Monday, 25 June 2012

Game On: Bioshock

As a kid, I loved video games. On Atari. I never had a Nintendo. Or a Sega. I never really got into playing Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Final Fantasy or a hundred other games that are considered "classic". Video games were expensive when I was a kid (they still are, I suppose) and I was more in to reading comic books anyway. However, while I was living with a friend of mine he introduced me to a couple of PC games (Doom 3 and Half-Life 2) and I was immediately intrigued. The graphics were much better than any game I had played before, there was an actual story and you could interact (somewhat) with other characters. 

But when my friend started playing Bioshock for the first time on Xbox, the first that grabbed me was how gorgeous looking the game is and how "real" it felt. The first few minutes were especially amazing, watching flames dance across the surface of the ocean. Getting deeper into the game though, there were things that I initially didn't like (You can't die? What's up with that? Hacking machines? Too complicated.) but eventually grew to enjoy while other elements were mesmerizing. 

The character work in the original Bioshock game is nothing short of artistic, and it's a shame that more video games haven't been able to pull off the level of quality that Bioshock had in terms of character development. What might strike you as strange is that the majority of it is done through audio tapes. You can basically listen to the thoughts people in the underwater city of Rapture have recorded and as you begin to analyze them, you realize just how incredibly flawed (even psychotic) some of these people are or become. The best examples of this are Dr. Steinman, a plastic surgeon who becomes obsessed with making people beautiful in his eyes though it often leads them into being disfigured or even killed under his scalpel, and of course, Rapture's founder, Andrew Ryan.

Ryan is probably the most intriguing character in the game. He is a man who had the financial ability and the vision to build an entire city under the sea where scientists, artists and free-thinkers could go to have their work appreciated far from the interference of governments and religions. All this of course, goes to Ryan's head, and it doesn't help that he becomes hooked on "Adam", the designer drug which enhances the user with superpowers (of varying types), but it becomes clear that Andrew Ryan's own ego is his biggest problem. He built a city to basically celebrate (admire)  his own achievements and then wanted to be king of his kingdom without really knowing how to run it during a crisis, much less a full-scale civil war. 

Of course, character development is nice, but video games are mostly about the action and there is plenty of that to go around as well. As a player you get a range of weapons, from shotguns and rocket launchers to superpowers like shooting flames or electricity from your hands. You need them to survive in Rapture, because the city has basically gone to hell and the majority of the citizens that are still alive are strung out on Adam, which is not only highly addictive, but gives them superpowers as well. 

Then, of course, there are the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters. The Little Sisters are girls who were orphaned or outright taken from their parents and subjected to experimentation (they were symbiotically joined with sea slugs that produce Adam) and brainwashed into running around the city searching corpses for more Adam. The Big Daddies are their protectors and are basically brainwashed "volunteers" in giant metal diving suits, equipped with everything from grenade launchers to a very big drill. 

Bioshock is consistently listed as one of the best video games of all time, and it is certainly my favorite. It's sequel, Bioshock 2, wasn't as intriguing as the first game but did offer some great visuals, sound design and gameplay, but the true test of Bioshock as a franchise will come next year when Bioshock: Infinite (a new game taking place in a new city, Columbia, which is in the clouds rather than under the sea) makes it's long awaited debut. 

In the meantime, check out the original Bioshock (again, in case it has been a while since you played it) and just marvel at the amount of hard work and craft that went into this game. Something which sadly seems to be lacking in most video games shoved out on us today.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Game On: The Uncharted Franchise

When I first got back into playing video games, I didn't bother with anything outside of first person shooters (Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Bioshock) but a friend of mine picked up Uncharted: Drake's Fortune for the PS3 and we both became obsessed with it. The amazing graphics, the humor, the action sequences, the terrific voice acting and characters, the engaging storyline. It had everything. It was a third-person shooter though, and as I was new to this new generation of video games (the last game console I owned was the Atari) I originally just watched my friend play it and just sat back and watched, marveling at the movie-like style of the game. As you discover while playing the game, the gamer plays the character of Nathan (Nate) Drake and must search for clues to the fate of his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake, and stumble upon pirates, treasure and a deadly curse along the way.

A few months later I bought my own PS3 and not long after bought Drake's Fortune to play for myself. It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be, though the bad guys were insanely tough (they would take a few shots to the head and still keep coming) and I hard time at first timing jumps right when scaling the castle or escaping the collapsing pillars. Stuff like that. However, I loved getting trophies for the game as it gave me an extra challenge and at the time my friend and I were in an ongoing competition to see who could get the most PS3 trophies.

When Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was announced, I couldn't wait to play it. The trailers made it look awesome and every review I read or watched on Youtube raved about the game. Admittedly, I found it a little disappointing at first. Partly I think because of all the hype that had been built up around it, but there were things that bothered me about the game (and still do). I didn't like having to climb up the train in the first chapter only to have to do it again later on. I didn't like the seemingly never-ending cut-scenes at the beginning of the game. I didn't like fighting the guy on the train who seemed to be practically invincible or the boss battle at the end where you basically had to run around in circles shooting at stuff. That said, there are things I love about the game. Especially the gun battles in the city and on the train. The graphics, humor, and characters were still all top notch as well and the story (aside from the early cut-scenes) was fantastic. Drake starts out searching for the missing fleet of Marco Polo but ends up in a deadly quest to find the Cintamani Stone which grants immortality (though at a cost). As the title "Among Thieves" suggests, some of the allies Nate makes along the way turn out to be less than trustworthy adding an extra element of danger to the story. There is also a bit of focus on Nate's love life (past and present) with two women vying for his affections, or perhaps more accurately, reminding him of his failures as romantic interest for them. There is also some cool multi-player built into the Uncharted franchise here for the first time.

With Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception I tried to keep my expectations low. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy Uncharted 2, it was that it wasn't as mind-blowing for me as I had anticipated. Uncharted 3 again has the same amazing graphics and some of the humor of the previous games. This time, however, the game focused on Nate and his mentor Victor (Sully) Sullivan and their search for "The Atlantis of the Sands", even giving us a couple of chapters of flashbacks to when they originally met. I found this much more effective than the flashback cut-scenes in Uncharted 2 because you were actually able to play through these chapters as Nate, rather than just sit and watch. Where the game lost me a bit though was around the middle chapters, with Nate chasing after some modern day pirates in an attempt to rescue Sully. There are about 5 chapters here where you're on a wild goose chase which eventually dead ends and has almost no impact on the rest of the game or the story, though it is fun to play as you get into gun fights while in the water or on boats. Also, there is an a lot more focus on hand-to-hand combat in this game than I really like, as if the developers (Naughty Dog) spent too much time playing Batman: Arkham Asylum and wanted to add in more fist fights to their own game as a result. I also wasn't a fan of the hallucinations that Drake keeps experiencing in later chapters, which again reminded me of the Arkham Asylum game and Batman's battles with Scarecrow. Once again, I enjoyed the game, but not as much as the original. Uncharted 3 also has multi-player, though I admit I play these games more for the single player campaigns/stories than the online content.

The latest installment in the franchise is Uncharted: Golden Abyss, exclusive to the PS Vita. This is actually a prequel to the previous games. Nate and Sully are here, but Elena and Chloe (the love interests from the first three games) are replaced by a woman named Chase, and Drake sets out to find clues to the Seven Cities of Gold. As you would expect, the game play here is quite a bit different given the Vita's touchscreen abilities. There are still gun battles, but hand-to-hand combat has changed in that you have to tap the screen to hit someone. There are also charcoal rubbings which you can complete by rubbing the Vita's screen, objects to cut with your machete, and the treasures you would normally find in an Uncharted game can be picked up by tapping them on your screen. The story takes a lot of different turns, none of which are very memorable. Chase as a character isn't as likable as Elena or even Chloe, though Sully turns up in the later chapters to help bring some humor in to the game. Overall, it is a different experience from the PS3 games, and while I did enjoy the new aspects of touchscreen game play for the most part the hand-to-hand boss battles at the end dragged on far too long.

I realize this all seems incredibly critical. It sounds (even as I type this) that I'm being incredibly harsh on the games and their (to me) flaws. However, this is one of my favorite franchises out there, and I feel the need to point out the bad as well as the good. You can't overlook the blockbuster movie-type storytelling and cinematics that the Uncharted franchise pulls off. The characters are more real in terms of voice work, emotion and depth than the ones you would find in any other franchise (with the exception of the original Bioshock) and as I've said above a few times, the graphics are amazing. Add to this treasure hunting, fun gun battles and playing for trophies and each of these games has quite a bit of replay value. If nothing else draws you back to the Uncharted games more than once, the characters of Drake, Sully and Elena are entertaining enough on their own to keep bringing you back.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Canadian TV: Continuum

Continuum is a new science-fiction television show that started on the Showcase channel here in Canada recently. So far, three episodes have aired and I've enjoyed them all. The premise of the series may sound familiar (a cop sent back in time to stop dangerous criminals) but the execution of it so far has been surprising and a lot of fun.

Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) is a police officer with the Vancouver City Protective Services in the year 2077. She is a wife and a mother to a young boy and her city has been the victim of a terrorist attack which killed thousands. The terrorists responsible were captured and sentenced to execution, but on the day they were scheduled to be killed, the terrorists activated a device sending them all back in time 65 years to modern day Vancouver. Kiera accidentally gets brought along for the ride and ends up having to work alongside Vancouver police in 2012, but with her future tech (mostly) intact. She also finds help from Alec Sadler, a 17 year old whiz kid who will one day be responsible for creating the tech (including a bodysuit that can absorb bullets and some neat implants in Kiera's brain) that Kiera had been outfitted with for chasing down criminals in the future.

I realize this all sounds like it might be riffing off of Time Cop, 12 Monkeys and a handful of other films, but the real difference here is Rachel Nichols. Here is a woman who misses her husband, her son, her friends, and the things she took for granted in her own time period. Stranded in the past, Kiera has to decide if she's changing the future of her own family with every step she takes or if she's simply following a preordained path that has already been laid out for  her. Nichols' portrays Kiera's conflict and her loss with striking emotion, but never to the point that Kiera seems weak or unable to do what is necessary to track the eight criminals (some of which are "enhanced" murderers) and bring them to justice. She handles everything from a fast-talking con man to a highly trained martial artist and does so with intelligence and dignity, all the while trying to fit in as best she can with the primitive time period and the police who's trust she has to earn.

The show itself takes some surprising twists and turns (which I won't spoil here) and the action scenes (particularly the hand-to-hand combat scene in episode 3) are some of the best I've seen on television in a while. Add to this Kiera's cool tech (she can see things in infrared, store video files in her brain and her gun is able to tag criminals in order to find them again if they should escape) and the series becomes a lot of fun. There are also quite a few familiar faces for genre fans in the show: Jennifer Spence and Mike Dopud from Stargate: Universe, Lexa Doig from Andromeda and Tony Amendola from Stargate: SG-1.

For more about Continuum, check out the official website and if you live in Canada, watch it live on Sunday nights on Showcase at 9pm ET/PT.

Friday, 15 June 2012


The above is the cover to the first ever Flash comic book I owned. As a child it was a powerful image. I was just learning to read at the time and I didn't understand even half of what was going on inside the book because it was (unknown to me) heading towards the end of "The Trial of The Flash" storyline, a multi-part epic that would end out the book. It was the cover that always stuck with me though. Here was a superhero, defined by super speed, standing still and facing not a super villain but a jury who were deciding his fate (at the time, The Flash was on trial for having murdered his arch-enemy the Reverse-Flash). The red and yellow costume, the idea of a character who run at super speed, who had a colorful assortment of villains in his Rogues gallery, all appealed to me. Even his name, The Flash, sounded cool. So much so that I named my first dog (a doberman) after him. 

For reasons now lost to the mists of time (and my poor memory of events) the comic left my possession (did I give it away? Did my mom throw it out? Was it stolen?) along with a number of others.  Comic books were hard to come by back in those days (I lived in a very small town and there weren't any comic shops back then, just the odd convenience store or drug store that sold comics) but I managed to find the Flash again, albeit in a much different costume and with a few friends thrown in for good measure. 

This was my first encounter with the heroes of Earth 2 and here was a completely different Flash. Different costume, different identity, different time period. The only thing similar about them was their superpower and their code name. Instantly I liked this Flash. He had a sense of humor about him the other one didn't. He had a cool helmet. He didn't hide his face (shockingly, his girlfriend, whom he rescued from being run over by a train, knew his secret identity, which immediately made her more interesting to me than Lois Lane). I read a few other issues of All-Star Squadron which featured Jay Garrick, but this is still my favorite (also one of my favorite comic books ever) and that cover still looks cool. I knew Jay Garrick's name before I knew Barry Allen's, because I really hadn't read too much of Barry's adventures at this point. I didn't even know that "Barry Allen" was the secret identity of the first Flash I had read about. So when my mom picked up another Flash comic book for me a year or so later, I had no idea at first that it was a completely different character wearing the same costume.

As I said above, this wasn't the first comic book I ever owned. It wasn't even my first Flash comic. It was, however, the comic book that made me fall in love with comic books. I had read others before it, but this is the one that really started my fascination/obsession/addiction with comics. The cover, as it should, is what struck me first. Again, that familiar costume, but in the background a monster chasing him with a mouth that could swallow a truck. A monster that could run as fast as "The Fastest Man Alive"? Incredible. Inside, The Flash and his guest-star Cyborg battled against an alien intelligence that could possess machines and create android duplicates of human beings. 

I didn't realize it until the next issue, but this Flash was Wally West and he wasn't able to run as fast as the previous Flashes. Starting with issue #5, he began having an affair with a married woman, he was rich and lived in a mansion and had to deal with monsters and super speed villains pumped up on steroids. He was also a member of the "New Teen Titans" rather than the Justice League or Justice Society (which I was vaguely familiar with at this point). Wally would go on to become my favorite Flash. I'm not sure what it was exactly about him that appealed to me at that age (aside from the costume and super powers) but I always felt a connection with him. Maybe it was because neither of us got along with our fathers (his was an evil Manhunter, mine was more concerned with his tools and tractors than he was with his family) or maybe it was because we were both hotheads. As Wally grew and matured as a character though, so did I as a man. 

Since then I've read/collected every issue of Wally's series, quite a few issues of Barry's (original) series and stuck with the Flash through three (four?) reboots. Through Bart Allen (Barry's grandson from the 30th century. Long story.) taking over the mantle of the Flash for a very brief time to Barry's return from the dead I've seen these characters and this franchise through a lot.  The current Flash series, this time starring Barry Allen again, isn't really my cup of tea so far. I like what's been done with the villains, but I wish they'd put more effort into making me care about Barry as a character again (he had been dead for 20 plus years and I barely knew him before he died). That said, there is something about that red and yellow costume and the idea of a guy who runs super fast that keeps bringing me back, no matter who is under the mask/helmet.

So this post is hereby dedicated to The Flash (all of them) and to one of my favorite websites, , which celebrates it's fourth anniversary today. Long live The Flash!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Canadian TV: Todd and the Book of Pure Evil

I have to say I was heartbroken when I heard that my favorite show on television, Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, had not been picked up for a third season by SPACE (Canada's version of the Syfy Channel). I've watched this series from the very first episode and loved the characters, the zany situations, the crazy monsters, the politically incorrect humor and the awesome soundtrack (not to mention the two fantastic "metal musical" episodes). 

But let's go back to the beginning, shall we? Todd and the Book of Pure Evil focuses on high school loser and wannabe rock god, Todd Smith (played by Alex House), who has a one-armed friend named Curtis (who loves his corn chips almost as much as he loves smoking weed) and a crush on Jenny (the hot goth girl who's father mysteriously disappeared while researching a "Book of Pure Evil"). Todd himself is the first to actually find the book and learn of it's awesome wish-granting power, not to mention the fact that said wishes often come with a price attached (usually death for other students and, more often than not, the person who made the wish). Todd, Curtis, Jenny and Hannah (the geeky scientist girl who has a crush on Todd) set out to find the book and destroy it all costs. Every episode the Book finds a new "host" (if you will) who uses it to make a wish in order to better their lives, or get revenge, or just generally fuck shit up. "Helping" Todd and the gang is Atticus Murphy, Jr (actor Chris Leavins) who happens to be their high school guidance counselor and, like many high school guidance counselors before him I'm sure, also happens to work for an evil Satanic cult who want the book for their own purposes (to rule the world, naturally).The problem though is that they need "The Pure Evil One" (who they suspect is Todd) to unleash the Book's power. Add to this, a pot-smoking guru janitor played by Jason Mewes (Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and three Metal Dudes who hang out in the high school parking lot all day offering advice to Todd and you've got one wacky TV show.

Check out the (NSFW?) trailer for the first season:

As you can see, the show has some pretty crazy stuff: fat monsters, giant birthday cakes that eat people, an giant evil penis (that talks with a french accent), man-goats, zombies and all other sorts of weirdness. The show is essentially a horror comedy. It's been described as a mix between The Evil Dead and The Breakfast Club and yet it is so much more than that. The writers and actors bring the funny, the special effects (most of which are what we used to call "practical effects" are gory and gruesome, and the whole thing was shot here in Canada. 

If you're interested, seasons 1 and 2 of the show are now on DVD (I picked mine up at Wal-mart, but you can also find copies on Amazon). Sadly, fans are still waiting to hear news if we might see an eventually return of Todd and the gang to wrap up one MAJOR plot thread started in the second season (can we hope for new episodes on another network? Perhaps a movie?). Until then, enjoy Todd on DVD or iTunes. If you like comedy, horror, and things that might easily offend others you owe it to yourself to watch Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. 

You Should Be Reading: BATWOMAN

There have been very few characters introduced in comic books in the last 20 years who have A) a solid origin story and B) are interesting enough to hold their own title. Batwoman is one of these rare characters.

Originally introduced in the DC Comics weekly series, 52, back in 2006, Kate Kane was a wealthy socialite who started dressing up and fighting crime as Batwoman. When the character was first announced by DC, there was a lot of media attention surrounding the fact that the character is a lesbian. At the time, this reeked of a publicity stunt (though DC claimed otherwise, stating numerous times that they were trying to add some diversity to their characters by adding minorities to their roster of characters). The character was fairly forgettable, aside from her relationship with long-time DC character Renee Montoya (another long story), but then a couple of years later writer Greg Rucka and artist JH Williams III expanded on the character in Detective Comics, which featured her as the lead character for 10 issues (the first seven of which are collected in the excellent Batwoman: Elegy hardcover) and made her much more compelling. Her new backstory includes her time in the military (from which she was discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"), the death of her mother and twin sister at the hands of terrorists, and her preparations in (and reasons for) becoming Batwoman. It also explores her past relationship with Renee Montoya. All this, and she faces off against the mad villain known as "Alice" who is the head of the Religion of Crime.

Now why should I be bringing up Batwoman? Well, it just so happens she now has her own monthly series (issue #10 will be out soon) with JH Williams III and W. Haden Blackman co-writing and Williams doing the  artwork for every second storyarc. The reason I bring this up is because issues #0-5 of the series are now collected (and available for sale) in Batwoman Volume 1: Hydrology which features Kate's first battles with a new enemy (The Weeping Woman) while trying to train her new sidekick (her cousin Bette, aka Flamebird) and make time for her new girlfriend Maggie Sawyer (who happens to be a cop investigating Batwoman). On top of all this, Kate has to deal with Agent Cameron Chase of the D.E.O. , an organization that watches and wants to control superheroes in the DC Universe. It's beautiful to look at, the story is compelling, and Batwoman is one of the best characters to come out of comic books in the last couple of decades.

So do yourself a favor and pick up Batwoman: Elegy and then Batwoman: Hydrology. If you dig those, think about checking out the monthly Batwoman comic book series for more on Kate Kane and her crime-fighting alter-ego.