Saturday, 31 October 2009

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

The Cylons are preparing to carry out their long-planned sneak attack against the human race. A vast fleet of basestars laden with nuclear weapons is preparing to jump to the Twelve Colonies and carry out an act of genocide. Many Cylon humanoid models are seeded through the Colonies as saboteurs, spies and sleeper agents in case anything goes wrong. The plan is carried out and is a huge success, except for the unexpected escape of a single battlestar, the Galactica, and its accompanying fleet of refugee ships.

With the Cylons in the fleet cut off from the pursuing forces, it falls on them to carry out a series of saboteur efforts: a Simon is assigned to destroy his home ship, a Six is sent to frame Dr. Baltar for a crime he didn't commit (well, he did, but unknowingly), a Boomer sleeper agent is ordered to assassinate Adama and a Leoben becomes obsessed with Lt. Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace. For Brother Cavil, the erstwhile leader of the infiltrators in the fleet, it soon becomes clear that the humanoid Cylons are too easily distracted or 'infected' by the humans and their ways, to his anger and frustration, as this is a weakness he refuses to endure in himself.

On bombed-out Caprica, another Cavil model ends up in the resistance cell led by Sam Anders, and is perplexed by the humans' desire to go on fighting and surviving when there appears to be no hope at all of survival, let alone victory, and decides to investigate this part of the human spirit in greater detail.

The Plan is a TV movie that goes right back to the Battlestar Galactica mini-series and then revisits key moments from the first two seasons through the eyes of the Cylons. Along the way, it attempts to resolve several key problems with the series, notably a few major plot holes left gaping and to give a lot more screen time and character development to Rick Worthy's character, Simon, arguably the least-developed Cylon role. In this movie we learn that there was a Simon model in the fleet after all and what he was doing, and discover that this Cylon was married with a step-daughter. This also allows the return of Edward James Olmos' real-life wife Lymari Nadal as Giana, one of the refugees from Caprica that Boomer rescued in the pilot, and a revelation about the ultimate fate of her character.

To some degree, these are small-fry questions, however, with bigger questions like how Boomer's sleeper programming worked, who the unknown person Caprica-Six was meeting on Caprica during the mini-series was and what was going on with Shelly Godfrey and her attempt to manipulate Baltar being more thoroughly explored. In some cases the answers are interesting, but in other cases not really that necessary, with fans long ago coming up with decent answers.

Overall, especially in the first half, the exercise feels like an excuse to show off some excellent CGI (and some rather ropier effects as well, including one terrible shot that makes Caprica look like it's about three miles across) but mainly to fill in some plot holes only obsessive nitpicking fans worry about. In the second half, however, a more interesting story emerges. Essentially A Tale of Two Cavils, in the second half the experiences of Galactica Cavil and Caprica Cavil are contrasted and explored in a decent manner, with Simon's situation and Anders' rise from being a sports jock to a military leader unfolding as decent subplots. These elements are tied together with some great writing and some excellent acting (especially from Dean Stockwell as Cavil, who comes across as calculating, intelligent and utterly ruthless, even moreso than he did in the series). The storylines also have a great conclusion when Caprica Cavil is rescued along with the rest of Anders' rebel group and meets up with his fellow model number in Galactica's brig and airlock where they discuss their conclusions, which are very different.

Whilst that thematic structure works well, the 'unrated' version of the DVD/Blu-Ray makes rather gratuitous use of its freedom to depict sex and nudity, most notably a rather incongruous Galactica crash-zoom on a nude pilot in the locker room. I suppose if you are going to include nudity, doing so for both sexes is fair, but none of it adds anything to the plot and looks completely out of keeping with the rest of the series.

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (***½) is the series' swansong and on that note is altogether stronger than the actual series finale itself. However, whilst the movie eventually gets it together and has a solid second half, the first half is all over the place, story and effects-wise, and takes probably too long to cut to the chase. Still, an interesting addition to the series. It is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray in the United States. A UK release has not yet been confirmed (although a region-free UK import of the Blu-Ray is available). An edited version of the movie will air on SyFy in the United States and Sky One in the UK some time in 2010.

The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce

When he is a young boy, Sam Southall loses a tooth and leaves it out for the tooth fairy to collect. Unfortunately, the tooth fairy is unhappy when Sam wakes up during the collection process, and the result is a long, fractious and unpleasant relationship that lasts the remainder of Sam's childhood.

As the years pass and Sam moves through adolescence with his best friends, Terry and Clive, their lives seem to be stricken with more than their fair share of tragedy and misfortune. Is this the doing of the malevolent tooth fairy, or is she merely a figment of Sam's imagination? A psychiatrist tries to get to the truth, with mixed results.

The Tooth Fairy was originally published in 1996 and won the British Fantasy Award the year after. It has gone on to become arguably Joyce's best-known novel. It is an effective, emotionally resonant story about growing up, childhood friendships and awkward teenage romances, with the question of whether the tooth fairy is real or merely a figment of Sam's mind providing an interesting and ambiguous mystery throughout the story.

It's told in an earthy manner, with some violence and sexual references, but not in a gratuitous manner. Iain M. Banks is a big fan of the novel and some echoes of The Wasp Factory can be detected in the book's uncompromising attitude, although The Tooth Fairy is somewhat more optimistic. The characters and situations are well-drawn, the family relationships work well and the fantastical elements are explored interestingly, although those looking for neat answers best be warned that there aren't any. The reader is often encouraged to come up with their own explanations and interpretations of story developments. Joyce nails the awkwardness of growing up very well in the book, and the atmosphere of life in the 1960s comes through nicely.

The Tooth Fairy (****½) is a dark, intriguing story about adolescence, family and friendships, well-told and enjoyable. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Greatest RPG ever made re-released

In a totally unexpected move, Interplay are about to re-release Planescape: Torment, which has an excellent claim on being the single greatest computer roleplaying game ever made. Easily the closest gaming has ever gotten to 'real' literature, Torment is a complex and morally ambivalent game about an enigmatic central character who cannot die and has to uncover his past. The setting is the wondrous Planescape multiverse from 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons (look out for its eventual appearance in the 'Worlds of D&D' feature), the most original setting that D&D has ever produced, where ideas and ideology can shape the very nature of reality. The game is notable for not focusing on combat and putting the characters and their thoughts, conflicts and ideas front and centre, with over 400,000 words of dialogue and description making up the game.

Torment was produced by Black Isle by much of the same team that worked on the first two Fallout games and would go on to make the Icewind Dale duology before going bust and reforming as Obsidian, creators of Neverwinter Nights II and Knights of the Old Republic II. Originally released in 1999, the game was overlooked somewhat by many gamers at the time (although it went on to sell a solid half-million copies) but has become a major critical darling in recent years, frequently placing high in 'Best Game Ever' polls. This strategic, Vista and Windows 7-compatible re-release will hopefully introduce it to a new generation of gamers.

The most eyebrow-raising part of this is the price: a ten-year-old game for £17.99? Seems a bit much. I'd be tempted to say hang on for a while and see if it drops below a tenner, but then again it is seriously one of the very best computer games of any genre ever made, so at that price it is still reasonable, if you can withstand the old-school graphics (and there are plenty of mods out there which can improve the resolution and interface).

Simultaneously, you can also get the almost-as-awesome Anachronox from Amazon for £4, which is a total no-brainer.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The battle for control of the western nations ahead of the Last Battle continues to rage. Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, has taken his army to the war and famine-wracked kingdom of Arad Doman to restore order, win the country to his cause and also to negotiate a new peace treaty with the Seanchan. But as his plans continue to unfold, Rand has to harden himself more and more, and in doing so is in the process of losing his soul and his mind.

In Tar Valon, Egwene al'Vere remains a prisoner but a defiant one. As her efforts to undermine the false Amyrlin Elaida continue within the Tower, her followers maintain their siege of the city from outside, and are joined by an unexpected new ally. Elsewhere, Mat Cauthon and the Band of the Red Hand continue their flight towards Andor, and are surprised to be reunited with an old friend, a friend whose careful, long-laid plans are about to come to fruition...

The Gathering Storm is the twelfth volume in The Wheel of Time series and the first released since Robert Jordan's unfortunate death in 2007. Jordan spent his final months amassing and dictating a significant amount of notes, outlines and chapter summaries for another writer to use to finish the series. Previously, Jordan had indicated he'd wipe his hard drive to stop someone else completing his work, but with him being so close to the end of the story he changed his mind, trusting his wife and editor, Harriet, and his publisher Tom Doherty to find a writer capable of finishing the series well. In theory, it should have led to disaster: typically one writer finishing a series begun by another is an atrocious idea that only leads to very bad books (note the vomit-inducing new Dune novels and the ill-advised Amber continuations). The only example I can think of this working was when Stella Gemmell completed her late husband David's final novel in fine form, but the amount of work required to bring Wheel of Time to a conclusion required an altogether different level of commitment and effort from Brandon Sanderson.

Almost unbelievably, Sanderson has pulled it off. In his introduction he hopes the differences between his style and Jordan, whilst unavoidably noticeable, will be comparable to a different (but still good) director taking over your favourite movie series but all the actors remaining the same. This isn't a bad analogy at all, and whilst there are a few moments in The Gathering Storm where you think, "I don't think Robert Jordan would have done things quite like that," there's never a moment where you think, "He definitely wouldn't have done that at all!" which is vital.

Another concern was that originally these last three books were supposed to be one volume, A Memory of Light, and Sanderson actually wrote the bulk of the text under the impression it was going to be probably split in two. The decision to split the book in three instead resulted in much recrimination, although at 800 pages in hardcover (and assuming the second and third come in at a similar size) and well over 300,000 words, tying it with Knife of Dreams as the longest book in the series since Lord of Chaos, it's clear this could never have been done in just two books either. One problem with this split was that since Sanderson hadn't been writing with three books in mind, The Gathering Storm would feel incomplete or unsatisfying on its own. This is not the case at all. In fact, The Gathering Storm has the most cohesive through-line in story, character and theme of any book in the series since The Shadow Rising, and possibly out of all of them.

The structure of the book focuses on two primary storylines: Rand's deteriorating mental state as he struggles to bring Arad Doman into the confederation of kingdoms sworn to him, and Egwene's efforts to unite the White Tower and end the civil war within the Aes Sedai that has raged for the past seven and a half volumes. Other characters and stories appear briefly, such as Perrin and Tuon, and Mat has a slightly bigger role, but other major characters and storylines do not appear at all. The recently-quelled civil war in Andor and the Mazrim Taim/Asha'man plotlines are notable by their absences. Instead, this part of the story focuses on two of the central protagonists, Rand and Egwene, and the experiences they go through to achieve their goals. The novel could almost be called The Long Night of Rand al'Thor as the series' central figure is dragged through the wringer, going to very dark places indeed as he struggles to understand his own role in events and how he is to achieve the things he must do to save the world. On the other hand, Egwene is shown to have already passed through her moments of doubt and misjudgement in previous volumes, and in this book her story focuses on her battle of wills with Elaida to restore unity to the Aes Sedai.

This contrast of darkness and light and putting two central characters squarely back in the limelight (previous volumes have sometimes devoted way too much time to tertiary characters of limited importance) is a highly successful move, allowing some interesting thematic elements to be touched upon. Whilst the reader may have guessed that Rand is severely traumatised from everything that has happened to him in the previous books, it isn't until this volume that we realise just how badly things have affected him and we see just how hard and how determined he has become. An interesting analogy that is not touched upon is what happened to Aridhol to defeat the Shadow in the Trolloc Wars, where it became harder and more ruthless than the enemy and eventually consumed itself in insanity and rage.

This is a powerful and intense story, something that has been building for the entire latter half of the series, and it's a demanding tale that you probably wouldn't want to dump on a new author in ideal circumstances. But Sanderson picks up the ball and runs with it. Rand's characterisation is completely spot-on and consistent with earlier appearances, and Sanderson does a monumental job with this storyline. He also does superbly with Egwene's story, which culminates in one of the most spectacular action set-pieces in the series to date (and I suspect something that could dislodge Dumai's Wells or the Battle of Cairhien as many reader's favourite action sequence in the whole series). A whole myriad of lesser characters is also well-handled, such as Siuan, Tuon and the various Aes Sedai, but Gawyn becomes a bit of a fifth wheel with not much to do, which is odd given he has a much bigger presence here than he has in some considerable time.

Other reviewers have suggested that Sanderson struggles with Mat, and unfortunately this is true. Not fatally so, but for everything Mat does that is 'right' to his character, he'll typically do something incongruous and uncharacteristic a few pages later. Sanderson also never really gets into the swing of his speech pattern or sense of humour either. He's readable, but it's the only part of the book where the change in authors feels jarring. Luckily, it's not a large part of the book and hopefully Sanderson will be able to work more on this area for the next book, Towers of Midnight, where Mat is expected to play a much bigger role in events.

The Gathering Storm (****½) is a very fine book, one of the strongest instalments of the whole series and easily the best book published in The Wheel of Time for fifteen years. Whilst some of that achievement must go to Brandon Sanderson for his sterling and jaw-dropping work on the book, it is clear that Robert Jordan had planned these events with a watchmaker's precision, setting them up through lines of dialogue and minor twists of characterisation stretching right back to the second volume of the series, and the overwhelming feeling upon reaching the end of the novel is that he was an extraordinarily clever writer and plotter, for all of the flaws that have cropped up along the way. The book is available now in the UK and, with the worst cover in the history of modern publishing, in the USA. Towers of Midnight will follow in one year's time, with A Memory of Light to follow a year after that.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Worlds of D&D: Greyhawk

The History of Greyhawk

Dungeons and Dragons
was created in the early 1970s by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as an extension of their tabletop wargame, Chainmail. The earlier game was about massed battles between armies of miniatures, initially focusing on historical events and then bringing in fantastical creatures and magic. Continuing the process, Gygax extrapolated out a game focusing on a smaller group, consisting of say 4-6 heroes, in which they went off adventuring. The original focus of the game were 'dungeon crawls', with the players exploring ancient ruins, killing monsters and disabling traps to gain both loot and 'EXP' or experience points. As the characters gained EXP levels they gained more abilities, became tougher and more difficult to kill and more skilled in evading traps.

Of course, amassing vast quantities of loot by itself was no real reward. You needed somewhere to retreat, freshen up, sell your loot and buy new gear before resuming the battle. And of course, repeated dungeon-crawling gets a little monotonous after a while, so why not have adventures above ground? And hey, instead of fighting monsters how about the heroes having to say investigate a murder or guard a caravan or something instead? And if you're going to be moving around outside the dungeon, then you need a world to do that in...

So were born the original D&D campaign settings, actually surprisingly quickly after the original game was released in 1972. Dave Arneson worked on a setting called Blackmoor (eventually absorbed into the later Mystara setting), whilst Gygax's home setting developed quite quickly as well. In his case, the elaborate dungeon (eventually amassing several dozen levels) was located underneath a location called Castle Greyhawk and its attendant city. As the campaign progressed, the players seemed more reluctant to return to the dungeon and preferred getting involved in the politics and factionalism of the city itself, or exploring the countryside beyond its walls, including yet more dungeons (such as the formidable Temple of Elemental Evil) and other cities. With Gygax running several games a week as well as running TSR, the company publishing D&D material, there was no time for elaborate worldbuilding, so he based the map of the continent on one of North America, aligning Greyhawk with Chicago and its southern rival, Dyvers, with Minneapolis.

As the campaign unfolded, the world of Greyhawk became home to many famous and powerful warriors, wizards and clerics, such as Mordenkainen, Bigby, Tenser, Melf (legendarily named because the player couldn't decide on an original name so went for Male+Elf) and Rary. As D&D itself was being developed and revised constantly at this time, these names found their way into the rulebook as spells such as Bigby's Crushing Hand, Tenser's Floating Disc or Melf's Acid Arrow, which survive pretty much to this day.

The 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set for Advanced D&D 1st Edition.

Greyhawk made its public debut in Dragon Magazine (then The Dragon) in June 1976, where Gygax was serializing a novella called The Gnome Cache. He revealed the setting was a world called the Oerth, which was similar to Earth, and mentioned the first Greyhawk deity, St. Cuthbert, in the following issue. An adventure published that year, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, was also nominally set in the setting. Gygax had no plans to publish the entire setting himself, feeling that players were more interested in creating their own worlds to play in, and was surprised when fans kept asking him about it.

In 1978 Gygax finally relented, and many more adventures set in Greyhawk emerged (such as Tomb of Horrors and The Village of Hommlet, which introduced the Temple of Elemental Evil), along with a novel, Quag Keep, written by respected SF author Andre Norton. In 1980 TSR published a folio set called Greyhawk. Gygax had taken his original, North America-based maps and drawn a new landmass around them which became known as the Flanaess, the eastern third or so of a vast continent called Oerik on the world known as the Oerth ('Oi-th', pronounced as with a strong Brooklyn accent, according to Gygax). The setting was hugely popular and led to a deluxe box set called The World of Greyhawk, released in 1983.

Unfortunately, Gygax began an acrimonious withdrawal from TSR around this time, and as part of the separation agreement TSR retained ownership of the Greyhawk setting and all its characters, something Gygax later came to regret as he saw his world developed in a manner he was not impressed with in later years. In 1988 the Greyhawk Adventures hardcover book was published, which was a more cohesive single-volume guide to the setting and brought the history of the world forward by some years. However, TSR had become more invested in its Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings and Greyhawk was not properly revisited again until 1991, when the Greyhawk Wars board game was published. This game saw the continent being torn apart in a huge, game-changing war. The subsequent From the Ashes boxed set reintroduced the setting as a D&D game world but, despite some good reviews, was not a huge success. Although a few additional materials leaked out, the setting looked like it had been abandoned for good.

Despite this, there were a few last bursts of activity. In 2000 the new, 3rd Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game was published by new owners Wizards of the Coast. The game was a huge success, and eagle-eyed players were surprised to learn that the game had a 'default' setting which was Greyhawk. The Greyhawk gods were named the 'default' gods of the game, and Greyhawk-specific items and locations were mentioned here and there through the core rulebooks and many of the earlier adventures. A very brief guide to the setting was also published, as well as 3rd Edition reprints of earlier Greyhawk adventures, such as the Temple of Elemental Evil super-adventure. It looked like Greyhawk had been brought back into the fold for good, but it was not to be.

WotC decided to make Greyhawk the setting for their collaborative, massive 'living campaign' world, Living Greyhawk, a newer version of the Living City and Living Jungle mass-campaigns for 2nd Edition (both set in the Forgotten Realms). Run by the RPGA Network, this was effectively a pen-and-paper based version of online games such as the then-popular Ultima Online and Everquest, and the later World of WarCraft. Whilst the game was successful, with several thousand players signing up and playing regularly, it was also notably non-canon. It also absorbed the resources of all the Greyhawk material planned for 3rd Edition, meaning that for people not interested in the Living Greyhawk setting, no new stand-alone material was published after 2001, whilst WotC concentrated on Forgotten Realms and a new setting, Eberron, although a single adventure, Ruins of Greyhawk, did creep out in 2007 as one of the final 3rd Edition game products. WotC shut down Living Greyhawk in late 2008 as D&D 4th Edition was launched.

The future of Greyhawk has not been outlined, but a recent 4th Edition game product made mention of several major worlds: Toril, Eberron, Athas, Krynn and Oerth, the worlds of the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dark Sun, Dragonlance and Greyhawk settings respectively. With the Realms and Eberron already back in print as 4th Edition settings and Dark Sun planned for next year, it seems inevitable than Greyhawk will return as a 4th Edition setting, probably in 2011 or 2012.

Fanon map, although drawn from canon materials, of the whole Oerth.

The World of Greyhawk

The setting for the Greyhawk campaign is the world known as Oerth, which is an Earth-sized planet consisting of one large supercontinent known as Oerik and several smaller landmasses, namely the jungle continent of Hepmonaland, the polar continent of Telchuria, and an unnamed, remote landmass in the southern hemisphere. Gary Gygax's original plan was to develop the whole planet in a reasonable amount of detail, but virtually all of the published gaming materials to date focus instead on the eastern third or so of Oerik, a region called the Flanaess.

The Flanaess is a heavily and traditionally Medieval European-inspired land of temperate zones, feuding city-states (the city of Greyhawk being the most well-known), powerful kingdoms, cloistered dwarven cities, remote elven lands and so forth. According to Gygax, Middle-earth was not a strong influence, instead claiming to have been more influenced by the likes of Fritz Lieber, Roger Zelazny, Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance. Humans are more or less the dominant species, but dwarves, halflings, gnomes, elves (and their dark brethren, the drow), giants, orcs, goblins, kobolds, dragons and many other races exist in the setting. Gygax ruled that gunpowder and all of its associated developments does not work on Oerth, thus apparently trapping planetary technological development in the pre-industrial age permanently.

The Flanaess, the main setting of the Greyhawk world.

Greyhawk was developed as a place for lots of individual adventures rather than a massive over-arcing story, but the actions of Gygax's original characters did give rise to a metaplot of a kind. The original 'main' storyline saw various small nations and parts of the Great Kingdom attempting to break away, with varying degrees of success. After Gygax's departure, TSR decided to go for a larger, more epic story in which the evil demigod Iuz attempted to conquer the rest of the world and the other nations of the Flanaess united to stop him, with a few other power groups (such as the Scarlet Brotherhood) attempting to further their own ends during the chaos. By the time the Greyhawk Wars had ended some of the established borders had changed and some kingdoms had risen or fallen. The later TSR and Wizards material is notable for emphasizing Iuz as the prime force of evil in the world, whilst earlier material focused more on local conflicts and problems caused by an evil deity called Vecna. Vecna was transposed to the Ravenloft setting during the TSR years, but made a return to Oerth during the Living Greyhawk era, and is likely to be a major villain in the hypothesized fourth edition of the setting (since Vecna is listed as one of the core deities of the 4th Edition game as well as a Greyhawk-specific deity).

For areas beyond the Flanaess, not much is known. A miniature game called Chainmail (as a nod to the original miniature game which inspired D&D) was under development in 2001 set in Western Oerik, in a region called the 'Sundered Empire', but this game was canned barely before it could get on the shelves and was replaced by the much more generic D&D Miniatures game, and very little material about Western Oerik made it out, and what did appear largely unimpressed the fanbase (since, among other things, it broke the no firearms restriction).


Whilst I've bought a few Greyhawk products over the years and one of my friends still has a copy of the 1983 box set in good condition, the setting has never really grabbed me. I came to it far too late, many years after first getting hooked into Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, and it lacked the much more original flair of Planescape and Dark Sun. In the 3rd Edition era, Greyhawk's most laudable feature was its emphasis on lower-level adventuring, with very few major and powerful NPCs of the setting being over 20th level, and this was a major change from the very high-magic Forgotten Realms setting, where the number of NPCs over 20th level was frankly ridiculous and there were a significant number over 30th. Greyhawk's old-school, more restrained atmosphere was its most distinguishing feature during this time.

However, whilst Greyhawk itself is a rather generic cod-medieval setting, its place in the historical pantheon of roleplaying settings is assured, as is its huge influence. Whilst the world itself may not be fantastically original, many of its dungeons and adventures, such as the terrifying Tomb of Horrors (Gygax recommended players roll up several characters for the dungeon, since some would inevitably die in the process of exploring it) and the vast Temple of Elemental Evil, not to mention the immense dungeons of Castle Greyhawk, are still popular today (if often transposed to other settings), whilst Vecna and Iuz are classic, old-school bad guys.

With a 4th Edition version of Greyhawk almost certainly on the way, it will be interesting to see how Wizards of the Coast emphasize the setting's differences from Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms in order to hook new players in.

Next time, we visit Krynn, the homeworld of the most feared and reviled creature in all of Dungeons and Dragons, the original Jar-Jar himself: Tasslehoff Burrfoot!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

And so it begins.

Filming of Game of Thrones got underway this morning at Doune Castle in Scotland, which is being used for the exterior and some interior scenes in Winterfell. Several of the actors, including Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, were apprently filming today and at least one of the wolf pups - a white-haired one, almost certainly Ghost, Jon Snow's direwolf - was around as well, suggesting the first scenes being shot will include the Tyrion/Jon Snow/Ghost scene in the courtyard. It sounds like establishing shots may have also been shot earlier in the week, whilst Sean Bean and other castmembers are not expected until later in the week, possibly for the scenes where the king's party arrives at Winterfell and maybe the grand feast as well.

Filming will also be carried out at the Paint Hall studios in Belfast in around a week and a half's time, and will move on to studios and locations in Morocco for the Daenerys scenes later in the month. Filming is expected to take place for another four to five weeks or so.

It may have felt like a long road to get here, but actually it was only two years ago that HBO optioned the series. It is much more normal for a potential TV or movie series to stay in development hell for a much longer period of time or have far more hiccups on its way to production. The Wheel of Time series, for example, seems to be on its second option in eight years and this one doesn't look like progressing very far in the near future either. A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, seems to have had an easier time of it. Of course, so far only the pilot remains in production. We likely won't know if HBO is ordering a full season for another 2-4 months or so, but even if the project does not proceed any further, watching the process of a book getting on screen in unusually close detail has nevertheless been fascinating.

Good luck to everyone involved in the project. I'll be in Belfast on 3 November for GRRM's book signing and, will report back with any choice information or photos I pick up ;-)

Friday, 23 October 2009

A Culture movie in the works?

As picked up by Aidan, a Culture movie could be in the works. Director Dominic Murphy is attached to an adaptation of Iain M. Banks' short story 'A Gift from the Culture', which appears in the collection The State of the Art.

I'm going to hazard a guess that the story, which is really short, and would probably take less than twenty minutes to tell on screen as is, is going to be used as a jumping-off point for a story that is mostly original material, but still utilising the Culture backdrop. This could be an interesting move, certainly more viable than cramming one of Banks' larger 400-page novels into less than two hours, and probably much cheaper as well. Consider Phlebas, the logical starting place for a Culture adaptation, would require a special effects budget that would probably give Michael Bay pause, so testing the waters with a smaller story could be a good move.

Whether they maintain the central concept of the premise - a female Culture citizens goes native on a primitive planet in a male body but is blackmailed into operating a Culture weapon lest harm come to her/his boyfriend - is also another question. Such questions about gender and identity in the face of (relatively) easy sex-changing technology are the bread and butter of hard SF, but could make movie companies uneasy, especially if it does become a larger-budget production.

Still, an interesting idea at any rate. We'll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.

Another major epic fantasy comes to an end

What with all the excitement over the imminent release of the next Wheel of Time novel (not the last one, but the beginning of the end), it's probably been totally overlooked by many that another, long-gestating fantasy cycle is also approaching its final volume.

Katherine Kerr's Deverry Cycle is a vast, interlinked series of novels spanning several sub-series and centuries of time. The first book, Daggerspell, was published back in 1986. The fifteenth and final volume in the series, The Silver Mage, is released on 29 October 2009 in the UK and about a week later in the USA.

I've never read the Deverry Cycle, although I've considered it several times. The series is intriguing as it focuses on the same group of characters who live, have adventures, die and are then reincarnated as a new person decades or centuries later, with many flashbacks to prior incarnations (this chart is handy for keeping track of them). Kim Stanley Robinson's 2002 stand-alone novel The Years of Rice and Salt uses a similar device in a single novel, whilst Wheel of Time touches on the reincarnation device as well.

To commemorate the release of the final book and celebrate the series and its characters, this LJ community has been set up.

The Deverry novels are as follows:

Act I: Deverry
  1. Daggerspell (1986)
  2. Darkspell (1987)
  3. The Bristling Wood (1989) - aka Dawnspell: The Bristling Wood
  4. The Dragon Revenant (1990) - aka Dragonspell: The Southern Sea
Act II: The Westlands
  1. A Time of Exile (1991)
  2. A Time of Omens (1992)
  3. Days of Blood and Fire (1993) - aka A Time of War
  4. Days of Air and Darkness (1994) - aka A Time of Justice
Act III: The Dragon Mage
  1. The Red Wyvern (1997)
  2. The Black Raven (1998)
  3. The Fire Dragon (2000)
Act IV: The Silver Wyrm*
  1. The Gold Falcon (2006)
  2. The Spirit Stone (2007)
  3. The Shadow Isle (2008)
  4. The Silver Mage (2009)

* Slightly confusingly, the UK publishers count The Dragon Mage and The Silver Wyrm as a single seven-volume arc rather than two smaller series, as appears to be the author's intent.

With the series now complete, it is now looking a lot more tempting to read, so I may give it a go some time in the future.

Wertzone Classics: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Returning to their home kingdom of Lancre after various misadventures elsewhere, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are disconcerted to discover a new, younger and more hip coven of young witches has arisen in their absence. Whilst they deal with the situation with their traditional patience and thorough levels of understanding, Magrat finds that arrangements for her marriage to King Verence are steaming ahead and the invitations have been sent out already. One recipient is Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork who decides to attend on a whim (and the prospect of excellent fishing), dragging the terminally confused Bursar, the simian Librarian and the very keen young Ponder Stibbons (whose favourite word is 'quantum') along for the ride.

The wedding suffers a series of complications of the kind that are to be expected and some that are not, most notably a full-scale invasion by beings from another dimension. Naturally it is up to the witches of Lancre (plus an annoyed orang-utan, a legion of ninja morris dancers and a terminally frisky dwarf in a wig) to rise to the occasion...

Lords and Ladies is the fourteenth Discworld novel and the third featuring the Lancre witches' coven (and the fourth to feature Granny Weatherwax). Despite the novel working perfectly well as a stand-alone, Pratchett was sufficiently concerned about the book's continuity ties that he provides a thorough synopsis of Wyrd Sisters and a somewhat briefer one of Witches Abroad before cracking on with the tale, which is a nice touch but unnecessary.

One interesting device Pratchett starts employing in these middle-era Discworld books is taking a concept or idea mentioned very briefly earlier in the series and fleshing it out into a full-sized novel. For example, a running-gag in Reaper Man about a con artist and his trained mice eventually turned into The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents whilst the Hogfather was mentioned a few times before finally getting his own book. Similarly, Lords and Ladies builds on a very brief mention in The Light Fantastic where Twoflower starts dreamily talking about beautiful elves and Rincewind reacts the same way you would to someone saying, "Well, Hitler wasn't a completely bad person..." And of course, fans had been asking for a while where the Disc's elves were, since the dwarfs and trolls had been very much in evidence. With this book Pratchett delivered the answer.

It turns out that the Discworld's elves are a bunch of merciless and easily-amused homicidal maniacs with a perchance for toying with their prey before killing them. This leads to some of Pratchett's most effective horror and tension-filled sequences, not something he is renowned for but given how good he is at them it may be a style of writing he should have tried employing more often. Magrat's running battle with a bunch of elves in Lancre Castle stands out as one of the series' best action sequences, though still laced with some brilliant moments of humour (such as the introduction of the Schroedinger's Greebo paradox).

Granny Weatherwax, one of Pratchett's most complex and interesting characters, gets some very fine character development in this novel as we see some more of her past and also get a glimpse of the other lives she could have lived if things had turned out differently. Ridcully, hitherto one of Pratchett's more straightforward creations, also gets some much-needed depth to his character as well. The Bursar provides some amusing comic relief, but is thankfully not over-used. Some later books, most notably Interesting Times, are actually bogged down by his mindless babbling, but here it is more restrained. The return of Casanunda the permanently horny dwarf is also welcome and gives rise to several sequences which are among the funniest in the whole series (his lowwayman hold-up of Ridcully's coach is a classic scene).

After Small Gods, the best book in the series, Pratchett could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels and maybe bashing out a quickie Rincewind travelogue comedy or something. Instead, he cracked on and produced a book that is a strong candidate for the most relentlessly funny and entertaining book in the series, with a twisted dark side (possibly influenced by his then-recent collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens) and some great character development thrown in for good measure.

Lords and Ladies (*****) is available now in the UK and USA. Can Pratchett make it a five-star hat-trick with Men at Arms? We'll see soon (although I have a couple of other books to get through first).

Monday, 19 October 2009

Incompetence by Rob Grant

In the all-to-near future, the European Union is well on its way to becoming a single federalised state. Unfortunately, due to the passing of Article 13199 of the Pan-European Constitution ("No person shall be prejudiced from employment in any capacity, at any level, by reason of age, race, creed or incompitence,"), the continent is grinding to a halt. One detective is assigned to track down a dangerous killer, but finds his investigation complicated by blind nightclub bouncers, octogenarian male lap-dancers, priapic train stewards and airline ticket salesmen with attention disorders.

Incompetence, originally published in 2003, was the second original novel by Rob Grant, better-known to many SF fans as the co-creator of Red Dwarf. One of Grant's favourite topics, shown sporadically in Dwarf but reaching a kind of insane art form here, is the sheer, mind-numbingly unbelievable insanity that bureaucracy is capable of. Obviously the EU, with its perchance for fining corner-shop greengrocers who sensibly refuse to use measurements its customers find incomprehensible thousands of pounds for each infringement, is a tempting and irresistible target for his humour.

The result is a book driven by the type of comedic raging fury of the kind that Basil Fawlty would have channeled should he have ever chosen to write a novel (although this would be an admittedly difficult task for a fictional character) about the European Union. Our 'hero' is on the trail of a deadly killer but the case is interrupted by every five minutes by increasingly bizarre and convoluted brushes with EU law or regulations. He hires a car, but in the interval between hiring it in the office and crossing the parking lot to where his hire-car is waiting for him, it's been clamped for being parked in the wrong place. Trying to get on a train takes 22 pages of insane, and at times life-threatening, wrangling. The police attempt to stop a runaway car but can't come up with a way of doing it effectively so end up deploying anti-tank weaponry. And so on.

It's a very, very funny book. The laughs start on the first page and don't stop until the last. And it's not even as if the author is really succeeding at making a serious point about the EU. The situations the main character finds himself in are so insanely over-the-top they will almost certainly never happen, although there's a few that do seem somewhat plausible (like the one about the old guy who is accidentally declared dead and his wife receives a fat cheque from the government, so they decide to keep up the pretense he is dead).

In addition to the non-stop comedy and satire, there are a few nice moments of understated writing as well. There's a blink-and-you-miss-it moment towards the end where our (unnamed, by the way, I haven't just forgotten what his name is) protagonist proves how competent he is, even if the rest of Europe isn't. And to be honest the main, more serious plot is never really given a lot of time to develop, due to the constant misadventures and brushes with bureaucracy along the way.

But that's not too much of a problem. Incompetence (****) is extremely funny from start to finish and constantly entertaining. The book is available now in the UK, but unsurprisingly not in the USA (possibly for fear that Americans would accept it as a serious and well-informed factual book about the EU), although has some import copies available.

I talked to Rob Grant at the Gollancz Autumn Party and he informed me that this book is being adapted as a stage play by a Swiss (I think) company. How on Earth they'd do the book on stage I'm not sure, but it would certainly make a superb movie or TV series at some point.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Casting completed for GAME OF THRONES

Casting for A Game of Thrones is now complete, although we are waiting for a couple of confirmations from HBO. I'll note these when I get to them.

Update: All of the tentative castings from HBO have now been confirmed. The Winter is Coming crew got them all right, which is very impressive.

Isaac Hempstead-Wright

Isaac Hempstead-Wright is a young British actor who has had several roles on stage and a few adverts.

Bran Stark and his direwolf, Summer

He will be playing Bran Stark, the fourth of Eddard (Sean Bean) and Catelyn Stark's (Jennifer Ehle) five children. Bran is young (seven in the books, possibly slightly older in the series) and adventurous. He spends a lot of his time exploring the many halls, courtyards, walls, nooks and crannies of his home, the vast castle complex of Winterfell which sprawls across many acres. However, he is getting old enough to start learning of the affairs of state, and when the series opens his father judges him old enough to start learning about the harsher side of dispensing justice in the unforgiving lands of the North.

Joseph Mawle

Joseph Mawle is a very well-respected British actor who won acclaim for his portrayal of Jesus in The Passion.

Benjen Stark

He will be playing Benjen Stark, Lord Eddard's younger brother. As the youngest of the three Stark brothers (the eldest, Brandon, died just before the recent civil war), Benjen was not meant to inherit lands or titles. Instead, he joined the Sworn Brotherhood of the Night's Watch, the force assigned to guard the massive Wall that guards the northern border of Westeros against the wildlings who dwell beyond. In its heyday being a member of the Watch was a noble calling, but in recent decades only criminals and the dregs of society have been sent to the Wall. Its numbers have fallen to a mere one thousand to guard some 300 miles of defenses, an impossible task. Benjen is the First Ranger, one of the most skilled and senior members of the Watch. He is close to his brother and also to his bastard nephew, Jon Snow, whom he seeks to recruit into the Watch.

Ian McNeice in Rome

Ian McNeice is an extremely familiar face from British and American television, recently appearing as the news announcer in Rome and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in the Sci-Fi Channel's version of Dune. He was also in Edge of Darkness and the recent Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie, as well as playing a Vogon in the film version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Magister Ilyrio Mopatis

He is playing Ilyrio Mopatis, Magister of the Free City of Pentos beyond the eastern sea. An inordinately wealthy merchant with an interest in politics, Ilyrio is the benefactor and protector of the exiled prince and princess of Westeros, Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. He has arranged for Daenerys to be wed to the barbarian warlord Khal Drogo in return for the use of his troops in invading the Seven Kingdoms. Though physically unimposing, Ilyrio is extremely intelligent and possesses formidable monetary and intelligence resources.

Jason Momoa

Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa is well-known to Stargate fans as Ronon Dex, a role he played for four years on Stargate Atlantis. He announced his casting at a Stargate convention in Australia this past weekend, where he confirmed that he did a Maori haka at the casting session to win over the casting director.

Khal Drogo

He will be playing Drogo, the warlord or Khal of a vast Dothraki army, a khalasar. He commands 40,000 elite mounted warriors, and is fierce and unrelenting in battle. He is remarkably young for his role, which he won through bravery and glorious deeds. Spurning the offers of women from his own people, he has chosen the beautiful 'dragon princess' from the exotic western lands as his bride, a wedding arranged by Ilyrio in return for Drogo agreeing to lend men and aid to Viserys' bid for the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Ron Donachie

Ron Donachie is another extremely familiar face from television and film, with roles in the film version of Titanic and in TV series such as Hearbeat, Rebus, Doctor Who, The Bill, Taggart, Auf Widersehen Pet and just about ever major British TV series of the last twenty years.

Ser Rodrik Cassel

He'll be playing Ser Rodrik Cassel, Master of Arms at Winterfell and in charge of the military training of Eddard Stark's sons. Rodrik Cassel is a stalwart, utterly loyal and reliable servant of House Stark, as is his own son Jory, who is a guard, and his daughter Beth, who is a maid in the castle. Rodrik is unusual in being a worshipper of the Faith of the Seven that holds sway in the southlands, rather than the old gods of the forest who are worshipped in the north, and is a knight, which is also unusual as that is mainly a southron custom.

Donald Sumpter

Donald Sumpter is another veteran British actor with recent roles in The Sarah-Jane Adventures (as Erasmus Darkening) and in Into the Storm as Lord Halifax.

Maester Luwin

He will be playing Luwin, the maester of Winterfell. Maesters are men of science and learning, trained in the Citadel in the distant city of Oldtown (almost three thousand miles from Westeros on the south coast of the continent). Luwin serves as Winterfell's resident physician, midwife, lawyer, master of intelligence and general advisor. He is also in charge of the education of Lord Stark's children. He is extremely loyal to the Stark family.

Jamie Campbell Bower

Jamie Campbell Bower is an up-and-coming British actor who has already scored three impressive genre credentials (with the respective fanbases), landing the roles of the young Gellert Grindelwald in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Caius in Twilight: New Moon and the role of 11-12 in the new version of The Prisoner. He is also a musician, and sings and plays guitar in the band The Darling Buds.

Ser Waymar Royce

He will be playing Ser Waymar Royce. Waymar is a younger member of House Royce, a powerful family in the Vale of Arryn. With too many sons to find lands and wives for, his father - 'Bronze Yohn' Royce, whom we meet later in the story - sent him to the Wall to join the Night's Watch. Waymar doesn't appear to have been completely happy about this, but makes the best of it he can. As the story opens, he is leading (due to his noble rank and position as a knight) a three-man scouting expedition beyond the Wall. Whilst young, arrogant and a braggart, he is also skilled in combat.

Bronson Webb

Bronson Webb is another young British actor with a fair bit of experience behind him, with roles in The Dark Knight, Atonement, Kingdom of Heaven and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He is currently filming the new Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. Will is a young member of the Night's Watch, a commoner not of noble birth, but an experienced tracker and scout anyway. He is part of the scouting expedition under the considerably less experienced Ser Waymar Royce. Will is a noted character in the books as he is the first POV character of the first book, and the first character the reader meets.

Richard Ridings

Richard Ridings is another experienced British actor, whose most memorable genre role was in an episode of Red Dwarf, where he had a memorable on-screen death involving a Psiren, tomato ketchup and a burger. He's had many other roles in series such as Casualty and has a solid career as a computer game VO artist, recently doing work in Risen and Killzone 2. He is playing Gared, a much older and experienced member of the Night's Watch on the ranging with Waymar and Will.

Esme Bianco

Esme Bianco is a burlesque dancer and performer who has recently moved into screen roles (she actually did a video shoot for the band Slayer before taking off for Northern Ireland). She will be playing Ros, the first created-for-the-TV-show role. Ros is a prostitute in the capital city of King's Landing, possibly (but not definitely) working in Chataya's (which plays a bigger role later in the series) and is a 'friend' of Tyrion's. It is possible her role may reoccur later in the run, assuming it gets picked up.

With casting apparently complete, everything looks ready to go. Production begins one week from today in Belfast, with filming starting two days later.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Wertzone Classics: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

When Brother Brutha of the Omnian Church starts talking to a tortoise, he merely assumes that he has gone mad. However, when the tortoise turns out to be the great god Om who is having a Bad Day, Brutha finds that his faith is about to be put to the test...

"This is religion, boy. Not comparison bloody shopping! You shall not subject your god to market forces!"

Up to (and including) Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett was an author who wrote books that broadly fell in two categories: books that spoofed or were a satire of modern society in some way, often through broad comedy, and other books that were a bit more serious and had a point to them, though still amusing. The two sides had come very close to coexisting in Pyramids, but arguably just managed to avoid fusing into one impressive whole.

Small Gods is where Pratchett got it right. The entire book, from its first page to its last, is a lengthy, sustained and inordinately clever examination of religion, fundamentalism and blind faith and their conflict with reason, argument and science. And you barely notice, because the story itself is extremely taut, well-told and brilliantly characterised with Pratchett's occasional bursts of silliness kept to a minimum in favour of flashes of wry and at times angry humour. Small Gods is a book that Richard Dawkins would kill to have written, and done so in such a manner that even the most God-bothering evangelical would have still been riveted to it.

"You have perhaps heard the phrase that Hell is other people?"
"Yes, of course."
"In time you will learn that is wrong."

Small Gods has the veneer of being just a traditional Pratchett book: there's some jokes about men in togas arguing pointlessly about philosophy (in a world where it is difficult to have a conversation about, "Are the gods real?" when a lightning bolt will come flying through the window five seconds later with a label attached saying, "YES,"), Death has a couple of cameo appearances and there is a running joke about tortoises being nice to eat. But you can tell the subject matter really got Pratchett riled up. His hatred of blind faith and the idea that killing people is okay because some book says so - and, let's face it, that book was written by a old guy who might have been bitten by a donkey that morning and was a really foul mood when he started on the bit about doing unto others with fire and brimstone and was probably not, when you get down to it, an actual deity - really comes through in this novel, but in measured tones.

Character-wise, Small Gods may be Pratchett's strongest book. Most of the cast does not reoccur in the series (Death and a very brief trans-temporal appearance by a certain simian book-collector aside), but Pratchett still has time to paint them in impressive detail. Vorbis may be one of the scariest 'villains' (if that's even a right description) in the whole series. Brutha is certainly one of its most interesting protagonists. Om's pragmatic, tortoise-meets-deity outlook on life is amusing. Even minor characters like Didactylos and would-be rebel leader Simony are well-rounded and given good rationales for what they do.

"Around the god there forms a shell of prayers and ceremonies and buildings and priests and authority, until at last the god dies. And this may not be noticed."

Almost as importantly, the ending does not suck. Pratchett has a patchy record with endings, with his books sometimes ending okay and others being a bit of a let-down after a strong start and middle section. Small Gods, however, has a fantastic ending, starting with possibly the biggest belly-laugh out of all thirty-odd books in the series (hint: it involves something being airborne which shouldn't be) and proceeding from there.

Intelligent but never preachy, philosophical but never boring, Small Gods (*****) is Terry Pratchett's masterpiece (okay, his strongest masterpiece). It is the strongest Discworld novel and almost certainly the best thing he has ever written. The book is available now in the UK and US.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Wertzone Classics: Hostile Waters

In 2012 the previous era of human history came to an end. But not, as some had feared, in fire and destruction. Instead, the people of the Earth rejected war, tyranny and the rule of the elite over the few. The catalyst for this change was the invention of the creation engine, a nanotech device which could create anything out of anything. Feed in refuse and waste and you could create a fusion reactor, or a television or enough food to last a month. Overnight, most of the human race's problems evaporated. Global warming, cancer, energy and much more. The creation engine eliminated the human race's dependence on oil and ended the ability of dictators to keep their populations under control by rationing the means of production.

The dictators did not take this lying down, and a war had to be fought before the new era could begin. Armed with creation engines, the forgers of the new order were unstoppable. They built two immense carriers, the adaptive cruisers, which could forge entire arsenals out of thin air. They were equipped with 'soulcatcher' technology. Skilled pilots and tank drivers no longer feared death, instead being transferred at the moment of death back to the carrier, ready for their 'soul chips' to be plugged back into a new vehicle and able to re-enter the battle within moments of their demise. The war was won, the old order crumbled and a new age of peace began. The adaptive cruisers, no longer needed, were scuttled, but not disassembled. Not all of the old dictators and warmongers had been apprehended, and the fear was that one day the carriers' firepower would be needed again.

Twenty years have passed and a golden age of peaceful coexistence has come. But the warmongers and dictators are now ready for their comeback. Armed with creation engines of their own and basing themselves in an artificial archipelago they have created out of the depths of the ocean in the South Pacific, the 'Cabal' begins the bombardment of the world's major cities. With no army of its own to deploy, the world government reactivates one of the adaptive cruisers, the Antaeus, and sends it into the island chain with orders to find and destroy the Cabal and their leaders at any cost. But in the depths of the island chain something else is going on, and to win back their thrones the Cabal are prepared to take whatever means are necessary, even if it means the utter ruination of the world...

Property values in the island chain were about to plummet rapidly.

Hostile Waters (also called Antaeus Rising in the USA) was released in 2001 to rave reviews, a very well-received demo and lots of attention. It promptly vanished without a trace, and is probably the most obscure computer game I have reviewed on this blog so far. The game was inspired by an earlier game called Carrier Command, which had appeared in 1987. That game had a player take command of an aircraft carrier capable of building units and colonising an island chain to secure its natural resources. An enemy carrier was trying to do the same thing from the opposite end of the chain. The idea was that the player would build up a huge resource network until it was strong enough to take on the enemy carrier in direct combat and destroy it. It was an astonishingly rock-hard game, but its then-revolutionary solid 3D graphics and open-ended gameplay (there was one vast gameworld to explore and how you went about the mission was entirely up to you) was jaw-dropping.

Hostile Waters uses some of the same ideas, such as the notion of an aircraft carrier you use as a mobile base to combat an enemy force. However, the game is much more linear. There is no open world and instead you move from mission to mission. Notably, the carrier cannot move and has no weapons to defend itself, which means deploying units to defend it is sometimes necessary.

Hostile Waters is an SF game which employs some strong SF talent to make it work. You may have noticed the backstory summary is much more detailed than is normal for a game, which is due to it being the brainchild of the excellent writer Warren Ellis (author of the classic Transmetropolitan series of graphic novels, which I need to read properly at some point, amongst many, many other projects). The game also indulges in total British SF fanservice by having the game narrated by Tom Baker (Doctor Who) and the two principal advisers to your character, Church and Walker, are played by Glynis Barber and Paul Darrow (Soolin and Avon from Blake's Seven, respectively). The game's writing is very strong, with between-mission cut scenes varying between philosophical musings on the impact of nanotechnology, profiles of the various 'soulchip' characters who make up the combat crew of the carrier and plot-based exposition. I also liked the use of the increasingly tiresome "OMG! 2012!" idea being deployed for positive change (which is actually a perfectly valid interpretation of the Mayan prophecies) rather than some kind of apocalypse.

The gameplay is excellent. Hostile Waters is one of very few real-time strategy games - Battlezone is the only other one that immediately comes to mind - that has veered away from the overhead, Command and Conquer-style interface and tried to do something different. The game's camera is permanently anchored to one of your units. You can cycle through different units, but there is no omniscient viewpoint. There is a 3D tactical map you can access at any time by hitting F1, but the game pauses in this mode. If you want to see the results of your decisions, you must return to the battlefield. You can also take direct control of one of your units in the main battlefield mode, which is sometimes necessary if they've gotten confused about what to do next.

Most missions end with something blowing up, which is probably not a shocking revelation.

Most of the time you are dependent on the game's AI instead. You have several 'soulchips' and can assign one to each unit you build. You start off with a few and end the game with ten, meaning you're never going to be in command of a vast army that will win by sheer weight of numbers. Each soulchip houses a different personality who is good at certain tasks. Ransom is unhappy unless he's in a helicopter, whilst Patton likes tanks and pretty much nothing else. Soulchips can be assigned to vehicles they are less happy with, but tend to not perform optimally. Since you are reliant on their AI, you have to manage your incorporeal troops and take their preferences into account in a manner that simply does not exist in most other RTS games, and is a brilliant touch, adding a nice tactical nuance to the game. It also means you can scream at a unit by name when he gets a bit trigger-happy and flies into an enemy crossfire without your prompting. Mastering the game requires keeping an eye on the battle data flying into the command centre, switching between unit cameras on the fly, cycling back to the strategic map view regularly and knowing when to micro-manage the battle (by assigning waypoints and targeting preferences) and when to leave your units to it.

It's a breathless, fun way of controlling a battle, and allows for engagements that are insanely intense, far faster-paced than anything the myriad of Command and Conquer clones have thrown up in the past fourteen-odd years. The ability to pause the game and issue orders at any time means that battles can get much hairier but also more strategically satisfying. It's also - relatively speaking - more realistic, as you are controlling the battle from afar, issuing orders and seeing how your troops manage to carry them out rather than just right-clicking like mad around a NOD base or whatever.

This type of indirect control has some issues, of course. When all hell breaks loose it's easy to concentrate on one vehicle's individual firefight and forget to check all the information coming in, perhaps resulting in losses elsewhere on the battlefield. The AI is extremely robust, far moreso than in many modern RTS games, but sometimes it gets a bit confused. Some maps require your attack force to take cover in ravines or canyons, and the AI has some issues navigating ravines without being micro-managed through them.

Resource gathering is undertaken by a disassembler unit, which trundles around absorbing wreckage, old buildings or some enemy structures and transferring the energy back to the carrier, where it can be used to build new vehicles. As the game continues these 'natural' resource centres disappear and the only way to generate income is to engage the enemy and send in the collector to gather up the wreckage. In fact, on some maps you can only generate resources by having the collector ambling around in the middle of the firefight instantly absorbing enemy wreckage, sometimes as it literally falls out of the sky around it, which can be hairy (luckily the enemy target your armed units first, so as long as you keep the collector covered it should be okay). Your unit selection is also pretty good, with attack helicopters, heavy artillery, tanks and hovercraft all available for construction, along with the resource collector and a field repair unit. You can also build stationary platforms, which are best used bolted to the carrier as AA installations.

Another excellent addition to the game is full unit customisation. When you decide to build a Phoenix attack helicopter, for example, you choose whether to give it more armour (which is tough, but needs a repair unit to fix it), shields (which regenerate on their own), a cloaking device (so it can cloak at will, but cannot attack) or a reloading pod (which prevents the weapons overheating and allows them to fire more often). You also choose what weapon to give it: a minigun, missile launcher, bomb bay (artillery piece on ground units), sniper laser or a flamethrower. These combinations can be used on all vehicles, which opens up a completely different stealth-based side of the game. Rather than go for the massed assault, you can equip a unit with cloaking device and artillery piece (or sniper laser) and have them edge around the outer edges of the enemy defences, picking off the AA towers, enemy production facilities and so on and cloaking and retreating when enemy units come out to investigate. This stealth-based approach becomes less viable on later levels, where the enemy bases are so huge that they'd take five or six hours to destroy with a single stealth unit, but the option is there for extremely patient players.

"Argh! What the hell! Kill it with fi...oh, you are already. Good job."

Hostile Waters has one big problem, and is almost certainly the reason it sank without trace (ahem): it has no multiplayer mode. Due to the F1-pause mode, it would be next to impossible to implement a multiplayer system that recreated the single-player game but was fair to both sides. Rage could have perhaps had a go, maybe some kind of 'arena' mode where you directly controlled opposing vehicles in an equal match, but they chose not to. Hostile Waters is thus a purely single-player based game.

The other issue that probably brought it down is that the non-traditional RTS control system and the need to sometimes charge into battle yourself in direct control of a unit meant that pure strategy fans saw it as too much of an action game (which isn't really the case), whilst the pure action fans saw it as too much of a strategy game (which is definitely true).

This is a shame because Hostile Waters is possibly the most underrated, unsung strategy game in history. It attempted to do something innovative and original in a genre that was even back in 2001 was looking pretty moribund and was roundly ignored for its troubles, a similar fate to some of its contemporaries (Homeworld and Ground Control most notably, although they at least sold enough to warrant sequels) and leaving the unpleasant notion that all the RTS fraternity actually wants is endless Command and Conquer and StarCraft clones, which is rather disheartening.

Luckily, Hostile Waters (*****) is available from the well-recommended Good Old Games website for the princely sum of $6, in a version that is friendly to Vista.