Saturday, 31 March 2012

Former Black Isle personnel reunite for WASTELAND 2

Brian Fargo and his company, inXile, have been crowd-funding a new, old-school RPG called Wasteland 2 for the past couple of weeks. Rather than going through a publisher, they've been raising funds themselves via the 'Kickstarter' programme. Their original goal was $900,000, but they have recently passed $1,800,000. This has prompted Fargo to make another offer: if funding passes $2,100,000, they will be able to hire Obsidian Entertainment Studios to work on the game with them.

A little bit of back-history to explain why this is significant. Fargo is the founder of Interplay, one of the most well-known publishers in gaming history (Interplay survives today, but only really to re-print copies of their old games as various budget and compilation formats; Fargo left them in the early 2000s). Interplay as a whole worked on everything from Battle Chess to the mighty Freespace series of space combat games, but it's their RPGs which are mostly fondly remembered. In particular, Fargo created the original Wasteland (published in 1988) and funded the Bard's Tale series of RPGs. In the late 1990s Interplay reorganised their RPG division into Black Isle Studios, employing such notable designers as Tim Cain and Chris Avellone. Cain created the Fallout franchise and worked on the first two games in the series, before departing mid-way through Fallout 2 (Avellone took over). Black Isle also partnered a new Canadian company called BioWare in the creation of the Baldur's Gate franchise. Black Isle then created Planescape: Torment (widely hailed as the greatest Western CRPG of all time, with the first two Fallout games generally held as its strongest rivals) and the Icewind Dale series of games.

Cain, meanwhile, departed to form Troika Studios, which produced the critically-acclaimed Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and the Vampire: The Masquerade RPG, Bloodlines, which has become a cult success despite its flawed release. Troika subsequently closed and Black Isle also shut down in the early 2000s (at the same time Fargo departed the sinking Interplay). Black Isle reformed as Obsidian Entertainment (more or less the same team) and produced Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights II (and its well-received expansions), Fallout: New Vegas, Dungeon Siege III and Alpha Protocol (oddly released in an unfinished state at the insistence of the publisher Sega, who refused to fund any bug-fixing or developer QA on the game). Tim Cain then joined Obsidian just a few months ago to work on new projects.

Fargo's hiring of Obsidian means that effectively the same 'supergroup' of RPG developers who created the Fallout franchise and helped work on the Baldur's Gate games is now back working together on Wasteland 2. Fargo's own team will work on programming whilst Obsidian will supply writers and designers (including definitely Avellone and potentially Cain).

This move will help Obsidian smooth over their own problems. An unannounced game for Microsoft's next-generation X-Box was recently canned, leading to several personnel losing their jobs, leaving the South Park RPG as their only announced project in active development (the Wheel of Time RPG was announced more than two years ago, but there has been zero word on it since, leading some to assume it's on hiatus). Wasteland 2 will hopefully keep them ticking over until other new projects come online.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and the Damned

Johnny Klebitz is the vice-president of the Lost, a Liberty City motorbike gang. He's in charge because the club president, Billy Grey, has been in jail on drug charges. Unfortunately, when Billy is released he is quick to assert his leadership, reigniting a gang war with the rival Angels of Death and breaking a truce which Johnny had worked hard to create. As Billy gets out of control, Johnny reluctantly follows his orders and undertakes a life of crime and chaos in the city...until the opportunity to take part in a diamond heist results in a sequence of events that will rock the whole city to its core.

The Lost and the Damned is a self-contained expansion pack to Grand Theft Auto IV. It builds on the setting and events of GTA4, though it's a game in its own right which does not require the original to run. However, the storyline of The Lost and the Damned entwines around that of GTA4, and foreknowledge of GTA4 definitely improves the playing experience.

At first glance, The Lost and the Damned is GTA as normal. You control a morally dubious central character and are given free reign of a huge city in which various tasks can be performed. Most of these tasks revolve around a developing storyline, with missions building on one another to form one long narrative. However, there is nothing to stop you from just cruising around the massive city listening to the radio if you wish. There are also bonus and side-objectives that can be accomplished. In The Lost and the Damned these optional missions enhance the storyline. The Lost are at war with the Angels of Death through most of the game, and at almost any point you can attend a flashpoint where your fellow gang members and a bunch of Angels will face off in combat. This can lead to running gun battles on foot, bike duels or car chases. The other major optional task is taking part in bike races. To ensure the Lost's reputation as daredevil motorbike riders is kept intact, Johnny has to race other bikers and uphold the Lost's street cred. Because these tasks are thematically in keeping with the main game plot, it gives The Lost and the Damned a more cohesive feel than other GTA games, where the optional missions and tasks are sometimes just random bits of mayhem with no connection to the rest of the game.

The game's central storyline is, as is normally the case with Rockstar, well-written and darkly humourous, although not immune to gangster/crime cliches. As normal, Rockstar cheerfully have no hang-ups about swearing, violence or drug-use and, for the first time in the series, resort to shots of full frontal nudity during one cut scene. However, possibly out of a sense of flipping the bird at their critics, this is of a male character and only comes at the end of a lengthy sequence in which the character's nudity has cheesily been hidden by scenery. Whilst not exactly the height of sophisticated comedy (a few other meta-fictional nods in the game at gang cliches or gaming conventions are more amusing), it's a wry nod at the frequent and vocal critics of the series.

The game encourages a degree of roleplaying: Johnny is a biker and is vocally unhappy behind the wheels of a car. This encourages the player to use his bike wherever possible. This is helped by the fact that The Lost and the Damned improves motorcycle handling and physics a lot over the over-sensitive bikes of GTA4 itself. Johnny can stay on his bike through collisions that would have sent Niko flying fifty feet through the air. There are also new mechanics for driving in formation with your gang, calling gangmembers for backup in the middle of firefights (this can be done even in the middle of story missions) and 'levelling up' your gangmates by helping them survive missions. Unfortunately, this latter mechanic is broken by the game's variable AI, which often has your gang-members charging head first into hails of gunfire from prepared enemy positions rather than seeking cover. Still, it's a nice idea and helps differentiate the game in tone and feel from GTA4.

The game takes place mostly on the other side of Liberty from where you started GTA4, and for the most part does a good job of exploring under-used parts of the city from that game. The game also has the entire city open to explore from the start (resulting in a minor continuity error, as early missions take place simultaneously with the opening of GTA4, when the bridges were still closed due to a terrorist threat). There's a general feeling of the game taking the training wheels off and letting you get on with what you want to get on with, moreso than GTA4 itself. You can still play darts or go bowling (or indulge in new activities, such as arm-wrestling your biker buddies), but mercifully no-one rings you up incessantly demanding that you hang out with them. One disappointment is that the racing and gang war sub-games don't play any major impact on the narrative. Given that these optional elements are an opportunity for you to prove your worthiness as a gang leader, it's a shame these elements are not reflected in the storyline (where one plot twist revolves around your trustworthiness and ability to lead coming into question).

Another problem is that The Lost and the Damned is a stand-alone title, but it's plot is somewhat obtuse if you have not played GTA4 ahead of time. There's a whole raft of storyline elements in the game that go nowhere and have no resolution (as they merely highlight events in GTA4 rather than in this game). As a traditional expansion pack (that would require the original game to play) servicing the original game this would make sense, but as a stand-alone story, The Lost and the Damned feels partially incomplete. Its own core narrative - Johnny's relationship with the Lost - does have a definitive arc and conclusion, however, and the game deserves plaudits for going with a remarkably bleak and bitter ending, almost as dark as GTA4's.

The Lost and the Damned (****) is a game that is a lot of fun. It's shorter and more concise than GTA4 itself and benefits from its greater focus and side-objectives that make much more sense within the context of the game. The missions are varied and the traditional black humour stops the game from becoming too po-faced. However, its storyline relies too heavily on GTA4's and it maintains the original game's issue of downplaying the wackiness of earlier GTA games in favour of sometimes dry (though well-acted) character drama. The game is available now in a collected package with GTA4 and The Ballard of Gay Tony on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

GAME OF THRONES companion book announced

HBO have announced that a companion book for the Game of Thrones TV series will be released in the autumn.

Inside HBO's Game of Thrones is a volume that mixes fictional background details with behind-the-scenes information, maps, family trees and interviews with castmembers. The book is 192 pages long and will feature over 300 colour photographs and illustrations, along with eight gatefold images. The book is written by Bryan Cogman, the show's 'keeper of the mythos' and writer of two episodes of the TV series. George R.R. Martin supplies a preface and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss an introduction. The book will be published on 19 September this year by Chronicle Books in the USA. It will be available in the UK via the British HBO merchandise site.

The book should not be confused with The World of Ice and Fire, an in-universe companion volume to the book series, which will likely be published in 2013.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

MASS EFFECT 3 and the Great Ending Controversy

For the last few weeks the Internet has been ravaged by a controversy remarkable in its virulence and intensity. On 5 March (9 March in the UK), Electronic Arts and BioWare published the computer game Mass Effect 3, the concluding part of a role-playing trilogy that had been unfolding since 2007. These games have won plaudits for their strong (if generic) space opera setting, well-realised and three-dimensional characters and the way that you, the player, can shape the narrative through making numerous decisions and choices that radically change the story and setting. For approximately 99% of its length, Mass Effect 3 continued this process. Indeed, with numerous major, game-changing moments in which your previous choices in the first two titles came to fruition, it was shaping up to be the best game in the series, and one of the best titles of this generation.

Warning: spoilers for Mass Effect 1, 2 & 3 and Knights of the Old Republic.

At the last possible minute, the game took a nosedive in quality unmatched since the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, and replacing that controversial episode in the "WTF just happened?" canon of bad endings. The reaction of the fanbase can be best described as one of total bewilderment and, in some quarters, outright rage. The problem is not that the ending is bleak (no matter which choices you make at the end of the game, quiet a lot of people ending up dying), it's that it makes little to no sense with regard to plot logic and is massively inconsistent with the themes and storylines developed up until that point.

Backing up a little, this is obviously a blog mostly focused on books and many readers won't have a clue what's going on with this controversy. So first, some scene-setting. Obviously, MAJOR SPOILERS follow for the Mass Effect trilogy. I would advise against reading on if you plan to play these games at any point in the future.

The Citadel: 44km long, home to 15 million people and absolutely no public toilets visible anywhere.

Synopsis of the Mass Effect Trilogy
The Mass Effect games are set roughly 175 years into the future. Mankind has discovered a device at the edge of the Solar system (disguised as Pluto's moon, Charon*) that permits instantaneous travel to distant star clusters. Through this mass relay, it has made contact with a number of alien races who have joined together to form the Council, an interspecies UN which mediates conflicts and regulates interstellar trade and diplomacy**. The Council is based at the Citadel, a massive cylindrical space station*** of ancient, alien origin. As the trilogy opens Earth is campaigning hard for a senior seat on the Council, which is controversial due to the short period of time that Earth has been a player in galactic affairs. The player's character, Commander Shepard (who can be male or female, and of whatever ethnicity, sexuality or appearance the player chooses), is in line to become the first human Spectre, an agent with wide-ranging powers to deal with threats to the Council races in whatever manner he or she chooses.

In the original Mass Effect, Shepard is pitted against Saren, a turian Spectre who has gone rogue and allied himself with the geth, a race of robots (or synthetics, in the game's parlance). 300 years ago, the geth drove their creators, the quarians, into exile on a fleet of spacecraft**** and took over their mutual homeworld, Rannoch. Initially it appears that Saren and the geth are simply out for power and territory but Shepard, aided by allies from several races, uncovers evidence that Saren is being controlled by the ancient, alien spacecraft he is using as his flagship. The spacecraft, Sovereign, contacts Shepard at a critical juncture in the storyline and tells him (or her) that it is a sentient intelligence, a member of a race of entities known as the Reapers. Every 50,000 years the Reapers sweep through the Milky War, annihilating sophisticated, space-faring civilisations, throwing everything into chaos***** and leaving other races untouched. Sovereign refuses to divulge its motivations, stating that it is beyond the lesser races' comprehension. Eventually, Shepard discovers that the Citadel itself acts as an intergalactic mass relay, allowing the Reapers (who have spent almost 50,000 years in hibernation in 'darkspace', or intergalactic space) to invade and throw all the lesser races into total confusion. In a massive, climactic battle, Shepard kills Saren and destroys Sovereign at the Citadel, defeating the threat of an imminent Reaper invasion. During the game it is also revealed that the Reapers like to use a process called 'Indoctrination' to bring allies and minions under their full control. They see strange things that aren't there, have odd dreams, hear whispers and voices and ultimately start behaving very out-of-character to other people, but logically to themselves. This process takes months, possibly years, to fully complete.

 Is he evil because he smokes or does he smoke because he's evil?

In Mass Effect 2, we discover that Shepard's warnings about the Reapers (who are now active and proceeding back to the Milky Way using 'standard' FTL drives, which are much slower) have fallen on deaf ears. An alien race known as the Collectors (servants of the Reapers) have begun raiding worlds in the Terminus Systems and in one battle, Shepard's ship, the Normandy, is destroyed and Shepard presumed killed. In reality he is rescued by Cerberus, an outlawed but formidably rich organisation which puts humans and the affairs of Earth ahead of the other races. Cerberus's boss, President Bartlet (er, the Illusive Man, voiced by Martin Sheen), reveals to Shepard that the Reapers are the greatest threat humanity has ever seen, and Shepard needs to be able to oppose them with unlimited resources, something he can't get through official channels. Shepard is given a new ship (also dubbed the Normandy) and collects together a band of a dozen experts in different areas of combat, research and investigation. They take the fight to the Collectors and their home base in the Galactic Core, eventually eliminating the threat (the player can choose to capture the Collector base or destroy it, which has ramifications going into Mass Effect 3). However, Cerberus's brutal and amoral nature is exposed in the process and Shepard and his crew quit in disgust. In a final twist (revealed in an extra downloadable mission, Arrival) it is revealed that the Reapers are approaching a mass relay on the Galactic Rim, which they can use to invade in force. Shepard destroys the relay with an asteroid, but the resulting blast destroys a batarian colony inhabited by over 300,000 colonists. Despite this, the Reaper invasion is delayed by several months. During these engagements Shepard also learns that the geth are actually a non-hostile species whom were under Reaper control during the events of the first game and drove the quarians off their homeworld only after the quarians tried to slaughter their creations in a genocidal fury.

Reapers can be unruly tourists.

At the start of Mass Effect 3, Shepard is being held on Earth for trial over his alleged war crimes and the wiping out of the batarian colony. The trial is cut short when the Reapers finally arrive in overwhelming force, destroying Earth's defences in a matter of minutes and occupying the planet. Shepard is rescued by the Normandy and his former commanding officer, Admiral Anderson, remains behind to organise a resistance. Shepard has to rally the races of the Galaxy to defeat the Reapers through sheer force of numbers, but the Reaper invasion is multi-pronged, targeting not just Earth but the homeworlds of several of the other major races: Palaven, the turian homeworld, is particularly badly hit. Shepard provides aid to Palaven by travelling to Tuchanka, the home planet of the fiercesome krogans, and curing them of a genetically-engineered disease designed to reduce their numbers. The krogan then enter the war, giving the turians enough of a breathing space to commit their fleet to an assault on Earth. Shepard also has to stop a war between the quarians and the geth. As revealed in the previous game, the geth are not actually a hostile species but had acted in self-defense. The quarians, who only want their homeworld back, are initially unsympathetic. When a Reaper attacks Rannoch, Shepard convinces both sides to join forces to destroy it. Afterwards, the two forces can agree to help Shepard and make peace (alternately, Shepard can side with one race against the other and wipe it out). Unfortunately, the last major race, the asari, lose their homeworld, Thessia, to a brutal and overwhelming Reaper attack that leaves the planet burning in space.

Throughout the last game, the humans and other races are building a device called the Crucible, which they believe is a Death Star-style superweapon that can wipe the Reapers out altogether. Unfortunately, the ancient designs for the weapon (which originated with a race called the Protheans, wiped out by the Reapers in the last 'cycle' 50,000 years ago) require the addition of a component called 'the Catalyst', which is of unknown origin and location. Shepard has to destroy the Cerberus organisation to uncover the location of the Catalyst: it's on, or part of, the Citadel, and the Illusive Man has already fled there. The Reapers, aware of this, capture the Citadel and move it into Earth orbit, deploying the bulk of their fleet to defend it.

Throughout the third game Shepard is under immense stress and starts to suffer bouts of depression and doubt. He has a recurring dream in which he sees a young boy (whom he saw killed on Earth at the start of the game) and tries to help him, only to see him consumed by flames. During this recurring dream Shepard hears voices of dead allies and other deceased characters speaking to him.

ALERT: Incoming deus ex machina.

The Controversial Ending
In the grand finale of the game and the trilogy, Shepard's allies muster an enormous fleet consisting of thousands of ships from around a dozen races and launch an overwhelming assault on Earth. Shepard, linking up with Anderson's rebels, leads a ground attack on the Reaper base in London, where a transportation beam has been established linking the Citadel to the ground. In a final assault on the beam location Shepard is extremely badly wounded, but is able to teleport to the Citadel, which the Reapers have turned into a charnel house of corpses.

The Reapers wiping out the citizens of the Citadel is a dark and bleak decision. The Citadel is a principal, major location in all three games. You spend tens of hours there, dealing with different crises and missions and interacting with hundreds of characters. The game turning around and slaughtering all of them (and the 15 million people who reportedly live on the station) is gutsy, risking making the player feel like everything they did on the Citadel in the series was in vain. But it dramatically ramps up the stakes. A planet like Thessia getting blown away is hardcore, as it has a major emotional impact on the asari characters in the game (including a major party and storyline character, Liara), but you never visit there before a brief mission in Mass Effect 3 so it doesn't have much resonance for the player personally. Devastating the Citadel and killing every single character of note you've met who lives there is a much more serious gut-punch. Whilst a lot of people dislike this storyline choice, ultimately I applaud BioWare for being prepared to do something that seriously annoys people whilst having a rational and understandable role in the endgame of the story.

The rest of the ending, however, leans towards the nonsensical. Shortly after arriving on the Citadel, Shepard is contacted by Anderson, who has also managed to teleport aboard. Shepard makes his way to a control room in a hidden part of the Citadel (though where exactly it is hidden is unclear, since it seems to be on the central command-and-control tower of the Citadel, an area of extremely limited space which people have been living in for thousands of years) and is confronted by both Anderson and the Illusive Man. The Illusive Man claims that the Citadel and the Crucible can be used together to take control of the Reapers and propel humanity forwards thousands of years in technology and science, making them the dominant race in the Galaxy. Anderson rejects this, saying the Reapers must be destroyed utterly to prevent this 50,000-year cycle of annihilation from continuing. Both Anderson and Shepard tell the Illusive Man that he has been Indoctrinated by the Reapers. In an inexplicable moment, the Illusive Man seems to take control of both Shepard and Anderson and has Shepard shoot Anderson (but, bizarrely, a copy of the bullet wound appears on Shepard). Depending on your dialogue choices in this exchange, the Illusive Man can kill Anderson outright, but be talked into committing suicide by Shepard, or can kill both Anderson and Shepard (obviously causing a game over sequence and forcing a reload). However, Shepard can also shoot the Illusive Man first. This done, he opens up the Citadel, allowing the Crucible to dock. Anderson has a final moment of peace before dying. Shepard, still suffering from the weird gunshot wound, passes out whilst trying to figure out how to make the Crucible work.

At this point the tattered, wounded and bleating remnants of logic finally slink away and out of sight. The area of floor Shepard is lying on suddenly levitates and flies through the ceiling onto the top of the Citadel, where the Crucible's tip has docked. At this point a glowing blue entity appears, taking the form of a young human child (the same one in Shepard's dreams)****** and has a bit of a chat with Shepard, who has now weirdly stopped bleeding. The entity claims that it is the Catalyst. It created the Reapers millions of years ago (possibly a billion years ago based on the age of one of the derelict Reapers in Mass Effect 2) as its solution to a problem. Every few thousand years, sentient organic life develops within the Milky Way and ultimately develops a synthetic servitor race, which is either mistreated and rebels or ultimately concludes that the organic creator races are obsolete and utterly destroys them. To avoid this problem, the Reapers retard the development of organic lifeforms. They 'harvest' selected races to make new Reapers and insure that their technological and biological distinctiveness are integrated into their own make-up*******, then wipe out the rest of the races and allow the primitive species to go unmolested so they can grow up and ascend to the stars themselves (and be destroyed by the Reapers next time around).

Yeah, run that one past us again?

However, the Catalyst has worked out after several tens of thousands of repetitions of the cycle that it's rather unsatisfying as a solution (impressive, as most players had spotted enormous logic failures in it before the glowing blue space kid had even finished monologuing). With the Crucible brought to its front door and with an organic representative of the various races on hand (i.e. Shepard), the Catalyst is willing to try a different approach. It offers Shepard three choices: he can Destroy the Reapers, as Anderson wanted, annihilating them forever. This will end the current war, but without the Reapers on hand another synthetic race will arise in the future and annihilate all organic species. This will also destroy all other synthetic species, including the geth. Or Shepard can choose to Control the Reapers, as the Illusive Man wanted. The Reapers will leave (with it left unclear whether the cycle will continue in another 50,000 years or if the Reapers will depart forever). The final option - and the one presented as the best possible ending - is Synthesis: Shepard can merge synthetic and organic DNA, effectively transforming all lifeforms in the Galaxy into cyborgs. Newly-emerging synthetic and organic life will be absorbed into this new paradigm, ending the threat of future wars and mass slaughter.

When shooting an explosive control panel do you 1) shoot it from a distance and live, or 2) walk towards it whilst shooting, ensuring you are caught in the resulting explosion?

In all three endings, however, the mass relays will be destroyed, since they will be needed to transmit the Crucible's signal across the Galaxy and will be demolished in the process. Also, Shepard will die in all three choices: Control will see his physical form deleted and his essence absorbed into the Catalyst so he can order the Reapers around; Synthesis absorbs his already-fused essence (Shepard is technically a cyborg due to the implants used by Cerberus to resurrect him in Mass Effect 2) and uses it as the template for the merging of the two forms of life; and Destroy, er, causes a big explosion that Shepard will walk into because it looks kind of awesome in the cut-scene. I'm a bit hazy on why he has to die in that solution. The solutions also have different impacts on the Citadel: in Control the Citadel survives okay (leaving at least the possibility that there may be survivors in remote parts of the station) but in the other two the station is wracked by massive explosions that seem to incinerate the Crucible and the central core of the station and shear off two of its arms, though, contrary to some fan complaints, the station isn't shown being unambiguously destroyed and plummeting to Earth (which would probably wipe out whoever's left standing down there, given that the Citadel's massive size would result in an explosion that would dwarf the meteor impact that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs).

No matter what ending you choose, the Crucible's energy is shown spreading through the mass relay network, spreading across the entire Galaxy and collapsing relay after relay. And the Normandy is shown diving through a mass relay, trying to outrun the energy wave, but is eventually hit by it and forced to crash on a jungle planet. Several survivors are shown stumbling out of the wreckage (if you chose Synthesis, they are show glowing with slightly weird green energy).

If you chose Destroy and got an insanely high 'military preperation' score earlier in the game, you also get a curious brief cut-scene in which a figure that seems to be Shepard (the face is obscured), lying amidst some debris (which looks nothing like the Citadel), suddenly taking a deep breath.

You then get a post-credits sequence in which an old man is telling his grandson stories about 'The Shepard' and how he saved the Galaxy (arguably in all three endings you do neutralise the Reaper threat successfully). When the kid asks for another story, the old man agrees.

Something the ending gets right: a badass space battle.

So What's Wrong with the Endings?
The endings are unsatisfying on numerous levels. The most notable is in terms of dramatic structure. This argument has been superbly made by Jim Stevenson on his blog, The Writer's Block. Briefly, he argues that the ending of the game fails because it introduces a major, game-changing element (the starchild/glowing space kid) extremely late in the day and completely out of the blue. It also disrupts the traditional structure of the Hero's Journey, in which the denouncement (in which Shepard gets to talk to his friends and companions before launching the battle in London) takes place before the actual ending on the Citadel, an ending which lacks either clarity or catharsis.

On top of that complaint, the ending fails on a thematic level. Whether synthetic and organic life can coexist is a major subplot of the latter two games in the series; whilst the quarian/geth struggle was given a lot of screen-time in both Mass Effect 2 and 3, it was not a major thematic question, at least not compared to the themes of cooperation and coexistence. In an additional twist, the Normandy's artificial intelligence, EDI, is given a robotic body in Mass Effect 3 and spends the game considering the nature of her existence before deciding to ally wholeheartedly with the organics and develop a romantic relationship with a human character. Both of these plots basically say that it is possible for synthetic and organic life to live together and coexist without an outside force making that decision for them. The game's ending goes against this. Even more bizarrely, Shepard is not able to raise this logical objection to the Catalyst during their conversation.

Buzz Aldrin provides the voice of the old geezer in the post-credits sequence, restoring a tiny amount of geek-cred to proceedings.

It is also not possible for Shepard to ask the Catalyst what the hell is up with the whole Reaper plan anyway, since creating a race of synthetics to destroy organics every 50,000 years so they won't make synthetics that will destroy them seems somewhat unnecessary (since they die anyway, with the difference being that the Reapers allow some primitive races to survive) and convoluted. Shepard also fails to ask the Catalyst why it was necessary to do the whole thing with Sovereign and Saren in Mass Effect 1, since the Catalyst could have presumably activated the Citadel's mass relay and brought the Reaper fleet into the Galaxy years before the invasion, completely catching everyone off-guard and slaughtering them with no chance of a counter-attack like the one Shepard has led. It's possible that the Catalyst was inert or inactive before the arrival of the Crucible, but it's still unclear why Sovereign wouldn't have been able to activate it during the original game. It's also left unclear why the Catalyst is okay with Shepard making the choice. If the Catalyst was unhappy with the 'Reaper Cycle' plan (because it's more than slightly bonkers) and knew that it could use the Crucible and an organic/synthetic hybrid like Shepard to enact a different, better plan which didn't cause so much mayhem and death, why not just let the Crucible be built and brought to it, and invite Shepard up to discuss the situation over tea and biscuits?

Another massive problem with the ending, and one of its single weakest elements (and one I think hasn't been that much reported), is that Shepard is allowed to make the choice because he is a hybrid, thanks to his Cerberus implants that brought him back from the dead. The problem with this is that both Mass Effect 2 and 3 spend some considerable time and effort making it clear that Shepard is still human, and his implants are not that special. Whilst he has some synthetic parts to him, calling him a hybrid or a cyborg is a bit of a stretch and an exaggeration. Ironically, this problem could have been fixed. We see the Illusive Man controlling Shepard briefly in the finale, so dialogue could have been inserted making it clear that Cerberus's meddling and reconstruction was far more serious and notable than it first appeared, allowing the Illusive Man to control him and also qualifying him as more 50-50 human/synthetic, making the Catalyst's choice of him make a lot more sense. Instead, based on the info we have, Shepard is insufficiently hybridised to be able to make the choices he does, and in particular to make the Synthesis ending make any sense (notably, Shepard doesn't have that weird green glowing thing going on that your team-mates on the Normandy are shown exhibiting a few moments later).

"Let's get the hell out of here!"
"I don't know!"

Another considerable problem, and one that seems to be 100% universally loathed, even by people who otherwise like the ending, is what is going on with the Normandy at the end of the game. Before the assault on London, the Normandy is shown engaging the Reaper forces over Earth in a huge space battle. Shepard and his entire crew land on Earth, including characters not on your immediate squad (you can only have two team-mates with you) and a whole bunch of characters from the first two games who are leading assaults on different fronts, and join the battle. During the final push for the transportation beam, Shepard is almost hit by a Reaper laser and knocked out. When you wake up seconds later (the Reaper who hit you is shown powering down its laser and taking off), your squad-mates have vanished (unless you have a really low military readiness score, in which case you see them lying dead on the ground near you) and you press on. Maybe 10-15 minutes pass between this point and the end of the game. When the end of the game kicks in, the Normandy is shown trying to escape the Solar system through the Charon mass relay, is caught in a blast on the far side and forced to crash-land on some jungle planet. From the ship, several crewmembers emerge. Whilst the choice of crewmembers is somewhat randomised and somewhat dependent on earlier game choices, it's normal to see one or both of your squad-mates from the London mission emerge from the wreckage of the Normandy, even if you had a low score and saw them dead in London.

This bit of the ending makes zero sense whichever way you cut it. The planet is - probably due to the near-identical terrain and an almost identical skyscape showing two large moons - 2175 Aeia, a planet visited in Mass Effect 2 (in Jacob Taylor's loyalty mission). To get there from Earth requires multiple relay jumps (not just one) and the planet is in a different star system to the nearest relay, requiring a standard, time-consuming FTL jump. The Normandy simply wouldn't have been able to get there in time (it actually wouldn't have had enough time to have travelled from Earth to the Charon relay, let alone anywhere else) before the relays blew.

More to the point, there is no reason for them to have tried to flee the system. Even if your team-mates on Earth thought you were incinerated and retreated (which is at least implied by radio chatter you hear whilst waking up, suggesting all ground forces are pulling out and you are assumed dead), it seems unlikely they would simply turn and flee on the Normandy, especially since the rest of the space fleet was holding its own against the Reapers (as seen later on, the space forces are able to deliver the Crucible to the Citadel without Reaper interference due to the strength of their forces). It's also odd no attempt was made by the Normandy to contact Shepard during the end-game. You receive a radio transmission from Admiral Hackett, commanding the human forces in the space fleet, so there's no radio jamming going on, and you and Anderson talk freely on the radio whilst in different parts of the Citadel. Of course, if the Normandy crew could contact you, then it could swing by and rescue you with incredible ease (the whole Catalyst conversation takes place on the docking ring of the Citadel, literally a few hundred metres away from where the Normandy used to dock in all three games). The ending section with the Normandy makes so little sense that fans have used it as final, conclusive proof that the entire end of the game is a hallucination taking place completely within Shepard's fevered brain.

Saren, Indoctrinated and proud (note: not romanceable in-game).

Say What? Or Welcome to the Indoctrination Theory
The "It was all a dream!" ending is rightly regarded as a monstrous cop-out whenever it is deployed in story-telling. It's a rather damning comment on the ending to Mass Effect 3 that fans are rather desperately hoping it is just a dream, and the real, 'true' ending to the story will be revealed in future DLC (Downloadable Content) that retcons the end of the game. However, there is a surprisingly large amount of in-game evidence that suggests this theory could actually be true.

As mentioned in the summaries, the Reapers have been shown to have the ability to take over lesser lifeforms. Most of the times this is quick and violent, resulting in the creation of murderous 'husks' (basically space zombies) with no intelligence. Over the course of many years, however, the Reapers can fully Indoctrinate people into becoming their minions without them even realising this is happening. They did this twice in Mass Effect, to Saren and an asari matriarch, and in Mass Effect 3 have successfully done this to the Illusive Man. In the latter case, they have convinced the Illusive Man that he is working for the betterment of humanity and against the Reapers. If you force the Illusive Man to realise the truth (by letting him kill Anderson and then aggressively arguing with him), he is so horrified he commits suicide on the spot.

This leads to the ultimate question: what if Shepard has been Indoctrinated? This would be major narrative coup if BioWare could pull it off, as tricking the character means tricking the player whilst also laying down adequate foreshadowing so it's not just totally random.

This foreshadowing exists. In order to become Indoctrinated, it is necessary for the subject to spend time inside Reapers, or to come into contact with Reaper technology. In Mass Effect 1 Shepard speaks to a Reaper at some length and undertakes a spacewalk along the side of the Citadel in close proximity to Sovereign. In Mass Effect 2 Shepard spends a significant amount of time inside a derelict Reaper (the exact same Reaper that drove an exploration party mad through a form of Indoctrination) and confronts a major artifact of Reaper technology in the endgame. In Arrival Shepard spends several days in contact with a Reaper artifact that has already Indoctrinated several people around it. Also, Shepard's reconstruction at the start of Mass Effect 2 may only have been possible with Reaper technology (the same technology that is shown later permitting the Indoctrination of the Illusive Man). In short, there are multiple moments in the preceding two games where it is possible she (or he) was Indoctrinated, to the point where it seems implausible he (or she) hasn't been Indoctrinated before Mass Effect 3 even begins.

Is he really there? Hopefully not, because then at least it reduces the amount of cheese in the intro.

The next thing to do is identify symptoms of Indoctrination in Shepard's behaviour. One of the first signs is seeing things that aren't there. Early in the game, as Shepard and Anderson try to escape from the Reaper's initial assault, Shepard finds a young boy hiding in a ventilation shaft. The boy, weirdly, refuses Shepard's help and abruptly vanishes when Anderson returns to talk to Shepard (who, also rather oddly, doesn't mention him to Anderson). Later, Shepard sees the same boy coming out of a building and boarding one of the evacuation shuttles, only for the shuttle to be shot down by a Reaper. Careful viewing of this sequence shows that no-one on the shuttle notices the boy or tries to help him up, and that when the shuttle explodes and Shepard winces, none of his crew-mates standing next to him are shown reacting. Shepard then spends the rest of the game experiencing nightmares in which he runs around a forest at night trying to save the boy, only to see him consumed by fire. As the dreams recur, ghostly whispers can be heard around Shepard which resolve into the voices of characters who have died over the course of the three games**** ****. Towards the end of the game, during the final race to the transport beam, Shepard even sees the same trees from his dream dotting the landscape. This definitely qualifies as the 'hearing voices' and 'seeing things that aren't there' symptoms associated with Indoctrination. There's also a lot of talking about Indoctrination in the game, from the fully-voiced Codex entry that goes into it in some detail to a pair of asari discussing it in the background in the Citadel medical centre. There's even an odd moment on the Normandy when one of your squadmates starts talking about a hum which you cannot hear (Indoctrination can be backed up by ultrasonic noises according to the Codex).

Once Shepard has been hit by the beam, passes out, and wakes up, the theory is he is now in the grip of a hallucination, during which his subconscious is battling the effects of Indoctrination. This explains why getting to the beam and onto the Citadel seems a rather surreal, dreamlike experience, taking place partly in slow motion with Shepard wielding a gun with infinite ammo, and how Shepard finds a part of the Citadel that no-one's seen before, despite it being located on one of the most prominent, regularly-visited parts of the station. The theory goes that Anderson and the Illusive Man are figments of your imagination, sitting on your shoulders like a guardian angel and a devil-like figure of temptation. Listen to Anderson and you can survive this section. Listen to the Illusive Man and you die. Once you're past that part, you then have to make your final choice: give into the Catalyst (in the theory the Catalyst is actually Harbinger, the Reaper who was the main enemy of Mass Effect 2 and is the Reaper that shoots you at the start of this section) and accept Indoctrination (by accepting Control or Synthesis) or reject Indoctrination by choosing Destroy. Provided your score is high enough, you wake up back in the rubble of the London street, ready to rejoin the fight (having had a nice hallucinatory vision of your friends on the Normandy surviving a crash-landing in the meantime).

Shepard lives! Maybe.

It's a nice idea, and certainly solves the problems with the ending. Provided you survive, it means that nothing after you get hit by the beam is real. That means the Citadel may not be as badly damaged as it first appeared, it means the Illusive Man is still around and the battle for Earth and the Galaxy is not yet decided. Essentially, it means we can get a less problematic ending which makes sense (even if it's still a dark or bleak one).

However, is it likely? Would BioWare really want to execute a plot twist of this magnitude? And the answer to that is emphatically yes.

In 2003, BioWare released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This was a very fine computer RPG and one of the very best Star Wars games ever made. One of its most notable features was a stunning late-game twist in which it was revealed that your character was in fact the main villain of the setting at the time. It turned out that the Jedi had captured the dastardly Darth Revan, blanked his memory to try and turn him back to the Light Side, lost contact with him and had him basically turn into the player character. Since Revan, like most Sith Lords, covered his face in public, no-one had a clue your character was him (including you, due to the amnesia). It was a spectacular twist, foreshadowed superbly and deftly executed. In the history of the Star Wars universe, only the "I am your father," moment from Empire Strikes Back can compete with it.

So certainly BioWare are more than capable of pulling off a twist like this (it's also worth noting that there's an excellent plot twist, if not quite of the same magnitude, in BioWare's Jade Empire as well), which of course leads to the obvious question: why didn't they?

"Yo Reapers, I got your Indoctrination Theory right here!"

The Indoctrination Theory is so well-supported by in-game evidence that many fans are confidently expecting BioWare to reveal it is true. However, there are issues with it. The biggest is...why not have it in the game?

As mentioned at the Writer's Block above, if the game had ended with Shepard waking up in London and then carrying on the fight with the Indoctrination Theory explained, it would have been awesome. It would have challenged the Knights of the Old Republic plot twist for effectiveness and impact. It would have been ballsy and cool. Yet they didn't. Why?

The cynical answer is that they plan to give us the ending as paid DLC. However, that doesn't seem right. It's one thing to give out optional bonus stuff as DLC (like the Mass Effect 2 add-ons Arrival and Lair of the Shadow Broker) or optional characters (like Javik in Mass Effect 3 itself), but withholding the actual game's ending from the public? That would be bizarre. It's true that Fallout 3 had a problematic ending which Bethesda quickly fixed with Broken Steel a few months later, but that was a far smaller problem, easily fixed in about sixty seconds after you've installed the expansion. Rewriting Mass Effect 3's ending would require substantial amounts of new content and gameplay after your rejoin the action, including lots of voice-overs from major actors (to keep costs down, previous Mass Effect DLC has previously relied solely on one or two voice actors appearing). It's a huge amount more work, likely unprecedented for a piece of DLC. Even more of an issue, having denied gamers the 'real' ending, if BioWare tried charging for the 'real' ending, it would make the controversy that's developed so far seem feeble in comparison.

Unfortunately, it appears that the more prosaic explanation for the theory is correct: it's an idea that was developed during the game's production, but then downplayed when the ending was finally created in favour of a mystery (or, as the game's producer put it, "Lots of speculation from everyone!"), possibly also due to time running out as the ending was programmed in November, not long before they had to lock the game so it could get its necessary Sony and Microsoft certifications before the game could be released.

If this is the case, it is unlikely that the ending will be changed significantly. Maybe a more clarified ending which explains why the Normandy was fleeing the system, but beyond that I'd be surprised to see things changed too much. Which is a shame because the Indoctrination Theory really does explain a lot of things that are otherwise just bizarre.

As it stands, Mass Effect 3's ending dents a seriously enjoyable series of computer role-playing games and, on a larger scale, is yet another weird, vague and oddball ending to a long-running SF story. Coming on the heels of the endings to Lost and Battlestar Galactica, it does make one yearn for a story that actually ends with a fully logical and explicable conclusion. But that's a totally different topic to discuss at another time.

* This is reminiscent of Roger Macbride Allen's SF novel The Ring of Charon, which also sees human scientists discover an FTL device hidden within Charon.
** A bit like Star Trek's United Federation of Planets.
*** A cross between the titular space station of Babylon 5 and Arthur C. Clarke's Rama.
**** Yes, very much like Battlestar Galactica.
***** Yes, a bit like the Shadows in Babylon 5.
****** Yes, a bit like the Starchild in 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequels.
******* Yes, a bit like the Borg.
**** **** Yes, like the whispers in the jungle on Lost.

It's worth checking out original Mass Effect writer Drew Karpyshyn's ending as they envisaged it whilst working on the first two games in the series. This ending was ditched long before Mass Effect 3 went into production, but it does at least explain why the synthetic/organic conflict is not such a key focus in the earlier games.

Monday, 26 March 2012

MISTBORN computer game in development

It's been confirmed that a computer game based on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books is in development from Little Orbit Games and Game Machine Studios.

Mistborn: Birthright is a prequel set several hundred years before the events of the first trilogy and will depict the misadventures of Fendin 'Fiddle' Fathvell, a young nobleman who must master his Allomantic powers in order to save his family. Brandon Sanderson has written the storyline for the game.

The game is due for release around Autumn 2013 on the X-Box 360, PlayStation 3, PC and Macintosh formats.

Hmm. Interesting but also risky. The game creators are pretty much total unknowns. Little Orbit and Game Machine have worked predominantly on undemanding DS and iPad/iPhone games. They are unproven at making a large-scale, Triple-A fantasy RPG that can compete with the likes of Bethesda or BioWare. That doesn't mean that they can't do a good job (everyone needs to start somewhere), just that I'd have looked for a company with a bit more experience first. Still, worth keeping an eye on.

EXPANSE Book III given a title

Via their James S.A. Corey Facebook page, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham have confirmed that the third book in The Expanse space opera series will be called Abbadon's Gate, following up on last year's Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War (due in a couple of months).

Also on the same Facebook page, the authors reveal that there will be a give-away of ARCs for Caliban's War closer to the release date. In the meantime, Orbit also have a sample of the novel available.

Update: Daniel Abraham has confirmed that Abaddon's Gate replaces the original working title for Book 3, Dandelion Sky:
"The consensus (probably accurately) was that Dandelion Sky was a little too pastoral and Ray Bradbury for the book as it is."
It's worth noting an unfortunate similarity between the new title and Warhammer 40,000. The principal villain of WH40K, Abaddon the Despoiler, captured the Cadian Gate during a recent in-setting military campaign, leading to the two words cropping up a lot in those works. I doubt many people would confuse the two, but it's something the publishers might want to bear in mind.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Wheel of Television Part 3: Shaping the Story

In the first two parts of this article series, I argued that the current plans by Red Eagle Entertainment and Universal to turn The Wheel of Time into a series of movies were impractical and unrealistic, and that adapting the books into an ongoing television series was more logical. This especially makes more sense in the wake of the success of fantasy TV projects such as Sky's Discworld TV movies and of course HBO's Game of Thrones. I concluded that getting the series made by one of the three big remaining cable channels (Starz, AMC or Showtime) was essential to give the project the right combination of high production values and a decent amount of time to adapt the complex storyline.

Story into Seasons
In the second article I suggested that it would be possible to adapt The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt (the first two books in the series) into one 12-episode television season. On paid cable, lacking advertisement breaks, this mean just under six hours to adapt each book to the screen (or three times as much time as a possible film adaptation). Whilst tight, this would be doable without too many storylines or characters cut. Later seasons could be more problematic (particularly adapting the 1,900 pages of the fifth and sixth books, The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos, into just twelve hours) though the hope is that the series would be such a success that later seasons could expand to maybe 16 episodes each (as AMC has recently done with the third season of The Walking Dead).

At the same time, the later books in the series - particularly the eighth through eleventh - have some pacing problems and issues that the TV adaptation would do well to avoid by compressing the more stationary parts of the story into a shorter space of time, and perhaps moving things around.

Overall, I envisage the following structure as being potentially successful (note: SPOILERS for people who have not read the books):

Season 1: The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt
This season introduces the principal storylines and characters. Thematically it is Rand's story of self-discovery as he uncovers the truth of his birth and his destiny and initially tries to reject it. Season finale: the battle between Rand and Ba'alzamon at Falme and the destruction of the Seanchan expeditionary force by the Heroes of the Horn of Valere.

Season 2: The Dragon Reborn and The Shadow Rising
This season sees Rand investigate the truth of his background and what he is fated to do. He decides to seize the reigns and take control of his own destiny and recruit his own allies. Season finale: Rand uniting the Aiel clans at Alcair Dal.

Season 3: The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos
The turning-point of the series as Rand (and, to a lesser extent, his friends) become famous and major players in the affairs of governments as the continent falls into warfare and chaos. Season finale: the Battle of Dumai's Wells, naturally.

Season 4: A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart
Rand consolidates his gains and alliances, confronts the resurgent Seanchan and, ultimately, challenges the Dark Ones taint on saidin. Season finale: the Cleansing.

Season 5: Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams and The Gathering Storm
Rand's journey into the heart of darkness and, ultimately, out of the other side. Season finale: Rand's epiphany atop Dragonmount and Egwene reunifying the Aes Sedai in the face of the Seanchan threat.

Season 6: Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light
Rand finally confronts the Dark One. Season/series finale: the Last Battle.

Of course, if the first two or three seasons are successful it might be possible to extend the series to seven seasons and cover two books per season, which would be easier in many ways. However, the slowing of the pace in the latter books as the story expands to cover ever more storylines and minor characters and the moving away of the focus from Rand and the other core characters is something that I feel on TV should be avoided. Post-Dumai's Wells, I also feel the story should start accelerating and moving decisively towards the ending.

With this structure, it should be possible to get the entire story of The Wheel of Time done in six years and 70-80 episodes. The majority of storylines and characters from the books would appear on-screen and the adaptation would be relatively faithful, and certainly far moreso than in a series of film adaptations.

Next time: the challenges of showing the One Power, Trollocs, Ogier and massive armies on a TV budget.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Tintin, a young Belgian journalist, is drawn into a web of intrigue and deception when he buys a model of a ship called the Unicorn. At least two groups take an interest in the model and Tintin finds himself shot at and his flat burgled. Sensing a possible story, Tintin pursues the mystery of the Unicorn across multiple countries and continents to its surprising and unexpected conclusion.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a motion-captured animated movie directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson. An enormous amount of creative firepower has been brought to bear on bringing Belgian cartoonist Hergé's characters to life. It was a bit of a gamble by Spielberg and Jackson, as the Tintin albums (graphic novels) are immensely successful worldwide but are relatively little-known in the United States. Making use of this fact, the movie was released in Europe several weeks prior to its American release, building up a good word-of-mouth that boosted the film's success in the States (and leading to a sequel being put into development).

I was a major Tintin fan as a child, collecting quite a few of the albums and watching the animated TV series. I was interested to see what Spielberg and Jackson could produce, but was also a little worried. Early trailers seemed to show an artistic style reminiscent of the 'uncanny valley'-stricken Polar Express (where the almost-human-looking characters are off-puttingly fake). Fortunately, the finished film is mostly a success, avoiding most of the pitfalls of CGI movies that try to stick too closely to realism. The animation is jaw-dropping, whether it's depicting an action-packed, one-shot motorcycle chase through a Middle-Eastern city, a battle between duelling shipyard cranes or a running gunfight on a ship at night. For the most part the characters are given animation and life, with a slightly stylised art style used that falls between realism and outright cartoons. The 'uncanny valley' issue remains in small doses, and is a particular problem with Tintin himself. Like his comic counterpart, the film's Tintin is a little on the bland side with few defining characteristics aside from his stoic heroism and determination. Luckily, his more colourful and interesting companion characters (most notably Captain Haddock, whom, as in the albums, steals most of the scenes he's in) more than make up for this lack.

As well as the successful animation, the movie is backed up by a strong, pacy script. Co-written by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and British comedy directors Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), the script draws on storylines from three of the albums: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure (probably among the best-known and apparently the biggest-selling of the albums). The writers pack a huge amount of incident into the film's 110 minutes, but ably move between moments of characterisation, comedy and action without making the film feel too busy or short. Spielberg's direction is also impressive, particularly the aforementioned tracking shot depicting a motorcycle chase through a bustling city, which is much more successful than Spielberg's previous attempts to do long one-shots. A sequence in which Haddock recalls the adventures of his ancestor and mixes present-day shots of the desert and flashes back to a raging sea battle is also highly engaging.

Rounding off the film's success is the voice acting. Andy Serkis (best-known as Gollum from Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies) is great as Captain Haddock, imbuing him with comedy and pathos as needed. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thompson and Thomson are also amusing, whilst Daniel Craig is superbly menacing as the film's primary villain, Ivan Sakharine. Jamie Bell does a good job with Tintin, but is not given a huge amount to work with.

Overall, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (****½) is a highly successful adaptation of Hergé's characters and stories. The film is funny, dramatic, exciting and fast-paced, easily Spielberg's best work in a decade and hugely outstripping the terrible Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a rollicking adventure movie. Where problems emerge are a few (mercifully short) sequences where uncanny valley-itis sets in and the issues of Tintin not being a terribly engaging protagonist. But with its excellent voice acting, awesome visuals and well-paced script, the movie overcomes these problems with ease. The film is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray). I highly recommend the Blu-Ray version for its superior visual quality. This is one film which really deserves to be seen in as high quality as possible.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

BALDUR'S GATE Enhanced Edition update

IGN have an update on the status of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition. The new version of the classic RPG will have some new quests and a new NPC party member (based on the original game, these will be totally optional and can be ignored if you wish). Beamdog/Overhaul have also confirmed that the game will ship on iPad as well as PC.

"Go for the iPad, Boo, the iPad!" [/obvious]

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (collecting the original game and the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion into one title with updated graphics from the latest version of the Infinity Engine) will be released this summer.

Friday, 23 March 2012


A band of talented mod-makers have finally released Wing Commander Saga, a continuation of the venerable space combat series. Made with the (unofficial) nod of approval of the original game designers, Wing Commander Saga is an open-source game using the Freespace 2 engine. It requires nothing else to play (a joystick or gamepad is recommended, however) and can be played on most PCs, including those using Linux. The mod has been in development for over ten years.

As well as robust space combat (featuring 50 single-player missions), the game features cut-scenes, animated mission briefings and full voice-overs throughout.

The mod is available, free of charge, from the WC Saga website here. Rock Paper Shotgun have their take on the game here (one reviewer in the comments suggesting it has the best space combat of any Wing Commander game, official or otherwise, released to date).

Sadly, the game does not feature Mark Hamill. Fortunately, it also doesn't feature Freddie Prinze, Jr.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


The first trailer for Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome has been released. It features CGI, explosions and a dubious Led Zeppelin cover:

EDIT: The trailer was pulled from YouTube by NBC, who presumably don't like free advertising and getting people excited about their product.

Something tells me that SyFy is kicking back against the complaints that Caprica was too boring. Hopefully they're not going too far. Surprisingly, the virtual sets look a lot better than I was expecting.

SyFy has not yet confirmed a release date for the Blood and Chrome pilot, or even if it will air on TV or as a web series.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


Bantam have released some more info about the forthcoming Lands of Ice and Fire map project.

Images removed at creator's request.

The cover and maps shown above are mock-ups. The actual images don't appear to be from A Song of Ice and Fire and are probably placeholders. Actually, it looks like a map from Neil Gower (the excellent cartographer best-known for his maps for The Malazan Book of the Fallen), which should not be taken to mean that Gower is the artist for the map set (the artist has not yet been announced).

The Lands of Ice and Fire is a boxed collection of twelve maps. Whilst we don't know the full list, we currently have the following maps listed:
  • A 'known world' map stretching from Westeros to Asshai (a brand new map).
  • A full map of Westeros, combining the North and the South.
  • A detailed map of the lands Beyond the Wall (likely the same as the map in the books).
  • A map of the Free Cities region (likely the same as the map from A Dance with Dragons).
  • Valyria and Slaver's Bay (likely similar to the map that first appeared in A Storm of Swords).
  •  The Dothraki sea and the Red Waste (a brand new map).
  • The Qarth region and the lands of the far east (a brand new map).
  • A city map of King's Landing (likely based on the map from A Clash of Kings).
  • A city map of Braavos (a brand new map).
Apparently eight of the twelve maps will be all-new. Based on the list above, that's not possible (five the maps are reprints, so there can only be seven new maps), so that actually leaves three more brand new maps unaccounted for. Additional city maps - Oldtown, Volantis, Qarth and Meereen all seem prime candidates - are possible, but one possibility raised in an earlier product description was the idea of 'historical' maps. Maybe a map showing the Seven Kingdoms' borders at the time of Aegon's invasion? Or a map of the Valyrian Freehold on the eve of the Doom when it was at the height of its power? Intriguing.

The Lands of Ice and Fire is currently scheduled for publication on 30 October 2012.

However, we won't have to wait until then to get a glimpse of these new maps. Season 2 of Game of Thrones launches on 1 April and HBO will update their Viewer's Guide website on the same or following day to include 'the first official map of Essos ever published'. The Season 2 opening title sequence has also been tweaked to include Daenerys's adventures into hitherto unmapped lands, such as the Red Waste and Qarth.

Monday, 19 March 2012


After five and a half years, it's time to give the blog a bit of a facelift. This is my first attempt, so what do people think? The white on grey text is something I know some people have issues with, though I like it (and this doesn't give me strobing headaches like a lot of white-on-black text options do). It's fairly easy to change things around though, so if this design is unpopular I can try something else out. Cheers.

UPDATE: Have switched to an easier-to-read interface. The generic background picture will likely get changed but I'm a bit happier with this one.

UPDATE 2: The background picture was too cheesy, so it's gone.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Full trailer for Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS

A new full-length trailer has been unveiled for Ridley Scott's Alien quasi-prequel Prometheus:

The movie hits cinemas on 8 June.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

New cover art: Steven Erikson's FORGE OF DARKNESS

The cover art and blurb for Steven Erikson's The Forge of Darkness has been released:

Enter the New York Times bestselling Malazan universe... at a time that sets the stage for all the tales already told.

Steven Erikson entered the pantheon of great fantasy writers with his debut Gardens of the Moon. Now Erikson returns with a trilogy that takes place before the events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. The Forge of Darkness takes readers to Kurald Galain, the warren of Darkness, and tells an epic tale of a realm whose fate plays a crucial role in the fall of the Malazan Empire.

It’s a conflicted time in Kurald Galain, the warren of Darkness, where Mother Dark reigns. But this ancient land was once home to many a power… and even death is not quite eternal. The commoners’ great hero, Vatha Urusander, longs for ascendency and Mother Dark’s hand in marriage, but she has taken another Consort, Lord Draconus, from the faraway Dracon Hold. The idea of this union sends fissures throughout the realm, and as the rumors of civil war burn through the masses, an ancient power emerges from the long dead seas. Caught in the middle of it all are the Sons of Darkness, Anomander, Adarist, and Silchas Ruin of the Purake Hold.

Steven Erikson brings to life this ancient and important tale set in the world he introduced in the Malazan Book of the Fallen in a way that should appeal to fans of George R. R. Martin.
The novel, the first in The Kharkanas Trilogy, will be released in August in the UK and in September in the USA.

Mass Effect 3

The Galaxy has been plunged into war. The Reapers, a race of intelligent machines who cleanse the Milky Way of advanced, organic life every 50,000 years or so, have returned. In their opening salvo they have occupied Earth and attacked dozens of other worlds, including launching a major assault on the turian homeworld. Commander Shepard, who has been warning the various races about the Reapers for the last three years, manages to escape from Earth on his ship, the Normandy, and sets about unifying the Galaxy against the Reapers. But this is easier said than done.

Mass Effect 3 concludes BioWare's epic trilogy which began five years ago. Long-term players will have guided their version of Commander Shepard (whose gender and abilities can be adjusted by the player) through three games totalling 65-80 hours (depending on what side-missions you played) to reach the grand finale of the story. As a result Mass Effect 3 has more weight than most computer games. Though assembled from some fairly generic ingredients, the Mass Effect universe has become immensely popular, making it the most successful new space opera franchise to appear in any medium since Farscape and the Stargate TV shows in the late 1990s.

The game has a similar structure to the first two. You spend most of it on the Normandy with a choice of where to go next. There's a number of main storyline (or 'priority') missions to complete before the final showdown with the Reapers on Earth, but there's also a large number of side-missions to undertake. The mineral-scanning mechanic from the second game has been replaced by a new system where you can scan planets and star systems to search for items of interest and then recover them. Whilst this risks detection by the Reapers, the items you discover can be of immense cumulative value in the war.

The game tracks your readiness for the final battle with a new war room installed on the Normandy. From this console you can see how the allies you have made in the main and side-missions are faring against the Reapers, as well as the tangible impact of the items recovered from planets on the war effort. The game measures these factors with a score. How high the score is when you launch the final assault on Earth determines how successful you are and the details of the ending that you get.

Mass Effect 3 calls upon the full resources of the storylines and characters established in the first two games (and even some of the spin-off novels) to deliver an immense series of pay-offs. The war between the quarian and the geth is resolved and an opportunity arises to cure the krogans of the genophage disease to win their loyalty (though this might come at losing the support of other races who fought the krogan in prior wars). Whilst Mass Effect 3 has a relatively small pool of characters to take on missions compared to the second game, just about every single major character (and many minor ones) from the series reappears. Some of them don't make it to the end (this is war, after all) and others only have fleeting appearances, but the game does an impressive job in wrapping up almost all of the plot points left dangling from earlier in the series.

Something that Mass Effect 3 does well - and easily its greatest achievement - is giving real value and depth to the relationships established over the course of the trilogy. One of the best (and funniest) scenes in the whole trilogy comes when Garrus and Shepard just decide to hang out on a building rooftop and talk the breeze with some drinks to hand. There's a whole bunch of ongoing subplots that are carried out entirely through dialogue, such as Shepard trying to convince a nervous new comm officer that her skills are of worth in the war or EDI attempting to understand human behaviour better. These elements, based on role-playing and characterisation, are handled well by the game. They're not quite as well-written as previously (most of the franchise's better writers, including Drew Karpyshyn who is credited with the best work, bailed before Mass Effect 3, some of them to work on The Old Republic), but still effective. This extends to tons of 'slice of life' conversations going on at the Citadel as refugees search for family members and security officers struggle with the influx of people, adding detail and depth to the struggle.

An unfortunate problem is that the game's journal is a rather sorry thing compared to the previous games. It doesn't track your mission progress, which given the sheer number of missions you can have going on becomes rather tiresome. The game also has a number of quest-related glitches that leaves several missions uncompletable after a certain point in the game, but the journal and map both insist they can be finished, resulting in you wandering around confused. It's a tribute to the game's quality that, whilst irritating, these problems only had a minor impact on the enjoyability of the game.

Combat, the meat of the game, is mostly unchanged from Mass Effect 2. The biggest change - and problem - is the addition of a combat roll move. In theory this allows you to roll from cover to cover, but it is pretty much totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, BioWare chose to make the 'roll' button the same as 'cover' and 'use', with the result that the game often gets confused about what you are trying to do and has you rolling into the enemy's crossfire when you're actually trying to duck behind one of the many chest-high walls in the game. If you've imported a character from the previous games, you will retain your level which is nice, but means you're so powerful that combat in the game is trivially easy. There's a couple of enemies (most notably the Reaper Banshee) that require more intelligence to deal with, but overall combat is so easy as to be almost perfunctory in the game. This isn't helped by the fact that you have dozens of weapons to choose from, but the original starting weapons are actually all you need to complete the games (with suitable upgrades).

The game unfolds with a crisp pace, complete with an effective, doom-laden atmosphere (helped by Clint Mansell's excellent soundtrack). The scale of events is epic with a capital EPIC, and there are multiple individual showdowns, confrontations and battles huge enough to be end-of-game bossfights in other titles. The final scenes on Tuchanka (the krogan homeworld) are brilliant, as is the battle to reclaim Rannoch (the quarian/geth planet). The game also knows when to reward the player and when to punch them in the gut; the loss of several planets (including one major one) to the Reapers with attending death tolls in the billions is dramatically powerful and has major repercussions throughout the game.

Events culminate in a massive assault on Earth...which is where things fall apart. The Reapers rather conveniently make a series of embarrassing tactical errors that give you a shot at victory. But during the final confrontation, the game suddenly makes a hard left turn into unexpected weirdness. Remember how the Neo/Architect conversation in The Matrix Reloaded sucked and was universally loathed? BioWare seem to have decided that is a good model on how to end a story. Whilst it undercuts expectations not to have a massive bossfight at the end, that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. The other problem is that the revelations in this conversation make no sense, and go against what you've just spent three games and 60+ hours learning and experiencing. Thematically, the Mass Effect games are about free choice, cooperation and not letting old arguments derail future chances at peace. The ending throws that out the window and offers you a fairly boring choice of which of three buttons to press (and no matter which one you press, there is immense death and destruction waiting). The games have had their hard knocks, but the ending is downright miserable to the point of making the entire trilogy feel pointless, and totally out of keeping with the tone of the series to date.

This has led to the suggestion that the ending of the game is not real and in fact a hallucination. That's entirely possible (the supporting evidence is rather impressive) but, if so, it shows that BioWare has not learned from the mistakes of the creators of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. We shouldn't have to parse and fanwank the ending. This isn't Twin Peaks, this is an epic space war story, and epic space war stories need endings. Return of the Jedi, for all its faults, had a decent ending. Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine had decent endings (wobbling only when they brought in mystical events and implausible backstory revelations, but they were relatively minor). BioWare claim they wanted a bittersweet ending, but we've had tons of bittersweet moments in the game up to that point with billions dying, planets burning and major characters biting the dust. Ending the game in a further bloodbath of millions of innocent civilians followed by a nonsensical conversation, a really weird ending cinematic and then a cheesy post-credits sequence straight out of The Big Book Of Overused Cliches That Should Never Be Used Again, Ever is an idiotic move, a failure of the writers, the game designers and the Q&A testers who should have told their bosses this would never fly (although to be fair they may have done, and been ignored).

The fact that the ending to Mass Effect 3 (****, with the ending costing the game a full star) sucks should not overshadow the achievements of the rest of the game. BioWare has pushed the ability of computer games to showcase real emotional relationships rather than just explosions and bullets further than before and some of their decisions were surprisingly brave. But ultimately the ending is cheap, nasty and nonsensical and cannot help but put what has come before in a less flattering light. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, Playstation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, Playstation 3).