplay

Again, Arkham City follows the tried and trusted sequel formula. Most of the gadgets Batman had at his disposal by the end of Arkham Asylum are gifted to you very near the beginning of the game. From the start, therefore, the game feels familiar. As the story progresses, however, he acquires more gadgets, providing new ways to navigate the city, combat villains and tackle the Riddler's many devious puzzles. And this time, the puzzles are more diverse and more , well ... puzzling!

Indeed, "more" seems to have been the watchword for the designers. There are more buildings to explore, more streets to clean up, and the villains provide more side quests, enabling them to break out of the "blink-and-you-miss-'em" cameos to which most of them were relegated in Arkham Asylum. Batman's decoder gadget is used in a wider variety of ways and its use seems less random and more logical.

Playable Characters

For most of the game, you play - not surprisingly - as Batman. And, as with the first game, Arkham City really does make you feel as if you are in the pointy boots of the world's greatest detective and martial arts expert. If you download the Robin add-on pack, you can also play as Tim Drake (the third Robin) but, since I haven't, I'm not sure how much of the story mode is actually playable as the Boy Wonder. Sorry.

The main game, however, does enable you to play a small number of levels as Catwoman. Again these levels have to be downloaded, but the game currently comes with a code enabling you to download them for free.

The most surprising thing about the Catwoman levels, perhaps, is how well they work. Introducing a new playable character can be a risky move for a game which features an instantly recognisable lead character. Both Lara Croft and Solid Snake have tried it in the past and were widely criticised for it. In this case, however, playing as Catwoman actually leaves you wishing she featured in even more missions than the small number she does.

The reason it works, I think, is because the developers and designers have given her a complete set of customised moves without requiring the player to learn a whole new set of button-mashing combos. Her attack button is the same as Batman's attack button, but the attacks she performs when you press it are different. The button to launch Batman to the top of a building is the same as the button to launch Selina, but - where Batman will respond by firing a grapple - Catwoman will pounce, climbing the side of the building with effortless feline ease. Despite the potential disaster that a new playable character can inflict on a game, the introduction of Catwoman in Arkham City may well be one of its greatest innovations.

And the bad?

So, does the game have any flaws? Well, I haven't finished playing the whole game yet but, so far, I've only found one. For the most part, gliding over the Gotham rooftops is a joy, but in one respect I found it a source of considerable frustration. To move quickly while gliding, it is necessary to alternate between dive-bombing and rising. This is essential to complete certain sequences of the game but, if you have the flight controls inverted (as I did), the manoeuvre simply fails to work. This is incredibly frustrating and, since it's impossible to progress without it, I began to think I'd have to give up on the game all together. And, judging from the internet forums, I'm not alone in having hit this particular brick wall.

Fortunately, I eventually discovered that the problem can be solved quite simply, by resetting the flight controls so they aren't inverted. A small adjustment when you know about it, but one which is flagged nowhere and which really shouldn't have been necessary.

Conclusion

If you've already played Arkham Asylum, you don't need me to tell you to buy this game. You'll have had it on pre-order for the past six months and, unless you've got your flight controls inverted (in which case you'll still be stuck on that damned gliding level!), I imagine you'll have already played far more of it than I have. If, on the other hand, you are still undecided, I can't recommend this game highly enough.

If you're not a comics fan it doesn't matter. This is an action-packed video game with an absorbing story line and a slew of puzzles which will really get you scratching your head. Plus, if you are a comics fan, this is the nearest you'll get to being the Big Bad Bat, without actually draping a cape around your shoulders and patrolling your city's seedy underbelly after dark!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.2

Tremayne (Part 2)

(Burt Lancaster doing an impersonation of) Naylor!"Perrick said that?" Naylor laughed, loud and full heartedly.

"He did! He did!" giggled Skrawl, his four eyes darting nervously around the deck lest Perrick should suddenly appear behind him. "He said he hated towns like Tremayne because ... because ..." Skrawl did his best to stifle the explosion of mirth welling up inside him. "Because the people are so ... are so ..." He swallowed hard. "So antisocial!"

The two of them burst into a fit of conspiratorial laughter. They'd been travelling with Perrick for many years now and, as obsequious as his trade required him to be with potential customers, he'd never made any attempt to hide his true nature from his crew mates on board the Jennie Seaholme.

"So, what brings you out on deck?" asked Naylor. "You avoiding Marla?"

"Oh, oh no!" Skrawl replied, genuinely taken aback. "Why - why would I ever want to do that! Marla is ... Marla's ... Well, she's ..."

Naylor laughed his loud, good natured laugh. He was hanging upside down from the yardarm, painting an elaborate design on the Seaholme's main mast. He was held aloft by a single rope twined around one of his legs.

"Relax," he grinned. "I'm just pulling your leg. Or legs. We all know how devoted you are to the lovely Marla."

logumSkrawl eyed Naylor suspiciously, unsure of whether he was still being teased. He raised one of his four arms in the air and stabbed a bony finger in Naylor's direction.

"You sh-shouldn't joke about things like that," he chided him. "What Marla and I have is ... is ... well, I w-wouldn't expect someone like you to understand!"

Naylor sighed. He'd never get used to just how quickly Skrawl could take offence. He looked down at the indignant preen below him. Covered in rust-coloured scales and balanced on four scrawny legs, his coiled tail wound around one of his four arms, Naylor had always considered Skrawl a comical figure but, upside down and wagging a long, skeletal finger in the air, it was impossible to take him seriously.

"Calm down," he said, grinning even more widely than usual, "and tell me what you came out here for. It wasn't just to laugh at Perrick, I take it?"

(A chameleon doing an impersonation of) Skrawl!"Ha!" Skrawl snorted. He could never stay angry at Naylor for long. "I just w-wondered if ... I mean, Marla w-wanted to know if you were, um, hungry? Are you? Hungry, I mean?"

"Nope. Give my thanks to Marla, but I really need to finish this logum."

Skrawl turned his attention to the mast. Every inch below the spot where Naylor was painting was covered in strange words painted in a script he couldn't read. Each word comprised a sequence of gold letters, some presumably phonetic symbols, others apparently intricate pictograms. They were all interlaced with a delicate background pattern painted in a deep crimson, an intense green or a rich purple. The patterns appeared to be as much a part of the meaning of each word as the letters themselves.

"So that's what they're called," murmured Skrawl, his interest piqued. He ran his finger tips lightly over one of the designs at his own height. "They're beautiful."

"Logums tell the history of the ship," explained Naylor. "All turlish ships have them. Each one represents a port we've stayed in; places we've seen. Things we've done; fish we've caught; people we've ... met."

"So Marla and I are on here? Somewhere among all these ...?" Skrawl gestured widely at the logums decorating the entire lower half of the mast, excitement mounting in his voice. "One of these designs tells the story of how we came to be on board?"

"Of course!" beamed Naylor, his eyes twinkling. "The crew is the most important part of any ship. What kind of a captain would I be if I didn't keep proper records of all my new members?"

"Which one?"

"I just said. All of them."

Another logum!"No, I mean ... which logum is about Marla and me?"

"The green one. About six feet up. The first letter looks a bit like a rabbit."
Skrawl walked around the mast.

"I see it!" he squealed. "I see it!" He pressed his fingers against the gold letters and breathed deeply as if trying to inhale their meaning. "It's as beautiful as Marla herself. What does it say? Exactly? What does it ...?"

"Well, the letters are just your names and your roles on board the Jennie. But the background patterns add the context."

"Context?"

"The circumstances of our meeting. Where it happened; what I thought about you both; how that felt."

"No!" Skrawl could barely contain his excitement. "You put your feelings on here? Really? What does it ... what does it say about us? No, wait. Maybe I'd better not ... But you've got everyone on here? Even Perrick?"

"Especially Perrick!" Naylor chuckled. "There are things about Perrick on this mast that even his mother doesn't know!"

"And Sandrine?" Skrawl was in full flow now. He couldn't have stopped himself if he'd wanted to. "You've got logums on here about Sandrine?"

And, suddenly, Naylor wasn't laughing any more. An awkward silence descended over both of them. It was Naylor who eventually broke the silence. He still wore a broad grin, but the muscles in his upside-down face were noticeably strained.

"Not as much as there is about Perrick," he said simply.


(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.1

Tremayne (Part 1)

The cold, early morning sunlight cast a watery amber sheen over the grey tiled roofs of Tremayne. The light hadn't yet managed to seep into the narrow alley ways of the Shanty District, and even the wide open area that was the market square seemed reluctant to cast off the dank shadows that clung to its eastern side.

The sun had been up for barely an hour, but already a few early morning customers were beginning to drift into the square. They hugged their capes tightly around them, hunching their backs against the sharp bite of the early salt breeze that wafted inland from the harbour.

Perrick knew these people. They were the same in every town. Always the first to leave their houses, they threaded their way like predators between the stalls which had been set up while the market square still huddled under the blanket of the previous night's darkness. They'd peer and prod inquisitively at the colourful merchandise on display. These were not casual shoppers. These were men and women with business to conduct: local shopkeepers looking to replenish their stocks; keen-eyed collectors hoping to spot a rare item before any of their rivals; and the occasional government official on the lookout for anyone attempting to trade illegally.

"Fifteen," said Perrick, trying to sound welcoming but finding his voice not quite able to shrug off the gruffness he felt at having to be up and about at that unnatural time of the morning.

The woman who'd been handling a glass ball among the jumble of curiosities at the far end of his stall looked up at him, apparently startled. In sharp contrast to the other grey-shrouded shoppers, she wore a full-skirted dress and had a lace shawl pulled over her head. The shawl was a deep shade of green, beaded with tiny red stones. The dress was golden and, even in the pale grey light of the early morning, it shimmered as she turned to face him.

"Shillings?" she asked. "For this? Fifteen shillings for a paperweight?" She was, even to a Tharn like himself, strikingly attractive. A mane of wild, black hair tumbled out from beneath the shawl and nestled around her shoulders, as sleek as if newly painted in ink. Her skin radiated an inner warmth at odds with the time of day.

Perrick smiled as warmly as he could. If there was a trade to be done here, he needed to be a lot sharper than he was currently feeling.

"Ah, but that isn't a paperweight," he corrected her with a practised smile. "It was made in Grielle, a small island far to the north of here. A rich, luxuriant island full of exotic mystery. What you have in your hand there, is known locally as a witchglobe."

The woman laughed, and his head filled with the sound of a dozen tiny bells strung on a fine silver cord.

"Well, now I know you're teasing me," she said. "You surely don't mean to tell me you believe in witches? A well-travelled man such as yourself?"

"I'm just telling you what I know," Perrick protested, his face a picture of hurt. "I assure you, I bought that globe from one of my most trusted trading partners. And he'd just returned from Grielle, not three months before." He was a thin man but tall, perhaps a little under seven feet and, like many other men and women from the island of Tharn, had turned bald before the age of thirteen. In a sweeping, theatrical gesture, he bent at the waist and bowed low, bringing his angular, bird-like face closer to hers. Then, in a low, conspiratorial voice he added: "You know, it's said the women of Grielle use witchglobes to enhance their natural beauty. Now that's worth fifteen shillings, surely?"

The woman laid one hand on his arm. As heavily wrapped against the cold as he was, he could feel its warmth through the sleeve of his long, leather coat. His skin tingled. Then, with graceful ease, she slipped the shawl from her head and let it drape over her shoulders. She was shorter than Perrick, barely reaching his shoulders, and she had to tilt her head to look up into his eyes. Hers, he noticed, were green; her pupils large, impossibly black and speckled with tiny points of light like stars.

"Are you saying my beauty is in need of enhancement?" she chided him. "Don't you think that's a mite ... ungallant?"

"No, I ..." Perrick groaned inwardly. Instinctively he knew he'd allowed her to seize the advantage. He was on the defensive now. He couldn't afford to let the other traders see him bested, or he'd be a target for every chiseller looking for an easy mark. He needed to get her away from his stall as quickly and as quietly as possible. "Look," he countered, "you can have it for twelve, okay? Twelve shillings and not a penny less. Even as a paperweight, it's worth that."

"Ten," she said, still smiling. "And that's only because I liked your story about witches. Why, Tad Lerman's got a stall full of pretty objects I could use as paperweights, and not a one of them costs more than eight."

Perrick looked down at the woman's face. He couldn't remember the last time someone had so comprehensively outmanoeuvred him. There was no denying her eyes were exceptionally beautiful, but he'd been in the game long enough to be on his guard against a pretty face.

"Fine," he conceded. "Ten. But don't come back tomorrow looking for more bargains. Go do your shopping at Tad Lerman's. Ruin his business instead."

The woman dropped the globe into the small green bag hanging from her wrist. She took a ten shilling note from her purse and folded it into Perrick's hand.

"It's been a pleasure," she said and pulled her shawl back up over her head, the red stones glinting briefly, like so many eyes winking mischievously at his scarcely concealed irritation. With a swish of her skirts, the woman turned on her heel and began walking away towards the stalls lined up on the far side of the square. Perrick felt his mood blacken as he watched her go.

This was one trade he had no intention of sharing with the rest of the crew. If Naylor heard he'd been out-haggled by some over-dressed woman from a backward island like Tremayne, he’d make his life a misery all the way from here to Brael.


(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.

Friday, 16 September 2011

DC's Fifty-two Number Ones

The DCnU - plus ca change; plus c'est la meme chose.Generally speaking, I'm not a buyer of pamphlet comics. I'm one of those annoying "wait-for-the-trades" type of people. I'm with those who believe the vast majority of mainstream monthly titles are poor value for money, containing far too few pages and far too many splash pages; that they are constrained by far too rigid an observance of continuity; and that they rely far too heavily on gimmicks, crossovers, and "events" in place of good story-telling.

When DC announced its intention to repackage all its titles and relaunch them as fifty-two new "Number 1s", I was as sceptical as anyone that the editorial teams really understood what they needed to do in order to grow their readership; to attract readers like me and - more importantly - new, younger readers. But I wanted to be wrong. I wanted so much to be wrong that I even broke the reading habits of several decades and sought out a whole bunch of the new Number 1s launched this week. I've not read them all yet, but here are my thoughts on those I have. As you'll see ... I've yet to be convinced that anything has really changed!

Superman trades his underpants for a pair of blue jeans. But keeps his cape. Jerk!Action Comics - At the very end of Justice League #1, Superman made an entrance. He only had one line but that line seemed to characterise him as an arrogant jerk. Not as arrogant a jerk as Green Lantern was in that title, but then GL had more pages to show just how arrogant a jerk he could be.

Here, Superman has many more lines and far more pages to show us his real personality. And guess what? He's not only every bit as arrogant a jerk as GL, he's also every bit as psychotic and heavy-handed as Batman. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that his first story arc will see him dropping those personality traits and becoming more like the nice guy he was pre-relaunch. If he doesn't, I can see this Superman failing miserably. As it stands, this title is going to have readers rooting for Lex Luthor and booing and hissing every time Big Blue makes an appearance.

Oh, and just as an aside, why bother dressing the main character in every day jeans and a t-shirt, if you're also going to tuck a red cape into his collar? Awful. 3/10

Still a second string hero.Green Arrow - solid but, ultimately, very ordinary superhero fare. Essentially this is one extended fight sequence, but one which also delivers a whole bunch of exposition, introducing us to GA's alter ego as Oliver Queen and two members of his support team. (I do like my super heroes to have a support team!)

The only other feature of any note is that this comic possibly has more women in micro-skirts than anywhere outside of a Bruce Timm cartoon.

Overall, it's passable enough, but does nothing to answer the big question: did a second-string hero like GA really warrant his own title or, the editorial decision having been made to launch no less than fifty-two new titles, is he just there to make up the numbers? 6.5/10

Imitation. The sincerest (and most unoriginal) form of flattery.Detective Comics - completely lacking in originality and seemingly designed specifically to alienate young readers.

The dialogue and artwork in this title are both far too reminiscent of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. One or two panels, I'm sure have simply been copied wholesale from DKR. A deliberate homage, or just an uninspired piece of plagiarism? I'd like to go with the homage theory, but the comic borrows so heavily in just about every department, that it's difficult to be charitable.

It's hard to believe that, a quarter of a century after Miller's seminal book, DC's editors and writers are still trying to copy its "grim and gritty" violence, and still haven't learned anything that it had to offer in terms of wit, characterisation and story-telling. 3.5/10

Batman in Africa. Where everyone speaks fluent simile.Batwing - one sign of just how stale the superhero universes of both DC and Marvel have become is the fact that they continue to rely on resurrecting age-old characters and seem to have little success in introducing new characters. Batwing is a reflection of DC's self-doubt. Nominally, he is a new character but, in reality, he isn't. He's just Batman in Africa.

He's mentored by Batman, dresses like Batman and, in this first issue, the writing is so sparse he isn't even allowed to show any kind of individual personality. When characters are allowed to speak, they spout the kind of risible similes that haven't been attributed to native Africans since the days of Rider Haggard. Where a western murder victim would cry simply "No!" or "Don't!", the writer here apparently believes an African would be more likely to say: "I do not want to be butchered like a cow."

The presence of gratuitous gore, including close-ups of a bloody machete thrust through a chest and severed heads, will ensure that this title does little to open up the DCU to newer, younger readers. 5/10

Recovering from a broken spine? Hey, anything Batman can do ...!Batgirl - the best of the Bat-books (so far). There are problems with this title but, compared to the very low standard of the others, they're small.

Gail Simone has the unenviable task of persuading us that, just three years after being shot in the spine, Barbara Gordon is now able not just to walk again, but to swing from rooftops and trade blows with the scum of Gotham's underworld. (Oh, well, at least she isn't returning from the dead!) Ironically, this ludicrous premise is also a source of the book's strength. It means that - unlike Batwing or the Batman in Detective Comics - Batgirl has a backstory which adds depth and context to her actions.

It's not perfect. Some of the scene shifts are clumsily handled, and Batgirl's admission that she feels fear comes far too late in her opening battle to be credible. By then, the cocky, self-assured comments she's already made during the entire fight, make the admission sound like an afterthought on the part of the writer, rather than an integral part of the character's mindset. Still ... at least she says it. 7.5/10

1980s mullet meets 1970s mohawk in a 1960s throwback. Now with added Kirby dots!O.M.A.C. - like GA #1, this is very ordinary stuff. Despite the glossy digital colouring, the artwork is very reminiscent of Silver Age Marvel. Facial expressions and body shapes all seem to belong to an earlier time. One huge panel even features vast laboratory tanks filled with a glowing green liquid and - wait for it - Kirby dots! Nostalgics may get a buzz out of that but, sadly, the storytelling is as dated as the artwork.

By the end of the issue the reader has only really learned one thing: mild mannered Kevin Koh is the incredible Hulk. Or at least a version of the Hulk called OMAC that's part machine and controlled by a sentient space station known as (yes, you guessed it!) Brother Eye. A Brother Eye which, despite being the most advanced mechanical brain ever invented, rather annoyingly still spells "I" as "Eye", just as its equally annoying pre-relaunch predecessor did. You'd have thought a genius inventor might have installed a rudimentary spell-checker among all that other software that must be in there.

Oh, and OMAC sports a hairstyle that's part mohawk and part mullet. I've taken an extra half a point off for that. 4.5/10

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5 - a space Cadillac with missiles!Back in 1962, before Thunderbirds had put an orbiting space station around the Earth, before Captain Scarlet had ventured as far as Mars and incurred the wrath of the Mysterons, before Dave Bowman and HAL had embarked on Kubrick's epic odyssey to Jupiter, and before James T Kirk had taken the U.S.S. Enterprise out to explore the final frontier, Earth was protected from all manner of alien invaders by the puppets of the World Space Patrol and its flagship Fireball XL5.

Now mostly forgotten by all except the most avid fans of scifi-themed TV and those of us of *ahem* a certain age, Fireball may well be the reason I'm still a fan of all things scifi to this day. At five years old I may have been too young to be aware of Kennedy's historic "We choose to go to the moon" speech, but I was certainly old enough to be captivated by the adventures of Colonel Steve Zodiac and his crew.

Steve Zodiac with punningly named Matt Matic and Robert the see-through robotAnd what a crew! As well as Zodiac himself (the "greatest astronaut of Space Patrol"), the ship boasted a beautiful French "doctor of space medicine" Doctor Venus, resident boffin Professor Matt Matic and a wonderfully perspex co-pilot Robert the Robot. At some point they also seem to have acquired an alien pet, Zoonie the Lazoon, an obvious forerunner of Debbie, the monkey-like pet acquired by Penny Robinson in Lost in Space.

Viewed through today's eyes, the show is very much a product of its time. Not only was it initially made in black and white, it had only the most fleeting of relationships with scientific fact. A simple "oxygen pill", for example, was sufficient not only to allow the crew to breathe outside the ship, but also to protect them from the cold and every other rigour associated with surviving in the vacuum of space!

Venus - doctor of space medicine and doer of laundry!In addition, some of the dialogue seems designed specifically to outrage even the most non-militant of feminists. In the first episode Doctor Venus is seen preparing the crew's meal and is frequently asked to make coffee. By episode 4, we learn she spends her off-duty hours "sewing on buttons and doing the laundry" for Steve and Matt. Wow. Imagine Star Trek's Doctor McCoy being asked to wash the unmentionables of Kirk and Spock!

But the selling point of the show was never meant to be its realism or its characters. As with Gerry Anderson's other shows like Supercar (which preceded it), Stingray and Thunderbirds (both of which came later), the real star was the vehicle: Fireball XL5 itself. Fireball was a spaceship. Not a flying cruise liner like the Enterprise or Voyager; not a utilitarian hulk like the Nostromo; Fireball was an honest-to-goodness 1960s cylindrical rocket, complete with a detachable bullet-shaped nose-cone, wings and a tail fin. It was Thunderbird 1 - but even more cool; a space Cadillac with missiles!

Look - it's the future! In a box!Thanks to the modern miracle that is DVD, all 39 episodes can now be seen again. As indeed can the puppets' strings! If you thought Team America was only spoofing Thunderbirds, the Fireball XL5 box-set will really open your eyes.

Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet may represent the high-point and best-known of Gerry Anderson's creations featuring scifi-themed marionettes but, as these episodes demonstrate, all the key ingredients were already in place as early as 1962. The corny dialogue, the jerky movements, the laughable foreign accents ... yes, they're all there.

But most of all, so are the wonderful machines and the sense of excitement; the sense that Anderson was creating a brand new form of entertainment for children and instilling in them a fascination with the future that would last a lifetime. A sense, as Kennedy might have said, that Anderson was choosing to send his puppets to the moon, not because it was easy; but because it was fun!

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Justice League #1

Okay, so there are no prizes for identifying that this picture is taken from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This classic rolling boulder scene has to be one of the most iconic scenes in any movie in the history of cinema. But what's it doing here in a post about the relaunched JLA?

I'll get to that.

First, let's add a little context. A few months ago, DC announced all its titles would be refashioned, repackaged and relaunched as 52 new titles, all numbered from Issue #1. Familiar characters would have their costumes redesigned (again) and, in some cases, their origins rebooted (again) but - for the most part - it would be the same old DCU made more accessible to new readers. And in both print and digital formats.

The first of the 52 new titles, the relaunched Justice League, went on sale today and the initial reaction online has been ... mixed. The consensus is that Jim Lee's art is outstanding, Geoff Johns's writing is fairly average and the story, overall, is underwhelming.

The principal area of contention has been that the story concerns itself with the initial meeting between Batman and Green Lantern. There is action, but it's not spectacular. There are other characters but they're relegated to minor supporting roles. There are signs that the seeds of a larger, more complex story are being sown, but the issue itself spends far too much time showing GL and Bats in conversation.

In short, the view seems to be that JLA #1 is a perfectly adequate (if unexceptional) first chapter in a slow-building story, adequate for existing JLA fans but completely lacking the dramatic, extravagant splash that's required to give new readers a taste of what the title will (hopefully) become.

The kind of splash which, you may remember, was delivered so successfully by Indy's now classic encounter with that rolling boulder.

Johns may be patiently laying the groundwork for several wonderful issues of this title but, unless your ambition is to appeal exclusively to an already established fan base (as with a long-running TV series) or selling the complete story in a single instalment (as with most novels or movies), then you need to open with something that also grabs the attention of your new target audience.

The opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark is a text book example of how that should be done. It's easy to forget now that Indy has become part of our collective cultural consciousness but, when Raiders first hit cinema screens, nobody knew who Indiana Jones was. Nobody knew that an Indy adventure was supposed to be about archaeology, arcane relics, Nazis, impossible stunts and edge-of-the-seat, heart-in-the-mouth thrills and spills. Sure, there would have to be a lengthy exposition sequence somewhere near the beginning of the film, but Spielberg appreciated that - even before that - there needed to be something to introduce the flavour of the movie. Something like a huge rolling boulder.

By the time that boulder had finished careering through the cave, the audience knew that Indy was an archaeologist with a bull whip, a battered fedora and a tendency to land himself in danger. In addition, they'd been given a taste of the adrenaline-fuelled, over-the-top action and humour that would come to characterise his adventures. And what's more, it had all been done without a single word of exposition.

Geoff Johns may have a great story lined up for the rest of his run on the new JLA title. But, having missed his chance in the first issue, it seems that - if he wants to share that story with anyone other than DC's existing fan base - then judging by the initial online reaction to JLA #1, he badly needs to introduce a rolling boulder. Soon.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 1

A Death in the Night

Death. Every time it's the same. Every time it's different. Tonight's would be just another.

The wrappings around her feet made no sound as she moved swifly across the tiled roofs of the decaying, mud-brick structures that passed for houses here in the Shanty District. Squat, ugly buildings that huddled together in fear. Fear of the open plazas of the Market District to the west with its shops and stalls, now deserted and skeletal but waiting to be dressed in extravagant banners and piled high with goods that only the Elite could afford. Fear of the gaudily painted mansions that rose up high into the hills to the south of the city. High enough to allow their inhabitants to feel both safe from and superior to those in the squalid districts below.

Image taken from free clipart siteInhabitants like the Grand Marshall. It was his mansion she would be visiting tonight. His death she would be delivering.

She felt a tile crack and loosen under her foot. Without missing a step, she continued to move effortlessly forward, seeming to glide across the tiles, ice grey in the moonlight. She heard the broken tile skitter down, across the roof; was aware of the second or so of silence as it fell; and noted the metallic clatter as it shattered against the cobbled street below.

No one would come. The residents of the Shanty District knew better than to brave the narrow streets at night. They'd cast a nervous eye towards the door, take some comfort from the fact it was bolted and barred, and look away. Probably a cat, they'd say. The City Guard never patrolled here either. The Shanty District was a dangerous place after dark, even for armed, trained militiamen. No, they'd focus their patrols in and around the Market District as they always did; partly because the open squares made an ambush unlikely, and not least because the Merchants' Guild made it worth their while to do so.

If there was anyone in the streets of the Shanty District they'd be conducting business of their own. The kind of business that can only be conducted in narrow, unlit streets after dark.

Behind her she could hear the faint cries of the last of the gulls still haunting the docks she'd left barely fifteen minutes earlier. Ahead of her she could see she had just three more terraces to go before the grey slate roofs of the Shanty District began to give way to the first modest mansions at the foot of the Hillside.

Without breaking her pace, she calculated the number of steps she needed to reach the end of the terrace, adjusted the length of her stride to ensure the last would take her to very edge of the last roof and, in one fluid, unbroken movement, launched herself off into the void between the houses. Stillness. The air that, just seconds before, had been rushing coolly past her face as she ran seemed to stop. She gave no thought to the drop below or to the hard stones that would smash her as surely as they'd smashed the tile if she'd mistimed her jump. For the briefest of moments she seemed simply, impossibly to hang, suspended in the air, unable to move. At peace.

Was this what death was? A stillness? A silence? She'd brought so many to their deaths but, after years in the service of the order, she was no closer to understanding its true nature.

And then, instinctively, her legs were moving again, cycling through the air, preparing themseves for the best possible landing; flexed, just enough to cushion the shock of her feet hitting the grey tiles of the next terrace; tensed, to allow her to spring forward, immediately continuing her sprint across the Shanty District rooftops. She felt the hard tiles once more under her bandaged feet, adjusted her balance to compensate for the slope of the roof, and was instantly on her toes, propelling herself forwards.

Grand Marshall Harlan would be alone, she knew, for less than an hour. She had to time her arrival precisely. Too soon and she'd never get past the mansion's security. Too late and she wouldn't have enough time to finish the job and escape before someone came to check on him. He was a sick man and never left unattended for very long.

Did he deserve to die? To most of the general population here in Tremayne, Harlan had been a hero, but there were many in the neighbouring island state of Brael who still considered him a war criminal. The war with Brael had ended more than thirty years ago, but the prominent role played by Harlan in the city's political life in the years since had ensured that diplomatic relations between the two islands had remained strained. There were undoubtedly many who would be gladdened by the news of his death.

As she reached the end of the terrace Sandrine put these thoughts from her mind. She had a contract. She'd see it fulfilled. She allowed her momentum to carry her off the roof of the final house in the terrace, rolled deftly as she hit the ground and came silently to a halt, pressing her back against the perimeter wall surrounding a tall house opposite.

Made of white stone and decorated with a dazzling array of multi-coloured glazed tiles, the house was modest by the standards of most that studded the Hillside. Her research had told her it belonged to a minor government functionary. From here the houses wound their way up the hill in an uneven, ragged line. The higher they climbed, the more expensive were the materials used in their construction. At the highest levels the walls and pillars were clad in white marble, and many of the decorative tiles were rumoured to contain precious stones and metals.

She would have to be careful now. Private security forces patrolled the streets in Hillside. Paid for by the wealthy residents, these forces were heavily armed and well-trained. Protected by their influential patrons, they were completely unfettered by the rules that constrained the activities of the City Guard. Avoiding their patrols wouldn't be easy. The steep slopes and private grounds that surrounded each property meant she'd be unable to use the roofs as she had in the Shanty District.

The Grand Marshall's residence was among the houses peppered around the top of the hill. She had a long climb ahead of her and limited time. She allowed herself to pause for breath, made the Sign of the Circle as she'd been taught as a child, and pulled herself up to the top of the wall. She knew the way. She'd prepared well. She always prepared well.

Noiselessly she dropped into the garden on the other side of the wall and was already running as her feet touched the grass, grey-black in the darkness. The government functionary's house was in the centre of the garden to her right. Lights had been lit inside the house but she would not be observed. Green wooden shutters had been locked shut across the doors and windows. A dim light seeped between the slats and cast uneven golden stripes across the lawn, marking her path. The ground rose up away from her as she ran.

On the far side of the garden was another wall. She computed its height, adjusted the length of her stride and hurled herself up at the wall. She reached out towards it, barely brushing the top with her finger tips, gaining just enough leverage to allow her to clear the top, and drop weightlessly to the other side. She did not stop. She was in a street now, paved with white stone bricks. The street wound its way up the hill and Sandrine followed it, crouching low.

The mansions of the Elite lined the way, each hiding behind a higher wall than the one before. She counted them off, one by one. She was getting closer. There was a narrow side street just up ahead. If her calculations were correct, and they always were, she would have just enough time to reach it and take cover before the next security patrol passed by.

It would be close. Already she could hear the boots of the patrol grating against the stone paving. Another forty-two seconds and they'd be upon her. She could see the side street coming closer. Thirty-six seconds. She ducked into the side street and picked up her pace. There was a wall on either side, and another directly ahead. A dead end. Her research told her the wall ahead was sixteen feet high. Too high to leap. Twenty-three seconds. Without breaking her stride she calmly reached into one of the small pouches that hung from the sash slung diagonally across her chest and took out a small ball. Green and red clouds swirled across its surface. Fourteen seconds. It would be very close!

She threw the ball at the foot of the wall. Two more strides and she'd be there. Her eyes hardly left the top of the wall, but she was aware of the ball shattering as it hit the ground, exploding into a dozen tiny shards and releasing a sudden swirling vortex of muddy brown gas. She leapt into the gas and felt the swirling currents lift her high into the air. The top of the wall passed beneath her and she dropped to the ground on the far side. Six seconds. She could hear the boots of the security patrol as it entered the side street. Her calculations had been a second out.

She paused. The sound of marching had stopped. Had the gas cleared? Had the patrol seen it? She remained still, crouching down on one knee. She didn't breathe.

Finally she heard the patrol return to its regular route, the boots once more grating against the stone floor. This time the sound was receding. Good. She had a contract to fulfill.

The Grand Marshall's mansion rose up in front of her. A white marble colonnade ran down one side. Above that, three windows opened onto a balcony topped with an ornate balustrade. The middle window, she knew, was Harlan's room. She padded across the lawn to the mansion, unwinding a rope from her waist. She stopped below the balcony and threw one end of the rope around one of the pillars. With one end of the rope in each hand, she braced her feet against the pillar and began to climb.

She hauled herself over the balustrade and crept cautiously towards the centre window. The curtains were closed but, between them, she could see Harlan lying on a large four-poster bed. A number of bottles stood on a table nearby, some full of strange liquids she didn't recognise, others half-full of pills of every colour. She opened the window just enough to slip in and conceal herself behind the curtain. Once she'd satisfied herself there were no medical staff in attendance, she walked towards the bed, her bound feet making no sound on the rich, carpeted floor.

"Grand Marshall?" she whispered.

With some effort Harlan opened his eyes. His skin was pale grey, almost colourless, and blue veins were clearly visible beneath the surface. His eyes were hollow, sunken deep into his heavily shadowed sockets. Only his moustache marked him out as the war hero he'd once been. Although now streaked with grey, it still grew full and it had clearly been recently groomed.

"What ..." the Grand Marshall struggled to speak. "What do you ... want?"

"I hear you're dying," said Sandrine. "I've come to help you on your way."

The Grand Marshall closed his eyes and took a few shallow breaths, the interval between each slightly longer than the one before. For a moment Sandrine thought perhaps he'd died without her assistance. But she waited. Eventually his eyes blinked half open again and rolled towards her.

"About ... about time," he rasped. "I was beginning to think ... you wouldn't make it."


(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

DC Comics Super Hero Collection - Batgirl

Barbara Gordon's Batgirl - accept no substitutes!I have mixed feelings about Batgirl. On the one hand she just doesn't "fit" into my adult view of what the Bat-universe should be. On the other hand, having grown up with the 1960s Batman TV series, the Barbara Gordon Batgirl will always be a part of it.

These days I'm fully subscribed to the idea of Batman as a lone vigilante, and very few of the many costumed assistants, sidekicks and allies he's acquired over the years really seem to fit into his world.

The succession of Robins, the various replacement Batgirls, Azrael, the shallow marketing gimmick that is Batwoman - none of them ring true, for me. None of them convince me that they really belong in Batman's Gotham.

There are exceptions. I love that Dick Grayson was allowed to grow into his own man as Nightwing. I love that Huntress is at once a mirror of Batman's own scarred psyche, and a reminder of the tightrope he walks between justice and revenge. And, most of all, I love that Barbara Gordon was able to reinvent herself as Oracle.

I first encountered Oracle in the opening chapters of the "mega-series" No Man's Land, taking charge of the GCPD as everyone else around her fell apart. I hadn't read A Killing Joke back then and so I had no idea how the Barbara Gordon who'd been the original Batgirl had come to be confined to a wheelchair, but her resolve and strength of character captivated me immediately.

It was entirely right that someone who had already had to overcome so much personal tragedy in her life should be the one person with the strength of will to force a sense of order onto the chaos of a Gotham destroyed by earthquake. The moment of emotion she allows herself in Batman: Cataclysm when Harvey Bullock finally declares he's going to look for her missing father James Gordon is one of the very few comic book moments that has stayed with me ever since that first time I read it.

But, however much I love Oracle, and however much I may tell myself that Barbara Gordon's perky, plucky and cheerful Batgirl is as out of place in Batman's world as, say, Stephanie Brown's ditzy Spoiler ... I like her! I'm sure it's partly down to nostalgia for the 1960s TV series, but it's not only that. I also think she was one of the best characters in the recent animated series The Batman (and far less irritating than Robin!) So, when I saw that Eaglemoss had added a Barbara Gordon Batgirl figurine to its DC Comics Super Hero Collection, I couldn't have been more pleased.

Yes, I know there are a lot of Cassie Cain and Steph Brown fans out there who won't be happy to see Babs reclaim the Bat-mantle when the latest DC reboot launches in September, but that's a discussion for another day. For now I'm just happy my collection of Bat-family figurines will finally have the Batgirl it's been missing. You know ... the real Batgirl!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Black Canary reboot: Damned if you do ...

Black Canary's new plumageYou know who this is? As far as I can tell it's the new costume for Black Canary, redesigned as part of the much vaunted DC reboot that launches next month.

I stumbled across this by accident a few days ago and thought: hey, if that is Black Canary, DC have done a pretty good job on this particular redesign. I won't pretend I'm a fan of Wonder Woman's new blue longjohns or Superman's jeans, but this one works.

Well, that's what I thought, but apparently I was wrong. I trawled the web today trying to find this particular image to post here. It took me a while and, when I did find it again, I must admit I was surprised to find it was in a forum in which disgruntled fans were nominating it as a contender for the worst of the new costumes in the rebooted DCU!

This really did take me aback. To me, it keeps everything that's iconic about Canary (well, insofar as anything can be "iconic" about a B-list character!) but updates it in a way that's far more ... now.

She still sports a flowing mane of blonde hair, of course; she still wears what appears to be black leather; her 1980s cropped biker jacket has gone but only to be replaced by a more modern jump-suit tunic (reminiscent of those worn by the X-Men in their recent movie incarnations); and, most importantly, she may now be wearing some kind of quilted or reinforced leggings instead of her trademark black fishnets, but the criss-cross patterning very elegantly manages to pay homage to her former leg-wear of choice. How could anyone object to that?

What every smart-dressed Canary is wearing in Smallville these days!I don't often feel sorry for Dan Didio and DC but, on this occasion, I really do feel they've fallen foul of Bart's Law: you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't!) After years of being regaled for keeping the character's outfit fetishistic, they've finally changed it only to find that they're just as much under fire as they ever were. No one cares that the new look is both modern and respectful to the character's traditional appearance. The only thing they care about is that it's changed. At all! Fandom, it seems, just isn't happy unless it's having a good moan!

Personally, I think we should all be grateful. This redesign could have been so much worse. Remember this laughably atrocious look they gave her when Black Canary appeared in Smallville? Part Formula 1 driver, part bondage model: now that was a redesign worth complaining about!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 - already a strong contender for Most Disappointing Game of the Year!As a huge fan of Bioware's now ancient Knights of the Old Republic games and their more recent offerings (Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect), I was willing to believe that - when it came to RPGs - Bioware could do no wrong. But that was before I'd played Dragon Age 2.

Having now played that game all the way through several times, I have to admit this is probably going to take the prize for Most Disappointing Game of the Year.

Don't get me wrong - there were far worse fantasy RPGs out this year. Venetica and even D&D's Daggerdale spring to mind. But with such a strong pedigree behind it, expectations for Dragon Age 2 were high. And, whilst those expectations may have been impossible to live up to in every respect, it seemed inconceivable that Bioware could miss the mark in quite so many crucial ways and by such a huge margin as it did with DA2.

One commenter online said it seemed as if it had been put together by Bioware's B-Team and it's hard to argue with that assessment. Compared to DA:O, it has to be said, the game was ... lacklustre. Uninspired. Pedestrian. It was as if Bioware had forgotten everything they knew about what made DA:O successful.

So what exactly was wrong?

Well, there were three major factors that stood out for me: the characters, the story they were taking part in, and the setting in which that story took place. There were other niggles and many online critics have already moaned about the lack of costume options for your companions, for example, but - for me - these were the three areas in which the game failed so miserably that it would have still been a disappointment even if everything else had been addressed. Let's take them one at a time - (WARNING: some fairly detailed spoilers follow!)

Isabela - a buxom pirate wench with the voice of ... a BBC news reader?!The characters

In a game like this there are two things that give characters personality: the quality of the scripted dialogue and the quality of the voice acting that delivers it.

Mass Effect was universally (and rightly) lauded for giving a voice to all its characters, including the player-controlled hero. Clearly inspired by the success of ME, Dragon Age 2 tried to do the same. Unfortunately, its script writers just weren't up to the task and the voice actors were decidedly second rate. If your choice of hero (Hawke) was male, he sounded as if he'd been lobotomised (or, in the parlance of the game, made Tranquil). If you played as a female Hawke, your character had the prim, perfectly accent-less delivery of a BBC newsreader. The effect, in either case, was a character without personality.

Sadly, the supporting cast of companions fared little better. Some were just so unpleasant (notably Fenris and Carver) that you'd never willingly choose them to join your party unless their skills were absolutely essential for the completion of a quest. Others, like the female soldier Aveline or the buxom pirate wench Isabela, also suffered from BBC-announcer syndrome. The only characters to display genuine and endearing personalities of their own were the dwarf Varric (who also narrates the story) and the elven blood mage Merrill (superbly voiced by Torchwood's Eve Myles).

Merrill - superbly voiced by Torchwood's Eve MylesHow could Bioware have seemingly not realised that it was the characters' individual personalities which had made DA:O so much fun to play? Where was the playful banter which had given Morrigan her sneering air of superiority? Or Shale's condescending disdain? Where was a character with a fraction of Wynne's matronly warmth? Or Leliana's coquettish French lisp? Or Zevran's libidinous Spanish charm? Hell, I even found myself feeling nostalgic for Oghren's drunken buffoonery and Alistair's pitiful whining - at least they had personalities of some description!

Given the apparent "scrimping" that seems to characterise almost every aspect of this game, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Bioware had tried to save on cost by using British voice actors instead of their more expensive US counterparts. If this is the case, they got what they paid for. A collection of indistinguishable, RADA-trained, middle-class nondescripts, more preoccupied with pronouncing every vowel and consonant with precision than they were with breathing life and individuality into the characters.

The story

The story divides into three chapters. In the first, you must undertake a succession of minor quests in order to earn enough gold to be able to join an expedition to the Deep Roads. These quests all take place in and around the city of Kirkwall, an ancient fortress-city ruled with a rod of iron by a certain Knight-Commander Meredith. In the third and final chapter, you'll perform some more quests (again, in Kirkwall) before coming face-to-face with Meredith herself for a final showdown.

Qunari - completely irrelevant to the plot!So far, so good. Just about. The problem with the story is that, in between those opening and closing chapters, the middle section of the game also requires you to undertake a succession of minor quests (again in Kirkwall!) before having to defeat one of the game's big, bad bosses: a Qunari chieftain.

Now, not only is this particular Qunari ridiculously difficult to defeat given the level you've reached by this point, but he's totally irrelevant to the plot. This of course means that the whole of this second chapter has no relevance to the main story either. It's padding.

Maybe it will have some bearing on DA3 but, as far as this game is concerned, the whole second chapter serves no narrative purpose whatsoever. It's there purely to make the game longer. Admittedly, there is a connection between the Qunari and one of your companions, but no attempt is made to tie this development into the main plot. The whole of the middle section of the game could be removed and no one would be any the wiser. It's the kind of episodic story-telling you'd expect from a twelve year old.

The setting

Did you notice we referred to Kirkwall three times in that discussion of the story? Yes? Well, that's because you never get to go anywhere else! Okay, so there is a mountain path just outside the city (but it is only the one mountain path!) and there is a coast road nearby (but it is only the one coast road!) and that's it. The whole game is played pretty much inside Kirkwall and along those two roads. Does that sound boring? Well, yeah ... it is!

Kirkwall - nice place for a stroll ... the first two hundred times!There are some quests that can only be undertaken at night time and some which can only be carried out during the day. Bioware have described this ability to toggle between night and day as an "innovation". In reality, though, it's all still Kirkwall and, given the shoddy production elsewhere, it really does seem like a feeble attempt to persuade we poor players that we're not really playing every quest in the same three or four streets ... Except, of course, we are!

Remember the variety on offer in Dragon Age: Origins? Some quests in the Brecilian forest, others in towers and dungeons; some in the dwarven city of Orzammar, others in the human stronghold of Denerim? Remember the surreal environments of the Fade? The labyrinthine tunnels of the Deep Roads? The dozen different landscapes in which random encounters and side quests could take place? Apparently oblivious of everything that made DA: Origins so absorbing, Bioware have jettisoned that entire world and trapped you inside a single city for the whole of the game.

It's another example of the total lack of imagination which pervades every important aspect of DA2. Whether that stunted development is due to short-sighted management cost-saving or the development team having simply exhausted its reserves of creativity, I have no idea. Either way, it reduces much of the game to a repetitive slog.

Let's be honest, most computer games are built around a number of combat sequences. During the course of a game you might upgrade weapons or acquire new skills, but most quests will still consist mainly of trying to kill a slew of enemies in a relatively enclosed space. Giving the player a variety of different environments in which to battle those enemies is one of the key ways in which a games developer can make each battle seem different to the one before. Did Bioware somehow forget that?

Now, to end on as positive a note as I can, if you've never played a Bioware RPG before and you haven't experienced the highs of Dragon Age: Origins, you may still get some enjoyment out of DA2. It's certainly better than many other RPGs out there just now. But that, I'm afraid, is about as positive as I can get. In fact, if you really haven't played DA:O before, I'd have to recommend you get hold of a copy of that instead. It's looking a little dated now, but it's cheap at the moment and it's a far superior gaming experience in almost every respect.

Post script: I understand there's an expansion pack due to be released about now - Dragon Age 2: Legacy. Apparently, it will take you outside Kirkwall (gasp!). I suspect it will be too little to make much difference to the overall enjoyment of the game and, for me at least, it's already far too late. I have no intention of paying for an expansion that, by introducing a degree of variety, is effectively little more than a patch for one of the game's fundamental design flaws.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Shades Volume 1 in print and on the PSP

Towards the end of last year, I finally got my act together and completed all the necessary stuff I had to do in order to get the first volume of my graphic novel Shades available in print. I'm sure you don't need to see the front cover again, so - just for a change - here's the back cover!

See all those nice comments being quoted by Stan and Doug? Those are quotes from all the wonderful online readers at Drunk Duck. How could you possibly read those and not want a copy of your own?!

Readers in the US can buy the print version of Volume 1 from Indy Planet - just $24.99 (plus P&P) for 144 full colour pages! Readers outside the US can also buy from Indy Planet, obviously, but - given the high cost of US international postage - you guys might just find it cheaper to buy direct from me - the same 144 pages for a paltry £14.99 (plus P&P)!

Of course, if you're one of those hip kids with a Sony PSP, you probably think dead-tree comics are old hat, right? You want a digital version that you can keep in your pocket and read on the move. Well, now you can have just that - Shades Volume 1 is now available at the PSN Comic Store and is available for download to your PSP. And the best part? The digital download costs only £3.19 (and no P&P!)

Now, I know what you're wondering. How can a full size comic page work on a PSP screen? It's too small, right? Nope - not at all! Digital publisher Orb Entertainment has done a bang-up job of converting every panel of every page specifically to work on the PSP, and it looks fantastic!