Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Video Game Review - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Readers of my blog will remember my reviews of Assassin's Creed, and Assassin's Creed 2. In short, Assassin's Creed is a game worth playing, despite many flaws, and Assassin's Creed 2 is a game that, while probably a better game objectively (all the systems worked better in AC2) it was, to me at least, a less enjoyable experience. Still a game worth playing though. Also, it had a brilliant ending.

Now, folks, let me tell you, it is time for much rejoicing, for while Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed 2 were both sort-of-good games, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is a GREAT game. This is by far the best Assassin's Creed experience thus far, and it blows the other two out of the water.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is sort of an "Assassin's Creed 2.5" if you will. It picks up directly where the second game left off, and honestly, if you don't play it you WILL be confused jumping into the inevitable Assassin's Creed 3. It puts you, once again, back in the shoes of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the renaissance assassin who you were put in the shoes of in Assassin's Creed 2. The game literally begins exactly where the second game left off, with Ezio *spoilers for the ending of AC2* walking out of the vault, bewildered by the mysterious message left for Desmond. Victorious over the pope however, he goes back to his home, and relaxes in a segment where you help the various townspeople with mundane problems.

And then, it naturally all goes wrong. He is renaissance Batman, after all.

In short, the son of the pope who you DIDN'T murder at the end of AC2 (which was dumb, Ezio has no problem killing hundreds of guards who likely just work to feed themselves and their families, but finally when he meets the evil pope he doesn't kill him? What?! Bah, I digress, that's a problem with the second game, not this one.) Cesare Borgia, blows up the city, and takes the Apple of Eden from you.

Cue going back to Desmond, and finding out the reason why you're still reliving Ezio's memories, to find out where exactly the Apple of Eden ended up. Of course to do that you have to relive the memories leading UP to that point because if you don't the polarity of the power couplings could be reversed causing a temporal anomaly which would leak vast quantities of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey radiation into the stargates which would then... You get the idea. It's a cheap excuse why we're playing a full game not just 15 minutes of one, but it works nonetheless.

The plot of this game, like most aspects of this game, is FAR superior to the other two. You'll remember one of my main complaints about AC2 was that you didn't become an Assassin until the last hour or so of the game. In this, you're already an Assassin at the beginning, and it shows.

However, another problem I had with the story of the second game was that it was CONFUSING! Half the time I didn't understand how the people I was killing were related to the overarching conspiracy, and was really just killing them because the mission told me to.

This game however, has a central story with definite first, second, and third acts. It has one central villain (Cesare), and it's coherent. Whereas the second game lacked any kind of focus and just felt as though the story were aimlessly wandering, Brotherhood has a story that pulls you in, and keeps you interested.

That said, Assassin's Creed is becoming my new Lost. Each game thus far has had an infuriating cliffhanger ending that leaves you scratching your head going "What just happened?!"

In any case, the game plays almost identically to Assassin's Creed 2, but every aspect of it has been polished to the point of near perfection. The combat is actually entertaining, the missions are tons more fun due to a new system of bonus objectives you don't HAVE to complete. For example, some missions have you get into a heavily guarded area, but the bonus objective is to do it without killing anyone.

The result is the perfect balance between being a stealth game, like Assassin's Creed SHOULD be, and still allowing you to muscle your way through large portions of it, like in AC2.

There are also loads of optional missions in this game, similarly to AC2, but they don't suck this time. There are Courtesan missions which follow their own storyline, missions to kill Templars, and missions reliving the past, introducing you to Ezio's first love Cristina.

The biggest change to the single player game though is a system where you rescue citizens and then teach them to become assassins, who can help you in combat, or go on missions of their own to get you money, among other things. As you teach them they gain levels and become more powerful, before finally become Assassin's themselves.

Overall, the game is a blast to play, and is definitely better in every way than the past two installments. It's the game the first Assassin's Creed should have been.

However, the biggest new addition to the series is multiplayer. In the multiplayer, you play templars who are in a training programs to learn to be assassins.

The object of the multiplayer is to assassinate your assigned target, while being pursued yourself by someone else. Assassinations earn you points, and the person with the most points after 10 minutes wins. However, the map is populated with NPC's who look like each of the players, and thus you have to learn to act like an NPC to fool other players into thinking you're an NPC, while figuring out (given only their general location via a compass) which one of the many people who look like your target are actually your target.

The multiplayer is a LOT of fun to play, although it seems nearly impossible to find a game anymore, due to lots of players having quite playing by now. It takes a good 5-10 minutes sometimes.

Buy this game if: You enjoyed the first two Assassin's Creed, or thought there was potential for a good game in them.

Don't buy this game if:
You really didn't think there was any way you could have liked the first two Assassin's Creeds.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Batman Beyond: Hush Beyond

Let's take a trip back in time about 11 years, shall we? The year was 1999. Clinton was president, the twin towers were still standing tall, Buffy still had 4 seasons to give us, and a little cartoon called Superman: The Animated Series was in it's prime. Superman: TAS was the second series in the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), with the first being Batman: The Animated Series, considered one of the best cartoons of all time, with good reason.

However, executives had decided that, due to the success of both Animated Series, and the TV Show Buffy (Who was still in High School at that point), that they needed a new, more kid friendly "Batman In High School" series, to follow up Superman: TAS with. But the creators of the classic shows weren't about to make some watered down "Batman Babies!" show, no, instead they gave us a cartoon called Batman Beyond.

(I wanted to show the video of the intro here, but I can't find an embeddable version here... So click the link to see one of the best intro sequences ever. Seriously.)

Now, arguably they failed at making a more kid friendly version of Batman: TAS or Superman: TAS. In fact, if anything, it was darker and edgier than either of those shows. But it was incredibly AWESOME.

The series took place years in the future, after Bruce Wayne has hung up the cape, and Gotham has once again become a crime run city. New gangs, such as the "Jokerz" (who model themselves after the Joker) run around the city causing chaos, and corruption is rampant. That's when a new Batman, Terry McGinnis steps up and, working with Bruce Wayne, becomes the new Batman.

The show was excellently executed, giving Terry his own, new rogues gallery instead of just cashing in on the old enemies, while still paying their dues to the original Batman with episodes centering around old foes like Mr. Freeze, Bane, and the absolute pinnacle of the series, the feature length film, "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker", which in all honesty can hold it's own against any Batman film, and still be respectable.

I loved Batman Beyond. I was very young when it was on, but I remember loving every minute of it. I've even been watching the first season recently, and it holds up very well. (You can find it streaming here, but the episodes are out of order. A list of the episodes can be found here.)

The show was cancelled in 2001, and was succeeded by Justice League unlimited, along with Static Shock, both of which featured crossover episodes with Batman Beyond. In Static Shock, Static goes to the future, and rescues his future self, with the help of Terry. JLU featured an episode called "Epilogue" which finally gave the show the finale it deserved. I won't spoil that episode for you, but track it down if you get a chance.

Terry was a very different character from Bruce Wayne, but one who I felt, if given his due, could be just as compelling. Unfortunately, since the DCAU as a whole has been ended, and a new Animated Universe has begun, it seemed that Batman Beyond was dead for good.

Until, that is, last year, when a mini-series called "Hush Beyond" ran. 6-Issues. I didn't really start collecting comics until early this year, so I never read those. Until now that is, as I purchased the trade paperback for "Hush Beyond" collecting all 6 issues.

The mini-series itself was, thankfully, very popular, and actually ended up getting an ongoing series going, which started last January. IT. IS. AWESOME. I've gotten all 4 issues that have been released (the 5th is currently being mailed to me) and I've loved every second of them. I may review those at a later date, but for now, let me give you all my impressions of the mini-series "Hush Beyond".

"Hush", for those not familiar with Batman lore, especially recent Batman lore, is a villain who first showed up in Batman comics in 2003. He's really Thomas Elliot, childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, and super successful surgeon. I haven't read any of the Hush storylines from the Batman comics personally, so I'll explain his motivations as best I can, but for a better description, you may want to just go ahead and read the wikipedia article on him.

Tom Elliot was, like Bruce, a childhood billionaire, and a friend to him. Unlike Bruce, however, he hated his parents. A lot. As in, he cut the brakes on his parents car and tried to kill them both. He only actually managed to kill his Father though, since his Mother was saved by Bruce's Father, Dr. Thomas Wayne.

A lot of stuff, none of which is really essential to understanding today's topic, happens, and Tom Elliot (surgeon extraordinaire) unites with Edward Nigma (The Riddler...) to kill Bruce Wayne, under the persona "Hush".

Eventually, he figures out Bruce Wayne is Batman, things happen, he's evil, yada yada yada, all of Hush's plots involved other supervillains in some capacity, we're moving on.

In "Hush Beyond" someone, Tom Elliot supposedly being dead, has taken up the mantle of Hush once more, tracking down and killing old Batman villians such as The Mad Hatter, or Calendar Man.

In short, this is a bad thing. After all, all these years later, a lot of these villains either did their time and went straight, or are still in mental hospitals. Hush, however, seems to be sending a message to Bruce Wayne, and makes very sure that Terry knows that Hush thinks of him as an "Imposter".

The mini-series takes a much darker tone than the series had, including bloody sequences, some fairly brutal murders, and it's very clear that this is aimed at those of us who, like me, were kids when they saw the series, and are now teenagers (or adults). The end result is excellent.

The mini-series, much like the show used to do, excellently blends new and old Batman mythos, including appearances by Cadmus, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and even a new Catwoman.

The art is very nice, looking as good as any Batman comic on the market right now. The characters are fleshed out well, and it really feels like the writers knew, and loved, the characters as much as I did.

My only complaint, however, is that the last two issues are where the story falls a little flat for me. Without revealing TOO MUCH, let's just say Hush's identity is revealed, not because of Terry's detective skills, but because Hush chooses to out himself. That's just lame. Terry has taken up the mantle of Batman, world's greatest detective. I would have LOVED to see him use his detective skills he's picked up from Bruce over years of working with him, to figure out who Hush was BEFORE Hush unveiled himself. Unfortunately, that never happens.

Also, the identity of Hush itself felt a little bit anti-climactic to me personally, although your mileage may vary on that.

The action is great, the story is great, I absolutely LOVE the fact that they've introduced a new Catwoman (and I can't wait for her to reappear in the ongoing comic, as I'm sure she will) and overall, I'm glad I spent my $15 on the TPB. Could it have been better? Sure. Was it good? Oh heck yeah.

Seeing where all these characters who we never did see in the show are, even bit characters like Calendar Man, is awesome.

Now, I know I gave a lot of backstory at the beginning of this post, so I'm sure a lot of you are wondering, "Can I buy this without any knowledge of the Batman universe?". To that I'd say... Sure. It's actually a very good introduction to the Batman Beyond world. Everything you DO need to know is explained within the context of the story, even small things like who Dick Grayson was (which I'm sure most people know.) and even who Hush himself was.

So I'd say that if you're looking for a quality graphic novel, "Hush Beyond" is definitely worth your time and money. It may not be perfect, but it's a great way to start Terry McGinnis' comic career off.