Saturday, 31 December 2011

Shadowheart by Tad Williams

The armies of the Qar and the Autarch of Xis have converged on Shadowmarch Castle, which now stands siege from enemies attacking by sea, land and underground. Ferras Vansen leads a desperate fight in the subterranean depths under the castle, trying to hold back the Xixians from the mysteries which the Funderlings have sworn to protect for generations. Briony Eddon is also heading home with a small Syanese army, but her resolve to help her people is challenged when she learns that her father is a captive of the Autarch...

Shadowheart is the fourth and final novel in the Shadowmarch sequence, the third major series by American author Tad Williams. The series is a slow-burner, with a pace that can best be called 'relaxed'. Empires may be forged, armies may clash and ancient secrets may be unveiled, but it all happens at a leisurely, chilled-out rate. This is epic fantasy at its cosiest and most predictable. Which is not to say the series is unenjoyable. Williams has saved the best for last here, with a plethora of battles and a smattering of intrigue to digest before the grand finale (complete with the villains all receiving appropriate come-uppances) and the long, 100-page epilogue in which the characters' fates are all neatly wrapped up and explained.

As with the previous books, the best moments are reserved for Ferras Vansen and Chert the Funderling, who are now leading the subterranean war as the Funderlings try to hold back the invading Xixians with the extremely reluctant help of the Qar. These underground battle sequences go on for a bit too long, but for the most part are exciting and tense. This is more than can be said for the scenes involving Barrick Eddon. Having spent two enormous books travelling beyond the mystical Shadowline in search of his destiny, his abrupt return to Shadowmarch smacks of plot convenience at its most blatant. Whilst his character arc was formerly one of the most interesting in the series, as he left behind his life as a crippled royal to embrace an alien culture, here it ends in a damp squib as Barrick becomes more enigmatic and dull.

Despite these issues, Williams ties together a large number of plots, character arcs and ideas that he has established over the preceding 2,500 pages and fuses them into a reasonably good ending. There's nothing too surprising here, but Williams' solid writing skills make it all readable enough. However, the feeling remains that Williams has been wheel-spinning with a series that seems to be more of a tribute to other fantasy works (glimmers of A Song of Ice and Fire and the works of Jack Vance can be detected) and also a call-back to his own earlier (and rather more impressive) Memory, Sorrow and Thorn sequence rather than exploring fresher ground (as he did so successfully in Otherland).

Shadowheart (***½) ends the series in an effective enough manner, but, despite its immense length, this remains a minor work from an author capable of a lot more. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Third Age: Total War 3.0 released

The long-awaited third version of Third Age: Total War has been released. This fan-made (but professional-quality) mod allows owners of Medieval II: Total War and its Kingdoms expansion to conquer Middle-earth with one of several factions.

The new third version of the game features a host of changes, most notably the long-awaited introduction of custom battle maps and settlements, putting iconic locations such as Minas Tirith and Edoras on the battlefield to be fought over. These replace the generic Medieval II towns that had stood in for the settlements in previous versions of the game. More information on the game, including download links and installation information can be found on TWCenter.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Merlin: Season 4

Camelot is in crisis. King Uther is a shell of his former self, traumatised by Morgana's betrayal. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are trying to defend the kingdom from myriad threats, but they are overstretched and unable to prevent Morgana from unleashing her vengeance. It falls, once again, to Merlin to save the kingdom. But to keep his true nature secret, he must again adopt the guise of the old sorcerer Emrys, a deception that will have far-reaching and devastating consequences...

Merlin reaches its fourth and penultimate season by embracing something of a new format. The regular cast has been swollen by the addition of the Knights of the Round Table, former guest characters like Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and Gwaine (Eoin Macken) who are now series regulars. Uther, played as always with steely resolve by Anthony Stewart Head, has a much-diminished role as Arthur (an increasingly accomplished Bradley James) rises to the fore, now advised by his uncle, Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker, who veers unpredictably from nuanced to hammy, sometimes in the same scene). Whilst the new format is effective, there is a cynical feeling (engendered by three previous seasons of the series pulling its punches on a regular basis) that we'll be back to the 'farting monster of the week' set-up by episode four at the latest. It's therefore something of a shock when the series undergoes some massive developments in just the first few episodes, and the manner in which these developments are carried out is unexpectedly brutal.

Obviously Merlin - a show which is aimed at a audience 'from eight to eighty' as the BBC puts it - isn't going to go all Game of Thrones and start dropping beheadings and incest on us. But still, compared to the show's good-natured, lightweight approach in the first three seasons, this year gives the series teeth. Some recurring characters are killed off and there are multiple big shake-ups to the series format. The show is more serialised, with less stand-alone episodes than previously. Best of all, there are no tedious comedy episodes this year, with humour instead allowed to develop alongside more dramatic, darker storylines simultaneously. There's also more effective use of computer effects, with the producers realising that 'less is more' and making a few big, well-rendered CGI army shots is better than making lots of middling-quality ones.

There's still a few problems, however. Morgana's new secret hideout seems to be a hut about three miles from Camelot. How this has evaded detection is unclear, especially since Morgana's agent in the royal court frequently rides out (in an over-dramatic gallop) to give her detailed reports on what's going on, again with no-one noticing. There are also long-established problems that reappear, such as the same recognisable patches of forest being used for multiple scenes supposedly set in widely-separated locations. The additional issue of Camelot only appearing to have about 200 men under arms whilst all of the surrounding kingdoms can apparently muster armies in the tens of thousands in hours also recurs frequently, straining credulity.

If you can overcome these issues, Merlin's fourth season (****) emerges as the strongest year of the show yet, by a considerable margin. It is available on DVD in the UK in two volumes. A fifth and final season will air in 2012.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas everybody!

Merry Christmas everybody!

The Cylons' latest plan to infiltrate and destroy humanity was scuppered by the requirement for constant USB access.

Friday, 23 December 2011

New MALAZAN maps

As an early Christmas present, Bantam Transworld have released an excerpt from Ian Cameron Esslemont's Orb, Sceptre, Throne, his fourth Malazan novel. This excerpt includes a new map of the continent of Genabackis, showing the hitherto-unseen southern edge of the continent, including the oft-mentioned Seguleh islands.

This also means we can assemble a complete map of the continent for the first time:

Interesting stuff. The novel is published in the UK on 19 January 2012.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Trailer for PROMETHEUS, Ridley Scott's ALIEN quasi-prequel

Since it's that time of year when we are inundated with new movie trailers, here's another one. This is the trailer for Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Due for release on 8 June 2012, there's been a great deal of confusion over the relationship between Prometheus and Alien. Originally it was a straight-up prequel, but Scott and co-writer Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame) have tried to put some distance between the two projects, suggesting they take place in the same universe but little more than that.

From the trailer, that's obviously 'a mild understatement'. Much of the film appears to involve the crashed alien spaceship from LV-426 (and we may even see that crash in the trailer), the 'space jockey' aliens play a role, the Prometheus logo is pretty much identical to the Alien one and, most tellingly, the trailer bears an uncanny resemblance to the original Alien teaser, even using some of the same sound effects. So yeah, Alien prequel, totally. And there's nowt wrong with that, since the trailer looks impressive. Ridley Scott returning to SF (get this, his last SF movie was Blade Runner) is an enticing prospect, and the film looks solid enough at this stage.

io9 have a very interesting shot-by-shot analysis of the trailer here. And who the hell is that guy in the space jockey's control room?

THE WHEEL OF TIME is completed

Brandon Sanderson has confirmed that A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final novel in The Wheel of Time sequence, is done.
"Ladies and gentlemen, A Memory of Light--the final book in The Wheel of Time--has been finished."
By 'finished', he of course means that the first draft is complete. He envisages several months of additional work to bring the final draft in, with publication still tentatively set for late 2012.

But still, the bulk of the work has been done, and the book will be on shelves in less than a year. Sanderson also seems to have taken a more definitive stance on the two prequels and three side-novels that Robert Jordan had planned for The Wheel of Time world, indicating that they will probably never be written.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

THE HOBBIT trailer

We still have a year to wait, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has just had its first trailer released:

Looks like Jackson has done a good job of recapturing the feel of the original movie, and it's good to see McKellen and Holm back in their old roles. Freeman also looks promising as the young Bilbo, and Richard Armitage seems to be doing a good job as Thorin (though he's still a bit more Klingon-esque than I think most people had in mind). Overall, looking good.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Wertzone Classics: Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

Upon his death in 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien left behind a vast collection of writings about Middle-earth. His third son and literary executor, Christopher, assembled some of these into The Silmarillion, published in 1977, but the question about what to do with the other reams of material was unclear. Aware that fans of Middle-earth would be eager for more material, even unfinished or existing only in rough drafts, he assembled Unfinished Tales and published it in 1980. Its success inspired him to proceed with the far more ambitious, twelve-volume History of Middle-earth project.

Unfinished Tales occupies an awkward place in the Tolkien canon. Unlike the History series, which consists of almost exclusively non-canon material (early drafts and rough notes of material that was eventually finalised and published), the material in Unfinished Tales was specifically written by Tolkien to flesh out other parts of his mythos that were not explored in the books themselves. In particular, the writings include a series of essays which were designed to answer a wide number of issues brought up by readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in correspondence. Some of these essays were written very late in Tolkien's life and represent his last - and often only - word on subjects such as the origins of Gandalf and his fellow wizards, the backstory of Galadriel and the history of Numenor during the Second Age. As a result some fans hold Unfinished Tales to be the fourth Middle-earth book, only marginally less important than The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Others choose to disregard it as anything more than a curiosity, since as Christopher Tolkien himself notes it's unlikely J.R.R. would have permitted even the completed writings in the book to be published without more polish.

Unlike The Silmarillion, which was presented as a single narrative, Unfinished Tales is a collection of stories and fragments intermingled with Christopher Tolkien's editorial notes. These are kept to a minimum in some of the stories and essays, but in others are much more prevalent (something he apologises for, but regards as necessary in the case of works where his father was working on several drafts simultaneously, risking confusion to the reader). Christopher's notes are fascinating, well-written with a clear eye for detail and minimising confusion. He assumes the reader is already familiar with the Middle-earth mythos (since they're unlikely to be reading this book otherwise) and is able to delve into various topics in depth. Whilst he clearly loves and respects his father immensely, it is also amusing to detect the vague frustrations that creep into his notes, most notably when trying to fathom why Tolkien abandoned particular narratives at key points (feelings the reader may share as the book unfolds).

The first story is 'Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin'. The story of Tuor's arrival in Gondolin and the events leading to the fall of that city in the War of the Jewels was the first story Tolkien ever wrote set in Middle-earth, and is still one of his most memorable narratives. However, the version in Unfinished Tales was written much later, in 1951 (the much more complete original can be found in The History series), featuring a more conventional prose style than the archaic original. It's stirring, epic stuff, featuring some great imagery as Tuor is confronted by the Vala Ulmo, Lord of Waters, and has a great destiny laid before him. The story proceeds with power and momentum until it abruptly halts just as Tuor reaches Gondolin itself. Even with the earlier version available and a much more compressed account of events readable in The Silmarillion, this is still a frustrating moment.

The second story is 'The Tale of the Children of Hurin', a much longer story (almost a hundred pages, taking up a quarter of the book) featuring the adventures of the doomed, tragic Turin. Unlike the story of Tuor, this tale is more or less complete, though somewhat complex due to competing drafts and different versions existing. Many years later Christopher used this material (along with some other, later unearthed manuscripts) to form the basis of The Children of Hurin, so if you already have that book be aware that you will find much of this material familiar. But still, it's a powerful story, the darkest thing Tolkien wrote set in Middle-earth, featuring lust, incest (though unwitting), war and the 'hero' bringing death and ruin to all those around him.

The next section of the book moves into the Second Age of Middle-earth, which Tolkien left somewhat vague and under-developed compared to the First Age (covered in The Silmarillion) and the Third (the setting for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). We start off with 'A Description of the Island of Numenor'. For fans of worldbuilding, Tolkien's description of the island empire and the accompanying map will be fascinating. However, it's the following story, 'Aldarion and Erendis', which is more intriguing. It depicts the marriage of the noble lady Erendis to Aldarion, later King of Numenor, and touches on larger aspects (such as Aldarion's re-opening of relations between Numenor and the elves of Middle-earth), but for the most part it's a strong character piece. For those who claim Tolkien is overly-romantic, this account of a failing relationship due to outside pressures (Aldarion's lengthy absences from home) is surprisingly realistic. The story breaks off towards the end, although this is more of a relationship study than a tense narrative, so is less grievous a loss than some of the other texts in the book.

Tolkien follows this up with an account of the Kings of Numenor and the major events of their reigns. This is again primarily of interest to worldbuilders, but Tolkien manages to put in some great details and elements that could have been mined to produce further stories, but sadly it was not to be. This is then succeeded by an account of the history of Galadriel and Celeborn, something that Lord of the Rings fans will be more interested in, but frustratingly is also the most 'unfinished' of all the works in the book. Tolkien conceived of several competing, but radically different possibilities for the couple's backstory and reached no firm conclusions before his death, leaving several versions which are mutually contradictory. Christopher Tolkien suggests appreciating these contradictions as part of the literary effect of having a fictional history and mythology, which may be the best approach. Even in their differences, these versions reveal more fascinating information on Sauron's activities in the Second Age and characters briefly mentioned in Lord of the Rings, such as Celebrimbor, Nimrodel and Amroth.

The final sections of the book deals with the Third Age and consists mainly of finished essays and narratives, though in some cases with competing drafts which the editor takes pains to clarify. This section begins with an account of the Battle of the Gladden Fields (the engagement where Isildur lost the Ring), here revealed to be a much larger conflict than the brief skirmish suggested by Lord of the Rings and depicted as such in the films (by necessity, since Peter Jackson did not have the film rights to Unfinished Tales he could not use the account of the conflict here). He follows this up with the history of the Rohirrim, the development of the relationship between the Rohirrim and people of Gondor, and the founding of Rohan itself, again depicting worldbuilding information through a story (here the friendship of Steward Cirion of Gondor and Eorl, founder of Rohan).

This is followed by sections fleshing out The Lord of the Rings. 'The Quest of Erebor' explains how Gandalf came to join forces with Thorin and the dwarves and how he convinced them to recruit Bilbo Baggins to join their quest. This was actually a chapter from The Lord of the Rings, written as part of Tolkien's attempts to better-connect The Hobbit and the later work, but was wisely exorcised for killing the pace of the novel (it was supposed to be a discussion between Gandalf and Frodo between the victory over Sauron and the Scouring of the Shire, where it would have been ill-suited). However, as a stand-alone narrative it's a valuable - and enjoyable - asset in clarifying the relationship between the two books. This is followed up by 'The Hunt for the Ring', a detailed account of how the Ringwraiths set out in search of the Ring after losing track of Gollum (who had been captured by Aragorn). Though rather brief, this short piece does feature a memorable confrontation between Saruman and the Witch-King of Angmar. Rounding off this section is 'The Battles of the Fords of Isen', revealing in detail the battles fought by Rohan against Isengard on the Isen (alluded to but unseen in The Lord of the Rings). Again, it's not essential but does help flesh out a side-element of The Lord of the Rings.

Rounding off the book are three complete essays on three separate topics. The first expands on the Druedain or Woses, the wood-men who help the Rohirrim bypass Sauron's armies to reach the Pelennor Fields. Tolkien reveals in this essay that he was considering giving the Druedain a much bigger role in the backstory of Middle-earth, and even have them playing a role in The Silmarillion, but passed away before this idea could be fully fleshed-out. The second discusses the Istari, or the order of wizards that Gandalf, Radagast and Saruman belong to. We learn the names of the other two wizards who vanished into the east (Alatar and Pallando) and some interesting backstory emerges here. The third and final essay delves into the Palantiri, the magical seeing-stones which play a major role in The Lord of the Rings. This is atypical Tolkien, since normally he preferred to leave the magical elements of his world vague and mysterious, but here he delves into the capabilities of each palantir with the kind of magic system-building enthusiasm we now see with writers such as Brandon Sanderson.

Unfinished Tales (*****) is a fascinating book, representing a collection of writings by the most influential fantasist of all time extending over thirty years. Many of the individual stories and essays are excellent, certainly all are interesting and the only complaint that can be made is that several break off with no resolution. But then the book does tell you that on the cover, so it's hard to hold that against it. Unfinished Tales is available now, in numerous editions, in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Shadowrise by Tad Williams

The Eddon family is divided and scattered. King Olin is a prisoner of the mad autarch of Xis, whilst Prince Barrick is lost beyond the Shadowline, searching for the fabled Qar capital. Far to the south, Princess Briony is a reluctant guest of the Syannese court. The Qar continue their siege of Shadowmarch, but Hendon Tolly is more interested in unearthing the ancient secrets of the castle than in resisting the invaders. That job falls to the Funderlings, who must mount a stalwart defence of the tunnels and passages below the castle.

Shadowrise is the third novel in the Shadowmarch series. Originally planned as a trilogy, the final book in the series grew too large to publish in one volume, so was split in half (though each half is almost as long as the first two books in the series by themselves). Williams has form on this, as this also happened with the paperback edition of the final volume of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

As with the first two books in the sequence, Shadowrise is well-written with some interesting characters. Williams has always had an enjoyable prose style, and that remains true here. Unfortunately, that can't quite overcome several problems. One is that the story unfolds with all the verve, vigour and energy of a particularly lazy sloth on sleeping pills. Chapters seem to endlessly pass which, whilst individually well-written, seem to consist of characters doing little but sitting around and talking about the plot, the backplot and what might happen next, often introducing little to no new information the reader needs to know.

Quite a few of Williams's characters are reactive, spending most of their time wringing their hands and agonising over what to do next. Notably it's those characters who actually make plans and enact them who carry the book, most notably Ferras Vansen and Chert the Funderling. Barrick's journey beyond the Shadowline has an unusual, weird tone to it that is rather different to the rest of the book and features some genuinely unsettling fantastical moments, but is undermined by Barrick's total lack of agency in the storyline. He has no idea about what's going on, neither does the reader, and this makes following that subplot rather tiresome. Worse still is Briony's storyline in Syan, in which it appears that Williams was setting up some rich court intrigue, realised halfway through he couldn't be bothered, and simply ejected Briony from that storyline rather abruptly. Whilst it's good to get this part of the story out of the way, it does render Briony's entire storyline in the last two books somewhat pointless. Also pointless is Qinnitan's subplot, which feels like makework as Williams tries to find something for her to do rather than simply getting her from Point A to Point B.

As the book continues, it starts to pick up some energy towards the end as important plot revelations take place and we actually get some energetic action sequences, rousing the narrative from its lengthy torpor. Naturally these are just in time for the inevitable cliffhanger ending into the final novel in the sequence, Shadowheart.

Shadowrise (***) is readable enough, but so long-winded that it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to carry on at times. Williams has just enough good ideas and interesting characters to make it worthwhile, but unfortunately this novel does little to dispel the impression that Shadowmarch is his weakest major work to date. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Roy Dotrice records new edition of FEAST FOR CROWS audiobook

Roy Dotrice has recorded a new audiobook version of A Feast for Crows, the fourth novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Dotrice recorded the first three books in the series many years ago, and the fifth more recently, but was unavailable when the fourth novel was released in 2005. Another actor, John Lee, recorded the audio version of Crows, but fans have long expressed a wish for a Dotrice version of the book to make a matching set.

Random House Audio have listened to their concerns. The new edition of the audiobook will be available as a digital download from Audible (US, USA) this week, on Thursday, whilst a CD edition will follow in March 2012.

NEW YORK, NY (December 12, 2011)—Random House Audio announces today that it will release a new recording of George R.R. Martin’s A FEAST FOR CROWS, the fourth book in Martin’s bestselling series, A Song of Ice and Fire, narrated by fan favorite, Roy Dotrice.

Dotrice earned a passionate following from listeners and a Guinness World Record for his work on the series, creating 224 voices for the first book in the series, A GAME OF THRONES.

The new recording will be available December 15th, published by Random House Audio, and HarperAudio UK, and clocks in at 33 hours, 48 minutes long.

A U.S. & Canada CD edition will be published by Random House Audio in March 2012 to coincide with the second season premiere of the HBO series, “Game of Thrones,” which will feature Dotrice onscreen as Hallyne the pyromancer, chief of the Guild of Alchemists.

“Fans from all over the world requested a Roy Dotrice recording of A FEAST FOR CROWS,” says Amanda D’Acierno, Vice President and Publisher, Random House Audio. “We are so pleased to be working with HarperAudio in the UK to publish this edition for our listeners.”

The A Song of Ice and Fire series has more than 12 million of the five books in print, including more than 313,000 audio CDs and digital downloads. The series has developed a huge cult following, peaking this year with the release of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS and the premiere of the HBO TV adaptation.

GAME OF THRONES Season 2 trailer

A slightly longer trailer for Season 2 of Game of Thrones, narrated by Stephen Dillane as Stannis Baratheon:

“My brother left no true born heirs. By right and birth and blood, I do this day lay claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros. Let all true men declare their loyalty. The Iron Throne is mine by right. They will bend the knee, or I will destroy them. The cold winds are rising.”

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Wertzone Classics: Anachronox

Centuries in the future, the human race has begun exploring the Galaxy, using FTL technology developed by a long-dead alien race. These aliens used 'Senders', huge FTL-boosting machines, to transport spacecraft from system to system. At the heart of the Sender network is Sender One, a vast sphere in the middle of which floats the spherical city of Anachronox. The city is built in districts and levels that shift around randomly, reconfiguring like a spherical Rubik's Cube. Sylvester 'Sly' Boots is a private investigator who is down and out on his luck until a new case leads him on a planet-hopping quest which will have ramifications for the fate of the entire universe...

Originally released in 2001, Anachronox was the third and final of the flagship launch titles produced by Ion Storm, following on from the appalling Daikatana and the sublime Deus Ex. A computer RPG, the game used the Quake II engine (then already dated due to the release of Quake III) and was critically lauded upon release. Commercially, it was a failure due to poor marketing, but the game became a cult hit and attracted a small but devoted fanbase who remain active to this day.

It's hard to sum up Anachronox easily. It's a game with plenty of humour, but it's not a comedy. It's set in an SF milieu, but also features superpowers and magic. It was developed by an American studio but features a Japanese-style turn-based battle system (both Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series are cited by the developers as major influences) and several minigames. This mixing and blending of genres makes it a unique game, not quite like anything else out there, but also contributed to its poor marketing and lack of strong sales.

Most of Anachronox is played as more of an adventure game than anything else. You initially control Sly Boots and his AI assistant, Fatima. The game demonstrates its inventiveness and humour almost immediately: Fatima is an associate of Boots who has died, but her consciousness has been preserved as an AI system and placed inside a robot which floats around the environment and is a shaped like a large, metal arrow. Yes, in Anachronox your mouse pointer is a character. This is an awesome idea, and leads to some humourous moments as characters in the city of Anachronox start getting annoyed if you hover your mouse pointer over them, since this results in Fatima's robot body buzzing around them.

"Er, hi there. Boffo ship you have here."
This is actual dialogue in the game rather than me taking the mickey for once.

In traditional RPG style, you soon accumulate a large number of companions, two of whom can accompany Sly at any one time. You can switch between these companion characters at will to take advantage of their special powers in combat, or their knowledge in conversations with NPCs. At several moments in the storyline, the game splits the team up and proceeds down several parallel paths simultaneously, with the game moving back and forth between the different characters and sub-teams to tell the story in full. In terms of format, this style of playing will be familiar from the two Knights of the Old Republic RPGs from BioWare and Obsidian, but Anachronox predates them by several years.

One of the highlights of the game's design is that the characters' special powers and abilities in combat are based on their characterisation. For example, Grumpos, the grumpy old man character who reacts to any dialogue options with sarcasm or caustic remarks about how great things used to be, has a special attack that allows him to waffle on at extreme length about various tedious subjects to bore an enemy into a stupor. Combat is played out on a grid which allows characters to position themselves, attack or carry out healing or buffing in a manner familiar from Japanese RPGs. Combat is not a strong focus of the game, however, and a surprisingly small amount of game-time is spent fighting. Battles are also usually avoidable, with lurking enemies visible in the distance, allowing players to choose alternate routes. Combat is enjoyable, especially as its relative infrequency means it never becomes repetitive or tiresome.

Something that Anachronox manages very well is tonal variation. The game has a lot of humour in it, but it also has some extremely dramatic scenes and elements of political satire and commentary as well. It moves between scenes of comedy, drama, tragedy, pathos and satire, and handles these transitions well thanks to some great writing, a fine ear for dialogue and the game's constant streak of inventiveness.

The planet Democratus and its entire population joins the party, meaning that technically Anachronox is the only RPG in gaming history with 2 billion party-members.

It's impossible to talk about Anachronox without mentioning it's most barmy story element. In one lengthy sub-quest, Sly and his team arrive on the planet Democratus, where the ideal of democracy and collective leadership is worshipped but in practice is rather unsatisfying, reduced to a tiny, self-sustaining elite being voted for by a mostly-sheep-like populace who vote on pointless subjects for the most spurious of reasons. The satire here is obvious, but also rather amusing. At the end of the quest, after Sly and his friends have saved the planet from being devoured by a swarm of space-insects, the rulers of Democratus decide to hold a planetary referendum to vote for a suitable reward. Sly and company flee rather than endure the planet's long-winded voting process. Later on in the game, whilst in a bar, the crew are rather bemused when the door opens and the entire planet floats into the room. The populace of Democratus voted to miniaturise the entire planet and join Sly's team. From this point on, the planet Democratus is a member of the player's party and can participate in battles (using a fearsome planetary defense network and its own gravitational field as weapons) as well as conversations. Sly can also seriously confuse and distract NPCs by just talking to them with a 7-foot-wide planet floating over his shoulder.

Later on, after a confrontation with the supervillain Rictus (catchphrase: "I SHALL KILL YOU...WITH DEATH!!!"), our heroes are about to die inside Rictus' exploding ship so Democratus reinflates itself to its full size, scattering the party about the planet's surface (and tearing the ship apart and dumping its exploding engine core in a remote area). The party has to reconvene through a series of sub-quests, including a Quantum Leap-inspired quest set in a mountain village and another one where a down-on-his-luck alcoholic superhero regains his mojo by saving a young girl from death. This latter quest has no dialogue and plays out through music and the characters exchanging facial expressions. It is brilliant.

Criticisms of Anachronox are mainly related to its age. It's an older game now, so players may find it fiddly to get it working on modern systems (this post may be helpful). The graphics have dated somewhat, though this means even people with bottom-of-the-line laptops should be able to play it with no problems. From a game design issue, the opening couple of hours on Anachronox features a lot of fetch-quests and running back and forth through a re-arranging landscape which can be occasionally frustrating. More seriously, the game ends on a titanic, never-resolved cliffhanger (Anachronox wasn't the first game in a planned series, but actually the first half of a storyline that was broken in half due to length). Surprisingly, the game's creators have not ruled out pursuing a sequel, so have never explained how the cliffhangers was going to be resolved (but have promised to do so if they can't get the sequel made by 2021 at the latest).

But that should be no reason not to check out this barmy, inventive, hilarious, nicely-written and finely-characterised game. Anachronox (*****) is still available from Amazon (UK, USA) but surprisingly hasn't yet appeared on digital download sites.

Cover blurb for China Mieville's RAILSEA

As previously hinted, Railsea will indeed be China Mieville's second YA fantasy novel. The American cover art was revealed a few weeks ago, but now we have a cover blurb as well:
From China Miéville, New York Times bestselling author of Un Lun Dun, a thrilling new young adult novel that reimagines Moby-Dick in an unforgettable and fascinatingly imagined setting.

Sham Yes ap Soorap, young doctor’s assistant, is in search of life’s purpose aboard a diesel locomotive on the hunt for the great elusive moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack. But on an old train wreck at the outskirts of the world, Sham discovers an astonishing secret that changes everything: evidence of an impossible journey. A journey left unfinished…which Sham takes it on himself to complete. It’s a decision that might cost him his life.
The novel is currently scheduled for release by Del Rey in the USA and Pan Macmillan in the UK on 15 May 2012.


After the poor reception for Command and Conquer 4 and the subsequent shutting-down of the development studios, real-time strategy fans could have been forgiven for thinking that it was game over for one of the PC's most iconic gaming franchises. Surprisingly, the C&C brand has been resurrected by EA in partnership with their most respected studio, BioWare, and a new, PC-only game has been announced. Whether the fact that a certain other, well-known PC RTS series has sold three million copies of its latest title in its first month on sale had any bearing on this decision is unknown.

With C&C4 ending the core GDI/Brotherhood of Nod storyline and with the Red Alert subseries having reached a level of lunacy that would be hard to continue, it's the Generals subseries that has been revived. The original Command and Conquer: Generals was released in early 2003, followed several months later by an expansion, Zero Hour. Whilst initially regarded less fondly than either the original franchise or the Red Alert spin-offs, Generals has subsequently gained a strong fanbase due to its highly moddable engine and engaging gameplay modes (mostly introduced in Zero Hour). The storyline depicts a near-future cold war between the USA and China with Middle-Eastern terrorists trying to ferment trouble between them. Eventually the USA and China heart-warmingly join forces to wipe out the terrorists.

The original game was controversial and was accused of cashing in on the iconography of the War on Terror, with the inclusion of suicide bomber units being particularly criticised (although they'd been present in earlier C&C games without much fuss being made). However, the game also had a satirical edge to it, particularly with regards to media coverage of modern wars. Between-mission cut scenes were news reports on the conflict, sometimes amusingly 'spun' to have little relation to the actual in-game events. It was a reasonably good game, especially in multiplayer, although technically it was disappointing, with the SAGE game engine being creaky and over-demanding in power compared to the quality of the graphics delivered.

The latest game is being made by a new studio which will operate under the BioWare brand, with technical advice and expertise from the 'main' BioWare studio available. The title will use the Frostbite 2 engine, most recently used in Battlefield 3. Unfortunately, being an EA release, it will also almost certainly use the Origins DRM and registration system, which requires a constant internet connection. This system has also been controversial as EA has recently banned a number of people from the Origin network for making forum posts critical of EA, meaning they cannot play the games they have legally purchased.

Generals 2 will be released in 2013, hopefully by which time EA will have revised or dropped their DRM system.

A eulogy for STALKER

RockPaperShotgun has posted a memorial to the STALKER series of games, citing their importance to the FPS genre, their successful depiction of atmosphere and place, and their impressive post-apocalyptic feel (noting how much more oppressive and darker the series' vision is than the recent Fallout games). It's an interesting read, as are the comments for those wondering if they should try out the games.

My own experience with STALKER begins and ends - so far - with Shadows of Chernobyl, the first game in the series. Released in 2007 after a lengthy development period, the game was noted for being heavily broken on release, with numerous patches and fan-mods required to bring the game to an acceptable level of stability. Once you got over that hurdle, the game was remarkable. Set in the Zone of Alienation surrounding the Chernobyl ruins, the game depicted a world populated by people and factions vying for their own interests, as well as thousands of animals and mutants who would go about their daily business completely ignoring the player unless you became a threat or got too close. The game had a storyline - actually a rather interesting one, derived from Soviet and post-Soviet Russian science fiction novels and movies - but its characters were lacking and the English translation perfunctory at best.

What the game successfully achieved was a fusion between RPG-style open-world freedom and FPS gunplay. Combat was dangerous but also satisfying, fast and furious, with a solid selection of weapons on display and an impressive amount of freedom to approach combat in any way you might wish. This was as far as you can get from the 'shooter-on-rails' format the FPS genre has since degenerated into. The game's sense of place was impressive given it was based on a real location that has suffered a real cataclysm, giving a creepy, but compelling, atmosphere to the game. This even bleeds over into different games using the same setting: it's no coincidence that the hands-down best mission of Call of Duty 4 (a game that is otherwise the total antithesis of the STALKER series' ethos) was the one set in Pripyat featuring a desperate battle around the famous fairground wheel. But Shadows of Chernobyl goes further in creating a genuine sense of unsettling 'weirdness' that is quite remarkable.

Sadly, I never got further than about halfway through the game, with one crash too many exhausting my patience. I've always planned to go back and try it again with some of the more recent mods, or perhaps to simply go for Call of Pripyat, its direct sequel (the second game, Clear Sky, was a mostly-unrelated prequel and also the buggiest and weakest game of the series by all accounts). With my 'to-play' list starting to rival my 'to-read' list in size, this won't be any time soon. But certainly there's something fascinating about these games, and the closure of the studio making them is a real shame. Hopefully another developer will save STALKER 2 from oblivion and help bring it to release.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden has a lot on his plate: he's been challenged to a duel to the death to determine the outcome of the war between wizards and vampires; he's been hired to find the missing Shroud of Turin; his old girlfriend Susan is back in town for unknown purposes; and, just to round things off, thirty arch-demons are on the prowl in Chicago. And that's not even mentioning a pair of European art thieves hitting town and all three Knights of the Cross turning up to confront a mutual foe.

Death Masks, the fifth book in The Dresden Files, is the busiest book in the series to date. It sports at least four distinct plot threads (along with several related subplots) which interconnect with one another in a number of unexpected ways as the novel progresses. Each one of these plots would be enough to drive a novel by itself and Butcher seems to delight in upping the ante and complexity of the series to new heights. Combined with the ongoing, series-spanning storylines, this makes Death Masks the most epic book in the series to date.

That said, Butcher takes care to ensure the story is fully comprehensible at all times, and drives the narrative forward with his customary energy and vigour. He also finds time for some accomplished characterisation, with recurring crimelord Jonny Marcone being developed particularly well. It's also good to see some other characters like Susan and Michael returning, along with the introduction of some intriguing new characters like the Archive (a mystical repository of knowledge taking the form of a little girl) and Nicodemus (a potential new nemesis for Harry). The first appearance of the Order of Saint Giles and the Denarian sect of demons also expands the scope of Harry's world impressively.

Death Masks (****) is another very strong entry in the series. New readers will be lost (I recommend they start with the first book, Storm Front) but returning fans will find yet another page-turning and entertaining urban fantasy novel. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

STALKER developers close down

GSC Game World, the developers of the STALKER series of computer games, have been shut down by the owner of the company, according to early reports.

The STALKER series, comprising Shadows of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, Call of Pripyat and the in-development STALKER 2, has been a big hit on PC since the release of the first game in 2007. The series has sold over 4 million copies worldwide and been held up as an example of the continued potential success of PC-only games in the console-dominated marketplace. The series is set in the near future when a second explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor has resulted in a series of reality-warping anomalies opening in the surrounding area. Various factions are contesting control of these anomalies, which they hope to exploit for personal gain.

No firm reason has been given for the shutting down of the company, although the failure of GSC to win interest for a console version of the series has been cited as a possible reason. Possible political issues in the Ukraine, where GSC is based, have also been suggested.

GSC being shut down and STALKER 2 being indefinitely delayed (and likely cancelled, unless someone else steps in) is sad news. Whilst undeniably buggy as hell (though the third game is much more stable), the STALKER series is notable for its hardcore approach to survival and tremendously powerful, bleak atmosphere. Hopefully someone will step in and rescue the development team and the game series from fading away completely.

Monday, 5 December 2011


RockPaperShotgun has some more info on the Game of Thrones RPG due from Cyanide in Spring 2012.

The most notable bit of news is the hithero-unknown (to me, anyway) piece of information that the game uses Unreal Engine 3, which means it should look pretty awesome. The new screenshots accompanying the article confirm this:

"Cult-looking types up to no good in the forest. They're probably either going to attack me or give me some kind of tedious fetch quest."

"Seriously, I can't see a fricking thing with this hood up. What the hell am I thinking? Can't take it off now, I'd look weak and indecisive. Hang on, what's that I've just stepped in?"

At the link are some more shots, including one that shows combat in-progress. The game is due for release on PC, X-Box 360 and PS3 in the Spring. Whilst developed by Cyanide, it's a different studio operating on a different continent to the poor RTS released earlier this year, and hopefully should be a better game.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

Three centuries have passed since a young woman named Vin and a band of assorted thieves used the powers of the Mistborn to save the world of Scadrial, dispersing the ash-clouds forever. Vin and her cohorts have become figures of myth or religious awe, but time has moved on. Great skyscrapers are racing for the sky whilst steam and electrical power are becoming more commonplace.

Out in the Roughs, Waxillium Ladrian has spent twenty years trying to bring peace and order to a rough, frontier land. Called home to the city of Elendel by the death of his uncle and forced to inherit his family's estate and business, Waxillium finds trading his six-shooters for cost ledgers to be harder than he'd expected. A spate of kidnappings and disappearance soon tempt him back to a life of law-enforcement, but Wax needs to face his own guilt before he can face down an old enemy.

The Alloy of Law is a (mostly) stand-alone novel set in the same world as Brandon Sanderson's earlier Mistborn Trilogy. Sanderson has previously announced that he plans three trilogies set in this world, one set in a medieval era, one in a contemporary setting and one in a futuristic milieu. The Alloy of Law is a side-story unrelated to these planned future works, though Sanderson layers some hints for the second trilogy into the narrative and also sets up a sequel (or potentially several sequels) for this book in its closing pages.

Written as a side-project to help the author stay fresh whilst bringing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence to its long-awaited conclusion and coming in at barely a third the length of his last novel, The Way of Kings, it'd be easy to dismiss The Alloy of Law as a bit of fluffy filler to tide his publishers over for a year. This would be a mistake as The Alloy of Law is one of Sanderson's best novels to date.

Sanderson has always been a solid, entertaining author but his most laudable aspect has been the way he's grown and learned with each novel. Arguably his biggest problem has been the length of his books: the Mistborn volumes and certainly The Way of Kings, whilst good books, felt overlong for the amount of plot in them. With The Alloy of Law written as a short side-project, Sanderson has forced himself to write much more concisely, tightly and efficiently than normal, resulting in his most focused, page-turning novel to date. Sanderson has also learned a lot about how to deploy humour in a book (probably learning from his issues - eventually resolved - with handling Mat in the Wheel of Time books), with this book also being his funniest.

Although Sanderson's lightest and most humourous book to date, The Alloy of Law has its share of darker moments, opening with Wax accidentally killing an innocent person and being haunted by it through the book. It also touches upon more epic elements, with several potential references to upcoming storylines in the second Mistborn trilogy. The book also continues Sanderson's tradition of featuring minor links to his other fantasy novels with the appendix apparently being written by the world-hopping Hoid (and featuring a reference to the events of Elantris). The updated setting is another plus point, with the mixture of magic, steam trains, guns and electricity being unusual for a fantasy and blurring the lines between epic fantasy, steampunk and urban fantasy to create something that is more interesting than the norm. Action sequences - something Sanderson has handled quite well throughout his career - are also very strong, with some of his more colourful and memorable battles and duels being depicted here.

Sanderson delineates his main three characters - Waxillium, Wayne and Marasi - well, though the POV structure is a little distracting. The entire first half of the novel is from Wax's POV but suddenly switches over in the latter half to include Wayne, Marasi and the main villain. It feels that Sanderson could have found a more consistent structure to use than this. He also nicely inverts some cliches, such as when Wax finds himself betrothed to a woman who initially appears to be a severe harridan but becomes more well-rounded a character as the book proceeds.

On the negative side, some of the secondary characters aren't as well-defined as the three heroes. In addition, there are moments when it sounds like the lawless frontier would have been a more interesting setting than yet another fantasy city (albeit one that more resembles turn-of-the-century New York than a typical fantasy conurbation), though the culture clash between the two settings is something Sanderson handles well.

The Alloy of Law (****½) is a tight, well-written fantasy novel that uses traditional tropes and ideas but combines them with an unusual (for epic fantasy) setting to produce something fresh and engaging. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.