Monday, October 24, 2011

B.K. Evenson's Dead Space: Martyr - Review

Dead Space: MartyrDead Space: Martyr by B.K. Evenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Warning! This review contains major story spoilers. For the review with spoilers hidden, click here.]

I'm a big fan of the Dead Space franchise and the backstory that the games have set up in Dead Space, Dead Space 2 and Dead Space: Extraction. There's a wealth of other media, too - a comic series, a graphic novel, two animated movies, an iOS game, and a Live Arcade/PSN downloadable game. The quality really lurches all over the place when it comes to the 'extended universe'. I really enjoyed the original comic, but hate both animated features with a passion, for example.

I was intrigued, then, by Dead Space: Martyr. It promised to go into the origins of the Church of Unitology, the religion at the heart of much of what goes on in the Dead Space games. The Unitologists worship divine "Markers", relics they belief can grant them eternal life, together - the unity in their name. In the games, Michael Altman is viewed as the founder of their Church, with "Praise Altman" being a familiar refrain. Martyr shows he wasn't exactly a willing prophet, looking at how he was one of the researchers who discovered the original Black Marker's signal at the centre of a crater in South America.

What you get is a story that, while interesting, often seems poorly or just carelessly written. It's hard to feel Brian Evenson had any investment in the franchise or its characters, even though at times he manages to pull together some compelling sequences - particularly when looking at the effects of the Marker on the psyches of the researchers and military personnel working with it. More than one character succumbs to madness and hallucinations, and he usually handles those sections with aplomb. Other parts of the book seem perfunctory at best, with one chapter describing the secret half-underwater floating research facility they bring in to raise the Marker from the bottom of its sunken crater being particularly bad. Even hanging a lantern on it as being like a 'sci-fi novel' doesn't really excuse it.

Going back to the characters, well, it's a really mixed bag - but nothing in the bag is very good. Altman himself is neither likeable nor offensive, being something of a non-entity going through the motions of researching the Marker and dealing with the consequences of interacting with it. Other characters are generally quite shallow, either being killed off soon after their introduction, or lingering on to demonstrate just how bad they are - the cartoonishly villainous Markoff and his torture-happy subordinates are the worst example of this. It's one thing to suggest that the military or a corporation might seek to exploit the Marker - it's a sci-fi trope that always makes me think of the Weyland-Yutani representative in Aliens, if nothing else - but typically there's a motive, or a rationalisation, beyond the characters apparently being evil for evil's sake. I did wonder if the Marker was meant to be influencing their personalities, as it does drive many to madness, suicide, or murder, but even before interacting with it Markoff is hardly an angel.

Ultimately, I think there's very little here for anyone who isn't a fan of the game, and a pretty dedicated fan at that. If you can overlook some of the writing and characters, you do get a look at the origins of Unitology and how Altman becomes their prophet - a reasonably convincing arc (for the most part - but I'll get to that) as he realises he can exploit the early Unitologists' belief in him as a prophet to prevent further disaster. We also get some insights into what the Marker is, and what it does, though it isn't presented in the clearest of ways. You get the impression that the developers/EA want the meat of the story to come out in the games, not any tie-in media, which is fair enough - but the insights you do get become a bit thin on the ground, and there's not really enough 'novel' here to be an enjoyable read even without learning anything new.

Unfortunately, much of what is achieved with Altman's arc is tossed out in the last few pages, with what has to be the worst ending I've come across for quite some time. In a baffling move, Evenson tosses out the relatively subtle legacy Altman would have left behind by pretending to be a true prophet when he was really just exploiting the Unitologists to get their help. Instead, Markoff and his evil psychiatrist buddy Stevens imprison Altman for a period of time before literally sitting him down at a table and doing their best Bond villain impression as they explain how they are going to invent the legend of Altman as the founder of the Church. As if that wasn't ham-fisted enough, Markoff then has Altman tossed into a chamber with a Necromorph while he and his cronies drink champagne and watch. And as if that wasn't bizarre enough, they make a tremendous point of arming Altman with a spoon. I really wish I was making any of that up.

Aside from the hilariously bad ending and the mediocre-with-moments-of-intrigue earlier on, it's also worth noting that the book doesn't seem to have been edited particularly well. There are typos here and there, including a few lines that simply don't make any sense - the villain at one point points out to a man he's about to have killed "I warned you, you aren't expendable." Sorry, what's that? Don't you mean he is expendable? Finally, in what seemed like a wonderful face-palm moment after that terrible ending (I really can't get over it), Evenson has an acknowledgement section - in which he thanks EA and Visceral for their 'first-person dismemberment' game. I'm not really sure what to take from that. Dead Space is a third-person game (Extraction aside, but that's an outlier), so one gets the impression that either Evenson hasn't played it or simply doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to videogames. That's fair enough, to a point, but I also can't believe no one in EA's marketing department caught it. It just seems emblematic of the lack of thought that went into the book.

Two stars. Read at your own risk. It's not the worst story in the world, especially in the genre of videogame tie-in media, but other companies have put out increasingly high quality works - Karen Traviss's Gears of War books are particularly outstanding, adding depth to the universe whilst being great stories in their own right. Martyr, sadly, doesn't even come close.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Walking Dead - What Lies Ahead (S02EO1) Recap & Review

The Walking Dead S02E01 – What Lies Ahead

“Last season on AMC’s The Walking Dead...” is how the show comes back, and my first thought was just ‘Really?’ Not ‘Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead’ or even ‘Frank Darabont’s...’, but oh yeah, AMC sort of lost its famous show runner between the seasons. I’m not yet sure how losing Darabont is going to play out. A lot has been made in the TV-watching media about how he’s been replaced with someone much worse, but frankly I wasn’t all that impressed with what they did with season one.

So how does season two kick off?

With a bad, bad monologue; Rick on his radio again trying to contact Morgan. Or just getting his troubles off his chest, if you think it might be an impossible task. The monologue is obviously meant to serve in part as a recap of season one’s peculiar finale. In case you forgot, the series took a serious detour from anything the comics have ever depicted, and the gang found a CDC facility with one lone, suicidal scientist. It wasn’t an interesting story, and it wasn’t handled well, so I’m glad they seem to have moved on from it pretty quick. Still, the monologue is clunky, and seems extra clunky after following that ‘previously’ recap.

In S2, the gang has finally departed from Atlanta, and we catch up with them rolling down the highway, apparently on their way to Fort Benning. Dale in his RV pulls up short with an “Aw jeez” as he apparently fails to notice an enormous, lane-spanning roadblock of wrecked cars until he’s right on top of it in broad daylight. They decide to try to worm their way through the blockade – how exactly did it end up like that, anyway? Did people just floor it into the back of standing cars, flipping over? Are zombies meant to have done it? – whilst scavenging supplies.

First, though, Lori has to utter the dreadful line “It’s a graveyard”, presumably referring to the bodies no doubt contained in the cars. So... this is a graveyard, but all your looting of Atlanta was just fine? Lori is a terrible, terrible character in the series, lurching between strange proclamations like that to a bizarre gotta-have-it-both-ways love triangle with Rick and Shane. Her berating Shane for not acting like Carl’s dad was just bizarre.

That roll of Gerber tools that Carl found though? Nice.

Dale, Master Lookout.
Before long, however, Dale on lookout duty spots a walker (did they call them walkers in the comics? I can’t remember). Like the roadblock, he’s a little slow on the uptake – when Rick sights in on the first zombie, considering taking a shot (I was ready to go ballistic if he took it, even with just one zombie, considering what they’d learned in season one about gunfire attracting hordes), it quickly becomes clear there are dozens of zombies coming.

A herd.

Now that's a herd
Herds become a bigger part of the comics later in the run, so its interesting that we’re seeing them in season two of the series, well before a lot of other interesting things have happened. I’d say it was a nice reference to the mythos of the comic, but it’s not really handled too threateningly. A herd in the comic is something terrifying, unstoppable, a seemingly endless wave of zombies rolling over everything in their meandering path. This herd wanders by, mostly fooled by our intrepid heroes... hiding beneath their cars.

What? Did the zombies lose their sense of smell, or something? I know we’re not dealing with walking geniuses, here, but the zombies have proved adept at hunting in pitch darkness and have previously been fooled by the living draping themselves in the stinking entrails of the dead – so why exactly does hiding under a car stop them noticing where folks are?

It’s almost a perfect plan, anyway, except no one remembered to shut Andrea in the RV, and... er... T-Dog (I had to go look his name up on Wikipedia. I only know him as ‘stereotype they included so someone would have an antagonistic relationship with the white supremacist’) manages to go fumbling around the car wrecks, slices his arm up real good, and nearly gets himself killed. Fortunately, Daryl, the resident redneck extraordinaire, turns out to be some kind of zombie hunting Sam Fisher, sneaking up behind the walker after T-Dog and taking him down, hand-to-hand, with one of his crossbow bolts.

Did I mention Daryl is the only character I like from the series? That they added, I mean. Glenn and Dale are also kind of okay, and not too far from their comic counterparts, but Daryl is the only ‘invented’ character I’m at all fond of.

As for Andrea... In the comic, Andrea is a bad-ass. I’m assuming there was a time when she wasn’t a bad ass, but she very quickly manned up (so to speak) and dealt with the zombie apocalypse by becoming a scarred, sharpshooting ass kicker. In the series, she’s a gloomy, ranting, possibly suicidal, easily scared wet sock. She manages to dispatch the zombie hunting her after being handed a screwdriver, but then spends the rest of the episode badgering Dale for her gun – something Dale is understandably a little reluctant to hand over, considering he had to drag her out of the exploding CDC building against her will. I suppose they might be taking the long run with Andrea, building her up into something more impressive, but they’re really taking their time about it.

A disaster is nearly averted, but thankfully, the little girl Sofia manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In a series of pitch perfect how-to-fuck-everyone-over moves, she crawls out from under her wreck too early, runs screaming off into the woods when pursued by two slow-moving walkers, nearly pulls Rick’s gun on them when he catches up to her, fails to heed Rick’s instructions to stay put whilst he takes care of aforementioned walkers, and proceeds to lose herself in the woods. What follows is a long, long search – the bulk of the episode, really – with perhaps the only highlight being Rick and Daryl’s hilarious gutting of a dead walker to check its diet didn’t include small children.

“How many things you gutted, anyway?” Daryl smirks, before proceeding to bludgeon his prey to re-death with a knife. Well Daryl, I’ve gutted none, and I know how to open up a zombie better than that.

They have a brief detour to a church with an automated bell ringing out over loudspeaker, during which a few unsatisfying conversations are hashed out – Lori vs. Shane, Shane vs. Andrea, Lori vs. everyone in the group (did I mention I hate Lori? I did? Oh good). There’s no sign of Sofia, though, leaving Shane, Rick and Carl to continue the search.

Deep in the woods, they come across a deer, and the way the scene is set up had me anticipating quite a different denouement – one I wasn’t expecting at that point, as it hadn’t really been set up at all, but that does feature in the comics. Instead, Shane is about to take down the deer, but Carl has a manic grin on his face and starts walking towards it so Rick waves his buddy/cuckold down. Then there’s a gunshot, and both deer and Carl are dropped. Kind of shocking, but then, it’s not like Carl isn’t put through the ringer in the comic – I just didn’t expect it so soon. Or, wait, did this actually happen? I’m getting all mixed up now.

As the credits prep to roll, there’s a “This season on...” flashforward, which does some nice spoilering. It looks like we’ll be seeing the farm from early arcs of the comic, or something approximating it, so perhaps the survivors will be picking up a few new... er... survivors. It looks like Andrea is going to continue flip-flopping on the whole life or death business instead of learning to be awesome. It looks like there are going to be military helicopters, further pushing the series far, far away from the comic that spawned it.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how this does as a second season. I’m going to keep watching it, but it irks me that there’s a lot of potential here – not just potential from the comics, which aren’t always perfect either, but just the sheer potential of a long-running zombie TV show which has never been done before. It’s such a shame to waste that potential on hammy acting, bad monologues, and melodrama. I think it is a bit of an improvement on season one, though, so let’s see what happens. There’s plenty of room for it to improve, as well as plenty of room to spiral down even further.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dead Space Extraction (Wii) Review

I’ve come around to the Wii pretty late in its life cycle – the Wii U has already been announced, and is expected next year, and actually, I don’t even own one. My friend was finally lured onto it by the promise of the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, though, and that meant an opportunity for me to catch up on a few Wii exclusives (and ports) that I missed.

At times, it’s a pretty underwhelming list. Some of the things I was interested in have turned out to be, well, pretty bad – like the Wii version of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which has some of the most awful controls I’ve ever encountered. Though I never completed it on the Gamecube – I was playing it in Japanese, and eventually, it defeated my language abilities at the time – I recall enjoying it quite a lot, and looking forward to experiencing it in English where I could enjoy the story more, as well as find the various tutorials and puzzles less frustrating due to having an added layer of “Did I just understand that right?” on top. On the Wii, all that playability seems to have been thrown out of the window in favour of every gimmicky control Nintendo could think to throw at it. I guess it was an early title for the Wii, and they wanted to differentiate it from its NGC origins, but man, they really screwed it up.

Don’t even get me started on the surreal translation, but I’ve grown to just really hate a lot of official translations, Nintendo’s included. I think it’s the fact that a lot of Japanese dialogue in games, movies, and anime is very colloquial, and especially when written down, features a lot of dialect stuff that in English just looks stupid and unnatural. It didn’t stop whoever translated the speech of the starting area villagers in Twilight Princess, giving them an odd, “y’all”-filled cowboy dialect... with incongruous “bud”s thrown in left, right and centre. “Y’all finished fishin’ there, bud?” “Y’all done with the horse-ridin’ tutorial there, bud?” “Y’all sick of readin’ this stilted dialogue there, bud?” But I digress.

So far, though, the standout has been Dead Space: Extraction (depressingly, followed by Metroid: Other M. I have no attachment to the Metroid franchise whatsoever, but even I can see Team Ninja have really gone to town and butchered it – but get beyond the even-worse-than-Twilight-Princess writing and voice acting – oh, the voice acting – and the gameplay isn’t half bad, and makes interesting use of the Wiimote). Extraction is the once-Wii-exclusive, now-PS3-bonus extra prequel to the original Dead Space, covering a group of survivors from the mining colony as they escape to the USG Ishimura, and leading into the events of the rest of the franchise (with an interesting little nod to Dead Space 2, I might add; particularly interesting, as the storyline in Extraction is continued in the Dead Space 2 DLC ‘Severed’).

Technically a rail shooter, the game feels quite far removed from the find-it-in-an-arcade style experienced I had envisioned. Much of your time in the game’s 10 chapters is spent ‘exploring’, albeit without much control in where your characters goes, or watching cutscenes. You do get a few chances here and there to make choices about which path to take, or opportunities to take control of the camera and check a room for hidden items and ammunition pick-ups. The telekinesis ability from the ‘proper’ console games is here and used (mostly) well to let you grab items that drop from enemies or are just littered throughout the levels, and stasis is back too, allowing you to temporarily freeze or slow opponents and the very occasional puzzle element. I think almost all of the weapons from the original Dead Space show up, in addition to a couple of unique ones like the security officers’ standard pistol. Most of the weapons appear more or less unchanged, though a couple have a slightly different alternate fire. Some, like the Ripper (a spinning circular saw blade held out on some kind of telekinetic tether) take advantage of the Wiimote in that you have the flail the thing around, though sometimes it’s more effort than reward. You also get a melee attack by swinging the nunchuk, though it’s far from as visceral as Isaac Clarke’s aggravated stomping.

I mentioned that the telekinesis was “mostly” used to good effect because there is one downside to all the time the game spends developing atmosphere, characters, and story: throughout it, you’ll be telekinetically grabbing at every shiny object on the screen, desperate for health pickups, a little more ammo, weapon upgrades or hidden audio and textual logs. A character might be making a poignant speech or revealing some important plot element, but you might miss it entirely, the glowing white ball of your telekinetic power (with accompanying sound effect) drowning it out or obscuring the action. It’s not like you have a choice in the matter, either – this isn’t a case of “sure, you can mess with the gravity of the game by choosing to run into a wall or shoot your gun off during ‘serious’ moments”; the game has been deliberately designed to encourage you to be grabbing at everything that isn’t nailed down, and there are hidden items even during important story moments. It’s all a bit schizophrenic.

At least the story is good, and ties in well with the rest of the franchise. I’m a big fan of the first two games, and the first, Templesmith-illustrated comic series/graphic novel (featured in Extraction in its hit-and-miss motion comic under the bonus features). Other things have been less successful – the first animated offering, Downfall, was sheer crap. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to sample the second movie or comic series, or the tie-in novel. There’s a definite purpose behind it all though, a fairly well-thought out storyline unfolding about Unitology, the markers, and the necromorphs. Little scraps of information are meted out across the different games and tie-ins, and Extraction is no different, serving to offer up a parallel storyline to Isaac’s journey.

It’s not perfect, both as a game in general and a Dead Space game in particular. Co-op is implemented as a simple drop-in thing, not affecting the storyline. That means that your first person view develops a second targeting reticule (that many have already noted is ridiculously big, obscuring enemies at range). It’s as if your character is dual-wielding the various weapons, which gets ever more ridiculous during frantic moments such as hacking a door control at the same time as fending off waves of enemies – or visibly reaching out to climb over a ledge while still being able to shoot both weapons. There’s one scene I’d love to explain but don’t want to spoil, but would basically require the character in question to be using a gun with his feet – two guns with his feet, if you’re playing co-op – given the way things are playing out on-screen.

The enemies, the necromorphs, are mostly taken from Dead Space, with a couple of additions. I could’ve done without the odd flying ones that seemed to mostly be an annoyance, and some enemies don’t quite act how you’d expect based on the main entries – there are tiny spider-like necromorphs, for example, that tend to swarm over you and must be shaken off. In Extraction, that action falls to shaking the Wiimote frantically/frustratedly. Normally these things are disgorged from the belly of a morbidly obese necromorph, but while that enemy is present, killing it “incorrectly” doesn’t result in the tide of spider-things you’d expect in Dead Space. On the other hand, the staggering ones with glowing bombs attached to their arms are back – and their volatile appendages can still be shot off, grabbed with telekinesis, and hurled at other enemies.

And, despite the general strength of the story, there are a couple of moments that are let down by odd dialogue choices or slightly weak voice acting – Lexine, in particular, is not a strong character, while Gabe Weller’s macho one-liners soon begin to grate (his first, however, is just dandy). The dynamics of the group you’ll spend most of the game with are quite odd, with Aliens-esque corporate suit, unshakeable-to-the-point-of-being-a-caricature security grunt, homicidal detective, and girl who somehow manages to ham it up despite, presumably, not being mo-capped. And who also refuses to stop wearing a miniskirt despite ample opportunity to put on a space suit or engineering rig, yet repeatedly complains about being cold. Finally, there’s an interesting story choice late in the game that actually spoils a major element from Dead Space. If you’re coming to Extraction having already played the other games, it’s not a problem, and like a lot of the game – visiting areas easily recognisable from the rest of the franchise – is a nice nod to later events. It’s just indicative of a strange kind of “Who was this supposed to be for?” atmosphere that pervades the game and its release, seeming utterly out of place on the Wii.

Is it an essential part of the Dead Space experience? No. It is, however, an interesting and fun diversion, and is especially worthwhile in rounding out the fairly confusing episode in Severed. It’s a real shame there doesn’t seem to be a follow-up coming, though perhaps one can hold out hope that the story will be continued post-Severed in other DLC, or perhaps the whole Extraction side of the franchise will be supported in a PSN/Live Arcade type game – or even, perhaps, on the Wii U?

... Or not, you know. Given Extraction apparently sold terribly on the Wii. Who’d have thought it.