Monday, January 31, 2011

DC Universe On-Line: First Impressions

This review is mostly going to deal with the story, character-design, presentation and solo-gaming experience for heroes. I'll be getting to the villains, the PVP and other things later on.

Right. So everyone has seen the preview trailer setting up the reality of this particular incarnation of the DC Universe, right? You haven't! Well, check this out! Or skip down to the summary below if you can't play the video the video, for some reason.

With the threat of an impending Brainiac invasion hovering over the Earth, a version of Lex Luthor from a future where humanity lost the battle returns to our past with insectoid nanites called Exobytes that bequeath superpowers upon those people they infect. Dispersed across Earth in equal amounts, an entire new generation of superheroes and supervillains is born - ready to be recruited to save the Earth... or conquer it! Or maybe just watch it all burn. It depends on who your mentor is, really.

Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love (Throwing) The Bomb

As utterly awesome as the opening movie is, I don't believe it was strictly necessary to explain away just why there's suddenly a whole bunch of new heroes and villains who need training and organization. For the die-hard superhero fans, it should be enough to find ourselves lurking in the alleys of Gotham or patrolling the skies of Metropolis without needing a default explanation for how we got our powers.

Having a cookie-cutter "you were bitten by nanotech bugs from the future!" explanation is a major annoyance to the roleplayers among us, who might have wanted to come up with our own character backgrounds. Indeed, unlike City of Heroes and Champions Online, DCUO does not give you the option of writing a backstory or profile for your character.

Another issue I see is that while I - as a comic fan - can easily see technology by Brainiac being sophisticated enough to give a person magical ability or extraordinary technical skills, (to say nothing of forging a special weapon for them and change their clothing into a thematically appropriate costume), I can see some people being confused as to why Exobyte infection should suddenly cause them to become really good with a bow and have a full arsenal of trick arrows.

Why, yes - that IS what I elected to play. Meet Beau Hunter.

A little derivative of Green Arrow? Without a doubt. And yet, I'd bet that Beau here is more original than many of the characters you are likely to see running around the streets of Gotham City or Metropolis. This brings us to the issue of character creation...

Or Attack Of The Clones!

The biggest problem with character creation in DCUO is that there's really no way to avoid being derivative, given how limited your choices are. Indeed, one of the character creation options allows you to choose an inspiration and start out with your sheet and costume modeled on your favorite hero or villain. And not a damn thing can stop you from starting the game there once you've picked out a name. I personally saw at least two Catwoman clones - one named Selina K and the other one KITWOMAN - running around the Gotham Ninth Precinct.

After choosing your gender and body type (small, medium or large), you choose a heroic or villainous mentor, who determines where you start out and what your opening missions involve. Nominally you're supposed to pick the character who shares your origin type, but there's nothing to stop a tech-based hero from spending time in Metropolis training under the watchful eye of the Big Blue Boy Scout.

In my case, I chose Batman because... well, come on! It's Batman!

Next comes powers. You have only six general options for powers (Fire, Ice, Mental, Nature, Sorcery and Gadgets) and each of those have two sub-types. Gadgets, for instance, is broken into Tricks and Traps. You also choose a travel power, which is limited to the three choices of Superspeed, Flight and Acrobatics.

I must admit to being disappointed by the lack of variety in power selection. While I know it isn't possible to account for every single superpower there is (how many of us would really want the power to shrink or talk to fish?), you'd think such things as electricity control or shadow manipulation would be possible. Perhaps those are being saved for Static and Ebon in the inevitable (we hope) Static Shock expansion. :)

Costumes are similarly limited, though you do have the option of picking up different "styles" later on and defeating certain enemies can give you the option to take their costumes as your own. This is why, after defeating The Scarecrow as part of the first series of missions for newbie heroes in Gotham, I was rocking The Scarecrow's hat.

Thankfully, the game does give you the option of keeping your original costume appearance while still reaping the benefits of using the improved armor and weapons dropped by your fallen enemies. So I can keep my snazzy stealth-suit and hood while still getting the improved bonuses granted by my Amazon-manufactured bow, my New Genesis forged breastplate and my demonic boots.

Or Why I Still Love This Game Even After Tearing Apart The Character Creation and Storyline

I've made quite a few comparisons to City of Heroes and Champions On-Line and so far those comparisons haven't been very favorable. However, I'm afraid these comparisons are unavoidable even if it is somewhat unfair to compare DCUO to COH, which has had the better part of a decade to develop, evolve and expand past its' original release version.

Thankfully, there is one area where DCU Online DOES beat the competition hands down and that is in the arena of action.

From the very first mission onward, you are thrown into the middle of the action immediately and it doesn't let up for a moment. You start out with Oracle (or Calculator, if you are a villain) guiding you out of a Brainiac ship, where you had been taken hostage. Eventually, you must fight a swarming mob of robots after taking out the main weapon for the ship... only to have Superman himself (or, again Lex Luthor if you are a baddy) show up to back you up.

And after that, you don't get to rest on your laurels. I fully expected to be getting sent out on patrol, looking for muggers or graffiti artists. Instead, I was fielding a call from Batman himself, who called my work so far "impressive" before ordering me out into the streets to stop Scarecrow's minions from releasing a new strain of fear gas on the public!

These missions are a real treat, since part of the running battle across the city will have you rescuing HAZMAT teams from the thugs, giving comfort to hallucinating citizens and - as the gas takes hold of you - fighting random hallucinations of your own, like suddenly giant henchmen and - in the final battle against Scarecrow himself - your own fears made manifest!

Other MMOs have doldrums where you become desperate for missions and quests to get to the next level and are eventually forced to grind XP from random mobs in order to advance. With DCUO, I'm having the opposite problem. I just hit level 11 this afternoon and I still have a quest journal with half-a-dozen calls to duty that I haven't answered yet.

Or Other Random Thoughts

Combat is surprisingly simple and intuitive. Melee attacks are made with the left mouse button. Ranged melee attacks are made with the right mouse button. As you advance, you'll gain the ability to do charged shots by holding down the mouse buttons, doing more damage.

Your powers are assigned to the number keys, just above the WASD keys which are used for movement. The Shift Button is used for blocking/dodging in conjunction with the movement keys, allowing you to move out of the way of enemy special attacks in a way familiar to most action gamers and console owners.

Indeed, the game play and controls are such that you almost forget you are playing an MMO at times. Jumping around the city, exploring all the nooks and crannies as an acrobat (well, I just HAD to climb to the top of the Wayne Enterprises building!) I couldn't help but be reminded of the Spider-Man 2 game where half the fun was just moving around the city, looking at everything and finding your own adventure.

Incidentally, there's a kiosk in the Gotham City Police Department (and, presumably, the other police stations) where a recording of Booster Gold will give you a guided tour of the various points of interest. I don't know who was cast as the voice of Booster Gold but he was cast perfectly, sounding perfectly smarmy and cheerful as he is describing how horrible Gotham's East End is before basically saying "Wow, this place is a wretched hive of scum and villainy and I hope you have enjoyed our time touring it!"

The voice acting is very hit and miss, with the cast containing a variety of seasoned voice-actors from other video games, American Anime dubs and... well, some of the technicians who worked on this game if IMDB.COM is accurate.

Some of the casting is perfect, with Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker. I'm not sure who does the voice of Oracle, but it sounds like the same actress from Batman: Arkham Asylum. And Adam Baldwin - while not my first choice for Superman - isn't bad. Nor is James Marsters as Lex Luthor.

And then you have characters like Martian Manhunter, who is voiced not by Carl Lumbly but by someone doing a truly awful impression of Carl Lumbly. Harvey Bullock sounds like someone doing a bad impression of Burgess Meredith in Rocky. And the less said about Hawkman and The Flash, the better.

DCUOline has the most fluid load times of any-online game I've ever played, with hardly any lag at all. The only bug I've encountered so far - apart from some minor targeting issues - was the game crashing on me when I tried to switch between it and my Firefox browser to answer an e-mail.

The communication system is a royal pain in the neck. Chat currently requires you going into a whole separate menu just to say hello to someone since the interface doesn't allow you to click on a person and use the mouse to initiate a conversation, like in... oh, every other MMO out there. This doesn't bode well considering how much of the later game content is supposedly based on Dynamic Duo missions, PVP arena games and group instances. I can only imagine what a pain it is for the PS3 games who don't even have a keyboard to type with!

All in all, I am enjoying my time in the DC Universe so far. I think most gamers and comic fanboys will, provided you can relax about the storyline and don't get too worked up about the lack of role-playing options. If you're enough of a kid or a geek at heart to thrill at the idea of Batman calling you impressive and asking for your help... you will love this game.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Hero Biz - A Web Comic Review

Just stumbled across a new web-comic called The Hero Biz. Rather funny, fairly new weekly strip about a company that handles costume-design, name-selection, continuing education and technical support for superheroes.

Of course the idea of a comic deconstructing the tropes of superhero comic books from the perspective of a real-world profession is hardly a new one. John Kovalic's Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink covered much the same territory as did the classic mini-series Common Grounds. And yet, The Hero Biz managed to put a fresh new spin on the concept.

Told through the eyes of a rookie receptionist, the first storyline details her walking a prospective new superhero (a vapid Paris Hilton expy) through the process of picking a name, choosing a costume, testing her powers and setting up a class schedule for basic training. Through this, we are introduced to the rest of the staff.

You've seen any office comedy show, you've seen most of these characters - the slacker artist in charge of costume design, the sleazy douchebag in charge of marketing. The most interesting and unique of these is Dr. Malefactor - a former super-villain who is in charge of R&D, barely reformed and just itching for an excuse to break out the ray gun.

Recently, the strip seems to have changed from the longer story-driven strips to a series of one-strip gags based around specific comic book characters. Some of these are amusing but require some knowledge of the character being parodied, such as a heroine named Amerigirl who keeps having her background rewritten and her costume changed every time there's any sort of crisis. (Am I Greek now? I feel vaugely Greek.)

Still, it amused me and it might amuse you too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

NBC Picks Up David E. Kelley's 'Wonder Woman'

SOURCE: NBC Picks Up David E. Kelley's 'Wonder Woman'

The project is described as a reinvention of the iconic D.C. comic in which Wonder Woman -- aka Diana Prince -- is a vigilante crime fighter in L.A. but also a successful corporate executive and a modern woman trying to balance all of the elements of her extraordinary life.

I know most everyone else is cracking wise about how this sounds like.. oh, EVERY SINGLE SHOW David E. Kelley has EVER made with a female protagonist and how we're going to have some skinny-armed waif playing Wonder Woman.

But I have to ask - did anybody else read this and think "So basically they're doing a show absed on the Palmotti & Gray run of Power Girl only using Wonder Woman instead"?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

DC Comics Drops The Comics Code!

SOURCE: DC Drops The Comics Code

The new standard is the same as the one DC used for their DCX Manga Line.

E = Everyone
T = Teens (12+)
T+ = Older Teens (16+)
M = Mature (18+)

All Vertigo Comics will continue to be labeled "For Mature Readers".

Monday, January 17, 2011

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Birds Of Prey #8

GOOD THING: I just love this page for what it says about Dinah's view of Batman - Bruce Wayne Batman, that is. (Gawds, but it's still weird having to qualify that!)

BAD THING: With all the thought that has apparently gone into Dinah's background following her confrontation with a psychic villain who causes people to become lost in their worst regrets and just what might constitute a regret (We even see The Ray, whom Dinah had a one-night stand with shortly after Ollie's death, in a story that most Black Canary fans have tried to ignore ever since), it is a bit jarring - given everything that happened in The Rise of Arsenal - that Dinah wouldn't see Roy Harper among all the figures staring her down.

I know we're all trying to forget The Rise of Arsenal... but you'd think Dinah might spare a thought for the younger brother/foster son she couldn't help save from himself.

The Final Verdict: Still one of the best books on the market, bar none. Can't wait for the next issue.

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #6

GOOD THING: It's worth noting that even though this comic is part of a big storyline with the other two Green Lantern titles, they are doing a good job of making sure that - on the odd chance you're only reading one of these books (for some reason) - you get clued in on the connection between Guy Gardner, Ganthet and the Red Lanterns.

BAD THING: It just now hit me how out-of-character it is for Guy Gardner to be the one keeping secrets from his friends and working covertly, given how he's usually the first to decry The Guardians not giving the Lanterns the whole picture. After all, he's pretty well known for being honest to the point of tactlessness, so the revelation that he's been lying all this time WOULD be jarring to his friends.

The Final Verdict: This series is doing a great job of setting itself apart from the other Green Lantern titles while still being a part of the bigger storyline tying into Brightest Day. The only problem is that Guy Gardner - granting he has his reasons - does seem to be a bit out of character. I'm sure this will be explained away later (Guy certainly has plenty of reason to be keeping secrets) but it is still off-putting for long-time Guy Gardner fans.

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Knight and Squire #4

BAD THING: The main plot of this issue is surprisingly standard stuff, given how unique this book has been so far. The old "hero must fight his own weapons" issue.

GOOD THING: Cornell still manages to give us some nice twists with this issue, such as the revelation that The Knight's butler is a Texan named Hank.

(Okay - he says in the notes at the end of the book that he was trying to write a generic American Southerner in parody of how Americans are usually portrayed in British television. But that "ya'll" is distinctly Texan. I'm just saying.)

The Final Verdict: A fairly standard comic plot but Cornell manages to make it interesting, though this issue lacks some of the quirky humor of the first three issues.

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Secret Six #29

GOOD THING: Lex Luthor hires the Secret Six (Plus One) as protection from Vandal Savage. Hilarity ensues.

BAD THING: Thanks to DC's cover-scheme this month - which forwent the usual covers having something to do with the book in favor of some very nice pin-up shots, I had no way of knowing that this issue was meant to be Part Two of a story started in Action Comics #896.

Thankfully, Simone does a good job of setting the issue up so that you don't have to have read Part One. Still, it would have been nice to have some warning of this before I'd left the comic book store.

The Final Verdict: A fantastically funny issue that brings our favorite band of misfits into contact with two of the greatest villains in the DC Universe. Word of advice though - snag Action Comics #896 first. You don't have to read it first... but it helps.

Help Fight Child Sex Slavery At The Super Bowl

Because this is happening in my home town and because I'm always up for exposing the indifference of politicians to basic human rights violations...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Random Bits Before The Weekend Beigns

1. I didn't write any reviews last week because I only got one book - Knights of the Dinner Table: Blackhands Special #2

2. It was very funny. The only reason I don't review the KODT books here on a regular basis is that - well, there's only so much I can say about a book that utilizes an unchanging art/writing team, based around the humor of a non-mainstream hobby (i.e. role-playing games). Suffice it to say, if you're any kind of gamer, you will probably love Knights of the Dinner Table and should check out some of the sample strips on their website.

3. I'll be writing my reviews for everything I got this past Wednesday on Monday. Been a busy week at work and I've got quite a lot going on this weekend.

4. I wasn't going to review it until I got caught up on back issues, but I would like to say before then that the new Batgirl book rocks. Seriously, this is the happy, upbeat book centered upon an interesting young heroine that we've been dying to see for a while.

5. If anybody wants to pay for my DC Online membership, I'll be more than happy to write a review of the game ASAP. If not, it will have to wait until I've recovered from paying my car insurance for the next six months.

6. The only reason I didn't write anything about Joe Quesada stepping down as Marvel's EIC is because nothing is going to change so long as he is still their CCO.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Green Arrow #7

GOOD THING: This issue is perhaps the single best examination of the character of Oliver Queen in the past ten years. JT Krul has done the impossible and actually found a way to justify Judd Winick's uneven portrayal by going back to the origin written by Scott McCullar and giving Ollie a deep-rooted sense of survivor guilt regarding the death of his parents.

The main thrust of the issue has Ollie being visited by the spirit of his dead mother, who forgives him for not being able to save her life and encourages him to find it in him to forgive himself for his failures, warning that he will need faith in himself and in people in general to win the battles to come.

By painting Oliver Queen as a good man who doesn't believe he's worthy of being loved because he will inevitably fail those who love him, Krul has crafted an explanation for much of Oliver's seemingly random jackassery over the years. He has also added another level on to the character, tying together some of the most pivotal Green Arrow stories of all time through the common thread of Oliver Queen being unable to tolerate the idea of someone he loves dying through his own inaction.

BAD THING: Your enjoyment of this issue is entirely dependent upon how well you can tolerate mystical elements in a "street-level" comic like Green Arrow. Of course this sort of thing was bread and butter to Mike Grell, who had Herne the Hunter make an appearance when Oliver visited Sherwood Forest in one story, but I can see how this might be "off" to those who are unfamiliar with the rich tradition of spiritual/magic elements in the Green Arrow mythos.

The Final Verdict: JT Krul has taken a lot of flack this week for some stories he wrote this year that seemed to be heavily influenced by editorial fiat. This issue stands as proof that left to his own devices, Krul can tell a truly great story. This issue examines and lays bare the psyche of Oliver Queen like nothing else in the past ten years - possibly twenty. If you're looking for a good jumping on point for Green Arrow, this is it.

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Green Lantern #61

BAD THING: This issue, which centers entirely upon the three-way battle between The Spectre (aka Wrath of God), Acrocitus (aka the leader of the Red Lanterns) and The Butcher (aka The Avatar Entity of Rage/Red Energy) over the soul of a father consumed by rage over the rape/death of his daughter raises some rather conflicting questions over the cosmology of the DC Universe.

For instance, The Spectre makes reference to having ordered The Butcher off of Earth... yet surely The Spectre, as a servant of The Presence/God Almighty, has jurisdiction over the whole of reality and not just the souls of humans on Earth? I seem to recall some stories where The Spectre went after alien killers.

GOOD THING: Cosmological problems aside, this issue is a great character study of Acrocitus, similar in tone to the Rogue Profile issues Johns wrote during his popular run on The Flash. We've already seen some signs of a deeper depth to Acrocitus' character in the past and how he became an agent of Rage out of some twisted sense of justice. The scenes here - where he defends a man from The Spectre's wrath at the risk of his own soul in the name of justice - suggests that perhaps he is not so twisted as we've been led to believe, despite his dark powers.

The Final Verdict: A great character study of the character of Acrocitus and a wonderful story that raises some interesting questions about the nature of spiritual power in the DC Universe, even if the answers seem to be at odds with what little we know.

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Green Lantern Corps #55

BAD THING: The last page points out one worrying point, especially in light of the last Green Lantern - where the heck is Sinestro in all of this?

We just saw Sinestro leave Earth in a hurry... but he isn't here leading his Corps. This isn't really a bad thing but I am fearful - given the rather weird timeline regarding some of the events between the Green Lantern books right now (i.e. when did Atrocitus send his message to Guy and Ganthet and why didn't he mention the Hope and Compassion entities being captured along with the Fear one?) - whether this is a continuity error or not.

GOOD THING: My worries about Soranik being a damsel in distress for this whole story? Totally unfounded, as she loots The Weaponeer's own armory after he takes away her ring but doesn't bother to restrain her.

The Final Verdict: A good issue that eliminated some of my fears about this storyline, though worries about some of the timing persist.

One Good Thing And One Bad Thing About Green Lantern: Larfleeze Christmas Special

GOOD THING: Cookie recipes. Puzzles. A back-up strip by the people behind Tiny Titans. And a main story by Geoff Johns, in which Larfleeze goes hunting for Santa after he doesn't get everything on his list. For once, a Christmas Special book that actually feels special.

BAD THING: All the in-jokes and funny-bits hidden on this cover... and Larfleeze is brandishing a ray gun in triumph instead of a Red Ryder BB Gun? For shame, cover artist! And after you remembered to have Cindy Lou Who standing there, looking shocked at all the things Larfleeze has stolen too!

The Final Verdict: This issue has everything your greedy little heart could desire in a Christmas Special book.