Friday, September 12, 2014

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin"

Sheesh, EA should have me on the ten percent by now, huh? Considering the last three weeks have been dominated by their greatest dark fantasy adventure series since the Ultima series that hasn't been thrown to the dogs or to the MMO territory (and don't get any ideas you people who probably aren't even going to read this!).  And so, I come to the end of what most would call a retrospective of Dragon Age II with the other big name DLC - Mark of the Assassin.

And what does Mark of the Assassin bring that the vanilla game and Legacy did not? Why, new areas! Orlesian intrigue! Wyverns! Though most people probably know it for the voice talents of actress Felicia Day, who plays the titular assassin Tallis. Her voice acting is really rather good here, though it is odd to hear a normal Welsh accented elf voiced with an American dialect (y'know, that rare American elf voice).  I'm not entirely certain why they didn't ask her to try to put on an accent, but it's something I can look past.

Like Legacy, Mark of the Assassin can be accessed from the Hawke home - be it Gamlen's shack in Lowtown during Act One or the Amell Manor in Acts Two and Three - by touching the statue of the lion. Doing so will trigger a cutscene of fan-favorite Varric once more being interrogated by the Seeker Cassandra, who demands to know about a little aside that resulted in the death of an Orlesian noble and nearly caused an international incident. And being, of course, that it has to do with the ongoing tale of the illustrious Hawke, Cassandra wants to know the nitty gritty.

It begins, innocently enough, with Varric getting Alyssa Hawke to meet a contact, whereupon she and her party are ambushed by Antivan Crows. Aided by a fiery-haired elf by the name of Tallis, they defeat the group and she explains that she was, in fact, looking for Hawke due to an invitation she received from a Duke Prosper. Tallis aims to steal an jewel from him called the "Heart of the Many" and needs Hawke's aid in order to do so.

What follows is a wyvern hunt, followed by some of the funnier scenes in Dragon Age II due to Alyssa Hawke having the "Witty/Sarcastic" personality and the interactions with Tallis and others - even getting a snort-worthy one-liner upon finishing the final boss. I will say, this story doesn't have anything to do with the vanilla game (then again, neither did Legacy besides connections to the Hawke family), but it is a fun aside from the rest of Dragon Age II. The tone, overall, is a bit more fun and colorful - something that the vanilla game was sorely lacking in a great deal of the time. Beyond that, it's not a recycling of all the environments in the vanilla game that were boring and tedious and were the subject on in-game jokes.

We also, through Tallis, get some more insight into the Qunari and how they work.  Apparently, the Qunari are far more spread out in Thedas than many would believe, having agents all over Thedas. The "shocking" twist of the game involving Tallis' true origins and intentions and the true "Heart of the Many" proving that there is far more going on with the Qunari than we've seen. Perhaps there will be more in the upcoming Inquisition? Who knows?

I will say I rather enjoyed Mark of the Assassin. It was a nice tone shift from the sour and dark tone of most of Dragon Age II and I wouldn't mind seeing Tallis again in the future.

Seriously.

Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin is now available from EA and Bioware for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin,  follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Friday, September 5, 2014

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Dragon Age II: Legacy"

Considering that Dragon Age II was the first game I ever reviewed, one would think I would have already reviewed the DLCs that came with it that weren't anything more than just gear or aesthetic fluff added on.  Then again, by the inverse, I've reviewed the DLCs of both Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas and neither of the vanilla games, so who even knows what order I'm going in? Regardless, I figured it was about time to re-immerse myself in all things Dragon Age once more in preparation for Inquisition.  Hence, I got myself a hold of Dragon Age II:  Legacy, the DLC expansion that adds some new areas to the game and further illuminates the history of the Hawke family.

And I'll go ahead here and admit that I might have been a little too harsh in my review of Dragon Age II, upon further playthroughs from my original, the characters did rub off me more and I found them and their dynamics more enjoyable...in some cases, anyway (sorry for not being sorry, Fenris fans!), though I still don't think - for all of Bioware's excellent writing and decent characterization - that it holds a candle to those in Origins, but that's neither here nor there.  I came to speak of Legacy, and of Legacy I shall speak.

Upon uploading the DLC, the player will find a griffon statue that has miraculously appeared in the area of their home - be that Gamlen's Darktown home in Act One, or the player's mansion in Acts Two and Three - that they can interact with, which will trigger a cutscene between the lovable dwarven bard Varric and the tough-as-nails Seeker known as Cassandra Pendagast.  Apparently, a redacted part of Varric's interrogation that frames the story of Dragon Age II is seen in which Cassandra mentions an incident involving a Grey Warden prison, forcing Varric to tell the story.

Hawke (in my case, Alyssa, a bow-wielding rogue) has been attacked by dwarves from the Carta, and has enlisted the aid of Varric (and two other party members) to track down the offenders.  They speak of a master they are bound to known only as "Corypheus", who is driving them all to insanity much as those affected by the Blight spread by Darkspawn.  But the Carta hideout is only the beginning of a grand adventure that leads deep beneath the land of Thedas into a Grey Warden prison, where several demons and other forces of malicious intent have been sealed away using Blood Magic.

The gameplay is pretty identical to the vanilla game, so I won't dwell on it.  What I will dwell on for a bit are the enemy variations, of which there is one new enemy to smack around. Or rather, be smacked around by in some cases, as the Alpha version of this new quadruped variety can sometimes balance large, spiked shields to bash and run down enemies with.  They are also, coincidentally, complete assholes for that.  Luckily for me, Alyssa had an item with immunity to stun, so this did very little to hinder my progress in sending them off into the afterlife with many, many arrows in the face. The rest of the enemies are either Carta dwarves, Darkspawn, or Grey Wardens. And, also, demons, though with far, far less frequency.

Where this game is really good, however, is in the story.  Primarily that of Hawke and his/her family.  The voice of Malcolm Hawke, the family patriarch (voiced by the same voice actor to voice the male Hawke), is heard throughout the complex at various points, and will eventually trigger a moment with Hawke and either one of his/her siblings if they're in the party with him/her at the time, while also getting a moment between them all at the end (though this might be some artistic license on Varric's part, admittedly).  The revelation that Malcolm Hawke performed blood magic at the behest of the Grey Wardens if a rather shocking one, though given the reason for it, I can't personally say I blame the man.

However, the even bigger reveal for this game has nothing to do with Hawke's family history at all.  It has to do with Corypheus, the final boss (and, incidentally, a complete pain in the ass to fight), who is revealed as having been a Tevinter magister before his transformation into a Darkspawn.  Not only that, but being one of the Magisters who attempted to reach the Maker's Golden City.  Anyone familiar with the deeper lore of Dragon Age knows the Chantry purports the story that magisters, in their foolhardiness, attempted to go to the Maker's city in the Fade and the Maker cursed them as the first of the Darkspawn for their arrogance.  If Corypheus is indeed one of those magisters, as he proclaims, then this myth about the creation of the Darkspawn is actually true.

However, Corypheus makes some comments before his boss battle that add a disturbing twist to the story...namely that, when they reached it, the City had already been blackened.  So either it's merely Corypheus' deteriorating mental state, he's lying, or the Maker is far, far less benevolent than the Chantry would have the whole of Thedas believe.  And the escape of Corypheus at the end of the game (spoiler alert!...only not, really) may come into play later on in Inquisition and so on, as Varric notes that there might be more to the story, but it hasn't happened yet.  I have to say, it's something I'm looking forward to seeing...if they follow up on it at all.

As for Legacy itself, it's rather short, but then it's supposed to be.  I would have liked more variety in enemies and perhaps a little more in the backstory of Malcolm Hawke and the Grey Wardens, but I can't say I'm wholly unsatisfied with what we did get.  No less than I was with its vanilla game, at least.

Dragon Age:  Legacy is now available from EA and Bioware for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin,  follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Friday, August 29, 2014

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Dragon Age: Origins"

...wait, I haven't done this? Really?  I mean, the first thing I ever reviewed was the sequel to it.  You know, back when I knew nothing about writing a cognitive review? ...yeah, I know, I haven't improved that much in three years.  Still, I'm really surprised, considering how much I like this one.  Don't get me wrong, it isn't perfect, but it's very awesome.  It's one of the ultimate single player RPG experiences that don't involve a bunch of Japanese school children trying to save the world from poorly defined evil forces. And what with the third entry into the series coming out this November, I think it's finally time for me to put to blog post my feelings on the first entry in the series.

Dragon Age: Origins comes to us from EA and Bioware, and this is about the point where I would talk about the storyline of the game.  Instead of a single protaganist in a generic storyline, Origins allows you to choose from six different origins within the three different races of Humans, Elves, Dwarves.  The character classes are also boiled back down to the basic fighter, thief, or mage as in traditional D&D. However, Dwarves cannot be mages, and there's only one origin available for human characters - that of a human noble. While I've heard reference to another human origin that would have involved either commoners or the barbarian Avvar, I rather like this due to how the Noble's backstory factors into the latter plot of the story (more on that later). However, all the origins are interesting and offer a look at the various ways of life among the three races in their various facets.

I began, however, with Caric Cousland, youngest son of the Couslands of Highever who - much like Thor Odinson before him - craves a chance to prove himself as a warrior in the armies of King Cailin.  Alas, however, his fate is to remain in Highever tending to things...until the outright betrayal of the insidious Arl Rendon Howe (voiced by Tim Curry!) sees the Couslands slain and forces young Caric to join up with the legendary Grey Wardens in order to fight the Blight that is coming to the land of Ferelden, and the only way to stop it is to slay the Archdemon!

This is something that that Dragon Age II didn't ever really cultivate, a sense of urgency.  There's a massive world ending threat, and every action that you took was towards the defeating of that threat and saving not only Ferelden but the whole of Thedas (well, except for the side quests, that's just for the epic loot). Dragon Age II, on the other hand, starts out with...no, actually, the beginning starts out with you fleeing the Blight, so nevermind that.  Though it develops further on the whole Mage-Templar dynamic that was started in Origins...which you can only really get invested in all that much if you're playing an apostate mage or Bethany goes to the Circle...

Really, I stand by my previous statement on it.  Dragon Age II just feels like a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons modules all wielded together with a very arc over everything that only kind of becomes involved when it wants to.  And while that's not bad in some ways - after all, real life is often just random things happening in no particular order and for no particular reason - but that's not what we want in an epic fantasy RPG adventure.  Origins understood that, so I'm not really sure what happened in-between games that made them think that was a good idea.

But this isn't a comparison piece between the two.  If it were, I'd have to mention how I actually prefer how II does its combat.  It's more involving. Unless you're playing a mage, Origins combat is very un-involving.  Sure, every character is given special abilities based on various skills in their profession, but unless you're just itching to get into the crazed trick shots and backstabbing of rogues or the "kill things slightly faster" abilities of fighters, there is literally nothing that can't be taken down just by hitting the attack button and waiting, necking health and mana potions as you go.

Mages have a little bit more variety, their abilities coming through in spells that can be access from a handy radial menu that pauses the world around you so you can prepare and unleash your Armageddon spell without fear of a Darkspawn turning your insides into a nice, wholesome mage casserole.

There are also specializations that characters can pick up, two apiece, that basically translate to either stat boosts, new spells for the magically inclined, or (again) a "kill things slightly faster" button.  By the end of the game and its DLCs, I ended up having Caric with a Champion/Spirit Warrior build that worked very well. However, the player character is only one-fourth of the battle as we find ourselves engaged in squad combat of the highest caliber! You manage not only the equipment and stats for your player character, but for your NPC team, three of which you can bring along with you into hijinks.

Given that I'd gone with the Human Noble Warrior, I ended up creating a team consisting of Alastair (alongside me, tanking), Leliana (thievery and long-range), and Wynne (healer), and this was the team that ended up carrying me to the end of the game. There are, of course, plenty of other possible combinations, though I found this one to be the best that I worked with through all my playthroughs.  And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the characters themselves.

While Dragon Age II only had them slightly scratch my interest and only in a few cases, Origins' companions are very well developed and you're given more than enough opportunity to both speak to them (after all, talking is a free action) and learn about their backstories through events that occur within the narrative. Through the dialogue options, quests, and even gifts you can earn friendship points which can open up new dialogue trees, bring in new subplots, and even initiate romances between your characters and your companions (for the record, Caric ended up helping Leliana through her morality issues and bagged him some of that sweet Orlesian lovin').  It's definitely worth the effort to go through most of them, if not all of them.  But that also goes for the NPCs as well, in many cases.

Remember my mention of Arl Howe before? Let's just say that the Cousland family was avenged by the end of the game, and deliciously so.

So, yes.  A storyline that has a sense of  urgency and a well-written set of characters...and hell, that's pretty much all you need, isn't it?  I can get past the combat and the lack of variety therein, which is really the only fault I have for it...besides the whole traps thing.  Yes, traps.  I don't understand why, in a game about wandering across the world trying to save it, you'd have traps.  There's really no point in which you can set them up with an efficiency, so why even have them in there? Seriously, it's pointless!

But yes, beyond those two...this game is just good.  On it's own, its one of the definitive single-player RPG experiences right up there with the entries in the Elder Scrolls series. I'd recommend it anytime.

...god, I hope Inquisition doesn't further train wreck it...

Dragon Age:  Origins is now available from Electronic Arts and Bioware.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, follow him Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Friday, August 22, 2014

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Spider-Man: Edge of Time"

I've made it absolutely no secret that my favorite superhero in the entire world is Spider-Man.  You can take your Batman with his dead parents issues and ridiculous power set (seriously, you want to give Superman a hard time for that? Really?) and shove him.  The story of Peter Parker is a timeless one, one of a young boy who becomes a man learning that with great power comes great responsibility. With a set of powers granted him by the bite of a radioactive spider, Peter takes the mantel of Spider-Man and proceeds to learn from the death of his uncle in order to protect the people of New York from danger.  It's a timeless story and one that preaches the philosophy of might for right, that a person who has power should do good things because they're the right thing to do.

Which is why I get irritated at such things as One More Day or Superior Spider-Man which either completely ignore or invert that...but that's not why I'm here.

Spider-Man:  Edge of Time is technically a sequel to Shattered Dimensions, with a passing reference to it in the beginning as well as a nifty little addition to the game if you've played that game - unlocking several zippy cool alternate costumes (including the original Scarlet Spider, which was a big one for me).  So I began the adventures of Peter Parker (voiced by Josh Keaton of Ultimate Spider-Man fame) and Miguel O'Hara, the Spider-Man of the year 2099 (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes, who you may remember from the 90's Spider-Man animated series and the voice of Spider-Man Noir in Shattered Dimensions).

For those not familiar with Marvel's 2099 imprint, here's a quick crash course:  it's the Blade Runner future and everything kind of majorly sucks.  Okay, now you're familiar.

The game begins with Peter getting beaten down by the stupidly named "Anti-Venom" (Eddie Brock with a palette swap) and killed.  In the future of 2099, Miguel O'Hara uncovers a plot by Alchemax scientist Walker Sloan to go back in time and found the company years before it's actually founded (doing it in 2011 instead of in 2013...oops), and this somehow causes the future to start going screwy.  Stealing some of the Parker genetics from the laboratory, O'Hara makes a SCIENCE thing that allows him to communicate with Peter at the time of the distortion, because that's in any way how genetics work.  With this link established, the two can communicate across time and work to solve the problem of the screwy things going.

As far as the gameplay goes, it plays almost exactly like Shattered Dimensions' non-Noir sections.  You swing, you punch, you kick.  Fun times.  Added into this comes the unique powers that are added in for Spider-Man and his 2099 counterpart.  In addition with the Spider-Man traditional "Spider-Sense", the Amazing Spider-Man receives a "hyper sense" that allows him to move around enemies and giant laser beams without getting burned alive.  2099 trades in bullet time from Shattered Dimensions for the ability to create a "real-not real" clone of himself that enemies will temporary focus on, allowing him to counterattack or to move about the area unhindered for a short time.

Oh, and 2099 has the free fall sections again through a variety of dangers that make it ever so pleasant.  Have fun with that.

Both also get move sets for swinging around and/or beating down enemies into a fine paste that can be upgraded through the use of experience beaten out of enemies and collected from fragments of "portal energy" that can be found.  Health and stamina can also be upgraded through the use of golden spiders that are hidden throughout the levels.  There's no real strategy to pick out anything for success, since - like most beat 'em ups - the only real strategy here is to pummel them with your fists, feet, and webbing until they stop moving.

The entire game takes place within Alchemax, both in the "present" and in 2099. This allows for actually having a reason for the linear and self-contained levels, as opposed to Shattered Dimensions that decided giving us fantastic city-scapes that we could look at but not interact with in the 2099 sections was perfectly alright.  The change in Edge of Time is both a good and bad thing, giving us an actual reason for not having the wide areas that Spider-Man is most known for swinging around in...while not having the wide areas that Spider-Man is most known for swinging around in.  We don't have the wide cityscapes of New York like Spider-Man 2 or the newer The Amazing Spider-Man games have done, and I really think the game suffers from that.  In particular because the places within Alchemax really aren't all that interesting.  As on the nose as it may be to say it, the entire place looks like a dull version of a comic book mad science laboratory in the present, and a FUTURE! dull version of a comic book science laboratory in 2099.

Like Shattered Dimensions, this game isn't bad.  It's not really that great, but it's...alright.  Like I suggested with the previous game, if you're a diehard Spider-Man fan, go for it.  Otherwise, you're not going to be too hung up on missing it.

Spider-Man:  Edge of Time is now available from Beenox and Activision for Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS, Playstation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Also, it's a week late, but Happy 52nd Birthday, Spider-Man!

Friday, August 15, 2014

MadCap's Game Reviews - "DuckTales Remastered"

I wasn't old enough to be privvy to the Disney Afternoon at the height of its majestic power and grace (or so I'm told) no, sadly, I got the tail end of it (literally) with the Mighty Ducks and Bonkers cartoons.  However, thanks to reruns and the prevalence of this marvelous thing we have called the internet, I'm no stranger to Ducktales - the legend of Huey, Dewey, and Louie in the care of the gruff Scrooge McDuck as they seek out treasure to help the shining paragon of the one percent get even richer.  However, unlike the faceless corporate goons we're so happily quick to demonize nowadays, McDuck had a heart that was much like the coins in his money bin, and his good nature tended to win out more often than not...even as he managed to accumulate more wealth for his vast fortune.

So, naturally, at the height of the show's popularity, Disney decided to capitalize on the idea and had an NES game made.  It was a hit, much like the show itself, selling over a million copies and is still considered today to be one of the best games of the NES.  Last year, WayForward Technologies and Capcom released a fully remastered version of the game onto Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and the Wii U.  One would question the sudden want to do such a thing now, but that can largely be chalked up to nostalgia, which this game is more than happy to cart out.  Trading in 8-bit visuals and sound for 2.5D graphics and HD sound, the game is like a role call of all the show's heroes and villains (with their original voice actors providing voices, no less!) bringing in the likes of the Beagle Boys, Magica de Spell, and even McDuck's longtime rival Flintheart Glomgold (all of whom play major roles in the story).

The story begins in Duckberg (where life is like a hurricane), with Scrooge being alerted by an alarm to his famous Money Bin being robbed.  In a short tutorial level, we are introduced to the major mechaincs of the game.  Scrooge can leap onto enemies with the use of a pogo stick, which can also be used to destroy objects directly below him, or to activate switches.  With his cane, Scrooge can send certain objects flying in order to hit enemies that he otherwise cannot, or to knock down treasure chests from places he otherwise couldn't reach. Upon saving his nephews from certain peril, Scrooge defeats the leader of the Beagles and learns that they were not after his fortune, but instead a painting that was hanging on the wall.  Finding a strange cipher in it, Scrooge runs it through the computer and learns of the keys to a vast fortune hidden away.  All one has to do is gather certain items from all across the world.

The game is, from there, set up into various missions with Scrooge's office existing as a hub world (complete with a fully functioning Money Bin, which you can dive into for an achievement!) as Scrooge and the gang travel to the Himalayas, the Amazon, Transylvania, and even to the Moon in search of this elusive fortune. I will say one thing I enjoy about the game is that, while the enemies are often defeated in the same manner (i.e., jumping on their head), the levels themselves are all very nicely varied and have their own unique flavor and charm to them.  Quite frankly, it's just fun to play this game!  It tickles that little part of the gamer brain that craves exploration and finding secrets, something that it does reward you for when you do find said secrets.

Unlike many modern games, DuckTales: Remastered doesn't hold your hand.  You're free to explore and discover and fail at your own pace anywhere within the worlds that you can reach.  Not even a hand to point the way.  Scrooge is given an objective, you go and complete it - such as having to search for three pieces of a fuel regulator for Launchpad's plane in the Himalayas.  Really, the style puts me in mind of the old Mega Man games, a unique and different environment followed by a boss fight to cap it all off.

The music and the voice acting also deserve some praise, both being excellent.  With the 8-bit sprites traded in for the hand drawn versions of the characters, it helps to make them mesh and make this game almost like an interactive episode (or, indeed, even an arc) of the show.  And, of course...that theme song.  Y'know, the one that is right up there with "Go! Go! Power Rangers!" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in terms of "Dear God, Dear God! Please get it out of my head!". That one.  Yep, that's played loud and proud over the title screen and the end credits, as one might expect.

The game also has special features including character profiles that can be purchased with money from the Bin (scored from the levels by finding precious gems - I did mention this was about the one percent getting even richer, didn't I?), as well as other asides.  And what luck! The game locks levels upon completion in story mode, but unlocks them once you've completed them.  Perhaps a chance to fill up that money bin? Well, when I pick this up again, it'll be to enjoy the game further, not to go for the high score (seriously, who cares about scores anymore on consoles? Name three people).  In summation, to paraphrase Mr. McDuck himself, I wouldn't miss this game for all the scones in Scotland...and neither should you.

DuckTales: Remastered is now available from Wayforward Technologies, Capcom, and Disney Interactive Studios for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows, and the Wii U.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Friday, August 8, 2014

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Super Scribblenauts"


"Words! Words! Words!" - Hamlet, Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

And with that  quote from a far, far better writer than I, here's Super Scribblenauts.  Given to us by 5th Cell and WB Games, it's a game about a boy in a bizarrely phallic hat who uses a magic notepad in order to capture stars, because...I don't know, everybody needs a hobby, don't they?

Really, there's no real reason given for this within the narrative - what little of it there is - but still, we've had little plot or reason in so many other games throughout the years and so there's no reason to get hung up on this.  As stated before, Maxwell is a little man in a stupid hat that uses a magical notepad to create virtually anything the developers thought of...I mean, that your mind can conceive of.  Sadly, this is an area where - while I know the game is limited by how much it can store - the promise of "Create Anything" falls flat.  While, of course, you can't create anything racially insensitive, overly violent, or vulgar - you also have a selective group of things that you can create.

So, my dreams of creating a giant flaming black cock were realized as the magnificent black-feathered rooster on fire crushed the earth beneath its feet.

...yeah, I know what you were thinking.  Perverts.

Really, that's all there is to it.  Maxwell journeys along constellations to capture "Starites", which are granted upon the completion of a puzzles.  The puzzles can range from recreating the ending to the Wizard of Oz to having a Mission Impossible-style heist, and many, many things in between. Of course, some of the solutions to the puzzles are complete nonsense and counter-intuitive to how one might think.  Hints are buyable with "ollars" that are obtained within the levels, but sometimes they're either too vague or just plain unhelpful even after buying up all three tiers.

Still, it's very fun and the nice title screen section allows the player to move around in an environment that is completely their own and shape and destroy things to their will.  It's pretty fun, though, and enjoyable enough for a few hours.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to ride Shai-Hulud and avoid the rainclouds one more time!

Super Scribblenauts is now available from 5th Cell and WB Games on Nintendo DS.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

MadCap At the Movies - "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Marvel Studios has produced several films of high merit since their inception in 1993.  Before the surprise sleeper smash hit blockbuster that was Iron Man (which I've already covered here), they were mostly known for animation, in particular the 1990s animated X-Men and Spider-Man cartoon shows.  This review, however, has nothing to do with any of those (okay, maybe distantly with the Silver Surfer cartoon, but that's neither here nor there - Fox still has the rights to him). This review has to do with Marvel's other big team of a bunch of misfits and rogues who are banded together to do something good, something bad, and a little of both.

The film begins in 1988, with young Peter Quill at his mother's bedside as she dies.  Traumatized by this, Peter flees the hospital...and is immediately kidnapped by aliens.  Fast forward to the present, and he is now a roguish devil may care fella (Chris Pratt) who listens to the greatest pop hits of the 70s and 80s whilst wandering through some old ruins on an otherwise abandoned planet to obtain a mysterious Orb, in reality one of the six Infinity "Stones" (not gems, but "stones") that are to set up some later plotline involving Thanos (Josh Brolin), who is now more prominently featured than his post-credits cameo in The Avengers.

But now is a good time to talk about the character Peter Quill.  Raised by reavers, basically mercenaries who are more than happy to do any job for any price and with only a code of "steal from everyone" to guide them, he is more than happy to live up to his legendary reputation (be it real or, as the film suggests, imagined) as the "Star Lord".  He is cocky, hilarious, and absolutely brilliant. Beneath his hilarious 80s references (I mean, the guy uses the plot to Footloose as a pick up line, c'mon), somewhat devious nature (at one point suggests finding a nice person to sell a planet-destroying superweapon to) and his roguish ladies man qualities, there is a true hero here - a man with a heart of gold who will, when the chips are down, do the right thing.

Quill's theft of the Orb catches the attention of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), in this version of things a Kree fanatic rather than having any affiliation with the Kree Empire itself (during the film, the Kree actually wash their hands of the guy), and he dispatches one of the daughters of Thanos, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the Orb, much to the chagrin of her adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). At the same time, Quill's former employer (Michael Rooker) decides to put a bounty on him, resulting in Quill being pursued by Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel).

Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. It's a wise-cracking raccoon that deals in heavy artillery.  Do you need any further convincing to see this movie?!

Wacky hijinks follow that land the four in prison, where they meet the acquaintance of the muscle-bound, vengeance seeking, walking Thesaurus who takes everything literally, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who joins their merry band.  At first motivated by profit, the group eventually begins to strengthen the bonds between one another and become...well...the Guardians of the Galaxy. And y'know what? They're pretty damn awesome, every one of them.  For a film like this, one would think that having so many characters thrown into one film without proper introduction through previous films (a la The Avengers) would fill too thinly spread and schizophrenic in jumping around between them all, but it all balances very well.  While Peter Quill is, of course, the main character and gets the most establishment and development in that regard, everyone on the team has their moment to shine.

And that's not even getting into the many, many moments of awesome...of which there are so many.

So...many...awesome...

James Gunn (who you might remember for such memorable things as the live-action Scooby Doo films and the always infamous Lollipop Chainsaw) really brings his talking dog and cheerleader killing zombies expertise into the fore here, getting an astounding performance for everyone involved, and in crafting and bringing to life not a single world but many worlds of interesting variety.  From the desolate wasteland world in the beginning to the Knowhere station to the planet Xandar, each world in the galaxy has its own energy and flavor to it.  Honestly, it's a universe I'd love to explore and live within.  From the gritty yet colorful spaceports to the dark and foreboding halls of Ronan's ship, the Dark Aster, everything has a tone set perfectly for its intended use.

It also feels like watching the older Star Wars movies. While Guardians certainly doesn't lack the sweeping visual scale of the prequel trilogy (while looking far, far better, by the way), the film knows who its supposed to have a tighter focus on, and it focuses.  Honestly, unlike some of the films that Marvel has produced, I could argue that every single scene belongs in this movie, and that anything that got cut from it will only add flavor to a meal that is already delicious.

I really can't stress enough, this film is amazing.  It is wonderful, great, well done and - while being connected to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe - doesn't have the major problem I've been having with most post-The Avengers films, namely the "where is everyone else?" After all, they can't get into space...yet. But that'll be later down the road, surely.  This film itself, as its own entity, is utterly amazing.  Like with Thor before it, Marvel took a big gamble and it paid right off.  And a sequel announced already? I'm looking forward to it.

Oh, and I know someone is going to want me to mention a particular cameo (voiced by Seth Green).  I don't really understand it.  I find it rather fowl at best...

Guardians of the Galaxy is now in theaters from Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

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