Thursday, October 30, 2014

Dragon Age Keep Open Beta Impressions



Dragon Age Inquisition is only weeks away, and Bioware has finally launched the open beta for the Dragon Age Keep. Unlike previous Bioware releases, Dragon Age Inquisition will not feature a save game import feature. At least, not in the traditional way. Instead of porting a save file over from Dragon Age 2 into Dragon Age Inquisition, players will establish their world state via the Keep, an online app that allows you to upload save games from previous Dragon Age releases, and tracks those decisions for later use in Inquisition. For those who may have not played previous entries in the Dragon Age saga, the Keep allows you to make choices and establish your in-universe continuity the way you would like to see it. Once you are satisfied with your world state, whether by uploading or customizing, you will then be able to transfer that data into Inquisition when it is released on November 19th.

The Keep seeks to solve two problems. The first is carrying over save files from one console generation to the next.  The second is to solve several import bugs that occurred throughout the series. This pleases me, as nothing was more frustrating to me as a player than having everyone in Kirkwall tell me that my Grey Warden sacrificed his life to end the Blight, when in fact, he did not.
Yesterday, the open beta for the Keep went live, allowing players to get their hands on the app and test it out. In order to get a full impression of what the Keep’s general capabilities are in terms of customizing the world state, I decided to try and rebuild it from the ground up, as opposed to uploading a save file from a previous play through.

 Overall, the Keep is a very fine tool to use in crafting your own save game. It looks pretty, and has a simple to use interface. Choices can be made quite easily, and the logic of the system is on point. As I tried to recreate my own world state, it would frequently stop and make sure I was making accurate decisions, as some of the choices I was customizing interfered with the default set up. Fortunately, one click is all it takes to fix the problem, and the choices are readjusted accordingly.

One aspect I really liked about the Keep is that when your world state is finalized, you can watch a little “previously on” type video that explains with greater context everything that transpired along your world state, narrated by none other than storyteller supreme, Varric Tethras. Having Varric narrate the video was a nice touch, and made it feel less like an application, and more like a piece of the lore. It’s almost as if Varric is sitting around a fire and telling a story.

I did have a few problems with Keep. When customizing your Grey Warden, it seems odd that you are not allowed to change his/her name. The only way to go into the Keep with a name of your choosing is to upload your save game to Origin, then sync your Origin account with Keep. It’s a massive headache when it should be as simple as “What was the Warden’s name?” Likewise, you are unable to a give a name to your dog. If I start Inquisition and they refer to my dog as Barkspawn instead of Wrex, I’ll be pissed the hell off. Mostly because Barkspawn is a stupid name.

Another oddity in the Keep is that some choices are extremely specific, covering nearly every possible outcome and nuance. For example, did you tell Filda that her son, Ruck was dead despite the fact that he was alive? Did you tell her the truth? Did you kill Ruck and tell her the truth? Did you kill Ruck and lie? Literally every outcome is covered in that option. Meanwhile, the Landsmeet does not cover whether or not you got Anora’s support, or if she betrayed you. It breaks it down to, “Is Alistair king or not?” Okay that is an exaggeration, as it does ask specifically how Loghain died (in a duel with Alistair on mine), but it seems like big details are being left out.

If you played Awakening, you may be surprised to see that there is absolutely no mention of most of your party members or their fates. While Nathaniel and Ohgren are covered in detail, no one else is. We know that Anders and Justice show up again as one being in Dragon Age 2, so covering their fates in the Keep doesn’t matter (well, not until DA2 that is), but what about Sigrun, Velanna, and even Varel? All of these characters can either live or die depending on your choices. Not tracking those choices basically means we will never see or hear from them again. I can understand Varel not being covered somewhat. The chances of seeing him again are extremely low considering his voice actor, Robin Sachs, tragically passed away. Velanna and Sigrun on the other hand were companions. It would nice to meet up with them at some point in the future. If this is the final version of the Keep, we sadly never will.

Overall, the Keep is a very nice tool for building your world state in preparation for Dragon Age Inquisition. While I would certainly like Bioware to tackle my objections, even if they don’t it’s not the end of the world. It should be interesting to see what awaits players in Inquisition, and the Keep offers us a tiny glimpse of what that may be.


Pros:

Simple and Easy to use (for the most part)

Typically very specific with choices and options

Varric narration is a nice touch

Cool artwork

Solves continuity disrupting bugs such as the fate of the Warden in DA2


Cons:

Unable to name the Grey Warden, Hawke, or Dog

Could use some background music

Some decisions seem simplified

No information on the fate of Varel, Velanna, or Sigrun

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Runners Review



Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend C2E2, Chicago’s coolest comic book convention.  Now, I love C2E2 and I try to visit it in some form every year.  Of course, my favorite part of any con is artist alley.  I love rubbing shoulders with fellow independent creators, making new contacts, and finding some hidden treasures.  This year, I found one such treasure.  That treasure is a science fiction graphic novel series called Runners.

Runners is about a group of space aged smugglers, desperately trying to make a not so honest living in a not so honest galaxy.  The crew is made up of the gruff Captain Roka, his easily angered, yet pragmatic second in command Ril, the young recruit with a kick ass glowing arm, Bocce, the gleeful, gambling sharpshooter Cember, the enormous stone like warrior Bennesaud, and the amnesiac stowaway Sky.  Together, they try to make their way in the galaxy.  Sadly, they aren’t very good at it, because they constantly find themselves in heaps of trouble.

To put it simply, Runners is a fantastic comic.  The stories for the first two graphic novels, Bad Goods and the Big Snow Job, are fun, exciting and extremely clever.  Sean Wang (who is not just the writer, but also the artist), manages to craft a story that is witty and engaging, with a kooky and all too loveable cast of characters.  While each installment features a standalone adventure, Wang manages to also foreshadow some farther reaching story elements, interweave the tale with some great character moments, and pepper in some intense and thrilling action sequences.

To make it even better, Runners has some truly incredible artwork. The character designs are rich with detail, yet clean and polished.  Not only that, but all of the alien designs are so weird, so fascinating and so otherworldly.  I can honestly say that I have never seen such cool and interesting alien designs.  One of my favorites is Cember.  He’s a happy go lucky marksman who has a set of tentacles for legs, and a set of 5 or so eyes that wrap completely around his head.  It’s such a cool and creative design, just like every character in Runners.

Another thing I love about Runners is how jam packed full of content the graphic novels are.  When you pick up a volume of Runners, you aren’t just getting a great story.  In the last pages of both volumes, Wang includes all sorts of extras, including a short story, concept designs, pinups, and even a translation guide to help you pronounce all the crazy sci-fi alien names.  If you pronounced the name Cember like KEM-ber, you’re doing it wrong.

Overall, I can’t say enough good things about Runners.  Sure, there are a few flaws.  The color work in the second volume is a bit drab at times, particularly during the opening gun battle.  A few major characters (Bocce and Bennesaud) haven’t had much to do thus far into the tale, leaving me a little cold towards them.  Other than those minor nitpicks, Runners is one hell of a comic!

With its cast of unique characters, fun and clever storytelling, pulse pounding action, a witty sense of humor, and some incredible artwork, Runners celebrates sci-fi geekdom with big ol’ stupid looking grin on its face.  With a seemingly effortless craftsmanship, Sean Wang delivers a science fiction adventure that is more fun than any comic has the right to be.  And comics are pretty damn fun.  The biggest flaw Runners suffers from is the fact that there is no third volume to start reading.  Well…. not yet anyways.

If you love epic sci-fi action, elaborate alien creatures, rich new worlds, and cool star ships, I suggest you hop on over to http://runnersuniverse.com/ and start reading it now!  You won’t regret it!    

I give Runners a 9.5 out of 10.
 

PS:  Anyone else get the Twilight Zone reference in the publisher name?  I dig it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

San Diego Comic Con Drops Weekend Passes, Raises Prices



Ah, San Diego Comic Con.  A veritable heaven to all nerds, geeks, cosplayers, and entertainment enthusiasts.  Every year, fanboys and fangirls from all walks of life gather for five days of celebrating everything pop culture.  Comic books, movies, video games, you name it, you can probably find it at Comic Con.  The preparations for one of the greatest entertainment expos on Earth (and other planets as well) should be bursting with feelings of excitement, not riddled with stress and confusion.  Comic Con decided to change that, and a lot of other things as well.  It was recently announced that SDCC would not only be raising the prices for their tickets, but will also no longer be offering weekend passes to the event.

For the record, SDCC is one of the hardest conventions to get tickets to.  How hard, you may ask?  For last year's show, tickets sold out completely in approximately an hour and a half.  Yeah.  Tickets were sold out before some of us even knew they were on sale.  The theory behind removing weekend passes is to get more tickets out there to more fans who may otherwise not be able to go to the show due to the speed in which tickets sell out.  Certainly a noble enough goal, but my question is this: is it even worth it?

Let's start by looking at the logistics of the scenario for someone like me.  See, I'm just some average Joe living in the Midwest who, like anyone desiring to traverse across the country to SDCC, loves comics, movies and everything else offered at the convention.  I would love to go!  In fact, I've already been to a few conventions.  The biggest is C2E2, which is an enormous show.  So big, that after three days I still left Chicago feeling like I just scratched the surface of what C2E2 had to offer.

I once had a chat with a well known, professional comic book artist.  I'd rather not mention his name for fear of coming across like a pretentious name dropper, and he may not want to be associated with a blathering buffoon such as myself.  Anyway, we discussed the size and scope of some of the more popular conventions.  According to the artist, SDCC is like ten C2E2s.  Just hearing him say that made me feel overwhelmed.  If SDCC is ten times larger than C2E2, and only has an additional day and half to experience the whole show... Hell, an entire weekend isn't enough, let alone one day!  

It's almost more like a teaser than anything.  Imagine going to the premiere restaurant in town.  You wait in line for several hours, pay thousands of dollars, and are only permitted to eat an appetizer.  You don't just want an appetizer after all that!  You want the whole meal!  For a guy like me, Mr. Average Joe, aka The Blathering Buffoon, spending almost $1,000 just ain't worth one day.  I would definitely consider that for a whole weekend, because if I'm spending that kind of money, I want to get the most out of my experience.    

It is true that SDCC is not prohibiting fans from going an entire weekend.  Technically, you can purchase tickets for each individual day of the show.  The problem is that weekend passes would be sold at a cheaper price point than buying each individual daily ticket.  You would save about $10-15, generally speaking.  Not only that, but holding a weekend pass also granted you access to the preview night.

Preview Night is a long held comic book convention tradition that gives VIP, and Weekend Pass ticket holders access to the show before anyone else.  It's a smaller, quieter look at the show floor, and has always been granted as a reward for fans who want to see the whole show.

Technically, Preview Night is still around, but with strings attached.  You see, to get access to Preview Night, you need to purchase individual tickets for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the increased prices, and no discounted cost for purchasing the now extinct weekend pass.  Only then do attendees have the opportunity to purchase the Preview Night ticket.  Yes, even more money out of your wallet.

Odds are, you're already spending close to $1,000 on travel, hotel and food.  Tickets for the whole show, including Preview Night will come to $200.  That's a $20 price increase total.  That might not sound so bad, but for a lot people, $20 can go a long way.  Of course, I have never been to SDCC, so all of this is based on the traditional practices of other comic book conventions.  I have heard that folks have always needed to pay extra for Preview Night at SDCC, but seeing as how I have never been, I really wouldn't know for sure.

According to SDCC, the cancellation of the weekend pass is because it is, "repetitive and often lead to people purchasing a 4-day badge despite not needing to attend everyday."  So... people do not need four days to see everything Comic Con has to offer?  Riiiiiight.  So why does SDCC go on for four days then?  How come I can see everything I need to in four days at SDCC, but the much smaller C2E2, I miss 40% of the show, and I have three days.  That is a load of bull crap of the stinkiest kind.  You mean to tell me that there is someone who purchases a weekend pass, walks in one day and says, "Man I wish I didn't get a weekend pass.  There is nothing to do at SDCC today!"  I suppose it's true that people don't need to go for every day, but then again, they don't need to go to San Diego Comic Con at all, do they?  Are you guys going to cancel the show?  Didn't think so.
  
I sincerely question the motivations behind SDCC's move here.  On paper, it might seem like they are trying to benefit more fans by getting them into SDCC, but in reality, the only people they are truly benefiting here is themselves.  Increased prices with no way of cutting costs for attendees, and not offering weekend passes to ensure they get the most bang for their buck... It just feels like yet another business succumbing to the seduction of greed, because that $20 price raise translates to 2.6 million dollars of increased revenue to SDCC.  They will get that money too, because so many people want to go to the convention, it doesn't matter if you decide its not worth the trip, someone will take your place, and maybe that guy feels like he got screwed in the end.

I predict people will spend more money they can afford just to go to San Diego Comic Con for one day, only to be denied the experience they deserve, and walk away disappointed, maybe even enraged.  Meanwhile, the figureheads behind Comic Con International will be soaking in the couple extra millions they just made off of a bunch of suckers.  The worst part is, SDCC is so big, and attendance to the show is so coveted, they will get away with it, and potentially set a new standard for other conventions as well.  This could be the first step in the death of the weekend pass as we know it.  Which sucks, because big conventions like SDCC and even C2E2 need a whole weekend to let us enjoy all the fun and spectacle that these great conventions have to offer.

So what do you guys think?  Do you agree or disagree with my perspective on SDCC and their decision to remove the weekend pass?  Or am I just a blathering buffoon?  Leave comments below and let me know what you think!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

I'm Back!


Greetings internet!  It has been way too long.  I suppose I have a bit of explaining to do.  Yes, I have been gone a long time.  Considering the last post I made on this blog was over a year ago, and frankly, my posts prior to that were few and far between, I can imagine that many folks out there thought I was gone for good.  To be honest, I thought I was as well.

You see, before I stopped writing, I had a bit of a... let's call it a "creative crisis."  My comic seemed to be withering into nothingness, my editing jobs had dried up, most of the contacts I had made all but disappeared, and I could no longer foresee a scenario where I could make any profit on my writing.  It wasn't long before my passion began to fade.

I tried various other avenues of publishing my words, ones that would surely offer more money making potential.  However, as I began to dedicate all of my writing towards those newer, more lucrative endeavors, I had unintentionally wondered into a cage.  I found that I could no longer write what I wanted to write about, in the way I wanted to write.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful, or unappreciative of these jobs I took on.  Many of these gigs were for very close friends of mine, and the last thing I mean to say is that I didn't want to work with them, because that is not the case.  The fact remained that I was writing for them, and not for myself.  In fact, that is giving myself far too much credit.  In truth, I was writing for money, and essentially turned myself into the literary equivalent of a prostitute.

The more I continued down this path, the more confined I began to feel.  Like a fly caught in a spider's web, the more I struggled, the more ensnared I became.  And soon, I began to lose faith.  The more I wrote, the less I cared.  Hollow had I become in my creative pursuits, and soon I simply could write no more.

During this period, I also had thousands of other forces at work in my life, further distracting me from my ambitions.  Chief among them was the most powerful force on Earth: love.  An absolutely amazing woman had entered my life (she drew the above cartoon of me!), and it was only a matter of time before we were engaged.  The future lingered in my mind more than  ever, and I had to do something to earn enough money for us to realize such a future.

I took a job working in retail.  Yeah, that's right.  I sold out to the man.  But you know what?  It wasn't all bad.  I found the work surprisingly engaging.  The job I took was surprisingly physical, offering up quite an exercise routine.  Lifting, jogging, stretching, squatting, that sort of thing.  In fact, I've lost a lot of weight and put on some serious muscles, bra.

Eventually, the job that was fresh, new and exciting took a turn for the mundane and repetitive. One day (like.. two days ago), I had a revelation, and not of something cool like the flux capacitor.  No, my revelation was much more... depressing...

Every day I go into to work I feel a portion of my soul being sapped away.  I spend 5 nights a week doing the exact same thing that I have been doing for almost a year.  More hours of my life are spent with my co-workers than with my fiancee.  I get to go inside from 30 degree weather, right back into 30 degree weather (I work in the meat and frozen food department).

I realized on that day, that I was in Hell... a frozen over Hell, and the blue light special of the day was my soul.  I was reminded of a quote from none other than Bill Murray from Groundhog Day.  "It's going to be cold... it's going to grey... and it's going to last you the rest of your life."

Okay, so yes I am exaggerating a bit, but the point is, I really don't want to work in retail.  Sure my bosses are nice, my coworkers are cool, and it pays the bills, but it is ultimately not what I want to do.  Nor is any other job that would fit into the category of "9 to 5."  I want to write.  And so, here I am.  Back with a vengeance, and ready to get back to what I love most.

I am taking my blog very seriously this time around.  Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, expect a new update.  I plan on having plenty of new content this time around.  Sure, I'll still have the articles, opinion columns, and reviews, but I also want to include some new stuff, and I can't wait to show you what I have planned.  Every article posted will be shared on each social network I am a part of, and if that's not good enough, you can now subscribe to my blog to get the latest and greatest the second it's available.

And so, I will leave you with one last sentiment.  Something I have said to many up and coming writers and artists at conventions, but had seemed to have forgotten myself.  Stop waiting.  Start creating.