Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Watcher - Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

When I first heard that a sequel to the 2007 Ghost Rider movie was being released I was wary. Yes I enjoyed the original but it wasn’t without its faults - actually it had quite a few! But when the trailer for Spirit of Vengeance burst onto my local cinema screen with the names Neveldine and Taylor assigned to the directorial roles, I have to say I got a little bit excited. Their style is not to everyone's tastes and tend to contain a lot of juvenile humour and crazy camera work (filming on roller skates while holding onto the back of a motorbike?!). I’d hoped that they would inject new life into the Rider movie franchise as I’d enjoyed their previous work (Crank/Gamer) for its fun and frivolity.

After a slight retcon of the character's origin from the original movie (Blaze now willingly sells his soul to the devil to save his father), the main section of story revolves around a guilt-ridden Blaze once again played by the one and only Nicolas Cage, now living the life of a hermit and hiding away from the world in an abandoned shack set to the backdrop of a very nondescript Eastern european wasteland (Doctor Who style quarry usage galore!).

The ever entertaining Idris Elba plays a gritty warrior monk with a slight penchant for wine - oh and a bloody terrible French accent. He enlists the help of the Rider to protect a very special boy whom the Devil (played this time by Ciáran Hinds) is hunting in order to transfer himself into the boy's body and survive on this plane without his ‘suit’ deteriorating. If the Rider can succeed in his task to protect the boy then the curse on Blaze will be lifted and his soul returned to him.

Some people may say that Taylor and Neveldine have succeeded in what they set out to do with this movie and in comparison to the original it definitely has their stamp on it, but I personally feel that it could have been so much more. With them at the helm it needed to be bigger and more madder than ever seen before, but every time you think the movie is about to get really good it's pulled back from the brink - we just never quite reach full speed.

It doesn't quite understands what it wants to be - part dark anti-hero movie, part fast paced action flick, part over-the-top Cage crazy cheese fest. Because it never fully commits to any one of these individual elements, the movie doesn’t succeed on hitting the mark with any of them. It’s scattered with odd gags (peeing fire?!) which really fall flat and I felt that the decision to make the Rider move in a flickering staccato-style manner - akin to Sadako from the Ring - was also weird.

On the flip side I think the new character design for the Ghost Rider is much better. He's now a lot darker, more charred and billowing with smoke. His motorbike has also been updated, it's a hell of a lot less shiny and fits better with the Rider's new rougher look. There are also some nice throwaway supporting roles filled by Anthony Stewart Head and Christopher Lambert which I enjoyed even if they are brief.

I believe the movie would have benefited a lot from having an older age rating (12A currently) so they could play further around with pushing the dark boundaries of the character, I mean come on - the dude sold his soul to the devil!

Overall I would say I actually prefer the original, so I highly recommend you actually go back and give it another look. Then maybe check this one out later when it graces the reduced/sale shelfs.

Stefan Harkins will overlook the martini glass full of M&Ms in this instance.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Big Game Hunting - a plethora of Portal products!

There are some amazing Portal products coming out in April/May and the cream of the crop is coming to Proud Lion!

There's the Portal Turret LED Flashlight With Sound. Bring a bit of Aperture Science home with this turret flashlight! This release features: a bright red LED light will help you find all life's lemons, a gift box looks just like the one in the Aperture Investment Opportunity #3 video and real turret sound effects from the Portal & Portal 2 games - including the following quotes: "Are you still there", "Preparing to dispense product", "I don't hate you", "Target acquired" and "Goodbye." £25.

The Portal 2 Wheatley LED Flashlight doesn't have any sound effects, but it looks awesome! £22.50

Of course, what's one crazy AI without the other? The Portal 2 PotatOS Science Kit puts a potato-powered GLaDOS in your hands! When assembled, PotatOS's light will illuminate & talk - 17 audio clips from Portal 2 included. All you need to do is supply the potato! £28.

These amazing Portal Bookends are made of shiny & durable aluminum, non-slip rubber padding on bottom. Awesome, aren't they? £30

Finally, two products for the gamer who loves to bake! On the left we have Portal Cookie Cutters - a set of eight shapes: Portal, Turret, Running Test Subject, Falling Test Subject, Companion Cube x4. They come packaged in an awesome Companion Cube tin. £22.50

On the right there's a Portal Companion Cube Cookie Jar to keep them in! It measures 7" cubed. Sweet! £30

So if any of these take your fancy, drop me a line via email, on Facebook/Twitter, give me a call or drop into the store. I'm aware this was bordering on homeshopping channel nonsense - but I'm really excited about these products! I love the Portal games!

Ben Fardon is waiting for confirmation of the NECA Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. WOOHOO!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Why Should I Read... Transmetropolitan?

Have you ever been drip fed an alternate reality? Chances are you've only found one or two authors who can give you a whole new world to be in. Warren Ellis can be added to that list. Actually, if you read all 10 volumes of Transmetropolitan, you will probably put Warren Ellis at the top of the list.

This isn't a review. Transmetropolitan, along with the rest of Ellis's work has been reviewed by better minds than mine (and worse, for that matter) and the information about the work is out there. So no, this is not a review. It is simply me sharing what I think are the reasons to read this wonderful story.

The world in which Transmetropolitan is set is pretty much our own. It's a little more advanced, and a little more extreme, but it's certainly on a par. One of the first things I noticed about the world created here is the superb idiosyncrasies that it holds up to a fish eye lens. It uses these to highlight the stupidity of humanity and wry humour is certainly the spotlight used to do it. In the futuristic world of Transmetropolitan, smoking has not been eradicated, despite it's lethal consequences; instead, each carton is sold with a blister pack of pills, preventative medicine for cancer, heart disease and emphysema. An idea that wraps our idiocy and potential up in one neat joke and drops it into the background, for you to take at your leisure.

The artwork of Transmetropolitan is, much like the story, chaotic, multi-faceted and fast paced. It allows you to take what you want from it, but always has more to offer. The panoramic streetscapes are my favourite pieces. They have the feel of a "Where's Wally?" masterpiece, if Wally was a lunatic with a penchant for whores, sci-fi, stimulants and violence. The more you look, the more offensive fun you see. Whilst artist Darick Robertson varies his style through the series, the feel is maintained and continues to fit the story in such a way that you don't have to think about it. You're not looking at the artist's rendition of the world, but the world itself. It's not always pretty, but it is honest, and painfully so.

The character work that Ellis presents is masterful. Every character is apparently one dimensional. A stereotype, representing an easily identifiable subsection of society. But every character has a depth, or a depravity to them. The politicians, criminals, journalists, and street kids all have a multilayered back story that's whispered to you, like a secret you deserve to hear. In doing this, Ellis illustrates the complex nature of people every time he introduces you to, or revisits a character. Holding up a mirror to everything around you, without pious, is a gift that Ellis gives without prejudice and it's one that everyone should take.

But most of all, if there is one reason above all others to read Transmetropolitan, there's a man. A man who is the best and worst of things. A man who is a juxtaposition of everything a self aware man is. A man burning with the rage of righteous indignation, the messiah of the observant. A man who can be summed up in three words:

Spider. Fucking. Jerusalem.

Now, everyone I've introduced to this book tells me that I love Transmetropolitan because I'm so like Spider. Whilst to me, that is a massive compliment, it's not true. Spider is much more of the man I wish I could be. The fact that he's a fictional character makes me all the more pathetic I'm sure, but make no mistake about it: Spider Jerusalem is a hero. He looks at what you look at, the things that you see as wrong, and he strikes them down, with witty and foul language, unrelenting savagery and complete lack of boundaries. All those social frustrations you have are taken on and sorted out, with extreme prejudice. For every time you wished you could assault the dregs of society for being the millstones around the necks of society, Spider does it for you. For every time you wish you could expose the short comings of our leaders to the masses, Spider does it for you. For every time you wish you could be a bastard, Spider is THE bastard.

Plus, the guy has a gun that makes people shit themselves.

So why should you read Transmetropolitan? It's a funny, sweary, dirty, satirical side swipe at the world. It just might wake your brain up enough to make a positive change. After all, you can't sleep forever, can you?

Guest blogger Chris Boyle is just getting warmed up...

Friday, 24 February 2012

Magic The Gathering Dark Ascension Event Decks promotion

Today sees the worldwide release of the Dark Ascension Event Decks for Magic The Gathering.

These are some pretty devastating decks, designed for immediate use in tournament play. With a little tinkering I'm sure any player could turn these into something suited to their own unique play style and mop the floor with the opposition. The decklists can be found here.

The decks retail at £20 each, but while stocks last you can get one for only £15, when purchased with an Dark Ascension Intro Deck or with the Proud Lion dark Ascension booster pack offer (three boosters for £10!). That's a saving off 25% on the cost of an Event Deck!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

New Beginnings - Road Rage #1

If you mention the name Stephen King to pretty much anyone then they will immediately know either a book, a film or television adaptation that he has been a part of. Even if the person you are talking to can’t give you a title that he has worked on, then they have still most likely seen his work in one format or another without even realising. King is therefore one of the most prolific writers of the modern age. Slightly lesser known is his son Joe Hill who is also a writer and has joined his father on this production. Fans of IDW comics may know his name for his comic Locke & Key which sold out in a day on its first publication run.

Stephen King has credited a great amount of his inspiration as a writer to Richard Matheson, who has written one of my favourite books I am Legend, and this is particularly apt as Road Rage is the combination of two novellas - Duel (by Matheson) and now Throttle by King and Hill. Both King and Hill have spoken out for their love of Duel and so taking the concept and creating something new is only natural. This comes across in the comic as there is a certain familiarity in certain aspects such as the shadowy figure in the cab but in partnership with this there is also fresh twists following a biker gang.

The Tribe are a close knit crew who - through recent events - are beginning to feel polarised. Although some of them don’t overtly display it, Vince - who heads the Tribe - knows that action has to be taken. The story follows the gang as they are planning to make amends for a meth deal gone wrong and start to plan their course of action. Along the way they cross paths, quite literally, with a juggernaut which leads to all of the plans changing as it turns from a run to Show Low into a run for life.

In contrast to King’s normal writing, as a comic, you get to see his characters which he normally allows the reader to paint themselves. This may give them a very stereotypical look to them but this is a grimy almost retro story and so needs something fitting to match. Nelson Daniel has done this well. Painting the background behind King and Hill’s work you have some beautiful open scenes which still have a feeling of isolation to them. They move as a group but they are still all alone in the wilds. This feeling is pushed even further when the carnage ensues and each death is individually highlighted. A nice touch to hit a point home I felt.

This is a great little comic with a fantastic final panel and if you’re a fan of Matheson, King or Hill then you will definitely like it and should pick it up as an homage to the original Duel. If you’re not a fan then you should still find it entertaining but maybe not one which has you desperate for the whole story.

What it does show is that at the moment the portfolio of stories, characters, writers and ideas that IDW is amassing is growing and a strong line up as well. I’m really impressed by what they’re producing and looking forward to more from them too.

Next week, Matt Puddy will be taking a look back at the first story arc of the New 52 Justice League.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Watcher Junior - Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D

Do you remember the summer of 1999? After sixteen years of waiting, Star Wars fans finally got to see the first movie episode of their beloved saga. The reaction was almost universal derision. George Lucas hit back at the criticism many times, saying that the naysayers were no longer the target audience.

"The movies are for children but they don't want to admit that." Lucas told the BBC back in July 1999. "In the first film they absolutely hated R2 and C-3PO. In the second film they didn't like Yoda and in the third one they hated the Ewoks... and now Jar Jar is getting accused of the same thing."

I've always wonder if this was the case? Did we just grow up with Star Wars, excusing any faults because we were simply too young to have an objective reaction?

This year, Lucasfilm begins another campaign to part Star Wars fans and their money. Not content with the original theatrical releases, the Special Editions, spin-off animated shows, numerous DVD releases and last year's Blu-Rays, we will now be subjected to the entire saga with post-production 3D conversion, once again shown at your local cinema. Thankfully these are scheduled to be spaced out at one a year, starting this year with The Phantom Menace.

Over the course of the past six months, my personal life has dramatically improved. One interesting development is a new role as a parent of sorts to a six-year-old. For the sake of internet anonymity, let's call him simply Kiddo. Now if the Star Wars movies are "for children", Kiddo is the perfect age for Jar Jar Binks, etc. Also, if we take him to see a Star Wars film a year, he'll be ten when he gets to see my personal favourite, The Empire Strikes Back. This seemed too perfect to ignore.

So, earlier this month the three of us wrapped up warm and set off to our local Cineworld here in Cheltenham. There in the darkness, two adults waited for that familiar fanfare to kick things off and one child sat waiting to be entertained, patiently munching on a small bag of Milky Way Stars.

The opening crawl of text and the first shot of Episode IV: A New Hope is something quite magical. The words are evocative and concise talking of hidden Rebels, an evil Empire and a first victory. We learn of a powerful armoured Death Star long before we see it and learn the name of a Princess who is on an important mission. The camera then pans down to two moons and the curve of a planet's surface before a smaller ship races into view as laser blasts erupt all around it. Finally a massive spaceship appears, one that just keeps going over our heads - dominating the screen. Our first Imperial Star Destroyer. It's an incredible opening shot that captivated me straight away.

This time, I was struck by how dull the opening of The Phantom Menace is. As the opening crawl spoke of tedious things such as taxation, trade routes, blockades and debates, I glanced over at Kiddo. Despite only being in Year One, his reading level is significantly improving and we're very encouraged by his progress. But this initial onslaught of frankly boring exposition was not something I'd consider him to be capable of reading and completely understanding. Not a great start for a movie allegedly aimed at kids. The first proper shots we see in the movie is of a small ship flying past the camera and up to a blue planet with a bunch of different ships parked in front of it. To all intents and purposes, it looks like an interplanetary car park.

For Kiddo, this is how the Star Wars saga begins. Not with a breathtaking model shot, but uninspiring visuals. It simply is not for kids. He had little interest in Jar Jar or the Gungans thankfully. As the Jedi and the Queen's party made it to Tatooine, Kiddo turned over in his chair and told his Mum that he was bored. Out of the mouth of babes. We were able to placate our little Cars 2 fan by telling him there was a race coming up and sure enough, the Pod Race did hold his attention.

In a film I found myself loathing all over again, I was surprised to note how impressed I was with the sound design. There is of course the wonderful Duel Of The Fates music by John Williams, but more on that sequence later. Here during the Pod Race, I was struck by how interesting Sebulba's pod sounds. It's every bit the fearsome powerhouse the dialogue suggests it is and it's a credit to the people who worked on this section.

Returning to the fight between Darth Maul and the Jedi, the music really helps to elevate this barely adequately choreographed scene into something that almost rivals the lightsaber duels in the original trilogy. We moved Kiddo on to his Mum's lap in anticipation of the moment when Qui-Gon is stabbed through the chest, but he was mostly fine for that. Then after the Sith Lord is defeated and Obi-Wan cradles his dying Jedi Master, Kiddo buried his face in his mother's neck. "It's a sad bit," he told us quietly. "Because he's died."

After that, he started wanting to fall asleep, although he did perk up at the final battle and was impressed by the huge beasts carrying the Gungan shield generators. His favourite bit came when Anakin got to fly the yellow Naboo starfighter. I suspect after the Pod Race, "the boy" became his favourite character so seeing him flying in space and saving the day was great fun.

We could certainly see something of Kiddo in Anakin's mannerisms, particularly when he ran back to say goodbye to his Mum before leaving to travel to the Jedi Temple. I found myself reassessing Jake Lloyd's performance and being quite surprised by how good it often was, especially when compared to Hayden Christensen's successive take on the same character. Lloyd's face is often obscured by flight goggles, yet he was able to convey his emotions during both the Pod Race and the space battle with effective results. Not something I expected to find myself thinking.

Ultimately, Kiddo told us he did enjoy the movie and would watch it again, but I don't think it has replaced the various Pixar offerings that have thus far dominated his young life. Time will tell if a new Star Wars movie a year sees him develop the same love for the saga that many of us have within fandom.

Ben Fardon was not expecting to have to do this today.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Big Game Hunting - Rogue Trader

Published by Fantasy Flight, Rogue Trader and its supplements (plus its predecessor Dark Heresy and its supplements, plus various subsequent sister-RPGs) are an entertaining and often hilarious sci-fi game where mayhem ensues, out amongst the stats. Or, perhaps, it’s just the campaign I’m involved in…

Background: Rogue Trader is an ‘offshoot’ of sorts of Warhammer 40K, which is a popular tabletop war gaming game. I can’t think of a roleplayer that I know that hasn’t played one of Games Workshop’s games, even unwittingly, so the background is pretty much immersed in gaming pop culture. Rogue Trader takes an element of that – specifically the ‘little guy’ concept and sticks you out amongst the stars, against the backdrop of the history as your GM knows and interprets it.

As to whether it’s important – if you want to play a space game, no. The background is only important to understand why it’s difficult to get your hands on tech (which can be accepted at face value) and why there are things that you really need to watch out for (but again, geek and gaming pop culture covers most of that). Background DOES make it richer, especially if you’re using character types from the expansion books.

Mechanics: Character generation isn’t complicated – it’s dice rolling (d100 aka 2 x d10) and applying those rolls to a basic set of stats, then designing your character - which increases or decreases your stats, gives you talents, etc. My favourite part of it is there’s a map of sorts that takes you to your ultimate role in the game – so there’s only certain things the Rogue Trader can have versus what the Astropath has. It’s interesting enough that you weigh stuff off. Then, your GM gives you XP and you put customisations onto your character, again, based on your overall character. What it gives is robust characters that can do what they need to – but it does also lead to a bit of a character ‘lock’ of sorts.

The add-on books and sister-RPGs (and there are lots of them – including Death Watch) add additional character types, extra levelling ‘stuff’ and more background. Along with all new ways for your GM to really insert the proverbial chainsword.

Gameplay: Overall, I’d say Rogue trader is a great game. I’ve really enjoyed it so far. We’re in the middle of the second iteration of a very long term campaign. It’s not so restrictive that you can’t do what you want and respond to something in your own way, but it’s not so open that you can completely wreck your chances of survival – most of the time. There are some really irritating aspects of the game, but I think most of it is personal preference.

While Rogue Trader isn’t where I started playing this version of the games (I’ve played Dark Heresy), I have to say that Rogue Trader is the one that really stands out for me. I’ve got a wonderful GM (my other half), and I think that’s really made the difference to the game.

This week... Kai screwed up. Book is running late and she’s really not enjoying being an author. She has a plan though (and next week she’s reviewing Battlestar Galactica).

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Revised Opening Times for the Cheltenham Festival Race Week

It's almost that time of year again. As the intelligent locals you all are, I'm sure you know that whilst Cheltenham Race Week sucks if you are a resident who doesn't have a spare room to rent out, a catering business that can crank out a huge fry up, or indeed someone who loves horse racing - it also brings a considerable amount of tourist money to the area and is generally great for local commerce.

That said, it does make getting to work a bit of nightmare for me and tends to mean that most of the locals go into a self-imposed exile. Our very own Kate Townshend spoke of her dislike for Race Week last year in fact and I have to say I agree with her!

With this in mind, this year (and probably every successive year from now on), I'm going to change my opening times for Race Week. Hopefully, this gives you plenty of notice!

That particular week sees some great releases including the new deluxe hardback of Frank Miller's Batman Year One, part one of the 'Secrets Of The Indigo Tribe" storyline in Green Lantern, the first hardback for the Games Of Thrones comic adaptation, Transformers UK Classics Vol 2 TP, Avengers Assemble #1, the first issue of Paul Cornell's Saucer Country, Atomic Robo Real Science Adventures #1 and the eagerly awaited Saga #1. So it is worth popping in, even with the reduced hours.

It will be business as usual on Saturday 17th and from then on until Easter.

See you soon!

Digital Canvas - Two To Review: Dr McNinja vs. Awesome Hospital

In these Two To Reviews I’ll be taking a look at two webcomics with similar themes or completely opposite themes, comparing and contrasting them, and ultimately deciding which one I like best. This time, the prevailing theme revolves around members of the medical profession. Doctors have dedicated their lives to helping those in need, and these webcomics have tried to honour and reflect this by making their lead protaganists as awesome as possible.

The Adventures Of Dr McNinja is a humorous, arc-driven webcomic created by Chris Hastings, with help from colourist Anthony Clark (who replaced the previous colourist Carly Monardo) and previously inked by Kent Archer. It follows the titular character, a doctor who’s also a ninja, and his absurd yet dramatic adventures battling evil in-between running his own private clinic. I’ve mentioned Dr McNinja in an article before, and I have to admit it is one of my favourites. I admire just how much silliness the author can cram in, and yet still make the action and hints of drama so gripping. It's like all your favourite supernatural/weird action movies stuck together, turned up to eleven, and played for laughs! Highlights include the Doc gaining a young boy sidekick who’s a crackshot dinosaur-riding gunslinger with a huge moustache, and Doc re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere by surfing on a robot double of Dracula, and it all manages to make perfect sense in context!

But here’s the most important aspect: its not afraid to add a serious note in amongst the craziness, whether it’s mourning the loss of the clone of Benjamin Franklin, or a mother berating McNinja for thoughtlessly killing her son who happened to be a drug-induced ninja henchman of that arc’s Big-Bad, or even reflecting on McNinja’s warring personality traits of a Doctor wanting to heal and a ninja wanting to harm. Hastings’ writing and story skills naturally strikes the perfect balance of pathos and huge explosions.

As for downsides? During the earliest black-and-white areas of the archive, the art tends to be not as good, and early experimentation with shading can be hit and miss. Honestly, I was laughing too much to really care, but it could put off the pickier reader. And of course, personal tastes mean that the absurd style of the story isn’t for everyone, but really I can’t think of many people who wouldn’t enjoy it thoroughly.

Awesome Hospital is another humorous arc-based webcomic, written and drawn by the close team of Chad Bowers and Chris Sims on story, Matt Digges on art, and Josh Krach on lettering. Similarly to Dr McNinja, Awesome Hospital runs on the concept of stuffing as much pure fun into a webcomic as possible without stinting on the all-important story. In contrast to Dr McNinja however, Awesome Hospital is very much an ensemble story that follows a larger group of main characters, archetypes of the most awesome people the writers could think of like Dr Dirtbike, Dr Space Baby, and Dr Guitar Solo. So not only do we get to see them working as a team to solve strange medical conditions, we also get a hefty dose of character interaction and mutual growth. I especially love that the hospital’s Chief of Staff is Santa Claus (M.D.), it just works so well!

Unfortunately the character interaction can sway towards soap opera territory at times, especially during the first story arc where all the characters are being introduced, and the way each of them feels about the others needed to be quickly established. Another downside (if I were feeling picky) would be the lack of depth to some of the ancillary characters, with the whole “team” feeling overshadowed by the three or four “main” doctors. I even found some characters such as Dr Caveman and Dr Luchador seeming like cardboard cutout clichés! But hopefully all of these characters will eventually have their day in the sun and the chance for further personal development, when the story allows.

Final Verdict: It’s not much contest really! Awesome Hospital is a great concept with some clever plot points and lines, but ultimately still in its infancy. I shall continue to read it with interest, but not the fervour of other titles. If you want a doctor to really look up to, Dr McNinja is a veteran in the field with the sharp skills and wit to match.

Todd Marsh would be interested to hear any recommendations for future Two To Reviews

Thursday, 16 February 2012

New Beginnings - Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” is a phrase that has become synonymous with the Star Wars franchise. When Star Wars first hit the screen in 1977, the film opened with a crawl designed to present the backstory and provide further context. Love or loath the original and prequel trilogies, the question of where the Jedi and Sith came from has never been explained. So now Dawn of the Jedi aims to fill this gap. In an arc starting over 36,000 years before the Battle of Yavin, here is the Dark Horse’s production of the new era.

Dark Horse - in true Star Wars fashion - has created both an issue #1 and also an issue #0. The latter is more of a guide outlining various places, sites, locations and individuals that will be no doubt be found in the forthcoming issues. An opening crawl in comic form if you will. Although it can almost give the feel of a catalogue as it moves through the issue it also does build a sense of anticipation for the introduction of it all. What it lacks is any sense of story to it all. However, this is not what the issue is designed to do and so is not necessarily a failing. It’s hard to really say much more about it after that as you would have to go into the individual aspects without context. On the whole this is not an essential read, but if you do have a copy then it is worth looking at and I found myself flicking through it both before and after reading the main story.

Issue #1 is more about contextualising the ideas in the zero issue, fleshing out some of the bones so to speak, using it as a stepping stone. Written by John Ostrander, the issue for the first half is very narrative-heavy as it takes time in showing the origins of the Tythans as a race, one born of an amalgamation of various minds drawn together by the Tho Yor. This does lead to further questions about their origin but this is left alone. What is obviously alluded to is the affinity to the Force that these people have. This leads to an establishment of the new world but also its problems too. Due to the nature of Tython anyone who is not sensitive to the force is taken off-world to newly colonised planets creating a natural divide between its people.

This history lesson was then awkwardly veered away from on the whole as the story develops into one of a new danger on the horizon. The Rakata of the Infinite Empire have their own agenda, one fueled by fear and spearheaded by greedy Predors and their sniffer-dogs known as Force Hounds. Not only are they interested in expanding their own legions with slaves, but they appear to be destroying any individual with an affinity to the Force as well. Finally their greed turns to a planet which is plentiful in these individuals - the aforementioned Tython - and so they begin their march forward.

After their stunning work on Star Wars Legacy, Jan Duursema has once again partnered with Ostrander on both of the issues and although Star Wars is not a blank canvas to work with, a lot of creativity has been shown. The mix between archaic buildings and technological advancement shows a great variety in his ability and flexibility to draw. These are two very opposing concepts but they fit well together. It has a unique feel to it but also at the same time feels as if it fits within the whole concept of Star Wars when you think back to the various films.

Overall I think the issue #1 is a good comic, but not enough to emphatically hook you. It’s pretty to look at and you have the distinct feel that there is a lot more to the story to come, especially when you consider there are a lot of aspects that don’t look quite right but you know will be explained at some point too. If you’re a Star Wars fan then I would see a very big appeal as well as it is set in an unknown time period and will then fill in the blanks between the past and the current world as it is known. Even without this pull on the normal reader I can see it also being of interest.

Matt Puddy is bemused by the chaos one late comic can cause...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Watcher - The Muppets

‘The Muppets’ is a film that defies expectations, not simply because it’s a joyously simple fun-filled caper that appeals to adults and children alike - a claim made all too often but rarely borne out - but also because it takes a thirty year plus franchise and not only reaps massive commercial but also critical success. And by critical, that doesn’t mean the media, who have almost universally given a thumbs up, but the packed cinema auditoriums ranging from toddlers to the elderly, all of whom have laughed, cried and cheered their way through 90 minutes of sheer unadulterated joy throughout a miserable cold winter.

For anyone reading this, the Muppets, Jim Henson’s anthropomorphic puppet/marionette creations, need no introduction. Since their first huge success in television’s ‘The Muppet Show’ over 30 years ago, the eclectic cast of wacky animals, humans, mythical creatures and lovable monsters have hardly left our screens in one form or another. They have always promoted a universal aura of fun and harmony, with a dash of knowing yet inoffensive humour. The new film, manages to be all of these things and more. A post modern caper that harks back to the very first ‘The Muppet Movie’ (1979) and sees the gang reassembling in a desperate attempt to stop evil tycoon Tex Richman from destroying their studio.

The real secret of the film’s success is the seemingly unlikely mastermind of screenwriter/star Jason Segel, who teams up with Nicholas Stoller, a pair most well known for adult comedies such as ‘I Love You, Man’ and ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’. From early on in the project’s development, Segel let his childhood love of The Muppets be known, and the plot embodies the undying love every adult still feels for their childhood heroes as Gary (Segel), his Muppet-like brother Walter and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) unwittingly set out on a mission to save the titular entertainers.

By and large, previous Muppet films have been successful in capturing the charm and unique appeal of Jim Henson’s creations, but where this new offering succeeds in truly reviving the spirit of their heyday is by bringing it back to where it all started with a plot that revives The Muppet Show itself. Characters who haven’t seen the light of day (in some cases literally) for thirty years pop up all over the place and anyone over thirty will find themselves smiling at long buried memories of pyjama clad Sunday evenings as long forgotten favourites are brought to vivid life. Even the long established tradition of the unlikely celebrity guest is revived with hilarious results courtesy of a seemingly reluctant Jack Black, who thrillingly resists the urge to steal the limelight from the show’s true stars.

‘The Muppets’ is a riotous success, with wit, charm and surprise cameos aplenty. You will leave the theatre with a true sense that everything is right with the world, and even if real life slowly comes back to bring you down, you’ll still be humming THAT tune for days afterward.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is a very manly muppet.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Big Game Hunting - Gateway Games: Ticket To Ride

I was introduced to Ticket to Ride not long ago, but already I've developed an unhealthy addiction to it (apparently). It's a fantastic board game that's easy to learn and great fun to play. It's also the perfect game for those wanting to graduate from the classic family games we've all grown up with like Monopoly.

In Ticket to Ride your goal is to create routes between cities on the board, which is designed as a map of modern day North America. You claim routes by collecting coloured Railway Car cards to match the colour of the route on the board. Every route you claim earns you points, and the longer the route, the better. Each player also gets a selection of Destination Cards, which gives you two cities to connect for extra points – but failing to complete these will take away from your score. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

The popularity of the game, created by Alan R. Moore, has led to the creation of several expansions and spin-off games, such as Ticket to Ride: Europe. As you can probably guess, the European edition plays very similarly, but with a map of turn-of-the-century Europe. This game also adds extra rules and elements of play, making for a more challenging game. Ferry routes demand a specific number of the rarer Locomotive Railway Car Cards and the ability to build Train Stations allows you to use a route claimed by another player. This resolves a frustration from earlier games, as some cities have only one route they are connected to - which would make it difficult if more than one person needs that route to complete a Destination Card. Of course, some people prefer the ability to block other players and scupper their chances, so it's a matter of taste.

Though this game rapidly became one of my favourites, it is not entirely without its faults, particularly the Tunnels in the European edition. When you try to claim a Tunnel route, a random draw of three Railway Car cards takes place. If the three random cards match the colour of the cards you were using to claim said route, then you must play an extra matching card from your hand to succeed. If not, you have to take your cards back and your turn ends. The random nature of this part is frustrating and can see a player stuck for several goes waiting for a stroke of luck. Of course, this game mechanic represents the escalating costs of building railway tunnels (who can forget the Channel Tunnel fiasco so many years ago?), but it can be a real nightmare when you're desperate to win! There is definitely a feeling that, after playing the more challenging rules of the Europe map, the original USA edition can feel too easy at times.

Other editions that have been produced include Märklin, USA 1910, Europa 1912, and several additional country maps plus Alvin & Dexter - giant monsters to terrorise your cities! You can also get a little expansion that replaces the Railway Car cards with dice, if you value a more random element to your games. There's even a separate card game that is perfect for journeys or smaller homes.

In fact one of the best things I've discovered about Ticket to Ride is how many ways there are to access the game. For those who enjoy taking their games with them and playing on the go, Ticket to Ride is available as an app for iPhone (North American pocket edition), iPad (several editions available), and Android. It can be played online with people around the world at the Ticket to Ride website with a subscription. The game is also available for PC, Mac, and Xbox Live Arcade.

For more from guest blogger Rae, please check out her website.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

New Beginnings - Thief Of Thieves #1

When you mention the name Robert Kirkman man a great many things comes to mind. With the success of the Walking Dead on TV and knowing that the long standing comic is fast approaching its 100th issue, it's clear he's reaching a much wider audience these days. Kirkman is also known for titles such as Invincible (also approaching a landmark issue) and the more recent Super Dinosaur. By using these three titles, it demonstrates his ingenuity and vast wealth of ideas and stories that are almost falling out of his head due to the sheer amount of them.

Thief Of Thieves is yet another example of the creativity and flexibility that we have all come to know. The story has been developed by Kirkman but the comic is written by Nick Spencer (and there are rumours that there are up to four writers in total on this project - an idea Kirkman admits is inspired by his recent experiences in a TV show's writers room). It’s an interesting setup to say the least, providing for a story with a lot of potential, both in the comic and also in the way it could develop. This is one comic that I can immediately see the screen potential and would be attracted to watching it on TV in a similar way to Peter Milligan’s Human Target has evolved over the years and spawned two small screen series of Christopher Chance’s antics.

The story revolves around an enigmatic character simply known as Redmond and his “assistant” Celia. Redmond is a thief, one of the best in fact, though the comic begins with what appears to be a failed heist. In true typical Hollywood fashion is not what it seems either. The cinematic likeness then continues with the chance meeting of Redmond and his apprentice and the subsequent relationship that forms.

After moving from establishing the backstory Kirkman and Spencer move quickly into forming the future with an elusive job in Venice complete with huge financial backing, shady partners and an even shadier looking team culminating in a cliffhanger that is almost contradictory. It’s engaging and does make you want to see more as everyone loves a good clever heist.

There is one thing that I did wonder about though. The tagline for the comic is “There is nothing he can’t steal, nothing he can’t have... except for the life he left behind.” There is nothing in this first comic that goes near it, but when you look online there's plenty more story to be found, both in previews for subsequent issues and interviews with the creators. It feels like there’ll be loads of development but you would think it would at least be hinted at more in the first issue.

Shawn Martinbrough is the artist behind the issue. It has a certain sense of realism behind it. There aren’t any over the top characters and there aren’t superheroes or powers commanding the artists focus either. It means that simple and almost pure artwork is presented. This is more of a foreground comic though as the backgrounds are more often than not devoid of detail and a wash of colour, but this generally adds to the tone of the story at that point. It’s something I often pick up on but in this case I have to admit I didn’t notice it as I was enjoying the story.

As a first issue I have to admit it didn’t completely live up to my expectations and maybe the previews have over hyped it a little but you can’t avoid the fact that this has “win” written all over it even from these beginnings.

Kudos to Matt Puddy managed to get through this whole article with out any comparisons to BBC's Hustle. Which is made by a production company called Kudos. Fnar fnar!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

New Beginnings - Conan The Barbarian #1

It would be fair to say that Robert E Howard’s character Conan the Cimmerian, also known as Conan the Barbarian, is one that pretty much everyone knows. Whether it is through the medium of book, film, game or indeed comic. When mentioning the name many people will also bring up various Arnie impersonations which feels almost fitting considering that 30 years after his first film in the role, Dark Horse have launched a new chapter in their ownership of the comic book rights.

Marvel had originally penned stories but in 2003 Dark Horse took over with an unrelated story line which worked as a reinterpretation of the original tales by Howard. This new story sticks true to the same ethos.

Conan The Barbarian starts with a story called the Queen of the Black Coast - a new adaptation which works well in the bigger mythology of the man but opens in a way that welcomes even the newest of readers. Written by Brian Wood, it takes the original approach of using a well known figure but not treating him as such. It’s nice as a reader to not require an intimate knowledge or complete history to be able to comfortably read.

The story sees Conan fleeing Argos after a “dispute” with the local authority and befriending the master steersman of a humble trading vessel. This in itself is a vehicle (excuse the pun) to the main idea behind the story. The introduction of Bêlit, a feared female pirate and head of The Tigress. For those in the know, Bêlit is actually one of Conan’s first serious lovers and the dialogue portraying how his view is wildly different due to his perspective brought a smile to my face.

There is also an underlying feeling that to Conan all of this is a game, with fights to be won and prizes to be taken. There's an unbelievably innocent playful feel to it all regardless of the actual severity and tension. Even with a completely opposing nature to the situation it all works and you can feel your testosterone rising to meet the manliness of it all.

Becky Cloonan has provided the artwork for the comic, it’s not the most technically minded artwork but what it does do is convey the jovial feeling that Conan exudes. This is something that I think, as a whole, Cloonan has managed to do throughout the cast. Visually they all wear their hearts on their sleeves and this is occasionally a prettier aspect too! With all the focus on the characters it does draw your eye away from the background which have an amount of levelling throughout them with detail fading away the further you look into the frame. The distant backgrounds are little more that washes of colour in some cases. This does mean that as a reader you are directed to the important features as well enhancing the ease of read.

I’ve found this comic to be a very amusing and fun read on multiple levels. It has a wide appeal potential although it is aimed at a teen or mature audience. This isn’t even steered towards one particular audience and its light approach is one that I greatly welcome. Given its almost historic foundations as well I think Dark Horse has struck on a good little story to produce and I would encourage anyone looking for something new, but grounded, and without the need for anything else to certainly give this a try.

A very welcome read.

For more on Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's Conan, do check out this wonderful interview at Comic Book Resources. Next week Matt Puddy travels to a galaxy far, far away...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Watcher - Chronicle

Chronicle is the stunning debut film from director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis. Centred around a trio of Seattle teenagers, the film documents their experiences as they develop telekinetic powers and events quickly spiral out of control.

The film is seen largely through the eyes of unpopular Andrew (Dane DeHaan), who struggles with an abusive father and dying mother and decides to document his experiences with an ancient video camera. Although at first the ‘found footage’ format threatens to derail the film as the usual questions and complaints about practicality and viewing comfort begin to arise, the plot kicks into high gear almost as soon as Andrew attends a party with his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and they befriend the popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan).

Following a terrifying encounter with a mysterious underground object, the friends develop telekinetic powers and begin to document their discoveries with a genuine youthful exuberance in a series of pranks and dares. Rather than simply descend into ‘Jackass’ with superpowers, the middle act serves not only to deliver some genuine laughs, but also begins to transcend the limitations of the format as Andrew learns to control the camera with his mind and their powers quickly develop beyond their wildest imaginings. In a sequence that restores some of the thrills lost through over familiarity with the superhero genre, the trio take to the skies and discover the thrills and dangers of flight.

Another surprise is the care and attention the screenplay gives to developing the characters and relationships which grow organically through the course of events, meaning that the stakes are given a gut wrenching emotional edge when events eventually spiral beyond the teens’ control. Most touching is the friendship between outcast Andrew and popular jock Steve, who develop an almost brotherly bond until hubris drives the pair apart and Matt is left to watch horrified from the sidelines.
Andrew’s fall from grace is not entirely unexpected given the emotional turmoil we see the character go through, but it is all the more compelling, particularly as the film slowly introduces the tropes of the superhero genre in a fresh and original way, all of which culminate in the most brutal and visceral of superhero smackdowns yet committed to screen. It is here that the found footage format transcends its limitations, as Andrew’s unconscious sense of vanity and telekinesis lead to some inventive and breathtaking camera work.

Chronicle is not a perfect film. The budgetary limitations are clear in one or two places, particularly in some rather perfunctory CGI, and the found footage format might be off putting at first. It is perhaps testament to the sheer quality of the script and surprising joi de vivre that these weaknesses are forgivable however and fans of the superhero and science fiction genres should leave with a palpable sense of excitement, and a reinvigorated sense of childish wonder not experienced for a long long time.

Chronicle has made an early play for best superhero film of the year, and ironically, you should definitely catch this one on the big screen rather than wait for the ‘video’.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe squeezed Eve Myles at the SFX Weekender!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Big Game Hunting - Game design roundup

So, the last five articles I’ve provided talked about how to design a game, everything from setting and backstory to design. The final part of this is distributing it.

And I’m a bit of an expert when it comes to distribution it has to be said. In my ‘real world’ job, I’m a copywriter, editor and PR specialist as well as crazy author type lady. And to be honest, it’s the bit I like the best.

The best bit about producing a game that works is sharing it with others – I know many people that take part in homebrew projects and then keep them to themselves – which is a waste in some ways. If you’re having fun and after some really robust tests (hint, I usually find wine and a group of friends that are up for a laugh really helps after final design) and it still works – I’d say release it.

But the question would then become ‘how’?

With digital printing and print on demand, it’s not as difficult as it used to be – but, no matter what anyone tells you, it’s going to cost you something. If you’re not a professional writer, you’re going to need an editor (though, your friends might help with that) and an artist (again, friends might help). At that point, you could just distribute it as a PDF – there are some great sites that let you do so (including Drivethru RPG).

And if you want to involve a local element – print some business cards with a download code and give them to your local store. They sell one, he hands out the card – some software lets you generate one-time access codes – others will rely on the honesty of people buying from the local store to not give out the URL.

And if that makes money – consider investing in a real live print run. The gaming industry is pretty well set up for that – one of the groups in my home town, Contested Grounds Studios put out a|state when I was still back home, over six years ago and it was a roaring success. Gregor Hutton, who is an amazing game designer (and a good friend), puts out his games quite a lot and appears at gaming events. He’s the reason I design my own stuff – after chasing me to take part in a 24 hour RPG contest. The only thing that really limits you is the time you’ve got to invest – because that’s often a bigger ‘expense’ than printing, especially if you go PDF first, then offer a print run.

A final thing to remember – where I can, I buy the extra PDFs that go with our games because I like them on my iPad – and with the Kindle Fire coming soon, it might be that GMs find their favourite tool isn’t their dice roller, it’s their e-reader. In which case, the investment for indies is going to be tiny.

This week, Kai is still editing. The less said about it, the better, but on the bright side, the book is out on the 12th February!