Should I Buy? – Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon

Oh dear. By the third installment the series was quite clearly in the middle of doing what I call “doing a Matrix”. That is, getting less enjoyable with each subsequent installment.

Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon was an attempt to update the series for a more modern audience. Not by turning it into an action game or a shooter or anything like that, instead it transitioned into full 3D and introduced stealth, sliding blocks puzzles and a strange attempt at platforming to keep things fresh.

Basically, George and Nico and are off doing their thing (Nico trying to interview a guy with an apparent secret about a potentially world ending discovery, which just seems to be how these games start now and George off trying to find a mad scientist in the Congo so he can patent an invention that’ll apparently revolutionise a lot of stuff) but end up investigating different threads of the same mystery.

Said mystery revolves around the Voynich Manuscript, the remnants of the Templars and the supposed powers of ley lines, all tied into the enigmatic Susarro. As usual, it covers quite a wide variety of global locations though the use of the 3D RareWare Engine over the old Virtual Theatre means that  nothing really looks special. The game doesn’t look bad, but it’s all kind of uninspiring, which shouldn’t be my reaction to climbing up a waterfall in the Congo.

On the gameplay side, it’s not exclusively using the old adventure game methods found in point-n-clicks and when it does, it’s all in a going through the motions kinda way. The new elements I mentioned above also fail to really work. Sloppy movement controls make stealth harder than it should be, even though it’s basically a game of grandmother’s footsteps. The sliding block puzzles are…well, sliding block puzzles. Nothing special is done with them. they’re just kind of there. And the platforming is just going up to an interactive background element and pressing the appropriate context sensitive button. There’s no skill in making the jump or swinging on the rope.

And the plot? Eh. The characters? A few stand out. The humour? There’s some. It’s not great or widespread. It’s also a rather short game. I can’t really think of a reason to recommend it unless you *really* want more Broken Sword or you buy it as part of a bundle of the series.

Aside from less than stellar writing, pretty much all the problems with this game can be attributed to the game trying to be modernised and innovating on its formula. But the formula wasn’t broken. A bit dusty and battered yes, but still perfectly serviceable with a bit of spit and polish. But it doesn’t seem to be a genre anybody can quite get the hang of these days.


Comics are weird.

Well they are. Today I read two. The first was the inaugural issue of Marvel Comics Ultimate Graphic Novel Collection (available from your local newsagent in the UK), The Amazing Spider-Man’s Coming Home. It’s a J Michael Straczynscki story which introduces the concept that Spider-Man’s powers have an origin a little more complicated than a radioactive spider.

Namely, that he is the latest in a long line of people imbued with special powers from totemic animal spirits, and that so many of his villains are animal themed because some subconscious narrative source in the universe deliberately attracts villains that balance out the hero. E.g., Captain America has Red Skull, the X-Men have Magneto and Spider-Man has the Lizard, Doc Ock, Rhino, the Vulture et al. This is of course how hero/villain dynamics work. The villains that caught on were always the ones that proved to be either the opposite or dark reflection of the heroes. It was a pretty damn meta-textual moment.

Now, I liked it. Spidey’s internal monologue did get  bit overwrought at times, hopefully Straczynscki (y’know what, from now on I’m calling him Mr S) in his other works remembers that sometime silence speaks the loudest of all. Also, not ten minutes after I turned to my brother and said “why doesn’t he call any of the other heroes that live in New York?” (which is at least a half dozen high profile ones), he considered calling the Fantastic Four with change he’d stolen from a fake-blind beggar.

In fact, when comics go all meta are often my favourite part. Of course, now that previous fans are running comics, they do that a lot. But according to tvtropes at least, I’m supposed to think that “messing” with the webhead’s origin and introducing new concepts into what was then an ailing character (and this story helped lead to his revival, at least the blurb at the back said) is automatically wrong. Even though it was done for Superman and the destruction of Krypton. Or Batman and Joe Chill. Or The Flash family and the Speed Force.

That was the other one I read, Flash: Rebirth by Geoff Johns.  It’s the story where the Silver Age Flash Barry Allen was readjusting to being brought back from the Speed Force, the quasi-mystical source of all the DC speedster’s powers. Turns out that even though he was the second Flash, he created the Speed Force and that the more he uses his powers, the more he builds up the Speed Force and the more heroes (and villains) can tap into its power. Some of the Golden Age heroes like the original Flash and Green Lantern also remark about how the appearance of Barry Allen as the new Flash brought them out of retirement. This is meant quite literally, as the Flash is pretty much universally credited with leading the revival of superhero comics after they nearly died during the forties and early fifties.

But to return to the matter of the Speed Force for a moment, the implication behind Barry having inadvertently created the Speed Force is that he inspired the rebirth of superhero comics that sprawled throughout the medium and that he, with his continued presence in comic books, will continue to grow and expand and help to inspire and shape the medium for decades to come. That’s pretty deep subtext for a picture book where men in silly suits punch each other really hard.

I like that comics can do this. The tradeoff is that it’s pretty hard for a newcomer to find a way in. I know some argue that it’s not that hard, but I’m pretty boned up on DC for a non-regular reader and I struggling with having all four Flashes, and one of the Flash’s twin children, and two Flash’s wives, and Reverse Flash, and Liberty Belle, and Black Flash, and Savitar, And Gorilla Grodd, and Max Mercury and Johnny Quick. See how this stuff gets confusing? It doesn’t help that two of the Flashes have identical costumes. Seriously, one of them has to have his headgear torn off so we can see he’s not Barry Allen. The plot even has to stop several times to explain characters or contexts or backstories.

What’s the point of all this incoherent rambling that I’m doing instead of important uni work? I dunno. Comics are weird. I like ’em. I want to read more. It’s a shame I’m poor, really. And would you look at that? I didn’t even have to refer to Mr S again.

My Best of 2011

I considered doing a 2011 videogame awards thing, but I didn’t actually get to play that many 2011 releases. Instead, here I want to just give a shout out to some of stuff from 2011 I did really enjoy.

Favourite Game of 2011 – Bastion

As I mentioned above, I didn’t get to play a lot of the year’s big releases, Skyrim, Dragon Age 2, Uncharted 3 et al. But, the year’s most impressive indie title was one of the titles I got my hands on. Its beautiful to look at, has a fantastic dynamic narrator with a sexuality-confusingly sexy voice, the year’s flat out best score by composer Darren Korb and tight, fun Action-RPG gameplay. It’s the first showing from Supergiant Games, themselves former developers on mainstream titles and Bastion probably made the biggest impact of any indie title since Angry Birds. Seriously. Buy that game.

Best Example of a Sequel – Batman: Arkham City

I’m not choosing this because I got to play a lot of other sequels this year and compare, but because I’m really struggling to think of a game I’ve played that’s done such a good job of going “big” for the sequel but still holding onto what made the first game great. It’s not flawless, there’s too many new tricks that you’ll pretty much never use and the design is now uniformly “Really Rather Good” instead of “Sodding Excellent”. Also, City shows that developers Rocksteady really do know their Goddamn Bat-Stuff.
Not only that, but they refuse to parrot it ad verbatim or go for the easy portrayals. Remember how Mister Freeze is meant to be an antihero only acting out of concern for his dying wife? So does Rocksteady! Ever wondered how the Penguin and Riddler could be portrayed as interesting villains? Rocksteady know. FYI, the answer is a blend of unrepentant psychopathy, a shit ton of money and not acting like a 2D comic book villian for once. The plot also takes inspiration from a myriad of different stories and adaptations to deliver a unique spin on the Bat-mythos you won’t get anywhere else.

Best way of letting somebody into a genre – Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3

The expanded re-release of MvC3 and the original are both serious, deep beat ’em ups. What makes them so great for getting into the newbie-unfriendly world of fighting games is the Simple Mode. With this, you can play as most of the characters effectively with just a few buttons. And when you’re not worrying about how to pull off your fancy moves and just able to do them, you can instead learn skills like blocking, team combos, assists, tagging, X Factor and the like and get a proper grasp on how the game works, before you (if ever, cause the game is stupid amounts of fun even just on Simple Mode) decide to move up to Normal Mode. I’ll admit to only buying this game because of PHOENIX GODDAMN WRIGHT but I’m glad I did, because the “must play this game all day every day” work off way after the novelty of OBJECTION!-ing Galactus to death did.

Super Hero Movies – Thor & X-Men First Class

I love me some superheroes. And what I really loved this year was Kenneth Brannagh being unafraid to make Thor be big and grandiose. He also made the brilliant performances by Tom Hiddleston & Chris Hemsworth really work, although the script certainly gave them plenty to work from. Of particular note for me was how Loki, a campy comic book villain, came off as a believable and relatable character. Even moreso than his big, lovable brother Thor.

And X-Men First Class? Not afraid to put its heroes on yellow spandex, which earns it points in my book. Also, it took characters like Magneto, Beast, Mystique & Xavier (who I’ve never formed a connection to in anything) and made me like and care about them. Xavier in particular is charming as all hell. If he were telling me to go save the world from Shaw, I’m pretty sure he could convince me to overcome my innate cowardice easily without using his telepathy.


Other Movies – Sucker Punch, Hanna and In Time

Other than cementing my love for Amanda Seyfried and making me fall in love with Saoirse Ronan and Emily Browning, these three films were to me really, really fun, slick action films with interesting ideas going on behind the main story.

Sucker Punch barely broke even at the Box Office and was despised by most critics. It was Zack Sneider’s first film that wasn’t an adaptation, and at least 937, if not all kinds of awesome. Using multiple layers of dream narrative, we see the lead character Baby Doll fight with a group of similarly hot, badass girls against Steampunk zombie soldiers, orcs, robots, a dragon and gigantic demon samurai statues. Some critics thought the use of attractive women in tight clothing fighting through hordes of battles seemingly torn out of nerd fantasies that were also being exploited as sex workers in another dream layer was misogynistic, but I think they were missing the point. See, the fighting of these dehumanised, vaguely evil, masculine enemies took place when the girls were doing something to strike back against the male dominated environments they were trapped in.

Specifically, they’re using a combination of intelligence, deception and their femininity  to get one over on the guys in one layer (and probably the real world) and also destroying the evil, subhuman symbolic males in another, while acting against some kind of time limit. As such, the action is a way of an idealised version of the girls processing their rebellion against the guys. You might think I’m reading too much into it, but Sucker Punch is a film built around symbolism, much like Black Swan was. I think that the symbolism it chooses to use is what got it ignored, which is unfair if true.

Hanna is a generic story of a super-secret super soldier program survivor being hunted down by the US government. Except the hero is a young girl. When she escapes into the world at large, she travels a good stretch of Europe where she essentially has a coming-of-age story, aided by a dysfunctional English family on holiday. It’s a film about Hanna becoming an adult, essentially. Most of the conspiracy plot is even handed off to her father, while Hanna gets to explore the world and find her place in it.

In Time is prove positive, if it were needed, that proper speculative fiction of the type Asimov, Clarke and Heimlein wrote can translate to Hollywood without compromising on the messages and philosophies it delivered in print. It has its problems, and for a film in which the ticking of seconds can be a literal matter of life and death there are a lot of sequences that seem to take improbably long or short times. Its message about unrestrained Capitalism versus Socialism (not Communism) is very topical and well worth hearing. Also, one scene has Amanda Seyfried in her underwear.


My Favourite Trailer/Most Anticipated Film – Ace Attorney

Nope, not The Hobbit, Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers. I’m looking forward to a videogame movie most of all. It’s a Japanese production, known there by the series’ original title Gyakuten Saiban and is being directed by one of the most versatile, prolific and well known Japanese directors, Takashi Miike. Miike hasn’t shied from making this film actually look like Ace Attorney at all, and I have real faith that it’ll be the first truly great videogame movie.

Best Thing on TV – Doctor Who “The Doctor’s Wife”

Neil Freakin’ Gaiman himself wrote an episode of Doctor Who for series six. Less of a typical adventure and more a meditative love letter to the oldest relationship on the show, Gaiman delivered what I firmly believe to be the best thing in Who canon. At least of the new series, I can’t vouch for the old one.


Best Book – The Night Circus

OK, so it’s the only new book I read this year, but it’s still damn good. A period romance set in and around the titular magical circus, Emily Morgenstern’s debut novel might not appeal to those of you who detest a romance story, but she’s clearly got some good stories in her and a talent for telling them. Hey, the guys over at FailBetterGames liked it enough to make a promotional game for it, The Guardian have nominated for a best newcomer award and the BBC have already done a radio adaptation of it. She’s got something going for her. Don’t be surprised if this is the summer hit that explodes into cinema when the Twilight films are gone. 

Well folks, that was my highlights of 2011. What were yours? More to the point, how many of them involved penguins?

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