Somebody at Wildstorm apparently thinks that comic tie-ins of video games are the next big thing; in the past few weeks they have released two different books based on Gears of War and Mirror's Edge. I don't really play video games but both books had a science fictional slant to their descriptions, so I decided to give them a shot, figuring a good SF comic is a good SF comic regardless of its source material. Based on what I've seen, I'm not confident that video game comics are the answer to Wildstorm's currently identity problems and floundering sales.
When I cracked open these books I made a point of not reading up about the games beforehand. I figured if the creators were successful, I would find out everything I needed to know from the pages of the comic itself. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable expectation to me, but possibly I was expecting too much.
Gears of War is apparently a shooting game where you are an armored-up soldier fighting alien warriors among urban ruins. I can't tell if this is Earth or some other planet, near or far future. Nothing is explained about the aliens or what they want, other than they like to kill. For all intents and purposes, the Boomers (I think that's what they're called) resemble Klingons who have been left out in the sun too long and have started to melt.
Obviously you expect some good gun-blazin' action from a book like this, which it definitely provides, but there's not really much else to it. Soldiers fight aliens, then they come across a lone survivor of a different unit. Then they travel back to base through the ruins, and they get into another fight. Little or nothing is learned about these men other than they fight aliens, and most of their conversation revolves around previous fights they've been in. One campfire discussion could just as easily be between gamers reminiscing about a particularly tough level.
This book (and probably the game as well) doesn't stray very far from the venerable soldiers vs. aliens paradigm popularized by Jim Cameron in Aliens 20 years ago. That in itself doesn't bother me too much, by this point the idea has been recycled hundreds of different ways in all different types of media. But writer Joshua Ortega takes it a step further when he lifts Newt's entire "My mommy always said there were no monsters" bit for the opening of this comic. Shameless.
Artistically speaking, this book reminds me a lot of those mediocre Marvel UK books that were briefly glutting the shelves in the mid-90s. To be fair, Liam Sharp is technically much more proficient at his craft than he was 12-15 years ago, but in terms of designs, these soldiers with their oversized guns battling ugly creeps in ornate armor wouldn't be out of place in a lost issue of Warheads or Death's Head II.
Again, I didn't look online to verify, but based on the comic version in Mirror's Edge you apparently play a courier carrying mysterious packages across cities, occasionally bumping into other couriers and getting involved in legally questionable shenanigans. Instead of zipping around on bicycles, however, these "runners" practice parkour, taking to the rooftops and hopping their way to their destination. I'm pretty sure the solicitation for this comic described a science fictional setting (which is why I preordered it for review) but if so Ortega fails to explain the world in the opening issue. Nothing about this society or technology we see couldn't exist in the here and now. If this is meant to be the future, or another planet, the first issue fails to explain this.
What Mirror's Edge #1 gives us that Gears of War does not, is a sympathetic character worth caring about. Faith is a young orphan who was caught trying to burglarize the home of a man named Drake, who does not turn her in but rather takes her under his wing and trains her to be a runner. During a training exercise she can't resist aiding a fellow runner who's being held at gunpoint, and she ultimately finds out that this other runner's mission ties into her own past in a very specific and personal way.
Beyond establishing Faith's character, there not too much going on in this first issue. Half of the book is spent showing Faith bouncing across town like a jackrabbit, in and out of people's private property. I would expect that using parkour at the basis for a video game is probably good fun, but is doesn't really translate that well to the comics page. For one thing, parkour is kind of old hat in comics; guys like Spider-Man and Daredevil have been doing it for 40 years. Matthew Dow Smith's pencils are competent but I don't see him winning any Eisners anytime soon, either. (For some reason, the interior art also leaves out Faith's most appealing feature from the cover: that jagged eye tattoo). You'll get far more excitement out of the opening action sequence of Casino Royale than anything you'll see here.
Mirror's Edge is a six-issue limited series, which makes sense to me as I can't see the premise having enough potential to sustain an ongoing title. On the other hand, the first issue of Gears of War actually has a subscription page, which seems incredibly optimistic to me given how DC is mowing down B-list monthly titles left and right these days (RIP Nightwing, Catwoman, Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, etc...)
But wait! Before we lose all hope that a video game can ever be successfully translated into another medium, here comes Dead Space: Downfall, the new direct-to-DVD animated tie-in to the Electronic Arts sci-fi horror game. This movie is a sequel to a comic miniseries that I haven't read and a prequel to a game I probably won't play, and yet I completely enjoyed it as a standalone tale of dread, paranoia, and copious gore.
As the movie opens, something horrible has occurred on the mining planet Aegis 7, and contact had been lost with a colony on its surface. (Presumably this refers to events of the comic, which won't be arriving in my mailbox for a few weeks yet.) The mining vessel Ishimura removes a massive, rune-covered Artifact from the surface, which causes problems on two fronts. For starters, miners of the Unitologist faith believe it to be a religious icon, and secondly it has some mysterious connection to the plague of alien monsters that gain access to the vessel, killing crewmembers and transforming their corpses into a bizarre variety of zombie monsters known as Necromorphs. For the majority of the film, we follow the travails of security chief Alissa Vincent as she struggles uphill to try and contain the danger before the entire ship is lost.
Soon the ever-dwindling crew of the Ishimura is knee-deep, then waist-deep, then neck-deep in alien monsters, mutated zombified victims, and just plain crazed crewmates. While the situation is worsening by the minute, the captain of the vessel completely flips his lid, becoming a foaming-mouthed paranoiac determined to safeguard the artifact at all costs. Given that this is all prologue to a video game, the bleak ending is even more inevitable than your usual horror flick, but the journey is an adrenline-soaked ride of wicked shocks and surprises.
I'm not sure what the budget was for this, but for a direct-to-DVD release the production values are pretty good. All the ships and backgrounds are well-rendered in CGI, but the actual character work is done in a rather bland and generic American art style reminiscent of 80's cartoon shows like G.I. Joe or Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. In terms of voice work, I have to give special props to Nika Futterman, who does a great job enacting Vincent's strength, determination and desperation as her world goes from bad to worse. She sincerely sounds like she's trapped amidst the slaughter, and not just standing in a studio somewhere in front of a microphone.
One thing I noticed about the film is that it might actually give away too much information about the setting of the game. Since Dead Space is of the horror genre, presumably it relies in part on the fear of the unknown to create the proper atmosphere of dread for the player. By the time the film is done, you pretty much know what you will and won't find on the Ishimura when you come aboard, the nature and characteristics of the Necromorphs (what they look like, how they reproduce, how they kill), and even that guns aren't as effective against them as a nice plasma cutter (which is essentially a cross between a chainsaw and a lightsaber), which cuts up them alien critters reeeeaalll goooood.
Some of my fellow Netflix customers have left some pretty negative reviews of Downfall on the website. Many take Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray to task for what the perceive as bad dialogue, as if only David Mamet is qualified to pen animated horror movies. Personally I have enjoyed Palmiotti and Gray's various comics project over the past few years and felt their style translated well to the screen. Other viewers are griping that there's too much swearing, as if since it's a cartoon it should only have language suitable to a 10-year-old viewer. I guess all the dismemberments, disembowlings and decapitations are a-okay, but watch out for those nasty f-bombs!
I found Dead Space: Downfall to be dark, creepy, suspenseful and , in its own sick way, a fun bit of nihilism. I'm not sure if I'll ever play the game, but this release stands on its own, as it should.
Gears of War Rating: 5/10
Mirror's Edge Rating: 6/10
Dead Space: Downfall Rating: 7/10
Update 11/19/08: Well shut my mouth. According to Rich Johnston Gears of War is the bestselling comic this year, with nearly half a million copies in print! Guess those folks over at Wildstorm know what they're doing after all. Whether any gamers who came to the book out of curiousity because they like the game stick around remains to be seen. The comic really is pretty blah.