Archive for April, 2011

First Wave (Comic Review)

From Doc Savage to Superman, from The Shadow to Batman, superheroes grew fairly directly out of the pulp movement. Since DC Comics has since acquired the rights to many of these influential characters, it isn’t surprising that they would try to breathe new life into them. First Wave was an attempt to create a shared world of gritty, low-powered heroes based on reinterpretations of classic figures. Not a bad idea, but DC did an astoundingly bad job with it.

The plan was that First Wave would be a six-issue miniseries that set up a status quo, with two ongoing titles (Doc Savage and The Spirit) immediately spinning off from it. A solid plan, but it doesn’t mean anything if the comic itself isn’t very good. First Wave’s story follows a convoluted plot involving a world-spanning secret organization, a drug that turns victim’s blood into gold, and a machine that can manufacture tsunamis. Even after re-reading it for this review, I’m not quite sure how those pieces fit together. Nor am I sure how the different heroes all got involved: I count six to eight plot threads following different pulp heroes or groups (depending on whether Doc Savage and his associates are counted separately), and weaving those in and out of six comics is a tricky task. When a character suddenly appears in a new issue, it can be difficult to remember what they know and what their current motivations are.

Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales are both associated with high-profile comics events, but they weren’t necessarily the right combination for this title. Morales’ crisp combination of realism and cartoonishness is the hallmark of modern-day superhero art (especially mixed with this book’s bright colors), and it contrasts with the darker, gritty pulp story that Azzarello is trying to tell.

The Bat-Man and his gun

The one bright spot of this relaunch is the clever ideas that were applied to the characters. The once heroic Blackhawks are now mercenaries who care mainly about money, and even after they turn against the bad guy, they have little regard for the lives of less capable heroes. Doc Savage, “the perfect man”, is set against a skeptical press and a public who can’t trust the motives of an alleged hero. And I’d love to read further adventures of this rookie “Bat-Man”, who carries guns and is as interested in the adrenaline rush as the justice. Unfortunately, a series based on him would probably turn out to be a disappointment, based on the spin-offs that we did see. The Spirit had possibly the most interesting reinvention of all, being paired with a corrupt police force who sneer and trade barbs with him. The new Spirit comic, though, quickly forgets this. Instead of just getting tips from Commissioner Dolan (a “bad cop but a good guy” who cares about his own wealth and safety first, but will help The Spirit do his job on the side), within a year the vigilante is publicly walking around the police station with his “best friend” the commissioner. It’s not a bad title on its own, but contradicts First Wave enough to ruin the effect that a shared world is supposed to have.

This isn’t a review of The Spirit, or the standalone Doc Savage title (an inoffensively bland action story), but it bears noting that the problems with First Wave extended to very poor editorial control across the intended line. There was also a one-issue “First Wave Special” last week that I was waiting for before doing this review. That issue actually wasn’t bad: A creative team with a grittier style, a story that addressed plot lines in the recent Spirit and Doc Savage titles, and a confrontation between some of the major players that emphasizes each one’s different personality. The First Wave Special actually made a good case for these characters as part of a new interconnected line. Unfortunately, I think the damage has already been done. First Wave itself was a hard-to-follow mess that introduced interesting characters, but failed to do anything worthwhile with them. More than a year after the experiment started (yes, the six-issue series was plagued by a lot of delays), it is obvious that the momentum it was trying to build is not going to happen.

Grade: D-

7 Wonders (Game Review)

7 Wonders BoxIn some ways, a game that works for more than five people is the Holy Grail of the industry. In my opinion, even going past four people causes long delays between turns, and introduces too many factors that feel outside of a single player’s direct control. But when a group of friends gets together, it’s easy to end up with too many people to comfortably play one game, but not enough to split into two groups.

7 Wonders’ claim to fame is that it works for up to seven players at once. More importantly, though, it keeps everyone consistently engaged through its breezy twenty- to thirty-minute playing time. Its mechanics make this so simple that after one game, it seems amazing that no one has tried this approach before. Basically, there is no downtime because every player is making their choice simultaneously every turn. Choose one card to play, and pass the rest of your hand to the player next to you. Sure, other games have used this card drafting technique before, but 7 Wonders also addresses the other source of slowdowns in games with too many players: All your interactions are with the people to your immediate left and right, so you don’t need to get bogged down keeping track of more than two other players.

The game itself is a fairly straightforward entry in the “civilization light” genre. Each card gives you resource production, points, or abilities. There are too many resources to personally cover all of them, but you can buy the ones you need from your neighbors. Just keep track of what they are producing so you don’t duplicate their efforts, and so that you can build the ones that they’ll want to buy from you! Also watch their military strength, because at the end of each of the three rounds, your comparative power will gain or lose you points.

7 Wonders Play7 Wonders offers a decent amount of choices. You can earn points through cards, advancing your personal “great wonder” track, matching symbols, getting money, or having a stronger military than your neighbors. The “Guild” cards that appear at the end of the game even let you score points for how advanced your neighbors are in various categories! It’s impossible to excel in every area, but they are well-balanced enough that you can ignore any of those and still win the game.

It feels surprisingly meaty for a twenty-minute game, but there is a lot of chance hidden behind the mechanics. Drawing the right cards, especially when those big Guilds are dealt out at the end, makes a big difference. And while it may be fun to ignore the player on the other side of the table, it can be frustrating to learn you’ve lost to someone you weren’t even able to interact with. For that reason, I suspect that these mechanics wouldn’t work in a much longer game, as much as I wish they could. It’s not too frustrating to lose a filler game by chance, but it would be a deal-breaker if two hours of planning fall apart through no fault of your own.

The game also becomes a little repetitive before long. Despite the many paths to victory points, and the different “Wonder” boards that each player is dealt, the various strategies don’t really feel that different after several plays. They’re all based on getting resources, playing cards, and watching to make sure you bury any card that your neighbor desperately needs. There are already expansions on the horizon that promise to add more variety, but I’m not sure how well they’ll succeed. 7 Wonders feels like it has as many elements as its short playtime can support. Anything different enough to actually increase the replayability would probably be too overwhelming. On the other hand, designer Antoine Bauza has already made one near-impossible task look simple. If 7 Wonders could keep me interested through a seven-player game, then I suppose that the expansions could hold more surprises of their own.

Even after the initial rush of newness wears off, I don’t expect this game to stop being fun. And because it fills a niche that nothing else in my collection does, I’m sure it will remain in use for a long time. Looking for a filler to play as your friends are arriving, or when you’re winding down for the night? This works no matter how many people are there with you, and it feels heavier than just about anything else that plays so quickly. 7 Wonders not only has an original design, but is going to keep hitting my table long-term.

Grade: A-

 

Infoquake (Book Review)

Infoquake cover

Infoquake

David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake is about cutting-edge programmers in a far-future world dominated by “bio/logics”, or programs that extend the human body. This being the future, of course, many things are different: Our Internet has been replaced by the “Data Sea”, modern corporations have turned into “fiefcorps” while religions are replaced with single-issue groups called “Creeds”, and people can use “multi projections” to virtually travel around the world, indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood people except for being intangible.

Infoquake is a fun, fast read that makes a perfect airplane book, but it never reaches the depths that it is aiming for. A culture with generations of experiences so different than ours should be fundamentally changed in some ways. (For books I’ve read recently that explored differences like this, see the shockingly different culture in The City And The City, or to a lesser extent the magic society of the Young Wizards series.) The people in this novel are easy to understand through the lens of our own culture, though. The powerful programs circulating through everyone’s bodies don’t fundamentally change their capabilities, but instead are just used to add flavor to the prose. (For example, it may say that someone “switched on PokerFace” in a place where a present-day novel would say they “struggled to keep their surprise from showing.) Fifty years ago, Isaac Asimov was writing about how the ability to visit people virtually would change our perceptions of self and human interaction. But in Infoquake, the decisions about whether to physically travel or project oneself virtually are entirely based on narrative convenience.

A lot of thought did go into the world-building. The book closes with 50 pages of appendices that actually feel relevant and interesting. It’s just too bad that the result is so shallow, without any of the exploration into human nature that science fiction can provide.

The “fiefcorp” system is another frustratingly-vague element of the book. Most companies in this book are small teams of 10 or so people that only last for a few years. The employees (“apprentices”) pledge to a master for a period of years, earning only subsistence wages with the promise of a big bonus when the contract ends. This system keeps the main characters in the employ of their obsessive, narcissistic leader Natch throughout the story, but it raises many unanswered questions about how such a structure could succeed and continue for generations.

In the novel’s case, the fiefcorp works because the characters are equally vague and defined only by their work. They regularly put in 16-hour days for Natch (with the help of a bio/logics program that keeps them awake, of course), and never mention any hobbies or friends outside of this work. They remain single-mindedly focused on driving the book’s plot forwards.

As for that plot, it is fairly interesting. Natch is a borderline-sociopathic genius driven to succeed in order to quiet an existential emptiness. His fiefcorp’s battles to fight to the top of the bio/logics food chain are redirected when he is given a head start on a mysterious new science initially known only as “The Phoenix Project”, which promises to redefine humanity as much as bio/logics did centuries ago.

Programming marathons and corporate battles are not normally the ingredients for a page-turning novel, but Edelman manages the light touch necessary to keep these moving along for the reader. By the end of the book, a complex status quo has been built up, along with several moving pieces that guarantee this status quo will not remain in place for much more of the trilogy. It is slightly frustrating that so many unresolved elements are introduced late in the story, but it’s obvious that the three books are meant to be read as a whole.

Will the rest of the trilogy address the frustrations I had with the first book? It’s hard to say. This story seemed pretty content to play with the pieces of a distant civilization without actually exploring the consequences of making them so distant. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that so much world-building couldn’t be setting up something more complex. One scene in the book provides the sort of experience I’m looking for: A sheltered character named Horvil meets “an Islander”, a person who we have been led to believe is less technologically advanced than the rest of the world. To Horvil’s shock, the Islander shows that he is still quite sophisticated and even uses bio/logics, but explains that his people avoid the dangers of all the uncontrolled code that floats around “civilized people’s” bodies. This scene works so well because, two-thirds of the way into the book, the reader has also had time to build up expectations that are now being subverted. A different way of life is being shown, and it mirrors tensions in today’s world without copying them directly. It is possible that the later novels intend to continue correcting the reader’s misunderstandings as the world of the characters changes.

Whatever the future volumes hold, Infoquake is a light, readable science fiction story. It provides escapism, but no deep ideas.

Grade: C+