Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Origins of a D-List Supervillain review

    Confessions of a D-List Supervillain is one of the first novels I reviewed here on the United Federation of Charles (here). It's the story of Cal Stringel a.k.a Mechani-Cal, who goes on to save the world from a series of disasters caused by the dysfunction of a major superhero. I liked Confessions but was rather annoyed we never got to actually see what being a supervillain was like for Cal.

    Origins corrects that flaw by showing us how Cal got involved in supervillainy, what he did while he was Mechani-Cal, and what he was thinking during it. Even better, we get an idea of how supervillains "operate" in the Confessions world. Jim Bernheimer puts a great deal of thought into how supervillains acquire their toys, network, and operate. We even get a look into things like prison life and how they launder their money.

    This book presents a sleazy underbelly to the world of bright costumes and wacky devices, which is an interesting choice. Supervillains are, at heart, petty criminals who just happen to have a bit of theatricality going for them. They spend their money at strip clubs, bars, and on drugs with the remainder going to pay for bigger crimes. It's a reflection of real-life criminal mentality and helps explain why they're always pulling off bigger heists.

    Cal gets a less sympathetic portrayal here than in the prior volume, where he seemed to be a villain-in-name-only. Here, it's made clear Cal's excuses for his criminal behavior are just that. He markets high-tech weapons to very dangerous people and hurts a lot of people who are only peripherally involved in his vendetta against Ultraweapon. I liked this because it makes Cal's redemption arc actually a redemption arc.

    Origins expands on the number of supervillains and superheroes in the setting too. Previously, there was just the Pantheon and a couple of extra superheroes but this novel hints at potentially hundreds of good guys and bad guys duking it out across the globe. It's bad enough they have a Super-Max prison entirely for supervillains.

    There's a decent bit of satire re: the American prison system with the author illustrating how it transformed Cal from an amateur bank robber into a full-blown criminal mastermind. Of course, that may just be showing the prison system as how it is versus any attempt at satire. Cal joining up with outfits like General Devious and the Evil Overlord's is only a slight exaggeration as to how many ex-cons end up in real-life criminal networks.

    I liked the supporting cast with Vicky, General Devious, the Biloxi Bugler, and Joseph being the standouts. I was very fond of lesbian character, Maxine Velocity, and am kind of sad her story went the way it did. Confessions characters Aphrodite and Wendy don't play a major role in the book but get referenced enough to let you know they exist. Cal's romance with Vicky is doomed to fail since we know he gets with Aphrodite in future volumes but it's still sweet. Besides, I rather like her as she reminds me of my favored ship in the series (Wendy/Cal).

    In conclusion, Origins is a great example of superhero prose. It's objectively better than Confessions and something all fans of the original novel should check out. Indeed, I recommend they read it beforehand.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Undertow review

    I didn't know what to expect from Undertow when I picked it up. I'd heard it was a well-regarded urban fantasy novel but knew nothing about the premise, characters, or setting. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be one of the better ones I've read this year. It's easily up there with Damoren and some of the mid-level Dresden Files books. I think this is a series I'll follow and review as I do so.

    The premise is Ethan Banning is a private investigator who, through some fault of his own, has gotten himself possessed by a demon. This is not a suave or charming tempter but a disgusting beast which constantly encourages Ethan to torture and murder. Ethan, being a working class stiff, usually manages to tune him out the same way I do the offensive background noise of my life.

    Which ticks the demon off something fierce.

    Despite the fact he's a got a handle on keeping it from killing people randomly, Ethan still wants it out of his head. To that end, he seeks out a university professor who is an expert on the occult. The professor wants Ethan to do him a favor first, however, and that ticks the whole ball rolling for our plot. A plot which will involve ancient sea gods, lovable teenage necromancers, and virgin sacrifice.

    Ethan is a likable enough lead as we see how his condition is a curse rather than a blessing in disguise. He suffers diarrhea of the mouth and must keep a constant check on his emotions lest he Hulk-out with uncontrollable rage. The demon is one-dimensional but, occasionally, shows signs of having been something more once. I like that hint as it offers a chance for the creature to grow.

    Undertow has strong H.P. Lovecraft influences which get lampshaded later in the story. There's a small New England town with a dark secret, an ancient slumbering sea god, and a cult out to bring him back to the world of the living. It isn't directly set in the Cthulhu Mythos, primarily due to the Christian influences of Ethan's possession, but incorporates something similar with ease. I hope we'll see more use of these ancient evils as the fact they terrify Ethan's demon is excellent build-up.

    The supporting cast is excellent with a collection of oddballs and weirdos who are all entertaining to read about. I liked everyone and wanted to see more books about their interaction with Ethan. I was especially fond of his pseudo-Goth sidekick and hoped they'd become permanent partners at the end. Ethan, himself, is a cheerfully unlikable lead with a lot of hangups which get him in trouble with the locals (even without a demon egging him on).

    If I have one complaint about Undertow, it's the ending. The book is funny, entertaining, and light-hearted before suddenly swerving into territory similar to Hellblazer. The ending body-count is huge and removes a lot of characters from play I'd grown attached to. Some may find this to be a good thing but I found it to be jarring.

    Pick this up if you like the Dresden Files or Mercedes Thompson.


Buy at Amazon.com

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Guardian Interviews: Broken review

    Broken is the third volume in the Guardian Interviews series. These books follow a group of monster-hunters called the Regulators who possess the supernatural abilities due to their association with a man named Jaxon. Jaxon is the Guardian, a superhuman warrior capable of regenerating injuries when exposed to nature. Like the Slayer, a new Guardian is called whenever the old one dies (or abandons his duty).

    Broken is about Jaxon abandoning said duty.

    Not willingly but undeniably.

    For the past two books, Michael Clary has been setting up the character flaws of Jaxon: his arrogance, his refusal to solve any problem save through the most direct means possible, and his blind trust in his allies. The flaws are exploited to devastating affect in Broken and we see the character pay a horrific price for them.

    The premise is the Regulators find themselves honored for their role in fighting against the zombie outbreak in El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, no sooner do they receive their owners than they find themselves framed for crimes against the state. Another series would have the Regulators begin a complicated A-team-esque plot to clear their names and take revenge on their enemies.

    Instead, this book is about how the event breaks them.

    The Regulators are a great bunch of guys, heroes all, but they have never been prepared for defeat. They can't deal with failure and whereas other heroes are capable of rolling with the punches, the Regulators aren't. I found this to be a surprising development and really enjoyed seeing them at their lowest.

    This isn't because I disliked the characters but because it was a side we hadn't seen of them before. Heroism is very easy to portray when it's easy. Heroism is much harder when we see the protagonists actually struggle with it--and sometimes fail.

    The resolution for this plot was really well-done as it happens in a way which is unlike any other similar plots in the franchise. The Regulators aren't the kind of people who can deal with a subtle threat against them. Like so many people who are very-very good at what they do, failure is a difficult concept for them to deal with. Growing up, I was something of a genius, which meant I was pathetic when my best wasn't good enough. The Regulators are the same way, except more so, and Jaxon is the worst of the lot.

    Seeing him fail and in such a way as he does, is heartbreaking.

    The book isn't perfect. There's an sequence where lesbian team-member Ivana has to deal with an extensive amount of sexual amount of sexual harassment from a co-worker the author plays for laughs but I didn't find in the least bit funny. Thankfully, Ivana deals with it in a far more mature manner than I would have in her place. There's also a seen involving the death of a beloved family pet which ends in a manner which is best described as "hokey."

    Still, I liked this book's plot and the way the characters developed. Unexpectedly, the book has a section which can serve as a good bit of social satire against extraordinary rendition. When one of the characters finds themselves captured, we get a horrific look at what sort of abuses can happen when there is no one guaranteeing their protection. It's easy to justify torture and isolation when it happens to bad people, what happens when it happens to a good man?

    We find out.

    Broken is a great book and I'm glad Michael Clary took a chance by shaking up the formula. I hope he continues to change around things in order to keep the series fresh.


Buy at Amazon.com

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Assassin's Creed: Rogue (spoiler) review

     I've already reviewed the game here but it's one of those which benefits from having its story analyzed in detail. Assassin's Creed: Rogue is, in my opinion, one of the three best video games in the franchise. It, Assassins Creed 2 and Black Flag, are my "holy trinity" of stabbing dudes. I say this as a massive fan of Assassins Creed 3 and Brotherhood.


    The story.

    Rogue follows Shay Cormac as he goes from being a French-aligned privateer in the service of the Assassins to an English-aligned privateer in the service of the Templars. Shay Cormac is the ultimate enemy of the Assassins and the Templar's version of Darth Vader, showing the game's traditional enemy has teeth. This is already a good premise as seeing things from the Templar side of things has long been a request of fans.

    How this comes about is why the story is awesome.

The ever-present cold symbolizes Shay's emotional devastation. There is no peace of traitors, even when treason is the moral good.
    It would have been easy for the game to give us a group of evil Assassins and good Templars, less muddying the waters than showing they were groups of individuals. Instead, the game takes a more daring route by portraying the Assassins as they've always been depicted in the games.


    Sort of.

    The game deconstructs video game morality by taking apart the blind self-righteousness of the Assassins. They are good, the Templars are evil. The Assassins never question this fundamental truth and tirelessly pursue their eternal war with the Templars regardless of how many people die in the process. This is not a new idea as, in Brotherhood, Lucrezia Borgia points out Lorenzo de Medici was a monster. The novels mention Caterina Sforza, one of Ezio's love interests, was a murderer of children.

    Shay is a rough and tumble guy, having spent most of his life on the streets. He, more than most Assassins, is the kind of guy who is aware of the ambiguities which define life. It's ironic that for a group which has its motto, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" they are blind to the nuances of morality.

Achilles lecturing Shay is a tragedy because he never imagines he has not the power nor the wisdom to handle the beast he's about to unleash.
    When we meet the Colonial Assassins, they are a likable bunch of rogues and outcasts. Two black men, a Native American, a woman, and a couple of Irishmen are about the most representative of people squashed by the Man as you can get in the 17th century. There's also a French nobleman but no one likes him. The game predisposes you to respect them by using Achilles and Adewale, both individuals we've come to like and respect from previous games.

    Then it pulls the rug out from under you.

    Some reviewers have called the event which separates Shay from the Brotherhood as cheap. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake is an event caused by the Assassins playing with the Pieces of Eden but isn't something they could have foreseen.

    I think this is missing the point as it's not the Lisbon Earthquake which causes Shay to leave the Assassins but their reaction to it. Achilles blames Shay for doing something wrong then says they have a responsibility to continue pursuing the Pieces of Eden no matter what. In other words, he cannot accept the possibility the Assassins were behind the deaths of innocents. They're the good guys, after all. When Achilles orders Shay to be killed, no one questions the Mentor.

    Not even the entire town.

    At a word, Shay is to die.

The Assassins call Shay a monster for turning against them. But, really, they're just mad because he won't die like other Templars.
    They are, in simple terms, fanatics.

    Lovable fanatics, but fanatics.

    Even so, why join the Templars? Why turn against your former friends and allies before hunting them down like a dog? The Templars, after all, are after many of the things the Assassins are, including the Pieces of Eden. Here, I think its ambiguous as Shay doesn't so much join the Templars as slip into them.

    Shay starts waging war against their agents because they're behind the gangs menacing the people of New York, which is a Devil's bargain that makes them no better than the Borgia, before they start hunting him. The Templars win Shay over with their urban renewal project and the fact the Assassins hunt him first. Shay can't take five steps in New York without someone jumping out of the bushes to try and gut him.

    In that respect, the Assassins bit off more than they could chew. In the end, the destruction of the Colonial Assassins is a tragedy but it's an escalating one. To protect his new friends, men who'd stand by him, Shay turned against the Assassins. It's no coincidence the Assassination contracts are defensive ones. Shay doesn't hunt the Assassins for much of the game, he protects Templars against them. By the end of the game, he IS hunting Assassins and seeking Pieces of Eden. So has he fallen from grace or does he feel now, this is the only way?


    The answer is left to the player.

    The depiction of the Templars in Rogue is fascinating because, like the Assassins, we don't see them changed from their usual way. The Templars are still arrogant, power hungry, manipulative, and privileged. The thing is, we also get a good dose of how those qualities make them qualified leaders. With the exception of the Borgia, Vidic, and WW2 Templars; one thing has always united the Templars and that's their belief they are working for the greater good. They claim to use their power to benefit others.

    The thing is, Rogue shows they actually do. It's possible Colonel Monro and Shay are the exceptions rather than he rule but there's no reason to assume so. When compared to so many corrupt and ruthless monsters throughout history, the fact the Templars bother to make sure the masses are fed puts them above most.

Heroes or villains?
    Yet, the Assassins tirelessly persecute the anti-slavery pro-economic prosperity Templars over other ruthless tyrants simply because they're Templars. At the start of the game, the Assassins have Shay murder two helpless old men simply because of their allegiance (one who was already dying).

    Food for thought.

    I think all fans of the series will love the game these issues. It's a very human story with a lot going on for it. What's the best summary for it? I believe The Dark Knight says it best: You either die a hero or live long to become the villain. The question is whether it's Shay or the Assassins who became such.


Buy at Amazon.com

Assassin's Creed: Rogue (Non-Spoiler) review

    Assassin's Creed: Rogue has the misfortune of being born the Tyrion Lannister of the franchise in that it was released as a last-generation console game on the same day as its current-generation console brother, Assassin's Creed: Unity. Many people, myself included, thought Rogue would end up being nothing more than a shameless cash-grab before everyone started trading in their Xbox 360s.

    We were wrong.

    Or, if we were right, that doesn't prevent Rogue from being a damn fine game.

It's good to see Adewale live to a ripe old age.
    I'm stunned by so many competing reviews giving the game scores of sevens or eights due to re-used assets, which is like like complaining about speeding at the Indy 500. Assassin's Creed is a franchise built on re-used assets. That's why the games come out like clockwork every year and we keep buying them because they're awesome re-used assets.

    I haven't played Unity yet, so I can't compare the games but I can say it was a mistake not to release this as both a current generation and last generation game. Assassin's Creed: Rogue is good, extremely good, and I hope it'll be ported soon.

    The game continues the Modern Age story of Abstergo Entertainment's beta-tester from Black Flag, allows you to play a Templar for the first (technically second) time, introduces numerous interesting characters, resolves the fates of returning ones from previous games, has an amazing lead, is excellently plotted, and has a staggering amount of stuff to do. Indeed, the latter part is one of the game's few flaws.

Lots of side-quests to retake towns, supply crates, forts, and gang headquarters. These are great.
    The premise is Shay Cormac is an Assassin who becomes disillusioned with the Assassin way of doing things after a series of events. Eventually, he becomes a Templar agent charged with hunting down and destroying his former associates. This isn't a spoiler as it's all revealed in the video game's trailer. Shay is an immensely likable lead and reminds me of, if you'll forgive the constant Game of Thrones references, the Starks.

    Shay isn't motivated by personal revenge but the greater good, which isn't always that easy to identify. Many fans will disagree with his reasoning for leaving the Assassins and joining the Templars but I understood his logic. Shay doesn't believe Nothing is true, Everything is permitted. He believes there are lines people shouldn't cross and there are simple truths to the world. He wants to fight for the Little GuyTM and, ironically, ends up serving the ultimate representatives of the Man.

    Is he right?


    The fact you can make an argument either way is a sign of good writing.

The Morrigan is a beautiful ship. My favorite in the series.
    The game starts out playing identically to Black Flag. You're a privateer with the French Navy, secretly working for the Assassins. You can use your piratical skills to build up your ship, The Morrigan, and build a fleet to make yourself rich . The game doesn't stop at cribbing from Black Flag, though, as you eventually become a landlord like in Brotherhood.

    Shay can use his immense wealth to build almshouses, soup-kitchens, grain mills, and so on in order to make life easier for the poor. The fact a Templar is doing this rather than an Assassin goes to show something is seriously wrong with the situation in the Americas. This is in addition to a return of hunting and treetop parkour from Assassin's Creed 3. In a very real way, this game comes across a "greatest hits" of the series.

    The best new feature in the game is the addition of 'Stalkers.' These are, of course, the Assassins Shay is forced to hunt. Once he breaks ties with the Brotherhood, his former associates work tirelessly to try and kill him. They hide in haystacks, crowds, and on rooftops in hopes of ambushing Shay the same way you do your enemies. The Stalkers are far, far, tougher than guards and killed me many times. There's also a fun reversal of Assassination Contracts where you have missions to rescue your fellow Templars from Assassin ambushes.

    I approve.
Hope is a character who needed a bigger role in the game.
    So does the game have flaws? Yes, but they're small ones. One thing is the game is way-way too packed with sidequests. In order to get the Templar armor, for example, you have to find 24 relics using maps to traverse the entire map. What the hell happened to eight relics? There's also a staggering number of other relics you can pick up which, again, involve scouring the massive maps. It felt overwhelming rather than fun.

    The main quest is also truncated in a way it shouldn't be. There's only Six Sequences and the game speeds you along to the conclusion. There could easily have been two more Sequences and a host of other Assassination targets before the game reaches its climax. Like Assassin's Creed 2, the game could use a Bonfire of the Vanities or Siege on Battle of Forli-style set of DLC set during the main campaign.

    In conclusion, Rogue is a great game. If it's got any flaws, it's that there's both too much and too little of it. I love Shay and wouldn't mind seeing a sequel starring him. I'm torn between giving this game a nine and a ten given how annoying side-questing could be but if the other reviews can be unfair, so can I.

    For the spoiler review of the game's storyline, go here.


Buy at Amazon.com

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Assassin's Creed review

    I am going to be playing Assassin's Creed until Christmas time, so I've decided I would catch up on some of my reviews of its games, media and so on. As such, while it's a bit late to declare it Assassin's Creed month on The United Federation of Charles, we'll be doing a month of Assassin's Creed.

    Assassin's Creed is the game which started it all but, sadly, is the worst game in the series. This isn't to say it's bad but there's a lot of parts which are. All of the game's enjoyable parts would be refined and perfected for its sequel while the worst would be discarded.

    In short, most gamers I know suggest newcomers skip Assassin's Creed and go directly to Assassin's Creed 2. Those interested in the story of Altair would be best served by picking up the novel, The Secret Crusade by Oliver Bowden. There's a lot of potential in this game but it's largely unrealized.

The Holy Land is an interesting setting, foreshadowing the great locations of future games.
    The premise is you are Desmond Miles (Nolan North), a New York City resident raised by a weird cult who has since escaped to become a bartender. Captured by a mysterious corporation called Abstergo, he is forced into a machine called the Animus. The Animus allows Desmond to relive the memories of his 11th century ancestor, Alta├»r Ibn-La'Ahad, who is involved in a plot between two ancient conspiracies.

    The central conceit of the game is you are playing a video game within a video game. As such, things like death and re-spawning are glitches within Desmond's story as well as your own. It's a surprisingly immersive device and one of the series' great innovations. The majority of the game is attempting to maneuver past the guards present in the Holy Land to eliminate a series of targets belonging to the Knights Templar.

    The stealth elements are emphasized over the action ones, which can result in some levels of frustration. Later games in the series offer a wider variety of choices for assassinations, including more or less just killing your way there. Many times, Altair must modulate his speed so not to draw attention to his activity. This prevents high speed chases when those would be very welcome to spice up gameplay.

    Unfortunately, after each target, you have to return to Alamut (the Assassin's Headquarters) in order to get your new assignment and this is a tedious journey each time.

The horse-riding is fun in the game, more so than in later ones.
    The biggest problem is, in my opinion, Altair himself. Our introduction to the character has him murder an innocent man for the thrill along with other horrific behavior. The game is meant to be about his learning a lesson in humility but given he's a arrogant murderer belonging to a secret society, it's hard to care.

    Altair is learning about how to become a better murderer, not reforming. It's doubly problematic when many of his victims prove to be more sympathetic than Altair himself. I'm not sure our protagonist "winning" is a good thing. It doesn't help many of the Templars have sympathetic backstories and motivations with only a few really 'deserving' to die. The fact, at one point, Altair lets King Richard of England live despite the man's many well-known historical atrocities is difficult to swallow.

    Despite this, Assassin's Creed has a lot going for it and you can see where the game would go on to form an amazingly popular franchise. The Animus works wonderfully as an explanation for most "video game-isms" of the series because your character, in a very real way, is playing one. The Modern Day segments, while widely criticized are one of my favorite parts. I love conspiracy fiction and this is an excellent example of it.

The Animus is a great concept. Even if, yes, genetic memories are incredibly stupid.
    Nolan North and Kristen Bell (playing Lucy Stillman) both do a bang-up job with their performances. North manages to sell the naive every guy in a situation beyond a regular person's comprehension while Bell makes her character more than a generic love interest. I'm less fond of Philip Shahbaz's Altair because the character just sounds bored and angry all the time, which may be the character's personality but it's not terribly enjoyable.

    In conclusion, Assassin's Creed isn't as good as other entries in the series. Everything good about it is taken to future entries in the series with the bad elements left behind. Altair is an unlikable hero and the travel times kill the enjoyment factor.

    The game is slow when it needs to be fast paced and seems to punish you when you really want to go wild. It is, however, the game which began one of my favorite series. The foundations are there for something great and I would recommend giving it a try used, even if I'd keep the receipt.


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Social Satire of Vivian James

   Over on RPG.net, a fan created this image to satirize the Gamergate mascot, Vivian James. Vivian James is a character designed for the purposes of rebutting the feminist criticism of video-games by fans. Essentially, the idea behind her is a "Female gamer who doesn't care about that stuff. She only wants to play games."

    The idea behind the rebuttal is, of course, that she is meant to represent the silent majority. A majority which isn't interested in criticism or subtext to games. It is an appeal to intellectual laziness in much the same way dumb action movies are insulted for being, well, dumb. Roger Ebert said there was a difference between "good" dumb action movies (The Mummy) and bad ones (many-many other ones).

    Whether or not Vivian represents the majority irritates me because I founded the United Federation of Charles to discuss video games and geek media in a serious context. I only semi-succeeded, creating a blog which mostly just reviews stuff I like with the occasional essay, but I stand firm: criticism is an important part of getting games taken seriously as a medium. If a medium isn't being criticized and picked apart, it isn't worth a damn. I say that as both an academic as well as a blogger, author, and gamer.

    In any case, I like this image because it's a good visual rebuttal. The Vivian James character is uniformly depicted as miserable, perhaps because she's meant to be aloof and cool, but the context nicely puts her as just surrounded by talking points. Depicting her as happy while holding a variety of female-friendly games is smart satire.

    I applaud the creator.

    Double-points for the rainbow jacket. I don't need to point out the subtext there, I think. The choice of the games Mirror's Edge, Revolution 65, and Gone Home are also nice picks. All of them being both criticized and applauded for their feminist subtext in different ways. Mirror's Edge is the only one I've played but symbolizes something which really should have gotten more support because it was plain fun.

    It's art which tells a story and speaks the language of gamers. This is good satire and in, a very real way, one of our first political cartoons. In other words, we're one step closer to video games being a serious medium worthy of discussion.

     I think what bothers me most about the Vivian James character is she is a female gamer created by men to exemplify what they want from women rather than, well, getting a female gamer to support their cause. The character is a sock puppet for their views divorced from actual reality. If you need to hide behind fantasy to defend your opinion about fantasy, perhaps you should re-examine it.