Sunday, 19 April 2015

Lucasfilm reveal details about spin-off film STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE

Hot on the heels of the Episode VII trailer, Lucasfilm have revealed more about the first Star Wars stand-alone movie, Rogue One.

These films have been given the umbrella title Star Wars Anthology, indicating that they can be set at any time in the established Star Wars timeline. Confirming earlier rumours, Rogue One will indeed be set just before the events of the original Episode IV movie and will feature a band of rebel soldiers, led by a character played by Felicity Jones. The story will revolve around the stealing of the Death Star plans and getting them to R2-D2 and Princess Leia's ship, sparking the events of the original trilogy. This will be a mostly Jedi-free movie, focusing instead on soldiers and warfare. According to director Gareth Edwards, the Anthology movies can adopt different tones and styles to the existing films and Rogue One will drawn on more realistic movies like Zero Dark Thirty for inspiration (and indeed, the director of photography on Zero Dark Thirty is working on Rogue One).

Star Wars: Rogue One will be released on 16 December 2016.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Second trailer for STAR WARS EPISODE VII

Disney and Lucasfilm have unleashed the second teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Some more information has also been revealed about the film's backstory. The film will take place 30-odd years after Return of the Jedi. The galaxy is divided between surviving remnants of the Empire, including the First Order (who appear to be the bad guys in the first movie) and the descendants of the Rebel Alliance, who are now calling themselves "The Resistance". The film follows the adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who survives by (apparently) salvaging derelicts on the desert planet of Jakku. She crosses paths with Finn (John Boyega), a First Order stormtrooper who appears to be on the run for reasons unknown, and a hotshot X-wing pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Eventually their paths cross with the legendary smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher). Arrayed against them are the First Order forces, apparently led by a Dark Side Force-user named Kylo Ren (rumoured to be played by Adam Driver).

The Force Awakens is released on 18 December this year.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

GAME OF THRONES Season 5 Primer

Season 5 of Game of Thrones starts in a few hours in the United States and starts airing tomorrow night in the UK, so here's a handy quick look at the state of play as of the first episode.

The State of Play
The War of the Five Kings has raged for well over two years and brought ruin to much of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Tens of thousands of soldiers and smallfolk have died, banditry runs rampant in the Riverlands and many towns and great castles have been razed. The game of thrones has cost the realm dear, and it needs time to rebuild.

Unfortunately, it might not get it. The Lannister-Tyrell alliance smashed the armies of Stannis Baratheon at the epic Battle of the Blackwater, but Stannis escaped north to the Wall and has won a crushing victory there against the invading wildling forces of Mance Rayder. This has secured Stannis the reluctant support of the Night's Watch and stands him in good stead to ally with northern houses and sweep back south to take his crown.

Standing in his way are the Boltons, former vassals of House Stark who brutally betrayed them at the Red Wedding. Although the support for the Boltons amongst the northern houses is shaky, they have pledged allegiance to the Iron Throne, received some support from their fellow conspirators in House Frey and have retaken the ancestral Stark capital at Winterfell. Both Roose Bolton and Stannis Baratheon are canny, seasoned generals and their inevitable confrontation will decide who will rule the North...just in time for the victor to face the threat of the oncoming winter.

In the south things would appear to be more secure, but behind the scenes tensions are rising. The Lannisters have apparently won the war, with Queen Cersei Lannister's son Tommen Baratheon sitting the Iron Throne. However, the deaths of King Joffrey and Lord Tywin Lannister in rapid succession have left the family looking weak and vulnerable. The Lannister armies may have been victorious, but only after being bled in a series of successive defeats to the Starks and Tullys and they urgently need rest and reinforcing. On the other hand, the much larger forces of House Tyrell remain intact, almost unbloodied, and the Lady Margaery Tyrell, betrothed to King Tommen, has won great influence over him. The Tyrell-Lannister alliance is on shaky ground, and it would not take much to test it.

However, the two houses may decide to unify against a mutual threat. Twenty years ago, House Martell developed a feud against the Lannisters when Princess Elia Martell was brutally murdered by the Lannister vassal Gregor Clegane during the closing moments of Robert's Rebellion. The Martells burned for justice for decades until Tyrion Lannister won their allegiance by pledging the hand of Tommen's sister Myrcella to Prince Trystane Martell in marriage and promising justice. Instead, Ser Gregor defeated and killed Prince Oberyn Martell in King's Landing when he came to collect that justice. With Myrcella an effective hostage in Sunspear and the Dornish people - particularly Prince Oberyn's bastard daughters, the 'Sand Snakes' - clamouring for vengeance, the situation could yet escalate into open warfare.

Other threats are also on the horizon. The Iron Bank of Braavos has withdrawn its financial support from King's Landing, instead throwing its backing behind Stannis Baratheon. The rise of banditry has caused millions of smallfolk to renew their faith to the Seven, giving the septons and septas more power and influence than they have enjoyed for decades. The lucrative slave trade on the eastern continent of Essos is in danger of collapse, affecting markets and purses over thousands of miles. The Night's Watch is trying to forge an alliance with the surviving wildlings of Mance Rayder's army in the face of some greater threat to the north. And it has been reported that Daenerys Targaryen has conquered the cities of Slaver's Bay with an army of Unsullied and three dragons. Sooner or later, she must return to Westeros to claim her father's throne, and take vengeance on those who betrayed her family.

 Players in the Game

Houses Stark and Tully

Strongholds: Winterfell (fallen), Tully (besieged)
Leader: None

House Stark has been ruined by war and betrayal. Winterfell has been razed and is now being rebuilt by the Boltons. Eddard, Catelyn and Robb are dead, Bran and Rickon are believed dead and Sansa and Arya are both missing. On the Tully side of the family, Edmure is a captive of Walder Frey and Brynden 'Blackfish' Tully has escaped, his whereabouts unknown. The two houses are broken, but their names remain powerful and the return of some or more of their scions could spur a new war.

Houses Frey and Bolton
Strongholds: The Twins (Frey) and the Dreadfort (Bolton)
Leaders: Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort and Walder Frey, Lord of the Twins

At the Red Wedding, Houses Frey and Bolton turned on their lieges, the Tullys and Starks, and betrayed them in one night of infamy. Both houses have been richly rewarded by the Lannisters, being given overlordship of their former lieges' lands and full pardons for their earlier rebellions. However, both houses face resistance from their vassals, who are not best pleased by the manner in which they came to power. The Boltons, in particular, face major problems in trying to secure a territory as vast as the North in the face of the oncoming winter, opposition from rebellious houses and of course the newly-arisen threat of Stannis Baratheon at the Wall.

House Greyjoy
Stronghold: Pyke
Leader: Balon Greyjoy, King of the Isles

House Greyjoy acheived some stunning victories during the War of the Five Kings, seizing Deepwood Motte and Moat Cailin, raiding Torrhen's Square and even capturing Winterfell. However, it overreached, Winterfell was razed by the Boltons and Moat Cailin was retaken after Theon Greyjoy betrayed its garrison. The Greyjoys still hold Deepwood Motte, but between Stannis and the Boltons, it is likely to fall soon. The Greyjoys still maintaining a formidable fleet and strength of arms on the Iron Islands themselves, but with Westeros being consolidated under the leadership of Tommen it is unclear how they can prevail. Balon Greyjoy may be forced to sue for peace in the light of his numerical disadvantage.

Houses Lannister, Tyrell and Baratheon (under Tommen)
Strongholds: King's Landing (Tommen), Storm's End (Tommen), Casterly Rock (Lannister), Highgarden (Tyrell)
Leader: Tommen Baratheon, the King on the Iron Throne

House Lannister has apparently won a stunning victory in the War of the Five Kings, but that victory has come at a very high cost. The Lannisters suffered a series of devastating defeats (at the Whispering Wood, Oxcross, the Stone Mill and more) at Robb Stark's hands and faced further losses in retaking control of the Riverlands and at the Blackwater. Although far from spent, the Lannister armies have been bloodied and have spent too long in the field. In addition, the murder of Tywin Lannister by his own son Tyrion and the assassination of King Joffrey Baratheon have left the family looking weaker and more vulnerable than ever before. In contrast, the massive armies of House Tyrell are relatively unscathed by the war, Margaery Tyrell has seemingly won great influence over young King Tommen and the Tyrell heartlands in the Reach will prove an important source of food in the coming winter.

House Baratheon (under Stannis)
Strongholds: Dragonstone, Castle Black
Leader: Stannis Baratheon, the King in the Narrow Sea, the King at the Wall

Stannis Baratheon's sun apparently set on the Blackwater when his army was smashed by the combined forces of the Lannisters and Tyrells. However, Stannis surprised everyone by regrouping, winning vital financial backing from the Iron Bank of Braavos and then moving his army north to the Wall, where he defeated the invading army of Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. This move has won Stannis the support (if reluctant) of the Night's Watch and may prove influential as he seeks to win the northmen to his cause. Many of the northern houses are furious at the betrayal of the Starks by the Boltons. If Stannis can secure an alliance with them, defeat the Boltons and ride out the winter, he may be able to gain enough traction to make another play for the Iron Throne. But it will not be easy.

House Arryn
Stronghold: The Eyrie
Leader: Robin Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie

House Arryn chose a neutral course during the War of the Five Kings and has remained untouched by the fighting. As the war ended, Lady Lysa Arryn married Lord Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish only to suffer a mishap a short time later. Lord Baelish, acting as Lord Protector of the Vale, has moved to align the Arryns with the Lannister cause and secure Lord Robin's rule. However, the Arryns and their bannermen were closely allied to the houses of the North and the Riverlands during Robert's Rebellion and are less than thrilled to be forced into working with such dishonourable forces as the Lannisters, Freys and Boltons. What comes of this remains to be seen.

House Martell
Stronghold: Sunspear
Leader: Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne

House Martell sat out the War of the Five Kings, accepting neutrality in return for a betrothal between Princess Myrcella Baratheon and Prince Trystane Martell and justice in the form of the head of Gregor Clegane, the knight who murdered Princess Elia Martell during Robert's Rebellion. Myrcella has been an honoured guest at Sunspear ever since. Unfortunately, relations with the Lannister/Tyrell alliance have grown frosty since Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, was killed seeking justice for his sister. The cautious Prince Doran apparently seeks to avoid war, but the people of Dorne are less placid and the desire for revenge - especially from Prince Oberyn's bastard daughters, the 'Sand Snakes' - is growing.

House Targaryen
Stronghold: Meereen
Leader: Daenerys Targaryen, the Queen Across the Water

In not quite three years, Daenerys Targaryen has achieved a series of stunning victories. She has hatched the first three dragons seen in the world in two centuries, crossed the Red Waste, survived the machinations of the warlocks of Qarth and has now conquered the great cities of Slaver's Bay: Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, where she now makes her seat. However, Daenerys is unwilling to abandon her new conquests for fear of them falling into anarchy, civil war and ruin. Instead she hopes to rule and establish a new government that will survive when she departs for Westeros. With insurgents such as the Sons of the Harpy striking against her soldiers on the streets, this seems a remote prospect. More dangerously, until now Daenerys has been protected by her dragons and by her mobility. With her dragons apparently too unruly to be controlled and with her forces bogged down in Slaver's Bay, it gives time and the opportunity for her enemies to unify against her.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE hits 58 million sales

Sales of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series have passed 58 million, according to The Guardian.

In an article on how the commercial and critical success of the series has impacted the global fantasy market, The Guardian talks to George's publishers and some of his colleagues and friends, including Joe Abercrombie and sometimes-collaborator Lisa Tuttle.

Before 2011, when the TV series Game of Thrones began, sales of ASoIaF were estimated at roughly 5 million copies. In the year 2011-12, the series sold 9 million copies by itself and it would appear that sales have continued to increase at a formidable rate. Martin's total sales have exceeded the likes of Terry Brooks and are closing in on Robert Jordan and Terry Pratchett (authors with many more published novels) very quickly. It's no wonder that Martin's publishers are eager to get their hands on The Winds of Winter, the sixth (and hopefully penultimate) novel in the series.

Given that A Dance with Dragons dominated the bestseller lists in 2011 at a time when sales of the overall series were far lower, it's very likely that Winds will be the biggest-selling novel of the year if it does make it out in 2016 (as Martin recently revealed was his target).

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

DEUS EX: MANKIND DIVIDED officially announced

Eidos and Square have announced the existence of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (formerly rumoured as Deus Ex Universe). This is the official sequel to 2011's superb Deus Ex: Human Revolution. They've put together a pretty snazzy trailer for it:

Mankind Divided takes place in 2029, two years after the events of Human Revolution. That game revolved around the growing schism between augmented humans - cyborgs and people with artificial body parts - and normal humans. The end of Human Revolution, which saw millions of augmented people killed or driven insane, has sparked this schism into open conflict. Security agent Adam Jensen, the augmented human who pretty much saved the human race in the original game, is once again called upon to help resolve the growing crisis.

Like its forebear, the new game is expected to allow you to control and develop Jensen's character as he resolves missions through means stealthy, technical, violent or some combination of the approaches (the trailer suggests homicidal ultraviolence will still be available as an option). Expect more between-mission angst and tactical deployment of built-in mirror shades at moments of maximum dramatic impact.

The spiel:
DEUS EX: MANKIND DIVIDED takes place in 2029, two years after the events of HUMAN REVOLUTION and the infamous ‘Aug Incident’ in Panchaea that resulted in the death of millions at the hands of those who had installed augmentations. This event has created a huge divide between those who have augmentations, and those who do not. Amongst this emotional turmoil are various factions looking to manipulate the public by twisting public opinion of augmentation to further their own agenda and hide the truth of what really happened.

As the social and political chaos reaches boiling point, super-augmented anti-terrorist agent Adam Jensen re-enters the fray. Empowered by brand new augmentations that bolster his formidable, strategic arsenal, Jensen will visit multiple new locations to uncover the truths that are hidden by a cloak of new conspiracies. With more choice at the player’s disposal than ever before, DEUS EX: MANKIND DIVIDED is the ultimate DEUS EX experience.

Adam Jensen may not have asked for this. But Adam Whitehead certainly has. The game is expected in late 2015 (but I wouldn't be surprised to see a slip into 2016).

Spanish cover art for THE WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE

This, it has to be said, is quite tasty:

Interestingly, for a book based firmly on the novel canon, they seem to have gone with an image inspired by the TV show...unless the artist knows something we don't?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Fargo: Season 1

2006. Chameleonic assassin Lorne Malvo passes through the town of Bemidji, Minnesota. A chance encounter with a put-upon, stressed-out salesman named Lester Nygaard unleashes a chain of chaotic events, culminating in multiple murders. The local police force is eager to sweep the chaos under the rug, but Deputy Molly Solverson realises that there is more going on than first appears. When a Duluth police officer, Gus Grimly, has his own close run-in with Malvo, the two officers join forces to bring the assassin to justice.

At first glance, a TV series based on the 1996 movie Fargo seems like a crazy idea. The film, directed by the Coen Brothers, is idiosyncratic, unique and offbeat. Turning it into a weekly TV series sounds like a lunatic idea, which is why the Coen Brothers initially refused to have anything to do with it. After seeing the first episode, they changed their mind and signed on as producers. It’s easy to see why. The first season of Fargo, the TV series, may be the most genius single season of television produced this decade.

The connections between the TV series and the movie are slim. The TV series uses some ideas and tropes from the film and echoes a few of its ideas, but in terms of actual connective tissue the only element used is a briefcase of money left in the snow in the film, which a character stumbles over in the TV show. If you’ve never seen the film it’s not important whatsoever. It’s also a relief to learn that Fargo, like True Detective, is an anthology series. Each season will take place in a different time period with a different cast (Season 2 will take place in 1979 in South Dakota, for example). The series is set in the same “universe”, so if you watch the whole thing you’ll notice all the little connecting details, but broadly speaking it’s not necessary. You can enjoy this as a single, ten-episode mini-series with no major dangling plot threads.

One of the benefits of these anthology series is that they represent a short-term commitment for major film actors who might balk at a longer stint on a TV show. The result is that Fargo’s cast is peppered with famous faces from film and TV: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne and Martin Freeman as Lester are the main draws and most famous faces, but Colin Hanks also appears in the role of Gus and Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk slotted in his appearance as semi-incompetent police chief Oswalt before filming Better Call Saul. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill Hickock from Deadwood and too many film appearances from the 1970s onwards to count) has a small but crucial role as Lou Solverson (a younger Lou will be a key character in the second season). The show also has time to turn up trumps with a new talent: Allison Tolman gets her big break as Molly and is absolutely brilliant, holding her own against the other actors and turning in a barnstorming mixture of resolve, frustration and not wanting to rock the boat but really going for it if she believes it’s the right thing.

Thornton gets one of the best roles of his career with Lorne, an assassin who likes to keep his targets off-balance with existential and literal-minded musings, an absolute absence of any kind of fear and a thousand-yard stare that has cops backing away from him at traffic stops. At different times he has to pose as other people, or go undercover for months to win over a target’s trust, and Thornton’s ability to spin his performance on a dime is astonishing. Freeman is also exceptional; inverting his usual performance as quiet nice guys to play a hard-pressed working man who initially wins the viewer’s sympathy, but by the end of the season has turned into a loathsome, murderous little weasel. Lester’s descent feels like watching all of Breaking Bad compressed into ten episodes, but never feels rushed or implausible.

What makes the show work is the way it channels the oddness of the Coen Brothers without feeling like a parody of it. Dialogue is written in the same slightly off-kilter way and there’s the same, understated and intriguing tone to the direction, occasionally punctuated by memorable set-pieces: Lorne’s one-man assault on a mafia-filled business is darkly hilarious, amusingly cost-conscious (they can’t afford the full shoot-out so we only hear it as the camera pans up the outside of a building, interrupted only by brief views of the carnage through windows) and extremely audacious. Not many directors or writers could take on the Coen Brothers and match them, especially over ten hours, but the team here manage it. It’s something that continues throughout the series, which is also not exactly reluctant to set up characters for episodes and hours on end and then kill them in off-handed, arbitrary ways that even Joss Whedon might balk at. This, coupled with the show’s short run time, adds a real sense of danger to proceedings which maintains the tension.

There are a few minor flaws. Some story points turn on the fact that the local police force and its new chief (counting the days to retirement) really don’t want to investigate the murders in too much detail, jumping on the most convenient story available to declare it closed. Whilst this closed-minded bureaucratic viewpoint is believable, it does get a little frustrating that supposed servants of the law seem to be extremely uninterested in finding out the truth if it is inconvenient to them. At the same time, it makes us empathise strongly with Molly as she also becomes incredulous at their intransigence, so it works on that level.

The first season of Fargo (*****) is, quite simply, brilliant. The writing is top-notch, the performances are flawless and the series can turn from being laugh-out-loud hilarious to gut-wrenchingly terrifying in the space of seconds. It’s offbeat, different and ambitious. You can get it now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Tuesday, 31 March 2015


Activision have announced that the next game in their popular Call of Duty franchise will be called United Nations Diplomat and will feature the player experiencing the cut and thrust world of high-level international politics.

"It's a departure for the series," Activision CEO Robert Kotick admitted. "But after twelve years and eleven games the well was kind of running dry. What were we going to do? Release another mild evolution in the series with slightly better graphics, newer guns and more enemies to kill? Who'd want to play that?"

Activision invited fans to play a test build of the game to get some early feedback.

"I wasn't sure what to expect", experienced player "Heavydixxx" reported. "The game started and my character was sitting around this big table with all these other dudes, and one of them started talking about the need for greater international investment in his country's infrastructure. I kept thinking it was just the intro cinematic for a mission where I parachuted into his capital under the cover of night to expose Russian agitators by shooting them in the face, but the talking just kept going on and on. Occasionally I got to press a button to choose between making a fruitful contribution or being mildly snarky to the Chinese representative. It was different, I guess."

Player "Helpful Desperado" concurred. "At one point the Israeli ambassador stood up and said that Iran was developing nuclear bombs, and I was thinking it was all going to go off. But then he sat down, and the Iranian ambassador got up and said that they were not, in fact, developing nuclear bombs. Then someone else said there should be talks about it. And more talks." He praised the game's immersive realism. "Literally, it felt like three months passed before I finally got the 'Controversial Compromise' achievement." He then added, "Worth it," whilst looking confused.

Player "Thug 4 Life" did report that the endgame sequence was compelling. "There was this virus on the loose in Africa, somewhere, and we had to make hardcore decisions in an instant and if you got it wrong the virus wiped out half the continent. That was really good, and sets up the sequel, Post Apocalyptic Warfare".

Asked about the game's commercial prospects, one Activision shareholder was reported as weeping quietly in a corner whilst saying, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" to himself.

The game is still expected to sell somewhere between 1 and 11 billion copies on day of release.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Early thoughts on PILLARS OF ETERNITY

Obsidian Entertainment's latest computer roleplaying game, Pillars of Eternity, was released three days ago and has attracted blanket critical acclaim from the gaming press. Pillars hits the sweet spot of nailing the nostalgic feel for the RPGs of yesteryear whilst also bringing some modern sensibilities on board. It's not flawless - in fact I'm rather surprised that some of its more glaringly obvious interface and presentation flaws have been brushed over by reviewers - but it's a pretty excellent game so far.

Obsidian was formed out of the ruins of Black Isle, Interplay's in-house CRPG development studio which created the Fallout franchise and worked on the Icewind Dale series, as well as creating the single greatest CRPG of all time, Planescape: Torment. They also published the Baldur's Gate series (developed by a nascent BioWare before they were swallowed by the EA machine) and helped with the development of Baldur's Gate II. After the collapse of Black Isle, the reconstituted Obsidian developed games including Neverwinter Nights II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Dungeon Siege III, Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

However, as an independent studios working on-hire for big publishers, Obsidian found themselves at the mercy of publishers changing contracts, altering terms and conditions and drastically cutting development time at limited notice. On no less than three occasions, Obsidian games were released buggy (Fallout: New Vegas), not-quite-complete (Knights of the Old Republic II) and apparently in a barely tested beta build (Alpha Protocol). On all three occasions the publishers were to blame: Bethesda did not run sufficient QA on New Vegas* (something they have a reputation for on their own titles, with Daggerfall and Oblivion in particular released in a buggy state, with even the mighty Skyrim suffering from problems); LucasArts reversed a deadline extension for KotOR II at the last moment*; and the people at Sega who had commissioned Alpha Protocol had left and their replacements just wanted to get rid of the game ASAP to save money*.

This left Obsidian with a reputation for, depending on your POV, either extreme misfortune or simply an inability to release a game that worked properly. On games where they had much greater development time and all of the agreed promises were kept, such as Dungeon Siege III and South Park, the games were delivered in a good state. However, what is remarkable is that Obsidian's laudable commitment to intelligent game systems, player choice and top-quality writing have shone through even on their most buggy games.

Pillars of Eternity was an attempt to both change that reputation, with Obsidian in total control over every aspect of development and QA, and also to bring back some of the classic feel of the old Black Isle days. The game is a homage to the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, but isn't quite as old-school fantasy as it appears. Whilst classic elves and humans and wizards are all present and correct, the game throws some curveballs into the mix, such as arctic tundra dwarves and the ability to assess non-player characters by gazing into their souls. It's a big game - at a reported 50-60 hours in length it's bigger than any Black Isle game bar the monstrously huge Baldur's Gate II, and bigger than any game Obsidian has developed before - but also one that focuses on the moments and the details.

I'm now seven hours into the game and am rocking a five-member team of adventuring nutters around the Dyrwood. So far we've fought a crazy giant bear, fought off a horde of mushroom men, laid to rest dozens of zombies and almost been slaughtered by, erm, a pack of boar. My team consists of stalwart dwarven fighter (my main character), a posh elven wizard named Aloth with a nice line in sarcastic invective, a religiously-minded warrior named Eder, an enigmatic priest named Durance who likes to think he is Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II but is actually The Sphinx from Mystery Men, and Kana Rua, a 'chanter' who sings inspiring ballads whilst unloading shots from his mobile hand cannon (did I mention the game has occasional moments where it goes randomly steampunk on the rest of the setting's epic fantasy behind?). They're a memorable, crazy bunch of characters who it's fun to go delving into dungeons with.

The game mixes up tricky side-quests (complete with trademark Chris Avellone-penned morality labyrinths) with a series of interconnected main storylines revolving around your character's newfound ability to gaze into souls, resulting in him/her becoming known as "The Watcher". There's also the interesting ability to gain control of a ruined castle and rebuild it into your own personal stronghold. You can retire to the castle between quests to re-arm and resupply. Your unused-in-the-current party NPCs can chill out there or strike out on solo, off-screen missions and you can fortify the place so it looks more impressive. Oh, and there's also a (wholly optional) 15-level mega-dungeon directly underneath the castle if you feel like an extra challenge.

The game does the usual Obsidian thing of emphasising roleplaying alongside combat (although, unlike some of their other games, you can't avoid combat altogether) and you can use intelligence and wits to overcome problems as well as homicidal ultraviolence. There's also some nice ability-based effects: give your beserker barbarian some high intelligence and he or she will engage in combat more tactically and do extra area-of-effect damage to groups of enemies.

It's not perfect. Obsidian didn't quite catch all of the bugs and there's a few minor ones knocking around that are fairly irritating. There's also some very curious UI decisions. There's a "Stash" option which means you have no inventory limit and never have to worry about weight limits. This is good, because weight limits are extremely irritating and games enforcing them only serves as pedantic busywork. However, the game then doesn't allow you to rest at will to recover between fights. You have four campfires and can only rest four times before having to resupply. So you go into tough areas, make some progress, rest, make some more progress, rest, etc until you run out of campfires and have to run back to the nearest inn or store to buy some more. Which is pretty much just pedantic busywork. Obsidian giveth and Obsidian taketh away...

Far more annoying is that certain commands, including most buff spells and abilities, are not available until combat starts. So you can't cast a few bless/fortify spells upon spotting trolls in the distance before wading in. You have to trigger the fight and then cast the buffs (if you have time before the enemy close the distance) which is pretty ridiculous. For these reasons, whilst Pillars of Eternity approaches the quality of the old Infinity Engine games it doesn't quite match them in terms of user-friendliness and playability.

Still, it's the best of the recent retro-nostalgia-crowdfunded RPGs (certainly more engaging than Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2, both fine games, at least so far), it's huge, it's fantastically well-written and it's easily the best traditional fantasy RPG to appear since at least Icewind Dale II in 2002 (it knocks the first two Dragon Age games into a cocked hat, that's for sure). It might all go pear-shaped in the next 43 hours, so my full final review will have until then, but for now I can firmly recommend the game.

* Allegedly.


2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise. To celebrate, Paramount are hoping to release the third Star Trek 'reboot' movie (and thirteenth overall) and, erm, at the moment not a lot else. Tentative discussions on a new Star Trek TV series don't seem to have gone anywhere and there isn't even any talk of a big TV documentary or retrospective. It does seem a bit odd for the biggest name in science fiction that more isn't being done to celebrate its longevity, especially considering the successful celebrations the BBC put on for Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary a couple of years ago.

Something that fans had been expecting and looking forwards to, at least, was the HD/Blu-Ray re-relase of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. CBS completed their release of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray in December and things looked good that they could roll straight into DS9 and, hopefully, Voyager right after. However, Robert Meyer Burnett, the producer of the documentaries for the TNG Blu-Rays, has tweeted that a DS9 re-release is now less likely, citing low sales for the TNG box sets. The news has stunned Trek fans who'd assumed that the whole franchise was being upgraded and future-proofed.

Burnett later clarified that he had no insider knowledge on a final decision, but the sales were not looking good. This came as slightly more of a relief because all the other indications so far have been that a DS9 re-release was possible (although tricky) even considering the slow take-up of TNG.

To backtrack a little, CBS and Paramount have, between them, so far released all twelve films on Blu-Ray, the complete original Star Trek series, all seven seasons of The Next Generation and all four seasons of Enterprise. That's fourteen seasons of television and twelve films. What is left are the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine and another seven seasons of Voyager, plus the two seasons of the 1970s animated Star Trek series (the latter not really being a priority to most people, but something it'd be nice to have). So CBS have made slightly more than half of the franchise available on Blu-Ray and for HD streaming. It would seriously odd not to complete the process.

TrekCore got the inside info on the 50th Anniversary logo. Exciting. It's note quite clear what the logo is going to actually be on, however.

Cost has been raised as a factor. The original series Blu-Ray releases were extremely popular, selling very well on Blu-Ray and doing well in streaming. TNG started off very well, with strong sales, but tailed off significantly over the course of its run. The cost of the remastering was substantial, with some reports placing the initial set-up and start-up costs, plus the cost of remastering the first season, at over $9 million. Later seasons came down substantially in cost as the team became faster and more proficient, but additional cost savings (such as farming some of the work out to third parties) were lost due to quality issues (the quality of the second season's remastering, handled by an outside company, is notably inferior to the other six). The total cost of remastering all seven seasons has been put at north of $20 million. This was the reason for the high costs of the sets: a RRP of £70 was set in the UK, although most retailers discounted to £50, but this still a lot higher than most Blu-Ray box sets. Burnett suggests that CBS failed to market the remastered series heavily enough and also blames the tailing off of marketing efforts, such as screening some of the remastered two-parter episodes in cinemas, due to legal issues over residuals and pay.

The big issue was, of course, the move from physical media to streaming. Physical media sales are down across the board and Blu-Ray never took in the way DVD did (although some franchises - such as Game of Thrones - are shifting more than half of their discs in the Blu-Ray format now). A lot of customers have skipped Blu-Ray to go to Netflix and Amazon HD streaming straight from DVD. Those who haven't either don't care about new technology and HD in the first place, or are living in areas where the internet infrastructure does not support such streaming.

Oddly, this move may be what eventually saves the situation. As well as being released on Blu-Ray, the HD version of TNG is airing on television and is available for streaming from Amazon. The deals CBS have put in place with international broadcasters have already either turned a profit, or will a few years down the line, and would make a HD DS9 and Voyager more enticing, especially since CBS could then package them together into a much bigger and more interesting deal (711 episodes being almost enough to air two episodes a day every day for a year).

An additional point is that the complete TNG box set (with all seven seasons in one box) has only just been released in the UK and other markets and, preposterously, still isn't out in the USA. I know a lot of Trek fans are waiting for the complete box sets before springing for the Blu-Rays, so for it not to be out yet is just crazy. Sales for the complete series box set are likely to dwarf that of the individual ones and may change the tone of the discussions about DS9 and Voyager.

We've also seen that Fox has released The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in HD to cable TV companies in the States, but has not yet announced a release date for the Blu-Rays. With a new X-Files TV series due on air in 2016, it is likely we will see a tie-in release of the series for that. The rumour is that Fox will not go for individual season box sets but will instead spring for all nine seasons in one box at a more reasonable cost, the same strategy employed by HBO on The Sopranos and The Wire. Buffy and Angel may follow the same model. Fox is funding the remastering in-progress instead with these early TV deals (in Buffy's case, rather too early) instead, which seems to be working for them.

There are of course problems with DS9 and Voyager. The first is simple popularity: the original show and TNG entered the cultural zeitgeist in a way that the later shows did not. DS9's highest-rated episode got barely half of TNG's highest-rated show. However, those high ratings were down to the massive marketing accompanying TNG's return and a dearth of good SFF shows in 1987 which was no longer the case in 1993; the average ratings for the two shows once the outliers are removed were a lot closer. Voyager, on the other hand, aired on a small-viewership cable channel to a fraction of the ratings of either of the other shows.

The second issue is technical. TNG used model shots, shot on film, for almost all of its effects shots, meaning they could simply be upgraded the same way as the live action film. This made the updating process much faster and more efficient. Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, began phasing out model shots in favour of CGI towards the end of its run. From the start of the sixth season onwards, most of the effects shots are in low-resolution CGI. All of these effects shots would need to be re-rendered from scratch, a far higher cost than the remastering on the earlier shows. Voyager has it far worse, with the move to CG effects beginning as early as the third season. Some of the CG artists have kept the models and effects files from both shows, which would simplify the workload, but it does not appear that all of the shots have been saved.

DS9 can be updated to HD fairly straightforwardly: the TNG process has left an efficient workflow and roadmap in place that DS9 can use. Almost all of the first five seasons can be remastered in the same way as TNG was, and although a lot of re-rendering would be needed for the final two seasons, these would be concentrated in just a few episodes. A little bit more complicated than TNG, but doable. In addition, DS9 would likely need a better release strategy, possibly a TV-oriented release on a high-profile platform (DS9's much more serialised storytelling would go down a storm on Netflix) with a complete series Blu-Ray release at the end, as TNG's model clearly did not work. It's all possible, it just needs CBS to stump up the cash for it (so, incidentally, if you were holding off on buying the existing re-masters, now might be a good time to do so).

Unfortunately, I think the prospects for a HD remastering of Voyager are much bleaker. The amount of effects re-rendering needed would be an order of magnitude more complex and expensive than DS9's. For a show with an even smaller potential audience base (if DS9's critical cachet has risen significantly in the last twenty years, Voyager's appears to have dropped), it's unlikely it will happen unless a DS9 remaster, marketed and released better than TNG's, is a huge hit.

Hopefully this can still happen. Of the Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine is arguably the most coherent, consistent in quality and tightly serialised, with ongoing story arcs spanning years and some much-needed subversion and re-examination of the tropes of both science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular. Among other things it paved the way for the newer Battlestar Galactica, with many of its writers and producers working on that show as well. It definitely should be updated and preserved for future generations.