Friday, June 17, 2011

Brothers of the Snake by Dan Abnett

Details:
Brothers of the Snake
Review by Earl Davis

Description:
Best-selling author Dan Abnett turns his hand to the mighty Space Marines in his next project following the success of Horus Rising and the Armour of Contempt. The war-torn far-future is laid bare as Brothers of the Snake follows the exploits of the Iron Snakes Space Marines as they battle against the enemies of mankind. First appearing in the pages of Inferno!, the Iron Snakes Space Marines quickly gathered a loyal following and now they make their debut in a full-blown adventure!


Review:
There are moments when the Warhammer 40k omniverse can be overwhelming. This is especially true during the novitiate. With over 20 decades of canon source material beyond the original tabletop game spread throughout novels, rpgs, and video games, the gap between initiate and Lore Master of the Imperium is dizzying. Brothers of the Snake by Dan Abbott is a shining example of material helping a lowly pilgrim along the path.

Abnett is very good at writing action. That is no secret and BotS is no exception. Readers get to experience every blast, gunshot and chainsword roar as the brothers of the Iron Snake decimate enemies of the Imperium.

The unfortunate thing about writing about Space Marines is that they tend to be one dimensional, nearly invincible figures. Successful authors, like Abnett, managed to insert small glimmers of fallibility into characters like Brother Priad while maintaining the image required by Warhammer cannon. In addition, Abnett adds layers to the Iron Snake Chapter as a whole by recalling Earth’s own legend and histories. Using classic imagery borrowed from Arthurian legend, the Roman legion, the Greek phalanx and the Spartan…well…Spartans, he is able to grant a much deeper connection to what could otherwise be a stock Space Marines novel.

In lieu of the traditional novel format, BotS is more of a collection of short stories describing separate engagements of the Iron Snakes Chapter. This offers two advantages over other Space Marines books. First, it allows the reader to gradually learn about the Iron Snakes and their place among the Reef Stars. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the format makes it an easier read for anyone who is still taking baby steps along the guiding light of the Emperor.

The issues with this novel seem to be universal throughout Warhammer 40k fiction, and genre fiction at large. A need to placate a dedicated fan base combined with strict guidelines within the particular IP prevents authors from taking any real chances. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but BotS is not one of those. However, it speaks to Abnett’s talent and craftsmanship that he continues to produce such quality work within those tight boundaries.

Rating:
It’s a damn fine read and perfect for anyone with a limited amount of reading time or anyone who is new to the Warhammer40k universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Green Lantern: Spoiler Free Review


Theatrical Release
105 Minutes
Release Date: June 17, 2011
Review by: Earl Davis

Description:
A test pilot is granted a mystical green ring that bestows him with otherworldly powers, as well as membership into an intergalactic squadron tasked with keeping peace within the universe.

Review:
Green Lantern holds a unique place in the comic spectrum. Possessing none of the mainstream exposure of Superman or Batman, the character’s name is none-the-less well known among the general population. Ask any man on the street and he probably won’t know the fully history of the Green Lantern Corps, but will without doubt recognize the ring. For those with geek inclinations, Green Lantern is something more. He’s not inherently strong or fast or brilliant. No alien planet spawned him. No rich parents left him a legacy. The Green Lantern’s power pours from the well-spring of imagination. He is bound only by the limits of his mind and will. He is the hero that writers and artists and creative types abound wish they could really be.

That level of “geek love” creates an inherent problem that few movies ever manage to overcome. Green Lantern stalls a little while climbing Expectation Mountain but eventually putters it’s way over the top.

Visually the movie is striking. Film makers have started following the Jon Favreau school of thought by mixing traditional affects with CGI. Because of the intergalactic and fantastical nature of the Green Lantern universe, this film goes heavier on the CGI, but does not suffer for it. Some of the powers effects and the overall design of the film’s Big Bad are breathtaking. The action sequences and imaginative uses of the ring elicited more than one “Wow” from the crowd at large.

The movie features a strong supporting cast with appearances by Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively, and Angela Bassett. Tim Robbins even joins in the fun. On a side note, it is fascinating to me that there is character archetype, the staunch military/government official that is always filled with aging A List actors. Tommy Lee Jones, Andre Brauer, Jeff Bridges are just a few that come to mind. These supporting character add a little unique flavor to what is otherwise a standard popcorn flick. If there is one complaint in this area, it lies with Angele Bassett’s Amanda Waller character. She was underused in this film. Perhaps, she is a place holder to help tie later the later films together as Warner Bros. builds toward its Justice League movie. Marvel used a similar device with Agent Coulson.

The weakest part of the movie is its star, Ryan Reynolds. There are only a few parts in the film where Reynolds manages to disappear in the role of Hal Jordan. Most of the time, he comes across as the same smarmy guy audiences have seen in his other films. More than once, while leaving the theater, I heard viewers deliver various renditions of “It’s like Van Wilder in a costume”.

Type-casting is not the only issue with the film, however. Editing is also a major issue. At several points during action sequences, the principal character in explicably move or change blocking while off camera. I suspect that the intention was to surprise the audience when attacks or motion comes from unexpected angles. Unfortunately, this technique is handled poorly and created the feeling more akin to “How did he get over there?” This film is concrete evidence as to how important a quality editor is to a modern motion picture.

One final note about the film. WE GET IT. Ryan Reynolds works out and you need to give housewives and girlfriends reasons to watch, but I have seen entirely too much of him in his skivvies now.

Rating:

It’s a good popcorn flick that will warm some geek hearts and cause some grumbling with others. You may want to stay away from opening weekend crowds, but this is one that should be seen while it’s still in the theaters.

One piece of advice though, save your cash and see it in 2D. Color is very important to this film and 3D conversion loses far too many colors.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Star Wars Vs. Star Trek by Matt Forbeck

Details:
Published: May 2011
ISBN: 978-1440512629
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
Could a Jedi knight use his light saber to deflect a beam from a phaser?

Which aliens are cooler: the Cardassians or the Chazrach?
Have any Federation ships ever made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs?
And most important . . . in a fight between the Empire and the Federation, who would win?

Ever since Princess Leia's starship hove into sight on the silver screen, fans of Star Wars and Star Trek have been debating these questions. Now, side by side, they can line up aliens, technology, story points, weaponry, and heroes from the two great science fiction/fantasy stories of our age.

For fans everywhere, this volume offers detailed information about both universes, as well as trivia, quizzes, quotes, and information drawn from these two iconic settings. So phasers on stun and light sabers at the ready! It's time for the duel to begin.

http://www.adamsmediastore.com/product/star-wars-vs-star-trek/humor

Review:
Picture this. The year is 1999. It’s May. Just over one hundred people form a line that is beginning to wrap around the side of our local movie theater. Those of us at the beginning of the line have been waiting just over sixteen hours for the box office to open. That’s one hour for every year since the last time a new Star Wars movie was released into theaters; a golden ratio illuminating the peaceful darkness of our nerd-vana. Out of nowhere a voice shatters the perfection.

“Can we just go? I’m tired and you said you like Star Trek better anyway.” The bleary eyes of a dozen nerds snap around at attention. There is a traitor in our midst. His whiny girlfriend has revealed him to the pack and he must be dealt with.

Thus, the great Space Nerd War has raged on for more than two decades. Not since the Hatfields and McCoys , went to battle over a West Virginian pig, has a family battle been waged so publicly. Up to this point, the great debate has been the subject of mockery and ridicule among the so-called normal folk. It took one of our own, Matt Forbeck to shine an honest light on the subject and force us to laugh at ourselves.

At just over two hundred pages, the book is an easy afternoon read. It’s divided into three main sections, which in turn are divided into small chapters, which are in turn divided into smaller subsections. Each chapter is punctuated with a “Cosmo”-esque quiz that acts like mirror forcing the reader to confront the reality of their nerd quotient.

Forbeck pulls no punches laying out lightsaber swipes and Vulcan Nerve Pinches with equal aplomb. His rhetorical battles range from the well-known “Vader vs Khan” to the culturally obscure “Kit Fisto vs T’Pol”. My greatest fear (and the most common issue with this type of book) would be a cop-out by the author declaring it a tie in an effort to appease both communities. Thankfully, Forbeck avoids this trap and makes a stand by declaring a definitive winner.

No, I won’t tell you who wins. Buy the book!

Rating:

This book is perfect for anyone with an inkling of inner-nerd, especially those Dads out there whose only quiet time can be found in the bathroom. Well done, Matt.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: LA Noire by Rockstar Games


Detail:
Name: LA Noire
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Type: 3rd person Adventure
Version: Playstation
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
L.A. Noire is a gritty, single player detective game set on the infamous streets and in the smoke-filled back rooms of post-war Los Angeles. Designed and developed with a nod to the classic film noire movie genre, L.A. Noire blends crystal clear graphics that bring the iconic look and feel of the era to life, with a combination of innovative technology and unique gameplay that allow you to solve crimes through interrogations and investigation. Additional features include: five LAPD based crime desks to work, the ability to analyze the case as well as suspects for clues, an accurate block-by-block recreation of eight sq miles of 1947 Los Angeles, multiple difficulty settings and more.

Review:
Cole Phelps winces at the morning sunlight, tugging gently at the brim of his hat, hoping to give some small relief to his eyes. The well-worn grip of his snub nosed .38 digs into the thick scar between his ribs; a gift from a Jap soldier in the war. Off in the distance, the grinning teeth of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign offer a welcome and a warning to the denizens of Angel City. This is a world of booze and blood, of bullets and broads.

This is LA Noire.

Rockstar has written a love letter to the hardboiled detective and all of his fans. No, this is more than that. It’s the love letter given before dinner, followed with drinks, and dancing before culminating in an orgasmic reach around that may have the neighbors calling the police.

Players are dropped into the role of Cole Phelps, a war hero of the Pacific campaign, who is now a Los Angeles police officer. Eschewing the standard tutorial structure, Rockstar chose to begin the game with Cole and his partner being dispatched directly to a crime scene. There are a few helpful information pop-ups, but for the most part education comes (the way it should for any great detective) from the mean streets.

After solving several crimes, the player advances upward in the LAPD moving from Patrolman to the plain clothes detective division. That’s where things really start to get interesting. At each “desk” or subdivision of the detective unit, Cole is assigned a new partner. The dialog and interaction with each partner constitutes some of the most fascinating elements of the game. Views on history, politics, race, marriage are all addressed in great detail. The team at Rockstar walked a tight rope with several of those conversations between maintaining historical accuracy while not offending modern sensitivities.

Far and away, the best part of LA Noire is the actual police work. Cole must scour crime scene identifying and recording relevant clues. Then as the cases proceed, suspects are interrogated. During this phase, the detective must not only choose the line of questioning, he must decide whether or not to accept the response as truthful or call the subject out on their lie. Visual clues and case notes help guide the player in making the choice. Incorrect choices have severe consequences and will cause Cole to miss important clues or even fail to apprehend peripheral culprits in some cases.

However for all of its success, the game isn’t perfect. There is one design choice that had me screaming at my television and a few technical issues keep the game from achieving digital nirvana. The inclusion of the “follow that car” missions is unnecessary at best and downright infuriating at worst. Rockstar’s tester obviously reported the same thing because after failing these missions three times, players can skip that portion of the mission.

Technically, LA Noire suffers from the same issues that have plagued third person open world games (especially Rockstar’s) from the very beginning. Invisible artifacts or tiny debris from car wreckage can stop a speeding car dead in its tracks. This is especially true when driving through the LA River. Also, there is a delay when the player’s character breaks into a run from a standstill. It wouldn’t be a problem if the NPCs also had the same delay. Unfortunately, it means that fleeing suspect will always have a ridiculously large head start making some of the chases harder than they should be.

Gameplay:
Anyone who has ever played Grand Theft auto or any of its clones will be comfortable with the gameplay of LA Noire. The same mission based, open city gameplay is at work here. Cole can even “commandeer” nearly every vehicle in the game. LA Police Commandeering just doesn’t have the same ring as a title though. The only true innovation comes in the investigation portions of the game described above.

Visuals:
While in third person, street level mode, LA Noire does not appear to be a significant upgrade over Grand Theft Auto IV. At first, gamers may be a little underwhelmed. Fear not though, once the interrogations gear up, you will be blown away. Rockstar created a new form of face mapping and hired myriad of B and C List acting talent to film the question and response sequences. The level of facial detail and visual cues for lying are on a scale never seen in a video game. It is quite simply, stunning.

A great part of the fun of this game is trying to identify exactly which movie or television show you recognize the game character from.

Audio (Voice):
The IMDB entry for LA Noire lists over 150 individual voice actors. Do I need to say more?

Audio (Music):
Rockstar is the king of “in game” entertainment and the title remains safely with them. The radio programs and music are 100% of the period. Even those who aren’t fans of big band swing or pre-television radio drama should appreciate the painstaking level of detail in these performances.

Plot/Story:
It’s dark, gritty, well-conceived and tied into the Black Dhalia murders. Anyone who spoils this plot should be punched in the throat.

Extras:
The PS3 version from Gamestop included two additional cases, “The Consul’s Car” and “The Naked City”. Both cases are mildly interesting but don’t add anything significant to the game beyond an extra chance to gain experience.

A third extra, a badge collection challenge is far more entertaining. The challenge itself is a pretty standard “roam the city and collect” challenge. Clues to the various locations are pure genius. Rockstar included a series of photo negatives that reveal the targets. It’s the perfect mini-game, hands down.

PS3 vs. XBOX360:
Historically, Rockstar games have run far better on the XBOX 360 than the PS3. With LA Noire, that streak is broken. The PS3 edition maintains a solid frame rate equivalent to the 360 edition. Plus the PS3 version is just prettier. Details are sharper, shadows are more defined and reflective surfaces fare far better on the PS3. When added with the fact that the PS3 edition comes on a single bluray versus three discs for the 360, I must declare the PS3 edition the winner in this showdown.

Grading:
LA Noire is a masterpiece. It’s not perfect but then again neither is the Venus de Milo. Purchase this game. Purchase it brand new and unwrapped because Rockstar deserves every cent.
5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: The Purging of Kadillus


Details:
A Space Marines Battles Novel
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
Faced with an ork invasion of Piscina IV, the 3rd Company of the Dark Angels believes the threat to be minimal. As enemy numbers continue to increase, their commander, Captain Belial, insists that his Company are strong enough to resist. But Scout-Sergeant Naaman knows just how dangerous this foe can be, and when a renewed greenskin offensive takes the Dark Angels by surprise, the orks swarm towards Kadillus Harbour. Little do the Dark Angels know of the technological power available to the xenos, and the true scale of the threat they face. Belial, Naaman and their fellow Astartes fight a desperate siege at Kadillus, knowing that they must hold out until Imperial reinforcements arrive or the planet will be lost.

Review:

Fiction should be immersive. Period. There are no exceptions to this rule. The sweetness of Turkish Delight, the smell of salt and sailor funk from the deck of the Bounty, the stillness in the air as young Wart slides the blade from the anvil have been experienced by millions of readers. Successful fiction authors do not tell stories. They open doors.

The Purging of Kadillus is a door. When I knocked, Gav Thorpe answered with fresh baked cookies and a smile.

I have two pages of notes that I took while reading this novel. I started this review fully prepared to rave about the brilliant characters. I wanted to detail the finely crafted imagery and map out the bits and beats that Thorpe uses like a shiny lure to pull the little fishy (me) along, but that would be doing him a disservice. In his tale of the Dark Angels and their defense of the besieged world of Kadillus, Thorpe transcends the common and sometimes clich├ęd language of the standard book review.

Imagine a grown, thirty-year old man lying in bed reading. It’s dark because the daylight has long since faded and only a small lamp illuminates the room. A comforter is pulled over his head concealing him from the approaching Ork invasion force. He doesn’t dare move because movement means death and a death without tactical advantage serves neither the Lion nor the Emperor.

That’s how I found myself experiencing the purging of Kadillus and the best praise I can think of is to simply say: Thank you Gav Thorpe.

Rating:
Everyone who enjoys science fiction or war stories should be reading this novel. Kudos goes out to the Black Library for green lighting it. It deserves far greater exposure than it has received thus far.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Hunt for Voldorius by Andy Hoare

Details:
Hunt for Voldorius
A Space Marines Battle Novel
Black Library Publishing
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
Captain Kor'sarro Khan of the White Scars is petitioned by his Chapter Master to hunt down and destroy the daemon prince Voldorius, a warleader of the renegade Alpha Legion, thus ending his reign of terror across the stars. Hunting the beast doggedly for over a decade, Kor'sarro finally brings Voldorius to battle on Quintus, a world that has totally given itself over to the Alpha Legion. Together with their Raven Guard allies, the White Scars must fight an entire planet if they are to slay the daemon prince.

Review:
Reviewing genre fiction where there is a vocal and deeply entrenched fan base is something akin to walking through a minefield with snow shoes on. From one direction or another, the blast is coming and it’s probably going to be messy. Fortunately, genre fiction and more specifically franchise tie-ins have improved over the last two decades making the path a great deal less treacherous.

Unfortunately, there is still a mine or two left to be stepped on.

Novels in the Space Marines Battles series are snapshots in space time. They focus on a specific campaign involving specific companies within the Warhammer 40k universe. Think “Saving Private Ryan”, only instead of Tom Hanks the reader gets Kor’sarro Khan, leader of the White Scars. The strength inherent in this type of war tale lies in its intimacy. It offers a chance for the author to shine a spotlight on the grim reality of war. Readers are side by side with the combatants, tasting the dirt and blood in the air, despairing as a brother soldier flails in pain from a brutal wound and fighting with grim determination until the last gunshot fades to echo. It’s the closest we mere mortals can ever really get to marching forward under the shining light of the Emperor.

However, instead of a spotlight, Andy Hoare offers the reader a flashlight that seems to cut out at the most inopportune times.

In a character driven narrative, like Hunt for Voldorius, some weakness in plot is forgivable barring that the strength and dynamic of its main characters can pick up the slack. Kor’sarro Khan and his fellow White Scars fail in that regard. They are so one dimensional that “transparent” might be the best single word to describe them. Also, they are absent from a great portion of the novel in any real capacity. Kor’sarro himself feels more like a bookend than the protagonist of a war story. In fact, only one character feels like she has any depth at all. Malya L’nor , former leader of the Quintus resistance, is far and away the shining star of Hoare’s work. Presented with unspeakable choices and forced to make unthinkable sacrifices, Malya is the perfect example of the quality of work that Hoare is capable of producing. It is a shame that quality didn’t carry over to any other part of Hunt for Voldorius.

The failed characterizations as profound as they are though, pale in comparison to the real failing of this work; passive repetition and confounding technical choices. Entire sections of this “action” novel are written in a passive voice that ejects the reader from any sense of immersion in this fantasy world. No one in this story did anything but everyone “had done” something over and over and over again. I am at a loss to understand how those passages made it past an editor. This passive voice coupled with the author’s penchant for overly complex sentences in the middle of what should be a fast paced, assault sequence makes this a very frustrating read. Far too often, Hoare reaches for the lightning but pulls back only a handful of lightning bugs.

Rating:
Warhammer 40k completionists will buy this. Some may even cheer as specific tie-in aspects that they love appear, for example the appearance of the Raven Guard chapter. Everyone else should save their cash. There are far better novels in this series that will scratch the same itch.

2 out of 5 stars