Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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

Friday, 17 May 2019

New HIS DARK MATERIALS trailer reveals the daemons

The BBC and HBO have dropped a new teaser trailer for His Dark Materials, their TV adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy of the same name.

The new trailer shows off the daemons (animal familiars) of the main characters for the first time. It also confirms that the armoured bears will appear in Season 1. With the show planned to adapt the three books over five seasons, it was unclear if the bears would be included in the first season.

The trailer also shows scenes that appear only at the very end of the first novel in the series, Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the USA for no readily apparent reason), suggesting that perhaps they have rethought the five-season strategy and might be considering a shorter run.

His Dark Materials has already been renewed for a second season, which is expected to enter production soon. Season 1 is expected to start airing in October or November this year.

Amazon cancels THE TICK

In frankly horrible news, Amazon has cancelled the fantastic The Tick after two seasons.

Amazon have not provided a reason for not proceeding with the series. Creator Ben Edlund has confirmed that he will try to find a home for the series elsewhere, but the initial signs do not look promising.

Across its two seasons, The Tick was funny, oddly moving and brilliantly written and acted, particularly by the immortal Peter Serafinowicz as the title character. It's a real shame we will not be seeing more of the show.

It's also unusual, because Amazon have prioritised finding commercial and critical successes in their quest to rival Netflix. The Tick's two seasons have scored hugely well with critics, including a 100% critic rating for the second season on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Amazon did not publicise the release of the second season well, sneaking it out with relatively little fanfare, which may have impacted on the reception (the same problem Netflix had with Season 2 of Sense8, in which case many viewers didn't know that the second season had been released until the show was cancelled).

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

The year 2531. The United Nations Space Command and the alien Covenant are engaged in a war for control of vital resources. The UNSC starship Spirit of Fire investigates Covenant activity on the planet Harvest and uncovers evidence of a plot by the Covenant which could imperil all of humanity. The Spirit of Fire has to pursue a Covenant taskforce into deep space and attempt to thwart their plans without backup.

The Halo series began life as a real-time strategy game for Mac, before transitioning into a first-person shooter for PC before finally arriving on the original X-Box in 2001, the first shooter since GoldenEye to really work with a console controller. The series became a huge success, selling millions of copies of the original game and its sequels Halo 2 (2005) and Halo 3 (2007), and a spin-off, Halo 3: ODST (2009). In a sign of things becoming full circle, Microsoft decided to expand the franchise to other genres and commissioned a real-time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars, which was eventually released on the X-Box 360 in 2009. In 2016, the game was finally ported to PC as a "Definitive Edition," which is the version I have reviewed here.

Halo Wars gained praise on release as the first real-time strategy game made to really work on console. An intuitive interface allows players to build units, expand their bases, select forces and advance across the battlefield from a standard controller. Some standard RTS controls and ideas had to abandoned or simplified for the experience, but the transition was surprisingly successful.

As with most RTS games, Halo Wars opens with you having control of a single base. This can be upgraded with modules, such as supply depots (which generate supply, the game's sole resource), power stations (which generate power, which determines what upgrades and advanced units you can build), barracks, vehicle construction stations and aircraft construction stations. You can also add turrets to bases to help defend them. In an interesting twist, even a fully-upgraded base can't hold all of the structures you need, forcing you to expand early and explore the map to find areas where you can set up secondary bases.

The resource gathering is a particularly nice touch. Rather than send out a harvester of some kind to mine a resource, you simply generate supply points. The more supply depots you have, the more supply you generate, but of course you only have a limited number of expansion modules, so if you build lots of supply pads you may find yourself unable to build a vehicle factory or a barracks. This encourages early-game expansion and exploration. The supply mechanic isn't new, originating as it did in the Command and Conquer: Generals expansion Zero Hour many years earlier, but Halo Wars makes it really work as part of the mechanics.

You can build an extensive army consisting of infantry, aircraft, tanks, anti-air batteries and other units. The elite Spartan super-soldiers can't be built (at least in campaign mode) but can join the fray as special elite units for certain missions.

For a supposedly "cut-down" RTS, Halo Wars surprisingly enjoyable even for an experienced PC strategy gamer. The unit variety isn't the most extensive, but the focus on a smaller roster helps streamline the game and make it more enjoyable. It also allows for battles to be fought faster and more furiously, rather than you agonising of which of several very slightly different units to build.

The campaign is enjoyable, with a fairly straightforward SF story. As the game is set twenty years before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, no prior knowledge of the franchise is needed, making it a perfect jumping-on point ahead of the release of the upcoming Halo Master Chief Collection on PC (which will bring Halo: Reach, Halo: ODST, Halo 3 and Halo 4 to PC for the first time, alongside upgraded versions of the original Halo and Halo 2).

The game does have several problems, however. The game doesn't use many "standard" RTS controls, instead forcibly mapping camera controls to WASD and not allowing you to reassign them. This means many standard RTS controls - A for attack-move, S for stop - are not available in the game. The game is also on the short side: I polished off all 15 campaign missions in about 11 hours. The game feels like it really needs a Covenant campaign to make the game a more worthwhile single-player experience, and indeed the story feels a bit opaque at times, like we were supposed to be getting more information about the Covenant version of events but at some point this was cut.

The other problem is that the game can't help but feel a little familiar, particularly in missions fighting the organic Flood where you have to destroy their living technology. This feels very reminiscent of fighting both the Zerg in StarCraft and the Tyranids in Dawn of War.

Still, given it is now available at a very reasonable price, Halo Wars (****) succeeds as a short, focused and fun real-time strategy game which doesn't make too many concessions to its console origins. It's available now on Steam.

Atlanta: Season 2

Earn is continuing to manage his cousin Alfred, whose career as rapper "Paper Boi" is blowing up. Alfred is unhappy with Earn's management style, whilst Earn feels that Alfred isn't taking advantage of social media and other opportunities to boost his profile. Meanwhile, it's "Robbin' Season" in Atlanta, the pre-Christmas crime spree, which results in a lot of weird stuff going down.

The first season of Atlanta was a mash-up of comedy, hard-hitting drama and bizarre psychological study. It cemented Donald Glover's (formerly of Community) position as a hot up-and-comer. After that season aired, Glover's music career (as Childish Gambino, of "This is America" fame) went stratospheric and he starred as a young Lando in the Star Wars movie Solo. Other castmembers also went big, with Lakeith Stanfield nailing a major role in Get Out and Zazie Beetz starring in Deadpool 2.

On that basis, it's perhaps a surprise we got a second season of Atlanta so soon, but Glover prioritised it and managed to create something even stranger, sadder, funnier and more heartwarming than the first season.

If Season 1 of Atlanta was a surrealist tone poem, Season 2 is a full-blown odyssey of the strange and the grotesque. It moves through a dense period of several weeks in which a lot of stuff goes down for the characters, so much that rather than try to cover events chronologically it instead splits the events between characters. This means we get few episodes where all the major characters appear, with instead most episodes focusing on a single character or group of characters. This results in an intense focus which at times feels claustrophobic, but this is appropriate for the stories that are being told.

Atlanta remains hilarious, with comic highlights including Darius and Earn trying to defuse a confrontation between Earn's insane uncle and the police, involving an alligator. A later episode sees Earn and Van defusing their relationship problems with a game of table tennis at a German party. Barbershop sees Alfred going for a simple haircut, but gets dragged into an increasingly hilarious road trip with his eccentric barber, whilst in Champagne Papi Van and her friends attend an offbeat house party where they hope to meet Drake. In North of the Border Earn, Darius and Alfred travel to a college campus to take part in a publicity event, but things go sideways and they end up taking refuge at a very uncomfortable frat boy initiation ceremony.

The season also goes dark, very dark. It feels like the shadow of the movie Get Out lies heavy on this season and Glover leans into it, delivering in Teddy Perkins possibly the freakiest 35 minutes of television of 2018. Woods is also a dark and depressing episode, but one that ends on a bizarrely redemptive note.

The season ends by coming almost full circle, as major events in the opening episode come to fruition (including one of the most literal uses of the Chekhov's Gun trope you'll ever see) and leaves things in an interesting place for the third season (which isn't expected to air until 2020).

The second season of Atlanta (*****) improves on the first to become a study in tension and tragicomedy, and has an infusion of horror running through it which is both incongruous and compelling. It remains one of the most unique and distinctive shows on air.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Two children have immense and varying gifts. Patricia is a nascent witch, can talk to animals and has a special bond with nature. Laurence is an engineering and scientific genius who has built a semi-functional AI and a two-second time machine. As children they are both dismissed as freaks, which draws them closer together. They are separated in their teenage years but fate draws them back together as adults, in a world slipping into despair from political, technological and scientific challenges.

All the Birds in the Sky is the second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, a noted writer and critic best-known for co-founding SFF website io9 (for which, full disclosure, I have written the occasional piece). It's a novel rich in character and variety which develops two protagonists and has them engage in two distinct narrative threads (one science fiction, the other fantasy) which merge as the novel progresses.

It's a novel which wears many hats, from coming-of-age-against-adversity YA adventure (the opening chapters), to adult relationship drama to science fiction disaster novel to a lyrical fantasy fable. Anders' strength as a novelist is moving between these subgenres with impressive ease, flipping from the YA setting to the apocalyptic SF one on a dime but never losing the book's momentum. The book has a lot of humour and drama in it (along with a topping of tragedy) and it handles these shifts in tone with skill.

Core to the book's success is the characterisation of its two leads, the rigorous and logical Laurence and the more instinctive and spontaneous Patricia. The two characters gain strength from leaning on and learning from one another's differences, and overcoming their challenges by working together. Disastrous moments in the novel come from them not trusting one another or working as cross-purposes instead of pooling resources. It's a book that, above all else, focuses on the idea of empathy and understanding, and facing down challenges through cooperation rather than division.

There are some undercooked moments. I would have liked to have known more about the Order of Assassins that crops up several times in the novel, and some late-book revelations about how much the scientists and magicians know about each other come out of nowhere, but otherwise this is a very fine and appropriate novel for our times.

All the Birds in the Sky (****½) comes across as a fusion of Neil Gaiman (on a very good day), Diana Wynn Jones and Robert Holdstock, but with a twinkling flair to the prose that is all Charlie Jane's. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Disney take over Hulu streaming service

Disney have taken control of Hulu, a popular American streaming service which competes with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in the States.

It's been speculated for some time that this was Disney's plan. Disney are launching their own streaming service, Disney+, in November this year but have been clear that the channel will only be for children and "family" programming. This left questions over Disney's ability or willingness to create material for an adult audience. It also raised questions about Disney's vast new store of films and TV shows from 20th Century Fox, which they recently completed acquiring, as many of these would be unsuitable for a family audience.

Disney's acquisition of Hulu now ends that speculation. Hulu already produce adult programming, such as the critically-acclaimed Handmaid's Tale (which is preparing to release its third season), and in fact have several more adult-oriented Marvel TV shows in development, including Ghost Rider. It is assumed that, as licences expire elsewhere, Disney will move all of Fox's adult-oriented shows over to Hulu and the younger children's shows to Disney+ (they have already confirmed that Disney+ will be the new home of The Simpsons, although presumably the likes of Family Guy would have to go on Hulu).

A key weakness of the Hulu purchase is the lack of international exposure. Hulu licences its shows to overseas partners, with Channel 4 showing The Handmaid's Tale in the UK, for example. As part of the purchase, Disney will begin expanding Hulu's overseas footprint, possibly as part of a pairing deal with Disney+ when it launches in overseas markets.

GAME OF THRONES showrunners to write and direct next STAR WARS movie

Disney have confirmed that the next Star Wars movie after J.J. Abrams' Rise of Skywalker will be written, directed and produced by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

It was previously known that Benioff and Weiss had been contracted by Lucasfilm to produce a new Star Wars film "series," along with The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson who had his own full trilogy to make (although Johnson is only contracted to write and produce, and may direct one of the films). The news today from Disney and Lucasfilm confirms that Benioff and Weiss's first movie is up first, due for release in 2022.

The subject matter of the new films is unclear, although head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy has confirmed that both new film series will be unrelated to the Skywalker Saga (as the numbered episode films are now being called) and will be set in different parts of the Star Wars universe, in time, space or both. Some Star Wars fans have speculated that some or all of the new films will be set in the popular Knights of the Old Republic era, the setting for multiple video games and comics, but this remains speculation at the moment.

GAME OF THRONES prequel pilot starts shooting

The prequel spin-off to Game of Thrones has started shooting under the working title Bloodmoon. This is unlikely to be the final title, with George R.R. Martin preferring the title The Long Night (HBO appear to be less keen).

The pilot is shooting in the same Belfast Paint Hall studios that hosted Game of Thrones, with location shooting due to take place in Northern Ireland and several locations in Europe, including reportedly the Canary Islands.

Naomi Watts stars alongside actors including John Simm, Jamie Campbell Bower and Miranda Richardson. The series is set approximately 5,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones, in the Age of Heroes, and charts the collapse of a golden age society into the chaos of the Long Night, when the White Walkers and the Night King arose for the first time and the Wall was built. With the possible exception of the Night King, no Game of Thrones characters are expected to recur in the new series.

Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First ClassKingsman) is writing and executive producing the new series, with S.J. Clarkson directing the pilot and George R.R. Martin serving as a creative consultant.

If HBO greenlight the pilot, full production of the first season is expected to start before the end of the year, for a 2020 debut.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Bandai joins forces with Games Workshop to make WARHAMMER 40K action figures

In one of those news stories that makes you wonder, "Why did no-one think of his earlier?", Japanese toy company Bandai have partnered with Games Workshop to release a series of figures based on their phenomenally popular Warhammer 40,000 science fantasy setting.

Bandai are starting the line with a 7" action figure based on the Primaris Space Marine model. The figure will have multiple points of articulation and come with different weapons and equipment that can be swapped around.

They are also launching a line of Chibi figures, small or cute models which are designed to appeal to children. This line seems to be part of Games Workshop's new drive to target younger fans, following on from their recent launch of a new range of children's books in the Warhammer 40,000 setting.

These figures will be available later this year. If successful, I suspect the 7" range will quickly expand to incorporate other figures.