Monday, January 30, 2012

The Ark Addendum - Punch's Transformation - Counterpunch

Oh, I don't like that... it's been a week, and no new content since the last addendum.  Ah, well, what can I do?  Still very busy these days.  I'm toying with a new series to review for a while, though.

Anyway, as promised, the transformation sequence for Counterpunch.  It's drawn very much in the style of last week's Spacepunch transform.  He's a pretty cool character, I'd love to see a really good writer tackle him.  So much story potential.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Ark Addendum - Punch's Transformation - Spacepunch!

Howdy, gang!  I'm very busy today, working on a project that I hope to be able to talk about soon, so commentary will be minimal.  Today's Ark Addendum is a Headmasters Transform: Spacepunch!  Spacepunch is the name of the Autobot form of Punch in Japan.  It's a pretty nice conversion, as far as they go.  Next week I'll probably go ahead and upload Counterpunch.  Hope you enjoy!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Death’s Head Review: Marvel Heroes #33 – The Brute and the Bounty Hunter!

Death’s Head’s final appearance (to date) came in March 2011, within the pages of Marvel Heroes, a magazine-style format aimed at younger readers and published by Panini (who now hold the Marvel UK licence). On the cover – fighting for space among the other features and a ‘Free Vortex Blaster’ – is a pretty good Death’s Head and Hulk by Simon Williams. They are both facing the same direction, so it doesn’t really portray the promise of the caption: “Hulk vs Death’s Head! ‘Nuff Said!”.

The creatives involved were: pencils and inks by Simon Williams; colours by Jason Cardy and Kat Nicholson; letters by Tim Warren-Smith and editor Ed Hammond. The writer responsible for this resurrected guest-spot was, of course, creator Simon Furman.

This story is actually in two halves, the first part being “The Hero Inside” by Ferg Handley and John Ross. We begin with Bruce Banner meeting with a facsimile Betty Ross. Realising he has been duped by General Thunderbolt, he promptly goes green and tussles with the Hulkbusters for a few pages, before getting tagged with an electronic device that brings Banner’s consciousness to the surface.

Thunderbolt and S.H.I.E.L.D. Assistant Director Maria Hill arrive to explain the situation: an alien race called the D’Bari are threatening to conquer Earth (their own homeworld was destroyed by the Phoenix in X-Men #135). They have demonstrated sufficiently advanced weaponry to cause concern, but in order to capture Earth intact, they have issued a challenge of champions. As Earth’s champion must be human (thus ruling out Thor etc.), they have decided that Hulk is their best chance for victory.

Banner/Hulk agrees, and the D’Bari are told that the challenge has been accepted. They respond by urging haste, saying their own champion is not known for his patience. We see a familiar silhouette and a metallic arm pulling on brown gauntlets. “Especially when there’s a fee at stake, yes?”

“The Brute and the Bounty Hunter” begins on the Blue Area of the Moon, where Banner/Hulk is in the ruined Kree city, waiting for his opponent. Monitoring nearby, S.H.I.E.L.D. discover that, sure enough, there isn’t much time left before the neural regulator fails and Hulk’s personality returns.

With his payment of ten thousand shanix confirmed, Death’s Head teleports into battle. He tosses Hulk around and they exchange a few punches. Meanwhile Thunderbolt is conspiring with one of his officers, Yoth, to wait until Hulk has won, then attack him while he is exhausted and weakened.

In the D’Bari ship, the commanders are arguing. Apparently their show of strength and threatened invasion is one almighty bluff – hence their reliance on hired help. One of them, G’Aspx, is repelled at the thought of using a bounty hunter (having lost his lifemate to the mercenary Tyrus Krill). He teleports to the moon and finds an old Kree cannon, vowing Death’s Head will not live to enjoy his earnings.

Back to the duel, Death’s Head’s attacks have been wearing Hulk down, and the mean, green characteristics start to resurface. Lurking nearby in a Hulkbuster suit, Yoth is waiting to strike as G’Aspx gets ready to fire on Death’s Head. But the mechanoid’s internal sensors detect the weapons-lock of G’Aspx’s cannon – he realises the double-cross, immediately cancels the deal and offers Hulk a plan.

Hulk punches out Death’s Head, then leaps over him to G’Aspx. He lifts up the cannon and redirects its fire to the orbiting D’Bari ship, ending their threat. Back on his feet, Death’s Head returns the favour by blasting Yoth before he could attack.

Yoth confesses all, and Death’s Head offers Hulk the chance for payback. In the S.H.I.E.L.D. base, something teleports behind Thunderbolt and a large green finger taps him on the shoulder…

It’s easy to pick holes in this story: would Earth really be threatened by a D’Bari? Is Hulk really the best choice of champion – especially without the power of his monster rage? If Hulk lost, how were S.H.I.E.L.D. planning on telling everyone on Earth they had pack their bags? For a story like this, I guess the only important question is: does it entertain? And for that, I’d say it earns about half marks.

For a 13-page story, far too much time is spent setting up the premise (which, as I’ve noted, seems pretty thin). It doesn’t take much to put Death’s Head’s against an opponent – the only motive he needs is a contract. Setting up the D’Bari plot means we only get a few pages of the headline fight – and that doesn’t really get beyond the introductions.

The double-double-cross is trademark Furman, as is Death’s Head and Hulk trading opponents. I’m not sure there’s enough space to make it work here, and perhaps cutting down to a single act of treachery might have given the story a bit of needed elbow-room.

Moreover, there is something of the deus ex machina about how this is resolved. Death’s Head displays some very specific sensors to pick out, not only a threatening weapon, but the specific race aiming it. He also manages to talk sense to a half-crazed Hulk very quickly.

While it’s great to see Death’s Head return (there really isn’t much he won’t do for ten thousand shanix), the character does little more here than go through the motions. While the way he turns on his employers is fair enough (if a little sudden), his initial tactics against the Hulk lack his usual cunning. In a straight fight, Hulk must surely be his superior in power, yet Death’s Head deals with him as if he were little more than, say, Backbreaker. There’s also a little too much tough-guy and not enough dry wit, so I don’t think he’ll be winning over many new fans from this cameo.

Simon Williams’ artwork is nicely rendered, the inking is solid and the colours are strong. Death’s Head’s appearance is equal to many of his previous stories and a lot of respect is being paid to the character, including some of the original touches (such as the raised mechanical eyebrow). The movement in the panels seems oddly two-dimensional: the protagonists don’t seem to be really hitting each other with any impact. I know this has a younger readership, so perhaps has to tone down the violence, but Hulk and Death’s Head are reeling from punches that don’t even seem to connect.

In terms of Death’s Head’s chronology, this story struggles to find a place. He is human-scale and in his original uniform, so unless is happened between his encounter with Doctor Who and Dragon’s Claws, it presumably occurred right after he was stolen from Lupex, but before he became Transformer-scale. It’s probably not worth worrying about, since I assume the ‘Marvel Heroes’ stories are outside regular continuity.

And that concludes my Death’s Head reviews. It’s been great fun to revisit these old issues, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for a much-overlooked character. Thanks to all who took part in discussing the adventures of everyone’s favourite freelance peacekeeping agent. I hope you enjoyed it, yes?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SWTOR: Let's play "Tag, you're dead!"

Greetings again, Blogspot readers. I will not speak of the current "Anti-SOPA Anti-PIPA" movements because ... well ... because it is time to speak of Star Wars! (Though, should SOPA and PIPA pass, who knows what anyone will be able to talk about anymore ... )

So 2 weeks ago, when I had my last real post, I said I would talk about Flashpoints in my next post ... well, I have been unable to find anyone to group up with and have a mentionable Flashpoint. Instead, I shall bring you tales of PvP. As with any MMORPG in this day in age, there is the area where you can go questing, and then there is the area that you can combat other players of an opposing alliance (and sometimes the same alliance). SWTOR presents these player versus player zones as Warzones; small instanced arenas where players on opposing teams fight towards an objective. One such Warzone is called Huttball, a warzone where each team (comprised of same and opposing faction members) must run to the center of the arena, grab a ball, and bring it to the opposing side. Think of it like its a football game. Grab the ball, take it to your opponents side. They must defend their side. If they kill the ball carrier, they get the ball.

The premise for this is that one of the illustrious Hutt cartels is sponsering the game. Thusly, he has a grand view of the two teams doing their best to kill each other.

I will upload a bunch more images so you can see what it looks like in there.

So the PvP aspect is fun. Not exactly something I would sell the game on, it is much less story interactive, mostly because it cannot be story interactive. Definitely check out the game, though.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Ark Addendum - Fire on the Mountain (part 2)

Hola, amigos!  Time for me to finish out the models from Fire on the Mountain, a middle season one episode of the G1 Transformers cartoon. The models this week are some nice industrial landscapes, which are pretty cool.  Decepticons are always raiding factories and power plants... they're like candy to the 'Cons!  Anyway, hope you enjoy.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Death’s Head Review: S.W.O.R.D. #1-5 – No Time To Breathe

For more than a decade after his death at the hands of Minion, Death’s Head remained deactivated. But, true to maximum that only Uncle Ben stays dead in comics, he resurfaced in 2005 as a supporting character in the five-issue run of S.W.O.R.D. As Death’s Head only appears briefly, and the short-lived run makes up a complete story, I’ll look at them as a whole.

The creative line-up ran as follows: Kieron Gillen, writer; Steven Sanders, pencils; Craig Yeung, inks; Matt Wilson, colours; Dave Lanphear, letters and editor Nick Lowe.

The covers are quite a mixed bag. The first three, by John Cassaday and Laura Martin, are all portrait-style: the first is a standard team-assembly of S.W.O.R.D. commander Abigail Brand standing in front ofBeast, Sydren and Lockheed. The second is co-commander Henry Gyrich with some sinister underlighting standing before an ‘Aliens Go Home’ message. The third is a semi-comical one of the little dragon Lockheed, wreathed in fire and brandishing a couple of handguns.

The last two covers are by Mike del Mundo, and have a more realistic style, albeit with a much more surreal composition. While they are both interesting to look over, I’m not sure either would have me grabbing it off the shelves (although the series was cancelled by that point). The difference in styles is jarring, although the biggest problem is the overall depiction of Beast. All five covers show Hank McCoy’s flat, feline face instead of the long-snouted version drawn by Sanders. It’s each artist’s choice, I suppose, but such inconsistency for a main character between cover and inside pages feels wrong.

Now to the story. For the uninitiated, the Sentient World Observation and Response Department is the alien-facing counterpart of S.H.I.E.L.D. From its orbital space station, The Peak, it seems to operate as a mix of Deep Space 9/Babylon 5 and Men In Black – monitoring and negotiating with Earthbound aliens.

In what seems a typical day, Abigail Brand is confronted by a number of red alerts: a fleet of Drenx pirate ships are threatening Earth; a mysterious signal has been picked up; and her alien half-brother, pursued by a ruthless bounty hunter, is seeking sanctuary. Putting the affable Sydren in charge of negotiations with the Drenx, Brand heads off to deal with her wastrel brother, Lothi, who has stolen an valuable artefact.

The bounty hunter turns out to be Death’s Head, appearing by hologram to introduce himself as a ‘freelance personnel recovery specialist’ and offer Brand a cut of the bounty. When given a flat refusal, he quickly accepts – only to activate his spacecraft’s stealth mode, blast a hole in The Peak and steal Lothi anyway.

Brand gets Beast and Lockheed ready to pursue, but first she needs find out how to overcome the stealth technology. She visits a top-security prisoner – a charming robot called Unit – who provides her with the answer. But while Brand is away chasing Death’s Head, her co-commander Gyrich is undermining her to their superiors. He begins putting into action plans to extradite all the aliens on Earth.

The S.W.O.R.D. agents find and board Death’s Head’s vessel, only to be caught by its owner. The real surprise comes with the scale – Death’s Head towers above them, Transformer-size. There follows a lopsided battle where Brand’s team try to stay alive (although they do manage to cost the mechanoid an optic sensor, as well as Beast suggesting the classic ‘freelance peacekeeping agent’ as a new title) before escaping with Lothi.

Meanwhile, Gyrich mobilises S.W.O.R.D. against the resident alien super-heroes (Noh-Varr, Adam X, Hepzibah, Beta Ray Bill etc) and with surprise and low cunning, manages to round up almost all of them.

Ignorant of this, and having returned to The Peak, Brand is again called by a surprisingly-cheerful Death’s Head: “Hello again, human friends. You catch me in the middle of doing a little accounting. It appears you owe me one alien, one artefact, one eyeball and whatever is costs me to refit the gaping hole in the side of my ship.” They agree a deal: the artefact in return for free passage for Lothi. Brand is then captured by Gyrich and thrown into the brig.

While Lockheed is hunted through the air vents (which explains the John McClane style of cover for #3), Beast confronts Unit, who he deduces has been putting his unique problem-solving ability to Gyrich’s service. Beast then frees Brand, and they escape with the aid of Death’s Head (who has happily accepted this rescue as a new contract).

Some of the threads from the beginning of the story now begin to pay off: the mysterious signal turns out to be a teleportation beam for Metroliths – giant rock-monsters who invade Mount Rushmore. Though deposed as S.W.O.R.D. commander, Brand feels obligated to resolve this. She attempts to communicate with the rocks as Death’s Head fights to keep them in check (in a characteristic show of dark humour, he loses his temper at being knocked down and tries to fire a missile at a Metrolith: “No deadly force, Brand said. It’s possible you could live through this, yes?”). Brand eventually convinces the Metroliths that Mount Rushmore is not a rock creature in distress and they quickly apologise.

The other story thread comes from Sydren’s ongoing negotiations with the Drenx (mainly by offering the pirates endless cups of tea). As Sydren is taken away by Gyrich’s men, the murderous aliens learn that the base is in disarray and that Unit is being held prisoner. They force their way into the detention cells and Unit (his face now adjusted from human to Drenx) helpfully tells the pirates how they can capture the entire station.

The Peak quickly and bloodlessly falls to the Drenx, who then set up an ambush for the returning Brand and Beast. The ambush is quickly reversed by the arrival of Death’s Head and his minigun attachment. While the mechanoid bravely holds off the pirate ships (“Can’t … give up … now … Just … think … of … the … bonus.”) Brand frees all the alien superheroes, who tear the invaders to shreds.

Pursued by Beast, the chief Drenx seeks help from Unit – who asks for his liberty in return. Before McCoy can stop him, the Drenx frees the robot. With a sinister look in his eye, Unit kills the Drenx with a thought, then allows Beast to re-activate his energy cage. He explains that he helped the Drenx only to ensure a peaceable takeover, but warned Brand about the ambush because he does not resent his prison. He is happy to remain as the indispensable advisor to S.W.O.R.D. while he considers his next long-term move.

The series concludes with Brand forcing the resignation of the disgraced Gyrich, and hence becoming the sole commander. Death’s Head cheerfully departs with his fee while Brand and Beast meet with the high-commander of the Drenx fleet. In a neat turnaround they point to the number of superheroes on the planet and suggest that S.W.O.R.D. exists not to protect Earth from aliens, but to protect aliens form the Earth. The Drenx quickly take the hint and take off, leaving Brand and Beast to enjoy the Earthrise together.

The whole series makes for a really good romp. Though following the single narrative of Gyrich’s plan, there’s still plenty going on in each issue. Plot threads are nicely set-up (the Metroliths, the return of Death’s Head, the Drenx threat) and developed logically. The whole idea of an alien-specific agency has a lot of potential for story, and it’s a pity this run got cancelled.

As the main character in all this craziness, Abigail Brand comes across as the most moral, level-headed and capable. These are all good (and standard-issue) qualities for a leader, and there are some moments of dry humour in her tough-as-nails attitude, although her borderline-infallibility does make her a little dull at times.

Beast has long since been established a genius-intellect court jester, and he makes for a nice pairing for Brand, both as sidekick and romantic foil. He also gets to interact with Unit – one of the best characters in the title.

The concept of Unit is that he was created, many ages ago, but a utopian race that sought to bring paradise to the universe and realised they needed hard measures to do so. They would drop a ‘unit’ robot on a difficult planet, who would begin manipulating its rulers until it became compliant or destroyed. These utopians were seen as tyrants by other races and eventually annihilated, leaving only Unit – who must redeem their memory by bringing peace to the universe. This explains his endless patience and helpful attitude, while at the same time giving out a ‘Hannibal Lector’ vibe of a deranged genius in a cage.

As for the other mechanoid of the series, I really enjoyed Death’s Head’s return. For a character that’s only ever really be written by one writer, Kieron Gillen did a great job of capturing the essence of the mechanoid, while adding his own touch. Nicely menacing to begin with (and the idea about making him Transformer-scale was inspired), Death’s Head comes into his best when he has Brand as a client, combining polite subservience with light disrespect in a way that seems more British in tone than Furman’s original (a mercenary Jeeves, rather than the lone gunslinger, perhaps). I’d happily read more of this character from this writer.

The character design of Death’s Head is new, and very well done by Steven Sanders. The original ‘battered body-armour’ look is given the ‘blue samurai’ colours and some impressive weapon attachments (mace, missile etc). The skull-head looks like a hockey-mask with smaller tusks and bigger horns – most of the personality is conveyed by the deep-set glowing red eyes.

The rest of the artwork looks great and flows nicely – there are a few impressive splash panels, but it doesn’t interrupt the story moving apace. It can sometimes veer into cartoony, although that’s hard to avoid when you have lots of non-humans as lead characters. And there are some lovely background touches that appear on a re-read (Death’s Head skull-themed furry dice in his spacecraft, the holographic ‘yes’/’no’ icons that appear when he makes his offer).

In terms of where this belongs in the Death’s Head chronology, my guess would be the start of his career, post-Lupex. The giant size would suggest it occurs before he met The Doctor, as does the fact that he seems to discover his ‘freelance peacekeeping agent’ catchphrase. As this is 2005, it would allow him to change his uniform, get a new face and hop over to the Transformers universe in time to begin the hunt for Galvatron (nice timing by Gillen there).

Next issue: the very last (so far) appearance of Death’s Head as he takes on The Incredible Hulk in “The Brute and The Bounty Hunter”

Issues 1-5 were collected (with a marketing-savvy ‘X-Men’ prefix added) as X-Men: S.W.O.R.D. – No Time To Breathe

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Ark Addendum - Fire on the Mountain (part 1)

I'm back!  I hope you'll forgive my two week absence, my wife and I took a couple of weeks off to relax and enjoy the holidays.  But now I'm back, and bringing you another edition of The Ark Addendum!  This week, I'll go back to something I touched upon about a year ago, the G1 episode Fire on the Mountain. 

This was a slightly odd episode, all told.  It starts out way up in the arctic north, where they dig out Skyfire.  It seems to me that, if it was that easy to get him out, they'd have done so in Fire in the Sky.  I wonder if that episode was finalized, and then someone changed their mind about killing off the character.  Anyway, that's why there is an arctic landscape amidst all the other more traditional South American fare. 

Next week I'll finish off this episode.  Sadly, I don't have Luisa's character model.  I think that, next to Chip and Arkeville, she was probably the most prominent human introduced in S1. 

In other news, it's been out that Bill and I will be attending Roll Out Roll Call in the UK, and we're pretty psyched about it.  Our Bios are now up on the show website.  You should go and check them out, Bill and I had fun making them. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

SWTOR: The Good, the Bad, and the Butt-Ugly

Hello again friends and foes. It is time for another SWTOR update from the amazing Rob!

Sorry for the late posting today. Sick and all. So SWTOR is truly a land mark game. They sell it as a story driven MMORPG and it rocks the floor off of your expectations. If you are familiar with the Mass Effect game franchise, then all you need to know is that it is a multiplayer version of that with auto aim. For anyone who has never played the game, then what you should know is that it is highly cinematic and includes cut scenes and voice overs plus animations for all quests and even sometimes just general areas. As great as I find this game, I will admit that it is not without its faults. There are still plenty of bugs in the game, from clipping issues in gameplay and cutscenes, to things like irrational numbers for some stats. It is still a truly amazing game even with the issues it has. Let's not forget, this is merely the first month of the game release. Any other MMO that has been worth its weight had just as many problems at release. They all do.

Last week, I mentioned in my post that you need to make sure you create a character that you will be able to look at. I thought based on my history from playing the the beta, I knew what I was getting myself into. I forgot. Meet 'Robear'. His name ... is nothing that screams 'Star Wars'. His face is hideous. He is abnormally tall. What have I done? I thought I had a good character when I initially made him, but after playing him to level 22, it occurred to me that all I want to do when I play this character is to punch him in the face. And his name ... Robear? Terrible name. After a week of watching him in cut scenes, I had enough. I created him from scratch, which was a huge pain because the guys I had been playing with were already a little higher than me and now had to wait for me to create a new character. But finally, I got my new character to a playable level. Meet 'Griffon'. All the same everything as my last character, just much easier on the eyes. I have played plenty of MMOs. This is truly the first time I remade a character because I couldn't stand to look at him.

Next week, I shall discuss Flash Points. They are the most fun in an instance you will likely ever have.