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Category Archives: Other Media

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DC Legends

Longbox Graveyard #170

I wrote before that I finally kicked the Marvel Puzzle Quest habit — and I did, I swear! But part of that effort involved parking myself on another game these past several months. That game was DC Legends. After nine months of daily effort, I’ve exhausted this game, as well, and I am here to tell the tale.

What wisdom might I offer, aside from “avoid playing games that never end?” Read on!

First things first. What is DC Legends? It’s a mobile game where you collect and level-up a roster of DC heroes and villains so you can win fights to level up to win fights to level up to …

(Are you sensing a grind? Good on you. This game is the king of grinds!)

How does it play? Well, if you’ve played Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, you can skip to the end of this review. DC Legends is effectively a re-spray of Galaxy of Heroes, with DC’s characters standing in for Jedis and Stormtroopers. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I tried Galaxy of Heroes and didn’t much like it, while DC hooked me for several months — theme matters!

For those coming in fresh, here’s what to expect from DC Legends.

There’s a story — something to do with Black Lanterns and evil wraith versions of DC characters running amok — but the story is at best chrome on top of the same basic thing that you are going to do over and over again. And that thing is leading four characters into turn-based RPG combat against four other characters, either in player-vs-event or player-vs-player mode.

This is a lavishly-developed game, with a lot to recommend it. The good things first! I gave the story short shrift but the game is nicely themed. There are dozens of characters to collect and level up, each with a set of powers and gear to earn. All characters are nicely rendered in 3D with spectacular attacks, like Supergirl tearing up a chunk of floor and tossing it at the bad guys, or Siren whirling her blades around before sending them spinning off into the other team. Each character has three powers, generally falling into the attack one/attack all/buff or special effects category, and even after playing the game all the way to Level 70 I never really tired of watching the animation. Battles play out in signature DC locations that are nicely detailed, and the game has a lush soundscape of music and sound effects that are actually worth listening to — a rarity for a mobile game. It’s fun to learn how to best employ your characters and to build up your roster as you grind through the game content.

But, ah, there’s that word — “grind.” The degree to which you enjoy this game is heavily bound up with your love of grinding. This is true of most free-to-play games, and to be fair, the grind in DC isn’t as bad as many (*cough Marvel Puzzle Quest *cough), but you are still going to have to put in an hour or so a day to make any kind of decent progress. Purchases are available to speed your development, though to tell the truth I never spent a dime on this game (a rarity for me). If I could have found a way to meaningfully spend five bucks I would have done so, but the value proposition in the store just wasn’t there, what with nearly everything being a blind purchase, and seemingly everything worth purchasing being up on a high shelf somewhere. I found it easier to grind …

… and here the designers have done us a favor, building grind tools right into the game. On the most basic level, you can speed up game animations, so fights won’t last so long. Once you’ve gotten to the point where repeating low level content doesn’t pose a challenge, there’s also an autoplay button that will let the battles play without requiring your input at all (and you can always jump in and start playing again, if your characters start to lose the day). Finally, you can auto-complete missions straight from the menu by spending Speed Force, a somewhat-plentiful currency that grants an automatic win and gives you a roll on the reward table for whatever that node offered.

(And, yes, it is bizarre to laud a game for a feature that lets you get it over quickly. Not sure there are any other games where playing less is the goal. Golf, maybe? Dunno).

There are a blizzard of things to collect and spend in this game. Heroes are awarded via shards. Some minimal number of shards is required to unlock a character for play, then more shards to advance the hero up through the ranks, from one to five stars. After five stars, the character can advance to “Legendary,” triggering a costume change and a new set of supplementary powers. I had several characters up to Legendary-3 level when I quit, with Cheetah sniffing Legendary-4. In addition to shards (of various rarities, of course) there are raw materials for leveling up gear, experience points for advancing character levels (which are distinct from stars and Legendary levels), the aforementioned Speed Force, hard currency gems to buy just about everything, and at least two other expendable currencies that lubricate the whole engine.

It’s all rather confusing, and comes down to never having enough of what you need. And what you need will change over the course of the game — for a long time I was starved for basic Essence, and was swimming in Experience; when I quit the game I was out of Experience, and had millions of useless Essence. The economy is confusing and I think the game suffers for not having a single screen where I can see all the different stuff I own all at once — your inventories are referenced only when needed to make a purchase, which makes it difficult to assess your progress through the game, or to reliably decide whether your WhosiWhatsits are better invested in Cyborg’s Boom Tube Manipulator or Zatanna’s White Rabbit. Short of spending literally thousands of dollars, you won’t be able to develop all of your characters equally, so you will have to concentrate on maybe 4-8 characters to get you through the game — and when you eventually arrive at your choices, you will grit your teeth a bit realizing you can’t recover the precious resources invested in secondary characters along the way. Live and learn.

Your experience in the game will go through levels of understanding. At first you’ll concentrate on collecting those characters that you like best or that are most easily available; later you will try to exploit the rock/paper/scissors relationship between energy/physical/mystical heroes; finally you will graduate into the meta of trying to assemble the best squad of four characters that mutually support each other with the right attacks and buffs. It is fun to develop your roster and learn how to squeeze the most performance out of your teams. Mission nodes identify the hero shard they (sometimes) award, so you can direct your grinding to collecting the maximum daily Flash shards on offer (or whoever), and more-or-less control which characters you build up. There are escalating levels of basic and advanced content to chew through, weekly events, special hero challenges, player-versus-player, free spins of the prize wheel, and more. There’s plenty to do.

Problem is, it’s just the same thing, over and over. The stakes may change a little, but it is still always your four guys versus four other guys. The expense of taking characters to high level is going to lock you into a handful of playable characters, meaning you are going to see the same guys over and over again, and your options for swapping in characters from your bench will be limited. I sense there are all sorts of synergies to try out but I never had the roster to take advantage of them.The game adds new characters every month, but the new content couldn’t retain me because it was so tedious and time-consuming to level new characters to viability. By the time I quit the game, I was only using five characters.

And I can’t say that I chose those characters with a lot of knowledge or forethought. The game is loaded with granular details but not a lot of explanation. I mean, I guess it is good that my attributes went up …

But how do those attributes translate to game performance? To be honest, I’m not sure. I know they are good to have, and I know how I got them, but I got here by grinding, rather than making hard choices. I’m sure there is a skillful meta game here where I am supposed to evaluate my many buffs and powers against the enemy roster to give myself the best chance of victory … but remember that part where I said I could really only develop five really competitive characters? Yeah, well, that means options are limited — you pretty much just put your best guys out there and bottom-feed.

Lots of details, but few ways to find your way through them. Lots of characters, but few that can be made viable. Lots of content to unlock, but few meaningful differences between fighting Solomon Grundy in Metropolis instead of Sinestro on Thanagar. Lots of currencies to manipulate, but resource gating ensures you can only be working toward one or two critical purchases at a time. There are lots of different horses to ride on the merry-go-round, but they only go in one direction, and you always end up where you started.

resource gating … grr …

There are some curious choices, too. The character roster is peculiar — multiple versions of Green Arrow, for instance, but none of the New Gods. A highly anticipated system of clans and daily missions was added to the game but all it really did was unlock another layer of grind. The player-versus-player ladder seems clogged with an uncommonly high number of cheaters and hackers (at least to judge by community message board complaints), but this appears to go largely unpunished. And as noted, I could never really talk myself into purchases.

Chris Hemsworth as Aquaman? I might buy THAT!

(The game is a damn memory hog, too — at 1.5 GB, it chewed up three times the memory of anything else on my iPhone).

But what probably bothered me the most was the narrative choice of making my enemies into “Wraiths.” They’re the same heroes and villains that are on my own team, for the most part … but they’re all grey, a color scheme that obscures their details. The result is that many of the game’s characters — with all their 3D details and animation — are just grey blobs on the screen. It’s a rotten choice — an answer to a question no one asked — and it robs the game of much of its spectacle. I can already go into battle with multiple versions of Batman on my team. Believe me, I won’t get knocked out of the fantasy if I see Batman on the other team, too. My guys are on the left. I can deal.

nice to see DC’s movie slate supported with in-game content

So what does it all mean? Is DC Legends worth a download? On the one hand, I played the game every day for about nine months, and it was fun enough — an hour a day spent with DC’s characters. Figuring everything out was a challenge and finally beating each layer of content was rewarding. But it was a long ride to nowhere, and it was surprisingly easy to quit the game. I suppose I’d say its ok to date this game, but not to marry it. High level play is too opaque, and too expensive. I suppose you can churn around at low levels and just collect the character of the month (Doctor Poison! Oh boy!) but as soon as you think you’ve seen it all, you should stop playing …

… because you have!

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts. Have I missed some hidden layer of this game? Did I quit just when it was getting good? Should I be more enthusiastic about Doctor Poison? Lay it on me … and please check out my Superhero Games page, where I’ve collected all my many game reviews from here at Longbox Graveyard!

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Tell A Tale of The Guardians of The Galaxy!

Longbox Graveyard #167

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy return to theaters this week. I’m already a fan of the first movie, and of the comics — both old and slightly less so — so it didn’t take a lot of convincing to part with five bucks American to download the first chapter of Telltale Games’ Guardians of the Galaxy on my iPad.

I’d noodled around a bit with Telltale’s Walking Dead Game, and admired the conversational interface and the emotional stakes of that game, but I wasn’t especially eager to dwell in that dour world, and the game never grabbed me.

Guardians, though … Guardians is something different.

This game is frankly irresistible. You’re on the spot right from the opening screen, with ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” pouring from your speakers over an image of the Guardians punching each others’ lights out. It’s just a main menu, but it’s buoyant, happy, and demands your affection, like a puppy that’s jumped in your lap. And the game that follows is every bit as engaging, masterfully capturing the spirit and tone of the film, whisking us away on an adventure that promises a battle with Thanos, but is really more about the relationships at the heart of the not-so-dysfunctional family that is the Guardians.

The set-up could come straight from the comics — the Nova Corps calls in the Guardians to help run down Thanos, and after squeezing the Corps for future favors (or not, as you wish), we are off on an interstellar treasure hunt. There’s an alien enigma, and the Kree show up, and of course Thanos is there to chew the scenery. The game also takes a couple unexpected swerves that I won’t spoil, save to note they are completely in character and reinforce the story’s core theme of families and what makes them tick.

The interface is simple and easy to use — at least on touch screens. Back in the day we would have called this a point-and-click game. Now it’s about swiping and touching, but really, these kinds of controls haven’t changed all that much since Dragon’s Lair. Most action scenes are navigated with “Quick Time” events. Shooting and punching baddies is accomplished by tapping targets on the screen before they disappear. You dodge danger by swiping the screen when prompted. It’s pretty hard to fail, though I still managed it a time or two.

Sometimes you tap or swipe the screen to move things around. Sometimes you walk around and explore places. Star Lord flies around a bit, which was cool. There was a walking mechanic that required incessant screen-swiping that I could have done without, but for the most part, the game’s interaction economy is spot-on: not so much that you can’t appreciate the story, but not so little that you can afford to take your eyes away from the screen.

Even more engaging than the action scenes were the conversations, which don’t seem to find their way to different destinations so much as they unfold with differing tones — you can be thoughtful as Star Lord, or a dick (or both!), it is up to you. Sometimes the best response is to just let the timer run out and say nothing at all. I appreciated how the game let me do things my own way, even while guard-railing my characters — at one point, Gamora said that she’d never heard me talk this way before, causing me to reflect that, yeah, Peter is more self-centered than I was making him out to be. Gamora had rightly detected that it was me who was chatting her up, and not Star Lord! Cool.

And it is Star Lord that you control in this game. Aside from throwing a punch or two on behalf of other characters during the Thanos fight, it is Star Lord’s thoughts and actions that you will steer through each scene. Star Lord’s voice performance is probably the poorest turned in by the sound-alike voice cast, but that’s mostly down to Chris Pratt’s unique range — he really is a master at sliding between sweet and smarmy. The supporting voices are pretty strong, with Rocket being especially on-point. I would love to see succeeding chapters put other members of the Guardians in the driver’s seat, if only to see how Telltale handles a conversation tree when all I can say is, “I am Groot!”

The game’s technical performance left a bit to be desired. I played on my iPad Pro, and the textures still swam around on me from time to time, and a few of the load times had me tapping my toe. Prompts didn’t always respond to my first tap, despite hitting a static green bullseye dead-on. Based on this performance, I’d hesitate to recommend this game for lower-end mobile devices. I would expect console versions to run crisply, but fumbling for buttons on a controller doesn’t sound like a lot of fun compared to tapping screen prompts.

The art gets the job done. The ships and space scenes are tight, and the environments are adequate. The character models have kind of a second-tier CG animated series look to them, but they work — Telltale’s animators do a fine job of wringing sometimes subtle emotion from them. Body animation is about what you’d expect, though I found Star Lord’s walk cycle a little stiff (and he walks a lot in this game). Lip synching is (usually) convincing. Scenes are well-lit, somehow giving us clearly-visible characters even inside the murkiest spaceport dive bar.

But this isn’t really a game that’s going to win you over with screenshots. The heart of the game is … well … its heart. There’s plenty of derring-do in abandoned fortresses and Kree battlecruisers, and the game does deliver with a Guardians vs. Thanos beat-down that works in an Intergalactic Wrestling Federation sort of way, but the real action in this game comes through the conversations and the relationships between the characters. In this, the game reaches back to the core of comics storytelling. After all, in the long run, there’s little doubt our heroes will defeat the big bad … but will Gamora be able to deal with her daddy issues? That’s harder to predict, and its a unique pleasure to play to find out. Yep, it’s all about the feelz, and I welcome it. I already have plenty of games where you solve everything by shooting at it.

I also enjoyed the little touches and side-gags. Rocket and Drax both got off some zingers that were entirely in character. Helping Groot ride out a hangover was appropriately gross (and all I did was listen to it). I loved that a random piece of email from the Universal Church of Truth was helpfully flagged as spam.

The chapter was just long enough for me. I didn’t clock it, but it felt like it took a bit less than ninety minutes to play the whole thing. Content felt equivalent to about three issues of a comic series. The ending came at the right time and didn’t leave me hanging so much as feeling intrigued. Some of the asides clearly set up later chapters — like Gamora’s communication with her sister, Nebula — and I think I saw Moondragon in the bar, but for the most part the chapter can stand on its own, and in this it does a better job than your average, decompressed modern comics issue.

One area where this game was more setup than payoff was in development of emotional relationships. By the end of my play-through, I’d pissed off Rocket, softened-up Gamora, forged a strong bond with Drax, and sealed an alliance with the Nova Corps, but none of that mattered in a major way in this chapter. Given that this game is scheduled to run five chapters, I can’t blame Telltale for deploying their chess pieces for later, and if I wasn’t allergic to pre-orders, I might have opened my wallet for the season pass upsell that followed the closing credits.

Once I’ve cooled off a bit I might even go back and replay the game, to see what happens if I zig instead of zag, and I can see where a player might dive deep into this thing to ferret out the different permutations of every scene. The closing score screens provide a roadmap for where I took the story, compared to the community at large, hinting at the different outcomes.

But I don’t much care about multiple outcomes — for me, I was just glad to while away a rainy afternoon with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and feel a part of their family and their troubles. Emotional reactions of any stripe are difficult to elicit with games, so hats off to Telltale for not only accomplishing this rare feat, but also making it the center of their game. If I come back for the second chapter, it won’t be to learn more about the MacGuffin that permits Peter to speak with ghosts — it will be to see if I can continue to win Gamora’s trust, and to learn if Rocket really means it when he keeps acting like I’m driving him out of the group. The game-making side of my brain tells me the actual number of outcomes isn’t that large, but my illusion of control is such that it is easy to believe my decisions created a unique outcome.

I am happy to suspend my disbelief to ride along with the team. I wasn’t much interested in investing this kind of time and emotion in Telltale’s Walking Dead or Batman games, but this Guardians of the Galaxy game really was delightful. As an experience, it was a bit more than a comic, and a bit less than a movie, but thoroughly unique and enjoyable. I hope I walk out of the theater after seeing Guardians 2 feeling half so positive! Recommended.

NEXT MONTH: #168 Wonder Woman: All All-Star Sensation

The Superman Novels of Elliot S! Maggin

Longbox Graveyard #161

Look — up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … Superman novel?

Guest blogger Ryan McSwain — author of Monsters All the Way Down and the upcoming Four Color Bleed, now on Kickstarter — offers this look back at a literary form that has finally come of age: the superhero novel!

There have been many attempts to capture long-underwear heroes in prose. There are the old Marvel Pocket novels, fast reads packed full of imagination. More recently fans have loved Soon I Will Become Invincible and It’s Superman! Jim Butcher of the Dresden Files even cast his hat in the ring with Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours. Add in indie hits like Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? and Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, and you have plenty to choose from.

If you’re looking for something really special, you want the Superman novels by Elliot S! Maggin, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday.

Maggin is no stranger to longtime Superman fans. He wrote many of the Man of Steel’s four-color adventures in the ‘70s and ‘80s, enjoying long runs on both Action Comics and Superman. He helped define Superman’s world in the Bronze Age, beginning with the landmark “Must There be a Superman?” in 1972.

last son of krypton cover

Trivia: On Earth-2, Elliot S! Maggin wrote the 1978 Superman film.

Maggin wrote Last Son of Krypton based on his own idea for a Superman movie, and it came out the same day as the 1978 film. The book expands on Superman’s origins and early life, including a memorable retcon with Albert Einstein. Superman and Luthor have to work together to defeat an alien tied to Superman’s past.

miracle monday cover

We read this at my support group, Survivors of Man of Steel, and it really helped.

Miracle Monday reads like a milestone event in the life of Superman. Luthor’s latest prison escape allows a demon to escape from hell, and Superman must save the earth without sacrificing his ideals. It’s a surprisingly modern story, but it holds true to the characters.

Maggin’s Superman, both in the comics and novels, resides in an era of the Big Blue Boyscout’s history that is currently overlooked. The collective consciousness of comic fans holds plenty of nostalgia for the frenzied creativity of the Golden Age, the naïve splendor of the Silver Age, or the crafted Post-Crisis continuity. For whatever reason, people aren’t reminiscing over the period when Clark Kent was a news anchor with Lana Lang and Luthor still broke out the purple and green tights.

Which is a shame, because the ’70s and early ’80s have a wonderful balance between classic Superman and mature themes. Nowhere is this more on display than in Maggin’s novels. At no point do you feel these stories are ashamed of their origins. Sure, Superman battles a mischievous imp from the fifth dimension. Why wouldn’t he? We’re here to have fun, right?

Maggin somehow takes these absurd elements and puts them into a believable context. He describes elements like Superman’s microscopic vision in detail, just enough to make you say, “Hey, that actually makes sense.” When Superman and Luthor head off into space, it feels natural in this fantastic reality.

Something modern adaptations get wrong, with the possible exception of Smallville, is the relationship between Superman and Luthor. The Bronze Age Luthor is still a villain, but he’s like the Flash’s Rogues Gallery. This Luthor has never killed anyone, which allows Superman to take a different approach to his capers.

In Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, Luthor takes on the role of almost a secondary protagonist. Maggin also explores the childhood friendship between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, showing where things went wrong. It’s tragic and intriguing, and it adds so much to the dynamic.

A little bonus trivia for you: The title Miracle Monday comes from a fictitious Superman holiday celebrated on the third monday in May. The concept later appears in Superman #400 (1984) and Superman/Batman #80 (2011). Maggin later imported Kristin Wells, an important character from Miracle Monday, into the DC universe as Superwoman.

superwoman

DC Comics Presents Annual #2 (1983). But Lois Lane was still the first Superwoman way back in Action Comics #60 (1943).

I have only one complaint about these two wonderful books. Superman exists in this fantastic world, but the rest of the DC universe is missing. Luthor is there, and other villains are mentioned, but none of them show up. The Guardians of the Universe make a guest appearance, but Hal Jordan is nowhere in sight. Superman and Luthor are on their own to save the day, which serves the story, but it leaves me wishing Maggin had written a Justice League novel to complete the trilogy. Fortunately, he wrote a fantastic novel adaptation of Kingdom Come and a Generation X novel I still need to read.

If the idea of an entire comic universe in a book intrigues you, I have good news. Four Color Bleed is my attempt at a massive comic book event in novel form. It’s all the fun of a summer crossover without having to chase down the tie-in issues. It’s inspired by my love for comics from the Golden Age to now, and it captures the fun and imagination of the paneled page. It’s for fans of series like Astro City, Starman, and All-Star Superman.

fcb centered cover.png

artist-grid

The artists of Four Color Bleed: Rian Gonzales, Weshoyot Alvitre, Ben Zmith, Morgan Perry (aka Geauxta), Ben Cohen, Kevin Kelly, Adam Prosser, and Chris “Chance!” Brown.

Four Color Bleed is currently on Kickstarter. I’ve lined up eight fantastic artists for the project. Their illustrations will accompany fictional encyclopedia entries in the style of the old Who’s Who series, to expand the world of Four Color Bleed and its huge cast of characters. Any support would be incredible, so head on over to the Kickstarter and help us make it happen.

titania-for-site-copy.png

Thanks, Ryan … now I’ve got two superhero novels I need to track down. No, make that three superhero novels … I’ve just backed Ryan’s new novel, and I hope Longbox Graveyard’s readers will join me! We Silver Age fans have got to stick together!

NEXT: Longbox Soapbox (Summer 2016 Edition)

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