Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Legend of Korra - Book I: Air

The Hundred Year War ended when Avatar Aang defeated the Fire Lord Ozai and brought peace to the Four Nations. Aang and Ozai's son, Zuko, founded the United Republic of Nations where people from all over the world could live together in peace. Its capital, Republic City, became a beacon of hope and integration for all of humanity.



Seventy years on from the end of the war, Korra, the new Avatar, arrives in Republic City to begin learning the art of airbending from Tenzin, Aang and Katara's son. Born and raised in the Southern Water Tribe, Korra is initially overwhelmed by the bright lights and perceived glamour of the city. But there are inequalities and simmering tensions in the city, stoked by the enigmatic Amon who desires a world where magic-benders no longer exist. When he reveals that he has the power to strip a person's abilities from them, he becomes the biggest threat the city has ever seen...a threat that only the Avatar can defeat.

The Legend of Korra is the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, arguably the greatest slice of western animation of the past twenty years. The task of crafting a sequel to such a beloved show was daunting, but the producers have risen to the occasion by doing the only thing they could: take the sequel in a very different direction from the original series.

Whilst Avatar was more of a traditional adventure story featuring Aang and his adventures travelling from place to place, Korra is much more locked into the location of Republic City. Heavily influenced by both New York and Shanghai in the 1920s, Republic City takes influences from history, retrofuturism and steampunk. It's a towering collection of skyscrapers, sporting arenas, industrial parks and cars (sorry, 'Satomobiles') where fortunes can be made and lost overnight. It's clearly the same world as seen in Avatar, but the technology we saw beginning to develop in that series (such as airships and steam vessels) has moved forwards dramatically. The show makes use of these stylings in various ways, from the 1920s-influenced soundtrack to the cinema news reel which plays at the start of each episode and acts as a recap of the story so far.  Moving away from the setting of the original series was a clever idea and provides not just a great backdrop for the new series, but also (via flashback) brief opportunities to see the later adventures of Aang and his friends as they built up this society from scratch.

The setting is beautifully-depicted, but characterisation is a more mixed bag. Korra is a sympathetic and winning heroine, even if she does settle into the 'brash and headstrong teenager' trope a little too easily. Mako and Bolin, the pro-bending brothers who become Korra's key allies, are more standard archetypes: the square-jawed hero and his wise-cracking sidekick. The non-bending member of the 'new Team Avatar', Asami Sato, may be the most interesting character of the bunch but she gets relatively little development compared to the others. The supporting cast is better-handled. Tenzin is a stoic, serious man clearly overburdened by the weight of his late father's expectations but who opens up a little to Korra. His kids are played for comic relief, but provide quite a few excellent laughs as the series progresses. Another key supporting character is Lin Beifong, Toph's daughter and the city's chief of police, who starts off being thoroughly unlikable but grows into a more relatable character over the course of the season. The enigmatic Amon, with his smoothly threatening voice and blank-faced mask, is also an effective villain.



As with Avatar, the show can be watched and enjoyed by kids and adults on different levels. Kids will likely respond to the action-focused storylines and cute animal characters, whilst adults will likely appreciate the allusions (and even satire) to our own history and society. The inequalities in the setting, based on both the growth of capitalism and the fact that benders are almost able always to get jobs whilst non-benders suffer (fuelling Amon's revolution), are tackled head-on in a surprisingly mature way for a kid's show. However, the socio-economic tensions emerge organically from the setting and its development from the original series rather then being developed too incongruously. This extends to magic as well, with the new forms of bending discovered towards the end of the original show (metalbending and energybending) both playing key new roles in this series and being developed logically.

The show suffers a little from being restricted to just 12 episodes in its first season (compared to Avatar's 20 episodes per season). Story arcs that the viewer might have expected to last a bit longer are compressed into just an episode or two, and sometimes the pacing feels off. This lack of time also means that some elements - such as the size of Amon's forces and the firepower available to it - feel a little unconvincing. More damaging is the decision to base the season's main emotional arc around a love triangle between Mako, Asami and Korra. With more time to develop, this could have made for a more effective background element (much as how romance was handled in the original series), but here it's much more front-and-centre and dominates two episodes to their detriment. The limited screentime also means some characters (like General Iroh, Zuko's grandson who amusingly shares his grandfather's voice actor) aren't really fleshed out at all and just show up, do some stuff and disappear without much being learned about them.

Still, the flipside of the fewer episodes means that there's less hanging about and each episode feels busier, developing multiple storylines in tandem as well as building up the setting and the backdrop. It could all have exploded into an incoherent mess, but the writers manage the chaos quite well.

Despite some flaws, The Legend of Korra - Book I: Air (****) is a worthy follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender. It tries to be different whilst also exploring the consequences of the preceding series and manages to pull both off. The characters aren't quite a match for their predecessors, but this remains a highly watchable and engaging animated series. It is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA). Book II: Spirit will be released in 2014.

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles Vorkosigan, home on leave from the Barrayar Academy, is given a job by his father: to adjudicate a case of infanticide in a farming community. Aral Vorkosigan has pioneered laws designed to protect ill and deformed young babies from being killed out of hand, as has been the custom for centuries, and wants to see the law enforced. Miles reluctantly heads for the village...only to find a seething morass of secrets and local intrigue which makes finding the real killer more difficult than he thought possible.



The Mountains of Mourning is a short (80 page or so) novella set in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosgian universe. It's a slight work but an interesting one, showing the changing face of Barrayar society due to the reforms introduced by Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, the first two novels in the sequence.

The writing is pretty good, with Bujold pulling out some interesting twists to overcome the superior technology of Miles's investigating team (who are armed with instant truth drugs). On a character level, it shows Miles growing and taking more responsibility. It's a much more serious story than the previous (chronologically) novel in the series, The Warrior's Apprentice, and Bujold handles the change in tone quite well. Bujold also does reasonably well to avoid the worst cliches of the 'high-minded folk from the city telling the country bumpkins what to do' trope, with the villagers turning out to be smarter and less primitive than they are initially set out to be.

The Mountains of Mourning (****) is a fine novella, but it's not really worthwhile purchasing this as a separate volume. Fortunately it can be found conveniently packaged alongside The Warrior's Apprentice and the succeeding novel, The Vor Game, in the Young Miles omnibus, available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Wertzone Awards 2013



Best Novels



1. The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
Priest releases his second novel in two years after a decade-long gap. The Adjacent is ambitious, taking a complex idea, tying it into knots and allowing the reader to untangle it. Bolder and braver even than The Separation, this is Priest at his best.

2. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay returns to his alternate China for a more lyrical and thought-provoking novel than its thematic predecessor, Under Heaven. Beautifully written, pitched perfectly and with memorable characters.

3. Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins
A strong debut, painting a vividly atmospheric picture of an alternate-reality Soviet Union. Let down a little by more being the first half of a longer novel than a book in its own right, but still a riveting read.

4. Ancilliary Justice by Anne Leckie
A new, distinctive voice in space opera. Leckie fuses the 'social science fiction' of Ursula LeGuin with a dash of Iain M. Banks to create something intriguing and fresh.

5. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
A series most people had written off a decade ago is finally brought to an appropriately epic finale. There are a few more unresolved minor plot points than might be wished, but based on the history of 'sequels by other hands' this is far better than anyone had any reason to hope for or expect.

6. Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
A sensitive, well-written and imaginative take on fantasy, reimagining Central Asia as a hotbed of magical intrigue and struggle. A startling mix of the original and familiar.


7. The Ace of Skulls by Chris Wooding
Wooding brings his fantasy airship series to a conclusion. Arguably the most out-and-out 'fun' fantasy series of the last few years, and its ending does not disappoint.

8. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
A six-year wait for this book resulted in raised expectations which did not work for some, but Lynch's clever ticking narrative timebomb over Locke Lamora's true identity and the reasons for his unhealthy obsession with a childhood crush is brutally effective. Sharp and funny, the novel is let down by a lack of stakes in the central election storyline, but Lynch leaves things on a compelling knife's edge for the next few books in the series.

9. On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
A step-up from Blue Remembered Earth, with better characters, a stronger plot and a return to Reynolds's more traditional milieu of interstellar space. It's still not up there with his earlier novels, but this is still a compelling, well-structured read.

10. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Time travel and serial killers meet in a story which is brutally effective, if a bit too lacking in character motivation or explanation.

11. The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham
Abraham's morally ambiguous fantasy, influenced equally by Babylon 5 and the history of the Medicis, passes its middle volume with aplomb.

12. The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
A slight let-down from Joyce: hauntingly atmospheric, well-written and completely convincing in its depiction of a place and time, but the overall impact of the novel is slight.

13. Fade to Black/Before the Fall/Last to Rise by Francis Knight

A complete trilogy, you say? Released all in one year? Impressive. Knight's debut series is rough-around-the-edges, but its magepunk stylings and main storyline are effective.

14. Queen of Nowhere by Jaine Fenn
Fenn returns to the quality of her debut novel after a couple of slightly disappointing releases in the Hidden Empire series.

15. The Grim Company by Lucas Scull
This epic fantasy debut may be more Abercrombie than Abercrombie, but it's still an effectively-paced, entertaining action story.

16. The Art of War/An Inch of Ashes/The Broken Wheel by David Wingrove
David Wingrove's Chung Kuo relaunch has run into trouble, with Corvus considering putting the series on indefinite hold after the eighth volume is released next year. This is troubling news for Wingrove's fanbase (some of who have been waiting for more than a decade and a half for the series to be completed according to the author's intentions) and newer readers impressed by the breadth and scale of Wingrove's vision. However, one can't help but think the main problem was the decision to split the series into twenty very short novels rather than ten reasonably-sized ones.

17. Parasite by Mira Grant
Above-average prose for this kind of schlock thriller make Parasite an enjoyable read, but the plot twists are spelled out in fifty-foot-tall neon letters 200 pages before they take place and the premise (itself reminiscent of Greg Bear's Blood Music) is rather credulity-straining.

18. The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
Brett scored an impressive debut with The Painted Man but has struggled ever since to match it, with its increasingly bloated sequels featuring less and less character and plot development in favour of repetitive explorations of tedious backstory. Hopefully he can turn it around in the upcoming fourth volume of the series.


The Wertzone Award for Pulling It Out of the Fire



Bringing a series beloved by millions of readers to a successful, satisfying conclusion after the death of the original author is a very tall order indeed, but Brandon Sanderson managed to pull it off. Yes, the fates of a few minor spear-carriers may be left unresolved, but overall this was a satisfyingly explosive end to a series twenty-three years in the making.


The Wertzone Award for Best Books Read in 2013 Regardless of Release Date


Four books, four five-star reviews. No other series in this blog's history has managed to pull off that feat. The Acts of Caine is a mind-blowing fusion of science fiction and fantasy, exploring character and thematic ideas against a backdrop of action and philosophy. It also manages to be 'grimdark' without resorting to cheap misogyny (most of the major characters in the series - bar Caine himself - are female). It's also bewildering how each of the four volumes in this series are written in a somewhat different manner to the rest, even occupying a different subgenre. Inventive, imaginative and unrelenting.


Best Games


1. XCOM: Enemy Within
It shows how lacklustre this year was that an expansion for a year-old strategy game was the best title released. Enemy Within expands upon XCOM: Enemy Unknown's compelling gameplay but adds new options, missions and ideas to make for a very different-feeling (but equally excellent) game.

2. Metro: Last Light
An excellent sequel to Metro 2033, with a better-pitched difficulty level, a more tragic storyline and a more convincing-feeling world.

3. Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches
Dishonored was one of the best games of 2012 and these two DLCs were perfect expansions, adding interesting new ideas and storylines to that game without overloading it. The journey through Daud's soul was almost as gripping as Corvo's journey in the original game and some of the new locations and challenges exceeded the original game in atmosphere and playability.

4. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
I had mixed feelings about 2010's Wings of Liberty, but the (ridiculously) late first expansion was a much better game on almost every level. The storyline was more original and interesting, with the Zerg made into a more compelling player-race. Some major storylines stretching back all the way to 1998 and the original game are finally concluded, leaving this feeling less like the middle volume of a trilogy it really is.

5. Shadowrun Returns
One of the earliest big successes of Kickstarter, Shadowrun Returns brings old-skool gameplay to modern audiences. A more linear experience than was originally expected, blighted by the absence of a save-anywhere feature, but a solid storyline, great writing and some really good combat overcome the problems to make for a highly enjoyable RPG. However, there is still a lot of untapped potential in the engine.

6. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - Dragonborn
Dragonborn sees Skyrim bid farewell to the world with style. Providing a large, new island (or an old one, if you're familiar with Morrowind's expansions) to play around in, Dragonborn is the whole Skyrim experience encapsulated in a smaller, more manageable location with some great new ideas (even if the dragon-riding mechanic is rather terrible) and some unusually interesting (by Bethesda's standards) characters.

7. Tomb Raider (2013)
Lara Croft's first adventure in several years is a clean reboot, ably written by Rhianna Pratchett and focusing on characterisation and motivation as well as combat and exploration. Old-skool fans may be put off the lack of actual tomb-raiding in favour of combat, quick-time events and cut-scenes, but Tomb Raider makes these often-annoying mechanics work in its favour to create an enjoyable experience.

8. BioShock Infinite
One of the most visually impressive games of the year, with a highly imaginative setting and some excellent combat set-pieces. The storyline is interesting and the complicated ending works really well. However, even moreso than its forebears, BioShock Infinite is screaming out to be an RPG and seems to only sulkily settle for being an action game. The restrictions of having to lay waste to everything in sight and not being able to interact with characters badly chafe in this title, but if you can deal with this there's plenty of fun to be had.

9. Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2 is a pretty solid sequel to the original, genre-redefining RTS. However, a weaker storyline and poorer writing hamper the single-player side of things, whilst the multiplayer is not (yet) as compelling an experience as the original game. A playable and enjoyable sequel, but also one that feels a little bit too conservative.

10. Total War: Rome II
Creative Assembly are no strangers to releasing incomplete, buggy games and patching them up later on, but after two solid launches in a row, fans believed that their troubles were behind them. Instead, Rome II launched in a poor state. Four months and eight patches later the game is far more playable than it was at launch and a compelling, rich strategy experience awaits the patient. But there's still a few too many problems to be able to fairly assess the game so far.

11. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
2K's almost embarrassed attitude towards this game didn't bode well prior to release, and this turned out to be a bit of a shame. It may be Mass Effect 3 with an XCOM skin draped over it, but it still features excellent combat (better than ME3's, it has to be said), some great team mechanics and some good ideas that even the main XCOM series hasn't replicated yet (like being able to split your soldiers between different missions simultaneously). The storyline is also more twisty than you might expect, with some nice ideas emerging towards the end. Certainly not a classic - it's a little too repetitive - but definitely a worthwhile shooter.

11. Space Hulk (2013)
Stomping around a space hulk with a bunch of Terminator Marines and destroying everything in sight is, as it has always been, brilliant fun. However, a near-vertical difficulty curve and an overreliance on pure luck over strategy become frustrating long before the final missions are reached.

Re-releases

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut
One of 2011's best games is re-released with its most egregious flaws - most notably the annoying boss fights - reworked into something far more palatable. What was once a flawed gem is now improved to the status of stone-cold classic.

Brutal Legend: PC Edition
This interesting RTS/RPG/action hybrid always felt more suited to the PC than console, so it's a relief to finally see it arrive on that platform. However, the failure to rework the awkward controls into something better-suited for a strategy game means that it's still failing to fulfil its potential


Best TV Series


1. Orphan Black (Season 1)

Packing more plot and character into its pilot than most shows manage into a whole season, Orphan Black arrived with a bang and never looked back. It's relentless pace never came at the expense of character development and even a couple of iffy supporting performances couldn't dent the achievement of lead actress Tatiana Maslany, whose charisma and jawdropping versatility gave us no less than seven of the best performances of the year. The only question is whether the show can maintain the same level of quality into its second season, due next year.

2. Game of Thrones (Season 3)
Game of Thrones's third season delivered two of TV 's strongest moments of the year, with the explosive finale to the fourth episode only exceeded by the horrors of the Red Wedding in the ninth and tenth episodes. Elsewhere the show occasionally struggled for pacing and some storylines were revisited a bit too often (the 'torturing Theon' storyline went on way too long, with a very dull denoucement), but overall this remains a compelling, if controversial, adaptation of George R.R. Martin's novels.

3. The Returned (Season 1)
This French drama was deliberately-paced, beautifully-characterised and awesomely-shot, with its central mystery unfolding slowly but inexorably over the course of eight episodes. An overreliance on ambiguity and a lack of explanation for what's going on suggest this Gallic Twin Peaks could turn into Lost rather too easily if the upcoming second season doesn't deliver some anwers, but for now this was one of the most intriguing new shows of the year.

4. An Adventure in Time and Space
A drama about the real-life origins of Doctor Who might sound a little dull, but Mark Gatiss's script and David Bradley's astonishing central performance as First Doctor William Hartnell are both gripping. A galaxy of excellent supporting actors and some fiendish attention to detail result in a more-than-fitting tribute to the show's 50th anniversary.

5. The Walking Dead (Season 3.5)
This really should have been better than it was, with David Morrissey's Governor finally providing the zombie drama with a much-needed main bad guy and antagonist. However, some bad pacing in the latter part of the season and too many episodes (they should have remained at 12 episodes; don't go to 16 unless you have the story to fill it) resulted in too much filler.

6. Agents of SHIELD (Season 1.0)
One of the most eagerly-awaited new shows of the year had a very ropey beginning, with badly-written scripts and confused-looking actors eventually giving way to a more compelling, pulp action show by the mid-season cliffhanger. SHIELD really needs to go for the jugular on its return, however, if it isn't to be judged a failure.

7. Doctor Who (Series 7.5 and specials)
In its 50th anniversary year, Doctor Who should really have been firing on all thrusters. However, a typically muddled, confusing and badly-explained story arc from Steven Moffat, a surprisingly subpar script from Neil Gaiman and rather poor use of new companion Clara (played with enthusiasm by Jenna Coleman) resulted in a half-season to forget. The actual 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, was surprisingly good with some great performances and a clever way of tying in with the show's ongoing storylines. However, this good work was undone by the Christmas special which addressed outstanding plot holes with all the grace and subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Roll on the Peter Capaldi era and, hopefully, a much-needed change of production team.

8. The White Queen
A historical drama about the Wars of the Roses should be absolutely brilliant, with the rich characters and gripping political intrigue of the era ripe for historical exploration. Instead, this show was completely all over the place tone-wise, with pacing that was shot to hell, excruciatingly awful battle sequences and highly variable performances. At rare moments, some strong promise shone through, but ultimately this show wasted its terrific potential on cheap melodrama.

9. Under the Dome (Season 1)
Utter, utter drek. Stephen King's rather poor novel becomes a poor TV show, complete with dire acting, predictable plot twists and a total lack of plot coherence or logic, culminating in a tepid cliffhanger. This really should have been cancelled, but we will have to endure a second season next year. Hopefully, against all likelihood, the showrunners can turn this around and allow it to start fulfilling its actually interesting premise.


Best Film


1. Pacific Rim
It's a commentary on how weak 2013 was in the cinema - and how few films I saw - that a movie about big robots hitting big monsters with rocket-powered arms was the most enjoyable thing I saw this year. Still, Guillermo Del Toro's kaiju movie was a satisfying romp, mixing in some awesome character names (only Idris Elba could pull off a guy called 'Stacker Pentecost') and a nod at a multi-national response to an international threat (most of the film is set in Hong Kong and few of the castmembers or characters are American). Del Toro also showed Michael Bay how it's done, with massive CGI set-pieces which you can actually follow thanks to some well-judged direction. The film was also notable for the difference in reaction across the world: the USA was lukewarm, but Chinese audiences brought in more than $100 million by themselves, helping the film recoup its budget and making a sequel likely.

2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson's second Hobbit movie is the least-faithful Tolkien adaptation he's helmed, but it's still an enormous improvement on An Unexpected Journey. Better action beats, much better pacing and more inventive use of the dwarven characters result in a movie that doesn't feel as long as it is (unlike the stupefying three-hour length of the original, which felt more like six). However, there's some decidedly iffy effects moments, too many superheroics from Legolas and an ill-judged cliffhanger ending.

3. The World's End
The third and final movie in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is also the weakest, despite some solid direction by Edgar Wright and some surprisingly good performances from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, the film mishandles its tonal shift from friendship drama to sci-fi action flick and too many gags fall flat. Entertaining, but ultimately much less memorable than either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

4. Iron Man 3
Having Tony Stark suffer from PTSD in the aftermath of The Avengers is a bold idea that could have resulted in a fascinating movie. Instead, it's not long before we descend into action mayhem with more explosions than you can shake a stick at. As usual, Robert Downey Jnr. remains the most watchable actor on the screen, single-handedly preventing the movie from sinking into disposability. He even handles an ill-judged 'cute kid sidekick' subplot with some skill. Ultimately, watchable and fun

5. Star Trek - Into Darkness
It's likely that the J.J. Abams Star Trek movies are going to be remembered as films featuring a great cast desperately searching for a good script. There are brief moments in Into Darkness when it feels like they might just get it, but the ill-conceived decision to turn the movie into Wrath of Khan fanfiction (only nowhere near as good) blows it out of the water before the final act.

6. Man of Steel
Another case of a really good cast let down by an execrable script, though here the film starts going down in flames as soon as the action moves from Krypton to Earth. Structurally weak, with some awful dialogue and some of the most unconvincing CGI put on screen in a decade or more, Man of Steel is only saved from total disaster by Russell Crowe's steely-gazed presence and charisma.

Note: I haven't seen Gravity or Thor: The Dark World yet.


The Wertzone Missing in Action 2013 Award




For once, this wasn't the fault of George R.R. Martin but of some artists who allegedly were a bit late in turning in their work (though GRRM took advantage of this to deliver tens of thousands more words of material than originally planned). Originally announced in 2008 and with multiple release dates mooted and then missed, this book is currently scheduled - and finally seems a lock - for November 2014. From early sneak previews, it looks like it's going to be more than worth the wait with both compelling new backstory material and some terrific artwork.


The Wertzone Award for Best Genre-Inspired Career Boom



This may have more properly begun a decade-and-a-half ago with his casting as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies, but 2013 was really a bumper year for 71-year-old David Bradley. His character of Walder Frey was responsible for the most shocking moment of television of the year on Game of Thrones, whilst his performance as William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time was simply sublime. He even fitted in appearances in The World's End and Broadchurch before ending the year on a high, being cast as the lead on Guillermo Del Toro's TV series The Strain.


The Wertzone Award for Special Achievements in Eyebrow Acting


'Nuff said.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles Vorkosigan is the son of one of the most powerful men on Barrayar, but is also a cripple, cursed with fragile bones and occasional hubris. When his pride overrides his good sense and leaves him too injured to take part in entrance examinations to the Barrayaran academy, Miles is washed up and left without a future. Intrigued by a mystery involving his bodyguard, Bothari, Miles decides to take an offworld trip...but nothing goes to plan and before long Miles's fast-talking has earned him the command of a fleet of starships, thousands of mercenaries and involvement in a civil war which is none of his business. Miles has some explaining to do.



Whilst chronologically The Warrior's Apprentice is the third volume in The Vorkosigan Saga, for most people it's where the series really begins. This is the book where the main character of the series, Miles, debuts as an adult character and it also represents a notable tonal shift from the previous two volumes, Shards of Honour and Barrayar. Whilst those two books were fairly serious (aside from brief comedy-of-manners episodes), The Warrior's Apprentice is more rambunctious. It's a bit of a romp, actually, with Miles' fast-talking mouth and off-the-cuff inventiveness (i.e. lying his head off) getting him in and out of trouble so quickly readers may experience whiplash trying to keep up with it.

It's a novel which can be firmly filed under 'fun', although there is a tragic core to the novel involving the character of Bothrai. Bujold writes this mystery so it works from two angles: if you've read Shards of Honour and Barrayar, you know what's going on long before Miles does and Bujold milks the tension effectively as Miles investigates the matter. If you haven't read those books and are as much in the dark as Miles, it works just as well. The tragic interlude (and the finale, which involves a brief dash of political intrigue) are a bit out-of-keeping with the book's overall tone, but Bujold shows impressive mastery of pacing in allowing the narrative to organically shift to integrate them before moving back to a less serious feel.

The result is a novel that is often quite funny, but also reflects the central character very well. Miles is a ball of energy that tends to drag people along behind him into various crazy schemes they'd never normally want to be a part of, but his momentum somehow keeps everything afloat. The novel works this way as well, with the plot taking increasingly ludicrous turns but it not mattering because Bujold infuses the novel with so much energy and verve you just want to read along and find out what happens next. Bujold's skills with characterisation also help define the book's setting much more clearly, with even briefly-appearing secondary characters getting fleshed out into three-dimensional people within just a few paragraphs.

Negatives? The narrative sometimes feels a little too silly for a book that actually isn't an out-and-out comedy. The concluding section on Barrayar is also perhaps a little too neat and tidy, and there seems to be a narrative disconnect between Cordelia's treatment by her own people on Beta Colony in the first two books (where she was treated as a criminal) and her well-regarded position here. But there are fairly minor issues.

The Warrior's Apprentice (****) isn't high art or hard SF, but it is entertaining, fast-paced and well-characterised, with just enough pathos and tragedy to add some depth to it. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with the novella The Mountains of Mourning and the novel The Vor Game.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

'Thousands' of cans of missing TV episodes returned to the BBC and ITV

The British Film Institute hosted one of its Missing: Believed Wiped events today, in which British television programmes and films that were believed lost are discussed and celebrated. A few weeks ago they announced the successful return of nine missing episodes of Doctor Who, amidst heavy rumours of additional finds.



Tonight, the event organisers confirmed (following reports on Twitter) what had been speculated for months: that 'thousands' of cans of material had been recovered, mostly from Africa where copies had been sent for broadcast in the 1960s. The figure 10,000 cans was at one point mentioned, though later the organisers stressed they did not have a confirmed figure and that was speculative. However, it is clear that a substantial amount of material has been found.

What this material consists of and how much of it is of missing material and how much extra copies of episodes that already exist in the BBC and ITV archives is unknown at the moment. Apparently the BBC and ITV are assessing the material and will make further announcements in due course. However, it is rumoured that the three missing episodes of classic British sitcom Dad's Army are among the find, alongside possible episodes of Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour.

The holy grail for fans of British cult TV would be the 24 missing episodes of The Avengers and of course more missing episodes of Doctor Who. Following the find a few weeks ago, 97 episodes of the series remain missing. The most extravagant rumour - and sadly already reported to be wildly optimistic - was that 81 of these episodes had been recovered. The true figure is reportedly significantly lower, but would still comprise a number of eagerly-missed episodes. It is believed that the BBC will only confirm recovered episodes once they have been fully checked and are ready to be released to the public via iTunes and DVD.

In a separate development, Doctor Who 'superfan' Ian Levine has recovered five episodes from Taiwan. However, these were additional copies of already-extant episodes. Whilst it is disappointing not to find lost episodes, this discovery, hot on the heels of the announcement of the find of nine episodes in October, gives further hope that there is more material out there to be discovered.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Makers of ARMA and MAFIA to make a historical RPG

Computer RPGs tend to come in two flavours: ones set in fantasy worlds (or fantasised versions of the realm world) and games set in science fiction mileus. RPGs set in historical periods are not so much 'thin on the ground' as 'almost non-existent'. The closest such games are probably the Mount and Blade ones, and even they are focused on multiplayer combat over anything else.



New develoment studio Warhorse, based in the Czech Republic, is out to change that. Staffed by former members of Bohemia Interactive and 2K Czech (formerly Illusion Softworks), Warhorse is creating a historically-accurate RPG set in the Holy Roman Empire in 1403 AD, during the 'dying days of the middle ages'. The game will focus on character development, a wide range of combat techniques informed by the real warfare of the time (from field battles to stealth to sieges, either fighting on foot or horseback) and will feature an open world narrative. Basically, think Skyrim but set in Europe with less dragons and magic.

It's an interesting approach to take but the pedigree is impressive. Some of the developers worked on the ARMA series and the original Mafia. Kingdom Come: Deliverance will be released on PC, PS4 and X-Box One in 2015. Many screenshots can be seen here.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Goyer to make a SANDMAN movie

It's been announced that actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt and screenwriter David Goyer are to collaborate on a movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.



Gaiman's comic series has been optioned several times before, but never made it out of development hell. According to Gaiman, whilst some of the scripts have been pretty good several have been absolutely horrendous, treating Morpheus like a superhero more than like the mythological force he is. This new project seems more promising, especially since Gordon-Levitt tweeted the hashtag #preludes, hinting that the first film will be a straight-up adaptation of Preludes and Nocturnes, the first Sandman graphic novel. This has always been the most logical place to start the project, but most previous scripts have been original stories featuring the characters or only loosely based on the actual texts.

Gordon-Levitt has starred in films such as Looper, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises and also gained critical acclaim for his directorial debut, Don Jon. Goyer has had a more mixed career: he has been praised for writing or co-writing the first two Blade movies, the three Christopher Nolan Batman movies and Dark City, but he also wrote Man of Steel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Blade: Trinity. According to some reports, Goyer is only outlining the Sandman movie as he may be too busy working on the Man of Steel sequel and other projects. He will have a producer's credit on the final movie as well.

Gordon-Levitt is currently only attached to produce, though some reports have him negotiating a deal to star and possibly direct.

Monday, 16 December 2013

AGENTS OF SHIELD: Season 1.0

In the aftermath of the Battle of New York, SHIELD is putting together a new team led by Agent Phil Coulson...who is supposed to be dead. Recruiting two combat specialists and two scientists, Coulson goes after a hacker working for an activist group, the Rising Tide, and aims to be ready to face a whole host of newly-emerging threats to the security and peace of the world.



Agents of SHIELD is Marvel and ABC's collaborative TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in English means it is set in the same continuity as movies such as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. Agent Phil Coulson returns - despite being apparently killed by Loki in the first Avengers film - to assemble a new team of agents to take care of relatively low-level threats whilst the superheroes are dealing with bigger stuff in their own films.

This is a fine idea for a TV show, especially one created (although, crucially, not run) by Joss Whedon, and there was a fair amount of hype in the run-up to the show's launch a few months ago. Despite hugely impressive launch ratings in the USA (which have dropped off somewhat, though not - yet - disastrously), the show has endured a fairly tepid critical reception since its launch. Rumours of rewrites and creative re-jiggling behind the scenes (with rumours of Whedon rewriting scripts whilst he's prepping The Avengers: Age of Ultron) have hinted at a show in some creative trouble.

It'd be fair to say that Agents of SHIELD has not set the world on fire since its launch. The show has varied its tone all over the place and the writing and characterisation has been inconsistent. One problem is that whilst the series may have an impressive budget for network television, it's still not a patch on anything the films can do and as a result the action scenes and superheroics can feel very tepid compared to the movies. Also, the series seems to suffer from an issue where the threats our team are facing can't be too dire, as then SHIELD would simply jump in with helicarriers and Iron Man and Captain America to solve the situation. This results in a show that feels like it's riding around with its training wheels still on. Rather than using and exploring all that the Marvel Universe has to offer, the film instead feels straitjacketed by its mythos. That is definitely not what fans signed on to see.

As a series lead, Clark Gregg works as well as ever as Agent Coulson. He's restrained and stoic, but his deadpan humour and well-judged leadership works well. Ming-Na Wen brings considerable presence to the role of Agent Melinda May. Although she's a walking example of the 'taciturn badass' archetype, May works because the actress brings total commitment to the role. More problematic, at least initially, is Brett Dalton as Agent Grant Ward. Ward is a weapons expert, capable in combat and the show's action hero. In early episodes he's about as interesting as a solid block of wood, but as the series goes on he improves, his rather cliched characteristics become a topic of humour and his ill-advised romance with a colleague allows him to show another side to the character. Dalton also shows some promising comic timing.

The plane is a high-tech Serenity stand-in, but works as a (easily-infiltrated) mobile base of operations.

Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as scientists Fitz and Simmons start off as irritating geeks, but fortunately get some much-needed development a few episodes in and become a lot more likable as a result. In fact, the most problematic character is, unfortunately, also our audience-substitute one. There's no denying that Chloe Bennett brings enthusiasm to the role of hacker Skye, but she fails to convince in her portrayal of a supposed computer expert. Her story arc - trying to learn the identity of her parents - is also rather half-baked in these opening episodes. Bennett is at her best when either making quips or showing a vulnerable side, but otherwise seems to be as confused by the constant shifts in the quality of the scripts as the viewers are.

The episodes themselves leap around in quality. 0-8-4, complete with its South American cliched characters, is embarrassing and Girl in the Flower Dress completely fails to evoke much fear or tension when the team go up against a genuine supervillain. The Well is a tie-in to Thor: The Dark World which simply doesn't work. Repairs, The Asset and Eye Spy all show some promise, but the episode FZZT may be the stand-out so far. This isn't due to its premise (which is ropey) or denouncement (which is unconvincing) but simply because the episode focuses on the dynamics of the team and how they work together and does so more convincingly than any episode before. The pilot and mid-season finale The Bridge also feature J. August Richards (a regular from a previous Whedon show, Angel) as a would-be superhero whom the team initially fights against and later joins forces with. Richards's presence and charisma gives an immense lift to the show and should really have been a regular all along.

Still, despite some problems the show generally (if erratically) gains more in confidence and quality as it goes along. Ten episodes in, by the mid-season finale, there's at least several ongoing storylines gaining traction, the characters are better-defined and the show as a whole seems to be getting more of a sense of direction and purpose. It's all still taking a lot longer to work than it should, and it's rather dismaying that the super-spy heroics are often less convincing than the same things on comedy-drama Chuck (which is starting to look like some kind of weird trans-temporal piss-take of Agents of SHIELD), but the show has at least managed to elevate itself from the 'total write-off' stage.

Agents of Shield's first half-season (***) is moderately entertaining, despite having enough teething troubles to write a book about. There is a huge amount of unfulfilled potential here. If the show can start delivering more regularly, it might become something more worthwhile. The remainder of the season starts airing on 7 January in the United States.

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Jorg of Ancrath has seized the throne of Renar and now rules the Highlands as a king and a sworn enemy to his father. When one of his companions is consumed by fire magic, Jorg resolves to take him across the Broken Empire to a distant volcano where he might find help. But this is the beginning of a longer journey across the continent as Jorg seeks new allies to stand against another king who may be able to unite the Empire...a king more noble and honourable than Jorg.



King of Thorns is the middle volume of The Broken Empire trilogy and the sequel to 2011's Prince of Thorns. Like its predecessor, it is an at-times uneasy and bleak read but also one that is interesting, broodingly atmospheric and fairly well-written.

As with before, the focus is on Jorg and his band of not-so-merry cutthroats and pillagers. The events of Prince of Thorns have, if not mellowed Jorg, than certainly caused him to re-appraise his life. The result is a less amoral and ruthless Jorg than before and one who is more introspective. Whilst there's still plenty of mayhem in the book, Jorg is less likely to cause it (at least not without more convincing need than before).

The book is structured as two narratives unfolding simultaneously: a flashback set four years in the past (picking up just after the end of Prince of Thorns) and a present-day storyline focused on a massive battle as Jorg's kingdom comes under attack. This structure is the book's biggest weakness: the battle takes place over a short period of time but the flashbacks are much longer and dozens of pages pass between each present-day interlude. Each interlude also relies on events from the flashback to make sense, meaning that we are in the dark about Jorg's plans until he reveals a new weapon, tactic or group of allies that was explored in the preceding flashback sequence. The structure means that the battle feels like a sequence of amazing coincidences and turns of fate which have only just been set up a few pages earlier (so whilst not technically a series of deus ex machina, they do feel a bit like them). What would have worked better (and fortunately the book can be read this way) is if the flashbacks had been one continuous narrative, followed by the present-day storyline taking all of the revelations from the flashbacks and letting them unfold in one go.

Moving beyond that issue, King of Thorns is mostly a success: the characterisation is stronger, the prose is better and the book is more nuanced than its predecessor in terms of morality and consequences. There are also some outstanding sequences, such as a creepy encounter with the undead in a swamp and what appears to be a typical heroic quest which goes rather badly wrong at the end. The book asks some hard questions about rulership and ambition, but on occasion the novel feels like a retreat from Prince of Thorns's hard-edged ruthlessness. A key conflict in the novel is that Jorg's enemy is, in many ways (well, almost all ways), a better man than Jorg and Jorg himself wonders if he should be opposing him or become allied to him. This conflict is all-too-neatly undone by a plot twist revealed quite late in the novel that confirms if this other force wins, the consequences will be horrendous. This feels like the author giving his character too easy of an 'out' of his moral dilemma. The novel also handles its main female character, Katherine, rather oddly. After giving her quite a lot of development through the book (her letters are the only part of the novel not from Jorg's POV, giving her an interesting perspective on events) she vanishes in a rather confused and muddled way in the finale. Hopefully this will be clarified in the final novel in the series.

King of Thorns (****) is a highly intriguing novel, though it can be bleak and hard-going. The structure is problematic and some character arcs are better-handled than others. Those who had a hard time time believing that a 14-year-old could do all the things he did in Prince of Thorns won't find much more plausibility here (though Lawrence amusingly subverts Jorg's occasionally-threatened Gary Stuness several times). However, the novel is also well-written with some excellent turns of phrase and features some memorable setpiece moments. The overall direction of the series remains compelling, even if this is a slight step back from Prince of Thorns in quality. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Will Obsidian and Red Eagle put a WHEEL OF TIME RPG on Kickstarter?

Yesterday, Rock Paper Shotgun interviewed the guys at Obsidian Entertainment about their upcoming plans. Their latest big-budget game, South Park: The Stick of Truth, is due to launch in April 2014 and their Kickstarted, overhead RPG Pillars of Eternity should follow soon after. Obsidian are already looking at ideas for a new Kickstarter project.



They talk at length about ideas for a much more open-world style of game using the Unity Engine (which they are using for Pillars of Eternity), but they also drop hints to what the next Kickstarter should be. One of the ideas they are actively discussing is a licensed game as part of a pre-existing franchise. This, to me, hints that they might be talking about their long-delayed Wheel of Time RPG.

Backing up, about three years ago Obsidian signed a development deal with Red Eagle, the rights-holding company which controls the rights for Wheel of Time video games. This deal was to make a single-player RPG set in the Wheel of Time universe and world. Obsidian seemed excited by what they could do with the game, and fan response was positive, especially when it was revealed that Obsidian's best-known writer, Chris Avellone (the creative force behind Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights II: Mask of the Betrayer and Fallout: New Vegas - Old World Blues, several of the greatest RPGs ever made), would be working on the project.

However, nothing has happened with the idea since. Red Eagle was in charge of securing the funding for the game, and failed to do so. Electronic Arts signed a speculative distribution agreement for the game, but chose not to fund and formally publish it. With Triple-A RPG budgets heading towards $100 million (Skyrim, for example, cost $80 million and the Mass Effect trilogy not far off that per game), Red Eagle proved unable to come up with the cash themselves.

Last year, both Red Eagle and Obsidian launched Kickstarters. Red Eagle launched one to make a Wheel of Time casual strategy game for tablets and smartphones, Banner of the Rising Sun. They asked for $450,000 and raised $3,000, a hugely disappointing failure. Obsidian launched one to make an isometric, 'old-skool' RPG with impressive graphics but a much tighter focus on story and character. They asked for $1.1 million and instead raised over $4.1 million, an absolutely massive success.

With both Red Eagle and Obsidian willing to use Kickstarter to achieve their goals, it makes sense that they might consider joining forces to do the same for a Wheel of Time game. The viability of this depends on the deal with EA. If this has expired, there's nothing stopping them doing this. However, if EA retain the distribution rights the project will likely not be viable: Kickstarter is for games that otherwise wouldn't get off the ground, and the involvement of a massive company like EA would be toxic for any such campaign. Provided there are no obstacles, the combination of Obsidian's Kickstarter and game-making experience and Red Eagle's Wheel of Time licence could be highly appealing.

Obsidian will announce what their next project is in the spring, so we have a few months to find out if this is the direction they are going to go in.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Scott Lynch on THE THORN OF EMBERLAIN

It's only been two months since The Republic of Thieves was published, but clearly Scott Lynch isn't resting on his laurels. Keen to avoid the six-year-wait between volumes, Lynch is already hoping to get the fourth book in The Gentleman Bastard series on the shelves before 2014 is done. From Fantastical Imaginations:
My next book, The Thorn of Emberlain, ought to be out in the fall of 2014.
 
The Thorn of Emberlain, the fourth book in the Gentleman Bastard sequence, picks up about half a year after The Republic of Thieves and finds Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen trying to get back on their feet with a major con. They’re trying to sell the services of a non-existent mercenary company to the besieged city-state of Emberlain, hoping to escape with the hiring fees before the chaos of the Vadran civil war overruns Emberlain. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan…

I can confirm that Scott's publishers are themselves confident that this date can be met: Scott began work on The Thorn of Emberlain some time before the final edits on Republic were done, and the novel is already in an advanced stage of writing. Whether they will hit this target remains to be seen, but all parties involved seem to be confident.

ELITE: DANGEROUS combat alpha begins

Elite: Dangerous, the forthcoming, Kickstarted fourth game in the highly influential Elite franchise, has launched its combat alpha for backers of the project. This will allow backers to play a series of combat missions to get a feel for the game's user-interface, combat mechancis and spaceflight model.



The second and third games in the series, Frontier (1993) and First Encounters (1995), were lauded for their use of Newtonian physics and vast universes, but criticised for their combat which was confusing, messy and unenjoyable. The new game will employ a system more akin to that of the original Elite (1984) and games like the Wing Commander and Freespace series, allowing players to pull dynamic maneoeuvers and shunt energy from one subsystem to another for a quick boost to speed, shields or weapons. However, this system will be more complex in Elite: Dangerous and allow players to mask their energy signatures altogether to go into stealth mode (at the risk of overheating).

In the linked interview, David Braben also talks about the modelling of star systems within the game, with the 150,000 star systems closest to Earth modelled accurately (even down to their exoplanets, if known).

Elite: Dangerous will enter its beta stage in the New Year, with a full release hoped for by the middle of 2014. UK SF publishers Gollancz will be published a range of novels to tie in with the release of the game as well.

GAME OF THRONES actress to play Sarah Connor in new TERMINATOR films

Emilia Clarke has been cast as Sarah Connor in the rebooted Terminator franchise. The new movies will not be related to either the first four films or The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series of several years ago (which starred Clarke's Game of Thrones castmate Lena Headey in the Sarah Connor role).



The new franchise will incorporate at least two films and a related TV series. Whilst Clarke will star in the films, it is unclear if she will also appear in the TV series; her commitment to Game of Thrones (which is expected to last through at least 2017) may preclude that her having too much of a role. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) will play the future version of her son, John. The first film will be helmed by Alan Taylor, the director of Thor: The Dark World and - wait for it - multiple episodes of Game of Thrones, and has the working title Terminator: Genesis. It will be released in summer 2015. Arnold Schwarzenegger is apparently in negotiations to appear in some capacity.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Spoiler warning: This review is being posted on the film's day of release and some spoilers are discussed.

Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves have escaped from the orcs on the banks of the Great River and made their way to the home of Beorn. From here they must brave the depths of Mirkwood and cross the Long Lake to finally reach Erebor and conclude their quest. Meanwhile, Gandalf is summoned south to investigate rumours of great evil stirring in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.


The Desolation of Smaug is the middle film of The Hobbit movie trilogy, Peter Jackson's prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies of a decade ago. Its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, had a mixed reception last year with its lighter tone, great performances and occasional visual splendour being lauded but the overlong running time, over-use of CGI and jarring tonal variances being criticised.

The Desolation of Smaug is, thankfully, a stronger and more consistent movie than its predecessor. Indeed, it feels like Jackson has even listened to his critics, though with most of the trilogy in the can before the first film was released this seems impossible. Still, it may have affected his editing choices. The film is both punchier and pacier than the first movie. Action beats and quieter moments of character-building support one another more organically and there's a distinct lack of totally time-wasting, filler material: no overlong goblin king japery or random moments of erinaceidae resuscitation here. That's not to say there aren't moments that could have been trimmed (most of the action sequences tend to go on a bit longer than they should, though not to the extent of the likes of Man of Steel or The Matrix Reloaded), but generally you can see what Jackson was aiming for and most of his ideas - this time around anyway - are actually good. Sequences that could have bogged down the movie are surprisingly brief: the interlude with Beorn (thankfully much more convincing in motion than the early photographs) is so quick, to the point, effective and then dispensed with that it's hard to believe that Peter Jackson directed the sequence. Presumably a 35-minute version of the scene will be on the extended cut.

Similarly, the trip through Mirkwood unfolds at a rapid, crisp pace, with montages used to depict the wearying journey rather than having it just go on and on. The passage through Mirkwood is one of the areas where the book slows to a crawl and it's rather pleasing that this is one area that the film handles more effectively than the novel. Jackson employs some cleverness - or cliche, depending on your POV - to depict the talking spiders by having the Ring translate their hisses into speech. This idea is not incompatible with what was shown in Rings (with Frodo first hearing Sauron's Black Speech and then what he was saying in Westron) and handily gets around what appeared to be a tonal incompatibility between The Hobbit and Rings (talking animals are present in the former but not in the latter). Jackson again strikes gold by suggesting that Bilbo's surprising viciousness in combat is driven by the Ring and layers some moments of internal struggle into the film, as Bilbo is shown being surprised by this new side to himself, but willing to use it when things get rough. This is a darker, more edgy Bilbo than we saw in the first film and Martin Freeman relishes the chance to play him.

The visit to Thranduil's realm is where the film threatens to go off the rails. Intriguing ideas (like Thranduil being hideously scarred from a previous battle with a dragon but masks it with magic) are presented here and Evangeline Lilly debuts as new character Tauriel, the captain of Thranduil's guard. Tauriel is a more earthly warrior-elf than Liv Tyler's Arwen from the first trilogy, less likely to bog down in emotional self-examination and instead get out and take action. Lilly - who had retired from acting after concluding her role on Lost - provides a stronger performance than some of the material warrants: her flirtation with Kili (Aidan Turner) only really works because both actors sell it so well but some of the dialogue is painful. Fortunately, it's less interminable a relationship than Aragorn and Arwen's constant angsting in the original trilogy.

Less successful is Orlando Bloom's reintroduction as Legolas. Much as the make-up and effects teams do their best, they can't totally hide the fact that Bloom is a decade older (and, a pain I can relate to, just ever so slightly heavier). In particular, he seems to be wearing some contact lenses that look slightly unnatural and make him look a bit more ethereal than in the original film, something I found distracting. Legolas also has no real role in the film: what should have been perhaps a background cameo in the elven-king's hall has been fleshed out into an arse-kicking action hero, the character who took down a mumakil singled-handedly in the original trilogy here turned up to eleven. The scenes where he's using the dwarves' heads as stepping stones to cross a river whilst shooting down multiple orcs are less 'badass' and more 'unconvincing' due to the amount of obvious CGI in use. A scene where he mocks a picture of Gloin's son is also amusing until the film decides to spell out the irony of that son being Legolas's future sparring partner Gimli in neon glittering letters fifty feet tall. Yeah, we got it, Peter.

The Laketown interlude works surprisingly well in the film.

A more surprisingly successful decision is the one to flesh out Laketown. What was a brief waystop in the novel turns into a full episode in the film, complete with scheming intrigue between Stephen Fry's Master of the Lake (not a role that stretches him, but one he plays to the hilt anyway) and Luke Evans's well-played Bard the Bowman. There's also a potentially controversial decision to split the dwarves up here into two camps, but this actually works out well, giving us a leg in both locations where the inevitable showdown with Smaug will unfold.

The film's climax - or the closest we get to one - involves the showdown between Bilbo and Smaug in the caverns of Erebor. This goes pretty well, with Benedict Cumberbatch bringing the requisite level of menace to the dragon, up until the confusing decision is made to give the dwarves an epic battle of their own with Smaug. This results in much running around and jumping on machinery in an over-clever attempt to kill the beast. It appears this scene stems from a perceived (but unnecessary) need to have the dwarves more active in the battle with Smaug, but all it does is reduce the threat of the dragon. Given the flashbacks in the first film showed him storming the fortress and slaughtering hundreds or thousands of dwarves in minutes, the ease with which nine dwaves give him the run-around makes him look like an idiot and the concluding scenes (which are from the novel, where they are much more logical) unfathomable.

Spliced between these scenes are why this had to be a trilogy in the first place: the new storyline where Gandalf travels to Dol Guldur to investigate the mysterious 'Necromancer'. These scenes would be creepier if the Rings-seasoned audience wasn't sick of ancient, mysterious and creepy towers by this point. Gandalf's face-to-face confrontation with the Necromancer is also rather disappointing, and carries less weight than his fight with Saruman in Fellowship of the Ring (the use of Gandalf creating a magical force shield complete with lighting and strobing effects is also rather unnecessary compared to the more subtle effect he uses to stand against the balrog in the original trilogy). Watching through these scenes, one can't but help feel that Tolkien's decision to keep the Necromancer as an off-page threat was the correct one.

Ultimately, The Desolation of Smaug (***½) is more watchable, drags far less and is less twee than its predecessor. The new characters and actors all do great work, the effects are better and more of the dwarves are given their moments in the sun (even Bombur takes a level in badass at one point and turns into an orc-killing machine). New locations, characters and subplots - even non-Tolkien ones - are inserted into the story with more skill than I think many were expecting, and Jackson is able to tie most of the narratives together satisfyingly (the Dol Guldur strand excepted, which still feels too disconnected from everything else). But where the film comes undone - to the point of triggering audible gasps of horror and then anger from the audience I watched the film with - is the exceptionally bad choice of where to end the film. The last act of the film builds and builds to an epic showdown...only to push it off at the last minute to the next film. If this was in just the main storyline it could perhaps be borne, but no less than five plots and subplots are all left on cliffhangers for the final movie, robbing this one of any sense of satisfying climax or catharsis. It's a poor editing choice by Jackson, one which will presumably leave the next film with a very muddled and anti-climactic opening.

The Desolation of Smaug is on general release now and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray, again twice over, in 2014.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Get three FALLOUT games for free

GoG are launching their new Winter Sale with a great offer: for the next two days you can get Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout: Tactics for absolutely nothing.



These three games kickstarted the Fallout franchise, which is now one of the biggest names in computer RPGs. Though a bit on the old side, GoG have tweaked them to make them work on modern computer systems, and they are still notable for their storylines and character arcs, some of which continued into the more recent games Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.

Kotaku recently received information confirming that Bethesda are now working on a new Fallout game. This is apprently more reliable information than reports from earlier this month, which were later confirmed to be a hoax.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

PROJECT ETERNITY becomes PILLARS OF ETERNITY

Obsidian's forthcoming, Kickstarted RPG has got a final title. Known as Project Eternity throughout development, the game's final title will be Pillars of Eternity. Obsidian have a detailed preview video featuring actual gameplay below.



Pillars of Eternity is a 'spiritual successor' to the Baldur's Gate series, set in a traditional fantasy mileu but with a few twists based around the concept of souls and soul magic. The game is also set in a colonial society rather than the traditional European imperial fantasyland.

As Obsidian, the same team was responsible for Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II, two of the most interesting RPGs of the last decade (not to mention Alpha Protocol, Neverwinter Nights II, Dungeon Siege III and the forthcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth). In their former incarnation as Black Isle they also created Planescape: Torment, the Fallout and Icewind Dale series and provided technical assistance on the Baldur's Gate games from BioWare. As giants of the RPG genre, it'll be interesting to see what they pull off with this game, which eschews complex (and ultra-expensive) 3D graphics in favour of deeper gameplay, more immersive combat and stronger writing.

Pillars of Eternity is expected in mid-to-late 2014, and is one of my most eagerly-awaited games of next year.

The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin

King Viserys I Targaryen has ruled the Seven Kingdoms for more than twenty years, presiding over a time of peace and prosperity. He has declared his heir to be his eldest child, his only surviving child from his first marriage, Rhaenyra. But after his death, his widow, Queen Alicent of House Hightower, and Lord Commander Criston Cole of the Kingsguard instead crown his oldest son as Aegon II. Rhaenyra rejects this as a coup and is herself crowned on Dragonstone. The Seven Kingdoms are divided, with the Starks, Arryns and Tullys declaring for Rhaenyra and the Lannisters, Baratheons and Tyrells for Aegon. This will be a civil war of not just armies and fleets, but also of dragons battling one another in the skies of Westeros. The Dance of Dragons has begun.

Aegon II and his older half-sister Rhaenyra Targaryen, the feuding claimants to the Iron Throne during the Dance of Dragons.

The Princess and the Queen is a 30,000-word, 80-page novella. It sits somewhere between an actual story and a narrative history, alternating between brief summaries of events and dramatic exchanges (of dialogue, steel or dragonfire) between characters. I must admit to some scepticism when the change was first announced (The Princess and the Queen replaces the fourth Dunk and Egg novella, which Martin has now delayed until after The Winds of Winter comes out), wondering if this was going to be nothing more than a bit of filler. Instead, I was surprised to find it a fairly gripping and interesting account of the civil war.

The Dance of Dragons has been oft-mentioned in the novels, but not in as much detail as other events such as Robert's Rebellion or the Blackfyre Rebellions. What has been established about it in the novels is fairly minimal, giving Martin the freedom to populate it with a whole host of new characters and political factions and set them against one another. As with the main series, Martin has little truck here with 'good guys' and 'bad guys': Rhaenyra's claim might be more sympathetic, but both sides have heroes and villains. The war takes several unexpected twists and turns, with the capital changing hands several times and major figures in the war dying unexpectedly. Both sides are also brutally betrayed at different times. In terms of tone, The Princess and the Queen reads like an ultra-condensed version of A Song of Ice and Fire itself.

The biggest difference to the main series is its use of dragons. At this point dragons are, if not commonplace, certainly reasonably established in Westeros. The Targaryen princes and princesses (and, controversially, some of the bastards) travel around on dragonback and they are often used in war. What is unusual is them being used to fight one another, and there are several brutal battles between dragonriders which are vividly described by Martin. There are also interesting descriptions of military engagements between conventional forces and dragons: the armies of Westeros and the Free Cities have had more than a century by this point to get used to dragons being around and the surprise and terror of Aegon's Conquest has passed. It is possible (if extremely difficult) to kill a dragon and that knowledge provides the downfall of several of the creatures.

Considering the short length of the story, Martin successfully embues the characters with life and motivations. Rhaenyra is proud and haughty, but also jealous and over-protective. Her husband, Daemon Targaryen, is a charismatic warrior, ruthless but also prone to bursts of romance and chivalry (though never to foolishness). It's also fun spotting future historical figures in their youth, such as Alyn Velaryon (who will grow up to be Admiral Oakenfist, partially responsible for Daeron I's successful invasion of Dorne).

The story certainly isn't perfect. The format means that this sometimes reads like a summary of what could have been (in a different life, or much further down the line) a fascinating duology or trilogy of novels in its own right. In addition, whilst Martin takes some effort to come up with new Targaryen names, there's still a few too many Daerons, Daemons, Aegons and Aemons (or Aemonds) wandering around to easily differentiate them at a glance, at least at first. Most notably, the story cuts off a little too abruptly with the war still not done. Considering the story's presence in the Dangerous Women anthology, I was expecting a greater focus on the battle of wills between Alicent and Rhaenyra, but this is a minor element at best in the story. Cutting it off after this element is resolved may be thematically correct, but as the theme was not dominant in the story it simply feels a bit random for the conflict to be left hanging. The World of Ice and Fire, due in 2014, will at least resolve this issue.

The Princess and the Queen (****) isn't just a stopgap, but a readable and entertaining story that expands on our knowledge of the Song of Ice and Fire world whilst also working as a narrative in its own right. More encouragingly, Martin apparently wrote a much longer version (almost 90,000 words) - of which this is an edited excerpt - in just a few weeks, showing that he can still put the pedal to the metal on writing when he needs to. Whether this means we can expect The Winds of Winter in a reasonable timeframe is still unclear, of course. The novella is published as part of the Dangerous Women anthology, available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Telltale is planning multiple GAME OF THRONES games

Following the news about Telltale making an official Game of Thrones title over the weekend, HBO has confirmed that this deal is multi-year and will encompass several 'seasons' of gaming, in the same way that Telltale's Walking Dead game is imminently returning with a new 'season' of episodes.
The multi-year, multi-title partnership between Telltale and HBO Global Licensing is targeted to premiere digitally in 2014 with an episodic game series for home consoles, PC/Mac, and mobile devices. Specific platform details are yet to be announced.
The first part of the game is expected to be released in mid-to-late 2014.

SPACE HULK (2013)

The Sin of Damnation is a vast space hulk, a conglomeration of wrecked starships fused together by the unholy powers of the Warp. The Blood Angels chapter of the Space Marines has located the ship near their fortress monastery world of Baal and ordered a full-scale assault to cleanse the ship of hostile lifeforms.


Space Hulk was originally a board game released in 1989 by Games Workshop. Set in their Warhammer 40,000 universe, the game cut out the complexity of the main wargame and presented a focused, straightforward contest: heavily-armed Space Marines versus hordes of ferocious Genestealers on a battered old spacecraft. The game was popular for its steep difficulty level and nailbiting tension. Two video game adaptations followed, Space Hulk in 1993 and Vengeance of the Blood Angels two years later. Using the same setting, these two games were real-time rather than turn-based but were otherwise rock hard.

The latest attempt to adapt the board game is, by contrast, slavishly faithful to the original game. You have a number of Terminator Marines, ranging from 3 to 10 depending on the mission. Each marine has four action points per turn. Turning 90 degrees, taking a step forward, firing a weapon or repairing a jammed gun all take a single action point. Going onto 'Overwatch', which allows your Terminators to fire automatically as enemies come into sight, takes two and is essential. You also have a pool of between one and six command points, which can be distributed across the squad. However, command points need to be used carefully: if your marine's weapon jams whilst on Overwatch during the enemy's turn, only command points can unjam it and allow firing to continue, so make sure you have some left.

The Genestealers don't have ranged weapons, but they are faster than Terminators (able to move six squares a turn) and spawn in large numbers out of air vents. With the exception of a few specialists, the Space Marines suck at close combat: if a genestealer closes to melee, the marine is probably dead. This makes it crucial to set up overlapping fields of fire, cover all the flanks and keep the enemy at a distance. However, the design of the space hulk makes this difficult, with single-spaced corridors, narrow rooms and the Terminators' own bulkiness making it hard to cover all the angles. You also have a number of marines with special weapons: Librarians can use psi-powers to temporarily block off corridors or even slay Genestealers at a distance, but they have a limited pool of psi-energy which will quickly be used up. Flamers can set fire to rooms and send fireballs rolling down corridors, but only have six shots. Assault cannons never jam, have a very high to-hit score and tremendous range, but only have twenty shots per mission and need to be reloaded after ten (which takes four action points).

This relatively small array of different options makes for a surprisingly large number of tactical decisions. Each turn can be an edge-of-the-seat affair as you move marines to block off approaching enemy forces whilst also trying to advance to meet the mission objectives. It's not uncommon to cross half the map, set up a perfect defensive grid and then suffer a massacre as you have to disrupt it to reach the target. There are times when taking the slow and steady path is the way to go, but others when riskily using all of your action and command points in one movement is the only chance to win. In short, Space Hulk replicates the tension of the original game quite well.



Unfortunately, the adaptation is probably a little bit too slavish to the original. The game is highly dependent on luck, with defeat sometimes happening despite you doing everything to tactical perfection. This is something that works quite well for a group of friends clustered around a board, but in a computer game (where you are going to just reload anyway) feels rather frustrating. There are also gaps in logic which you accept as part of the board game but in the video game seem rather more obvious: why do the Space Marines' bolters jam so frequently? Why do the standard Terminators have infinite bolter ammo but the assault cannon guy and flamer only have a few shots each? How can you only take four shots during a normal turn but on Overwatch might manage twenty? Why do the Terminators wear such crazily huge and bulky armour if they die from just one hit? Why haven't the marines got any extra equipment like melta bombs, grenades or deployable turrets (present in the original board game's brother-title, Space Crusade)? Why do you only get more powerful units like the Librarian on some missions and not on others?

There's also the variety, or rather the lack of it. Whilst the game does a good job of upping the ante and introducing new weapons and units at a steady pace throughout its first half, in its second it seems to get more bogged down in long, frustrating missions where a single mis-rolled die can wipe out the entire squad. Some of the later missions can only be reliably completed by saving-scumming after every turn and reloading multiple times. There's also a distinct lack in mission structure, although the free DLC Messenger of Purgatory does feature some livelier corridor and room designs.

Graphically, the game is functional rather than attractive. Perhaps sensibly, the designers have realised that you're going to spend most of the time zoomed way out to assess the overall tactical situation rather than closely zoomed-in, and have de-emphasised the close-up graphics. However, they then rather oddly deploy an 'action cam' showing close-ups of your units when they fire weapons and engage Genestealers in melee combat. At this close range the Space Marines look blocky and the Genestealers are rather cartoonish. Still, graphics are not the game's key focus. Thankfully, a number of bugs that the game originally shipped with (including clipping through walls and the 'ghosts' of enemy units remaining standing after they've been killed) have either been eliminated altogether or reduced to very rare occurrences, and the release of a three-mission bonus campaign (now included with all copies of the game) helps make up for this early inconvenience. The only remaining bug of note is that the game is not very good at counting how many points an action will cost, and you'll often find yourself saving points by guiding a unit square-by-square and action-by-action rather than leaving the AI to do it.

Overall, Space Hulk (***) can be a tremendous amount of fun, but the time you spend really enjoy playing the game will likely be almost equalled by the times you find yourself frustrated or annoyed by the game's over-reliance on luck. Played in short doses, and certainly purchased at a reasonable cost (certainly don't spend more than £10 on it), it's a reasonably entertaining stopgap of a game.

Monday, 9 December 2013

BALDUR'S GATE 15 years on

30 November marked a special anniversay in PC gaming: the 15th anniversary of the release of Baldur's Gate. Released in late 1998, just a few weeks after the all-crushing Half-Life, Baldur's Gate had every bit as major an impact on gaming. It was the first RPG released by BioWare, still one of the biggest names in the business, and arguably saved the Western RPG genre from descending into obscurity.

Interestingly, the original box art de-emphasised the Dungeons and Dragons ties to a tiny logo at the bottom of the box.

BioWare was founded in Edmonton, Canada in February 1995 by three medical doctors. Ray Muzyka, Augustine Yip and Greg Zeschuk were newly-graduated, but more interested in games than medicine. Pooling their resources, they set up the company and quickly began work on their first game, a MechWarrior-alike called Shattered Steel. Unlike the rough road to success faced by many publishers, BioWare had some early luck in being courted by no less than seven different publishers. They eventually - and fatefully - elected to go with Interplay.

Shattered Steel was a modest success and BioWare began discussions with Interplay over their next project. They show off some tech ideas and demos they had been working on and one immediately grabbed the attention of the guys at Interplay for melding real-time combat with large, explorable areas. This was a good fit with the RPG genre which had made Interplay famous (they had made their name with Wasteland and the Bard's Tale series) but which had become less dominant in recent years. Interplay had scored a notable success with Fallout (released in 1996) but the age of massive RPG sales seemed to be a thing of the past. BioWare's nascent engine was attracted for combining the linchpins of RPG design - exploration and character generation - with real-time combat and drag-select capabilities more reminiscent of games like Command and Conquer and WarCraft, which were huge successes at the time. The final piece of the puzzle was that Interplay had secured the video game rights to Dungeons and Dragons from SSI and had been looking for a good fit for the franchise. So it was announced that BioWare's second game would be an RPG called Baldur's Gate. It would use the D&D game rules, be set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy universe and feature real-time combat.

To say there was scepticism over this news would be an understatement. There hadn't been a genuinely classic D&D RPG since Eye of the Beholder II, released in 1992, and the most recent high-profile releases (Blood and Magic and Descent to Undermountain) had been unmitigated disasters. The RPG fanbase was also lukewarm on the idea of the game being in real-time, as Fallout had show what could still be done with turn-based combat. BioWare's lack of experience was also a concern.

Most players will remember their first - usually exceedingly brief - encounter with Ankhegs.

However, this scepticism soon turned to cautious excitement. Early screenshots showed a (relatively, for the time) lush, vibrant art style. Interplay soon began showing signs of palpable excitement over the game as builds came in. In fact, the 'Infinity Engine' so impressed them that they had their own internal RPG development division, Black Isle Studios, use it for their own projects. Doubts over the combat were assuaged when it was revealed that the game could be paused at any time, but orders could still be issued. This approach mixed the very best of turn-based combat (being able to consider the battlefield and all available combat options at leisure) and the immediacy of real-time fighting. It was such a successful idea that it was implemented in every single RPG BioWare would go on to release (aside from the multiplayer-only The Old Republic).

Baldur's Gate was released in November 1998, barely one month after the release of Half-Life and six after StarCraft, two other games that completely redefined their genres. Those opening the box were greeted with an unprecedented sight: the game shipped on five CD-ROMs. A full install would take up about 1.5GB of hard disk space, a jaw-dropping amount at a time when most games still took up a few hundred at most (Half-Life clocked in at 400MB and was considered large; StarCraft scraped barely 180MB). The game wasn't in 3D, but its 2D artwork, complex animations and AI routines all put a heavy load on processors and RAM, with only the most powerful PCs capable of running the game at its maximum potential. But still, it was a huge achievement.

The game allowed the player to customise the protagonist character but all of the other party members were NPCs encountered wandering the gameworld, complete with their own motivations, backstories and goals (you could have a player-created party by 'cheating' using the multiplayer system, but this took away one of the key selling-points of the game). The game threw curveballs at the player to emphasise this point: two of the earliest NPCs you meet and can recruit into the party are evil, and will bicker with the 'good'-aligned members until someone loses their temper and violence erupts. Elements like this required the player to understand and manage their party-members and their interrelationships, something almost unprecedented up to that time. Another character the player can recruit, fan-favourite Minsc, is a mighty warrior but is on a rescue mission: should the player delay Minsc from completing his mission for too long, Minsc will leave the party and possibly attack the other characters in a violent frenzy. With a large number of recruitable characters available, this made the total number of party mixes very large and, combined with the ability to modify the main character however the player wanted, made with a high degree of replayability.

Montaron and Xzar are arseholes, seriously drop them like hot potatoes ASAP.

It also helped that the story was moderately involving, with the player drawn into a labyrinthine plot involving contaminated weapons and armour, political machinations in the city-state of Baldur's Gate and bandits and monsters engaging in raids and attacks up and down the Sword Coast. Atmospheric cut scenes would discuss the main character's role in all of this, and involve some major story developments in the Forgotten Realms world itself (adding an extra element of interest for players already familiar with that setting from the novels and earlier video games). The gameplay was superb, with the combat being fast-paced and challenging, although some complained a little too challenging at times. It was possible to meet creatures early in the game which could kill you with ease, and the game could be almost insurmountable unless you knew the maxim, "Give everyone ranged weapons!" Once you knew the game's systems, however, great enjoyment could be taken from beating its challenges.

Baldur's Gate would be a huge success, selling 1.5 million copies in its first year on sale. Chicken feed today for a triple-A roleplaying game (BioWare's Mass Effect 3 would sell 3 million copies in its first month on sale in 2012), but hugely impressive at the time. BioWare would quickly deliver a well-received expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast, before starting work on the inevitable Baldur's Gate II. Black Isle Studios would help bridge the gap, releasing Planescape: Torment (arguably still the greatest Western RPG of all time) in December 1999 and Icewind Dale (set in the same world as Baldur's Gate but a thousand miles away and seventy years earlier) in June 2000 before helping BioWare complete and ship Baldur's Gate II in October 2000. Dwarfing its predecessor in scale, scope and ambition (though fortunately, thanks to much better compression, not number of discs), Baldur's Gate II remains the largest and longest RPG made by BioWare to date, and still the gold standard against which all of their other games are measured.

Baldur's Gate's influence has been huge. Everything BioWare has done since, from Knights of the Old Republic to their currently massive Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, stems from that first, 2D, modestly-budged game. Though their games have gotten flashier and moved into full 3D, the DNA of Baldur's Gate can be still be seen with their latest games still having pausable combat and a structure (a linear opening and concluding section with a large, open section in the middle) very similar to that of the original. In-jokes about the original abound (Commander Shepard getting his own miniature space hamster in Mass Effect 2, for example). Even the original game has found a curious new audience via Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, released by Beamdog in 2012 for PC, Mac and tablets such as the Apple iPad. Large numbers of hardcore fans of the game have spent thousands of man-hours modifying the original game, allowing it to run on modern PCs in higher graphics resolutions, with new quests and weapons added. Essential mods also allow the game to be run in the Baldur's Gate II version of the Infinity Engine, with better graphics and customisation available.

Baldur's Gate is one of the most important RPGs ever released, despite being overshadowed by its sequel and its label-mate Planescape: Torment, and still a hugely playable game even today.