Frontline Report

Ever watched a film on TV and noticed they’ve edited bits out of it? That’s just how I feel about WildStorm’s six part mini-series on the PlayStation 3 franchise, Resistance.

Originally scheduled for December but arriving in mid February, this mini-series serves to give readers added insight into the events leading to those in Resistance 2. However, a simple story arc that offers little or no character development and several jumpy panel transitions tarnish what could have been a quality effort. Never mind, but there is more to say.

The comics’ primary story concerns Sergeant Capelli, the gung-ho-beanie-wearing-jerk from Resistance 2 (who somehow manages to be an ounce more endearing here), and several members of Sentinel team Alpha as they undertake their first mission against the advancing alien menace. In short, a US army base in Alaska – housing experimental weapons – has gone dark, so Alpha team are tasked with accessing the site, rescuing any personnel they find and recovering the weapons.

What does deserve some praise is the lead story’s artwork, which is drawn by the fabulous, Ramón Pérez, and coloured by Tony Aviña. From creaseless army vests to wall-pinned battle maps, to the chiselled faces of officers and the chaos of battle – detailed characters and objects, drawn with a stylish Americana-vibe that feels immediately reminiscent of the pulp comics and WWII recruitment posters of the 1940s, with warm colours. The duo have really outdone themselves. Issue #1’s dogfight over Alaska and the first-half of issue #5 are two of my personal highlights.

With the PSP version, Resistance: Retribution, released in March 2009, the mini-series’ second plotline provides the direct prelude to James Grayson’s European tour of duty. At the hands of artist, C.P. Smith, once again, the visuals are drab at best (a fact that is extenuated further alongside Pérez’s art). There’s lots of F-words, B-words (and even the forbidden C-word) thrown in to cheapen… I mean ‘authenticate’, the Brit-filled serial. Full of tragedy and self-deprecating angst, but unfortunately, none of the gutsy risk-taking and over-the-top machismo of Grayson’s handheld persona.

Mike Costa (the writer for both stories) seems to have had his hands tied with regards to the canon and timeline, which has amounted to very stiff storytelling and throwaway characters. There are some good hooks (such as the Chimera crossing into Alaska via a frozen ice bridge), but essentially what you have is a skirmish that’s only thinly related to events in the video games.

Another problem is that parts of the story just don’t feel like they’ve been edited together very well. Case in point, in issue #1 Capelli is having a private conversation with another officer. Turn the page and suddenly he’s approaching a different blonde-haired guy, who he then assaults in the next panel. The transition from one scene to the next is so jarring because the original conversation never actually seems like it is tied up – it just ends abruptly. Issue #3 increases the story’s sense of urgency when a new character, Dr Robert Oppenheimer, fills the team in on the real situation. The finale is quickly ruined in issue #6 though, as the narrative perspective moves from present to past tense – wrapping things up rather hastily too. Apart from Capelli, Warner and the doctor, none of the other characters are very memorable. While comics are pressed for space, I think the primary story could have been told far better if they’d chosen to focus solely on it – rather than splitting the comic in two and still plastering it with ads.

Then, there are the canonical plot holes. The story takes place in January 1951 and features spinner (bug-like chimera that are part of a new conversion process) and the human-sized cocoons from Resistance 2. Now considering that the Chimeran virus has only just made it to Britain, and the all-important conversion-halting events of Resistance: Retribution haven’t even taken place yet – and I’ve followed the timeline reasonably closely – it seems highly unlikely that this story arc should contain such elements. Furthermore, part of the plot is devoted to recapturing an experimental atomic bomb. However, in the Resistance novel (circa July 1951) it states that the US army is yet to create successful atomic weapons. Though Insomniac has taken tremendous care with the canon, cracks and inconsistencies are beginning to show.

Even with Pérez’s gorgeous art, there just aren’t enough meaningful chucks in this mini-series to make it a significant part of the Resistance universe.

Unethical Operations

“Doctor, doctor! I appear to have morphed into a horrible gelatinous monster. Whatever shall I do?”

Heralded by the release of yet another prequel comic, as almost every multi-million dollar platform exclusive is these days, Resistance 2 upped the ante for the franchise in more ways than just the player count. The story of Lieutenant Nathan Hale and his struggle to thwart the rampaging Chimera now has more knots than an alien’s intestine. Kicking off the big American exodus is WildStorm’s issue #0 comic book.

Set in 1950, before the events of Resistance: Fall of Man, we find Private Jordan Shepherd strapped to an operating bed. The grainy panels depict Shepherd reliving his violent and neglected upbringing, while, in the present, a surgeon questions him on why he volunteered for Project Abraham. By the end of his flashback it’s clear that Shepherd isn’t in the best psychological state, and thus unsurprising, when the surgeon attempts to administer more experimental toxins and his body reacts by mutating into the horrible, floaty-tentacle-beast, known as Daedalus. He’ll never fit into a three-piece suit again, that’s for sure.

Scribed by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the comic presents a tidy, self-contained story that gives a little more tact to Resistance 2’s main villain. Hardly essential reading, though I’m yet to find a prequel comic that is. The art, courtesy of CP Smith and John Paul Leon, isn’t one of my favourite comic book styles. It’s coarse with dark colours, and hazy, monotone panels that give off a sense that they’re painful even for the characters staring out of them. But to their credit it does suit the bloodier, more mature, Resistance palette.

A special mention should also be given for the blooded-dog-tag-and-fingers on the cover – subtle and it sets the tone perfectly. WildStorm’s first crack at bringing the Resistance series to comics is a fair effort, but is the six issue mini-series any better? Find out the answer to that question and many others as I delve deeper into Insomniac’s mad, twisted history in the coming posts.

A Prince of many Colours

Right then, so, I’ve already done enough POP-bashing this week, but then I thought, why stop now? There’s a whole graphic novel for me to violate!

Released in September 2008, by a relativity new publisher, First Second, this is the first ever graphic novel adaptation of Jordan Mechner’s Prince. The story was outlined by Mechner, with A.B. Sina writing the text, and artists, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, drawing and illustrating the novel.

Not a prequel, a side-story or a retelling, Prince of Persia: The Graphic Novel is an original tale inspired by the many legends the Prince now embodies. The tale itself is actually split into two parallel stories. One set in the 9th century, the other set in the 13th. Guilan and Guiv are twins, and heirs to the throne, along with their half-bother, Layth. Together the three siblings live in a marvellous Persian kingdom, with small canals that feed the crops and the townsfolk are happy. But Layth, wise and respected among the people, wants the throne and the beautiful Guilan for himself – Guiv (disgusted), exiles himself from the kingdom. For a time things are good, but the captain of the guard, Amir, has other ideas.

(13th century) Meanwhile, Shapur, daughter to a fat and arrogant councilman, is forced to flee her town when she senses that things are not as they should be. Ordinary citizens are being arrested and tortured, while the councilmen drink wine and spoil themselves in their stately chambers. When attempting to avoid some patrolling guards by hiding in a local well, Shapur has a brush with death when she loses her grip and plunges into the deep water below, banging her head on the way down. Fortunately for her, Ferdos, a young peasant with a fascination for the tales of the ancients, rescues her from a watery grave.

At just under two-hundred pages this artsy trail through the Persian sands, waterways and slums is marginally enjoyable. The fact that the story forwards five main characters, in different time periods and places, can become rather confusing. After my first read, I had another skim through and understood it a little better. However, don’t expect the straight-as-an-arrow storytelling of the video games. The story is convoluted, but this graphic novel does attempt to use the medium to enhance, or at least differentiate, its delivery. While there isn’t nearly enough platforming and characters exclaiming thoughts to themselves for my liking, it’s nice to see Jordan, and company, taking his creation to new places.

The afterword by Jordan Mechner is especially delightful, though. His comments reveal a wholesome honesty behind his drive to create. He goes on to discuss his inspirations from Arabian Nights, how he got involved with the comic book’s creation and, (my personal highlight) how the many Princes that have appeared in the years since the Macintosh original have changed his perception of the legendary Prince of Persia.

Prince or Pauper?

There aren’t many video game series that have survived long enough to evolve from their original form and remain popular in the eyes of ever-changing video game audiences. Prince of Persia is one of those rare games. It began as a simple 2D platformer, created, written and programmed by Jordan Mechner in 1989. Left to rot in the palace dungeon, you controlled a young boy who must fight his way through the palace, avoid traps of cunning manner, save the beautiful princess and defeat an evil vizier. And all of this in less than one hour. A tall order, especially when compared to the more precise controls of today’s platformers.

But, I’m not here to rattle on about the history of Prince of Persia, something which is chronicled on a number of fine video game websites, anyway. What I’d rather like to share is my experience with playing Ubisoft’s latest current-gen Prince of Persia game. With no subtitle of any kind (one was rumour at some point, but has since gone unused), the new Prince of Persia is, once again, an attempt to revitalise the franchise, with a new setting, a new story and a new prince. Quite frankly I feel a little cheated after my time spent with the game.

The Sand of Time – which my brother and I received quite by surprise, as a surprise Christmas present – was absolutely staggering when it arrived in late 2003. 3D platforming the way it was meant to be, with puzzles, traps and time abilities, which completely turned things on their head. Suddenly navigating a corridor of intricate and dangerous mechanical traps was more fun than it had any right to be. No more long load times, no more agonising death animations, they could both be avoided with the touch of a button – provided you had ample sands to perform the action. Previous to Sand of Time I had also spent time playing the earlier versions of Prince of Persia, the predominately-poor Prince of Persia 3D included. Fortunately for Ubisoft, they manage to carve a half-decent story out of their Sands of Time trilogy, but only after making some major cock-ups, and stretching the canon to Hell and back. Gripes aside, I really enjoyed the games from the PS2 era.

Why then am I feeling a sense of disappointment about the newest prince’s Persian misadventures? It’s not something I can put my finger on that easily. In other Prince of Persia games, I’ve always be strongly invested in the narrative, the characters’ emotions and reactions to circumstances. The music (by Stuart Chatwood and Inon Zur) had a kinesis when you traversed precarious ledges and trap-filled corridors, but was equally evocative in the lighter, and more melancholy, moments. And the gameplay itself was responsive; an example of platforming control mechanics at their finest. However, simply put: the latest Prince of Persia leads you by the hand, one button at a time, to a dismal conclusion that makes the whole thing seem entirely redundant.

At the time, I was sceptical when I saw some of the middle-of-the-road review scores. (I’d also like to take this opportunity to apologise profusely for Platform’s dismal review – rest assured Mr Hendey won’t be reviewing another game on my watch.) Nevertheless, now that I have played the full game it is clear to me that the wheels of marketing obscured this game’s true persona from the beginning. I can picture it now: Ubisoft Montreal tinkling away in their Canada dev-tower, trying all sorts of new design ideas for the game until settling on the mentality that death, and the ‘game over’ screen, should be cut from the game completely. Quickly and quietly the promotional campaign was round out, disarming one and all with its seductive trailers, promotional art and talking heads.

The last time I was this frustrated with a Prince of Persia game was Warrior Within. That story may have been worse than an emo-inspired fruit cake, but at least it had gameplay. With the latest Prince of Persia I just don’t know what to think. Either I’m not pressing the action button enough, or I’m pressing it too much. In both cases the end rest is four seconds of waiting, or more accurately the saviour animation, as companion and magically-infused princess, Elika, automatically leaps to my rescue. To be honest, though, after a full game I’m rather tired of being saved after every missed jump or failed battle. That gold trophy for having Elika save you few than one hundred times in the whole game can take a hike as far as I’m concerned.

Much of this is due to the fact that the game is too straightforward. The core platforming controls (excluding analogue movement) can be boiled down to merely three buttons and a handful of situations for those buttons. For example, if you come across a high wall with a ring set halfway up, all you have to do is hit jump and then the gauntlet button to ascend the wall. If you wish to wall run from A to B, you do so with timed presses of the jump button, and almost nothing else. While it doesn’t pay to overcomplicate things with complex controls, particularly were platformers are concerned, controls that reward players who’ve spent many hours using them are all the more satisfying. With Prince of Persia, you can get a nice rhythm going, but there’s little, or no room, to experiment.

In Jak and Daxter I could quite comfortably pick the controller up, after not playing it for some time, and execute a rolling long jump that would land me on any surface I set my gaze on. In Ratchet & Clank, years spent messing around with the Heli-pack and Clank-less-Ratchet have left me with near-immediate recall of the manageable jump distances, and an effective means of increasing your ground speed (very handy if, say, you have to escape from a tunnel of rising water). Even Sand of Time had more depth, with players forced to alternate between rolling, wall running and jumping until it became second nature. The crux is that a seasoned player of any of these titles will be able to approach a variety of situations within each game in different ways, thanks to their gameplay knowledge and the flexibility of the controls.

So, herein lies the problem. The newest iteration of Prince of Persia may be saturated with Miyazaki-esque visuals, but on the gameplay front it’s scrapping the bottom of its box of tricks less than halfway through. If I also include the combat, which frustrated me to no end – particularly when I realised that enemies began inverting the controls, the picture isn’t any better. Strings of QTEs with individual button-bashing or more careful one-button jabs. Elika’s cries of “I’m not close enough”, when she was literally three feet from the foe, only served to deepen the frown on my forehead. The repetitive battles (and you do face every one of the four evil emissaries at least five times) with enemies became too much for me by the end of it. Though, the combo system has some nifty looking co-op attacks, the constant blocking and screen pauses meant that many of my battles went on way longer than any of them had any right to.

Elika’s relationship with the Prince was duly full of emotional anguish, and more than a touch of arrogance on the Prince’s part. From the beginning of the game itself I had some doubts. It just seemed too by the numbers. My fears were confirmed by the game’s rip-off of an ending (‘To be continued’ indeed!). After working hard to lock the Darkness away it’s ridiculous that the Prince, the player, should be force to release it anyway just to save Elika. What little exposition the story had practically seems like a waste. I’m fine with the Darkness being released to continue the story, and Elika being saved, but I feel it should have been handled in a different way. They certainly shouldn’t have blocked off the entire game once you finish it – forcing you to restart if you want to collect light seeds and go after the remaining trophies. I know Ubisoft are more interested in “producing franchise titles that expand the narrative across several products, and solidify their relation with new markets, investors and yak, yak, yak…”, but I’m more interested in satisfying gameplay and a rewarding story conclusion. Not for the first time, it seems they’ve disappointed me.

I set myself up for a more traditional platform adventure with this new Prince, which is something I was very much looking forward to. However, my vision of a traditional platformer, with approachable controls that vary in complexity depending on the situation, simple hub world level design and more intimate one-on-one combat hasn’t turned out to be quite the saviour I was hoping for. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Back from the Brink

Though I’ve been back from my lightning fast jaunt to Brighton for some time now, I’ve neglected to write a blog post for a while. Instead I spent time recovering from my trip to indulge in some casual laziness – wandering about my house, browsing my DVD collection and opening the kitchen cupboards, before deciding I’m not in the mood for any of it and returning to my bedroom to read – and some shamefully addictive trophy scavenging. To be fair I did, finally, accomplish Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on crushing mode, bagging me: my very first platinum trophy (yes, it has taken me a while).

Currently I’m feeling a little ambivalent about where to begin with the mammoth amount of student union work and personal tasks I have to complete. I still haven’t begun my long-delayed driving lessons. I seem to be fighting a losing battle in some cases, where the new student union website is concerned. Next year I’m supposed to be assisting will the online editing of the new site for all areas of Platform’s content – that’s everything from gaming and music to community and general updates. At present communication between the many people involved with its creation and management has been limited to say the least. I’m hoping that things will start to take shape more swiftly as we approach the conversion date. Amongst all of this I’ve still had to deal with course-related student problems.

Tut tut, well, I don’t wish to dwell on these issues any longer. You’ll likely be hearing about my escapades at Develop in the near future. But to whet your appetite let’s just say I had the opportunity to mingle with devs, take-in a few eyebrow-raising sessions and get my hands on some unreleased tech. And maybe I’ll even share some of the more comfortable moments I encountered during the conference and after-hours networking events, including a Tapas dinner with game developers, a lecture, a couple freelancers and a former games journalist.

But before I get started on sharing those stories there are still many I need to report on from the carefully printed pages of comics and novels. Hold on to your flat cap, things are about to get a whole lot more confusing in the next round of deictically connected media. There’s lots for me to share, so please, stick with me and we’ll discovered and debate it together over the next few weeks.

See you on the seafront…

Know what the hardiest thing about packing for a trip is?

Even if you plan for every eventuality you can think of, something always seems to occur that you lack the tools for.

Today I did a bit of last minute shopping to stock up on any essentials I may need on my trip to Brighton tomorrow. Notepads, spare batteries, mobile top-up, toothpaste, water, energy drinks – the usual. My bags are now more or less packed, I’ve made as many preparations as possible for the conference and all that’s left for me to do is get a good night’s sleep.

To give my mind a rest from all the planning I settled in to watch one of my best loved animated pictures, The Incredibles. From writer/director, Brad Bird, this visionary glimpse into a world of superheroes, automated deathbots and ‘abnormal’ family life cheers me up without fail. Pixar have created several animated films that have knocked my cap clean off, but this one has to be my favourite. As an animated film and superhero story it’s almost unmatched in structure, form and comedic punch. I could give enough reasons to fill a penny dispenser, however right now that particular post will have to wait.

I’m still undecided about how to approach some of my tasks at the event. Oh well, I best hope my planning plays off and that I’m sufficiently ‘tooled up’ for the job.

When I return, there are also thoughts I need to share with you about the Prince of Persia comic book, the 2008 video game of the same name (which it may interest you to know I have at last finished), the television genius of Hustle and other Kudos productions and the oddity that is freeze-dried ice-cream.

For now, thought, I leave you with a simmering mood-setter by the one and only, Michael Giacchino.


Late Arrival

For a limited series that was planned to end back in September 2007, Halo: Uprising has been alarmingly late.

Originally announced as a four-part limited series in 2006, Halo: Uprising bridges the gap between the finale of Halo 2 and, its Xbox 360 follow-up, Halo 3. Though Halo 3 was released on scheduled, in September 2007, Marvel’s comic book adaption has taken almost two years to be completed. The writer, Brian Michael Bendis, and artist, Alex Maleev, are likely not the main reason behind these delays. A major licensed product like Halo must have many loopholes to jump through at Bungie and Microsoft before any story directions are approved.

All the same, I was pleased to finally have the whole collection in front me, tenderly bound in a hardback trade edition. Probably the biggest flaw in this Halo comic, which was billed as the heart-stopping prequel to the franchise’s third game release, is that the series main protagonist, Master Chief, is hardly featured for most of the comic. While other pieces of Halo fiction centre on various characters in the universe, the story in Halo: Uprising seems somewhat redundant in the grand scheme of things – I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as essential reading.

Spartan 117 (more commonly known as the armour-clad Master Chief) is hurtling towards Earth aboard a massive Forerunner Dreadnought. The leader of the Covenant, a conglomerate of hostile alien races, is also board the craft which is speeding towards the Ark to activate the galaxy-wide Halo array – ancient weapons of galactic destruction that destroy all sentient beings within their blast radius. Meanwhile, in Cleveland the paths of two civilians, Ruwan and Myras, become united as they escape Covenant bombardment and resist the invading aliens.

You might not expect a comic translation of an FPS to have much in the way of an impressive story, and this is more or less the case here. While I had set myself up for a mildly interesting story concerning Master Chief on the Forerunner ship, I didn’t expect the amount of shooting, explosions and general wordless action sequences that appeared. Visually, they look acceptable. Maleev has a good eye for capturing those memorable poses from the game, and the colourists have given the sci-fi world a suitably ‘lived-in’ feel with soft highlights amid the copious black shading. However, the story isn’t all that riveting. A tale of discovery, in the vein of the original game and Master Chief’s encounter with the parasitic Flood, would have been far better.

The majority of the comic is focused on the two human characters. Much of the first and second parts are devoted to them escaping Cleveland, all the while loudly voicing their ever-changing feelings and thoughts on each other. The final two comics are a lot better. The plot finally takes on a shape from the vague blur it was, connecting all the dots between the Key of Osanalan, childhood memories, UNSC covert operations and the Covenant invasion forces.

Halo: Uprising is an okay read, but not really that special – particularly if you’re invested in ‘Halo lore’. The story is a nice departure from the main series, but it doesn’t live up to what it was pitched to be.

Marvel already produced the Halo Graphic Novel (which sheds light on some of the less known side-stories in the universe) and they’re releasing a brand new five-part limited series in the build-up to Halo 3: ODST, called Halo: Helljumper, as well as Halo: Spartan Black (likely based on Halo Reach). Expect to hear more from me on these new series in the autumn.

Ready for another game event adventure?

Holy bright-blue Martian cow… in less than a week I’m off to the Develop Conference in Brighton!

Since early February I had been planning to make way down to this game development event, however, things weren’t looking so good last week. But were it not for a chance conversation I wouldn’t even be going. So, for the past two days I’ve been frenetically booking train tickets, accommodation (huge props to, and my friend for suggesting it) and packing my bags for this manic three-day event.

This will actually be my first, true games conference. GameCity, which I attended last October, is a festival open to the public, and this event is very much an industry and press affair. I feel extremely lucky to have secured a place on the attendee list.

So, what’s it about you ask? Develop is a conference for gamemakers to present and discuss the latest dev tools, share experiences, learn from each other and, fingers-crossed, show off some brand new tech and maybe even some news on upcoming projects.

Keynote speakers and panel hosts will be coming from all over Europe, and indeed the world, to converge on one of Brighton’s waterfront hotels for three glorious days.

Bizarre Creations will be presenting some of the technology behind their upcoming racer, Blur. Masaya Matsuura and Jenova Chen, of PaRappa the Rapper and Flower fame, will be participating in a designer mash-up. Crytek UK (formerly Free Radical Design) will be discussing the Git system. SCEE will be there giving an update on the state of their PlayStation platforms, and maybe dropping some more details on the PS3 motion controller shown at E3. But that’s not even the half of it. Microsoft, Media Molecule, Rare, Realtime Worlds, Frontier, the National Videogame Archive, Traveller’s Tales, Blitz Game Studios, Silicon Knights and many, many more will be present.

Naturally, there are way too many presentations, panels, Q&As and keynotes for me to cover on my own, but rest assured I’ll be doing my very best to cover as much of the big stuff as possible. Expect my coverage to appear on Platform’s new website (that’s right, the blog is getting a redesign) and in a future edition of Platform Magazine later this year. But I will share some of my thoughts when I return.

For now it’s back to the planning, checking and rechecking to make sure I’m all ready to go by next week. This time I better remember to bring an energy drink or five with me.