Wednesday, 27 May 2015

2000AD Prog 1932

Prog 1932 Cover by Alex Ronald

Alex Ronald delivers a wonderful glimpse into the working conditions in the 2000AD Nerve Centre as both Tharg and Mek-Quake watch over the art and script droids with an intimidating stare. I love how the cover harks back to those classic 70's and 80's strips which focused on life “behind-the-scenes” with Tharg ruling over his droids with a thinly veiled threat of violence from Mek-Quake. It also looks like Tharg is holding a Rigellian Hotshot in his hand, ready to deliver a swift jolt of “inspiration” to any sagging creator droid. I also love the juxtaposition of styles with Ronald's more modern artwork contrasted the retro themes of the Tharg Nerve Centre stories.


JUDGE DREDD - BREAKING BUD (Part 4)
Script - John Wagner
Art - Richard Elson
Letters - Annie Parkhouse

This penultimate episode of “Breaking Bud” feels like a master-class in how to set up a finale, with the various plot threads converging into a brilliant final panel that has Dredd walking in on the two time travellers attempting to liberate the Pulser from Bud Biggard. While it seems incredibly likely that the two men from the future will escape with the device, leaving Bud to his fate – I’m still eager to see what Wagner has up his sleeve for the final installment.


Richard Elson’s artwork continues to wow, especially with the second page spread with Bud and his wife looking out over Mega City One from their new luxury apartment in Rita Hayworth Block. I love his bright and colourful style, which suits this more haphazard Mega City-One adventure storyline. While I mostly focus on his Dredd, Elson is amazing skilled at bringing the sprawling urban metropolis of Mega City-One to life, filled with intricate details that contrast against the more barren and deserted landscapes seen in his other strip, the post-apocalyptic Kingdom.



SLAINE - THE BRUTANIA CHRONICLES: PRIMORDIAL (Part 9)
Script - Pat Mills
Art - Simon Davis
Letters - Ellie de Ville

After several episodes, Sinead finally snaps out of his trance and helps Slaine fight back against the Trojan Soldiers – all of which magnificently depicted by Simon Davis. One major highlight for me was the fantastic full page piece with Slaine and Sinead jumping off of the cliff and into the river below. Free from narration and word balloons, it just let the images do the talking and Davis' panel placement creates a sense of movement akin to a camera seamlessly panning down to follow the couple as they leap from the cliff top.


The strip now seems to have a sense of renewed vigor, mirroring Sinead's own journey, and it seems as if the plot is beginning to take shape after numerous episodes of exposition. Maybe it's me, but I'm seeing comparisons to Star Wars in this storyline; for example, Gort, with his own complicated motivations seems to be positioned in a Darth Vader-esque role, whereas Slough Feg continues to look more and more like Emperor Palpatine. Even the frequent references to preparing the Primordial could be compared to the Death Star. I'm not sure if this is an intentional homage by Pat Mills, but it is interesting to note the similarities in the roles, especially if Gort has a crisis of conscience in the end.



FUTURE SHOCKS - THE BIG HEIST
Script - Dan Lester & David Baillie
Art - Daniel Dwyer
Letters - Annie Parkhouse

The main focus of this Future Shock from Dan Lester and David Baillie is on the art which is provided by Daniel Dwyer, winner of last year’s Thought Bubble Portfolio contest. However, there is a fun little story behind the pictures too, with a heist story that plays out like “Reservoir Dogs in Space”. Lester and Baillie managed to flesh out the trio of robbers quite well, showcasing their skill at characterisation and although the twist wasn’t the strongest, it was a satisfying end to the story.

I have to say that I really admire 2000AD’s commitment to developing new talent, especially with its annual Thought Bubble Portfolio competition. As Tharg mentions in his Nerve Centre column, 2013’s winner, Tom Foster is working alongside Leah Moore and John Reppion on a new series for Judge Dredd Megazine, demonstrating a concerted effort to launch new careers. I really enjoyed Dwyer’s work here, which actually reminded me of a cross between Steve Yeowell and Ben Willsher’s styles, giving the impression of simplicity in close-up shots but featuring more complex layouts in the wider establishing panels. Hopefully, Tharg will put him to work in future strips as he continues to develop a new generation of artists for future years.



THARG'S 3RILLERS: COMMERCIAL BREAK (Part 2)
Script - Eddie Robson
Art - Mike Collins
Colours - Gary Caldwell
Letters - Ellie de Ville

The middle episode in a Tharg’s 3riller storyline is traditionally the “exposition episode”, answering some of the questions set up in the first installment and setting things up for the climax. Eddie Robson eases off on the exposition here, offering a fairly succinct explanation of the set-up through the dying monologue of an alien as it passes on the gift of hard light “Brixels”. I quite like the interesting concept of hard light molecules that can be used to form objects – the use of “hard light” reminds me of Rimmer from Red Dwarf but visually, it looks like that odd Magic Sand stuff that changes form when it gets wet.


Mike Collins’ artwork is pretty solid throughout, ably assisted by the wonderful colours by Gary Caldwell which really brings the luminous Brixels to life on the page. I also really enjoyed Collins’ design for the squid-like alien creature, which looked like something you’d see in a 1970’s episode of Doctor Who. In some ways that story does feel slightly too fast-paced, pushed forward by the three episode format and unable to naturally develop character reactions and personalities, but as an exercise in using the three-part setup to tell a short story, Eddie Robson continues to excel and create some truly interesting tales.



STRONTIUM DOG - THE STIX FIX (Part 9)
Script - John Wagner
Art - Carlos Ezquerra
Letters - Simon Bowland

The final story in the Prog features another John Wagner penultimate episode, once again demonstrating the writer’s skill at setting up finales to his stories. The focus is mainly on the backstabbing antics of Wheatus Stix and the NKD army, with General Bing getting the upper hand on Johnny after his mistreatment earlier in the story. I quite liked how Wagner showcases Johnny’s cunning and on-the-spot planning here, focusing on the characters brains instead of his brawn.

Carlos Ezquerra remains as impeccable as ever – I quite liked the subtle distinction between the current events and the flashback with the pilot framed outside of the panels explaining what happened in Johnny’s absence. He also managed to give a brief glimpse at the level of bloodshed and carnage that occurred during the mutiny as Johnny walks past the corpses of the guards. I’ve said it before, but this really feels like a greatest hits of Strontium Dog, transporting long-term readers back to the classic heydays of 2000AD.



OVERALL THOUGHTS / NEXT WEEK:

With three penultimate episodes in this week’s Prog, there was a strong feeling of anticipation in the air as both of John Wagner’s strips ended with the promise of action-packed conclusions. After a slow and meandering opening, Slaine appeared to get a jolt in the arm with the story moving again at a fair pace towards its inevitable reveal of the Primordial. Strontium Dog stood out from the rest, however, accessible to both old and new readers and providing a strong sense of nostalgia to those familiar with the older stories. I will be sad when it ends next week, and eagerly awaiting its return!

Thrill of the Week: Strontium Dog


The physical edition of 2000AD Prog 1932 will be available in stores on Wednesday 27th May - Digital copies of this Prog will be available on the same day through the 2000AD app, which can now be downloaded onto iOS and Android devices.

Keep checking back each week for more reviews and features about 2000AD, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic! Remember to leave your comments below, or contact me on Twitter or through my Facebook page!

Monday, 25 May 2015

Review - Doctor Who: The Doll of Death


Doctor Who: The Doll of Death
The Companion Chronicles 3.03
Written by: Patrick Chapman
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Performed by: Katy Manning & Jane Goddard
Duration:
 60 mins approx
ISBN: 978-1-84435-352-1
Chronology Placement: Between The Daemons and Day of the Daleks

One of Big Finish's most popular Doctor Who audio ranges is The Companion Chronicles, which focuses primarily on the adventures of the first three Doctors, as these Doctors are no longer with us. Rather than full-cast audio dramas, these adventures take the form of a two-person performance, with one of the Doctor's companions narrating an "unseen" adventure and a second supporting character taking part at times to add some variation and prevent it from becoming a monologue. They also tend to be shorter than the Big Finish's full-cast audios, typically with two half hour episodes on one CD.

The framing sequence for this particular story has Jo Jones (nee Grant) returning to London with her husband, Clifford Jones, for a tour of the chat show circuits ahead of an environmental conference. Suffering from a case of “Montezuma’s revenge”, Jo finds herself alone in the hotel catching up with her blog about her adventures with the Third Doctor and UNIT, recalling a particular case revolving around some creepy dolls. I quite liked the idea of Jo writing a blog about her adventures with the Doctor, possibly tying in with “Rose” and the sequence where the obsessive Clive shows Rose examples of the Doctor throughout history.

It’s interesting to note that Jo’s characterisation here is very much in line with her subsequent appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode, “Death of the Doctor”, strengthening continuity between the audio and televised adventures. Katy Manning portrays current-day Jo as a more mature incarnation of the character, less naive and helpless than her younger self. It serves as a nice bridge between her appearances in “The Green Death” and “Death of the Doctor”. Aside from Manning’s own nuanced approach to the character of Jo Grant/Jones, Marc Platt’s script manages to conjure up imagery of the other supporting characters of the era, particularly with his descriptions of the Third Doctor’s mannerisms, such as his awkward neck rub. It’s a well-observed piece of writing that helps the listener visualise the scenes through a 1970’s television lens.

Katy Manning does her best with a mostly male supporting cast, but there are times where her various male voices blend together. However, Platt’s script manages to account for this by clearly labelling which character is speaking and accurately replicating the speech patterns of each character to the point where it is fairly easy to distinguish between them based more on the dialogue and less on the voices. The secondary voice, Jane Goddard, steps in to portray Mrs Killebrew and the creepy doll voiced, Hannah, managing to add a slightly eerie aura to the character.

The titular ‘Dolls of Death’ are effective Doctor Who monsters, even managing to work well on the audio platform thanks to the haunting high-pitched “mama” sprinkled through the story, which conjures up unsettling images of the frozen expressionless faces of dolls as they awkwardly lumber towards their victims. The show’s writers obviously agreed that dolls made for scary monsters as they were used in the Season Six episode, “Night Terrors”.

I really enjoyed the central conceit of the storyline: retro causation, a curious time-effect which saw time folded in amongst itself and events occurring out of sequence. The best way to describe it is as a blend of the two Red Dwarf episodes, “Future Echoes” and “Backwards”. I loved the way that Marc Platt’s script became something of a mystery, teasing curious events in the first instalment and revisiting them from a different perspective in the second half with an explanation. For the majority of the story, the focus is on the interesting pairing of Jo, Benton and the Brigadier with the Doctor largely absent until a bit of exposition is needed. I really liked this line-up of characters as it evoked memories of the UNIT years and Platt manages to remain true to each of the character’s voices to further add nostalgia to the story.

Overall, this was a great audio adventure that not only remained true to the classic era of the Third Doctor but also revealed what had happened to Jo Grant/Jones since her departure, working as a wonderful prequel to her appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventures. Ironically, the scenes without the Doctor were actually the strongest elements of the story, removing the security blanket and having Jo, Benton and the Brig hopelessly lost in a backwards-moving timeline. Katy Manning does a great job telling the story, handling the majority of the narration and characters. As one of my favourite classic companions, I am looking forward to listening to more audios featuring Jo Grant/Jones in the future!

The Doll of Death can be ordered on CD and Download from BigFinish.com or available externally from Amazon.co.uk

Score - 8.8 out of 10

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

2000AD Prog 1931

Prog 1931 Cover by Ben Willsher

Unlike Dredd, who is able to be interpreted by a myriad of different artists, Johnny Alpha is so intrinsically linked to Carlos Ezquerra's artwork that I find it hard to adjust to other artists' take on him. This cover from Ben Willsher does a fantastic job of visualising the Strontium Dog, imbuing the artwork with a touch of Carlos Ezquerra's style, but still offering his own take on the mutant bounty hunter. As always, the editorial droids offer up a lovely couple of puns with “Shoot to Gill” and “Revenge is a fish best served cold” taking advantage of the piranha-headed villains that Alpha finds himself up against.


JUDGE DREDD - BREAKING BUD (Part 3)
Script - John Wagner
Art - Richard Elson
Letters - Annie Parkhouse

This third episode of “Breaking Bud” further presents our hapless antagonist in a negative light by revealing that he did in fact murder his bosses and he pretends to be a poltergeist to intimidate the housing official who consigned his family to Duncan Smith Block to move them into a more up-scale apartment block. Whatever sympathy that Bud Biggard had earned in the first episode of this storyline is long gone as he pre-meditatively murders and blackmails his way to getting what he wants. Unsurprisingly, Dredd is pretty quick behind him and manages to pinpoint him as the thief of the bracelet fairly easily, mostly due to the lack of care that Biggard has made in covering up his tracks. It's clear that whatever “happy ending” he is hoping for, he isn't going to get it – so, the only question left now is how far does he fall?


An editorial box in the opening episode of this story revealed that it is a sequel to the “Dead Zone” storyline featured in Judge Dredd Megazine, but in-story exposition managed to summarise the abilities of the bracelet for those readers (like myself) who only read 2000AD. However, with the introduction of time-travellers searching for the missing “pulser”, it seems that more knowledge of the “Dead Zone” storyline might enrich this particular story. Wagner manages to give readers a brief overview of this new element to the story – it seems these time travellers are attempting to clean up any traces of their foray into the past and are hunting down one of their own who attempted to stay behind, as well as the “pulser” in Bud's possession. Having not read “Dead Zone”, I did feel slightly out of the loop, especially with the introduction of the time-travellers, but not in a frustrating manner. If anything, I want to dig out the back issues and find out more about the bracelet and the time-travellers.



SLAINE - THE BRUTANIA CHRONICLES: PRIMORDIAL (Part 8)
Script - Pat Mills
Art - Simon Davis
Letters - Ellie de Ville

The return of Slaine's friend, Gort, in this episode validates the seemingly out of place flashback from Prog 1929, allowing readers to remember the character who started Slaine on this journey before revealing him to be a villain. As a fairly undeveloped character, it isn't the most momentous of reveals, but it adds another level of deception to those whole adventure which had been orchestrated from the very beginning by Gododin to get revenge upon Slaine. The story seems to be picking up a bit after a slow and long-winded introduction but I must admit that I'm getting slightly fed up with Sinead and her drug-addled ramblings. I hope Slaine's plan of feigning danger will cause her to snap out of her trance and return her back to the strong-willed female seen in the last chapter.


There's some great lines from Slaine in this installment, including the return of his “I wouldn't think that too many” quote. Simon Davis infuses his artwork with a great sense of action as Slaine covers the greenery of the forest with rivers of blood from the Trojan army. As with every one of the preceding episodes, Davis' artwork is sublime and really captures the savagery and machismo of the series, easily honouring the long legacy of amazing artists to work on the character. Considering this chapter in the Brutania Chronicles is named, “Primordial”, we've actually seen very little of the titular beast, which leads me to believe that the cliff-hanger to this adventure will be its reveal. Perhaps it is something growing within Sinead, and she will undergo a gruesome transformation in the remaining episodes?



GREY AREA - TALK DOWN
Script - Dan Abnett
Art - Mark Harrison
Letters - Annie Parkhouse

With this episode, Grey Area takes a “mid-season break” and while I'm still really enjoying this series, I can see how it might divide audiences, especially considering that not much has happened since it returned aside from a lot of hand-wringing about a potential Armageddon. On its own, this was another enjoyable episode that once again made full use of the series' characters and witty one-liners to set-up a fun vignette revolving around Manners' attempted suicide. But in terms of ending this current run of stories, there was a distinct lack of closure to this particular group of stories. The status-quo remains the same as it was several episodes ago; the ETC team are trying to convince the Harmonious Free that the God-Star is real, but to no avail. Maybe when the series returns, it will begin moving into the next phase of the storyline.

Mark Harrison's artwork continues to pair well with the series, especially the panels that showcase the odd population of the alternate Grey Area. I really liked the homage to the late Leonard Nimoy with a Spock-esque character shown in the background of the first page. Presumably this episode was drawn shortly after his death and Harrison slotted the character in as a tribute. This, along with the phallic creatures spotted in last episode, suggests that there is likely many more hidden easter eggs buried within Harrison's panels. I think I can spot an ET finger at the bottom of page one of this week's episode, but that's about it. Feel free to let me know if you spot any more secrets in this, or previous episodes. I'm looking forward to the series' return later in the year, and hope that Harrison continues to serve as art droid for this alternate universe episodes.



THARG'S 3RILLERS: COMMERCIAL BREAK (Part 1)
Script - Eddie Robson
Art - Mike Collins
Colours - Gary Caldwell
Letters - Ellie de Ville

This Prog sees the beginning of another Tharg's 3riller from Eddie Robson, who has been taking advantage of the elongated Future Shock format to deliver some very interesting three-part stories. This story shares a commonality with his previous story, “Station to Station” in that it focuses on the mundane, everyday life before introducing a status-quo shattering science-fiction element. It's an approach that he excels at, managing to subvert our own reality with the introduction of something out of this world.

In this instance, the subject is commercial breaks and the concept of something reaching out of the TV and invading our homes. In some ways, this approach is reminiscent of the Japanese horror series, “Ring” and that iconic TV sequence from “Poltergeist”, although Mike Collins' wonderfully brightly coloured artwork eschews a horror vibe and instead focuses squarely on the science-fiction aspect of the tale. There's a wonderful juxtaposition between the innocence of a children's toy advert and the sinister agenda behind the ad, which appears to be both affecting the minds of its viewers and somehow getting a grasp onto our world. It's still early days yet and Robson's scripts tend to pack a lot of plot into the three installments, so I fully expect an intriguing and no doubt unexpected explanation behind these goings-on.



STRONTIUM DOG - THE STIX FIX (Part 8)
Script - John Wagner
Art - Carlos Ezquerra
Letters - Simon Bowland

The plot thickens in this week's installment of Strontium Dog, and while it was somewhat obvious that Jim Jong Jing had arranged for his uncle to be kidnapped, this episode explains a bit more of the background. It turns out the kidnapping was supposed to be a simple assassination, but the treacherous Stixes decided to ransom Jong Jing to make sure his uncle was killed. This was a nice touch by Wagner – a reverse hostage situation, with Jong Jing sending General Bing to deliver the ransom and presumably kill off Alpha once the job was done.


I liked this subversion of the traditional Strontium Dog story by having Johnny Alpha working with the Stixes rather than engaging them in combat, although I don't suspect that this partnership will last much longer, especially considering that they wiped out a ship full of civilians to get to Jing Jong. As we near the conclusion, there is a sense of inevitability about proceedings as it is clear that all of the wrong-doers will get their just desserts before the story ends, but I'm more intrigued by how Wagner plans to leave Johnny Alpha at the tale's end – will we see a Johnny Alpha at peace with his resurrection and ready to slip back into his bounty hunter boots, or is there still healing to be done? Hopefully, both Wagner and Ezquerra are already hard at work at the next Strontium Dog adventure as this story has definitely rekindled my love for the character!



OVERALL THOUGHTS / NEXT WEEK:

Somewhat surprisingly, Grey Area comes to an end this Prog with a “mid-season break”, leaving space in the line-up for a couple of Future Shocks before the next jumping-on point of Prog 1934. Out of the current line-up, Strontium Dog delivered a strong installment with a healthy dose of action and plot advancement, wrapped up in some superb Carlos Ezquerra artwork – what more could you ask for in the “Thrill of the Week”? As things wind down, we have a nice mix of new thrills and concluding ones, giving the Prog a varied pace which I do enjoy. 

As he often does, Tharg teases another upcoming thrill – this time, Judge Dredd: Serial Serial, which reunites John Wagner and Colin MacNeil together to tell the untold story of what happened to PJ Maybe. Interestingly the preview artwork is in black and white, although this might just be unfinished work and the actual storyline is in colour, although I must admit I can't remember the last time Judge Dredd had a black and white story in 2000AD – I guess it was back when the Prog was mostly black and white itself. It would be a refreshing change if this story was completely black and white as it certainly adds a whole new dimension to MacNeil's artwork.

Thrill of the Week: Strontium Dog


The physical edition of 2000AD Prog 1931 will be available in stores on Wednesday 20th May - Digital copies of this Prog will be available on the same day through the 2000AD app, which can now be downloaded onto iOS and Android devices.

Keep checking back each week for more reviews and features about 2000AD, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic! Remember to leave your comments below, or contact me on Twitter or through my Facebook page!

Review - Doctor Who: The 11th Doctor # 12

Doctor Who: The 11th Doctor # 12
"Conversion" Part 1 (of 2)
Written by: Rob Williams
Art by: Warren Pleece
Colours by: Hi-Fi

Returning to scripting duties for the penultimate episode of ‘Year One’, Rob Williams focuses on the search for the entity creature which is afraid and on the run, using limited time travel ability picked up from its time in the TARDIS to hide from both the Doctor and the Talent Scout. Also returning is Warren Pleece, who drew the two-parter storyline across Issues 7 and 8. Ahead of the issue's release, Titan Comics teased a surprise reveal on the final page, and they certainly made good on their promise with the appearance of an old enemy.

Much like Steven Moffat’s epic season finales, this story spans a diverse range of geographical and chronological locations, starting with the Berlin Wall in the mid-1970s towards Ancient Rome. I really enjoy this “big budget” approach to travelling through time and space, rather than remaining fixed on one specific time and place throughout a story. It works well in the televised stories and given the limitless possibilities of the comic book page, I'm happy to see it being utilised here too. Considering that this whole series of comics is set shortly after the events of Season 5, the historical setting of Ancient Rome naturally draws parallels with “The Pandorica Opens”, something the creators are keenly aware of, given that the cover for the next issue features the Doctor dressed in Roman clothing with the speech bubble, “Eat your heart out, Rory Williams”.


Both Rob Williams and Al Ewing have been restrained when it comes to featuring the more infamous members of the Doctor’s rogue’s gallery, aside from an appearance of classic Doctor Who villain, The Nimon. This strategy makes the surprise reveal of the Cybermen all the more effective – and I'm glad that the duo were tight-lipped about their inclusion. It reminds me of the shock reveal of the Cyberman, and then the Daleks, in “Army of Ghosts” and makes for a wonderful cliff-hanger, especially when you consider that the Entity is possessing the entire Cyberman army making them even more dangerous. I have to also say that Warren Pleece’s artwork on that final page is simply amazing, perfectly capturing the likeness of the metal monsters, enhancing the gut-punch reveal. I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing more of Pleece’s take on the Cybermen throughout the next issue.

Talking of Warren Pleece's artwork, he does a fantastic job throughout the entire issue, especially during the sequence where the Doctor and Jones ride a motorcycle along the top of the Berlin Wall. I could totally see that appearing in the show itself as an opening set-piece to an episode, which just proves how in tune with the TV show that Rob Williams' script is. With three episodes remaining of this current “season”, it feels as if all the pieces are falling into place regarding ServeYouINC, the Talent Scout and the Entity and I'm excited to seeing it all come together. Both Rob Williams and Al Ewing have done some fantastic work over the course of this series, capturing the essence of the TV show and the knack of the season-long plot arc. This series has consistently been at the top of my “must-read” list each and every month, and I'm eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this year-long arc.

Score - 9.5 out of 10

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor # 12 is now available in all good comic shops, including Forbidden Planet, as well as on the Comixology website. Be sure to put in a standing order for the upcoming issues in the series when you pick up your copy!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Review - Agents of SHIELD: 2x22 - "SOS" (Part Two)


Agents of SHIELD
Episode 2x22 - "SOS" (Part Two)

Synopsis

With Jiaying's gang of rogue Inhumans planning to wipe out SHIELD in one fell swoop, it's up to Coulson and his remaining Agents of SHIELD to overthrow the war-thirsty leader and save the day. However, could this confrontation end up pitting mother against daughter in a fight to the death?

Review

The second half of the Agents of SHIELD Season Two finale, “SOS”, certainly followed through on the promise set-up by its preceding installment. As with last season's finale, it felt as if the network's budget couldn't quite much the writer's ambitions. It's a shame, though, as both Agent Carter and Daredevil managed to create a cinematic atmosphere on a shoe-string budget. I guess it's because Agents of SHIELD is so closely linked to the big-screen adventures of the Avengers that it inevitably draws comparison to the blockbuster fight sequences of those movies. Despite the limited number of both Inhuman and SHIELD agents present, the episode managed to maintain a sense of tension and raised stakes. It was less a “war” and more a “light skirmish”. However, this smaller scale allowed for the character moments between Skye and her mother to shine through, even giving Cal a chance to protect his daughter from the pain of murdering her mother.

Death seemed to be prevalent throughout this episode with Raina, Gordon, Jiaying and Kara all meeting their ends. While it was expected that most of these characters would be swept off the table to make room for the next season, it is a testament to the show's writers that each death felt like a substantial loss. In fact, it was this heavy death toll that made me fearful that Fitz had died during the scene with Gordon. The conversation between him and Simmons hinting a possible relationship seemed like the kind of cruel trick that writer's would use before killing one of them off, and while they did separate the pair in the end, I'd wager it's not a permanent thing.

Mack, who has largely been a grunting malcontent in Coulson's team, was given a chance to shine here with some wonderful one-liners such as referring to the red-headed duplicates as “ginger ninjas” or introducing himself to Gordon as “the man who killed Gordon”. I hope that this is a direction they continue to go in with the character – he has the look of an action-hero so they should give him 80's action movie quips! While I was ambivalent about his apparent resignation in “Scars”, I'm glad that he appears to be sticking around in a more prominent role in Season Three.

The scenes with Cal, Jiaying and Skye were really well done, bringing the battle between the Inhumans down to a familial level. While Jiaying's motivations were fleshed out a bit more, I still found her swing to the dark side to be a convenient way for the writers to move Skye out of the Inhumans camp and back into SHIELD. I'm glad that the show appears to be moving away from the Inhumans and possibly returning to more “villain of the week” episodes – possibly dealing with the aftermath of the Terrigen crystals in the water supply. Maybe this is a way for writers to have new super-powered threats appear on a random basis, rather than having scientific accidents like with Blizzard and Graviton.


The secondary storyline with Bobbi, Agent-33 and Ward was actually quite thrilling with the sniper-rifle death-trap reminding me of a scene from “Roadkill”, although it didn't quite end the same way here. While the scenes between Hunter and Mockingbird were intense, I found myself shocked by Agent-33's death and the way that May orchestrated events so Ward would be the one to kill her. I was beginning to worry that Ward's storyline was coming to an end, but with Kara's death, he has being given fresh motivation to plague SHIELD and will no doubt step out of his inbetween role to occupy a full villainous role during Season Three. While I'm glad Ward seems to be getting a more substantial role, I will miss his shifting loyalties and unpredictable nature. With revenge on his mind, I suspect he will be targeting Hunter, Bobbi, May and her recently reconciled ex-husband.

I was surprised by the amount of changes to the status-quo in this episode, aside from the deaths. Firstly, Coulson losing his arm – that was a complete shock to the viewers! Clark Gregg is obviously the star of the show, and to an extent is considered untouchable, so when Mack lopped off his arm, I was literally aghast. Clearly, the writers have a long-term plan for the character and given Deathlok's own cybernetic enhancements, it's not impossible for Coulson to have a mechanical hand. Hopefully it will serve story elements throughout Season Three, rather than the writers doing a Luke Skywalker and effectively putting a “black glove” over it and rarely referring to it again.

The other major talking point of the episode was the post-credits stinger which saw Simmons swallowed up by the amorphous alien rock rescued from the aircraft-carrier. While it was shocking, I'm positive that Simmons is not dead – although exactly what has happened to her, I've no idea. I'm guessing this monolith will form the focus of Season Three, although I am curious where the series intends to go with it. With the Inhumans and Hydra seemingly dealt with, could this monolith be setting up the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie?

Looking ahead to Season Three, it is obvious that Ward's attempts for revenge and Simmons disappearance will form the focus of the early episodes, but I found the conversation between Coulson and Skye to be particularly interesting. It seems he wishes to form a team of powered individuals who will be working off the books, not unlike the Secret Avengers or Secret Warriors in the comics universe. Could this be a way to tie into Captain America: Civil War by having Coulson hide his team of powered power from the legislation passed in that movie? Once again, Agents of SHIELD has had another spectacular season, easily surpassing its predecessor and I have no fears that next Season will continue that trend.


Score - 9.8 out of 10


Easter Eggs/References
  • “Science, bi-atch” - Fitz's comment to Gordon might be a reference to Jesse Pinkman's catchphrase from Breaking Bad.
  • They wiped Cal's mind using the TAHITI program used to remove Coulson's memories, even using the same “magical place” key word.
  • Coulson's plan to have an undercover team of super-powered individuals is reminiscent of the Secret Avengers and Secret Warriors comic books.

Mysteries
  • What exactly does the morphing alien rock do?
  • Is Simmons dead or trapped inside the monolith?

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Review - Agents of SHIELD: 2x21 - "SOS" (Part One)


Agents of SHIELD
Episode 2x21 - "SOS" (Part One)

Synopsis

Jiaying's actions has led to a war between SHIELD and the Inhumans, even turning Skye against her former friends. Aware that something seems off about the failed negotiations, Coulson turns to a captive Cal for answers, not realising that the quirky doctor has some secrets of his own. With the stakes higher than ever, can Coulson's team prevent Jiaying and her Inhuman army from destroying SHIELD?

Review

This year, the Agents of SHIELD’s season finale is a two-part affair, both of which aired on the same night in America. Rather than reviewing both episodes as a whole, I’ve decided to break them into two normal-sized episodes and review them individually, thus giving attention to the pacing and events of both halves. Despite the threat of war in last episode’s cliff-hanger, “SOS (Part 1)” is something of slow-burn, no doubt sowing the seeds for a more dramatic second half. However, that’s not to say that it is slow-paced as the plot takes a diversion from the Inhumans and focuses on the secondary threats of Agent-33, Ward and Cal, whilst building up the Inhumans’ plan to take over the aircraft carrier.

Jiaying’s betrayal during the crucial peace-talks with Gonzales was such a surprise that I didn’t even think that it was a cold-blooded decision – I figured she was reacting with fear and lashed out in paranoia without any thoughts for the consequences, but straight off the bat, she’s depicted as scheming and manipulative, having pre-arranged with Gordon to take over a SHIELD Quinjet to fire down upon Afterlife to further discredit SHIELD. She even manipulates Lincoln and Skye, almost blaming Skye for “allowing this to happen”. The show’s writers go even further to make sure that the viewers understand she is a bad guy by having her drain the life-force out of captive SHIELD agents in order to heal herself. Considering Whitehall didn’t need to do this, I’m assuming that this darker side to her “gift” comes as a result of her being stitched back together by Cal post-death?

I’m not sure how I feel about this sudden swing in Jiaying’s moral compass – it seems to be an easy way for the writer’s to have Skye quickly denounce her Inhuman heritage and return to SHIELD. It might have been more interesting to have both sides be equally as “right” and still at odds, rather than turning the Inhumans into another ‘evil organisation’. It’s interesting to note Raina’s cryptic prophecies that proclaim Skye as the savior of the Inhumans, possibly alluding to her taking up her mother’s position. Could she decide to remain with the Inhumans once her mother is dethroned as the leader?

The scenes with Raina showed the character in a much different light than we’d ever seen her before. Clearly foreseeing her own death at the hands of Jiaying, Raina decides to let events play out as she realises the inevitability of it all – she seems at peace with it all and embraces her role as “an angel” that illuminates the truth for Skye. While I’m sad to see the character go, it was somewhat expected as Ruth Negga had been signed up to star in AMC’s adaptation of Preacher and was likely to be written out somehow. In some ways she got a dignified ending, not quite redeeming herself but dying at peace with herself.


Fleshing out the rest of this opening half was the storyline with Agent-33, Ward and Mockingbird. It turns out that Bobbi was the one responsible for revealing Agent-33’s safe house, ultimately leading to her being captured and brainwashed. Ward, who seems to be on some “closure” kick ever since he murdered his own family, manipulates Agent-33 to do the same and the pair of them (but mostly Ward) torture Bobbi. I have to admit I cringe whenever someone gets tortured with their fingernails so I had trouble watching these scenes and was somewhat relieved once they changed tactic and decided to lay a booby trap (or rather a Bobbi-trap) for her rescuers instead. I’m surprised that they decided to revert back to the evil Ward persona so quickly – I guess he is meant to be in this unpredictable grey area, but I actually feel angry that he ruined the relatively hard work that he did in fixing his reputation with SHIELD. I’m intrigued to see where they’re going with this and whether the Ward/Agent-33 duo will continue to be an element in the third season, or whether May will make good on her promise to “put him down”.

The other ‘distraction’ of the episode came from Cal’s transformation in Mr. Hyde – something that I’d been clamouring for since the character was revealed to be Calvin Zabo back in “What They Become”. While it had been hinted before that he had super-strength, this episode which saw Cal overdosing on his formula and reacting to adrenaline actually showcased a physical transformation. In some ways it was a little bit underwhelming – he wasn’t a massive, hulking creature by any means – but I did enjoy the subtle prosthetics used to alter Kyle MacLachlan’s facial features and making him look more brutish and disfigured. I must admit that I almost thought he’d been recast by a similar looking actor, which proves just how effective the prosthetics were. MacLachlan’s Cal has been a firm favourite of mine since he appeared and his interactions with Coulson have been fantastic throughout the season. I truly hope that he isn’t written out before the season ends, but I strongly suspect that both of Skye’s parents will be taken out in the next episode, thus allowing Season Three to develop the character in new ways.

I also liked the scenes on the aircraft carrier, which seemed to place Mack in the role of Steven Seagal from Under Siege – alone on a ship full of “terrorists”. I hope they continue this homage to that classic 90’s film throughout the second half of this episode. Aside from Gordon and Lincoln, we’re introduced to another powered Inhuman with the unnamed red-head, who possesses the ability to create duplicates of herself. This gives a bit more variety to the Inhuman ‘army’ rather than just having super-strong muscle men walking about the ship, looking menacing.

The final sequence of this episode, which I chose to be the ‘break’ between the two parts, showed Jiaying looking at a suitcase full of her tainted Terrigen crystals. I wonder if she is going to go “full-crazy” and attempt to eradicate humanity and awaken ALL of the dormant Inhumans at once, much like the Inhumanity storyline seen in the comics. As the opening half of a two-part finale, “SOS (Part 1)” certainly raised the stakes and set the scene for an action-packed second half, but my biggest gripes come from the characterisation of Jiaying and the Inhumans as out-and-out villains, rather than justified ‘aliens’. If anything, this little fracas is likely to further legitimize SHIELD’s concerns over super-powered individuals and wanting to neutralize them before they get out of control.


Score - 9.6 out of 10


Easter Eggs/References
  • Cal's transformation into a super-strong but deformed version of himself mirrors his comic-book counterpart's transformation into Mr Hyde.
  • The red-headed Inhuman is able to create multiple duplicates of herself - a power also seen in the X-Men universe from Jamie Madrox, aka Multiple Man. Unfortunately, Marvel Studios do not have the rights to the X-Men, so perhaps this is a way to integrate his power-set into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • Having Mack as the solo SHIELD agent aboard a aircraft-carrier full of Inhuman "terrorists" resembles the plot of the film, Under Siege.

Mysteries
  • What purpose does the strange, morphing alien rock serve?
  • What does Jiaying plan to do with those tainted Terrigen crystals?

Our review for the second half of the finale, "SOS" (Part Two), can be found here.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

2000AD Prog 1930

Prog 1930 Cover by Simon Davis

One of the problems of having Simon Davis providing cover art for 2000AD is that I'm rapidly running out of superlatives to describe the sheer brilliance of his artwork. Again we have another excellent piece of Slaine artwork, which has a portrait quality that elevates it beyond mere comic-book art and into something that should be hanging up in a gallery somewhere. It is artwork like this that cements the wisdom behind the decision to pair Davis' painted style with the rough and ready stories of Slaine.


JUDGE DREDD - BREAKING BUD (Part 2)
Script - John Wagner
Art - Richard Elson
Letters - Annie Parkhouse

This episode of Judge Dredd continues to focus on disgruntled citizen Bud Biggard as he begins to get revenge on those who'd wronged him in the previous installment. Interestingly, Wagner moves away from presenting him as a citizen caught up by circumstance and powerless to resist fate and has him consciously deciding to wreak revenge and make amends for his own misfortunes. I have a feeling that we'll see his greed fuel his ambitions and his crimes will get more and more grandiose, eventually alerting the authorities, in a similar vein to the character of Walter White from Breaking Bad, who appears to have influenced the story.

Vigilante Justice - "Bat"-man style

I love the clean, crisp style of Richard Elson's artwork which looks like animated cels from a lost Judge Dredd cartoon. Admittedly, it is hard to shake off associations with his work on the post-apocalyptic animal drama, Kingdom, which suits his art style so well, but his work here is just as strong and visually impressive. As for the story itself, I am curious about the limitations of the bracelet and how Dredd and the Justice department will fare against such a dangerous threat. I'm guessing that the story will conclude with the destruction of this Fisher-Price looking bangle of doom...



SLAINE - THE BRUTANIA CHRONICLES: PRIMORDIAL (Part 7)
Script - Pat Mills
Art - Simon Davis
Letters - Ellie de Ville

After several installments focused on extended conversations between Slaine and Sinead, this episode was decidedly more action-centric as Slaine begun to pick off the Trojan soldiers that were hunting him down. Switching from dialogue to action naturally made this particular episode rather quick to read, and left Simon Davis with much of the storytelling duties. I really liked the way that Slaine was hunting his prey through the forest, which oddly enough evoked memories of Predator, but I'm not sure whether the three panel layout was an optimum usage of page space. Perhaps the same sense of careful hunting could have been conveyed in smaller panels across the six pages and given a more denser feel to the episode. However, Davis' artwork continues to impress and I loved this more 'subtle' take on Slaine as he attempted to use stealth to take out his numerous foes.



GREY AREA - LOCKED IN (Part 4)
Script - Dan Abnett
Art - Mark Harrison
Letters - Annie Parkhouse

Once again, the plot of Grey Area continues to move at a leisurely pace with the ETC team organising the various races in the Grey Area and formulating an escape plan. It's hard to criticise the slow moving plot though when Dan Abnett makes each installment so fun to read. The conversation with the Choodey Bandrall is humourous, especially the “dick-weasel” comment, that it is feels unreasonable to ask for it to be abridged so we can move on with the storyline. Everything seems to be coming together now as it feels like we're approaching the end of the second act of this storyline – I'm assuming that the last chapter of this particular run of stories will focus on the attempted escape from Grey Area.


I absolutely love the level of detail that Mark Harrison puts into the backgrounds of each panel, such as the small alien creatures observing Bulliet and Kymn's negotiations with the Choodey Bandrall, or the array of alien races wandering the Grey Area. It even looks like he slipped in a rather phallic looking alien into one of the panels in a Where's Wally? (or more accurately, Where's Willy?) style game. The continual sound-effects and dusty backgrounds really help portray this alien Grey Area as dank, disgusting and world away from the more sterile looking Grey Area seen on Earth. In some ways, it feels like a comparison between the American and Mexican prison systems, much like Season Three of Prison Break.



TERROR TALES - PHASE SHIFT
Script - C.B. Harvey
Art - David Hitchcock
Letters - Ellie de Ville

This Prog sees the debut of a new script droid, C.B. Harvey who scripts a one-off Terror Tale, with art from David Hitchcock, who worked on The Visible Man in Prog 2015. Hitchcock's pencils and greyscale palette really suit the script's premise, managing to conjure up associations with haunted houses and spirits, whilst Harvey's script flows well and manages to set up and deliver the twist really well. The ending did feel slightly rushed, but the strength of the twist manages to overcome that slight stumble. Overall, it was a great job for a first-time Future Shock, and as an aspiring writer myself, it's good to see Tharg introducing new writers through the Future Shock format, after introducing a number of new artists through the annual Thought Bubble Festival art competitions.



STRONTIUM DOG - THE STIX FIX (Part 7)
Script - John Wagner
Art - Carlos Ezquerra
Letters - Simon Bowland

This episode of Strontium Dog definitely felt inspired by the Star Wars trilogy, from the continuation of the Return of the Jedi-inspired sequence which saw Johnny Alpha negotiate with a Jabba The Hutt styled character, to the Mos Eisley Cantina-esque bar fight which saw Alpha throw down with a trio of fish-faced mutants and a slime-covered brute named Heap. John Wagner continues to inject a sense of light-hearted fun into the adventure, keeping the spirit of classic Strontium Dog stories present in this modern incarnation. While it's been fun spending time with Johnny Alpha on his own again, I would love to see him team up with Middenface McNulty again in future adventures, or perhaps a new partner to fill the void left by Wulf Sternhammer.


Equally as vital to crafting that feeling of old-school Strontium Dog adventures is series co-creator, Carlos Ezquerra, whose artwork is synonymous with the character and his world. I love the variety of alien races on display on the Rock, especially the Fishface's who threaten Johnny. I've said it countless times in previous reviews, but this has been a great return to form for Strontium Dog with both of its creators reaching back to the glory days. As with Grey Area, this is another example of a perfectly paced story that never seems to drag or be concerned with rushing to the finish line.



OVERALL THOUGHTS / NEXT WEEK:

It's another tight-battle between Grey Area and Strontium Dog for the accolade of “Thrill of the Week”, with Johnny Alpha just barely snatching victory away from the ETC team. Both strips are perfectly paced, advancing the story at their own pace and not sacrificing character moments for extensive exposition. Aside from the strong scripts, both series feature absolute excellent artistic talents working on them – in fact, that is true for all five strips in this Prog. 2000AD continues to be a rich and fertile breeding ground for talent – both script and art – as evidenced by the debut of another promising new script droid in C.B. Harvey.

In this week's Letter Page, Tharg teases the next jumping-on point of Prog 1934 and the debut of new thrill, Helium, by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli. He also mentions the return of recurring thrill, Absalom, which I'll be honest is a relative blank slate to me having appeared once during the two and a bit years that I've been reviewing the Prog. From what glimpses I've seen, it is some kind of supernatural cop thriller set in the East-end of London. After an absence from the Prog, I'd imagine it'll be supported by a lengthy recap to get new readers up to speed. 

Thrill of the Week: Strontium Dog


The physical edition of 2000AD Prog 1930 will be available in stores on Wednesday 13th May - Digital copies of this Prog will be available on the same day through the 2000AD app, which can now be downloaded onto iOS and Android devices.

Keep checking back each week for more reviews and features about 2000AD, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic! Remember to leave your comments below, or contact me on Twitter or through my Facebook page!

Review - Doctor Who: The 10th Doctor # 10

Doctor Who: The 10th Doctor # 10
"Echo"
Written by: Robbie Morrison
Art by: Eleonora Carlini
Colours by: Hi-Fi

Wrapped up in an awesomely psychedelic cover design from AJ, this issue of the Tenth Doctor comic series acts as a coda to Robbie Morrison's previous storyline, “The Weeping Angels of Mons” as well as revisiting Gabriella's home life, introduced in Nick Abadzis' initial story-arc, “Revolutions of Terror”. Returning back to New York allows both Gabby and the reader to reconnect with her family, much like how the Tenth Doctor tended to revisit Rose, Martha and Donna's home-lives – it seems very much in line with David Tennant's portrayal of the Doctor to have him more family-focused than his Eleventh and Twelfth incarnations. After the traumatic near-death experiences during World War Two, it makes sense for Gabby to want to return home and see her family and Morrison manages to pick up Abadzis' “baton” and continue developing the various Gonzalez family members.

The issue feels like a bridge between Morrison's stories and Abadzis' opening arc, setting the scene for Nick Abadzis to return to the series for the final five issues of 'Year One'. Morrison makes great use of the comic series' own continuity so far, tying together the preceding adventures by referencing the Cerebravores, the alien art gallery and the Weeping Angels to add better cohesion between the two writer's stories. Another area in which this issue served as a transitionary interlude was with the art. Eleonora Carlini's style worked well as a blend of Daniel Indro's darker and rougher approach and Elena Casagrande's more light-hearted artwork. As with Morrison's script returning Gabby to New York, it felt like a nice way to pass the baton back to the series' original creative team.


Concentrating on Eleonora Carlini's art for a moment, I have to say that I really enjoyed the obstructive use of Onomatopoeia throughout the story, which became an essential way on depicting the excessive noise pollution that the planet was suffering. Not only was it a key part of the narrative but it also gave Carlini's art a wonderfully distinctive look. I really liked the rough and ready, more indie feel to the artwork, although it remained surprisingly consistent with Elena Casagrande's established designs for Gabby and her family members. In some panels, it even looked like Casagrande's own artwork but given a punk make-over. I'd happily see Carlini return to the series, especially for a grittier storyline that does fit well with Casagrande's more happy-go-lucky artistic approach.

In terms of the plot, it was a nice “done in one” story that not only touched upon plot threads left hanging from Morrison's own stories, namely Gabby's emotional reaction to her adventures, but also set the scene nicely for Abadzis' New York-centric episode in the next issue, which appears to have Gabby attempting to share her experiences with her best friend, Cindy. I have to confess that I wasn't overly sold on the new aliens introduced here – the Echoes and the Shreekers – which pale in comparison to the more interesting enemies that Morrison has introduced over in the Twelfth Doctor series. However, this was still a strong installment for the series, coming off of the excellent Weeping Angels four-parter and brought the focus back to Gabby and her “pre-Doctor” life.


Score - 9.4 out of 10

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor # 10 is now available in all good comic shops, including Forbidden Planet, as well as on the Comixology website. Be sure to put in a standing order for the upcoming issues in the series when you pick up your copy!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Review - The Evil Within

The Evil Within
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4 and Xbox One

The Evil Within (also known as Psycho Break in Japan) is a third-person Survival Horror game, directed by the creator of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami. Produced by Bethesda Softworks, known primarily for RPG franchises such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, the game focuses on protagonist Sebastian Castellanos as he finds himself pulled through a world filled with nightmarish locations and horrific creatures, as he struggles to unlock the secret behind the mysterious hooded figure known as Ruvik.

Immediately, it is evident that this game is heavily influenced by the two Survival Horror heavyweights, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, in both tone and gameplay elements. The sequences set within the European village recalls elements of Mikami’s own work on Resident Evil 4, with the possessed villagers resembling the zombie-like Ganados, even going as far to include a chainsaw wielding boss character. Aside from the more action-packed elements borrowing from the later Resident Evil games, Mikami also includes a more psychological horror element with the inclusion of the unstoppable multi-limbed Laura who crawls after the player, ready to land a one hit kill; or The Keeper, whose ‘safe for a head’ design recalls memories of Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head.

The comparisons to Silent Hill continue with the game’s dream-like quality and constant shifting of locations from a remote village in the woods, to a ruined urban environment and the sterile environment of an abandoned mental hospital, which is also used as a “checkpoint hub” for players to save their progress and upgrade their skills. Gameplay-wise, the game owes much of its style to Resident Evil 4, to the point where specific chapters feel like ‘deleted scenes’ from the previous games. Obviously, being one of the biggest-selling survival horror games, this isn't a true detriment to The Evil Within, but it does leave it feeling somewhat derivative of its survival horror ‘parents’.


As with all survival horror games, initially the player is made to feel powerless and the game implements a heavy ‘stealth’ strategy in early chapters to increase the tension and give the players the sense that every battle counts, but eventually the game leans towards a more action-focused stance towards the end with bigger boss battles and more powerful weapons. The game also allows players to upgrade skills such as, weapon efficiency and ammo stock, enabling players to tailor their character to their strengths and increase power to specific weapon load-outs. Also, hidden keys littered about the levels allows the player to unlock safety deposit boxes and earn bonus “brain juice” (the currency of the game) or ammunition.

Story-wise, the game has a distinct tone and flavour that briefly allows it to step out from the shadow of its more-established predecessors, constantly challenging the player’s perception of what is real and what isn't. The plot is clearly influenced by both Japanese and American horror movies, blending the two genres together to bring something interesting and fresh to gamers. As Sebastian unravels more of the mystery behind events, the seemingly disparate threads established at the start of the game begin to become clear and it manages to tie together in a fairly satisfying manner. While the developers manage to craft a strong and engaging antagonist in the mysterious Ruvik, they do falter somewhat in creating an equally engaging hero with Sebastian.

I don't suspect this is the start of a new franchise, but as a stand-alone oddity, The Evil Within is a nice excursion away from the worlds of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, whilst remaining comfortably familiar. With both of those franchises yet to release a “next-gen” outing for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it seems The Evil Within is free to bask alone in the survival horror pool until a more established game comes along. Interestingly, DLC has been released for the title, expanding its story to focus on one of the supporting characters (Juli Kidman) and even allowing players to play as recurring enemy, The Keeper. This single-player DLC is a great touch and suits the game better than a tacked on multi-player, such as Resident Evil's “Mercenaries” mode.


Graphics - As expected, having played this game on the PlayStation 4, the graphics are fantastic and offer some really crisp visuals, particularly the vast ruined city-scape on the urban levels. Once again, comparisons can be made with its survival-horror “parents” of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, with the graphics imbuing the game with a gritty and grimy feel, perhaps not to the same extent as Silent Hill’s rust-filled other-world. It’s truly a great looking game, managing to bring each of its varied locales to life in a realistic manner.

Gameplay - As discussed above, The Evil Within owes a lot of its gameplay style to Resident Evil 4, using the familiar over-the-shoulder view implemented in all of the Resident Evil games since that release. The game blends elements of stealth into proceedings, particularly in the opening chapters, but this is largely optional and those wishing to go in with guns-blazing can do so with little consequence.

Achievements / Trophies - Most of the trophies are focused on standard chapter progression throughout the game with a handful of “secret” trophies awarded to those who complete certain criteria within the chapters, such as avoiding being seen during Chapter 2, or not using firearms during Chapter 8. There’s also the obligatory ultra-hard mode achievement, inviting gamers to complete the game in “Akuma mode”, which weakens your character so one hit from anything will kill him. Good luck with that!

Longevity - With its episodic nature, the game feels more apt for replay value than other survival horror games which have a more traditional long-form narrative. Upon completion, New Game+ is unlocked; allowing gamers to replay any chapter with existing weaponry earned in the previous play through including bonus weapons such as the Rocket Launcher and Sub-Machine Gun. The only gripe is that the difficulties are fixed, meaning that you can’t use this experience and more powerful weaponry to tackle the game on a harder difficulty.

As one would expect with the frequent comparisons made to Resident Evil and Silent Hill, The Evil Within doesn't bring innovation to the genre of Survival Horror, but that isn't necessarily a negative trait. Fans of the genre will find plenty to enjoy here, picking up on the riffs and homages to its predecessors, but anyone picking up this game for a fresh take on the Survival Horror genre will be disappointed. The only advances made here are graphically, and the game is beautiful. Personally, I was on the fence during the initial levels, unsure of the stealth elements but mid-way through the game, I found myself hooked and eagerly working through the chapters to get to the conclusion.

Score - 9.4 out of 10

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Review - Agents of SHIELD: 2x20 - "Scars"


Agents of SHIELD
Episode 2x20 - "Scars" 

Synopsis

In the fallout of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Coulson's secret plans stand revealed as he attempts to form a partnership with Gonzales' faction of SHIELD to create a unified organisation. Meanwhile, Skye finds herself caught in the middle of her two families as SHIELD and the Inhumans come close to all-out war.

Review

Picking up in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron, this episode of Agents of SHIELD allows the blockbuster movie to slot neatly into its continuity and begins to establish the post-Ultron status quo for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a surprisingly efficient opening sequence, the Theta Protocol is revealed to be the SHIELD heli-carrier which makes a surprise appearance in the closing act of Avengers: Age of Ultron, following its apparent destruction in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While I applaud the show-runners for filling in a discrepancy between the way SHIELD was depicted on-screen against the way it has been portrayed in Agents of SHIELD, it did feel a little contrived in places. In fact all of the Avengers: Age of Ultron related plot-points have felt shoe-horned into the past few episodes, disrupting the organic flow of the season's 'Inhumans' central plot. I guess this is the nature of the beast when attempting to align to the big-screen adventures, but I did appreciate the writer's decision to quickly move past the Sokovia-related plot threads and not let it cast a shadow over these remaining three episodes.

With the mystery of the “Theta Protocol” quickly dealt with, the episode concentrated on another recently introduced sub-plot: the contents of the cargo hold in Gonzales' ship. Even though we see the mysterious amorphous rock, it is unclear exactly what it might be aside from the fact it appears to relate to some ancient prophecy of the Inhumans. Clearly, this will play some major part in the Season Finale, and I'm intrigued to find out exactly what this alien rock does. Hopefully it's not going to be some kind of antidote to the Terrigen Mists and reset the various Inhuman's powers, as that would undo all of the character development that Skye has undergone this Season, unless she is the only one that SHIELD deems “safe” to keep her powers. Of course, this is all speculation at the moment, but given the events of this episode, I suspect that the only way SHIELD can win this war is to somehow remove the powers of their enemies.

While most of the episode was concerned with setting up the two-part season finale and pushing the two organisations to war, I was very impressed by the misdirection displayed by the writers. It was obvious that the 'peace-talks' between SHIELD and the Inhumans were going to fail and lead to confrontation, but the writer's played with the audience's expectations leading them to believe that Raina wanted to sabotage the talks, or that Gonzales was going to approach it badly and be “gung-ho” about it. As the conversation started out promising and full of hope between Gonzales and Jiaying, I was actually beginning to think that they might actually avert confrontation...until she pulled out the man-made Terrigen crystal and begun to scheme. Dichen Lachman has done a great job playing Jiaying, balancing her emotions at being reunited with Skye against her duties as the leader of the Inhumans. With her attempted banishment of Cal a few episodes ago, she has proved that she is incapable of making good decisions and her actions here, leading to the death of Gonzales, might have doomed her people.

"Whoever smelt it, dealt it"

Aside from the main event of SHIELD vs The Inhumans, this episode also had a few other quieter moments, such as Mack's resignation which seemed like the writer's had run out of ideas for the character and decided to write him out. Hopefully, it is just a way to keep him out of the SHIELD/Inhuman war and perhaps utilise him in the Agent-33/Bobbi storyline instead. Not content with misdirecting me over Jiaying's motives, the writers also had me believing that Ward was being selfless and leaving Agent-33 behind to get the care that she needed. Instead, it turns out that it was part of a long con to lure Bobbi out on her own and capture her. It's unclear what the issue between Agent-33 and Mockingbird is, but I'm guessing it is related to her capture by Hydra – perhaps an undercover Bobbi had to take her down, which led to her Hydra brainwashing. As one of the more popular new additions to the series, I doubt that Mockingbird is about to be killed off, but I am interested to find out where the series intends to go with his story-arc.

As a prelude to the season finale, this episode did a great job in setting the scene and getting the audience pumped up for a two-part conclusion. Considering this is still a network TV show, I am wondering just how big this war between SHIELD and the Inhumans will get, but I am eagerly anticipating the promised chaos, especially with Cal. The scene where he is revealed to have taken some of his often-referenced “enhancement vials” suggests that we might get to see him transform into the Mr. Hyde persona. I'm hoping that this is more of a physical transformation akin to the Hulk, rather than just a super-strong Kyle MacLachlan rampaging about in a tattered suit. Even though I'm excited to see the action and potential special effects that a SHIELD / Inhuman war would bring, I'm also eager to see the more character-focused moments too. With Skye firmly in the middle of the two opposing factions, it will be interesting to see who she sides with. I've been fairly critical of the Afterlife segments in the past half-dozen episodes, but this finale is where it should all pay off.

With news that Agents of SHIELD has been renewed for a third season, I'm also looking ahead to see what the status-quo might be for the series after this finale. With Gonzales removed from the equation, I'm guessing Coulson will be free to unify both SHIELD factions, although it remains to be seen whether he will return the more diplomatic approach of voting by committee that his predecessor used. With Hydra out of the equation, thanks to Avengers: Age of Ultron, I'm guessing that a third season might focus back on enhanced individuals, possibly leading towards next year's Captain America: Civil War and government's desire to legislate superheroics in the wake of Stark's tinkering with Ultron and hold them accountable for their actions. Whatever direction the series takes for its third season, I'm sure it will continue to grow from strength to strength.


Score - 9.3 out of 10


Easter Eggs/References
  • The “Theta Protocol” explains the Heli-carrier's surprise appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron after its destruction in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Skye formally refers to the group on Afterlife as “Inhumans”, formally confirming that they are the same race seen in the Marvel Comics, although none of the iconic Inhumans have been featured yet.

Mysteries
  • What does the mysterious rock stored in Gonzales' cargo hold do?
  • What did Mockingbird do to Agent-33 in the past?
  • What prompted Jiaying to attack Gonzales instead of negotiating peace?

Next Episode - "SOS (Part One)"
S.H.I.E.L.D. puts everything on the line to survive a war that blurs the line between friend and foe. Coulson and his team will be forced to make shocking sacrifices that will leave their relationships and their world changed forever.
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