Great Moments in Comic History: One Bad Day

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Welcome to my third tribute to look into the modern history of comicdom and bring you back some of the medium’s most memorable stories. Like I said before, some make it because they represent an important landmark, some are defining moments for classic characters, and some are just so flat out brilliant that they cast an endless shadow. This one is all of those things.

Batman: The Killing Joke has retained its status as one of the absolute defining stories of the Caped Crusader since it debuted in 1988.Unlike previous entries, it isn’t an entire arc, but a single issue, albeit an extended one. Still, it’s a single issue that has remained in print for over 25 years. Tim Burton calls it the first comic he ever loved and used it as the inspiration for his 1989 film that redefined how Batman and the Joker are portrayed outside of comic books for all time to a generation that grew up with Adam West battling Cesar Romero. Old school spoilers ahead.

In addition to presenting what has become the Joker’s definitive origin story as told by one of comicdom’s most storied and brilliant writers, Alan Moore, The Killing Joke is also a defining treatise on his “two sides of the same coin” relationship to Batman. But arguably the most far-reaching event in the story is the paralyzing of former Batgirl, Barbara Gordon.

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Yeah, Joker was not messing around. As part of his crazy nostalgia-fueled plan to drive police Commissioner Jim Gordon as insane as he is to prove a point that all it takes is “one bad day” to break somebody and turn a man into a monster he puts a bullet in Babs, strips her down, and has a little impromptu photo session which he later shares with her mourning father.

The ultimate irony of this act –which Joker is not even aware of, but would surely have appreciated- is that after all the dangers she faced at the Dark Knight’s side serving as Batgirl, she gets taken out in a random act of senseless violence perpetrated by a madman while she’s sitting quietly at home.

While this could arguably be seen as a “woman in refrigerator” situation, DC actually made this the best thing to ever happen to the character as the aftermath of this event leads to the wheelchair –bound Barbara eventually taking up the mantle of the superhacker Oracle where she became a much more effective and unique character than she would have been as just another character in a batsuit.

In spite of the brevity of the book, The Killing Joke features a wealth of character development between hero and villain and could be considered the definitive story of the two. Everything from the opening scene in Arkham Asylum to the final confrontation ending in Batman laughing for the first time (either while devolving into madness, killing the Joker, or simply in response to the grave irony, depending on your interpretation) every panel screams “classic storytelling”.

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Brian Bollard’s art is some of the best ever featured in a Batman story and with Alan Moore’s genius brain directing it with precision, the result often has me flipping back and forth to marvel at the artistry of the transitions between Joker’s nostalgic origin story fantasies and the returns to real time as he attempts to justify his very existence. And I have to say that it’s a pretty special comic that can convincingly pull off an original musical number.

Among the insane visuals and numerous artistic flourishes associated with Joker’s tragic past and his insane homicidal present, there are a few moments of such genuineness from that you actually can see things his way, if just for a second. One panel of real emotion and confusion from him goes so far. Coupled with his amazing monologue about the random, disgusting, unjust, horrifying randomness of the world we live in and with insanity being the only way he could cope with living in an insane world, you can really feel sorry for the guy, even having just watched him gun down and violate one of the DC Universe’s most beloved figures. Moments like this are what keep people reading comics for their entire lives looking for another moment of such pure storytelling excellence.

Is The Killing Joke the greatest single issue of a comic book ever? Possibly. I haven’t exactly read them all, but if anybody has ever read a better and more definitive self-contained sequential art story in a mere 46 pages I’d love to hear about it. It’s essentially a short story that costs as much (or more) than a full graphic novel and is worth every penny.

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This image alone is worth it.

If you know much about Alan Moore, you may have noted that the man is often as looney as he is brilliant, showing once again that genius and madness are not separated by a solid line. Sometimes you get Watchmen or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen repelling Martian tripods, and sometimes you get Lost Girls (look it up) and antichrist Harry Potter battling Mary Poppins. With The Killing Joke, Moore created one of the defining Batman stories and then decided it was garbage once everybody liked it. He’s just that big of a troll.

His claim that the story adds nothing to the mythos of the Dark Knight is true in the sense that these themes between Joker and Batman existed before, but there’s little doubt that Moore did an exceptional job crystallizing them. DaVinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and I’d say that distilling the essence of Joker’s psyche and dynamic with his nemesis as they had been built over decades into a single story is quite a worthwhile addition, even if it technically added nothing new.

Moore also publicly regretted crippling Barbara Gordon, claiming if he knew it was going to be perpetuated by other writers, he’d never have done it. This is even more baffling since as Oracle she became a much more unique, interesting, and inspiring character. Even if that was the only thing that happened in the whole book, it’d have been worthwhile. I’m chalking all this protesting up to artistic eccentricities.

Thankfully, we don’t need the author’s permission to enjoy his work and The Killing Joke is about as enjoyable as superhero comics get. There’s a long list of classic Batman stories and this one is near the top of just about any possible discussion of the best of the best. It’s brilliantly plotted, looks like a million bucks, brims over with artistry in both words and visuals, rocks the world of each major character within its pages, and changed the Batman mythos and the way people look at it forever. And people are still arguing about that last page over a quarter century later. Sorry, Moore. History has spoken.

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Great Moments in Comic History: The Terra Within

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Welcome to the belated part two of my series chronicling some of the most memorable comic book storylines. Like I said before, out of the countless tales spread across the medium over decades past some arcs remain memorable and classic reads. Such a story can attain this status because it represents an important milestone for the art form, a defining moment for a classic character, or just be so awesome that nothing else ever lives up to it.

Last time I delved into a defining moment in the life of my favorite comic character, Deadpool. This time I’m going for historical significance and taking you back to DC Comics circa 1984 and the then-New Teen Titans and their wave-making arc The Judas Contract. The primary events took place in Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44 and the 1984 Annual, although as with most key arcs, the groundwork had been laid throughout the run. There will be spoilers, although I’d say the statute of limitations has expired after 30 years and much of this will be common knowledge to veteran comic geeks whether they’ve read the story or not.

The Teen Titans started with the creatively bankrupt idea of having all of the annoying kid sidekicks of the DC superheroes join forces. Robin! Kid Flash! Wonder Girl! Speedy! Aqualad! Like the Justice League but inferior in every possible way! All of that meh in one book! But in the 80’s the concept was relaunched with a slew of original characters augmenting the sidekicks and a more mature worldview and the Titans we know and love were born.

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Regret Nothing: Seconds is a Worthy Successor to Scott Pilgrim

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I could cry for the time I’ve wasted
But that’s a waste of time and tears.
And I know just what I’d change if went back in time somehow
But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

-Willie Nelson

But what if there was, Willie? It’s been four long years without anything new to read from Bryan Lee O’Malley. This absence has been conspicuous because in that time, the film adaptation of his instant classic Scott Pilgrim series has become the epitome of the kind of awesome cult flick that geeks can still call their own. The dreaded mainstream has taken Marvel and DC’s heroes out of nerdville and made them into pop culture prom kings and queens, but we’ll always have Scott. Some things just weren’t meant for the mainstream.

Nonetheless, Scott Pilgrim was that rare work of art that perfectly melds self-aware pop counterculture sensibilities with deeper themes and metaphors that are somehow both extremely relatable and ingenious on a level that too few works are even willing to strive for these days. I’m still kicking myself for being stupid enough to put off reading it for as long as I did just because the drawings were cartoony (it took the film to convince me). Bryan Lee O’Malley is one of a kind and it’s about freakin’ time he gave us another helping. Seconds, if you will.

Seconds is that follow up four years in the making. No pressure, though. It’s only got to blow my mind, make me laugh, get me thinking deep philosophical thoughts about the nature of life, and make me feel deep human emotions from looking at little chibi people the way the once in a lifetime epic that preceded it did. Easy peasy. How do you follow up Scott Pilgrim? You give the reader something they would never have expected. Again. Continue reading

Should Loot be a Driving Force in Video Games

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Start a conversation about Borderlands. Start a conversation about Destiny. Start a conversation about Diablo. What are you going to end up discussing more often than not? Dat loot. Who doesn’t love that feeling of gunning down an enemy and seeing something super-shiny and potentially valuable pop out of its lifeless corpse? Nobody. That’s who. But is this increasingly prevalent Skinnerian gameplay mechanic hurting the gaming experience more than it’s helping?

In-game reward systems have been something I’ve been struggling with for nearly as long as I’ve been gaming. Going all the way back to early RPG’s which combined the ability to use currency to purchase weapons for your characters with random drops and chests in dungeons. You could blow all of your hard-earned money from hours of grinding on a fancy new sword for your warrior and then immediately find a chest containing something better, making your purchase a gigantic waste.

As gaming has gone on to improve and mature in so many ways, this is one area that has failed to evolve with it. In fact, it has gotten progressively worse and now we may be reaching a breaking point. Games like Borderlands and Too Human throw so much loot at you that it becomes a massive distraction. With limited menu space and limitless items being chucked in your direction as you play the game you quickly have to begin sorting out what you want to use, what you want to sell, and what you need to discard to make room for more stuff to use or sell.

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Choose your weapon.

Deciding which weapon or armour you want to equip can be a titanic struggle in and of itself. There are typically several attributes, buffs, and sometimes bonuses for equipping certain items together where the player needs to decide which attributes they value over others to decide which way to go. This could take seconds or several minutes. And even if you take an hour calculating the best possible configuration of equipment to maximize your effectiveness, there are odds that the next enemy you kill will drop something so good that it will all but require you to equip it, meaning you no longer get the matching set bonus and potentially making the rest of your equipment no longer worth having. Back to square one.

Dragon Age II fixed this by scattering personalized upgrades for each secondary character across the game and players rebelled and demanded moar loot. Inquisition has sought to balance it out somewhat with an impressive focus on crafting and upgrading your own weapons, but it suffers from constant loot drops that clog up your inventory and make money all but worthless. Then there’s the fact that most of the good drops are unequippable for hour and hours thanks to maddening arbitrary level limitations (which no game should do, ever)coupled with very slow character leveling.

Then there’s the co-op factor. Some games subscribe to a first-come-first-serve rule on loot drops where it’s a race to claim each item, leading to a non-cooperative atmosphere in what is supposed to be a cooperative game. Others randomly assign loot, often giving members who may not even be able to use the item and may have only minimally contributed to the fight the spoils and leaving others in the cold. Destiny solved this problem somewhat by having different drops for each player, but it isn’t a game to bring up when idealizing loot mechanics.

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Pictured: becoming legend by shooting fish in a barrel.

Surely you’ve heard of Bungie’s now legendary Cave of Wonders, which was a low-level enemy spawn point where players could sit back and endlessly shoot the fodder, which would in turn drop stuff as good as any other enemies in the game since Destiny’s system doesn’t differentiate between the weakest and strongest foes in terms of loot. Well, until they patched it, a whole lot of players decided that instead of, you know, PLAYING THE GAME they’d just shoot into that hole in the ground to get the best equipment as fast as they could rather than obtain it via doing things that are fun.

This is probably the biggest single indicator that gamers’ ideas of what they want out of a gaming experience are changing in disturbing ways. Rather than exploring and achieving, we are becoming obsessed with immediate and constant positive reinforcement in the form of flashy (but usually useless) in-game rewards. I’m beginning to think that we may never get to a point where games are willing to make you really earn your rewards, lest gamers lose interest and move on almost immediately.

I actually found no small amount of satisfaction in working towards goals in Destiny; saving up and buying the legendary gear of my choosing instead of just going through motions and hoping for a random drop that suited both my playstyle and aesthetic desires. I’m glad Bungie left this option in, but I wonder if anyone else felt the same way when all I hear from other players is “lootlootlootloot”.

Diablo 3 ran into problems when gamers found out that the best way to get good gear was not playing the game, but in paying for it in its notorious Auction House, where real money could be traded for fictional goods. Naturally, this was exploited to the point where there was no practical reason to grind when you could buy for a fdiablo 3 auction houseew bucks what could take you dozens of hours to attain in-game.

In multiplayer gaming, nobody wants to be caught with underpowered gear. In PvP or co-op, you want to bring your A game without being held back by weak stats, and when a game’s culture starts to revolve around exploiting gameplay mechanics or auction/trade systems to attain the strongest equipment, then something is wrong.

Why should we be happy hoping for random drops? And is anybody pleased with a game that all but requires you to pay real money for the gear to compete? Is any of this potentially more rewarding than saving up for something that is perfect for you in-game and then buying it and knowing that you’re not going to get its like from the next chest you run across or enemy you kill?

I, for one, would love to see more gameplay rewards based on achievement and dedication rather than random loot mechanics. A focus on branching upgrades for equipment (something Destiny flirts with) instead of having the player constantly changing gear and perpetually seeking something better would put a lot more focus on the gameplay and exploration instead of hunting for exploits and really invest players into putting more thought into what they want out of their gear instead of just letting whatever random drop is the strongest rule their world. If nothing else, it’d be something different.

Are Some Games Too Nice to Play Twice?

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This is something I’ve been struggling with for most of this generation: whether or not I want to replay some of my favorite titles before moving on. Games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV, and The Last of Us; but especially epic trilogies like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

Traditional thinking would be that of course you should experience your favorite games again and again! Bang for your buck! Know every nook and cranny! And being that familiar with Final Fantasy IV (a game I played through maybe a dozen times) didn’t at all reduce my love of the DS remake so there’s personal precedent that that may be true. But there’s a big part of me that feels like in this day and age familiarity breeds contempt.

As the old winking axiom says, you never forget your first time and my first time playing BioWare’s games in particular were so overwhelmingly great it almost feels like a disservice to revisit them in their entirety. I played through most of them right after my “real” playthrough just to do the opposite of what I did before, but when you’re doing that, it’s just not the same. I ended up quitting before the end almost every time, which is a sign that something wasn’t quite clicking.

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Pictured: best ending ever.

When you’ve spent 40+ hours doing everything you can do and squeezing every last drop of awesome out of a truly great in-game universe and its story, there’s arguably nothing more satisfying in my experience as a gamer. Sometimes I feel genuinely sad as the end credits roll on a game knowing I’ve already experienced pretty much everything there is to experience and I want to hold onto that feeling that I’ve just completed a true interactive work of art. Going back to dick around and use cheats and act like a jerk and skip the cutscenes risks making the game feel less special in the long run, you know?

One of my favorite games of the last gen was Catherine. I loved it so much I became determined to achieve every ending. And I did. But after that first memorable, hard-fought playthrough my dislike of puzzle games kicked in and I turned the difficulty down and super-jumped my way through the nightmares, made choices only based on what ending I wanted with the walkthrough in my lap, and skipped through the cutscenes whenever possible, only caring about seeing the end result.

I loved seeing all the different endings, but my behavior in getting them seems like I was selling one of my favorite games short. Games are meant to be fun, challenging, and engrossing rather than just something you do to get a certain result, yeah? The repeat playthroughs felt so impersonal, like I was just on auto mode until the ending cutscene.

Anyways, back to BioWare. I keep telling myself that I’m going to download the DLC I have yet to experience and play the entire trilogies in their entirety front to back. And why wouldn’t I? They were hands down my favorite thing from the last decade of gaming. But some other part of my brain is screaming that this would somehow diminish my rose-tinted memories.

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That is the worst-armored combat vehicle in sci-fi history.

How many times have I watched the Star Wars trilogy? Plenty. Recently I was watching it yet again with my son and I noticed something disturbing: I wasn’t experiencing that joy I remembered. I was picking apart the dialogue and the costumes and little technical storytelling flaws and not experiencing it like I used to. I’d seen it all before and loved all of the love. All that was left was looking for something to hate. That’s a crummy feeling.

Video games in particular suffer from this because the involved technology improves so constantly and dramatically. Remember when Final Fantasy VII seemed like awesome graphics? The smoothness of controls and other subtle luxuries we’ve become slowly accustomed to in past years often makes successfully revisiting classics really dependent on nostalgia. It usually takes decades for films to age and seem quaint, but in gaming it only takes a few years.

And here we are just getting into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Another trilogy I adore is coming to a close and another one I’ve vowed to replay in its entirety. But after I finish what early reviewers are saying is the best iteration of the franchise, if I go back to play the first is it going to seem lame in comparison? Am I going to get bored or clinical and have that be the way I remember a game I enjoyed so much in its day?

I’m never going to get that feeling of meeting my favorite characters or being surprised and delighted by a particularly funny sidequest for the first time. I’ve already formulated my delta attack of grease bomb/flames/earthquake and laughed my evil laugh as my foes fall down, burn, then fall down and burn some more countless times. I’ve already raged that those abilities weren’t available in the sequel and loved it anyway. With so many great Dragon Age memories, shouldn’t that be enough? Do I really need to play those games again when there’s nothing left to prove?

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No, Varric, but you could button up anyways.

And with so many possibilities in Mass Effect should I do what I did the first time and play “my” trilogy again, just making minor adjustments to fix mistakes I regret (I’m sorry, Legion and Yeoman Chambers. SO SORRRYYYYY!) and get my perfect result knowing what’s going to happen with no consequences in store or should I really commit to a new path and try to experience the story in a different way without being clinical and ruining the magic? Oh shit, I think I’ve already done just that by thinking about it too much. It’s the dreaded lose-lose!

But what if they overhaul the old games and upgrade them to bring them into the next generation with all of the DLC already on disc? Should I wait for that? It seems a likely possibility seeing that nobody seems to want to make any new games for the next gen consoles.

In my day, you bought a simplistic game about jumping and/or shooting abd punching, played it again and again until you couldn’t stand the site of it and moved on. But now we’re all sophisticated and junk. Games are art and can actively engage us on an emotional and intellectual level, but only so far as we can stay engrossed in the interactive world.

There are some films I love that I’ve never watched twice because the original was so memorable and surprising when I first saw them that that’s the way I like to remember them. Have games finally reached the point where they can invoke that kind of intellectualized protectiveness? Looks like.

I have a feeling whether or not I ultimately decide to dig out some discs and begin my favorite adventures from the past generation anew will be decided by time more than anything else. Part of the problem is the constant wealth of new games tempting me, but once I’ve squeezed the last of the untasted juice out of my PS3 and 360 and if their successors are still not impressing me, maybe, just maybe I’ll find out I’ve been wrong about this and it’ll turn out I can recapture the magic that makes a modern classic a classic. We’ll see.

Splendid Isolation: Why the Latest Alien is the Perfect Virtual Organism

“I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don’t want to see their faces
I don’t want to hear them scream.” –Warren Zevon

There’s been a disappointing lack of hype for this new Alien game. Maybe it’s the bad taste of Colonial Marines still in the mouths of franchise fans, or maybe people just don’t believe that it’s possible to make a video game that truly captures the spirit of a tense cinema classic. Believe the hype (or lack thereof, I suppose), horror fans. Alien: Isolation is the real deal and possibly the shape of things to come in horror gaming.

But I’ve not come here to offer up a glowing review like so many critics have. Reviews are so passé. This is Gamemoir and rather than chalk up all of the game’s pluses (great gameplay/graphics/nostalgic detail!) and minuses (bugs/loading screens/lame ending) or list gameplay modes I’d rather discuss the thing that makes this game so much more than the Bioshock clone it may appear to be. The thing that goes bump in the air ducts and keeps you silently praying to whatever in-game deity you depend on to keep you safe and turn its attention somewhere else: that wild and wacky titular bastard of a xenomorph.

One thing that this game does and does extremely well is atmosphere. It learned its lessons from the first two films that the longer the build-up, the more satisfying (and terrifying) the reveal, especially when you already know what’s coming. Amanda Ripley’s initial few hours stranded on the massive ruined space station Sevastopol exploring the dark corridors littered in graffiti where violent, paranoid looters roam and open fire on anything that moves are intense. The loneliness and desperation are palpable as she searches for a trace of her mother’s fate and for some way to contact her ship and get off of this anarchic, decaying heap. It’s already a psychologically effective horror title from the get-go. And just knowing that one of the most classic monsters in the history of fiction is out there waiting for you somewhere makes every unexplained sound sinister.

The first time you encounter the Alien is scripted and you’ll see it coming from a mile away. But beyond that, anything can happen. As a pulse-pounding soundtrack kicks in for the first time since arrival, you have to make your way to a commute system and wait for the tram to arrive. And it takes its long, noisy time. Meanwhile, unknown to the player, the xenomorph is now off of its leash. Up to this point in the game, you’ve been free to sprint around like any other game. But now when you run, you make noise. And something is listening.

The transport arrived as I crouched behind cover some distance away, peaking out and certain from the intensity of the music and racket of the tram’s arrival that the Alien must be closing in. When the doors opened, I dashed from my cover into the car and began frantically looking for the button to get me out of there. I heard a horrifying screech followed by rapid footsteps and turned around just in time to see this:

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First of many to come.

In space, no one can hear you scream. But I was in my room. Thank God my wife had her earbuds in because she startles easily and is not used to the sound of her horror-addict husband being audibly terrified by a video game. On my second try the tram arrived, the doors opened, and I slowly/carefully made my way in and found the switch to get going without further incident. Lesson learned. From here on, it was crouchwalk city.

The game does not script most of your Alien encounters. It simply gives you tasks to complete, populates your world with a spattering of (mostly) hostile humans, creepy low-rent androids with a polite murderous streak, and a relentless invincible predator that does what it wants, when it wants. The Alien is run by an AI that not only reacts to what you are doing, but has a mind of its own. It’s unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. And yes, I admire its purity.

Sometimes the xenomorph doesn’t even rear its ugly head for hours at a time. If you’re quiet, that is. Sometimes, you may deliberately bring it out with an improvised flashbang or other noisy device when a group of looters stands in your way and you’d rather pick their corpses clean after watching the monster shred them one by one than try to sneak past them and risk a noisy firefight. Just remember what a double-edged sword is. Once you unleash the beast, you don’t know what it’s going to do and there’s no guaranteed way to avoid it.

Even during those stretches when the Alien doesn’t appear, it colors your every action and thought. You can hear it in the ducts. You might see it following you on your motion tracker. You may think that as long as you walk around with the tracker in front of your face, you’ll know what to expect. But then it’ll be awfully easy not to see the slime dripping down from that vent opening above you and find yourself pulled up into a well-placed ambush.

Or maybe it’s cornered you in a room and you’re hiding inside of a locker peering out of the tiny slits trying to see if it’s still there, straining your ears for the sound of footsteps. You take out your motion tracker and hear a rapid beeping. So does the monster that’s been standing right next to you, out of sight, waiting for you to do something stupid.

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It’s game over, man. Game over.

Sometimes, you even have to hold Amanda’s breath to avoid being heard and watch her health dwindle away while you wait for the creature to move on. If this all sounds like it’s unforgiving and hard as hell, you’ve been listening. Alien: Isolation is not a game that cares about making anything easy on you. This title will put you through the hell Amanda Ripley is experiencing. But it’s a fair kind of hell. Every single death was either the kind of bad luck one could expect a woman stranded on a decommissioned post-apocalypse microcosm of a space station slowly falling into a gas giant to encounter, or my own damn fault. You need stealth skills, savvy, and a little bit of luck at times to get to the end of this game, but it feels like a true accomplishment when you do.

There’s one particularly trying sequence that I would estimate took me about 4 hours to beat. If one were to play this mission flawlessly, I suspect it would take about five minutes or so. I can’t lie to you about your chances….but you have my sympathy. I died more times than I could even begin to count, but it was also the best sequence in the game; one nightmare after another. Finding your way through the Medbay with the Alien in full prowl mode, a crew of trigger-happy looters randomly wandering about, and some killer androids thrown in for good measure is a lot to take. Especially when you find out the hard way that the rogue strangle-happy robots and the horrific rape-monster from outer space get along just fine with each other.

In case this hasn’t been made clear, if the Alien lays eyes on you for most of the game, you are just dead. All you can do when it decides to investigate a noise or if it just feels like stretching its legs is hide and hope. Hope it goes away, hope it doesn’t look in your direction, hope it decides to stop wandering around the exact freaking corridor you need to pass through and finds a route to an exit that won’t take it right to you. There are a number of devices like flares and noisemakers you can use to lure it in a direction of your choosing for a moment provided you can clear enough distance to use them without exposing yourself, but once it loses interest in your distraction, there’s nothing to stop it from hauling ass right to where you’re slowly and quietly creeping away to on a whim.

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I know, Rip. I know.

All of this adds up to an immense amount of sustained tension. I’ve never played anything like this game. For all of its legitimate annoyances, Alien: Isolation is as much a landmark masterpiece of video game horror as the original film was for horror movies. They’ve both got aspects that could have been handled better, but for their respective times, they are both classics.

Ridley Scott’s vision of a dirty, run-down, dystopian post-space age and a woman’s struggle against an organism of potentially apocalyptic proportions changed the feel of sci-fi horror forever and I get the feeling that Creative Assembly’s homage to that movie and their use of a near-constant artificially intelligent threat could potentially change the way developers approach survival horror in the future. This is an experiment that really panned out in my opinion.

Moments like the triumph of the first time you light your extraterrestrial antagonist up with a flamethrower and see it retreat from you for a change, and the second time where you bring it to bear and the Alien recognizes it and backs away with a cringe are amazing. Watching the xenomorph stalk you and test you as you confront it with the one thing it fears, all too aware of how limited your fuel is  is something unlike anything else I’ve experienced in a video game.

It’s not too often games these days show you something you’ve never seen before, and Alien: Isolation does it more than once with its exceptional creature AI. Blended with one of the best virtual environments I’ve ever experienced, the end result is that this game makes you scared and paranoid; it makes you think on your feet and improvise, it makes you learn from your mistakes, it forces you make the most out of everything you can lay hands on, and it challenges you relentlessly without ever making you feel that you can’t win. Basically, it’s a template for the perfect survival horror game. If that sounds like something that may interest you, I’ve got to recommend you stock up on valium and give this game a shot.

Great Moments in Comic History: Deadpool Saves the World (Sort Of)

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Although comic series last for decades and often span hundreds of issues and dozens of stories over the years, there are some arcs that stand out from the crowd and remain especially significant among fans of sequential art narratives. It could be a story that changes everything in its own universe, a tale of such quality that everything before and after seems to pale in comparison, or just a defining moment for a beloved character. Over the next couple months, I’m going to be breaking some of these down for you.

This week, I’m going with that last one and exploring the ultimate motivations of one of Marvel’s up-and-coming superstars, the one and only Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool. As I’ve written before, I’m not super pleased with what Marvel has done with Wade Wilson ever since he broke out as a mainstream favorite after his loathsome big screen debut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, major roles in video games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and an obnoxious number of appearances across the entire comic universe. Wade has long been Marvel’s funniest character, but only in recent years has he become an actual joke.

So right now, I’m taking us back to the late 90’s to revisit Deadpool’s classic heyday and Joe Kelly’s Dead Reckoning storyline that served as a culmination of Wade’s attempt to put his ways of greed and murder behind him and become a true hero. It’s an arc that had a long buildup, a huge payoff, and in so many ways defines Deadpool not just as a zany comic relief character, but as a twisted but well-meaning antihero who uses humor as a defense mechanism to salve the wound of his own hopelessness. There will be spoilers.

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Is Constantine the Best Comic Show on Television?

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Comic book culture is on a major roll these days with an almost constant stream of films and television series making household names out of their characters. But let’s forget about movies and just look at TV. We’ve got The Flash, Arrow, The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Gotham, and no less than five new Marvel shows upcoming as Netflix originals. And that’s just live action series.

All of the shows I mentioned get discussed in an almost water cooler fashion amongst both nerds and mainstream viewers, but you know what? I’d take Constantine over all of them. It’s got the mythos, it’s got the source material, it’s got the perfect lead, it’s got a great mix of humor and grittiness, and it’s arguably got more potential at this point than every other comic-based show on the air. It was put together by David Goyer, the co-architect of the Dark Knight and Blade trilogies. That’s got to count for something (or at least 2/3 of something). Plus Neil Marshall directed the pilot. The talent is there. Continue reading

Four Movies with Marvelously Creative Acts of Ownage

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Usually when you think of ownage in a film, you picture Arnold blowing someone’s face off or Clint Eastwood telling some punk to make his day; something crass and violent, yet totally cool and very ‘Murican. But sometimes, the most badass possible thing you can do to show your enemies that you just don’t give a damn is done without even personally harming a hair on their head.

Here are some movie moments where a character drops the big “eff you” on their antagonists; irreversibly devastating them psychologically or just flat out mocking everything they think they know by showing them that they cannot ever control them. You won’t find any one-liners followed by violence here; just pure, unadulterated pwnage that transcends traditional concepts of vengeance and defiance as they’re usually presented to us onscreen.

To put the awesomeness of these moments into context, spoilers are required, so tread carefully if you have any desire to see any these films, but haven’t yet. Continue reading

Outdated Gameplay: The Threat is Real

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I’m here to tell you a story. A story about a haunted game about haunted people with gameplay so bad it now haunts me. This week I have conjured up the vengeful spirit of rightfully deceased control schemes from the grave to warn you to beware of not-quite-classic titles and the gameplay of the damned.

I was in a horror kind of mood last week -as everyone should be on Halloween- and I decided to take advantage of the sales on PSN to put some time in on a creepy-looking franchise that I had never gotten a chance to play. So I downloaded Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented and got ready for a spooky good time.

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Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy. This: not so much.

I’ve long admired the Fatal Frame series from afar for its classical Japanese aesthetics, female-centric stories, and its unique approach to ghostly horror, with the primary combat function being banishing ghosts by photographing them. Finally diving in, I was really impressed with how well the graphics have held up and the wonderfully oppressive atmosphere of the haunted Dream Manor where the main protagonist Rei spends her nights.

What immediately bugged the shit out of me was the actual gameplay, which were similar to old school Resident Evil in that you don’t control the in-game camera, the camera controls you, rendering you no line of sight for your character while exploring in third person. But where Resident Evil games let you get used to this travesty, Fatal Frame’s mechanics force you to switch back and forth between third person and first person, making it extremely disorienting at times. Still, worth the slog when there’s so much to explore. Moving on.

The story was really cool, and you even got to move around Rei’s house during the day, researching the images you capture in your dreams and building the narrative of her life that has led her to this point where she inhabits a mansion filled with nasty spirits in her dreams. It’s all so cool. There’s a steep learning curve that the game does little to assuage, pretty much telling you “sink or swim, noob” but I was enjoying the intensity of the dark mood and overall structure of the game.

Then Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented really started living up to its name; and not because it was the third game in the Fatal Frame series. The enemies became nigh-invincible, more plentiful, and downright enraging. As I said before, you navigate in third person in a fixed perspective that changes whenever it feels like it, often rendering you unable to see in front of your own face. To do that, you bring up your camera. Early on, this isn’t a huge problem. The ghosts teleport, but they approach you fairly slowly so once you get your bearings, you can capture them on film almost at will.

But once the really nasty spirits come out, they teleport, the weave through walls, they ATTACK through walls, and many of the environments are pretty much just narrow corridors and extremely small rooms. And they’re aggressive. Being a player of video games, I’m used to aggressive enemies, but I’m also used to the game giving me the tools to properly avoid or dispatch those enemies.

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I’ll never have a positive view of cleaver-wielding maniacs again….

You don’t have significant mobility in first person view so to fight the tough spirits, you need to stick and move. But the fact that you could be running away from that crazy flying dead bastard with the bloody cleaver and have the controls flip when the camera changes and then be running toward him to get chopped an instant later is a deal breaker. And that you need to search 360 degrees to get a bead on him and by the time you find him and begin to charge up your shot, he’s already on top of you wrecking your shit doesn’t help. Add in the disorientation and too-long time it takes to transition between the two views and the tank-like movement of your dainty avatar you’ve got a headache. Or at least, I did.

I’ve written extensively on how I believe that challenge makes a story feel more worthwhile, but when it gets to the point where you are playing a genuinely creepy horror game and it doesn’t scare you anymore because you are too preoccupied with raging at the terrible controls, something is wrong. Difficult challenges are one thing, but hobbling players with shitty, unresponsive, and treacherous gaemplay is something else entirely. At about seven hours in, I decided I wasn’t having fun anymore and tapped out having barely gotten into the second playable character’s story.

Here’s the kicker: Fatal Frame 3 isn’t even ten years old. Resident Evil 4 came out the same year. I played that one a short while ago and while the initial control scheme was a beast, I tamed it within a few hours. It remained awkward, but it was never infuriating. Psychonauts came out the same year as well, and while I wrote a previous article detailing my issues with its platforming mechanics, it was nowhere near as bad. I‘ve also played Shadow of the Colossus during the past year without incident, so while it’s safe to say gaming has really smoothed out since the PS2 era, I think it’s safe to say that The Tormented wasn’t even on par for its time.

half life 2 gordon alyx

You came to the wrong neighborhood to talk shit about Half Life 2, motherfucker.

Sometimes it takes an experience like this to really appreciate how far gaming has come as an entertainment medium in such a short time. We’ve gotten so used to silky-smooth controls that even going back to legendary beloved titles like Half Life 2 you notice annoying things like lagging load times and dated collision detection that sees you hung up on objects in ways that would be unacceptable in a modern game.

Yesterday’s awkward controls are today’s unplayable disaster, so remember to tread lightly when venturing into the past, fellow gamers. For sometimes the real horror lies not in the godless abomination thirsting for your mortal blood you can see before it’s too late, but in poor gameplay design and dated mechanics that you can’t.