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All posts for the month March, 2013

I vividly remember a discussion on a gaming podcast a few years ago about how the overabundance of collector’s editions has gotten ridiculous, and that it makes absolutely no sense for the first game in a series to get a special edition release. According to the hosts of the podcast, a franchise should have to prove itself before it can be deemed worthy of a collector’s edition release. Well, if any series is more than deserving, it’s StarCraft. Personally, I love collector’s editions, albeit only when they’re done well. Since they’ve become the norm, it isn’t uncommon for publishers to make a quick cash grab by releasing a sub-par package with a bloated price. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Collector’s Edition. Unlike many recent special editions that feature unique but forgettable trinkets, HotS plays it safe by including the standard special edition fare. Specifically, you get a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray combo, a soundtrack, an art book, a mouse pad, and a few exclusive digital avatars. As far as I’m concerned, the art book and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. HotS also has a digital special edition: the Digital Deluxe edition. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, I recommend the collector’s edition. The digital deluxe edition is nearly the same price, but only includes the digital avatars. This review will make frequent mention of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, so if you haven’t done so, I recommend reading my review of it here.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Collector's Edition

The mousepad has a nice cozy spot on my desk at work.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: March 12, 2013

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Kerrigan’s detailed facial expressions really add to the believability of her character.

If you still haven’t played StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, you might want to avoid this spoiler heavy paragraph. WoL ended with Jim Raynor teaming up with Valerian Mengsk, and then successfully using an ancient artifact to turn Sarah Kerrigan back into a human. HotS starts shortly after the events of WoL. Raynor and Kerrigan are still on Char, and Valerian Mengsk is testing whether Kerrigan still has the ability to control the swarm (hint: she can). Soon enough Arturus Mengsk crashes the party with a battalion of troops intent on killing Raynor and Kerrigan. Kerrigan escapes and manages to meet up with the Hyperion, only to find out that Raynor has supposedly been killed. Devastated, she summons the zerg swarm to destroy Arcturus Mengsk.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Peter Lee

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Peter Lee

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No other game gives you control of an alien force in as gratifying a way StarCraft.

It isn’t exactly a secret that HotS has you playing the bad guy (or more accurately, the bad girl). Mengsk might be an evil dictator, but Kerrigan goes to extreme lengths to see him dead. To amass an army large enough to kill Mengsk, Kerrigan must unleash the zerg on countless planets, at the expense of millions of civilian lives. Although I’ve never seen this scenario explored in a video game, the original Dune books had a protagonist who was responsible for at least as much bloodshed. I find this angle more interesting than your standard good vs. bad scenario, but I’m still unsure of how I feel about Kerrigan as a character. I don’t tend to like the “badass chick” archetype who’s always in a bad mood and scowling, and Kerrigan definitely fits this mold. On the flip side, Kerrigan is about as strong  a female lead as they come, and to be fair, she has a reason to be pissed. Every once in a while, we see a hint of her soft side; it was these scenes that made me feel sympathetic towards her struggle, and did the best job of developing her as a multidimensional character. Unfortunately, these scenes were too few and far between, and I feel like Blizzard fell just short of creating a truly unique video game protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, Kerrigan is still one of the deeper video game protagonists, but I feel like she wasn’t explored to her full potential. Like it or not, Kerrigan appears as a playable character in nearly every mission, so prepare to spend a lot of time with her.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

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HotS has plenty of lovely assets.

Like in WoL, you spend downtime between missions hanging out on your ship. This time around, your ship is a massive living organism called the Leviathan, and your crew is a hodgepodge of alien misfits. Your crewmates show up one by one throughout the game, meaning that the ship is a fairly boring place for the first dozen missions. Initially, I found the ship sections much less interesting than in WoL, but as time wore on, and more characters appeared, it became nearly, but not quite, as interesting as WoL’s Hyperion. The Hyperion had more rooms to explore, and more objects and people to interact with, but HotS’s alien freak show has its moments. Among the new cast is a creature called Abathur who creates new zerg mutations. Abathur quickly became not only my favorite new character in StarCraft, but one of my favorites in all of video games. He’s basically an unwittingly sinister version of Data from Star Trek: Next Generation. Although he’s essentially emotionless, he often becomes jealous of foreign zerg mutations that he’s incapable of creating himself. As always, Blizzard‘s character have superbly written dialogue, which is well delivered by their voice actors. Perhaps by biggest complaint is that spending so much time with the zerg really diminishes their mysteriousness, and the fear factor. The zerg are no longer scary, which I guess was inevitable.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

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This giant swarm host is one of Hots’s excellent boss battles. Pausing to take a screen cap nearly resulted in Kerrigan getting fried in alien bile.

For fans of violent alien swarms, no other game puts you in the hot seat quite as nicely HotS. Nearly every one of HotS’s 27 missions has you amassing at least a hundred units and then wreaking havoc, which is as satisfying as it sounds. Like in WoL, Blizzard does an awesome job of providing unique mission scenarios, most of which subtly introduce you to a new zerg unit. Overall, the difficulty felt more challenging than in WoL, which seemed appropriate given that many gamers have been playing StarCraft II for over two years now. One mission in particular does an excellent job of showing off just how skilled Blizzard are at their craft. The mission is essentially a boss rush; giving you control of Kerrigan and a small band of zerg as she tackles three massive bosses. The bosses are super challenging; forcing you to memorize attack patterns and utilize every ability in Kerrigan’s arsenal. This mission does a great job of showing off just how well individual units control; in fact, you feel like you’re fighting a boss in World of Warcraft.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

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One mission has you controlling the Hyperion in a fun mini-game-like space sequence. I really appreciate that Blizzard takes the time to incorporate all kinds of unique gameplay elements in the single player that can’t be experienced online.

In the review I wrote for WoL, I mentioned that although I thought the art design was mostly really good, the cartooniness was a little bit much at times. In HotS, the design is as cartoony as ever,  but I think I’ve started to embrace it. HotS’s colorful pallete is actually fairly refreshing compared to the muted greys of many modern military sci-fi games. Actually, HotS’s pre-rendered cut-scenes (which are as excellent as always) are much darker and grittier than the in-game engine, and look a lot more like the aforementioned games. Maybe it’s because the game features fewer humans, but there are a lot less soul patches and cycling shades this time around. That being said, Zeratul still looks like a reject from a kids fantasy cartoon.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Peter Lee

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Peter Lee

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Meet Abathur, my new favorite character in the StarCraft universe.

Included with the collector’s edition is a really impressive 140-page hardcover art book. I say it’s really impressive because I’ve never seen such a high quality art book included with a game. The cover has an embossed design, and the paper is nice and glossy. A grand total of 25 artists are featured, and surprisingly, the editors actually took the time to list which artists were responsible for each piece! As I’ve mentioned in previous art book reviews, it’s fairly rare for gaming art books to give proper credit to their artists.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

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Once you complete the single player, you can replay the missions with new added twists.

There are three sections in the art book: one for each race. As expected, Blizzard can afford to hire excellent concept artists, so the quality of each piece is top-notch. Because the game is centered around the zerg, they get the most attention. Since their inception, the zerg have really taken on a look that sets them apart from the creatures they were inspired by (xenomorphs and tyrannids). Increasingly, the zerg design has become less about organic goo, and more about armor plating, jagged teeth, spines, and claws. Essentially, the zerg have started to look more like dinosaurs, which isn’t a bad thing. My favorite part of HotS takes place on ancient world, where the zerg predecessors, called the primal zerg, roam free. The primal zerg are even closer in appearance to dinosaurs, and their world is composed of lush, prehistoric tropical environments. Artist Peter Lee’s illustrations of these environments are my favorite concepts within the book. Even his “rough sketches”, as they’re labeled within the book, look incredible.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Brian Huang

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Brian Huang

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Kerrigan facing her demons. Blizzard proves some of the best pre-rendered cutscenes in the industry.

Also included with the collector’s edition is the soundtrack to HotS. As I mentioned in my WoL review, StarCraft‘s soundtracks have always been excellent, and this is no exception. The soundtrack is composed of equal parts orchestrated segments, and equal parts moody electronic sections. I’ve never been a fan of big, bombastic orchestrated soundtracks, but as video games have gotten bigger, they’ve increasingly becomes the norm. Personally I prefer the ambient electronic portions, but I might be in the minority with that opinion. Either way, the soundtrack is really well done, and it’s gotten a fair degree of airtime in my car.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

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Seveon of the 27 missions are bonus “Evolution Missions”, that have you picking between one of two possible upgrades for a given unit.

In addition to the soundtrack, the collector’s edition also comes with a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray. If you’re expecting a full making-of HotS, you’ll be disappointed, but as a bonus it still has a certain degree of entertainment value. There are two featurettes that give you a glimpse of the making of the game: a section on the cinematics, and a section on the recording of the audio voice-overs. Both of these sections are of the same quality as any of the best making-of documentaries, which is too bad, because they left me yearning for more! Also included is a section on the eSports legacy of StarCraft, which is basically a fan-made swansong to the community, and an in-depth explanation of how to use the in-game map editor. Both of these segments were well done, but I would’ve easily traded them for more making-of. The video also includes your typical extras like trailers and production stills.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

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Meet the Leviathan’s crew. Although I can understand why Blizzard had to make the zerg more human, I think it would’ve been more fun had they been more evil.

Like I said in my WoL review, I’m a pretty average online player, so I can’t comment with any authority on the balance of HotS’s new online units. The protoss get three new air units: the Mothership and Oracle, which are both support units, and the Tempest, which is a long range attack ship. Terrans see the return of hellbats: flamethrower wielding mechs that deal splash damage, and the new widow mines, which are fast moving, mobile mines that are cloaked when set in the ground.  Zerg get vipers, which are air attack units with support abilities, and swarm hosts, which are units that spawn multiple, zergling-like units from crevasses on their back. Apart from the new units, the online experience hasn’t changed a whole lot since WoL. There are a bunch of new unlockable portraits and achievements, but other than that you’re looking at the same multiplayer options and interface from WoL. Some of these rewards are incredibly hardcore to achieve compared to the standards of other games; for example, the Queen of Blades character portrait requires that you win 1000 1v1 online matches. Also, a word of warning: although the online matchmaking is supposed to pit you against players who match your level of experience, everyone playing HotS had to start back at level 1, so expect to get your ass handed to you by scores of StarCraft II veterans.

Although HotS is an expansion, had this not been a Blizzard game, this could easily have been a numbered sequel. Blizzard likes to make massive leap forwards between numbered releases in their series, but the jump from WoL to HotS isn’t far removed from something like Gears of War 2 to Gears of War 3. In fact, this is almost a bigger jump, because you’re in control of an entirely different race and cast of characters than in the previous game. If you enjoyed WoL, you probably already own this game, but if you’re on the fence, I recommend it highly. Furthermore, the collector’s edition is worth the extra cash. The art book and soundtrack could easily have been stand-alone-releases. Like I said with my WoL review, if you’re into military sci-fi and you haven’t given StarCraft a chance, you’re really missing out. Even if you don’t care for the competetive experience, the single-player campaign is excellent, and provides plenty of replay value.

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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm-related images

For anyone who was gaming in the 90’s, StarCraft was a cultural phenomenon that was near unavoidable. If for whatever reason you weren’t playing the game, you had at least several buddies who were, and who would talk about it endlessly. My favorite memory of SC happened when I was in junior high. A friend of mine and I were talking about StarCraft on a bus ride home, and were overheard by another friend who was sitting nearby. Our other friend was a hockey prodigy; a super jock. Overhearing us, he mentioned that he played Starcraft from time to time, and asked if we’d be interested in playing against him online. Furthermore, he encouraged us to team up against him. Neither of us had ever imagined that this sports hero had any interest in video games, so we thought it would be an easy victory. Later that night, he set up the match, and told us he wouldn’t attack until we were both 100% prepared. My close friend and I had one half of the map to ourselves, while he had his own half of the map. Finally we were ready to attack, and ventured into his half of the map. To our horror, his half was the ultimate zerg nightmare! After 20 minutes of play, he had managed to fill every single available space with the most perfect, symmetrical base I’ve ever seen, even to this day. Every square inch of space was filled with zerg structures, all laid out in perfect order. Obviously we were obliterated. Everyone was playing StarCraft, probably even your mom and/or dog.

I’ve often held that StarCraft is the most perfect, balanced competitive game of all time. Every race plays completely differently, but somehow there’s no one race that’s obviously overpowered. Announced back in 2007, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty had the biggest shoes to fill. Personally, I was just happy the series was getting a sequel, but it was obvious that this game would face perhaps more scrutiny than any game ever. Due to my lack of a gaming PC back in 2010, when SCII:WoL was released, I was only able to play the campaign recently. Now, I’d like to emphasize that this post will be focusing mostly on the campaign, and from the angles that Xenomorphosis knows best: sci-fi horror and military sci-fi. I’ll leave the technical aspects of multiplayer to the thousands of pro players who undoubtedly know ten times more than me about the specific mechanics and subtleties of the game.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty Cover

There are some really great variations of this cover floating around on the interweb.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: July 27, 2010

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A massive battle featuring several new units, including titans and medivacs.

Four years after the events of StarCraft: Brood War, Jim Raynor, space cowboy, is still being hunted by Arcturus Mengsk, emperor of the dominion (the current government). Mengsk also happens to be the man responsible for betraying Kerrigan (Raynor’s love interest) to the zerg. Kerrigan was abandoned on a hostile planet by Mengsk, and was turned into a powerful zerg hybrid: the Queen of the Blades. Raynor is set on restoring Kerrigan to her former self, and has started a rebel group called Raynor’s Raiders who are dead-set on overthrowing the Dominion, and putting Mengsk to justice. Meanwhile, an old friend of Raynor’s, Tychus Findlay, who took a fall for Raynor and subsequently spent the last decade or so doing jail time, has mysteriously appeared. Findlay is by far the most interesting character in SCII:WoL, and it’s never quite clear what his true motives are. Findlay has apparently been contracted by a mysterious group called the Moebius Corporation to retrieve valuable Xel’naga (an ancient race in SC lore) artifacts. Jim agrees to help him, because he needs the cash to fund his rebel efforts. There are several other major players in SCII:WoL, and each one is superbly voice acted and has a memorable personality. SCII:WoL all takes place from the perspective of the terrans (humans), so don’t expect any zerg or protoss missions (although there are actually a few).

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 4

Many of the units from the first SC, including the medics pictured here, are included in the campaign, but aren’t playable online

SCII:WoL’s backstory is rich and interesting, especially for a series that is predominantly known for its multiplayer, and could easily sell millions of copies without any single player whatsoever. Lucky for us, Blizzard cares about providing an excellent single player experience. SCII:WoL is by the far the best example I’ve ever seen of narrative in an RTS game. During the current console generation, in-game storytelling in first person and third person action games progressed immensely, to the point where the games that do it poorly stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking at you Aliens: Colonial Marines). That being said, with the popularity of console games this generation, the RTS genre has fallen a bit to the wayside. I can tell you exactly how narrative is usually dealt with in action games, but in RTS’, not so much. There’s no obvious mold.

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As always, Blizzard delivers kickass cutscenes.

SCII:WoL has over 4 hours of scripted cutscenes, but the degree to which you watch these is often at your discretion. Many of the cinematics take place when you optionally engage with characters in-between missions. Raynor’s flagship, the hyperion, serves as an in-between mission hang-out area where you can explore various sections of the ship, engage in conversation with characters to learn more backstory, or spend credits to earn unit upgrades. I really enjoyed these periods of downtime between combat, and the superb quality of the dialogue during cutscenes in the hyperion was always worth checking out. I’ve come to realize that the games I become the most addicted to are those that intersperse intense action with “downtime”. RPGs do this by having you explore towns in-between dungeons. Essentially, SCs missions are like dungeons, and the hyperion is your town. About three quarters of SC’s cutscenes are experienced optionally in the Hyperion, so you’re missing out on a lot of story if you skip these sections.

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The environments in the campaign are really attractive.

Other RPG-like elements that SCII:WoL incorporates are optional missions, and upgrades for your army units. The optional missions don’t feel like optional missions, because the same level of care was put into them as any mainline mission. There are at least two occasions where you have to chose between one of two story options to progress, although apparently the ending of the game is the same regardless of which decisions you make. The upgrade options allow you to spend credits that you earn in missions to purchase enhancements to your units. Don’t expect any intricate upgrade trees, but the ability to upgrade does let you customize your army to fit your play style, albeit to a small extent.

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The cantina; one of the many areas of the hyperion where you can gather information and purchase upgrades. The arcade cabinet at the left features a playable shooter!

Nearly every mission in the game has bonus objectives. Completing these objectives gives you access to zerg or protoss research credits that can be spent on an additional set of upgrades. The bonus objectives add an extra level of challenge to the campaign missions, and are often required if you wish to earn all the game’s achievements. The achievement system in SCII:WoL acts like an even more difficult set of bonus objectives, often challenging you to beat missions in a certain time-limit, or perform difficult feats of strategy.

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Unique mercenary units can be recruited and purchased in the campaign. These act much like Warcraft III’s hero units, but are much more expendable

The original StarCraft was a game that borrowed heavily from Warhammer 40k, at least visually. To be honest, that’s never bother me very much, because at least they chose a great look to emulate, and did a good job of emulating it. Looking back at SC, it was actually a fairly dark game. Although some of the characters were tongue-in-cheek, the color palette was dark, and the game had a (mostly) gritty realism. Structures looked worn out, units exploded with gore when you killed them, and the zerg were probably the best rip-offs of xenomorphs around. Furthermore, some of the cutscenes acted out like pure homages to Aliens. That all brings me to SCII:WoL, which looks great, but is infected by what I’m going to dub the “WarCraft Taint”.

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Missions can be selected from the bridge of the hyperion.

So what is the WarCraft Taint? When StarCraft came along, Blizzard took great lengths to distinguish the visual style from simply being “WarCraft in Space”. To differentiate it from WarCraft, Blizzard made StarCraft darker and grittier. Several years later, Warcraft III was released, and the Warcraft Taint began. Blizzard is a company that’s excellent at producing graphics engines that perform nicely even on computers with low specs. WarCraft III was a great example of this design philosophy. To achieve this goal, they designed an engine that had a distinctly cartoony look, rather than try to achieve the highest end graphics. Everything was colorful, rounded and blocky, which was fine for WarCraft, because it was always a cartoony series.

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The new marauder units, as featured in the armory.

Fast forward several more years to World of Warcraft. WoW is an example of the cartoon style taken to extreme lengths. In retrospective, much of the concept design is fairly sketchy, for lack of a better term. For what it is, the game looks fine, but it’s essentially generic fantasy art done in a childish style. Yes, I know this opinion is super controversial, but I’ll stand by it. Heck, an entire race is made up of cows that walk on two feet and ride around on fat dinosaurs. It’s great Pixar material.

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The zerg hives are always fun to look at.

StarCraft II, on the other hand, still retains much of the “gritty sci-fi” look that the series is known for, and is overall an excellent looking game, but the Warcraft Taint rears its ugly head every so often. For example, much of the protoss design has gotten more colorful and exaggerated, and the human characters in particular look like stereotypical comic archetypes. Actually, I’m going to go on a limb and say that the human character design is mostly awful (the people, not the units). Raynor looks like Kid Rock, Gabriel Tosh is your typical “rasta guy” with dreadlocks, Rory Swann looks like a dwarf, Valerian Mengsk looks like the main bad guy from Shrek, Kerrigan is a chick with dreadlocks (which was oh so cool in the 90’s), Zeratul has a really silly looking bandana covering his face, and nearly every male character has either a soul patch, cycling shades, or goggles. Basically, the cast is a mishmash of the most rad looking dudes from the 90’s, which as you can imagine looks pretty lame circa 2010. Furthermore, the Warcraft Taint managed to work its way into some of the cutscenes; there’s one in particular where Zeratul and Kerrigan battle it out by launching fireball-like projectiles at each other. During this sequence, I felt like I could easily have been watching a WoW video. Anyways, SCII still looks really good for the most part; it’s just unfortunate that Blizzard has allowed its cartoony sensibilities to creep into its “grittier” properties. Remember, this is the studio that was most recently known for introducing kung fu pandas into its flagship franchise.

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The laboratory, where you can purchase upgrades.

The gameplay in SCII:WoL is as excellent as ever. As usual, gameplay consists of gathering resources, constructing buildings, researching upgrades, and training an army to attack the enemy, all while fending off enemy attacks. The campaign missions always manage to incorporate unique scenarios, meaning that they never play out like your typical online multiplayer match. For example, one mission has you completing objectives while avoiding intermittent flooding by lava, another has you hijacking trains that appear at varying intervals, and another has you stealthily playing as Nova (from the unfortunately cancelled StarCraft Ghost). The variety is really impressive, and each mission finds a way to cleverly teach you how to control a new terran unit. Essentially the entire campaign acts as a comprehensive tutorial on how to play as terrans. Perhaps my only gripe with this, is that the campaign is a little too heavy on tutorial, and would have benefited from having more of the challenging, post-tutorial missions. By the time you finish learning all the new units, the campaign is essentially over.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 1

A really cool feature in the campaign is that you can summon troops via drop pods. I really badly wanted this in the multiplayer.

Instead of just rehashing the units from the original SC and its expansions, 40% of the units in SCII:WoL are brand new. Terrans get new units like the titan (giant mechs), banshees (fast airships that are good against ground units), and my personal favorite, medivacs (air transport ships with healing capabilities). Protoss get units like the stalker (essentially the new dragoon), immortals (also like dragoons), collosi (giant mechs that shoot death rays), and probably the coolest new addition, motherships (which look exactly like you’d expect). Zerg players now have roaches (burrowing units), infestors (spellcasters that can infect units), and nydus worms (giant burrowing worms that spout out zerg units). Personally I like the new additions, but I’m sure a more seasoned player could tell you exactly which units were nerfed, are too overpowered, etc. It’s just nice to see that Blizzard took a risk by switching up the units so drastically.

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Every single mission loading screen has its own awesome illustration. This is the full view of Raynor’s flagship, the hyperion.

As usual, SC: WoL’s multiplayer can either be played online or against AI opponents. Unlike in the original StarCraft, its now extremely easy to join a match, albeit at the expense of match customization options. Essentially you join matches in a “quick match” style, rather than picking from individually hosted games. For whatever reason, Blizzard dropped LAN play from SCII:WoL, which is a shame, because many of my fondest memories of the original were from playing at buddies’ houses. Apparently tournament players are pissed, because they have to rely on unreliable internet play, even when competing from within the same room.

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After completing the campaign, there are additional challenge missions. This game is packed full of content.

Other features I haven’t had time to mention are the Arcade, and the soundtrack. The Arcade allows you to download various mods and game modes, and presents them in a nice, easily manageable interface. Blizzard does a fantastic job of engaging with its community, and the arcade is a clear example of that engagement. Last but not least, SCII:WoL’s soundtrack is fantastic! It’s mainly comprised of moody jazz or electronic arrangements, with a healthy dose of electric guitar interspersed. It perfectly captures the space cowboy vibe of the series, and I must say, I’ve been really appreciating the soundtrack as I play online.

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I’m loving SCII:WoL, and I think it’s an excellent game. Like the first game, I know I’ll be playing it for years to come. Even if you’re not into RTS’, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the campaign if, like me, you dig alien infestations and badass marines in power armor.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty-related images

Comics seem like an ideal medium for science fiction. From an artistic perspective, the possibilities are near infinite, and unlike in other visual mediums (i.e. movies, television, and video games) you’re free to be as imaginative as possible, without having to worry about budget restraints. Narratively, you might not have the same freedom as in a novel, but you should be able to at least parallel the storytelling of any visual medium. Furthermore, the serialized nature of comics lends itself well to an ongoing saga. With all that in mind, you would think that 70-something years of comics would have given us all kinds of classic sci-fi. In places like Europe and Japan, this is the case, but in North America, there’s still a lot to be desired. Sure, the States has given us a million different superhero comics, each of which exhibit elements 0f science fiction, but none of them are what I would consider true sci-fi (or at least not the sci-fi I’m looking for). I doubt my readers will be shocked or offended to hear that I really couldn’t care less for most superheros; sorry folks. The only sci-fi sub-genre that has gotten a decent degree of attention in the States is cyberpunk; perhaps because it’s so visually appealing, and it’s often fairly near future. Otherwise, you’re mostly relegated to media tie-ins with movies or video games; Halo, Gears of War, Star Wars, Ender’s Game, and Aliens come to mind. Luckily, the recent reboot of Prophet is a huge step in the step in the right direction. This review focuses on the first six issues of the reboot, which can be found in the Prophet: Remission trade paperback.

Prophet Remission -- Cover Art Simon Roy

Prophet: Remission TPB Cover — Art Simon Roy

Prophet: Remission TPB
Publisher: Image Comics
Volume: 1
Issues: #21 – 26
Main Writer: Brandon Graham
Illustrators: Simon Roy (Issues 21-23), Farel Dalrymple (Issue 24), Brandon Graham (Issue 25), Giannis Milogiannis (Issue 26)
Colors: Richard Ballerman (issue 21-23), Joseph Bergin (Issues 24, 26), Brandon Graham (Issue 25)
Release Date: 2012

Prophet was originally an Image superhero comic that debuted in 1992. After eleven issues, it was put on hold, and then later continued for another eight issues in 1995. In 2011, Image announced that it had plans to reboot the Prophet series. For whatever reason, they decided to continue the series at issue #21, rather than just starting back at #1. The content of the reboot has (from what I understand) nothing to do with the original series, so I can’t imagine why they bothered to continue with the old numbering. Suffice to say, I’m sure it was due to some strange politics or marketing within Image.

Prophet Issue 24 -- Cover Farel Dalrymple

Prophet Issue 24 Cover — Farel Dalrymple

The revamp comes to us courteousy of writer and artist, Brandon Graham. Previous to Graham‘s work with Prophet, he wrote and illustrated several indie comics that I haven’t read, but have heard are quite good. I spent some time reading Graham’s personal blog; it’s obvious that he’s a big sci-fi fan, and his inspirations range from Miyamoto‘s work on Nausicaa, to Moebius‘ contributions to Métal Hurlant in the 70’s. Anyone with those inspirations is a winner in my book.

Prophet tells the tale of a man named John Prophet who awakens in the distant future, on a planet that seems very alien. His mission is to reignite the empire of man, which has been dormant for (assumedly) many years. To accomplish this task, John must travel to a distant mountain, around which orbits a satellite that he can use to relay a crucial message. After a few issues, the story arc takes a slight turn, and we realize that the world of Prophet is actually incredibly expansive. Apparently Graham has gone on record for saying that one of his goals with the comic is to “one-up” Conan at its own game. Like in any Conan story, Prophet is constantly referencing individuals, places, and events that the reader is likely unaware of. This creates the allusion of a rich universe and backstory, but is also fairly confusing, considering that we have no idea what anyone’s talking about. Another comic that comes to mind is The Metabarons series by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Prophet Issue 24 -- Farel Dalrymple

Prophet Issue 24 — Farel Dalrymple

Prophet Issue 21 -- Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 21 — Simon Roy

Prophet is refreshingly creative, and constantly challenges the norms that we’ve come to expect from sci-fi. Within the first couple issues, John explores a meat farm, a city that’s fashioned out of a giant decomposing organism, and a living creature whose inhabitants travel around in like a train. The later issues feature even more imaginative locales, and within the first six issues contained in Remission, we explore several planets. Graham, who was the chief writer, does a great job of blending grim sequences with effective comedy relief. Issue 24 (chapter 4 of the tpb) is extremely dark, and features a twisted doppelganger version of the protagonist stalking him through endless corridors. On the flip side, issue 25 is really light in tone, and features a fun planet-hopping robot.

At the risk of sounding overly positive, I need to point out that Prophet can be reasonably difficult to follow. As mentioned earlier, random events and people are frequently mentioned, sometimes at the expense of the main storyline’s clarity. Furthermore, nearly every issue features different protagonists, each of which have goals or motives that aren’t clearly explained. The protagonists are always in search of something, but what that is, or why, is often unclear. That being said, Remission only contains the first six issues; I have no doubt that things will start to make more sense in the later issues.

Prophet Issue 22 -- Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 22 — Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 23 -- Cover Simon Roy

Prophet Issue 23 Cover — Simon Roy

This wouldn’t be a Xenomorphosis post without a heavy analysis of Prophet‘s visuals. It should be no surprise that the artwork was the first thing that drew me to the comic. Within the first six issues, we’re introduced to no fewer than four illustrators, each of which were obviously inspired by french comics like those of the aformentioned Moebius. Like with Moebius, the art is heavily focused around detailed line drawings, and the shading is accomplished more through hatching than through solid black ink shading. The colors are vibrant, and each locale has a predominant color palette. Also like in Moebius’ comics, the coloring looks like a loose watercolor, although in this case it is clearly done digitally. I personally love this style, and I think it serves as a great tribute to the works that inspired Prophet.

Interestingly, the branching storylines are each illustrated by a different artist. Graham explained in an interview that this was intentional, and is meant to reflect the differences lens through which each character perceives the world around them. The only downside to this approach is that it makes the storyline even harder to follow.

Prophet Issue 25 -- Brandon Graham

Prophet Issue 25 — Brandon Graham

So, who are these artists? Simon Roy (Atomic Heart) for issue 21-23, Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War) for issue 24, Brandon Graham for issue 25, and Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues) for Issue 26. Presumabely under Graham‘s direction, each artist does an excellent job of bringing Prophet’s imaginative world to life. Of the three, Graham’s style is by far the most surreal and “frantic” (in a good way). He’s clearly more influenced by Japanese pop-art aesthetics than the other two, which makes sense considering that he has illustrated comics for publishers that usually deal exclusively in Japanese content. Although his artwork is fairly different than the other two, it’s just as impressive, and serves to add to the overall quirkiness of the comic. Milonogiannis‘ art is also Japanese-inspired, just not with the same pop-art aesthetic.

For anyone like me who’s been waiting for a North American sci-fi comic that isn’t based on an existing intellectual property, I can’t recommend Prophet highly enough. However, be aware that you’re in for a crazy, surreal ride, albeit a ride that is grounded in a strong concept. Sci-fi fans who stick closely to traditional content might find Prophet’s dismissal of genre conventions off-putting. On the flip-side, even non sci-fi fans will appreciate the modern quality of the artwork and stroytelling. Graham’s art in particular would be right at home in magazine’s like Juxtapoz. I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on this comic in the future. Hopefully Prophet inspires many more North American sci-fi comics!

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Prophet: Remission-related images

As I’ve repeated several times before, Dead Space is a godsend for fans of sci-fi horror. The series channels the best elements of movies like The Thing (1982), Aliens, and Event Horizon, but manages to create a combination of terror that not only feels fresh and unique, but also meets (and sometimes exceeds) the quality of its source material. As some people would have you believe, the series has progressively moved away from pure scares towards a more action oriented package. Personally, I feel that Dead Space has always placed just as much emphasis on combat as on horror, and it’s the perfect blend of the two that makes the games so much fun to play. Contrary to popular opinion, the combat, which revolves around dismembering enemies, hasn’t changed a whole lot since the first game was released in 2006. The major difference between the first game and the last two entries is that there are now substantially more characters involved. Dead Space was about isolation, whereas Dead Space 3 is about isolation interspersed with character interaction. The point I’m trying to make is that Dead Space 3 is not a survival horror game, but in its defense, Dead Space has never been a pure survival horror series. Anyone who tries to trick you into thinking that the original Dead Space was pure survival horror has never played the early Resident Evils or Silent Hills. In those two series, resources were extremely scarce, and it was often advantageous to avoid combat rather than confront it head-on. Dead Space, on the other hand, is extremely upfront with its combat. Many sections force you to kill every oncoming enemy before you can proceed onwards. Resources in DS games are fairly abundant, and terminals allow you to purchase ammunition and health should you find yourself short on supplies. Real survival horror games never present you with such luxuries. So does it matter that Dead Space 3, just like DS1 and DS2, is more about combat than pure survival? Hell no. The movie Aliens took the original Alien formula and soaked it in action, but last I checked people on message boards didn’t have a massive hissy fit and boycott the series. Unfortunately, this is what seems to have happened with Dead Space 3. Forgive me if this review spends too much time challenging the backlash that Dead Space 3 has been receiving since it was first announced. As a big fan of the series, Dead Space 3 does not disappoint.

Dead Space 3 -- Cover

Sci-fi horror with a white background? Ballsy.

Dead Space 3
Developer: Visceral
Publisher: EA
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Featured), PS3, PC
Release Date: February 5, 2013

Dead Space 2 concluded with Isaac Clarke destroying a marker on the Sprawl, a space station orbiting one of Saturn’s moons. The resulting carnage destroyed the Sprawl, but Isaac managed to escape with his love interest Ellie. DS3 starts with an interesting prologue sequence that takes place 200 years before the start of the first game, and then promptly fast forwards to two months after the events on the Sprawl. We find Isaac in a small apartment in the midst of a small city on the surface of a moon. As we discovered at the end of DS2, there are numerous marker projects, many of which are found in urban locations. Unfortunately for Isaac, this urban location happens to have one. We find out through an old phone message that Ellie has left Isaac because he had become too detached and self-absorbed as a result of the marker incidents. Soon after our introduction to Isaac, several people burst into his apartment and hold him at gunpoint. It turns out they’re “the last battalion” of EarthGov, and that they know the whereabouts of Ellie, who works with their group but has gone missing. Long story short, Isaac joins the EarthGov party, but not until after being chased by an extreme sect of unitilogists led by a man named Danik. Danik, an somewhat harmless looking man in a park, serves as the main antagonist in DS3. Unsurprisingly, the major subplot in DS3 revolves around Isaac trying to win Ellie back, all while battling necros and Danik’s army of unitologists. DS3 does an excellent job of weaving the storyline into the gameplay, which means there are few moments where you don’t have some level of control over Isaac. In fact, for those people who were worried that DS3 would be too heavy on scripted action sequences (myself included), there are actually fewer scripted sequences per hour of gameplay than in DS2.

Dead Space 3 -- 1

This helmet is so damn cool looking, but I was never able to unlock this suit.

The story is just as engaging as in the previous games, and becomes progressively more captivating as Isaac and crew explore the remnants of an old marker conspiracy on a snow planet called Tau Volantis. One of my favorite themes in science fiction is the exploration of an unknown environment. On this front, Dead Space 3 delivers in spades. The snowy environments of Tau Volantis are reminiscent of the locales in the first Lost Planet. In addition to the snow planet, the game is still rife with “traditional” space station-style environments. The combination of tight corridors with the occasional outdoor section is a refreshing addition to the series. Back to the story, the element that I find the most difficult to grasp is the fact that EarthGov has apparently dissolved, seemingly overnight. Only 2 months before the events of DS3, EarthGov was a massive evil bureaucracy. Although it’s barely addressed, I think it’s implied that the unitilogists have overthrown EarthGov, which doesn’t really make any sense because the two entities were supposed to be incredibly intertwined. As a whole, it’s a little disappointing that DS3 makes so little reference to the events and players of the previous games; it seems that Visceral opted for a more contained story this time around.

Dead Space 3 -- 6

Much like Lost Planet, DS2 has several giant snow monsters with conveniently glowing vulnerable points. Actually, much like in LP2, you get to travel through a giant monster’s bowels.

Aesthetically, Dead Space 3 is easily the most visually interesting game in the series. Tau Volantis was previously explored by a contingent of scientists and soldiers from the Sovereign Colonies Armed Forces (SCAF), the central human government that was eventually dethroned by EarthGov. This “older” culture gave Visceral the opportunity to design a brand new human aesthetic. The SCAF settlements look like they were patterned after old nuclear submarines and soviet-era accoutrements. This creates an interesting juxtaposition with the ultra-slick stylings of the 26th century. Furthermore, there are now many new necromorph models, each of which is patterned after the look of its deceased host. The radical unitologists sect also has its own unique look, incorporating elements of Mad Max-style punk design into the typical heavy clothing and armor of the future. In addition to the clothing, Dead Space 3 has more environments than ever, and presents no fewer than three different styles of spaceship interior, each of which looks fantastic. As always with the series, DS3 is a game that can be enjoyed thanks to pretty eye-candy alone.

Dead Space 3 -- 15

The remnants of EarthGov. Adios.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, Dead Space 3 has plenty of combat, which is even more fun than usual thanks to the inclusion of a new weapon crafting system. Weapons are now fully customizable, meaning that you’re free to create weapons that suit you’re particular style of play. Essentially, you’re combining parts that are found scattered around the game world to create weapons that (usually) have two modes of fire. For example, you can craft an assault rifle that has a shotgun attachment, or a flamethrower, or a buzzsaw, or a line cutter, etc. The weapon crafting is extremely fun, and adds an extra layer of depth to the typical DS combat. I probably spent several hours just crafting guns; you could say I was pretty addicted.

Dead Space 3 -- 4

Isaac and Carver showing a snecromorph (snow+necromorph, I just made that up) how to die.

Almost as awesome as the new weapon crafting, the inclusion of optional side-missions in DS3 is my second favorite new feature. These essentially play out as optional “dungeons”, and add quite a bit of meat to the main storyline. For anyone looking for the isolated, spooky Dead Space 3 experience, the optional dungeons should keep you entertained. Generally they’re more difficult and more scary than the regular story sequences. Each optional area tells its own story, meaning that you’re missing out on a lot of interesting fiction if you skip these sections. In fact, my favorite narrative in DS3 was a small side-story told in one of these optional areas. If you’re hooked on the crafting system, the obvious reason to explore these areas is for the promise of unique weapons parts. The combination of the new crafting system and optional areas mean that DS3 feels like a mini version of a loot based RPG (think Diablo or Borderlands). I personally love this new direction, and would kill to see the loot-based RPG elements explored further in subsequent DS games.

Dead Space 3 -- 10

Isaac Clarke: the man of a million gruesome deaths.

An inordinate amount of internet rage has been fueled by the inclusion of microtransactions and human enemies in DS3. Firstly, the microtransactions are really not a big deal. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t specifically been looking. When in the weapon crafting menu, you can press a (fairly hidden) button to pull up the online storefront. In this storefront, you can spend real cash to get in-game resources or weapon parts. Alternatively, you can spend credits that you acquire throughout the campaign to buy these same virtual packages. By the end of my first playthrough, I was able to buy three of the most expensive packages using in-game credits that I’d acquired. These purchases were the equivalent of a few dollars of real cash. Truth be told, you acquire so many resources throughout the game that I can’t imagine why you’d bother to spend actual money. In fact, a friend of mine couldn’t even figure out how to access the online storefront without my help; the microtransactions are that unobtrusive. I actually feel stupid spending so much time writing about the microtransactions, because they’re really not a big deal.

Dead Space 3 -- 12

Isaac Clarke: the master of exploding body parts. In this case, this is a real man whose head is exploding.

The introduction of human enemies in DS3 serve to add some extra flavor to the tried and true necro dismemberment. It almost feels novel to be able to shoot an enemy in the head, and subsequently expect it to die. The segments where you fight humans are actually fairly rare, and I actually wished there had been more of them. Most importantly, these sections do not turn DS3 into a mindless cover based shooter, as certain gamers hypothesized. I can’t tell you how many times I heard DS3 being referred to as “Call of Dead Space”. For anyone who follows the story in DS games, it makes absolute sense to fight humans. As anyone knows, the humans are the main antagonists, at least plot-wise. Because these segments were so uncommon, it’s difficult to comment on the quality of the human AI. It definitely wasn’t noticeably bad, although these sections are somewhat easier than the typical scuffles with necromorphs. It was almost a tad bit disturbing when I dismembered my first human opponent… Let’s just say they dismember just as easily as any necro, which is satisfying, albeit in a way that makes you feel a little icky afterwards.

Dead Space 3 -- 11

You got your Thing my Dead Space!

Perhaps one of DS3’s strongest points: the sound design is incredible. When you meet one of the first necros, it slowly peels itself off the ceiling, all while the sounds of bones breaking echo off the walls. The sonic atmosphere is incredibly creepy, and you’ll often find yourself on-edge because you think you may have heard a nearby enemy. Complimenting the sound effects, the music also adds the perfect atmosphere to the experience. There are many subtle nods to songs from the game’s source material. For example, there’s a track that sounds uncannily similar to the main theme from The Thing.

Dead Space 3 -- 16

Perhaps the only clean environment in the entire universe of Dead Space.

As it should be clear from the tone of this review, I really enjoyed DS3. The gameplay, art design and music are all really high calibre. Just like in the previous games, DS3 is crammed with a ton of replay value. After beating the game, you unlock the typical New Game+ mode, which allows you to start a new game with all your items and weapons from the previous play-through, as well several new “throwback” modes that alter your available weapons and control  styles. I must admit, I’ve played very little of the brand new co-op mode, which is the major new selling point of the franchise. What little I did play was really fun. Players are free to drop in and out as they desire, and there are bonus areas that can only be accessed in co-op. This is co-op done right, and doesn’t feel like a tacked on afterthought. All that being said, the game is still excellent when played alone, so if you prefer playing solo, co-op is definitely not mandatory.

The most important thing about Dead Space 3 is that it’s just really fun to play, and feels polished as hell. Anyone who has even a passing interest in sci-fi horror should really check it out.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Dead Space 3-related images