World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth Final Thoughts (PC, T)

With Battle for Azeroth's final raid out and confirmation that no major content is getting released until Shadowlands, let's talk about the soggy whimper this expansion ended on.

I only got to raid one night in the Eternal Palace, where we downed five bosses on Normal difficulty. Two days later I was on an airplane to western New York and spent the rest of the year with my old friend HughesNet and its 1.5k latency that made raiding impossible. Consensus seems to be that the Eternal Palace was a pretty raid with mediocre fights, except for Queen Azshara who was either very fun or very annoying depending on how competent your teammates were. I got Spectrum in time to rejoin my guild for Ny'alotha, a dull raid with an appropriately dull final boss.

Ny'alotha is supposed to be the Warcraft universe's R'lyeh, a continent-spanning empire lorded over by an eldtritch god. But all you see of it are one hallway, a giant anus in the ground, and a few tiny rooms containing boring bosses with few mechanics beyond "dodge shit, wail on the boss, and do the same shit three times" like somebody forgot what a gear check boss was for and made the entire raid out of them. The most unique mechanic is the bug priest who splits into two sets of clones that are visible to different players and the raid has to figure out which clone is visible to both groups. But "most unique" isn't the same as "most interesting" because in practice everyone stands around blowing spit bubbles while they wait for the tanks to figure it out. The final battle takes place in a tiny, ugly room, fighting an octopus that barely seems to do anything and pads out the fight by making you go into another realm to kill a palette swap of the previous boss three times. Another mechanic is to wait while he slowly pulls you around for a little bit. That's not being threatening, that's being slightly annoying.

It might have helped Ny'alotha feel big if it was a questing area like Argus, and the raid was the final attack on N'zoth's seat within it. Instead, BfA's final patch slaps a purple filter over two old areas and knocks off for lunch.

Shit, it might have helped if the expansion as a whole had a consistent story and wasn't just setting things up for future expansions. There was a quest chain where you escort Vol'jin's soul around as he tries to find out who told him to put Sylvanas in charge of the Horde at the beginning of Legion, but that ends on a cliffhanger for Shadowlands. After you bust Baine out of prison somebody says Sylvanas is going to raze Thunder Bluff for this act of defiance, but that never happens. The Crucible of Storms raid was predicated with a quest chain about N'zoth's minions collecting three relics that when combined would drown the world in a tsunami or something, which we then loot, vendor, and never mention again. And, oh yeah, there's still a giant sword sticking out of the planet. The whole thing could have been written off as a throwaway filler expansion, if not for the final boss being a major lore character who had been hyped up since at least Cataclysm. That's ten fucking years of buildup only for him to be active for a single raid before getting Zeus Cannoned in a thirty second cutscene.

So yes, Me from 2018, all the prettiest games of that year DID have shit endings.

Rating: ???

Hulk Visionaries, Volumes 2 - 6 (Written by Peter David, Illustrated by Multiple, Kindle eBooks)

As a gamer I've seen years of people poo-pooing retro games for not having the graphical horsepower of the latest Call of Duty. The usual response to this is "graphics don't matter," but that attitude is just as shallow, especially when you're talking about a visual medium. It's like saying attire and body language don't matter, so what's the harm in going to a job interview wearing a backwards baseball cap and bunny slippers, and putting your feet on the manager's desk.

I bring this up (just as I did when talking about the Hulk: Gray comic) because this quickie is probably disproportionately about the art. These five volumes go through three main artists* with a few guest issues here and there: Todd MacFarlane, Jeff Purves, and Dale Keown. I don't care for MacFarlane's art. It's too busy for one thing, like he never erased his sketch marks and inked over them anyway. His Gray Hulk looks smashed, cracked, and stretched, like he's been molded out of kneaded rubber, his Leader looks like a ball of scribbles, and his Bruce reminds me of that professor from Pastel Defender Heliotrope (and holy shit, that is a comparison I actually fucking made, isn't it). At least he does some interesting stuff with panel layouts in his last issue.

* By which I mean pencilers, although MacFarlane appears to have done his own inks.

The story in MacFarlane's run concerns Bruce, Gray Hulk, Rick, and some SHIELD agent trying to track down a stash of gamma bombs, which ends with The Leader nuking the tiny desert town that comes into play later in the Merged Hulk run. The Hulk is seemingly caught in the dead center of the explosion and vaporized, but survives because some pixies who worship him as a god teleported him to their realm at the last second. I swear I am not making that up.

This kicks off the Joe Fixit saga, where the pixies have magically sealed Bruce (look, I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one) and the Gray Hulk uses his alleged death to start a new life as a Vegas enforcer. And with this story shift, Jeff Purves takes over for pencils and there's no way for me to sugarcoat this, Purves' art is fucking ugly. The blocky heads, excessive lines, gross lips, eyes too far to the sides of the head, and fucked up teeth including that "teeth in the middle of the mouth" shit, it's like proto-Liefeld (btw, it's Tony's lower teeth that are screwed up in that last one). Maybe he wanted the Gray Hulk to be butt-ugly, but that doesn't explain why his "normal" humans are so awkward, or why Bruce looks like Doc Octopus. And his art isn't just offputting on a technical level, his characters emote like wooden dolls, paling in comparison to the emotion you'd later see in Dale Keown and Gary Frank's art. Even Jan Duursema was better than this. It gets better later in his run, so either he improved with practice or some of the fault was on his original inker.

But hey, it's not just the art that's ugly, the writing gets pretty mean when Gray Hulk gets a job as a leg breaker, acts like a brat, picks fights with bikers and boxers that have no chance against him because his dick is starting to feel small, and snaps a dog's neck. There's supposed to be a story here about Gray Hulk having the time of his life, living in a luxurious Vegas hotel and banging a red-haired fitness instructor until the pixies' magic wears off and Bruce shows up to ruin it for him, turning the tables on the normal "Hulk destroys Bruce's life" beat. But fuck if I could appreciate it through art that made me dry heave.

Art direction isn't just about "lookin' purdy" it's a part of establishing tone. The Merged Hulk is about a man transformed into a powerful monster, and Keown and Frank's artwork balance his outer monstrosity with his inner humanity in different ways - both use expressive eyes and body language, but Keown draws him more intimidating while Frank draws him bigger but softer. I'll talk more about The Immortal Hulk next month, but with that being a horror comic Joe Bennett draws the Hulk distorted, monstrous, and intentionally grotesque, and the series just wouldn't work with, say, Frank's more light-hearted style. Even MacFarlane emphasized the Hulk as a twisted brute. What does Purves' Hulk communicate besides "butt-ugly"?

Volume 5 starts with a multi-parter in which Bruce has been poisoned by Madman, the final issue of which has Dale Keown taking over for pencils. And his big, clean, expressive art is like falling on a giant marshmallow after being dragged along a shale beach. Keown's run is mostly the leadup to the Merged Hulk, with Bruce getting back together with Betty and Rick, his first run-in with the Pantheon, and the release of the Savage Hulk in a rather gruesome scene where the Hulk literally rips through Bruce's skin. While the merging doesn't happen for some time, there are hints that Bruce's personalities are already mingling with the Gray Hulk becoming more open about his concern for others while Bruce becomes rather irritable. Also, Betty tells the Gray Hulk he "looks different somehow" and Namor mentions Bruce is looking unusually ripped, but I'm not sure if those are to suggest they're even taking on physical aspects of each other, or self-aware references to the artist change.

Also, Prometheus is a dick. He shows up out of nowhere to capture Bruce and in the process derails a train and causes a pastor to crack his head on his steering wheel. It's almost cathartic when this backfires and the Savage Hulk hands him his ass.

The merging occurs about halfway through volume 6, and the rest of the volume is clumsy transition issues with Bruce hooking up with the Pantheon and Betty moving in with Marlo. When Peter David first took over the book the dialogue was also a bit janky so does this happen regularly when a comic takes a sudden shift in story, or is it a David thing? Granted my best comparison for sudden plot shifts in comics is Rogue Prime, and that was fucking awkward for a different reason.