Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2012

On the face of it, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise might appear to represent all that's rotten in pop culture. The core concept is novelty overload. The aesthetic and finer points piggyback on current and past trends (the latest theme tune is hip-hop influenced). The storyline suffers from attention deficit, in that rather than leading anywhere definitive, it's repeatedly reset over a multitude of mediums, with each iteration being targeted at a slightly different audience. Character development is shirked in favour of largely sticking to broad personality templates. The same toys are outfitted with a different set of accessories to be sold again. Outside of the comics, it belongs in that expansive but troubling bracket of media that rely heavily on violence while resiling from showing the consequences of violence (much bashing, zero blood). Its past iterations have aged badly (cowabunga, anyone?).

It also, however, has much to recommend it.

(Mid-post disclaimer: when I was in year 2 at school, I was so Turtles-mad that my teacher refused to mark any work I produced that bore a connection in a futile attempt to dissuade me.)

In particular, we should be thankful for any popular franchise that emphasises the idea of wildly different and conflicting personalities having their place in a triumphalist narrative. The Harry Potter archetype of individual saviour is king, and the idea that certain types of individual belong front and centre, while others are fated to be bit-part players, is part of a pervasive social mythology that sustains selfishness and greed. One might ask what sort of responsible society plants the idea in children's minds that the best result for all is obtained through an inwardly focused drive toward personal success, rather than through cooperation and the fostering of productive relationships. In TMNT, there is no 'hero'; there are four, possibly five or six heroes who are reliant on each other.

Furthermore, the Turtles are outcasts through and through, restricted to living in a sewer of all places, barred from normal social interactions. It's not just their nature as 'freaks' but the extremeness of their personalities that factor into that status: Donatello is a geek whose bookish intelligence is lost on others, Raphael has a destructive and alienating temper, Michaelangelo is a simpleton and Leonardo a Don Quixote who sees windmills everywhere he looks. It's heartening that the essence of Turtles is the balancing of personal flaws, rather than their elimination, and that its focus is always on how we might survive on the very fringes of a supportive society, which is where most of us, in reality, live.

Nickelodeon's new computer-generated take on the franchise, while firmly aimed at youngsters, makes some significant strides. Visually, the Turtles have never been more individualised, nor looked as much like their non-mutant animal counterparts (terrapins, in English English). They finally have three toes, their shells are both suitably rigid-looking and correctly shaped, their eyes are widely spaced and their mouths incorporate just a hint of a beak. On closer examination, they're different shades, different heights and finished with small distinctive details: Michaelangelo's freckles, Donatello's missing tooth, Raphael's cracked shell. At the same time, the rubbery nature of the CGI style allows them a degree of bold expression hitherto unseen - a graphic fiction aesthetic, with Manga-style sweat drops, emanata and indotherms, is layered on top to emphasise extreme reactions, and a full ink-heavy comic panelling style is implemented for flashback sequences.

The writing so far (four episodes have been aired) employs genuine wit and wisdom in place of catchphrases and trite morality tales. The Turtles' mentor, Splinter, is a principle source of both. When Leonardo complains that a fight 'wasn't fair', Splinter takes him to task, asking why he expects fairness in a combat situation. When Raphael's temper gets the better of him, rather than scold him excessively, Splinter mounts a practical demonstration of the detrimental effects of his anger, before recounting a tale of where his own, similar flaws had resulted in tragedy.

As far as the violence goes, while it remains cartoonish, the show goes further than any other iteration of the franchise (including the 90s live action movies) in depicting plausible martial arts techniques, favouring subtlety over impact. Conflicts are rapid-fire and satisfyingly even-matched when they need to be. The wood gives a meaty thump, the metal a sharp schiing, and there are, thankfully, very few fists to the face (a trope that I do seriously worry about, since an attack that barely phases fictional characters could put real life people in hospital). The use of robotic facsimiles of human beings, as ever, provides scope for the deadlier weapons to be used to some effect. The robots also double up as vehicles for some enjoyable slapstick.

The voice work is uniformly excellent, with Sean "Don't you worry, Mr Frodo" Astin's Raphael being of particular note. The city of New York is rendered in suitably stylised fashion. The only real issue so far is the CGI rendering of humans, which is pre-Toy Story in quality. Plastic-fleshed, with moulded hair and mostly spindly bodies, they never quite convince as counterparts to the protagonists' charming freakishness - although they perhaps work as a visual metaphor for the blandness we equate with 'normality' in our own world.

Guild Wars Diary #3

OverviewGuild Wars 2 is my first experience playing a massive multi-player online roleplaying game (MMORPG). It's an involving and sometimes overwhelming experience, since the game is steeped in genre conventions that have been built up over two decades, but also revolutionises and revitalises some of these conventions. My aim here is to record my critical response and analysis in such a way that it can be easily followed by gamers and non-gamers alike!

Links to previous entries:
Guild Wars Diary #1: Induction, The World
Guild Wars Diary #2: Character Creation

4. Story-telling

Although it's now normal for a computer game in almost any genre - from first person shooters to sandbox - to feature a story campaign, it's long been the defining feature of the role-playing game in particular, stretching back to Fighting Fantasy books I mentioned earlier, and the birth of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. On some level, the genre is seen as part game, part collaborative story-telling, with the reader/player taking an active role in shaping the narrative.

In this part of character creation, the player can choose who their mentor was, a selection which affects the direction of the story.

It's no surprise that Guild Wars 2 promises a lot in terms of player involvement. At the time of writing, there is a section on the official website called 'Personal Story' which boldly claims that there are "thousands of possible variations" in the way the story can evolve and that "no two players will have the exact same experience". In an embedded video featurette, Ree Shoesbee, one of the designers, assures us that key decisions will affect the story's direction, and that "the story really reflects the game you want to see". The official Guild Was 2 sub-forum on the personal story section is bizarrely subtitled: "It really is all about you."

Emphasising 'you' and 'your' in marketing has been all the rage for the past decade, and it's perhaps unsurprising that the game falls far short of this enticing spiel. But before discussing the inevitable issues, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on just how ambitious the story-telling aspect of Guild Wars 2 is. In a game-world which is forever populated by dozens, perhaps hundreds of other players, many undoubtedly more skilful and experienced than you, there is still a sincere attempt to convince you that your own experiences are unique and that your skills might impact on the fate of the world. Plot points and events are divided between things that are visible to all players and things that are visible only to individuals (and anyone they've brought along for the ride). In the latter, of course, your avatar becomes a central character and a sense of chronological progression is allowed to pervade, as schemes are thwarted and dire eventualities draw ever nearer.

Cleverly, as certain areas of the world become explorable, they seem to reflect events in your personal story. For example, the Straits of Devastation zone features an imposing metal military outpost called Fort Trinity. It's always there, but players will likely only be strong enough to advance into this area once they've got to the stage in their story where the races of Tyria have formed a pact and elected to build the fort.

By the time you're strong enough to face this dragon, you'll have likely reached a part of your story where an all-out assault by its allies has begun, even though the dragon is technically present in the game world from the moment you start.

The way this is interwoven with the multiplayer activities is appreciably clever, if not ingenious: at all times, a green star on the map tells you where you need to be in terms of your own personal quest. Once you get there, you're transported to a kind of alternative reality. The immediate surroundings are identical, but there are no longer other players crossing your path (unless you've invited others to join you on your quest). Stray too far from the flashpoint where the story is occurring, and you return to the multiplayer world. Finish that short chapter of the story, and again, you return to the multiplayer world, this time with another star in another part of the map to travel towards.

Because getting between the story points necessitates travel, usually on foot, it's almost inevitable that you'll become entangled in many of the 'subplots' of the world before your reach your destination. These subplots are divided into 'dynamic events' and 'renown heart' quests. The latter are activities you can take part in in a certain area to aid some general objective - say, helping out on a farm or disabling enemy traps. The former are ever-changing cyclical mini-stories that can affect the surrounding area and often invite participation from large groups of players.

So for example, in the Harathi Hinterlands, there is a constant territorial war between humans and centaur. Help the humans take control of an outpost, and they will begin planning an all-out assault on a large piece of land which necessitates more players joining in. Leave the humans to their fate and the centaur may well in turn occupy a larger area, meaning less friendly faces as you continue your journey.

Here, a couple argue. He is thinking of joining a rogue enemy faction; she thinks he's betraying her. By following him and preventing him getting killed by the very faction he wishes to join, you can reunite them.

These mini-stories often feature the best and most immersive writing in the game. Help drive centaurs out of a village, and a child will tell you: "You were amazing!" A simple touch, but one which helps in convincing you your actions have real impact. The battlefield dialogue is largely uninspired, but the real treasures are in the smaller quests, where you're more likely to find flawed and witty characters. At the Meatoberfest celebrations in Diessa Plateau, one character insists he's the mayor of the event.

"Mayor? We never elected you," replies another.

"I won the barbecue competition ten years in a row. That qualifies me."

Here, a treasure hunt has ended badly for the leader of the expedition, but well for her comrades; they've uncovered a keg of beer!

The player isn't forced to appreciate these instances. In fact, they're easily missed if you don't pay attention to your surroundings, since the interaction is often between other characters. Sometimes a quest won't even begin if you ignore the pleas of a particular character, because they need your help to even make a start on their task.

Unfortunately, as you return to already traversed areas, the artificiality of the experience becomes harder to ignore, as the same events play out again and again. Occasionally, though, this is the source of a good joke. When you fail to save a particular captain from a man-eating spider, his second-in-command stoically says, "We'll have to make do until his brother comes along." His brother, presumably, is fated to the exact same demise, and so on and so forth through an infinity of family tragedy.

But what about the personal story itself? This is the part of the game where you are the hero, where you can't rely on other players for support, and where the main narrative of the game unspools. Alas, it's something of an ambitious mess. Firstly, there is a jarring disconnect, in that the principle actors in the personal story fawn over you, praise you, promote you and generally treat you like a world-famous superstar, while the rest of the time you travel the world as an unknown adventurer.

Secondly, in attempting to stay true to their aim of giving each player a unique personal journey, much of the story is fragmented into individual assignments that have little to no connection to each other and offer no satisfying character development over the long term.

A particular problem is the rate at which characters enter and exit your story. Many will only be present for a single ten-minute mission, during which their role is purely perfunctory: to provide an info-dump and make it seem as if you aren't quite on your own. Those that hang around for longer are, for the most part, one-dimensional and dull, their dialogue rendered all too often in a monotonous drawl, whether they're caught in the heat of combat, arguing or providing sagely advice.

Two recurring characters, who also feature in the novelised prequel to the game. I would struggle to define them by anything apart from their looks and ''great warrior' status. Eir, on the right, is my character's personal mentor, yet there is a pronounced lack of chemistry between the two of them.

By way of emotional pay-off, there are several attempts to establish close relationships with certain characters. These are almost always forced. Typically, a friendly, bubbly character is appointed as your partner for a number of missions. To be fair, these characters are fairly memorable and fun to be around. They will then be unceremoniously removed or killed off in a contrived scene, causing your character to deliver a dour monologue about honouring their memory.

To make things worse, the way the in-game engine delivers narrative denouements is clumsy at best, ridiculous at worst. Most of the conversation takes place against a flat background, with two participants standing facing each other, taking it in turns to say their lines. The acting is wooden, and the models seemingly incapable of physically emoting beyond a flinch or wave of the hand.

Often, the characters in these staged scenes don't even make eye contact.

When a dramatic interlude is rendered in the midst of the action, Guild Wars 2 fares little better. One particularly poor example sees an offshore fortress being overrun by an endless tide of Risen enemies. At all times, the doors to the fortress remain wide open. The number of troops manning this supposedly important outpost seems to be not more than a dozen at full strength. The commanding officer remains rooted to one spot throughout the battle, at first refusing to believe an attack is imminent, then insisting that a loss is unthinkable, finally dying from a blow I never actually saw. At the end of the battle, with escape looking less and less likely, an ally takes an absurd amount of time to make his farewell speech before sacrificing himself. The sacrifice consists of finally closing the doors to the fortress - him on one side, my character on the other. To all intents and purposes, there's no reason he couldn't have remained on the less dangerous side.

A similar death report, later in the game, is delivered while the screen is filled with nothing but featureless sea.

A rare instance of genuinely witty dialogue in the personal story.

The story is not entirely without charm, and the over-arcing plot is suitably epic. But GW2's developers have, to some extent, ended up with the worst of both worlds when it comes to combining an event-driven story with a player-driven story. The merit of an event-driven story is that it can be tightly plotted, but that is not in evidence here. The merit of a player-driven story is that the player is immersed in the role of their character, but that opportunity is squandered by the character appearing in cut scenes and delivering dialogue (as well as making decisions) that fails to take into account any of the player's own ideas about who their character is. In fact, once you reach a certain point in the story, whatever you experiences leading up til then, all player characters will behave identically: a serious issue for a game that is supposedly about role-playing.

As a final remark, perhaps the single most disappointing part of the personal story is that at around the half way mark, the player's role as chief protagonist is subsumed by another character: a Sylvari scholar who is fated (Harry Potter style) to defeat the arch-enemy. This would be agreeable if this character were a well-drawn, complex personality who begged some degree of emotional investment. Unfortunately, he's a foppish charisma vacuum with a put-on upper class English accent and a cod-Shakespearean diction, who quickly pronounces himself a Marshall after seeing a vision of his future successes. As a result, the story quickly runs out of steam.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Gaming Innovations of the Future! #1: Infinitely Variable Aural Experience

In this series, I'll be suggesting innovations in gaming that, while purely theoretical at this stage, could significantly enhance the medium.

#1: Infinitely Variable Aural Experience

At the moment, games contain hundreds, if not thousands, of pre-recorded sound files - from orchestral pieces, to voice work, to the thump of a footstep - that play when certain conditions within the game are met. Music provides ambience and shapes the mood, voice acting draws the player into the story and sound effects add credibility and physicality to polygons bumping against polygons.

Eventually, however, the player will have heard every single one of these sound files multiple times, particularly in games that are designed to be played over months or years. It's simply too much work to record enough unique sonic backdrops and interludes to prevent frequent looping and repetition. What at first seemed natural or fitting, even revelatory, begins to wear thin, even grate. This is particularly the case with repeated lines of dialogue.

As to the dialogue, it's hard to conceive of a solution even in theory, but one thing that I can imagine being plausible in the future is a method of producing random variations on certain sound types and musical themes. Think of it as the sonic equivalent of a, say, a fractal pattern generator. Every clash of swords would have a subtly unique tenor. The warning shriek of violins would never be quite what you were expecting. Perhaps even moans of pain or defeat (or enjoyment?) could be individualised via this system.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Guild Wars Diary #2

OverviewGuild Wars 2 is my first experience playing a massive multi-player online roleplaying game (MMORPG). It's an involving and sometimes overwhelming experience, since the game is steeped in genre conventions that have been built up over two decades, but also revolutionises and revitalises some of these conventions. My aim here is to record my critical response and analysis in such a way that it can be easily followed by gamers and non-gamers alike!

Links to previous entries:
Guild Wars Diary #1: Induction, The World

3. Character Creation

In most computer gaming genres, it's someone else's job to create the character avatar. Although you might be the one who guides Lara Croft or Manny Calavera towards their eventual destinies, their histories (and their futures) are already written. Western role-playing games have ploughed an almost unique furrow through the past half century of gaming in persistently asking the player to conceive of their own avatar and mould him or her through a combination of possible characteristics, such as race, profession, class, sex, special skills, moral alignment and some elements of their past.

The trade-off is superficially simple: the player is likely to feel closer to, and more protective of, their avatar if he or she is responsible for creating them. In a way, they're like children. The avatar might also represent personal fantasies of the kind of person we might like to be, and enable us to live out these fantasies in a safe environment. On the other hand, with the game developers unable to predict or account for the thousands of iterations of character which a player might opt for, the ensuing story inevitably revolves less around the character and more around events at large.

Guild Wars 2 reliably follows the RPG route, offering you five races (of which human is one), eight professions and an array of physical characteristics with which to distinguish your character. There are also a few choices which determine your personality. For my first character, a Norn, I chose to be defined by 'charm' (as opposed to 'ferocity' or 'dignity' - the other options), wisdom (through the choice of Raven as my guiding spirit of the wild) and drunken antics (through the selection of a recent memorable incident in the character's life).

The first two of these, as far as I can discern so far, have little to no impact on the way the game plays. My character is generally a braggart and a brawler and not at all who I envisaged when I was putting her together in my mind. My 'charm' simply gives me very occasional dialogue options when speaking to non-player characters (NPCs). The last choice, the recent incident, does affect which path you take in the story - it turns out that in my drunken stupor, I absconded with an expensive war machine and lost it, which results in me being seconded to a Charr warband in an effort to retrieve the lost vehicle. After this arc of the story, however, nothing more is said of it.

Norn ranger Soudoutsubame

For a profession, I chose ranger, a choice which gives me the option of an animal companion, which held some appeal for me. The profession choice, however, only affects combat; it changes the story not one iota.

As for the options for physical appearance, these appear to be expansive but are actually oddly limiting. I chose a female avatar because male Norns can only be hulking goliaths. Skinniness is not an option (unless you opt for the Sylvari race instead, who are half-plant). The women, on the other hand, are not permitted any girth whatsoever, and although I picked the smallest possible chest-to-hip ratio, my Norn still has ample bosom and a lithe figure.

Across the five races, there doesn't seem to be any option at all for overweight characters, or even middle-age spread, and precious few chances to inscribe age and experience into their faces (I found one face with battle scars and opted for that). And although noses can be lengthened, chins squared and eyes angled, the most extreme settings only result in a look like cosmetic surgery gone wrong, rather than faces full of character, or anything that conveys everyday oddballness.

Things are even worse when creating humans, as these pictures demonstrate:

The widest frame available when creating a female human character.

The only face available with any 'lines' or signs of ageing.
My best attempts to stray from bland prettiness, resulting in a sort of Asian look.

A similarly problem exists with regard to the height slider. Shorter characters are not, as you might expect, stockier, and taller characters never come across as willowy. Instead, the game permits a world of perfect miniaturisation and proportionate scaling that is quite disconcerting when you get close to other players:

Here, a human stands next to a Norn (not the sword is behind the human). Fair enough; the Norns are supposed to be giants. However ...

... here my Norn character stands in front of another Norn.

There are a number of options for tattoo patterns on the Norn, in a choice of colours, as well as a wide range of colours to choose from in customising clothing. In the end, I did manage to create a black Viking with a Japanese name, so there is, at least, the possibility of doing something unusual.

I've also spent time creating human and Sylvari characters (the other two races, Charr and Asura, being more animalistic) and the upshot is this: character creation in Guild Wars 2 denies the player the ability to create characters who are physically representative of the vast majority of human beings. What it does attempt to do is to suggest other features - primarily colour and personality choices - as the principle way of expressing individuality. This is both a strength and weakness of a genre whose appeal lies at least partly in finding ways for human beings to explore aspects of their personality that modern life doesn't permit.

Sylvari thief Weatherteller. You can choose what colour he glows in the dark as well as kitting him out to be a walking  rhubarb stalk with autumnal beech leaves for hair. 
This potential for self-expression is particularly evident in the profession system, the part of character creation that has the single most noticeable impact on the way the game plays. Arguably, this is where Guild Wars 2 is most steadfastly conventional, for although its professions have unusual names and features, many of the archetypes are instantly recognisable: the weak but highly dexterous thief, who attacks from the shadows, giving life to our predilection to exercise subterfuge and predatory cunning; the Prospero-like elementalist, whose intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the four elements speaks to our need to be endlessly adaptable and balanced; the simple warrior, whose brute force is for those players who tire of thinking their way through problems, and so on.

And rangers? They just like having wild animal companions. Here is Shodoutsubame again with Nook the juvenile raven.

It's a shame, however, that this mode of exploring the self has to be enacted through a gaming system that adheres too readily to Western standards of beauty. The humanoid characters may not always be sexy, but they never stray too far from the symmetrical sportsman/sportswoman physique which we hold to be more desirable. The clothing is, thankfully, somewhat practical on the more heavily armoured classes, if not on the lightly armoured magic users. As a 12-rated game, it's unsurprising that Guild Wars 2 treads the somewhat hypocritical ground of avoiding frank treatment of sex and nudity entirely whilst still allowing for titillation (not to mention excessive violence, which I'll come onto).

Human mesmer, as ready for battle as she ever will be.

It's only through the non-humanoid races that Guild Wars 2 strikes a blow for acceptance of the wider field of physical individuality, and I wouldn't be surprised if many players identified more readily with characters from these races than the mannequin-like humans, the women descended from Barbie, the men from Marks & Spencer catalogue models. The most played race, as I write, however, is human, which perhaps suggests that many people are more interested in the fantasy of being 'normal'.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Guide to Gaming Terminology: Boss

A creature within a game, usually found at the conclusion of an act, which, despite its imposing size and appearance of intelligence, is doomed to repeat the same irrational sequence of violent movements until it has been itself beaten, cut and shot enough that a corresponding gauge has been emptied, whereupon it either dies or withdraws.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Review: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #9 and Annual, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Annual

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye Annual (Primus Part 1)
James Roberts (writer)
Jimbo Salgado & Emil Cabaltierra (artist), w. Guido Guidi (flashback art) and Juan Fernandez/Joana Lafuente (colours)

Transformers: Robots in Disguise Annual (Primus Part 2)
John Barber (writer)
Brendan Cahill (artist) w. Guido Guidi (flashback art) and Joana Lafuente (colours)

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye #9 (Shadowplay Part 1)
James Roberts (writer)
Alex Milne (artist) w. Josh Burcham (colours)

I'm reviewing three separate - but interconnected - comics this week. Transformers: Robots in Disguise (issue 9 of which I reviewed two weeks ago) and Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye are both ongoing series in IDW's own Transformers continuity, which began in 2005. The former is written by John Barber, the latter by British writer James Roberts, and both kicked off at the beginning of this year, each following the adventures of a different cast of characters but proceeding the same starting point.

This month, IDW release an annual for both RiD and MTMtE. These are not annuals in the British sense of the word - that is, hardback compilations featuring a mixture of puzzle pages and original or reprinted stories - but bumper length chapters in their respective narratives. Despite not forming part of the series numbering, they both contain critical progressions in the plot.

Why proceed down this potentially confusing route? Well, the goal of the annuals seems to be to link the two series more closely together via an ambitious third narrative that cuts across both of the main ones, as signified by Jimbo Salgado's interconnecting covers. The MTMtE annual is part 1, the RiD annual part 2. The story that connects them is superficially the rediscovery and subsequent cross-universe portalling of a titanic robot (a Metrotitan), but this is really a device to allow Roberts and Barber to delve into the ancient history of the Cybertronian race in a way that is relevant to their casts' current situation.

I've rolled More Than Meets the Eye #9 into this review because Roberts effectively performs a similar trick single-handedly in the next chapter of his own book, interweaving more recent history (the period just prior to the outbreak of the Autobot/Decepticon war) with the present, and finding grim parallels. Roberts also self-consciously plays with unreliable narrators, switching between different story-tellers who occasionally bicker about the details and even having one character intervene with a cry of: "Unreliable narrator alert! Do not, I repeat, do not listen to what he says!" The subtitle of the issue is also rather mischievous: A Totally Epic Story Based on Real Events That Definitely Happened.

It's worth stepping back to appreciate just how intrepid it is of these writers and their publisher to attempt ambitious narrative gymnastics - as well as a self-reflexive tone - with a franchise that is still predominantly aimed at children, which makes millions in the movie theatres treating its entire audience like children and which many people will never take seriously as an intelligent fiction. The gap in sophistication between Michael Bay's Transformers and IDW's is yawning.

Consider, for instance, how confidently Roberts makes use of the major defining aspect of his cast - the fact that they are sentient, transforming robots - in his development of both individual characters and lore. Whereas Marvel's 1980s-90s interpretation generally made do with referencing machine parts in place of their rough human equivalent (servos for hands, optics for eyes), Roberts gives us Rewind, a character whose primary function is to record and archive everything he sees that is of potential significance, supplementing it with digital information from other sources whenever he can. He doesn't need a separate computer or video camera to do this; his body is built for it. In issue 9, it's Rewind who is able to piece together pieces of other people's personal journeys, verify them against carefully collated fragments of historical footage and discover that at one particular point before they all knew each other, their lives came briefly into each other's orbit - what he calls 'sociotemporal hotspots'.

Chromedome, a mnemosurgeon, is able to directly access and partially experience other characters' memories. His surgical equipment literally sprouts from his fingertips, plugging him directly into their cerebral centres. He makes this wittily metatextual remark as part of the justification for raking over history:

"Stories rely on the listener making a subconscious effort to bridge gaps in the narrative - and that exercises certain higher-level brain functions."

As far as the transforming goes, Roberts depicts the pre-war Cybertronian society as a rigid class system based on a person's alt-mode. If you turn into a drill, you are a miner - effectively working class. If you turn into a microscope, you're one of the intellectual elite and thus afforded a degree of freedom. Resistance movements not only take the form of Decepticons - initially working class activists who later turn to violence - but other groups such as the Militant Monoform Movement, who remove their own transformation cogs.

Cybertronians even have their own mythological figures to account for their ability to change form (as well as ones that pertain to their brain and their 'spark', their life force). A key feature of the annuals is to explore this mythology through the use of a third artist, Guido Guidi, who draws semi-historical, semi-mythological flashback sequences in a style reminiscent of 80s comics, repleat with colouring that successfully recreates Silver Age Ben-Day dots. These sequences thread together both books and their deployment is a masterful utilisation of the graphic fiction medium - our own association of their appearance with the past immediately tells us that the story has shifted back several ages. (Conversely, but in a similar vein, Alex Milne uses deft visual parallelism across the final two pages of MTMtE #7 to add a layer of nuance to the cliffhanger).

There are some nods to the wider franchise throughout these issues too. In the RiD annual, one particular panel in Guidi's segment is a clear homage to the very first panel of Marvel's 1984 Transformers #1, when it was first mooted as a four part limited series to promote toys. Another instance has characters of the distant past making their introductions by referring to themselves in the third person while describing their defining personality traits - pastiching the way the expansive cast were clumsily introduced in the original series and ingeniously binding together the in-fiction history with the beginnings of the franchise. And in MTMtE #9, another pastiche: this time of the illustrative style of the instruction leaflets that came boxed with the first generation of Transformers toys.

There is an awful lot to praise about both these series and particularly the way the annuals have been handled. The emphasis is not on gunfights and simplistic heroism; it's on well-drawn, often deeply flawed characters whose conflicts and concerns frequently mirror our own, even while they retain their alien strangeness. The writers aren't afraid to layer in social segregation, Machiavellian political manoeuvring, religion, drug addiction, grisly murder, body part black markets and Frankensteinian gothic body-jacking experimentation.

But there are also criticisms to be made: the MTMtE annual was drawn by an artist new to the continuity, and the result is rushed and often confusing. Characters appear out of place, anatomy is jarringly imprecise, occasional panels are obvious copies from ones in previous issues and some of the humour falls flat without the subtlety of expression that regular artist Alex Milne brings to the cast's faces. It's a big disappointment, especially since the annual is being sold for more than twice the price of a normal issue, is perfect bound and generally presented as a collectible. Cahill, Guidi and Milne, however, all deserve high praise for their efforts on these books, each managing to suffuse the characters (many of whom lack discernible mouths, noses or eyes) with an appreciable degree of human expression.

For all the work that the writing team has done in mending IDW's messy history of continuity glitches and plot holes, Roberts introduces more problems here, failing to make his depiction of events leading up the war marry up (at least on the face of it) with previous IDW series Autocracy and Megatron: Origin. To an extent, he has the get-out clause of his 'unreliable narrator' premise, and to a greater extent, it's a tale that should always have been left to Roberts in the first place, since as a writer, he's far better equipped than the writers of those series to handle complex political storytelling. Nevertheless, it's a case of two steps forward, two steps back.

RiD, meanwhile, as I mentioned in my previous review, suffers from a visual/textual inconsistency: while the art appears to depict a tiny group of misfits living in a shanty town, the story rests on the premise that most of the Cybertronian race, including two large armies, are populating the settlement. Barber has a theoretically intriguing cast with the reformed Decepticon Starscream, the pacifist deserter Metalhawk and the pragmatic but increasingly fascistic Prowl, as well as their insecure and extremely provisional leader, Bumblebee, but he is slow to move these characters in any particular direction, instead letting them merely snipe at each other while they deal with various crises. A valedictory moment for Starscream in the annual is just one more mysterious ingredient added to an already bubbling pot, rather than the culmination of an existing plot thread.

There are also more momentary weaknesses: one particular point in the RiD annual has about ten or twenty people somehow sneak up behind Prowl and Starscream. Metalhawk's epiphany on the final page feels inevitably short-lived and thus tacked on to provide some closure.

It's a shame these flaws exist but at the same time not entirely surprising, given the wide-ranging and commendable ambition of Barber and Roberts in creating a multi-faceted and coherent fictional universe through the collaborative interweaving of several thematically complex narratives.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Guild Wars 2 Diary #1

Overview: Guild Wars 2 is my first experience playing a massive multi-player online roleplaying game (MMORPG). It's an involving and sometimes overwhelming experience, since the game is steeped in genre conventions that have been built up over two decades, but also revolutionises and revitalises some of these conventions. My aim here is to record my critical response and analysis in such a way that it can be easily followed by gamers and non-gamers alike!

1. Induction

First things first: as a follower of gaming culture, why have I avoided the MMORPG genre until now? Two main reasons: firstly, I tend to buy games on the cheap years after their original release. Gaming would otherwise be too much of a strain on my modest income. By this stage in the life of a typical MMORPG like World of Warcraft, the online world is populated by players who know the whole game in and out, have developed very powerful avatars and are often the loudest voices in the community. It all seems rather Johnny-Come-Lately to enter into the experience at this stage.

Secondly, the standard model of payment for MMORPG is a monthly subscription. This is a model with dubious merits. It compels players to participate in order to get their money's worth, rather than strictly out of pleasure, and it brings up the ugly spectre of gaming addiction. How do you get people to keep paying for something, month after month? You keep giving them more to do. How do you make sure they don't run out of things to do? The standard solution is to implement a systems whereby the player accumulates in-game rewards and advantages at a torturously slow pace through simple, repetitive actions - the lowest level of emotional and intellectual investment in any game system, computer-based or otherwise. You make sure that these rewards are not only desirable, but necessary in order to access the drip feed of new content. As another side effect, the players who have spent most on the game over the years expect progressively more in return, and a sense of entitlement poisons the community.

I've always tended to prefer the idea of a computer game as a complete work, like a novel or film. You buy, play, put down, share and evaluate. But Guild Wars 2 promised two things which caught my eye: firstly, no monthly subscription; one-time purchase only. Secondly, a mixture of single-player story and multi-player events interwoven throughout the game, so that the satisfaction of a narrative arc is mixed together with the intrinsic emotional rewards of playing together cooperatively with other people. Since the game was only released last month, it seemed worth jumping in.

2. The World

The single most impactful aspect of Guild Wars 2 on start-up - that is, after the player has registered their account and created an avatar - is the gameworld itself. Guild Wars 2 takes place in a largely pre-industrial fantasy land called Tyria. For the most part, the explorable surface is somewhere between agricultural and wilderness. There are caves, plains, peaks, forests, rivers and coastlines, as well as farms, mills and vineyards. The major settlements are made of stone, wood and iron, and embedded into hillsides and slabs of mountain. They are vast as far as installations go, but miniscule compared to a city like London.

It's not unusual to spot an imposing silhouette in the misty distance.

Since Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone founded the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series in 1980 (and probably before then), the role-playing game has been somewhat at odds with more conventional ideas of what a game consists of. Rather than focusing on skill and strategy in a transparently functional arena (think of how purely practical the design of a chess board or football pitch is), RPGs emphasise an alternative reality experience, encouraging the player to immerse themselves in an imaginary world and frame their decisions in the context of their impact on that world.

MMORPGS hand the responsibility of imagining and maintaining that world over to the developer's creative team. In Guild Wars 2, you and your fellow players are plunged headlong into a sprawling landscape and armed with a map, the scale of which indicates you could travel for hours in any direction and not find the edge of the world. Since my character is of the Viking-like Norn race (who are giants compared to the game's humans), I began in the foothills at the base of a massive range of snowy mountain peaks, not far from the Great Lodge of Hoelbrak, my character's home settlement.

There are no strict limitations on what you can do next: seek out hot springs in the mountains for bathing, go hunting the local wildlife (some immediately recognisable, others imaginative variations on various creatures of fantasy and myth), feed fish to hungry bear cubs, join in the occasional battle against local rebels, and so on. As you tentatively explore the immediate region, the list of potential activities grows and grows. The game rewards you for nearly all of them, even for simple exploration, with 'experience' - a measure of your character's growth that eventually makes them more physically powerful and gives them access to an ever-expanding range of offensive and defensive abilities.

'Vista' points - particularly difficult to reach, high up places - not only award you with experience, but give you the option to have the camera pan over the landscape, taking in the sights from new angles.

The only thing stopping you exploring this whole virtual world on foot, peaceably and without partaking in any story-based adventuring shenanigans, is the wealth of hostile creatures. Venture too far at a low level of experience, and you will soon find beasts that are able to knock you cold with a few swipes, forcing you to teleport back to an already-explored area (although you never die as such). Guild Wars 2 therefore gently (but not subtly) encourages you to balance your wanderlust with the completion of personal quests, aiding the locals to each region with various tasks, banding together with other players, accepting skill challenges, material-gathering, smithery and small-scale arms trading - all activities that help increase your survivability when heading out on your own.

One might ask: why play a game at all for the scenery? What's the point? How does this improve at all on the chess board or the football pitch? My answer would be that playing Guild Wars 2 invokes awe, which is a particular pleasure not always found in games. It invokes awe on two levels: firstly, the quality of the graphics and design, even on the lower settings captured in my screenshots, is high enough to stir some of what our brains might feel when actually staring out into a real life landscape. In the icy mountains, one looks out from a priory carved out of the rock and feels something of the chill and desolation of actual tundra, while in the verdant foothills, there is a pervasive warmth and serenity. This, despite the fact that if you removed the surface textures and sound effects, the two regions are near identical - your character moves at the same pace through mud or snow, there is no shift in temperature, little change in population and no greater or lesser need for provisions. Throughout the game world, there are only three types of surface: water, traversable terrain and unclamberable steep terrain. There is no 'uphill' or 'downhill' that impacts on travel; you can either move across a piece of land or else you slide off it.

The second level of awe one feels is for the technical competence of the level architecture. It's the same kind of awe we feel towards any well-executed piece of art; we recognise the huge number of man hours, the attention to detail and the level of skill that has gone into manufacturing this vast world with its myriad pseudo-natural formations and individual installations. There is sometimes even a sense of history in the way the world has been constructed: the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Ascalon, replete with angry ghosts, speak to the sacking and conquering that took place in the first Guild Wars game. The central city of Lion's Arch (pictured above) was previously destroyed by a flood and has been rebuilt, mostly out of the repurposed wrecks of pirate ships, some of which lie stranded on high cliffs, where they would have come to rest when the flood waters receded.

So too are territories particularised depending on the dominant race. The lion-like Charr build towns mostly out of metal, with a particular fondness for dome structures and watchtowers. They also work on sawmills, farms and factories which pepper the countryside. The Norn, meanwhile, seem to rely on hunting for their food and live in over-sized log cabin structures, some of which lie forlorn and abandoned. In the north of Snowden Drifts, the lonely and dilapidated Owl Lodge is a reminder of one of the lesser spirits of Norn mythology: Owl, who died fighting the ice dragon Jormag.

When you come to a stretch of sparse, muddy land pockmarked with tree stumps, on the other hand, you know you're entering centaur territory. The centaur decimate their surrounding natural resources and build skin-and-bone encampments on top of huge mounds of earth which they festoon with sharpened branches to keep intruders out. In the far south lies a completed eradicated culture - the land of Orr - which has been overtaken by the Risen (Guild Wars 2's zombies). The air is thick with flies, the shores rainbowed by oilspills and in ruined structures you find the few remains of a once-prosperous civilisation: books, busts and tapestries.

Then there are the individual details, which seem to be endless. I was delighted to find what seems to be a printing press in the secret basement of a limestone fort: an indication that the room is used by one of the game's secret societies.

Printing sheet after sheet of militant propaganda no doubt.

It's easy to understand why some gamers become so involved in these online universes. Tagging along to get a new phone from one of the three Orange shops on Oxford Street the other day, I couldn't help but think of how preferable it would be to adventure endlessly in a world where form and function are divorced, where you move at the same pace, with the same level of comfort, across snowy mountains or through rich groves, instead of picking your way through a sea of partitioned property, requiring money and a passport to go any distance, serving chiefly as a walking wallet to half the human beings you interact with.

Speaking of interaction, Guild Wars 2 is designed to make working with other players relatively simple on various levels. After you start, you will quickly be invited to join a guild, which puts you in touch with dozens of other players, no matter where they are in the world. You can talk with them via a messenger system at all times, which proves to be fast and inefficient way of seeking help and guidance without needing to exit the game. Any player, whether they're in your guild or not, can be seen and addressed when you're physically near them. You can help them in their battles, heal them, even resurrect them, and then disappear from their lives, all in the space of a few minutes.

One of my early experiences involved spying a chest on top of a stack in Lion's Arch.  I put out the word that I'd spied this chest, and two other members of my guild came racing over to help me puzzle it out. Between us, we scoured the city for hidden entrances, eventually finding an underwater tunnel through a well that led to a cave system. Inside the cave system, there was a series of difficult jumps that had to be performed in order to emerge on the plateau from where the chest could be accessed. Since my Norn character is fairly large, I found the cave network headache-inducingly claustrophobic and kept fluffing my jumps. One of the other players stayed inside the cave to literally coach me through it, and eventually, with my thumb knackered from jamming the space bar, I made it out.

At another instance, I entered a town to find the local soldiers, merchants and villagers laid out unconscious and a giant rampaging. Foolishly, I decided to take on the giant myself, and was knocked down in one blow. My character lay there, in some sort of between-death state, unable to move. The game gave me the option of restarting from a point some way back, but I decided to go and make a sandwich instead.

When I came back to the computer, someone was reviving me, and a party of players had turned up at the village. Between us, over the course of about 20 minutes, we managed to take down the giant, taking turns playing cat and mouse with him while allies poured arrows into his back.

Me and a party of strangers joining forces against a common foe.

There are criticisms to be answered though: some critics refer to Guild Wars 2 as a 'themepark' game. The world is ultimately not only artificial, but unchanging, held in stasis so that visitors who arrive a year or more apart have identical experiences. The player moves through it, being entertained along the way, but all the alterations they make are illusory. Because there are no stakes, there is ultimately no game - just endless distractions. This is distinct from computer games which run particular instances of their worlds. You may always be able to restart or relive the experience, but these are arguably in parallel realities - in each distinct game, you are permitted to alter the world and ultimately succeed. In chess, the board is reset, but no individual game is kept in an eternal cycle.

To some extent, this criticism hits home, and it's more accurate to think of Guild Wars 2 as an online space in which games can take place, rather than a game in itself. It is, in one sense, a stadium, one on a grander scale than we can ever achieve in the realm of the physical.

The other serious criticism at this stage is that the field of view (the extent of the world you can see at any one time) is fixed, and is oddly restricted, particularly vertically. This is medically proven to cause issues for some players, including migraines and nausea, and most modern games feature a 'slider' to enable adjustment of FOV for the comfort of the user. Arena Net, the developers of Guild Wars 2, have published a press release saying they have no plans to introduce a slider or to make alterations to the existing field of view, and although they have provided justifications, these have been justly criticised as illogical. Even though I haven't experienced any headaches as yet, it is noticeable at first how 'unnatural' the camera set-up feels, and it's difficult to avoid the feeling that you are always seeing less of this brilliantly imagined world than you should. This also causes issues in combat, but I'll come to that later.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Guide to Gaming Terminology: Physics Game

Any game in which the simulated physics are wildly inconsistent or else a hideous parody of real world physics, usually both.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Review: Transformers: Robots in Disguise #9 / X-Factor #243

Transformers: Robots in Disguise #9
John Barber/Andrew Griffith

John Barber's Robots in Disguise is an odd, inconsistent series that seems to find most of its focus in trying to mend the error-strewn history of IDW's previous Transformers series. Its premise is compelling: following the end of the civil war between two warring factions of alien robots, the interim government is concerned with rebuilding society, maintaining order and preventing various war criminals and ex-soldiers from carrying on their nefarious ways. They are beset by internal disagreements, with the chief of security (a former high-ranking tactician in one faction's army) intent on applying a kind of martial law. While he secretly employs an assassin to take out key trouble-makers, his allies struggle for democratic legitimacy.

But the story often seems simultaneously rushed and slow-moving; individual episodes are wrapped up hurriedly within the space of an issue, leaving dangling plot threads that are then only intermittently referenced. The over-arcing plot is glacial, and for something that seems, on paper, to have all the ingredients of a political thriller, it really doesn't read like one. All the action takes place in a single settlement of indeterminate size – the only one on a battle-scarred planet – and the cast of recurring faces is so small that the book feels more like a sort of frontier tale.

This issue is the second of Barber's first multi-parter. The focus is split between Bumblebee, the leader of the interim government, and events in the wilderness of their home planet, where an expedition has gone badly wrong. Little really happens to move the plot along. Bumblebee is convincingly troubled by various events, while Ironhide (the leader of the expedition) spends most of the issue fleeing attackers. There are two major twists, both of which are going to be largely lost on newer readers. For long-term Transformers fans, one has been heavily signposted and isn't much of a surprise at all. The other, typically of Barber, is a clever attempt to mend an apparent incongruity in the continuity that existed prior to his arrival, where one particular trio of characters turned up alive and well long after their apparent demise on an alien planet.

The dialogue is competent, but characters who really need to have it out in spectacular fashion spend all their time sniping at one another instead. One particular exchange – between Bumblebee and soldier-turned-barman Blurr – is notably enjoyable because Blurr expresses his dissatisfaction eloquently and clearly, and then thinks through his position carefully. This simply doesn't happen often enough in a series where everyone seems to have their own complicated (and deeply flawed) set of principles.

Griffith is improving as an artist with every issue, particularly in his depiction of certain characters. He seems to have full command of the complex designs of Wheeljack and Blurr, while his grasp of Bumblebee is frequently strong (the infamous 'Bumbletoad' only appears in one panel). His facial expressions are also more nuanced than ever, communicating the desired range of emotions – at least face-on. In profile, there are still issues.

There remain two major niggles I have with the artwork. Firstly, the designs of the characters seems to lean towards an extreme stout-leggedness that only works when they're standing still. The action panels look odd because the way you would run/jump/recoil with normal legs is not the same way you presumably would with ones that taper out to inflexible concrete feet, broader than your waist and as long as your forearm. This is almost lampshaded by the final splash page which, due to the slightly dodgy perspective, is about one third lower leg to two thirds six other characters.

Secondly, Griffiths has a way of depicting shearing/sheared metal that looks more like torn paper. In one panel, Ironhide blocks a blow from a massive energy sword with his arm. The sword seems to have cut easily through most of the limb, shredding the edges, but become lodged half way. It doesn't really convince as metal meets metal.

I remain hopeful that this series will edge towards greatness, but at the moment, the various minor problems do add up. Barber hits his stride when fixing other writers' mistakes, but struggles to retrain full control of his own story.

X-Factor #243
Peter David/Leonard Kirk
Marvel Comics

This is the third in David's 'Breaking Points' multi-parter – a sequence of essentially different stories loosely connected by the demise of the titular X-Factor, a mutant detective agency. With each issue, another member leaves or is taken out of commission. This time it's the turn of Polaris, who only joined the team about a dozen issues ago and hasn't spent much time in the spotlight.

It's fitting, given my above review, that David uses this issue to sort out continuity problems surrounding the character. In a way, it's an origins story, with Polaris finding out her own origins at the same time as us, through the means of another character's abilities to get a 'psychic read' from an object (in this case, an old photograph). As with Robots in Disguise, therefore, the major events of this issue will resonate rather less well with readers who aren't long-term fans of the franchise, which is a shame, because X-Factor has always been somewhat apart from other X-titles and is the only one that could conceivably sustain a separate readership of its own. The casual Marvel reader has simply had to shrug his or her shoulders as David has repeatedly made use of various cameos and guest appearances, largely for comic effect. Usually, it's worth sitting through these for the character-based interaction that David does so well, but there aren't many laughs in this issue.

I'm also a little uneasy with how the Madrox/Layla relationship is being over-egged in recent arcs. In this issue, Layla lies naked in bed with roses and burning candles all around her, waiting for Madrox to come to her room. Do women really lay this kind of thing on for the men in their lives? And why, when she realises he isn't coming, does she go out into the hall clad in just her bedsheets? You'd think she'd at least slip a dressing gown on. It's worth remember that this is a character who, until recently (and due to the usual time-related shennanigans in superhero books) was depicted as a child, physically if not emotionally, and David's insistence on emphasising her sexuality seems like something of a dare to the reader to be open-minded. It just doesn't fit in.

Kirk's artwork is serviceable but nothing more. Like so many Marvel artists, he has one standard male face and one female, with characters distinguished solely by their hair and costumes. It's awfully convenient for him that the remaining women in X-Factor have red, brunette, blonde and green hair respectively.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Reviews: Gambit #2 / Steed and Mrs Peel #0

Gambit #2
James Asmus/Clay Mann
Marvel Comics

As a character, Gambit (real name: Remy LeBeau) appeals for the same reason his fellow X-Man Chamber retains a dedicated fanbase: an improbable collision of soft stereotypes mixed with a weird special ability that permits writers to be somewhat creative in its use. In Gambit’s case, he’s devilishly beautiful thief-boy meets gator-wrestling Cajun meets New Orleans riverboat gambler, and his mutant power is to turn any random object into an unstable explosive simply by touching it. In the past, we’ve seen him use tow cables as fuses, spit chewing gum cherry bombs, turn zombies’ heads into grenades, time-charge a cigar to explode in Wolverine’s face and much more besides. Like most thief characters, he’s most fun when he’s using cunning and connivery to outwit his enemies.

Alas, due to a long-running apathy towards the character on behalf of Marvel writers across the board, Gambit has rarely been written as anything other than soldier class. He hurls charged playing cards at enemies, knocking them over without ever doing real harm, and makes occasional quips in that wholly fictional French-Southern bled accent. He falls with the rest of the team when the enemy plays its ace, and gets his licks in when normality is restored. When he’s been brought to the fore, it’s usually to explore his torturous on-off relationship with Rogue, or else he’s given a mysterious new ability that is subsequently dropped before it can be properly explored (see his ‘Death’ persona and, before that, his powers of clairvoyance while temporarily blind).

This is his fifth solo series, following two mini-series and two ill-fated attempts at an ongoing (the first lasted 25 issues and became a victim of internal politics at Marvel, while the second never really got off the ground and was cancelled after a year). Writer James Asmus has vowed to take Gambit back to his root as a character, ignoring completely his convoluted back story involving voodoo, secret guilds and tithing rituals. For Asmus, the ‘root’ of Gambit is the thief persona, and so we have a series which seems - over the first two issues at least - to be firmly in the heist mould. Issue 2 has all the staples: a rival thief, a laser net, a pickpocketing so deft even the reader doesn’t see it happen. There’s some good interplay between Gambit and his new romantic interest, and the art by Clay Mann is consistently strong and fluid (even if his Gambit is a little square-jawed). Remy also benefits hugely from not being surrounded by mutant powerhouses all the time. He shines best when back-up isn’t on its way.

But thus far, both the character and the book overall feel they’re missing something. Stripping Gambit down to the role of mutant thief removes some of the screwball charm of the character, and his drive and motivation in this series are something of a mystery. As of the close of issue 1, he has an alien device embedded in his chest that he’s desperate to remove, but it feels like a naked plot contrivance in place of any real character-based reason to keep getting into scrapes with low tier baddies. I can’t help but find myself missing Fabian Nicieza’s 90s Gambit, with his conflicting allegiances and easy flamboyance. Perhaps that time is past, but there needs to be something else in its stead. At the moment, Asmus simply doesn’t threaten to make any lasting, interesting changes to the character. He doesn’t even seem to be in a hurry to get inside Remy’s head, so it’s difficult to see how this series will find any leverage outside the character’s existing fanbase.

Steed and Mrs Peel #0
Mark Waid/Steve Bryant
Boom! Studios

One approaches with trepidation beloved TV series resurrected as comic books, and this is why. Mark Waid’s script does a decent job of emulating the wit and eccentricity of the 60s Avengers, but the decision to condense a complete story into 22 pages means the plot is rushed and simplistic. Emma and Steed visit the Hellfire Club again after one of their agents turns up dead. Steed falls into a trap, but it doesn’t take. You get the idea. Both characters remain unflappable throughout, and Steed uses his bowler hat as a shield. Waid has nothing new to add to the formula, nothing that makes this straight-laced exhumation seem worth anyone’s while. What do the Avengers mean to us in this day and age, other than nostalgia? No answer is forthcoming.

The real affront, however, is the art. I’m not sure whether Bryant was phoning this in or is inexperienced or what, but he’s singularly unable to find a way of capturing the likenesses of a young Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg in simple lines. His efforts to do so mean that the characters’ faces distort and change from panel to panel. One version of Emma’s head looks suspiciously as if it’s been lightboxed, and this image is - I’m not joking - copy and pasted into five different panels throughout the comic, only once managing not to appear incongruous. The fight scenes, meanwhile, look utterly static, and are filled with weirdly drawn limbs. Bryant even uses most of one page to show Emma in her famous Hellfire Club outfit, only to miss out the spiked collar and accomplish something singularly unsexy. She actually looks as if she’s crushing the poor snake in her fists.

It’s sad, because I can see an Avengers book working; it just needs a lot more gumption and originality. Ideally, it wouldn’t be a slavish homage to the TV show but something that takes the mythos in unexpected new directions. Why not at least invest in a bold new visual style, rather than try and fail for realism?