Friday, April 28, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 4/23 and more

"Penny Arcade: Attack of the Bacon Robots"
by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik
Dark Horse Comics, $12.95.

Easily the most popular Web comic right now, "Penny Arcade" has attracted a devout cult following for its irreverent humor and laserlike focus on the video game industry. This collection of strips focuses on the strip’s early, formative years, with commentary from Holkins.

Sadly, few of the strips are any good. Most have aged badly, with dated references to games that have long since been forgotten, and art that seems stilted compared with where the strip is today. A best-of-collection would have better served the uninitiated.

by Alex Fellows
Fantagraphics Books, 80 pages, $9.95.

A surreal edge is added to this otherwise involving tale of adolescent insecurity and sexual awakening as the title character's parents are portrayed as a pig and a frog. While this odd masking does help to underline young Canvas' feeling of alienation from her family, it's Fellows' ear for dialogue and eye for understatement that really make this short novella stand out. Fellows' characters can seem a bit stiff and stilted at times, but this is an impressive debut nonetheless.

"Same Difference and Other Stories"
by Derek Kirk Kim
Top Shelf, $12.95.

The title tale is the main reason to pick up this collection of short stories by the relatively new-to-the-scene Kim. Focusing on a pair of twentysomething friends who are forced to confront the recipient of a thoughtless prank, "Same Difference" shows a remarkable humanism and insight that most of his young peers simply don't have. It's a shame, but really no surprise, that most of the other stories in this volume fail to reach the same heights.

Whatever his faults, Kim is an extremely agile cartoonist, and those who pick up this book will be looking to see what he does in the future.

"Drawn & Quarterly Showcase Vol. 2"
Drawn & Quarterly, $14.95.

Pentti Otsamo, Jeffrey Brown and Erik de Graaf all make contributions to the second edition of Drawn & Quarterly's latest anthology title, designed to highlight new and underrated comic artists. Both Otsamo and de Graaf's stories are good, but it's Brown's completely unsettling tale of a man whose co-worker may or may not have murdered a little girl that really sticks with the reader. His sketchy, cartoonish style serves to underscore the story's overall creepiness.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Worst. Console. Name. Ever.

So Nintendo announced the official, god's-honest actual name of their "Revolution" console today. Assuming you don't feel like clicking on the link, I'll spare you the suspense. It's called "Wii."

That's pronounced "We," as in "We think this is one of the stupidest names for a console in the entire history of video games." This is one of those times where you smack your head and wonder what the hell people were thinking and should they be fired?

Chris Morris at CNN offers his thoughts on the name change here. Nice to know I'm not alone in my opinion.

I'm still calling this thing "Revolution."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone, $19.99.

Trivia time. What’s the most popular DS game in Japan?

No, not Mario. Not Zelda either.

Give up? The answer is "Brain Training," a collection of logic puzzles that has sold millions and has become something of a cultural phenom.

Now the West gets a chance to improve its mental prowess as "Brain Age," the Americanized version of the game, hit stores last week.

The game is simple to grasp. Flaunting the notion that your brain needs exercise as much as your muscles do, "Brain Age" throws a variety of short, simple challenges, like doing a series of math problems, counting the number of syllables in a sentence or memorizing a list of words.

According to professor Ryuta Kawashima, whose floating, pixilated head guides you through the game, these challenges are designed to get the blood flowing to your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which handles memory, communication and self-control.

Doing these activities won’t necessarily make you any smarter, but it could improve your memory and articulation.

Each day Kawashima will ask you to spend a few minutes training your brain. Doing so earns you a stamp on the calendar and unlocks new training games.

After you’ve finished your daily regimen, you can check your "brain age" by performing a series of quick exercises. Remember, the lower your score, the better.

In addition to the various minigames, there also are a number of Sudoku puzzles to try out, and you can download new challenges off of the Internet.

The game makes good use of the DS’s capabilities. Players use the touch pad to write in answers or speak them into the microphone.

Occasionally the machine misinterprets your handwriting or voiced answer, but for the most part it did a good job of interpreting my childish scrawl.

Essentially, "Brain Age" is a virtual version of the puzzle books your grandmother used to have lying around on her coffee table. As such, it has a wide appeal; anyone from a 4-year-old to your father-in-law can enjoy the game.

"Brain Age" isn’t a game you’ll be playing for hours upon hours. More than 15 minutes a day will be stretching it. However, if you’ve had trouble remembering where you put your car keys lately, this might be the game for you.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

VG REVIEW: Kingdom Hearts II

Square-Enix, for PlayStation 2
rat­ed E10+ for ages 10 and up (mild blood, use of alcohol, violence), $49.99.

Kingdom Hearts II" is what is known in certain parlances as a "sure thing" — a game that is certain to appeal to a variety of folks. Except, perhaps, those who crave compelling game play.

"KH II" is a sequel to the popular 2002 game that matched up well-known Disney franchises with characters from the "Final Fantasy" series to create a rather ambitious role-playing game experience.

I wasn’t a big fan of the original game; I quickly grew tired of its shaky camera and dull, repetitive battle system. "Kingdom Hearts II" does improve things a bit, but not enough to make me recommend it.

The plot involves a young lad with a penchant for puffy pants named Sora (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) who, along with Donald Duck and Goofy, sets out to stop the Heartless, a nefarious group of creatures bent on plunging the world into darkness.

This time there’s also the shady Organization XIII, who employ odd creatures called nobodies to do something bad no doubt. The game isn’t clear on specifics. Sadly, if you’re not familiar with the first "Hearts" game or its Game Boy spin-off, "Chain of Memories," you’re going to be lost here.

Along the way on your adventures you’ll team up with such Disney characters as Beast from "Beauty and the Beast," Mulan, Stitch and the Little Mermaid. Even Captain Jack Sparrow and the rest of the Pirates of the Caribbean put in an appearance.

The best improvement in "KH II" is the camera. It’s more responsive and less nausea-inducing than last time, though it still tends to get stuck in corners and other awkward angles at inappropriate times.

One of the most annoying aspects of the first game, the Gummi Ship sequences, has also been improved. Now flying between worlds resembles more a frenetic arcade shooter and less a sloppy piece of coding.

Unfortunately, the meat of the game — the combat — is still remarkably underwhelming. It’s far too easy to wade through a sea of Heartless by repeatedly mashing the X button.

The developers have included special "reaction commands" and "limit breaks" that allow you to perform impressive acrobatic moves, sometimes with help from folks in your party. But for the most part these additions feel like afterthoughts and do nothing to remedy the utter boredom that sets in after your 50th battle.

"KH II" boasts sumptuous production values, not just in the art style and decoration (perhaps the most impressive thing about the game) but also in the voice work by folks like Osment and Christopher Lee.

It’s not hard to see why the series has garnered such a devoted following. The ability to play in a world where you fight side by side with the Lion King, Aladdin and Jack Skellington from "A Nightmare Before Christmas" has great appeal.

But "KH II" is a shallow exercise. It’s all flash and little fun. Disney and "Final Fantasy" fans will no doubt be entranced by the snazzy spectacle. Others, however, will quickly notice there’s little holding up all that fine scenery.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, April 21, 2006

Still catching up

Had a lovely conversation with First Second editorial director extraordinaire Mark Siegel this morning. He comes off as a very nice gentleman who is devoted to publishing comics and has been thinking quite a bit about how to take the art form to the next level. We had a lovely conversation about the changing state of the graphic novel in America, FS's debut line-up and how cute our respective kids are.

My talk with Mr. Siegel, as well as reviews of the First Second line-up will be one of the features for the newly revamped Graphic Lit column. Coming soon to a blog near you.

In other news ...

Publisher's Weekly has a big story about the upcoming Halo graphic novel.

Heidi at the Beat says a video game version of Frank Miller's "The 300" is being developed (ideally to tie into the upcoming movie no doubt).

Finally, I'd like to request a moritorium on pop songs about Superman. Now, please.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 4/9 and more

Sorry for the dearth of posts lately. I and most of my family has been laid down by colds and various other ailments over the past few weeks, not to mention the Easter holidays and a family wedding, leaving little time for blogging.

Comic reviews especially have fallen by the wayside, mainly because I haven't had space on our paper's Books Page to run any. There is good news though, as it looks like Graphic Lit will be revamping and expanding to become a weekly column. More on that as it develops.

In the meantime, here are some reviews that ran April 9, as well as some that ran much, much earlier. Enjoy.

"Christina and Charles"
by Austin English
Sparkplug Comics, $10.

Done entirely in an intricate childlike scrawl, English's graphic novella loosely follows two romantics -- one an insecure teenager, the other a more mentally damaged young man. English adopts a conversational, almost poetic tone that might easily alienate readers looking for a more straightforward narrative. Those looking for something a bit different and experimental than what usually passes for comics should check this book out, however.

"Death Comes to Monkeysuit"
Monkeysuit Press
128 pages, $11.95.

The signal-to-noise ratio in this anthology is much higher than in some previous editions, a good thing since this might well be the last book in the series. The "Monkeysuit" anthologies have generally featured work by animators dabbling in comics, and that continues here. There are a few duds, but strong entries by Mo Willems, Steven DeStefano, Pat Giles and Jonathan Royce push this anthology into the above-average category.

"Persepolis 2"
by Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books, 187 pages,$17.95.

The first volume of "Persepolis" detailed Satrapi's childhood and adolescence in '80s-era Iran and concluded with her departure for a private school in Europe. The second half delves into the author's experiences as a lonely, alienated teen in Europe and her eventual return to her home country.

Some of the initial emotional impact of the first collection may be lost here -- stories of jerk boyfriends don't resonate as well as life under an oppressive theocracy -- but Satrapi remains a compelling storyteller and her deceptively simple images help convey an adolescence trapped between the repressive East and the prejudiced, thoughtless West. And there are enough harrowing tales -- like that of a police raid at a cocktail party that takes a sudden tragic turn -- to make one grateful for not living in a country where you have to watch your back every five minutes.

"Rabbit Head"
by Rebecca Dart
Alternative Comics, 24 pages, $4.95.

Fans of formal play and experimental comics should get a real kickout of "Rabbit Head," a slim but impressive book by relative newcomer Rebecca Dart. The story begins at first with a rabbit-headed female adventurer braving a surreal landscape, but quickly (and literally) branches off, flowchart-style as it simultaneously follows various characters and animals that come across Rabbit Head's path before the book finally condenses and collapses back on itself.

Each path you follow has an underlying dog-eat-dog gruesomeness and even in its more comical moments "Rabbit Head" has a sense of underlying savagery that's a wee bit unsettling. That barbarity, however, is tempered with a humanism and genuine emotion for its varied characters that helps make the book such a pleasure to read. In other words, you don't just have to be a fan of avant-garde comics to enjoy "Rabbit Head."

"The Technopriests Book One: Initiation,"
by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Zoran Janjetov
Humanoids/DC Comics, 160 pages, $14.95.

"The Horde"

by Baranko
Humanoids/DC Comics, 144 pages, $17.95.

DC's recent deal with the French publisher Humanoids means that comics fans will soon see a glut of trippy sci-fi stories like the kind found in Heavy Metal magazine. "Technopriests" and "Horde" are the opening salvos in this onslaught, though I give the slight edge to "Horde," with its surrealistic, tongue-in-cheek visions of a futuristic totalitarian Russia on the hunt for the reincarnation of Gengis Khan. Both books are fun, though your enjoyment level will strongly depend upon your tolerance for over-the-top fantasy stories that have little regard for nuances like character development, realistic dialogue and a sensible plot. If that sounds like you, then by all means, purchase these books without delay. If not, well, perhaps you should move on to the next review.

"Rosetta Vol. 2"
edited by Ng Suat Tong
Alternative Books, 268 pages, $19.95.

Easily the most notable sections of this above average anthology are the striking illustrations by two 20th-century Chinese artists, Feng Zikai and Liao Binxiong. Their graphic (in both senses of the word) commentaries on World War II, the Cultural Revolution and the rampant poverty and corruption that occurred during said times are worth the price of admission alone. Stories by other critically acclaimed international artists like Jason, Edmond Baudoin, Martin Tom Dieck and Max should help induce comics fans even further. Not every submission here is a home run, but there's enough good stuff to keep one from feeling like their time and money was wasted.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

VG REVIEW: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Bethesda Softworks, for Xbox 360 and PC
rated T for Teen (blood and gore, language, sexual themes, use of alcohol, violence), $59.99 (Xbox 360), $49.99 (PC).
Rating: 4 stars

How much is too much? How many missions, quests, abilities, characters, menus and other extras can one video game hold before a player starts screaming "enough"?

I ask this question having spent time with "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," a game that abides by the rule that too much is not only never enough, but also de rigeur. You could spend 50 hours with this game and still not see it all.

For a lot of gamers, particularly hardcore rpg fans, that option is a dream come true. The developers’ goal was to create an immersive, believable fantasy world, and to a large part they have succeeded.

Right off the bat, you are keyed into the game’s high level of detail and complexity when you are asked to create your character.

Will you choose a Wood Elf or an Orc? Will it be a knight, thief or mage? Do you want to excel in intelligence and combat or armor and magic? What kind of magic: illusion, destruction or restoration?

It’s at this point where lesser mortals could easily get bogged down by relentless decisions to make.

The game’s central storyline revolves around the murder of Tamrielian Emperor Uriel Septim VII (voiced by Patrick Stewart) by an evil cult dedicated to unleashing a literal hell on earth.

Your job is to find the heir to the throne and save the land from the invading marauders. Doing that involves closing the various "Oblivion Gates," blood-red dimensional portals that owe more than a bit in their look to "The Lord of the Rings."

But there’s no need to start closing gates right off the bat. Spend some time learning new skills by joining one of the guilds. Or fight it out gladiatorial-style in the arena. Or, better still, go on a hunt for the ancients shrines that dot the countryside.

You can spend weeks with the game and never even touch the main quest.

Unlike a lot of role-playing games, consequences are key here. Attempt to pick someone’s pocket or steal an item and you can get yourself thrown in jail.

Details count here, too. Just about every object will have an effect. That mushroom on the ground can be ingested or used to make a potion. Cupboards are filled with food and clothes and books. Get sick, and people will comment on your ill pallor. Carry your sword while walking down the street and people will shy away.

Unlike a lot of other video games that attempt to fall under the "rpg" banner, "Oblivion" actually feels closest to the old pen-and-paper, 20-sided dice days of yore. Here’s a role-playing game that actually asks you to role play.

There’s no question that "Oblivion" is an awesome achievement. The stellar graphics, the excellent voice work, the vast, interactive world all bear the marks of a development team that loved its project.

But it’s all to easy to get lost in the game’s world, and not in a good way. Players could easily feel overwhelmed by the wealth of choices offered to them.

Because, regardless of what some people might say, you can have too much of a good thing.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, April 14, 2006

A D&Q preview

So where was I? Oh yes, Drawn and Quarterly.

For those of you who don't know, Farrar, Straus & Giroux handle the book distribution for D&Q. Thus, the fall catalog contains a sneek peak at what the little Canadian comics publisher has cooked up for later this year.

The biggest, or at least most surprising book on the list is issue 17 of Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library. Apparently now he's jumped ship from Fantagraphics (yes, I know he's now self-publishing his series, but Fanta was still handling it last I heard). I wonder if there's any big story behind this move. Probably not, but I still find it rather surprising since Fanta has been publishing ANL since it debuted and had no small part in helping break Ware into the mass media. Over at The Comics Journal message board, someone asks the same question, before they start talking about Marisa Tomei conspiracy theories that is.

Other upcoming D&Q books include:

* Shenzhen by Guy Delisle. This time Delisle takes a look at life in Southern China. I think this runs the risk of coming off as "Pyongyang redux," but Delisle's a talented enough cartoonist to avoid such criticism.

* Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. This is the second volume in the ongoing collection of Tatsumi's work. A bit has been said about the book already, with Tatsumi on the cover of Paris Review and all, so I don't have much to add other than I'm looking forward to this book.

* Moomin Book One by Tove Jansson. I'm pretty sure D&Q had announced that they were going to be collecting this much-beloved comic strip some time last year, right? So I doubt this is too big of a surprise to anyone.

* Curses by Kevin Huizenga. This appears to be a collection of Huizenga's short stories that have graced anthologies like Kramer's Ergot, Time and the Or Else series. If you don't already have these stories in one form or another, you should definately pick this up.

*Lucky by Gabrielle Bell. Bell chronicles "the mundane details of her below-minimum-wage, twentysomething existence in Brooklyn." Cause no one's ever done that before.

I'm kidding. Bell's a very good cartoonist as recent issues of Mome bear out. If Lucky is at all as good as her work in that anthology, it'll be a very good book.

Apart from a paperback edition of Louis Riel, that's about it. All in all it's a pretty impressive line-up. I see that Huizenga book in particular garnering a good deal of attention from the mainstream press.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Turning tragedy into melodrama

First, this item: The new Bone game, The Great Cow Race is up and available for download. The price is reasonable, $12.99, but it's Windows-only and I'm a Mac user. Someone let me know if the thing is any good.

In other news, I received the Farrar, Straus & Giroux fall catalog in the mail the other day (one of my duties is editor of the paper's books page) which is chock full of comic-related news. The most interesting is easily the Hill and Wang's debut Novel Graphic line. PW had an article about the line awhile back, which you can read here.

Easily the most notable book in the initial line-up is the adaptation of the 9/11 Report, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.

More of an illustrated timeline at times than an actual honest-to-goodness graphic novel, the preview copy suggest the book is a little, well, ham-fisted, as I think the image below (and the one at the top of the post) shows.

I suppose the argument could be made that this work is designed more for students and younger readers, and certainly it will probably do a good job of condensing a good deal of information, but c'mon, do we really need that "Blam" sound effect? Wouldn't it be more effective and underscore the horror of the event better to stay away from traditional "comic book" cliches? I reserve final judgment until I see the whole book, of course, but the initial preview doesn't really fill me with hope.

The other two books in the Novel Graphics line are biographies of Ronald Reagan and Malcolm X. So you can't accuse the publishers of partisanship.

Both are written by Andy Helfer. Randy Du Burke is drawing the Malcolm X book while Steve Buccellato is handling art chores for the Gipper's book.

These two books show a bit more promise. I've always enjoyed Helfer's work, both as an editor (Paradox Press) and a writer (the Shadow). I'm curious to see how he'll handle these two incredibly different people's lives.

There's more in FSG's catalog, including a look at D&Q's fall line-up, but I think that's enough for now. I'm fighting a bad cold and need my beauty rest. I'll post the rest of the info tomorrow. For now, I'll leave you with some more scans from the Reagan and Malcolm books.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Ubisoft, for PlayStation Portable
rated E for Everyone (cartoon vio­lence), $39.99.

When you’re trapped in a burning building, when an earthquake buries you underground, when disaster strikes, who can you call on?

Why, Mr. Esc, of course!

At least you can in "Exit," a new PSP game from Ubisoft that should delight puzzle fans everywhere, as well as PSP owners desperate for an A-list title to play.

In the game, you play as Mr. Esc, a debonair escape artist who makes his living rescuing folks from natural disasters.

On each level, your "companions" (i.e. folks that need saving) are scattered about on a multitiered and hazardous area. Your job is to locate them and get them out of the area before time runs out.

Compared to his companions, Mr. Esc has a good deal of agility to help him get around. He can climb steep areas, jump large chasms and use objects such as ladders, picks and small boxes.

He can also boss around his fellow companions, once he finds them. This comes in handy, as Esc will frequently need help to open a series of doors, remove rocks or move a safe.

There are different types of companions as well, and each one has an unusual set of abilities and weaknesses. Kids, for example, need to be helped up and down high places, but can crawl through small areas. Adults, meanwhile, can help push heavy objects.

The game boasts a simple premise, but the puzzles are complicated and require a good deal of thought. You’ll frequently find yourself getting stuck and having to restart a mission in order to suss out how to get from A to B.

A good part of the game’s appeal is its unique look. Esc and his friends are animated as black and white silhouettes against a colorful, cartoonish background. It’s nice when a game sports an art design different from more mainstream titles.

The only thing that keeps "Exit" from attaining true greatness is the slightly wonky controls. Mr. Esc moves a bit slow, and watching him climb down ladders or ropes while the clock ticks down might prove frustrating for some gamers.

More significantly, however, is the fact that there seems to be a slight delay between when you press a button and when Mr. Esc makes his move. This isn’t too much of a problem except when trying to jump long distances. Far too often, I had to restart a mission from scratch merely because I mistimed a jump that I otherwise should have made without a problem.

Don’t let that caveat keep you from trying out what is otherwise a superior title, however.

"Exit" is a challenging and fun brainteaser that is sorely needed to shore up PSP’s otherwise lackluster game roster. It might be too eclectic a title for some gamers, but puzzle fans should have a field day with it.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, April 10, 2006

VG REVIEW: Super Princess Peach & Daxter

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone (comic mischief), $34.99.
RATING: 3 stars

Sony, for PlayStation Portable
rat­ed E10+ for ages 10 and up (ani­mated blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, mild language), $39.99.
Rating: 3 and a half stars

It’s not easy to play second fiddle, especially in a video game, where sidekicks and supporting characters are often left on the sidelines, occasionally spouting a witty phrase (if they’re lucky), but never getting to take on the bad guys.

Two new hand-held games, "Super Princess Peach" for Nintendo DS, and "Daxter" for PlayStation Portable, attempt to remedy that problem with considerable success.

First, "Princess Peach" finds our heroine on a mission to save Mario, which is a bit of a switch because it’s usually the other way around.

To aid her in her quest is a talking parasol that doubles as a rather powerful weapon. She also has four "vibe powers" that you can access via the touch screen to get her out of tight spots.

"Joy," for example, sends her floating up high. "Rage" will set things ablaze, burning down bridges and knocking over enemies. "Gloom" gets Peach bawling, and her copious tears put out fires or help plants grow.

OK, the sexual politics of the game are more than a bit antiquated, but, if you’re willing to put that aside, "Super Princess Peach" proves to be an enjoyable, candy-colored platform game that young DS owners will especially enjoy.

It’s nothing you haven’t seen a million times, but it’s so well-done you won’t mind the familiarity of it all.

Considerably better, however, is "Daxter," a spin-off of Sony’s popular "Jak and Daxter" games.

Daxter, for those who don’t know, is Jak’s smart-mouthed sidekick, a ferretlike creature who, up till now, has seemingly been content to let his friend handle problems that come their way.

In "Daxter," the plucky sidekick is on his own and, for reasons that seem a bit murky, takes up a job as an exterminator, hunting down rather viscous insects in places like bars, gardens and train stations.

At first it seems the game is an average platformer, but the developers do a fabulous job of mixing things up after about the second level.

When not bashing bugs, either with his spray gun or his electric flyswatter, Daxter will have to pilot vehicles, partake in tricky rhythm games and conjure up rather amusing dream sequences, which allow him to learn new moves.

Despite its initial feeling of familiarity, "Daxter" ultimately surpasses "Princess Peach" by offering variety and keeping things from becoming stale too quickly.

If Tonto and Kato had this sort of muscle behind them, they might not have been relegated to second banana.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A happy little tree

Forget Halo 3. Never mind about Gears of War or Final Fantasy XII. The big next-gen title is obviously the just-announced Bob Ross video game. That's right, the late, great PBS painter will have his own video game coming out for the Nintendo DS, Nintendo's upcoming Revolution console and the PC. No street date has been set, but you can read the initial press release here.

As far as I can tell, this is not some sort of belated April Fools joke. This is apparently completely legit. They even have a message board set up for the game where you can post your thoughts. Gamespot has some info here too.

I'm actually really excited about this. Please, please someone take the initiative and publish this game.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Stars: Yea or nay?

When I write my video game reviews for the Patriot-News, I usually give each game a star rating, one being the lowest, four being the highest (yeah, I know, just like everyone else). When posting the reviews here on the blog, I've been avoiding including the star ratings, mainly because I don't like them. I do it for the paper because it's expected, but I generally find star or letter or whatever rating systems to be flawed and not as useful (or entertaining) as actually reading the entire review. Giving a game two and a half stars doesn't really tell you very much about that particular game.

But maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps I should be rethinking my initial bias. I put it to you dear P&P reader, would you prefer having the star ratings with the review or not? Have I been an ass for excluding them or should I keep on keeping on? Or should I use some other, completely different rating system altogether?

Let me know what you think.

Monday, April 03, 2006

VG REVIEW: The Godfather the Game

Electronic Arts, for PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes), $39.99.

Does the new "Godfather" video game manage to live up to the grandeur of the classic film?

Of course not, don’t be silly.

But if it doesn’t carry the same emotional heft or brooding intensity of Coppola’s film, neither does it reach a "Godfather III" level of embarrassment.

No, what "The Godfather the Game" does is take the movie’s framework and build an enjoyable, expansive action game around it. Sure, it trades in a good deal of the film’s moral viewpoint for some violent wish-fulfillment, but it’s all in the name of good fun.

In the game you don’t play as Michael or Sonny or even Fredo. Instead, you are a nameless up-and-coming young thug in the Corleone ranks with a huge score to settle with one of the rival families.

As with most EA games, you have the ability here to design the look of your character, right down to the pinstripes on your suit.

After dressing up your character, you go right to work for the Corleones, getting some much-needed tutorial advice from Luca Brasi.

One of the more amusing aspects of the game is how the developers try to shoehorn in every memorable scene or character from the film.

You, for example, help put the horse’s head in the movie producer’s bed. You’re peeping in the window when Brasi gets whacked. You plant the gun for Michael Corleone to use in the restaurant. You’re there when Sonny gets killed at the tollbooth. And while Michael is moving his dad around at the hospital, you’re engaged in a gunfight in the basement.

Boy, you sure do have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

In addition to borrowing several pages from the film, "Godfather the Game" owes a considerable debt to the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise. So much so in fact, that I hope EA sent a nice big check to the folks at Rockstar.

Just about every aspect of the game mechanics, from the expansive layout of 1930s-era New York City, to the way cars handle to the little map in the corner echoes the "GTA" games.

What’s new is the "BlackHand" controls, which allows you a bit of variety in dealing with thugs and unruly shopkeepers.

After locking on your target with the left trigger, you can then beat, grab or shoot them with the right. Grabbing is especially effective, as you can slam them up against walls, dump them off roofs or throw them onto other hard surfaces.

It’s a nice fighting mechanic that I hope other developers follow up on.

In addition to your fists, there’s quite an assortment of weapons to choose from, including Tommy guns, lead pipes, garrote wires, dynamite and Molotov cocktails.

When not following the main storyline, there are a variety of side missions to choose from. You can intimidate shopkeepers into paying you protection money, rob banks, hijack trucks, and attack a rival family’s warehouse.

Doing these not only increases your bank account, but also ups your respect in the neighborhood, which in turn lets you level up your health and other abilities.

It’s during the side missions that some of the game’s seams start to show. There are only about five or so types of buildings throughout the city, and they all tend to resemble one another in cookie-cutter fashion. Many of the side missions start to get repetitive over time as well.

What’s more, the game’s camera can be quite troublesome, especially in heavy firefights, and I had difficulty at times toggling between different targets during these gun battles.

And it would be nice as you move up in the crime world to have some men at your back. It seems odd that an up-and-coming Capo would still have to be pushing flower store owners around for petty cash.

Despite these minor annoyances, I enjoyed "Godfather the Game." It certainly is one of the most visually splendid games I’ve played in a while, boasting great graphics, at least on my Xbox.

It’s also got nice voice work by Robert Duvall, James Caan and the late Marlon Brando. And if Al Pacino declined to give his voice and likeness for the game, well, at least it’s got Abe Vigoda.

Strong-hearted cineastes will no doubt decry "Godfather the Game" as being a slur on a great work of art. True, a good deal of the film’s gravitas has been lost, but one shouldn’t hate the game or Electronic Arts for trying to adapt a classic into an interactive medium.

It’s just business, nothing personal.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Saturday, April 01, 2006

First Second part, um, two

Ok, let's continue our preview of First Second's debut line-up with a look at the first of two books by the incomparable Joann Sfar, "Vampire Loves."
This, as hardcore Sfar fans probably already know (I'm sure there's one or two of you out there) collects four of Sfar's "Grand Vampire" stories into one thick volume. If my memory of Bart Beatty's massive TCJ article on Sfar is correct, the "Grand Vampire" and the "Petit Vampire" stories (of which one volume has been published in the US so far) concern one and the same person, only Vampires age backward, so the "Petit" stories actually take place after the ones in this book.

Anyway, the book looks full of Sfar's usual charm and wit, only this time he's concerned with romance, love and relationships and not so much with God, religion and tradition (as he was in "The Rabbi's Cat"). It promises to be one of the best in the bunch.

Next is another Sfar book, this time teaming up with Emmanuel Guibert for "Sardine in Outer Space." Unlike Trondhiem's "A.L.I.E.E.E.N.," this book is decidedly for kids.
The loose collection of stories follow young space pirate Sardine, her uncle Captain Yellow Shoulder and her friend Louie as they attempt to thwart the evil machinations of Supermuscleman and his sidekick Doc Krok. It's fast-paced, silly fun that doesn't really pause for things like character development or worry about gaps in story logic. It's the most family -friendly book of the bunch and should appeal to its intended audience without any real problem.Finally we have "The Lost Colony" by Grady Klein. First Second is pushing this book pretty hard, with a special trailer on their Web site (and on the the CD press kit) plugging the book. That's not terribly surprising as this is probably the only book that comes from a relative unknown.

The catalog compares "Colony" to the "Asterix" books, suggesting Klein is world-building here, creating a cartoon community that kids and adults will want to visit again and again. That's a tall order and it remains to be seen if Klein is up to the job. His art work is very dense and angular, with thick black lines, which, to me, seems more foreboding than inviting. I'm more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt though. It would be nice if we had an "Asterix" equivilant on these shores.

So, that's all six books. They all look nifty and suggest a wide range of material and genres meaning there's probably at least one title here that will appeal to you. Please do take the time to check them out when they hit stores this April. A publisher like this should be rewarded for taking such a gutsy chance in a business where indie publishers, even those with big money and firms behind them, come and go like the seasons.

One quick word before I sign off about the catalog. It's pretty nifty, and features comics by Jessica Abel and Tom Gauld and an essay by Paul Pope. If you happen to be lucky enough to see a copy lying around somewheres, be sure and nab it.