Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Happy 80th Birthday to Superman

Today - or, more accurately, some time between today and early May - is the 80th birthday of Superman, the Man of Steel. He debuted in Action Comics #1 which hit newsstands in late April or early May 1938* and has regularly appeared in comics, on TV and in movies almost continuously since then.

The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school friends in Cleveland, Ohio. They had begun developing the character privately in 1933, going through many different iterations (including one with him as a dubious alien with mental powers and another where's he's an ordinary guy with no powers, just an incredible sense of heroism). By early 1938 they'd started working for DC Comics and sold the rights to the character to them in return for being published, a decision they would later bitterly rue, as they and their families would battle for control of the rights for decades.

The character debuted in Action Comics #1 and by mid-1939 had migrated to his own spin-off title, Superman. Both Action Comics and Superman remain ongoing today, with Action Comics #1000 also coming out this month (the publication rate of the comic was changed a few years ago to twice a month, apparently deliberately so the 1,000th issue would be published on the 80th anniversary of the character). Superman was an immediately hugely popular character, with the comics selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month.

Although some elements of the Superman mythos were present from the start - such as Lois Lane and the Clark Kent alter-ego - others took time to come together. In particular, Superman's powers and limitations varied wildly from writer to writer. Editor Mort Weisinger, who was in charge of the character and comics from 1941 to 1970, insisted on the development of a coherent world and backstory for the character. This led in turn to the creation of the shared DC Comics Universe, codified in Superman #76 in 1952 when Superman finally met and teamed up with Batman for the first time. After several other run-ins with fellow DC heroes, Superman led the creation of the Justice League in March 1960, alongside Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter.

In the 1960s DC Comics was blindsided by the abrupt rise to power of Marvel Comics. Under Stan Lee's stewardship, Marvel was seen as more colourful, more exciting, more current and less staid than the DC characters. Most importantly, the Marvel characters were allowed to have private lives, love lives and be flawed characters, unlike the "perfect" DC heroes. Marvel overtook DC in sales late in the decade and DC rarely challenged them for the title again. Superman was seen as old-hat, but the release of the highly successful Superman: The Movie in 1978 saw the character reassessed. New writers and editors came on board and the comic was taken in a more serious direction; this culminated in 1992 in the Death of Superman storyline, with the issue where Superman "dies" selling over 6 million copies, making it the biggest-selling single comic book issue of all time. Naturally, he returned a few months later.

Superman was first depicted in another medium in 1940 in The Adventures of Superman, a radio drama starring Bud Collyer as the Man of Steel. The radio drama ran for eleven years. Collyer also voiced the character of Superman in seventeen short animated cartoons, produced by Paramount Pictures in 1942 and 1943.

Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in live-action, in a 15-part Columbia film serial produced in 1948. The serial received mixed reviews, mainly due to the inability to show Superman flying, so these sequences were replaced with animation.

George Reeves became the first well-known actor to play Superman, starting in 1951 in the theatrically-released film Superman and the Mole Men, and then for six seasons and 104 episodes of a TV show called The Adventures of Superman (1952-58). This series was much more successful, mainly due to the use of back projection to show Superman in flight (if somewhat unconvincingly). The show was riding high when star George Reeves tragically died (under bizarre circumstances) in 1959, leading to the cancellation of the series.

In 1978 Warner Brothers released Superman (sometimes called Superman: The Movie), starring Christopher Reeve. The movie was a monster, worldwide hit and spawned three direct sequels: Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) and the woeful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), as well as a spin-off, Supergirl (1984). Beginning in the late 1980s a sequence of Superman TV series was put into production, mostly featuring Superman as a young man or at the very start of his days of superheroism: Superboy (1988-92), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97) and Smallville (2001-11).

After a surprisingly long hiatus (despite attempts by Kevin Smith and Tim Burton to resurrect the franchise), Superman returned to the movie screen in 2006 with the patchy Superman Returns, followed in 2013 by the terrible Man of Steel, which marked the beginning of the rocky (to put it mildly) DC Cinematic Universe. Superman returned in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). British actor Henry Cavill portrays Superman in the DC Cinematic Universe, and is notable as the first non-American to play the role.

It's easy to be cynical about Superman. He's an all-American hero who is indestructible, can see through walls and has super hearing, making stories involving him rather bereft of tension (unless the writer resorts to cliches such as robot doubles or kryptonite). Attempts to make the character "dark" or "gritty" misfire for missing the point of the character (most notably in Man of Steel). But at his best, when portrayed by actors like Christopher Reeve and written by good writers with a solid grasp of the mythos, he can be an intriguing and well-developed character. He's also a character who has withstood multiple reinterpretations, from John Cleese's British take on the character (where Superman's spaceship crashes outside Weston-super-Mare rather than Smallville) to Mark Millar's darker Red Son, where Superman was raised in the Soviet Union and becomes a Big Brother-like figure.

The Big S has many more stories left in him and it will be interesting to see where writers take him in the future.

* The confusion is caused by the fact that street dates for "funny books" weren't vigorously enforced in the 1930s. According to The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, the earliest copies of the comic were sent to distributors starting on 18 April 1938 and some bookstores and convenience stores would have put them on sale immediately, whilst others would have honoured the official release date in early May (confusingly, the actual comic's cover date is June 1938).

The Barbed Coil by J.V. Jones

The formidable warlord Izgard has crowned himself King of Garizon and donned the Barbed Coil, the symbol of Garizonian rule. As Garizon's armies muster and prepare to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Rhaize, Camron of Thorn takes it upon himself to raise a defending army. Figuring strongly in his plans is Lord Ravis, the mercenary who engineered Izgard's rise to power. No-one knows more about Izgard's plans then Ravis. But the recruitment is complicated by the arrival of a mysterious woman called Tess, who claims to be from a distant land called California...

One-volume epic fantasies are a rare beast. The building of an entire world, the development of not just multiple characters but entire cultures and empires is something that can eat up not just hundreds, but thousands of pages. Commercial factors also convince many fantasy authors to flesh out their worlds for sometimes dozens of books at a time, cashing in long after the magic of the setting has gone.

The Barbed Coil is a rarity, then. It builds up a major military conflict between several nation states, develops an original magic system (based on the idea of painting and illumination) and features an expansive cast of both "good" and "bad" guys, all of whom are painted in some depth. It's a story with quiet moments and also packed with fast-moving action and some impressive magic, all delivered with Jones's formidable skills.

The Barbed Coil was released in 1997, between her debut Book of Words trilogy and it's sort-of sequel series, The Sword of Shadows. Book of Words was decent, with a nice improvement between volumes, but a far cry from Sword of Shadows, which is one of the finest epic fantasy series of the last generation (bearing in mind it's still unfinished). The Barbed Coil is a complete standalone, set in its own world unrelated to the two big series, telling one complete story with a beginning, middle and end. And it's a good one.

The novel delves into the character of Tess, someone who finds herself drifting through life on Earth with no purpose until she is borne off to a fantastical world and discovers that she is a smaller part of a much bigger pattern that goes back before her birth. Tess's journey of discovery is traditional, but well-handled. It's a pleasant surprise that Tess is less traumatised or freaked out by her arrival on this world than relieved, as various illnesses she was suffering from on Earth have disappeared in transit (shades of Thomas Covenant here, to a much less wrought degree). Our two male protagonists, Ravis and Camron, are also well-drawn characters, neither traditional heroes but who are drawn into having to choose whether to stand against Izgard, join him or flee. We also spend significant time with Izgard, his young bride Angeline and his scribe Ederius, who form an exceptionally well-written, monstrously dysfunctional triumvirate.

One of Jones's skills is combining the best elements of high fantasy - good fellowship, a sense of humour and a genuine ability for heroism - with the darkest - war, savagery and betrayal. The Barbed Coil bears comparisons with K.J. Parker, particularly the exacting detail given to the painting and illuminating side of things and the disturbingly complex relationship between Ravis and his brother, although it's not quite as unrelentingly grim as Parker's work. Still, that's not bad company to be in.

The Barbed Coil (****) is J.V. Jones doing what she does best, building an interesting world populated by complicated people, fleshed out with an interesting take on magic. The book is available now in the US but, regrettably, is out of print in the UK (even on Kindle). Hopefully it will become available again at some point.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

STAR TREK DISCOVERY USS Enterprise had to be redesigned for legal reasons

After a rocky start, Star Trek: Discovery eventually picked up some reasonable critical responses for its first season. The cast came in for a lot of praise, along with the season-spanning plot complete with some clever (if unfortunately over-foreshadowed) twists. The show had a rougher ride from other Star Trek fans, however, for its apparently random redesign of aspects including the Klingon makeup and the design of the original Constitution-class USS Enterprise, which appears in the closing moments of the first season.

Designer John Eaves has confirmed that the Enterprise had to be partially redesigned for "legal reasons". When CBS split from Paramount in 2005, it created a bit of a quagmire for the Star Trek franchise. CBS inherited the rights to make new TV series (such as Discovery) whilst Paramount inherited the right to make new movies (such as the Abrams movies and the threatened Tarantino movie).

This legal situation proved confusing as to what company owned the rights to which models and designs. As a result, it was decided that the Enterprise needed to look "25% different" to the original version of the ship to ensure there was no legal problem.

Whether this applies to the surreal decision to radically redesign the Klingons remains to be answered, although it should be noted that Discovery did get away with keeping the designs for the Andorians and Vulcans almost identical to their original incarnations, and the Tellarites pretty close.

This analysis from TrekCore shows that the Discovery Enterprise has many callbacks to previous versions of the ship, including the original series version, the version seen in the first six movies and the differing versions seen in the original two pilots.

Filming on Season 2 of Discovery is now underway and the show is expected to return either at the very end of this year or (more likely) in early 2019.

FOUNDATION TV series picked up by Apple TV

David Goyer's Foundation TV project, based on Isaac Asimov's dated-but-influential series of seven SF novels, has landed at Apple TV.

Goyer, who wrote Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and films such as Blade, Dark City and Man of Steel, picked up the project along with Skydance Entertainment when a HBO version helmed by Jonathan Nolan was shelved (in favour of their Westworld series, which has been a big hit). After several studios considered the series, Apple have picked it up as hopefully their first big tentpole original series.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga began with a series of short stories published in the 1940s. These became much better-known when they were collected into three "fixup" novels: Foundation (1950), Foundation and Empire (1951) and Second Foundation (1952), collectively known as the Foundation Trilogy. Thirty years later, after being showered with money from his publisher, Asimov returned to the setting in Foundation's Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986), the latter of which tied together the Foundation setting with his earlier Robots saga, the Empire trilogy and the stand-alone novels The End of Eternity and Nemesis. Indeed, some readers now believe that Asimov intended for all of his SF work to be part of this setting, where it is not explicitly contradicted (with shades of Stephen King's multiverse). Asimov ended his career with two prequels, Prelude to Foundation (1989) and Forward the Foundation (1992). After his death, the "Killer Bs" of science fiction (Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin) continued the series with three more prequels: Foundation's Fear (1997), Foundation and Chaos (1998) and Foundation's Triumph (1999).

The Foundation saga is set 22,000 years in the future. The Galactic Empire, which has existed for 12,000 years and brought stability to the human-colonised galaxy (there are no aliens in the setting), is starting to fragment and collapse. Statistician and mathematician Hari Seldon has created a science known as "psychohistory" which can predict the future based on previous historical events. Seldon's calculations suggest that the Empire is going to collapse, and in doing so will plunge the galaxy into chaos that will take humanity 30,000 years to recover from. Seldon proposes an alternative plan, the creation of a repository of knowledge and its scientific guardians who will guide humanity out of the darkness and reduce the interregnum to just a single millennium: the Foundation. The first three books span the first three centuries of the Foundation and explore the Empire's collapse, the emergency of a mutant warlord known as the Mule (whose existence could not be foretold by the Seldon Plan) and the conflict between the Foundation and the mysterious Second Foundation, which has been influencing it from behind the scenes. The later books explore what happens when a Foundation scientist and adventurer discovers both Earth and the existence of other forces manipulating events.

There have been multiple attempts to adapt Foundation over the years but these have foundered on the problems of the series' long chronology, its frequent multi-decade time jumps (which preclude the existence of a returning, regular cast) and the fact it is both extremely dated (earning its current genre fame more from nostalgia than quality) and has been hugely influential on later, superior works such as the Dune series and Star Wars, of which a Foundation adaptation may appear derivative.

It will be interesting to see what Goyer comes up with. I suspect a radically different story to what Asimov portrayed in his novels.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

New BIOSHOCK game in development

2K Games is working on a new BioShock game, it has been confirmed.

Games website Kotaku unearthed the information as part of a wider investigation of the shrinking of Hanger 13 Studios, which owners 2K had downsized following the disappointing critical reception of Mafia III in late 2016. This was despite formidable sales for the game, which shifted 5 million copies in its first couple of months on sale. Hanger 13 spent some time developing both a Mafia IV concept and also an idea for a music-based superhero game named Rhapsody, which eventually collapsed.

As part of the investigation, it was revealed that some key Hanger 13 personnel had transferred to one of 2K's other studios to work on a project code-named Parkside. According to Kotaku's article, two interesting pieces of information came out of this. First is that the studio in question is 2K Marin, the much-troubled 2K subsidiary that was effectively shuttered in 2013 following the disappointing launch of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The studio appears to be have been reconstituted. The second piece of information was that Parkside is really the next game in the BioShock franchise.

The BioShock franchise is one of the most revered in modern gaming, a first-person shooter series with cutting-edge visuals and intelligent (if occasionally muddled) storytelling. Created by Ken Levine and Irrational Games, the franchise was seen as a spiritual successor to the Ultima Underworld, Deus Ex and System Shock games developed by Looking Glass Studios and Ion Storm. Levine and Irrational developed the first and third games in the series, BioShock (2007) and Bioshock Infinite (2013), whilst 2K Marin worked on BioShock 2 (2010).

After the release of BioShock Infinite, Levine felt burned out from making high-pressure games with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. He wanted to make smaller-scale, narrative-focused games. To this end Irrational was rebranded Ghost Story Games and downsized massively. Levine and Ghost Story have been working on their debut title ever since. Given that the first 3 games had sold over 25 million copies between them, 2K confirmed that the BioShock series would continue, but some commentators were dubious of the series moving forward without Levine's guidance.

Nothing is known of the next BioShock game save that it will have some big shoes to fill without Ken Levine's singular vision. However, given that BioShock 2 was also made without any involvement from Levine and was an extremely strong game, that's not perhaps as much of an issue as it could have been.

The game is likely a long way off still, given it's not even been officially announced yet.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Twenty Great Complete Fantasy Series

When writing articles about “the best fantasy series ever”, it’s inevitable that 1) the list will feature a lot of incomplete series, and 2) the list will feature a lot of complaints about “how can you call this series great when it’s incomplete, the next book might be rubbish?” This is a fair criticism. In fact, given that some of the biggest and most-namechecked modern fantasy series are incomplete (including A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Stormlight Archive and more), removing them from such a list immediately adds a lot of lesser-known series, which makes the list more interesting.

So here is a list of twenty great completed fantasy series. The criteria I used was as follows: the series can have sequels, but the core series itself must be done. You can read more books set in the world, but the story told has to be a complete entity with a beginning, middle and end. Hence the presence of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn even though Tad Williams has written an incomplete sequel trilogy, two short stories and two short novels set in the same world. The same thing for Steven Erikson’s Malazan sequence (although this was a little more dubious, given the presence of sequel and prequel series and complementary books written by his co-creator Ian Esslemont).

More arguable was a series which is ostensibly complete but more blatantly stands as part of an inter-connected whole. This immediately invalidated Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series, which comprises two complete sub-series but requires the upcoming third series to complete its narrative arc, and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, where the story finishes but key thematic and character stories continue into three stand-alone novels and the incoming sequel trilogy. Brandon Sanderson was particularly difficult to juggle with this, although ultimately the original Mistborn trilogy was omitted from the list more for comparative quality purposes (it’s just bubbling under) rather than being an incomplete narrative itself.

This is list is also not presented in any kind of numerical order, as doing so would simply invite arguments about the order rather than discussion of the books themselves, and when you’re talking about this quality level the differences are going to be somewhat slight. This is also not a list of the twenty "best series ever" (which is too big a claim), but merely twenty really good completed series. There are many others.

The Middle-earth Series by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit (1937) The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) • The Silmarillion (1977) • Unfinished Tales (1980)

Further reading: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962) • The Road Goes Ever On (1967) • The History of Middle-earth series (12 volumes, 1983-96) • The Children of Húrin (2007) • Beren and Lúthien (2017) • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

J.R.R. Tolkien created – or at least defined – the entire modern field of epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings, a vast tome chronicling the War of the Ring between the free peoples of Middle-earth and the Dark Lord Sauron, as seen through the eyes of four modest hobbits. The novel was written as a sequel to his much simpler earlier story, The Hobbit, but grew in the telling to a huge story about the meaning of simple heroism and the passing of an age. Together, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings form a complete story, but fans wanting more can read The Silmarillion, the vast history and mythology of the entire world that Tolkien spent most of his life writing (he started working on it in 1917 and it was published sixty years later, four years after his own death). The oft-overlooked Unfinished Tales collects his other extant canonical writings on the subject of Middle-earth, including short stories and worldbuilding essays, some of which (like Gandalf’s account of the Quest of Erebor and a more detailed history of Númenor) are essential reading.

Hardcore fans can also read every single surviving draft, memo and note Tolkien wrote on the subject of Middle-earth, collected in The History of Middle-earth, as well as curiosities such as a collection of sheet music and songs about Middle-earth (The Road Goes Ever On) and some poems about tertiary characters (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil). There’s also The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin, episodes from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion which have been edited into stand-alone novellas.

Tolkien wrote with poetry and skill, creating an entirely new type of literature on the fly. More to the point, he wrote epic and personal stories which continue to resonate today.


Far Cry 5

Reports of crimes being carried out in Hope County, Montana, by a religious group known as the Project at Eden's Gate has led to an investigation by the US Marshals. A group sets out to arrest the cult's leader, Joseph Seed, only to find themselves outgunned and forced to flee. The cult locks down Hope County, triggering a small-scale conflict between the religious fanatics and the local, well-armed populace. With the outside world curiously uninterested in the conflict, it falls to one of the US Marshals to organise the locals and take the fight to Joseph Seed and his followers.

The Far Cry series has, to date, delighted in taking players to far-flung corners of the globe. Far Cry and Far Cry 3 were set on remote islands, Far Cry 2 visited Africa and Far Cry 4 took place in the Himalayas. Far Cry: Primal was set in the Stone Age and Far Cry: Blood Dragon was a neon-drenched SF fantasy. Far Cry 5 differs from its forebears by bringing the game home (to many players), to the United States itself. This immediately adds an element of familiarity to the game: no longer are you an interloper, a visitor to strange lands (apart from the fourth game, where you played a native returning home after a long absence), but the people, the landscape and the culture are immediately more familiar.

Also familiar is the gameplay. The Far Cry apple has not fallen far from the tree at all. Once again, you have a large map which is covered in icons directing you to missions, side-quests, optional activities, enemy strongholds and various characters. There are multiple rebel factions - three in this case - and you can help them defeat the bad guys and eventually win the war. There are some changes to the formula, though. The increasingly silly towers you had to climb to open up each new region have disappeared and the game now tries to be more organic in how it presents you information: rebel soldiers will talk about a missing ally or rumours of another outpost which adds that information to the map; stealing maps from enemy strongholds will also open up more information about the world. Far Cry 5 tries to be a more dynamic game in how you find out information rather than following the same old Ubisoft formula yet again.

Still, these improvements are fairly minor and not entirely successful: it is far, far easier now than in previous games to simply miss stories, side-quests and characters, which is rather bizarre. More interesting is the decision to mix and match ideas from previous games. Unexpectedly, this game reaches back to tap the Far Cry 2 idea of "buddies", special characters you can recruit (usually by doing missions for them) at key moments in the game and then summon them to help you out later on. They can be injured in battle, but you can revive them and vice versa. The game can also be played co-op, with the two players taking on similar roles in helping each other out. It's a nice idea which is often hilarious - your potential buddy pool includes a dog, a diabetic bear and a puma - but is also overpowered. One of your buddies is a pilot and helps you out from the air, allowing you to simply ask him to bomb the living hell out of an enemy compound before waltzing in to claim it. The enemy AI is also often bewildered by attacks coming from different angles and can be divided and eliminated very easily even on the hardest difficulty settings. Helicopters are also monstrously powerful: you can take out and liberate an outpost in seconds using a chopper whilst going in on foot might result in a solid quarter of an hour of infiltration, combat, takedowns and dealing with reinforcements.

Gunplay and combat is pretty satisfying. The Far Cry series is the biggest-selling story-focused first-person shooter series of all time, with sales of well over 40 million. Shooting is solid, the new helicopter controls are excellent and combat is the usual mix of long-distance spying and recon followed by the rush of attacking outright, with perhaps the occasional stealthy infiltration thrown in to mix things up a bit.

Far Cry 5's trump card is its upgraded and severely enhanced graphics engine. The game is gorgeous, comfortably the best-looking game in existence right now. The forests are breathtakingly atmospheric, water and fire effects are incredible, and the game is often a joy to simply wander around on foot, on quad bike or by boat. Far Cry 5's map is not particularly large, but it does mix in a nice transition from the mountainous north to the flatter south, covered by vast farms, and the heavily forested east. The environments of this game are fantastic.

So good combat and nice environments to fight in, and this goes some way to making Far Cry 5 a very worthwhile purchase. But then the game not so much falters as falls over and bursts into flames.

Far Cry 5 is an open-world game, which means it's up to you where you go, what missions you tackle and what optional activities you partake in. If you want to get through the main story as fast as possible, you can do that in about 15 hours or so, but if you exhaustively want to do everything you can in the game you can comfortably triple that. But the problem is that the game seems to get antsy if you go more than five seconds without something happening. Enemies are spawned constantly, with cars and trucks materialising (sometimes quite literally a few feet away, which is disconcerting) on the road in front of you, cultists on quad bikes appearing on the dirt tracks and hostile wildlife such as bears roaming the woods. Far worse is when the game's story decide it's sat on the sidelines for too long and decides to railroad you into the next chapter of the game.

This is extraordinarily frustrating. Killing enemies, liberating outposts, and destroying cult shrines and vehicles all adds to a "freedom meter". At key points this meter will trigger the next part of the game's story. Unless you commit to not killing enemies when attacked and simply running away something interesting happens, there's no way to avoid filling up this meter and thus continue the story. Even worse, almost every major story event in the game requires you to be kidnapped, which is...ridiculous. You can be kidnapped at random, anywhere, any time, even from the cockpit of a helicopter 2,000 feet up with two buddies sitting right next to you. You wake up in an enemy base and have to escape. This happens nine times in the game. Why don't the cult just kill you outright? No idea. One of the game's three mini-bosses is kind of trying to use you for their own ends and it sort of makes sense they'd spare you, but the other two should have killed you without a nanosecond's hesitation. That Austin Powers scene with Scott offering to go get a gun comes to mind repeatedly.

It doesn't help that Far Cry 5 is badly written - the three mini-bosses and the main villain howl Biblical quotations and cliches at you in the most predictable manner possible, and your allies rarely say anything that sounds like a real human would remotely say - and largely lacking in memorable characters. Far Cry 3 and 4 had great villains in the form of Vaas and Pagan Min, but the Seed family are mind-numbingly tedious in comparison. The much-vaunted "topicality" of the game also never appears, and the game fails to say anything interesting or original about the US or the current political moment in history at all. This is probably for the best, but it does row back on some of the pre-release marketing.

A word must be reserved for Far Cry 5's ending, which is comfortably the most illogical, bizarre and incongruous conclusion* to a major game franchise since Mass Effect 3's. The ending relies on you listening to radio messages at key moments in the game, but if you aren't near a radio or if the radio is turned off, you won't hear the messages. Even worse, that excuse is undone by you having contact with a senior American intelligence agent who, you'd assume, would be in the know about what was going on but clearly isn't. Like Mass Effect 3 before it, the ending of Far Cry 5 makes you feel like everything you did in the preceding 15+ hours was utterly worthless and pointless, leaving a bad taste in the mouth and little urge to replay the game or even finish off the remaining side-quests (the game generates a save set before the ending so you can go back and address unfinished business if you want).

Another issue that Far Cry 5 has to deal with, and does so badly, is the increasing muddling of the series focus from game to game and the threat of the competition. The Far Cry franchise's "thing", the thing it does better than anything else, is first-person combat in a freeform setting far away from linear corridors, realised with cutting-edge graphics. However, feature creep has seen side-quests, animal-taming and hunting, buggy-racing and, in this game, helicopter gunships and even fighter planes added to the mix, to the point where the series feels like it wants, badly, to be Grand Theft Auto. This doesn't play to the series strengths and makes the game feel more generic. Another major problem, much moreso for Far Cry 5 than any previous game in the series, is the looming presence of the Just Cause series. Just Cause 3 does everything that Far Cry 5 does, including having aircraft, helicopters, rebel armies you lead into battle, chaos meters, base assaults, and does it better in a far larger and more varied world, with a much greater sense of fun and no story barging in and seizing control away from you once an hour or so. Far Cry 5 has better graphics and psychopathic bear companions, but that's about it. On every other front, you shouldn't even think about checking out Far Cry 5 without trying Avalanche's action-comedy epic first.

So, Far Cry 5 is a beautiful, stunning-looking game with very good and solid combat, and some great moments like rushing into battle with a friendly diabetic bear named Cheeseburger. It is also bizarrely at its best when it's at its quietest and most peaceful. But the story is garbage and doesn't make an iota of sense, which would be bearable if the plot doesn't continuously keep pushing itself in your face whilst you're playing whether you want it to or not. It's a game that plays bait and switch with you constantly and which takes control away from you and pushes you into doing things you don't want to. Never before have I played a game that's so good when it's good and so appallingly obnoxious when it's terrible, before rounding off things with an ending which is a giant, smirking middle finger to the player.

Far Cry 5 (***) is a deeply frustrating game which does so much right and then not so much shoots itself in the foot as blows both feet off with a rocket launcher. A very cautious try before you buy, or wait for the budget version (and hopefully a mod or patch that eventually mitigates the game's worst excesses).

The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 (UK, USA) and X-Box One (UK, USA). Three DLC expansions are due for release later this year, although like Blood Dragon they will be fantastical episodes set outside of series canon.

* Although a Far Cry 6 seems likely, based on Far Cry 5's early and impressive sales, the ending of 5 suggests it will be a very different kind of setting. I'll try to get a more thorough analysis of the game's bizarre ending in another post.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Tolkien's FALL OF GONDOLIN to be published as a stand-alone work

J.R.R. Tolkien isn't letting having died forty-six years ago hold back his writing career. In August he will publish The Fall of Gondolin, as edited and compiled by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien.

"The Fall of Gondolin" was the very first story Tolkien ever wrote about Middle-earth, writing it down whilst on convalescent leave following the Battle of the Somme in late 1916 or early 1917. The story was written "in army huts, crowded filled with the noise of gramophones." Sometimes cribbing manuscript paper from any source to hand (part of the story is written on the back of a paper outlining the "chain of responsibility in a battalion"), Tolkien wrote and completed the narrative, the first instalment in a work he called The Book of Lost Tales. This book would collect together various stories from an ancient work between a dark force and the wise and powerful "Gnomes" (named for gnosis, or wisdom) who opposed it, through the framing device of a hapless mariner washing ashore on an island called Tol Eressea and learning about the ancient conflict. The original "Fall of Gondolin" was written in a severely archaic and studied style, which Tolkien later found over-laboured.

By 1930 Tolkien had abandoned the framing device and instead planned to tell the story "straight", under a new title, The Silmarillion, which required a total rewrite (including replacing the name "Gnomes" with "Elves," after the 1930s craze for garden gnomes made the name unbearable to him). However, he was interrupted first by a children's story he had started writing for his children, which became The Hobbit, and then urgent publisher demands for a sequel, which became The Lord of the Rings. Whilst working on both books, Tolkien did continue to develop The Silmarillion, but increasingly came to write the story in very broad brush strokes, lacking the fine detail of "The Fall of Gondolin." "The Fall of Gondolin" therefore only existed as the archaic 1917 manuscript (later amended and edited by Tolkien circa 1920) and a very brief summary of the story that Tolkien had written as part of the Grey Annals of Beleriand (which formed much of the published Silmarillion).

Around 1951, after The Lord of the Rings had been completed but whilst its publication was in question, Tolkien wrote a new version of the Gondolin story. His plan had been to depict the fall of the city in a detailed, more sophisticated mode of writing more akin to Lord of the Rings. However, after depicting the hero Tuor's arrival at the city gates and his first meeting with Ecthelion, Warden of the Grey Gate, Tolkien abruptly broke off the narrative and did note complete this version of the story. This incomplete narrative - totalling just 34 pages and retitled "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin" - forms the opening part of Unfinished Tales (1980), with Christopher Tolkien noting that his father's failure to complete this story may rank as the greatest tragedy of his literary life.

Christopher Tolkien began publishing all of his father's drafts in The History of Middle-earth series. The original 1917-20 version of "The Fall of Gondolin" finally saw print in The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (1984), the second volume of the series. A 120-verse poem, "The Lay of the Fall of Gondolin," also appeared in The Lays of Beleriand (1985), the third volume of The History of Middle-earth.

The "new" Fall of Gondolin will, as Beren and Luthien (2017) did before it, contain all of the extant versions of the text, collected together with editorial commentary and artwork by Alan Lee. There'll be nothing new here, but it should be worth it for the Lee artwork alone.

The Fall of Gondolin will be published on 30 August 2018.

Monday, 9 April 2018


My History of Earwa PDF, a guide and story-so-far to Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse series, has now been updated through the events of The Unholy Consult. This will stand readers in good stead for when Bakker publishers the next book, whenever that might be. You can read or download the PDF here.

As before, thanks to Jason Deem for his amazing artwork which really fleshed out the project.