Wednesday, 30 May 2012

ALTERED CARBON film rights re-optioned

This is slightly older news (from February) but something that had managed to slip past my radar. Mythology Entertainment, a newly-formed production company, has secured the movie rights to Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan's debut novel and the first featuring his body-hopping protagonist Takeshi Kovacs. The deal also includes the book's two sequels, Woken Furies and Broken Angels, though presumably not his 'fantasy' trilogy which is set in the distant future of the same setting.



The book was originally optioned by Matrix producer Joel Silver shortly after the novel was published, allowing Morgan to become a full-time writer after completing only just one book. This attempt to make a film came to nothing. A second attempt during the 2008 Writer's Guild of America Strike (when the studios were looking at using completed-but-unmade scripts to put into production to get around the lack of new scripts being written) also came to nothing.

Laeta Kalogridis, the executive producer of Avatar and scriptwriter of Shutter Island, will co-pen the script along with David Goodman. Interesting to see if this gets made or languishes in development hell for several years. I am particularly interested to see how they handle the problem of the film requiring several actors to play the hero (as Kovacs is 're-sleeved' several times in different bodies).

CD Projekt to make a CYBERPUNK game

CD Projekt, the critically-acclaimed creators of The Witcher computer game franchise, have announced that they are working on a game based on Cyberpunk, the well-regarded 1980s pen-and-paper RPG (which is still going strong today). Their approach to the game sounds similar to that of The Witcher, with emphasis on making a 'mature game' for adult gamers with strong RPG mechanics.



The current version of Cyberpunk is set in the 2020s and depicts the world as a dystopia, with implants and computer technology being used for nefarious purposes by corporations and criminal gangs alike. The RPG is was heavily inspired by the 1980s works of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It was created by veteran RPG designer Mike Pondsmith with its first edition released in 1988. I've played in a few Cyberpunk games and found it to be a decent system.


The Cyberpunk game does not have an expected release date yet, but I'll be surprised if it's before next year at the earliest. Apparently CD Projekt, fuelled by both the success of The Witcher 2 and their GoG download service, are proceeding with this title and The Witcher 3 simultaneously, along with two smaller-scaled titles.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Alan Wake

Alan Wake is a successful novelist suffering from writer's block. He and his wife, Alice, take a holiday to Bright Falls, Washington, and rent a cabin on an island in the middle of a volcanic lake. When Alice 'surprises' Alan with a typewriter, hoping he'll feel inspired to start writing again, Alan becomes angry and storms out. He hears his wife screaming, only to find the cabin and the island have disappeared. Apparently the island was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1970. Wake discovers he has somehow lost a week, and keeps finding pages from a new novel he's been writing called Departure in which he himself is the protagonist. As shadowy creatures attack him and TV shows seem to reflect his state of mind, Wake must discover whether he has gone insane and attempt to track down his missing wife.

 
Alan Wake is the creation of Finnish developers Remedy, best-known for their superlative work on the first two Max Payne games. Like the Max Payne games, Alan Wake is strongly based around a central protagonist and emphasises his character development throughout the game, giving the player more of a connection to their character and his fate. Unlike Max Payne, Alan Wake is not purely an action game. It also employs elements of survival-horror, adventure games and exploration to create something that is hard to classify. This gives the game a unique mood and feel to it, but also makes it hard to market and resulted in initially disappointing sales (although, thanks to the highly successful PC version, the game has now sold more than 2 million copies and a sequel is likely).

The game is divided into six distinct episodes (with two more included with the PC version and available to optionally download for the X-Box 360) and structured like a TV mini-series. Each episode opens with Alan recapping the story so far and ends with a different song, usually on a cliffhanger. Each episode is usually divided into two sections, a daytime one where Alan investigates what's going on by talking to people and exploring the backstory, and a night section when Alan has to achieve some goal whilst under attack by the 'dark presence', a shadowy force which can animate objects and possess people using clouds of darkness.

The daytime sections are, disappointingly, free of choice. You can't choose Alan's dialogue and are on rails for most of these sections as people talk to you and explain what's going on (or not, in most cases). You can move around and sometimes find bonus items for use later, but there's a limit to your freedom in these sections. For those who become hooked by the game's intriguing, Twin Peaks-lite storyline, this will be fine. For those itching to get to the actual gameplay sections, these parts of the game may feel tedious (although they're usually pretty short, and we get to the action relatively quickly).

The bulk of each episode is the section set at night, during which time Alan has to fight off enemies. He can use a torch to burn away the dark presence from opponents and then destroy them with conventional firearms (oddly, the idea of finding some way of freeing people from the presence rather than killing them outright is never discussed, even when major characters are possessed). His torch can also be used to destroy possessed flocks of bird and animated everyday objects outright. Oddly, the torches in Bright Falls all have an 'intense light' mode that burns out the batteries, but will recharge if left alone (and the standard light setting doesn't use batteries at all, in contravention of the laws of physics). These mechanics result in a lot of scenes where Alan is running through the wood at night alone and having to intelligently combine his resources (lights, weapons, special weapons like flare guns which can take out entire groups of enemies) to fight off opponents. This could risk becoming repetitive, but new weapons, enemies and ideas are introduced steadily to vary things up so it never becomes boring. For example, Alan is joined by allies late in the game who fight alongside him and can provide light and weapons support from a search-and-rescue helicopter.

The game is reasonably well-written (a few clunking lines aside) and has some knowing nods at the genre, with Wake starting off by warning us that good stories don't always have fully comprehensible endings. This seems to be Remedy covering their backsides in advance, but in fact the storyline and ideas behind what's going on seem pretty straightforward. Their impact in the world is often weird, sure, but it all hangs together quite well. The characters are well-realised, ranging from Alan's agent and primary ally Barry (who is occasionally annoying, but also has some amusing ideas) to the ageing ex-rock stars whose farmhouse, studio and pyrotechnic equipment can be combined into one of the game's most impressive set pieces. Alan himself can be a bit whiny at times, but given what a bad couple of weeks he's having, this is understandable. More amusing is that Alan (and his more OTT fans) has an opinion of his popular crime fiction (that it's Serious Literature) which seems to be somewhat at odds with what we see of it (which is Average Cheese). The voice acting is overall very decent as well, with Alan's internal monologuing (which occasionally threatens to go all Max Payne on us, but just about holds off) summing up what's going on quite well.

The game is overall engrossing and enjoyable, with a good pace to events. It also has a great amount of content. After Max Payne 2's borderline-embarrassing 5 hour length, Alan Wake by itself clocks in at around 12 hours with another 3 hours on top for the optional extra episodes. It missteps a few times, however. Alan has a number of character animations which cannot be skipped, sometimes leading to unnecessary deaths where you're hammering the controls to fight off a horde of the possessed (or 'Taken' in the game's parlance) and all Alan is doing is ducking his head and waving his arms uselessly. The concluding section of the main game (Episode 6) and the second of the 'special' episodes also go on for way too long, with combat sequence after combat sequence that ultimately becomes tedious. The fact that the ending is sequel-baiting is to be expected (what isn't, these days?), but there is also a lack of closure to several other character arcs outside of Alan's experiences, which is disappointing. In addition, the optional episodes taking place entirely within the 'dark place', meaning that the laws of reality can be dropped altogether, may results in some excellent and inventive set pieces but this also results in the situation where you may find yourself not caring too much, if none of it is 'real' on the game's own terms.

Still, Alan Wake (****) is overall a very strong title. It's richly atmospheric, with excellent graphics and music. The story is interesting and, for a computer game, rather different and original. The combat is satisfying, if occasionally frustrating, and despite the weird and offbeat storyline most things are explained and make sense. The PC version features vastly superior graphics and control options and, as it also includes the two extra episodes for free, gets an extra half-star from me. The game is available now via Steam and in the UK (PC and X-Box 360) and USA (PC and X-Box 360).

Monday, 28 May 2012

Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2143. Detective Sid Hurst is called upon to investigate the unusually violent murder of a North. The Norths are a large family of clones who have forged a powerful, interstellar corporate empire. Twenty years ago another North was killed in the exact same manner on the world of St. Libra...but the woman responsible, Angela Tramelo, has spent two decades in prison, protesting her innocence and claiming that an alien lifeform was responsible.With mounting evidence that she may have been right, an expedition is mounted to St. Libra's wilderness hinterland to investigate further, even as Hurst's enquiries on Earth continue.


However, St. Libra, a planet twice the size of Earth circling Sirius, is a difficult world to survey. It's thick ring system inhibits the operation of orbiting satellites and the planet is already under investigation for its bizarre plant life (which cannot have evolved in the short lifespan of the system). The expedition soon finds itself operating in a wilderness far beyond any relief efforts, with something in the jungle stalking them.

Great North Road is the latest novel from Britain's biggest-selling science fiction author, Peter F. Hamilton. It's a stand-alone unconnected to any of his previous universes or series, so can be read in confidence that there are no cliffhanger endings lurking in wait. With my review copy clocking in at 1,087 pages (the final version may be slightly shorter, apparently) it's also a huge book, giving a lot of words to the pound. It's actually Hamilton's longest book since The Naked God, outstripping his previous seven novels in size (none of them particularly short either).

As usual with Hamilton's space operas, we are introduced to a large cast of characters who are divided up amongst several storylines. There are two primary plots: the investigation into the murder in Newcastle and the expedition on St. Libra, with a number of smaller subplots that are developed more concisely. There's also a complex backstory to the novel that is revealed gradually through strategically-placed flashback sequences. Hamilton is an old hand at both multi-stranded epic plotting and also depicting high-tech police investigations and Great North Road is a triumph in both departments. The pacing is pretty good as we move between characters and storylines and their individual pieces of the puzzle slot together nicely in moments of revelation.

Character-wise, it's a solid cast, although not Hamilton's best. We're lacking a character as vivid as Ozzie or Paula Myo (or as frustratingly punchable as Joshua Calvert) but otherwise they are an interesting bunch. Angela Tramelo is embittered from her two decades in prison (not to mention effective torture by a shadowy government agency), but also has herself to blame for her lack of cooperation when that could have vindicated her much earlier. The reasons for this form a mystery that gradually unfolds over the course of the novel. Sid Hurst is a reliable protagonist as the detective investigating the murder, although his house-hunting woes (Hamilton continuing a slightly random theme of futuristic property market musings that began in The Dreaming Void) take up a fair bit of space that could have been trimmed. Vance Elston, the leader of the St. Libra expedition, is also a key protagonist and Hamilton uses him to return to one of his favourite topics, the place of religious faith in a science-driven world.

The science is a mix of the fairly basic and the advanced, speculative. The basic science comes from the history of observations of Sirius, which, if you accept the history at face value, is fairly bizarre. The presence of a fairly complex system of planets orbiting Sirius is also something Hamilton almost cheekily sneaks in: due to Sirius's size and type, detecting planets circling it through current methods has proven almost impossible, giving him a window to make up his own planetary system. The more speculative science applies to his traditional use of quantum and wormhole physics. As in his earlier novels, Hamilton brusquely describes his advanced scientific concepts in a straightforward manner that renders them fairly understandable to the reader. Unfortunately, he does commit one error when he fails to take into account relativity during a sublight interstellar voyage, which is a bit of an elementary mistake. Fortunately, it is not of major importance to the storyline.

In most respects, this is Peter F. Hamilton at his traditional, page-turning, easily-readable, SF blockbuster best. Unfortunately this extends to his traditional problem of including a number of sex scenes that add little to the narrative. It's not as prevalent an issue as it has been in the past (and we're fortunately still a long way from the dissolute Misspent Youth) but there are still a few scenes where characters start disrobing and the reader has to groan as the more interesting SF stuff is put on hold for a few paragraphs. Hamilton's other notable problem of how he ends his novels also rears its head here. In general terms the ending is fine and well-foreshadowed, but it does seem to almost be implausibly happy given the body count in the story and is certainly rather abrupt (something a character even half-apologetically notes). However, the storyline is mostly wrapped up satisfyingly, with only a couple of minor elements that could have been explored a bit thoroughly.

Overall, Great North Road (****) is a very solid novel. It's not amongst his best, but it rattles along at a good pace and handles its immense length quite well. It's also great to read a book where Hamilton is able to combine his mastery of epic plotting with a definitive ending. The novel will be published on 27 September in the UK and on 26 December in the USA.

Source: I received an advance review copy of this novel from the UK publishers.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

ASoIaF/GoT mod for CRUSADER KINGS II released

A modding team have released their Song of Ice and Fire-based mod for Crusader Kings II, Paradox Interactive's acclaimed medieval dynasty simulator. Crusader Kings II: A Game of Thrones is available right now for free, but you need a copy of Crusader Kings II to play it.


The mod not only alters the existing game setting and factions, it also introduces new features not present in the base game and allows for some amusing changes to the way things fell out in the books, as this report on a campaign indicates:
"An interesting development in my campaign if anyone's interested. Managed to squash Robert's Rebellion after ol' King Aerys met an "unfortunate" end and Rhaegar ascended to the throne. Spared Robert's life which eventually led to him choosing trial by combat. He killed Rhaegar so now I'm playing as Aegon with Varys as my regent. Gotta say, this mod is leaps and bounds ahead of vanilla CK2 and the official ASOIAF games as well."


Friday, 25 May 2012

Cover art for ICE AND FIRE by David Wingrove

The cover art for Ice and Fire, the fourth book in the revamped, twenty-volume Chung Kuo series, has appeared online. As with the first three books, the cover art is by Larry Rostant.


And with the title (and a slightly different image; it is unclear which is the final version at the moment):



The third volume in the series, The Middle Kingdom, is currently scheduled for release (after a slight delay) on 1 October 2012. Ice and Fire will follow on 1 December. The fifth book, The Art of War, has also been provisionally scheduled for 1 March 2013.

FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS DLC Expansions

The phenomenon of DLC - downloadable content - is a controversial one for many gamers. On the one hand, the notion of adding additional content to your game after release, extending its lifespan, is a welcome one. On the other, there is a temptation for developers to hold back features that could have been incorporated into the game at launch to make more money from fans later on, which is not acceptable for many.


Happily, the approach to DLC for the Fallout franchise has been exemplary. Fallout 3 - itself a massive game - was followed by five expansions which added a fair bit of new content to the game. These expansions were varied in tone and structure, but packed a lot of content into modest prices. Fallout: New Vegas continues this fine tradition, with four extremely large expansions released after the main game which expand the playing experience. They are now packaged with the base game in the Fallout: New Vegas Ultimate Edition. For maximum enjoyability, it is recommended you play the expansions in order of release (Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road), though it's not too much of a problem if you don't. However, I would recommended that New Vegas players get their character to Level 25-30 in the base game before tackling them, as they can be a lot more unforgiving than the main game. Note that installing the DLCs without playing them still raises New Vegas's level limit by a cumulative 20 levels, however, which is extremely helpful.


First up is Dead Money. Investigating a distress call leading to an abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker, the Courier falls into a trap and is knocked out. He wakes up in a town near the Sierra Madre, an opulent casino built just before the nuclear apocalypse. His equipment has been taken and a bomb attached to a collar around his neck. A man named Elijah contacts the Courier and informs him that he has been recruited into helping stage an audacious raid on the Sierra Madre's treasure vault. The Courier has to find the other members of his team (a schizophrenic Super Mutant, a mute woman and a dapper ex-entertainer ghoul) scattered about the town, break into the casino and carry out the heist. Needless to say, there are numerous complications. Radios in the town and the casino interfere with the bomb collar and can cause it to detonate if the player is not quick to disable them. Extremely hard-to-kill 'ghost people' lurk in the area and can rise from the dead if not dismembered. Weaponry and ammunition are difficult to find, and the area is also patrolled by invulnerable security holograms equipped with lasers.

Dead Money is probably the weakest of the four DLCs, which is a shame as it is packed with good ideas. It is tremendously atmospheric and exploring the low town whilst dodging clouds of a killer substance and trying not to blow up your own head is effective for a while. Unfortunately, this section of the game goes on for a bit too long, and the last haul before you get into the casino itself (when you have to cross most of the town hunted by packs of ghost people with weaponry and health supplies both in low supply) can be an exercise in frustration. The casino itself presents a fun series of puzzles to overcome, and there is a powerfully-written narrative to follow (via diaries and computer terminal logs) as you uncover the secrets behind the founding and building of the casino, and the doomed romance at the heart of it. The DLC also has a flexible ending, with several options available for the player to wrap up the quest (though be aware that one of them effectively ends the game for good). Overall, it's solid stuff, likely taking 4-6 hours to complete, but the gameplay is a little lacking compared to the strong narrative.


Honest Hearts has the player recruited by the Happy Trails Trading Company, which is trying to open a new caravan route to the township of New Canaan via Zion Valley in Utah. Upon reaching Zion Valley, the Courier's employers are wiped out and he finds himself recruited by the mysterious 'Burned Man' to help end a devastating conflict between the tribes of the valley (a former nature reserve). The Courier has to visit the different factions and either forge a peaceful resolution (an evacuation of one of the tribes) or a more violent one (siding with one of the factions and wiping the other out).

Honest Hearts is an entertaining expansion, featuring some of the best vistas and views in the entire Fallout series to date (and makes one wish that the upgraded Creation Engine from Skyrim could be retrofitted onto it, to make it look even more impressive). Unlike the more restricted environment in Dead Money, this is an open world setting which you can explore at leisure. The quests are strong and the characters memorable, but the narrative is less powerful than Dead Money's, with the expansion ultimately ending with a shoot 'em up sequence no matter what choices you make. The expansion also has a very clunky opening in which it's impossible to save your travelling companions from death (which given New Vegas's normal flexibility is a bit weak) and then almost immediately depicts a confusing melee in which it's very easy to kill your potential allies, resulting in you auto-failing every quest in the DLC instantly. Once you get over that bump, the rest of the expansion is fun with some cool companion characters, good gear and a solid moral conflict at the heart of the story (and a great choice of two endings, neither of which are totally good or bad and have their own advantages and disadvantages). If you power through the game you might take 6 hours to complete it, but a thorough exploration of every cave and point of interest in the valley could take a lot longer. It's more fun than Dead Money in gameplay terms but isn't quite as atmospheric or well-written.


Old World Blues is the jewel in New Vegas's crown. The Courier is drawn to a mysterious broadcast at a drive-in theatre in the Mojave which teleports him to the Big MT, an advanced scientific research outpost located in the middle of a huge crater, isolated from the rest of the world. The scientists there lost their mortal bodies to age decades ago, but have transferred their brains into robots. They apologise to the Courier, as they removed his brain for analysis and have since misplaced it (the Courier is effectively piloting his body on remote-control for the duration of the expansion). The Courier's quest, therefore, is to retrieve his own brain! He also has to discover the secrets of the facility and uncover it's backstory.

Old World Blues is flat-out bonkers. Inspired by 1950s American B-movies, there is a silly - maybe even camp - tone to events. As the expansion was created in early 2011 and released late in the year, I suspect an influence from Portal 2, particularly the Cave Johnson-like voice announcements from a long-dead scientist that accompanies one particular journey. It's the funniest slice of Fallout to date and in places threatens to become inconsistent with the rest of the setting (particularly the teleporting technology, which is an order of magnitude more advanced than what even the occasionally-glimpsed aliens in the series appear to be capable of), though they just about dodge this. It's very funny, but as the Courier completes the quests and uncovers the secrets of the facility it also takes a turn for the tragic, as elements of the backstory come into sharper focus. Completing the main quest in Old World Blues will likely take 8-10 hours (longer than many full games) but exploring the full map and the various facilities will take a lot longer. The reward for completing the DLC is impressive as well: a technologically-advanced house inhabited by various AI assistants (including a homicidal toaster, possibly a tribute to British SF show Red Dwarf), a medical suite and a buy/sell terminal. A cool place to hang out once in a while.


One common thread links the first three DLCs: the Courier keeps finding evidence of a man called Ulysses - codenamed 'Courier Six' - who has taken an interest in the Courier's activities. In Lonesome Road the Courier receives a message from this individual, who has taken up residence in the Divide, a once-prosperous community (visited by the Courier himself many years ago) that was destroyed when some nuclear warheads kept in a nearby silo were accidentally detonated. The Courier is challenged to traverse the length of the radioactive Divide and meet with Ulysses personally. As they move towards a showdown, it becomes clearer that Ulysses and the Courier have an important shared history...even if the Courier cannot remember the significance of it.

Lonesome Road is the most divisive of the four DLCs, mainly because it's very linear. Whilst there is some scope to go off the road and investigate passing areas, most of the time you simply have to press forwards. This linearity seems to go against the ethos of New Vegas and its immense flexibility in allowing players to do what they want in the game, but in this case it may have been a worthwhile sacrifice, as it allows Obsidian to do something very interesting with the narrative. Essentially, the expansion asks the question about what would happen if you were just a randomly-passing NPC in someone else's epic story? Ulysses was the main character of his own Fallout narrative and the Courier a passer-by, but one whose actions had an immense impact on Ulysses, sending him on a huge journey across the Mojave, the Sierra Madre, Zion Valley and the Big MT. The Courier himself barely remembers the incident and is bemused by the whole situation, but must play a crucial role in resolving Ulysses's story, one way or another.

For all its linearity and brevity (at around 4 hours it's the shortest of the expansions, but is still a fair bit longer than the shortest Fallout 3 DLCs, Operation Anchorage and Mothership Zeta), Lonesome Road is still a lot of fun. Combat is entertaining and varied, with a number of side-missions which can be challenging in themselves. The series' most iconic enemies, the deathclaws, are back in force after being low-key in the other New Vegas games, resulting in some tense battles. There's also some interesting narrative developments later on which open up areas further back along the map, allowing for some additional exploration. However, everything is building up to a powerful showdown between the Courier and his apparent nemesis, which is gripping stuff.

Ultimately, the four expansions to Fallout New Vegas are all worthwhile. Even the weakest, Dead Money, is well worth playing and the best, Old World Blues, should be required playing for every Fallout fan. All four are enjoyable and between them they add a significant number of new perks and weapons to the game (cazadores need never worry you again after completing the relevant sub-quest in Old World Blues). But most impressive is the way that each expansion contributes to a genuinely innovative and interesting storyline, which is flexible enough to be played in any order (though it makes slightly more sense to play the expansions in order of release), light enough not to restrict your choices too much but weighty enough to have a real impact. It's no surprise that the writing team behind Planescape: Torment (the greatest western RPG of all time) were behind this offbeat storyline.

Dead Money (***½)
Honest Hearts (****½)
Old World Blues (*****)
Lonesome Road (****½)

Revised cover art for FORGE OF DARKNESS by Steven Erikson

Via Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, Bantam UK have revised their cover art for Forge of Darkness, the first book in Steven Erikson's Kharkanas Trilogy (a prequel to the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence). The new artwork has added blueness.


The book will be published on 31 July in the UK and 18 September in the USA.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The National contribute to GAME OF THRONES soundtrack

American rock group The National have contributed to the Game of Thrones Season 2 soundtrack. They have recorded the in-universe song The Rains of Castamere for the Season 2 soundtrack album (presumably meaning it will also appear in one of the two remaining episodes of the season). You can hear the track here.


As fans of the books know, The Rains of Castamere is an extremely important piece of music in Westeros. Written to 'celebrate' the annihilation of the rebellious House Reyne by the newly-installed Lord Tywin Lannister, it serves as an example of the fate that befalls rebels. It soundtracks a vitally important scene in the novel A Storm of Swords that should be coming up in the third season of Game of Thrones (which starts shooting in a few weeks).


For my money, this is a powerful and impressive version of the song from the books. If they use this on that scene from next season, it should be epic. The Season 2 soundtrack will be released on 19 June.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Hammer by K.J. Parker

Seventy years ago, a colony was founded on the western tip of an unexplored landmass. The colonists were supposed to mine silver, but didn't find any. Instead they farmed and lived in uneasy peace with the natives to the east. Later, the noble met'Oc family fled to the colony as exiles. Living on an impregnable plateau and raiding the colonists for livestock, they have not been the best of neighbours. Gignomai met'Oc, the youngest son of the family, rebels against his father and is disinherited, sparking a series of events that will define the future of the family and the colony.


So, what do you call a novel which is not SF, which is set in an invented world but has no magical elements in it whatsoever, but where the spine of the book revolves around science and engineering? Science Fantasy? Fantasy Engineering? Of course, this is such a narrow field that you can simply call it a K.J. Parker novel and anyone who's read her* work before will know what you're talking about.

The Hammer is Parker's twelfth novel and is a stand-alone book, not part of any series, although it is set in the same world as just about all of her work. Those familiar with Parker will know what to expect: a cast of complex characters who fail to fall into neat categories of good and bad; a dry, black sense of humour; and an occasional tendency to turn the book into an engineering treatise for a few paragraphs.This latter trait is usually extremely important to the plot, which in this case turns on the different calibres of primitive bullets and the practicalities of setting up a factory, but can slow down the narrative at key moments if the author is not careful.

As usual, the book revolves around one character, in this case Gignomai, a bright lad who - understandably - does not want to spend his whole life living on a plateau farmstead with his distant father and somewhat ruthless brothers. Gignomai is a familiar Parker character: one man with a grand vision who is able to prevail over those of lesser vision through a mixture of ruthlessness, good team-management skills and thinking outside the box. In this case, however, Gignomai is also reliant on his friend Furio, whose essentially serves as his conscience, and Furio's father Marzo, whose unexpected diplomatic skills during a crisis end up with him being declared de facto mayor, to his own distress. These three characters form the core of the novel and drive forward the plot. They're all well-realised, but it's disappointing that a promising female character, the would-be doctor Teucer, almost vanishes from the novel after being set up as more of an important player.

The plot is somewhat complex and involved, relying as it does on mysteries, sleight of hand and the economic workings of the colony, although the small scale of the book means it's easy to keep everything straight. Parker has a deliciously twisted imagination and sense of plotting, and keeps the pages flying by as you try to work out what's going on. The novel is on the short side for an epic fantasy (if that's what it even is) at 400 pages, and Parker's prose style - deceptively straightforward writing masking more complex characterisation - is highly readable.

Overall, then, The Hammer is a fine novel that's fairly compelling and well-characterised. Where it falls down is that Parker's air of cynicism - present in most of her works to varying degrees - is a little too dominant here (instead of being more nicely balanced, as in the splendid Folding Knife) and some of her economic ideas are rather odd. The book initially presents the colony as being set on a poor landmass, with some valuable resources but nothing too special, explaining its small size. The later suggestion that it's on the edge of a mostly unexplored continent just a week's sailing from the Vesani Republic not so much beggars as breaks credulity. How has this land not been colonised on a much larger scale already?

Still, despite these lapses The Hammer (***½) remains an above-average novel from one our better and more interesting fantasy writers. It's certainly a lesser work from Parker, but one that's still worth checking out if you can overlook the minor faults. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

* No, I don't know if Parker is a man or a woman, but I'm going with the majority view that she's a she in the absence of any other information.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

UK cover art and and blurb for A MEMORY OF LIGHT

Orbit Books have revealed the UK cover art for the final Wheel of Time book, as well as their cover blurb. The cover art fits in with the minimalist style of the last few British hardcovers, but is more striking due to the white colour scheme.



‘And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died.’ From Charal Drianaan te Calamon, The Cycle of the Dragon.

In the Field of Merrilor the rulers of the nations gather to join behind Rand al’Thor, or to stop him from his plan to break the seals on the Dark One’s prison – which may be a sign of his madness, or the last hope of humankind. Egwene, the Amyrlin Seat, leans toward the former.

In Andor, the Trollocs seize Caemlyn.

In the wolf dream, Perrin Aybara battles Slayer.

Approaching Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon plans to visit his wife Tuon, now Fortuona, Empress of the Seanchan.

All humanity is in peril – and the outcome will be decided in Shayol Ghul itself. The Wheel is turning, and the Age is coming to its end. The Last Battle will determine the fate of the world..

For twenty years The Wheel of Time has enthralled more than forty million readers in over thirty-two languages. A MEMORY OF LIGHT brings this majestic fantasy creation to its richly satisfying conclusion.

Working from notes and partials left by Robert Jordan when he died in 2007, and consulting with Jordan’s widow, who edited all of Jordan’s books, established fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has recreated the vision Jordan left behind.

A MEMORY OF LIGHT will be published on 8 January 2013.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Gormenghast

The birth of Titus Groan, heir to the vast castle of Gormenghast, is a time of great joy and happiness for the inhabitants. However, it also marks the beginnings of the rise to power of Steerpike, an ambitious boy from the kitchens who uses his ruthless schemes to secure a position of power and influence. As Titus grows to manhood, increasingly doubtful of his place in a castle steeped in tradition and ritual, so Steerpike's ambition, power and greed grows as well.



Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy is one of the defining and most important works of the modern fantasy genre, a densely-written work of tremendous atmosphere and power. On a surface read it is also quite unfilmable, with much of the action in the book motivated by conflicts that are internalised within the characters and much of the storyline and characters being too offbeat, weird or surreal to be commercially viable.

This is probably why only the BBC - a public-service broadcaster which cares little about commercial success but has access to large budgets - could have even attempted a faithful adaptation of the series to television. This four-episode mini-series covers the first two books of the series, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. The third book, Titus Alone, was not attempted due to its significant budgetary requirements, time constraints and it being far too strange even by the standards of the rest of the trilogy.

To bring the books to the screen, the BBC spent a considerable amount of money. Filmed in 1999 and broadcast the following year, the serial has certainly dated (particularly the sections where greenscreen was obviously used) in respect to its composite work, but otherwise has held up well in terms of production values. The sets are highly impressive (especially when the castle is flooded during a downpour) and the costumes are superb. The effects work (by itself) is decent, although the matte paintings and CGI versions of the castle proved controversial amongst fans of the books. The BBC version of Gormenghast is arguably much more colourful than Peake's grey, crumbling ruin, with the TV version taking more overt inspiration from China's Forbidden City (Peake spent most of his first eleven years in China, where his parents were missionaries).

The casting is mostly excellent, with what feels like very British actor and comic of note at the time recruited for the project. Ian Richardson plays the increasingly befuddled Earl of Gormenghast, whilst Celia Imrie - better known for his comic roles - plays his wife, the cold, austere and commanding Lady Gertrude with a steely presence. The series features a very early appearance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Henry VIII in The Tudors) as Steerpike in a performance which veers between the convincingly conniving and threatening to painful over-acting at times (especially towards the end of the mini-series). Dominating the cast with his presence, gravitas and of course voice is Christopher Lee as Mr. Flay, the Earl's manservant who falls into disgrace and then appoints himself Steerpike's nemesis. Richard Griffiths is also notable as the head cook, Swelter, whose feud with Flay dominates the first half of the serial. Zoe Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter also do great work as the isolated and confused Groan sisters, Cora and Clarice. Particularly impressive is Neve McIntosh as Fuschia, who plays a difficult character with conviction and succeeds in making her likable, despite her many moments of selfishness. Stephen Fry makes for a splendid Professor Bellgrove, and the mini-series is notable for one of the last appearances of the legendary Spike Milligan before his passing. Less successful is Andrew Robertson as the grown-up Titus, who lacks charisma and suffers the most from his internal conflicts not being readily accessible to the viewer.

So the production values are good and the cast - mostly - excellent. How does the mini-series fare overall? Well, it's okay. It's not brilliant, mainly due to the jarring tonal shifts. The Gormenghast novels move between comedy, farce, surrealism, gothic grotesquerie and powerful drama with ease, sometimes within the same scene. The TV show is much less successful in handling these movements, with the writing not often being up to the job (the TV show's tendency to use un-Peake-like swearing to punctuate moments of drama or comedy is obvious and dull). The comic moments tend to descend into bad farce with ease, not helped by a miscast John Sessions as Dr. Prunesquallor (he does his best and is occasionally even effective, but most of the time irritates). The compression of two 400-page novels into just four hours also sees entire storylines handled badly. There simply isn't enough time to handle the storyline of Keda and her baby and it should really have been exorcised entirely rather than shrunk into a few, highly confusing scenes. Elsewhere, Bellgrove's romance with Prunesquallor's sister may be taken from the book but it does feel like a large and unnecessary divergence from the central matters of Steerpike and Titus, and perhaps should have been condensed (to give the Keda storyline more time, as it impacts on Titus much more directly).

At the same time, when the serial does work, it works brilliantly. The flooding of Gormenghast, a highly evocative scene in the novels and one that you'd assume would not be possible to depict on a TV budget, is actually successful. Christopher Lee is awesome every time he's on the screen, and Neve McIntosh's excellent performance as Fuschia gives her character's storyline even more pathos and tragedy than in the novel (heresy!). Jonathan Rhys Meyers also seems to raise his game when in scenes with either of them, or with Celia Imrie. Gertrude is a highly unpleasant character, but Imrie plays her with total conviction and her single-minded ruthlessness, which makes her unlikable for much of the serial, suddenly becomes rather admirable when she uses it to remorselessly hunt down Steerpike.

Ultimately, the BBC version of Gormenghast (***) is unable to capture the full power of Peake's novels (no adaptation ever could), though some of the author's genius is successfully captured in fleeting moments. The excellent casting, solid production values and those scenes which really work certainly make the series worth watching, although a strong degree of teeth-grinding patience may be necessary to make it through the less successful moments (and much of the first episode, which is all over the place in quality before it starts to settle down). The series is available now on DVD in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Fallout: New Vegas

Two centuries after a nuclear war destroyed the United States and much of the world, civilisation is slowly reasserting itself in the American West. Two powerful blocs have formed. The New California Republic follows the ideals and goals of pre-war America, believing in a land of freedom and opportunity. Caesar's Legion is an army of fascist thugs who believe in rule by strength and superiority. Between these two forces lies the Mojave Wasteland and the city of New Vegas, a fiercely independent state ruled by the enigmatic Mr. House and his army of security robots.


A courier, bearing an important parcel for delivery to New Vegas, is shot in the head by an unknown assailant and left for dead. Nursed back to health by a local doctor, the courier sets out to complete his mission, find the assailant and recover his commission. But as the courier delves deeper into the Mojave Wasteland, he (or she) discovers a land poised on the brink of a great change, and that she (or he) may ultimately hold the balance of power.

Fallout: New Vegas was released in late 2010 and is a stand-alone successor to the first three Fallout games. It was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the successors to Black Isle, that company that created the franchise and the first two games in the sequence. Bethesda, who bought the licence for the franchise and made Fallout 3, contracted Obsidian to make a new game in the series. This move was popular with fans (particularly those doubtful over Bethesda's handling of the series), since it allowed quite a few team-members who worked on the first two games to produce a new Fallout title. There were even able to incorporate some elements of the cancelled 'original' Fallout 3 that Black Isle were working on when they were shut down.

Anyone who's played one of Bethesda's Gamebryo/Creation engine games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim) will be at home here. The game is played from a first-person perspective, although a third-person viewpoint is available as well. You create your character, deciding his or her name and gender and deciding their appearance. There are no classes, with instead you pumping skill points into the areas you want to develop (guns, speech and science are highly recommended). Every two levels you also get perks, special bonuses to certain skills or abilities. You're then set loose in the game world with an initial mission - find the guy who shot you - but also the freedom to wander off, explore, speak to people, pick up initial jobs and so on. It's also up to you whether to play as a heroic wanderer, a practical money-hunter or a psychopathic maniac.

The opening town in the game, Goodsprings, has a number of missions you can do for money and experience (some of which also act as tutorials for the game's combat system). Due to the geography of the Mojave (as depicted in the game), your pursuit of your nemesis leads up a valley through several other settlements, where side-missions are never far away. In this fashion the game encourages you to build up your character before confronting your enemy in New Vegas itself, without restricting your freedom (you can simply ignore everything and go straight to the city if you really want to).

However, there is one massive difference between New Vegas and the Bethesda games: Obsidian have some of the best writers in gaming working for them. Bethesda, to be charitable...don't. In particular, they have little truck with either violence being the only solution to problems or in moral absolutes of black and white. You often find that missions can be accomplished through dialogue or bargaining rather than violence alone. Your skills impact on your dialogue choices in a way that didn't happen in Fallout 3, immediately opening up a vaster number of options. If you have a high medical skill, for example, you can simply tell a medic how to make the best use of his resources rather than going on a long and dangerous mission halfway across the map to find the same info in a textbook. In addition there are situations where there are two options and each option has both positive and negative consequences and neither is obviously the 'right' choice to make. You have to make the choice which makes the most sense for your character, given their allegiances.

There is also a faction system at work in the game. On the larger scale, the armies of the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion are clashing for control of the Mojave, and in particular the tactically important location of Hoover's Dam, which provides power for most of the region. You can ally with either side and perform missions for them, but this will ultimately destroy your reputation with the other side and close down your ability to do missions for them as well. New Vegas doesn't allow you to have your cake and eat it. It forces you to make decisions and stick to them. There is also a second layer of factions at work in New Vegas itself, with Mr. House determined to maintain the city's independence whilst the local representatives of the New California Republic tries to convince him to join them. There's also another faction in New Vegas which seeks to eliminate Mr. House and seize control themselves. Once again, you can choose which side to join.


However, and this is where New Vegas really impresses, the game also gives you a very important option: to be yourself. Can't choose between the NCR and the Legion? Ignore both of them. Or wage war on both of them whenever you find them. Don't like Mr. House or his enemies? Eliminate both of them, seize control of Mr. House's immense army of robot sentries and rule New Vegas yourself. No character in the game has plot-armour. You can be in a high-level strategic conference with the NCR's senior-most general, but you can, if you wish, shoot her in the head. There are consequences (the NCR will turn on you and try to hunt you down wherever you are, and further missions from them will not be available), but you can do it if you wish. The game doesn't force you to do anything you don't want to, and gives the player an impressive amount of freedom.

Where the game also scores big over Fallout 3 and Skyrim is its treatment of companion characters. In those games, companions are basically extra weapons platforms and a mobile bonus inventory. They don't really talk to you and after a while there is no point interacting with them other than what they can do for you on a practical level. In New Vegas, each potential follower has a quest associated with them and their own allegiances and preferences. Bringing ex-NCR sniper Boone into a Legion camp will result in Boone going on a killing spree. Come into conflict with NCR troopers and Boone may leave or even turn on you. This applies to all of the companions, who also seem a bit chattier than in Bethesda's own games. In short, in New Vegas companion characters bring a lot more to the table than their Bethesda counterparts.

Graphically, the game looks a little lacking compared to Skyrim with its high-res textures installed, but otherwise looks credibly impressive. There are some great environment and sound effects that convincingly sell the illusion of being in the desert. There is some clunkiness; rock faces and mountains are sometimes surrounded by invisible walls to prevent you climbing over them, which is odd. But otherwise the graphics and sound effects are strong. The interface is unchanged from Fallout 3 and is mostly fine, but there is no way of instantly accessing your quest log, inventory or skill sheet with a single button. Instead you must activate your PIP-BOY (a wrist-mounted mini-computer) and cycle through the pages, which is a cumbersome process, even though the game freezes whilst using it. You can assign weapons, healing packs and other items to hotkeys, however, which does help.

For combat, you can either engage in direct combat FPS-style (now enhanced by the addition of iron sights) or use VATS. In this mode combat is paused and you can target an enemy's limbs before resuming the battle. This was generally nice but not essential in Fallout 3, but is more important in New Vegas. Throughout the game you will face a relentless type of flying insect called a 'cazadore', which is exceptionally deadly. Blowing their wings off, ridding them of their devastating speed, in VATS is a good way of dealing with them. Combat is thus a bit more involved and satisfying than in Fallout 3, with a larger and more interesting array of weapons. There's also more focus on melee combat, which is useful in close-quarters battles where stopping to reload a firearm could be fatal.

Like the other Fallout games, New Vegas is set in a radioactive environment where the very soil and water is hazardous. Unlike the other games, the New Vegas area did not take a direct nuclear hit during the war so these hazards are much less prevalent than in Fallout 3. Coupled with a lack of famous landmarks (aside from Hoover Dam), New Vegas sells the idea of being in a post-apocalyptic world less effectively than Fallout 3. However, it does do a better job of selling the illusion of a post-post-apocalyptic world, where the apocalypse was a long time ago (now more than two centuries) and civilisation is starting to reassert itself. For those who do feel the environment is less threatening than previous games, you can activate a hardcore mode which forces you to sleep, eat and drink on a regular basis, as well as giving your ammo weight (preventing you from lugging tons of it all over the place). A further optional mod by the game's project lead also makes the game more challenging still (by halving the amount of experience you get).

New Vegas has a formidable array of memorable characters to talk to and deal with. Your companions are fully fleshed-out individuals with complex motivations and backstory. Boone, a devastatingly competent sniper and soldier, is working through the pain of the loss of his family to raiders. A Super Mutant who allies with you is suffering mental problems (the result of exposure to a dangerous technology) but is also tormented by memories of her grandchildren, who died decades earlier. Mr. House believes he can restore peace to the world and presents you with rationales as to why this is so, but is also an egotistical narcissist with no real idea of his true nature (as a hilariously over-the-top obituary - penned by himself in the event of his death - proves). Caesar himself is a deluded sociopath who justifies the mass-slaughter of innocents through dubious rhetoric (which you can attempt to argue him out of, or can choose to remove his head instead). Even minor characters, like the explosive-obsessed 'Boomers' who've taken over an old military base or the doctor who patches you up at the start of the game, have their own stories and characteristic tics. The voice acting is also superb, with a special shout-out to Michael Hogan (Saul Tigh from the new Battlestar Galactica) whose voice is the first thing you hear in the game (after Ron Perlman's traditional opening narration, of course).

The combination of these factors is that Fallout: New Vegas is the best game released by Bethesda to date (although it was not developed by them). Obsidian have crafted an open-world storyline based on choice and freedom of action to go with the open-world setting. There are complex moral choices to make, memorable and three-dimensional characters to interact with and the ability to solve problems without always resorting to guns and violence (you can even defeat the end-of-game enemy through dialogue, rather than weaponry). The faction system gives rise to a large number of different possible endings as well. With New Vegas Obsidian have finally added a freeform, flexible and complex story worthy of the freeform, complex and open nature of the game engine that Bethesda have created.

Unfortunately, the game is let down by some minor technical issues. The game is now in a much better state than at launch, where it was a bit of a mess. Most of the bugs have now been fixed, and I actually had less crashes than I did with Fallout 3. However, an ongoing bug prevented me from loading saved games from the start menu, which was a bit silly. I had to start a new game each time and then load from within the game world. Fortunately, loading is so fast that this was not a problem (adding maybe 5 seconds to the load process). Still, the fact this known issue was not fixed (and, with support for the game now ended, never will be) at some point is irritating.

Fallout: New Vegas (****½) is a long, impressive roleplaying game set against a complex, morally ambiguous backdrop which gives the player real freedom in the narrative sphere as well as the simplistic exploration-and-shoot-things area. Despite some minor technical issues, it is a brilliant game and the best thing released by Bethesda since Morrowind, and the best game produced by Obsidian to date. It is available now, packaged with its excellent expansions (which I will cover separately), in the UK (PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3).

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle

Windhaven is a storm-wracked world consisting of a vast ocean and a small scattering of islands, home to the descendants of survivors of a spacecraft crash centuries earlier. The most efficient way of passing messages between islands is by the flyers, specially-trained men and women who can use strong-but-flexible 'wings' salvaged from the wrecked spaceship to ride the winds from island to island. Tradition has it that a flyer's wings are passed from parent to their eldest child, but this order is upset when Maris of Lesser Amberley, the adopted daughter of a flyer, is required to give up her wings to her adopted father's trueborn eldest child, who has no interest in flying. The establishment is opposed to any opening of the flyers' ranks to the 'land-bound', but the winds of change are blowing on Windhaven, and these changes will be difficult and potentially bloody.


Windhaven, originally published in 1981, is a 'fix-up' novel, consisting of two short stories written in the 1970s and a third, concluding section written for this edition. It was George R.R. Martin's second novel and Lisa Tuttle's first. With the book's feudal society and low technology level (due to a lack of metal on the islands), it is reminiscent of fantasy, although there is an SF background to the setting.

The novel is divided into three episodes, taken from different points in Maris's life. In the first, Maris has to fight tradition in order to hold onto her wings. In the second, Maris has succeeded in allowing the 'land-bound' to train as flyers, but faces problems when a bitter and angry new recruit attempts to earn his wings after rejecting the traditions of the flyer caste. In the third, an older Maris, recovering from a head injury, is drawn into a dispute over the powers of the flyers and the land-bound rulers of the islands.

Each episode builds on the same theme on tradition and transformation. Windhaven is, in essence, a caste-based society with the flyers held to different standards, laws and responsibilities as the land-bound. Maris's arguments for changing this to allow the land-bound commoners to train as flyers works because it solves an existing problem, where people in flyer families who are not good at flying are lost in accidents, and their irreplaceable wings with them. However, it is not a safe or easy answer, as the influx of new blood into the flyer community causes unforseen problems that the society has to deal with. The basic premise of a rigid society being changed by the actions of an individual (usually, as in this case, the protagonist) is commonplace, but Windhaven delights in exploring the consequences of each change and following the ripples and additional complications they cause. The book ends with, hopefully, a new, fairer and more permanent order being established, but even in this case Maris realises that problems will continue to arise, this being the nature of societies and indeed life.

Windhaven benefits from strong characterisation. Maris develops from episode to episode, the scope of her ambition widening as her understanding of the world grows. She starts out as a little girl who only wants to fly, but becomes a leader who must make sometimes unpopular decisions to maintain the rules she herself set in place. More complex still is Val, the 'one-wing' Maris starts out by hating but ultimately has to fight for, despite his own dislike of her. There is also S'Rella, the trainee flyer from the far south, who wants to follow in Maris's footsteps and is upset to find the world a harsher place than she thought, as well as Evan (a doctor in the service of a ruthless and cruel lord) and Coll (Maris's brother, born to be a flyer but wanting to be a singer). It's a small but well-defined cast of characters.

There's a strong sense of place to the islands of Windhaven, particularly successful as we still get a sense of the nature of some far-off places even though Maris never visits them. Song of Ice and Fire fans may also be amused to find some place-names that crop up again in the later series (such as the Iron Islands and the Eyrie). The descriptions of flying are vivid, although the actual act of flying plays a smaller role in the story than a reader might expect (it's function and ramifications being more central to the narrative).

Windhaven (****) is a solid early effort from both authors, though perhaps a tad slight compared to their later works and the book's short length requires a fair amount of convenience in plot developments (namely, the way Maris is at the centre of all three major world-shaking moments in the book). It's well-written, mixing cynicism with hope and adding a dash of realism to the optimism engendered by Maris's successes. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Source: I purchased this book.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks event in London

Forbidden Planet are hosting an interesting event at the British Library in London on 9 June. SF heavyweights Iain M. Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson will be discussing a large number of topics related to SF and their work.


For more info, including tickets, check out Forbidden Planet's website.

Who else could have made a SONG OF ICE AND FIRE computer game?

With the second Song of Ice and Fire computer game - A Game of Thrones: The Roleplaying Game - now out in the States and getting somewhat mediocre reviews, there seems to be a growing consensus that Cyanide were perhaps not the best company to develop a game based on the series. One of the most common comments has been that a bigger company should have tackled the project, with Bethesda (makers of the Elder Scrolls fantasy RPG series) and BioWare (the makers of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series) frequently cited. However, what a lot of people don't know is that both of these companies, and others, have considered exactly such a project in the past.




Bethesda Softworks

Some time between the completion of their fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion (published in 2006) and starting work on the fifth, Skyrim (2011), probably whilst they were still working on Fallout 3 (2008), Bethesda were approached by George R.R. Martin's agent as he believed they were a 'good fit' for the Song of Ice and Fire series. Todd Howard, the head of Bethesda Studios, agreed but also knew they were extremely busy between two different franchises, with games in each franchise taking between 3 and 5 years to develop individually. With their online off-shoot (Zenimax Online Entertaiment) working in secret on The Elder Scrolls Online, there was no capacity at the company to embark on such a big project, and they (regretfully) passed.
"With A Song of Ice and Fire, we went ‘We want to do that!’ People in our studio liked it, and it seeped in a bit to what we were doing. We were actually asked a while ago to turn those books into games. We wanted to do our own world. That’s where we wanted to put out time into. Before we were even making Skyrim, there was a conversation with George R.R. Martin’s people. They thought it would be a good match—and so did we, actually—but then we thought about if that was where we wanted to spend our time. It was tempting, though."

BioWare

Unlike Bethesda, these ideas never made it to any kind of formal discussion with GRRM or his agent, but internally there was a strong feeling at BioWare that they should consider making an MMORPG based on A Song of Ice and Fire, even going as far as producing proof-of-concept documents. However, LucasArts and BioWare then decided to make Star Wars: The Old Republic, based on their earlier Knights of the Old Republic games, which turned out to be a very lengthy and incredibly expensive project indeed.
"So we were looking at doing a Lord of the Rings MMO, a Silmarillion MMO, a kind of a Gunslinger-esque Dark Tower MMO, a Game of Thrones MMO." Each setting has different strengths," Ohlen added, describing the 10 page documents that the team drew up at an early design stage. "If we were going to do a Game of Thrones MMO, what kind of rules and what kind of gameplay elements would really bring that world to life? Each one had that, but we always focused on the story at the fore."
However, minor references to the books can be found in their Dragon Age games, which were developed with A Song of Ice and Fire cited as a major influence.



Relic Entertainment

As with BioWare, this seems to have been an idea kicked around in-house and never spoken about officially with the rights-holders. However, one of the project leads on Relic's superb WW2 real-time strategy game Company of Heroes did like the idea of producing a strategy game based on the ASoIaF novels:
In the latest Games For Windows podcast, Josh Mosqueira - the lead designer on Company of Heroes - said that he wanted to make an RTS based on acclaimed fantasy author George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. When asked what games he wanted to make, Mosqueira replied, "Game of Thrones [the first book in the series] - that would be awesome." In case you haven't read any of A Song of Ice and Fire (and we recommend that you do), it's an epic story with extremely complicated and devious characters. Mosqueira rightly described it as, "It's like fantasy, but without the sucky parts of fantasy." The books also describe detailed military strategies, as well as various well-developed armies and houses, each with different strengths. As such, an RTS based on the series could be amazing, and Mosqueira said that the books featured, "a lot of interesting things in terms of what could be done within a strategy setting."



Paradox Interactive

Paradox are the extremely well-regarded developers of numerous 'hardcore' strategy games, including the popular Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron series, as well as the Crusader Kings games (which have very popular ASoIaF-based mods). Surprisingly, they were apparently also in touch with GRRM's camp a few years ago over a possible game, but ultimately decided not to proceed with a licensed property. Paradox CEO Fred Wester explains:
"A few years ago we were in contact with George RR Martin to make a CK like game based on the books, but we didn't finalize any contract. It is quite unlikely that we will work with third party IP, for many reasons."



Ultimately, Cyanide got the job because they pursued the licence with passion and commitment. Whilst the games have not worked out as well as might be hoped, the simple truth is that it's unlikely a larger company would have taken a risk with - what was a few years ago - an obscure property. Today, with the success of the TV series, it would likely be a different story. I suspect we have not seen the last ASoIaF computer game and it'll be interesting to see what happens next.  It's also worth remembering that there's some very exciting fan gaming projects coming up that look vastly superior to anything Cyanide has done.

Wertzone Classics: Max Payne 2 - The Fall of Max Payne

Two years have passed since Max Payne blew open the Valkyr case and avenged the death of his wife and daughter. However, this has brought Payne no peace. Living in a dingy apartment and relying on alcohol to get through the nights, he lives for his job alone. A new case brings him back into contact with unsavoury characters from his past, such as Russian gangster Vlad and assassin-for-hire Mona Sax, whom Max thought was dead. As the case develops, Max is forced to team up with Mona and is drawn deeper in a web of conspiracies, intrigue and betrayals.
 

Max Payne 2 was released in late 2003, following on from the immense success of the first game. Finnish developers Remedy remained in charge and much of the same creative team returned. However, the success of the first game meant that the sequel would have a lot more money behind it. The amateurish cut-scenes of the first game (relying on the developers and friends posing for pictures to be turned into comic book panels, as they had no money for professional actors) are gone, replaced by slickly-produced interludes featuring 'proper' actors. The graphics are a huge improvement, with vastly superior character models who can now change their expressions and speak. The bullet time of the first game has been refined and developed further, with different levels of slow-mo now available. The game even opens up a little by allowing the player to control Mona for several missions halfway through.

As with the first game, Max Payne 2 is basically about shooting a lot of people, sometimes in slow motion. That said, just as the first game also mused on themes of revenge, grief and psychological damage, the second has a more ambitious narrative than most shooters. Basically, it's a love story and one of the better-realised love stories in the entire history of gaming (not, it has to be said, that this is a busy field). It works on two levels, with Max and Mona's obvious chemistry forming much of the emotional core of the game whilst Max is also still dealing with the death of his wife. Max's descent into drink dependency (and possibly an addiction to painkillers and phone sex lines) is born of frustration: he killed the woman responsible for the murder of his family and destroyed the conspiracy that led to it, but this has given him no peace. He needs to move on and cannot. The game's title refers not to a literal fall for Max but to the fact that he starts the game at rock bottom, and must claw his way to redemption and self-forgiveness.

This thematic and emotional theme is related through the medium of lunatic ultraviolence. In each level Max has to reach an objective and is usually opposed by a significant number of enemies, in this case members of an enigmatic gang who pose as a cleaning firm. To deal with them he still has the ability to slip into bullet time, where time slows down to a crawl and you can see each individual bullet shooting through the air. This has now been refined, with each enemy killed in bullet time further slowing the action down. A busy gunfight can result in time almost standing still as you take out enemy after enemy. With criticisms that the first game was perhaps a little on the easy side, the developers have added many more tactically challenging encounters to the game, with maximum use of the different types of bullet time being essential to progress.

The weapons load-out is similar to the first game, with the addition of a few new weapons and refinements to the control system (grenades and molotovs can now be thrown with a 'secondary attack' button rather than cumbersomely having to switch manually to them mid-battle), as well as a slightly more involved melee combat option. However, the most notable difference to the first game is the addition of a fully-fledged physics system, one of the very first developed for games. Obviously they're standard in almost all titles now, but at the time it was massive quantum leap forward for the pursuit of realistic character and object movement in games. Remedy go a bit OTT with the use of physics events through the game, but it's pretty impressive stuff. Unfortunately, it's mostly for cosmetic use; there's no physics puzzles of the kind that Half-Life 2 popularised a year later. As mentioned earlier, the graphics are also vastly superior. Playing the first game now requires some forgiveness of the clunky character models, but no such stretching is required for the second game, which still looks great.




Max Payne 2 also has a notable shift away from the first game in the style of its writing. It's still the same guy writing the story - Sam Lake (who was also the model for Max Payne in the first game) - but he's toned down the ripe and cheesy dialogue and taken the game in a much more serious direction. This could have been disastrous, given that the first game's black humour and thoroughly amusing metacommentary on gaming were a large part of its charm, but it just about works. There are still a few wince-inducing lines, but for the most part it's an improvement. The humour has also been toned down but there are still a few moments that raise some laughs. A moment when a policeman named 'Broussard' - the name of the project lead on the infamously delayed Duke Nuke'Em Forever - is told off for taking far too long to deliver a project and he replies that it will be done when it's done is satisfyingly amusing, however, though of course far more ironic now we know how long that game took to be delivered: from before the original Max Payne started development to eight years after the sequel came out. It's also worth checking out the TV shows that are playing in different levels, as they intriguingly riff off Max's own backstory.

Character-wise, the game is also more successful than its predecessor. Payne's character development, continued from the first game, is impressive but, more importantly, the secondary cast is much fore fleshed-out. Mona Sax makes for a great sparring partner with Payne, and is also intriguingly defined. For Max, Mona is something of a fantasy figure, and the reality is somewhat different to his expectations. Their relationship is intriguing because it is open to interpretation, most notably about whether Max genuinely loves Mona herself or his ideal of her. It's something intriguing to chew on while reloading weaponry between gunfights. Other characters are also better-defined than before, such as Jim Bravura, Max's personal Javert (who hunted him relentlessly in the first game, to no avail) turned mentor, who is revealed as having a drinking problem himself and is trying to help Max overcome his issues with little success. One slight misstep is Vladamir Lem, one of Max's few allies, whose characterisation and motives in the second game feel a bit contrived.

But ultimately, for all the well-realised characters and the emotional storyline at the heart of the game, it's still a game about shooting people. It does that very well indeed, moreso than almost any other game in existence, and coupled with good writing and at least an attempt at artistic ambition, it should make for a slam-dunk, perfec game. Unfortunately, Max Payne 2 is hamstrung by a major problem: its extremely short length. At just over 5 hours, Max Payne 2 is about half the length of the first game. Those 5 hours are consistently brilliant, but on release the game - a full-price release - was severely criticised for its lack of content. Coupled with a lack of multiplayer (acceptable for the PC-centric first game, almost unthinkable for its console-centric successor), this led to the game bombing in sales. Remedy's plans for a third game were cancelled and they moved onto the long-gestating Alan Wake. Rockstar would ultimately save the franchise (Max Payne 3 has just been released at this time of writing), but notably only after they'd figured out a way of making bullet time work in multiplayer. The fact that the game is now available very cheaply means that the value-for-money issue is much less problematic than on release.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (*****) is, in terms of writing, gameplay and graphics, a greater success than the first game. Its brevity is regrettable, but it remains one of the finest shooters ever made. It is available now on Steam for the PC. I suspect a PlayStation Network version will soon be on the way as well. Whether the second game will appear on iOS devices like the first one is unclear (the second game's much more complex graphics and physics may preclude it).

Here's a video of some of the people at Remedy discussing the making of the first two games in the series, and their thoughts on Rockstar's Max Payne 3:

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

In the city-state of Gujaareh, power is split between the ruling Prince and the priests of the dream goddess Hananja. The priests have magic based on the power of dreams, with which they can heal the sick. One sect, the Gatherers, is dedicated to helping people peacefully pass over when their time has come. However, when the Gatherer Ehiru discovers he has been manipulated into trying to kill an innocent, he realises that Gujaareh is threatened by a conspiracy lurking at the very heart of the nation.

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The Killing Moon is the first novel in the Dreamblood duology, the latest work from N.K. Jemisin (the author of the Inheritance Trilogy, which I have not yet read). It's an epic fantasy, but one that proudly discards the limitations of a Medieval European setting. Gujaareh is inspired by the legends and mythology of ancient Egypt, although it is not a carbon copy (there are no pyramids, sphinxes or mummies), and the novel draws upon Carl Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious to provide its unique magic system.

The setting is vividly described. The planet Gujaareh is located upon is a moon circling a gas giant (the 'Killing Moon' of the title is actually the gas giant, although confusingly the cover art depicts a red-coloured version of our moon) which makes for an interesting day/night cycle. This feeds into the power of night, sleep and dreams which provides the book with its spine. Gujaareh itself is a compelling location, built to withstand annual floods and with a complex mixture of native and foreign influences: like ancient Egypt, Gujaareh is not a monolithic state, but one where people from across the world can be found, trading or negotiating.

Ehiru, our central character, is an expert at using the power of dream magic and is trying to pass his knowledge onto his apprentice, Nijiri. This process is interrupted by the discovery of a possible threat to the country, which Ehiru is compelled to investigate. Sunandi, an ambassador from the southern nation of Kisua, completes our central triptych of characters. Though there are occasional chapters from other POVs, these three viewpoints dominate the novel. Each is a fascinating character, with Sunandi being a capable and intelligence diplomat who is sometimes undone by arrogance. Ehiru is determined and resolute, but is also prone to become unhealthily obsessed, to the point of endangering himself. Nijiri is highly capable but lacks confidence. He's our 'young, tallow youth' viewpoint but amusingly that's more his own assessment of his abilities than the reality. All are painted with colour and depth.

The novel is a fast read, with a cracking pace that still allows time for some interesting characterisation. Something that Gujaareh shares with ancient Egypt is a certain rigid inflexibility in its traditions (something Pratchett notably satirised in his novel Pyramids, the only other Egyptian-flavoured fantasy that immediately comes to mind) but also the ability to adapt once those limitations are exposed. This extends to the micro-level of the characters, who each find their view of the world widened by the events of the book. This self-realisation is hardly new in concept (Nijiri becomes more confident, Sunandi becomes a bit more open to other cultures) but is executed with skill.

Where the novel falters is in its denouncement, which feels both rushed and a little too neat. This does mean that The Killing Moon works excellently as a stand-alone novel (there are little to no elements left dangling for the sequel, The Shadowed Sun).

The Killing Moon (****½) is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel will be published in June.

Source: This was a review copy sent to me by the publisher.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Wertzone Classics: Max Payne

New York cop Max Payne is devastated to lose his wife and baby daughter in an attempted burglary. The attackers were high on a new designer drug, called Valkyr. Payne transfers to the DEA and dedicates himself to exposing the origins of the drug, going undercover in the Punchinello crime family to learn more. After three years he is called to an emergency meeting with his handler, Alex, who is promptly murdered in front of him. Max's cover is blown, he's been framed for the murder of his partner and both the police and most of the city's underworld is gunning for him. But with nothing to lose he also has an opportunity to uncover the secret his family died for, and find those responsible.


In 2001 an obscure Finnish developer, Remedy, released one of the most defining action games of all time. Max Payne had been in development for four years, an unheard-of amount of time for the period, as Remedy attempted to get the game's tricky mix of film noir storyline, John Woo-inspired action and a new gameplay mechanic called 'bullet time' (in which time slows down to a point where individual bullets can be seen in motion) to gel together. Other events outpaced the game's gestation: development was effected by the release of The Matrix in 1999, which popularised bullet time on a huge scale and led to the introduction of several homages to the film in the game. The game's lengthy development was likened to that of Daikatana (the most colossal disappointment in the history of gaming), which did not bode well, especially as Max Payne's development was actually longer. Fortunately, upon release Max Payne was critically-acclaimed and commercially hugely successful.


Max Payne's success can be put down to a 'perfect storm' of factors. Most important, and something that is not immediately apparent until you've gotten further into the game, is its knowing sense of black humour and self-referential metacommentary. The game knows it's a somewhat daft shooter and has a lot of fun with the concept. At one point, in a drug-induced hallucination, Payne convinces himself he is in a computer game and is horrified at the idea that his life has been reduced to the repetitive action of shooting whilst flying through the air in slow motion. At another point, two bad guys engage in a debate over the merits of bullet time as a cinematic device (which is usually - fully ironically - followed up by you killing them in bullet time). The game even channels Austin Powers in a sequence where a goon muses to his friend how he hates being dismissed as a faceless minion when he has two children and a loving wife and has been reduced to taking money in return for performing violence acts as a result of an uncaring society (Payne's reaction is to blow him away regardless, naturally).

However, the game then has to walk the tightrope of tonal dissonance. Whilst maintaining its black sense of humour and self-awareness, it also has a very dark and serious storyline at its heart. The game opens with a flashback to the murder of Max's wife and child, in a sobering and depressing level. Then we flash forwards to the present day, but Max's mind remains locked in that house and in that time. On one occasion Max is captured and beaten, and he returns to that house in a dark nightmare sequence. Far worse is a drug-induced fever later on, when the walls stretch out to infinity and he has to find his way through an endless dark chasm, following trails of blood and the screams of his wife and child. It's one of the more disturbing things I've seen in a game (still) but it works by showing us that the game's central protagonist is seriously psychologically damaged and obsessed by an event that he urgently requires closure on. Hence the increasingly insane lengths Payne goes to as the game progresses as he seeks an explanation and then revenge. There's also Payne's rejection of the notion that he is a hero and that he is acting from altruistic motives: at one point he destroys evidence that could have helped clear his name, simply because he has no interest in anything outside of his desire for revenge. Thus the game's storyline and characterisation (often tacked-on excuses for violence) are key in propelling the whole thing forwards and involving the player in the action.

The game's approach to action is almost sublime. Many games require you shoot people, but few do it was much elan as Max Payne. Bullet time allows you to place your shots with more precision than any game before (and almost any since, bar its own sequels), whilst the selection of weapons available is impressive. The game has no truck with stealth or cover systems. If you don't enter a new room by flying forwards in slow motion through the door with two machine pistols extended in front of you read to fire at all times, you're doing it wrong. You need to be on your toes as enemy AI is strong (they're pretty good shots), although a fair few of their combat actions (such as throwing grenades) are scripted, and thus can be avoided easily if you reload a failed mission. There's a variety of enemies, including several 'bosses' (although they are only mildly tougher than standard enemies), but in a mildly genre-subverting move, the end-game boss is a fifty-year-old woman who has no particular special skills or abilities (though you do have to be smart in how you bring her down).

Graphically, the game is a mix of two halves. Environmental graphics remain very solid and there's some great moments as bullets crash into masonry and chunks of it are blown out in clouds of white powder. Muzzle flares and explosions are vivid and the fact that you can see individual bullets (or clouds of bullets from shotguns) flying through the air in bullet time remains impressive. However, the character models are blocky and look mildly ridiculous close-up. Animation is also stodgy, with the lack of moving mouths on talking characters (something already pretty common by 2001) being surprising. Overall, the game looks perfectly acceptable for such an old title and remains fully playable today.



In terms of writing and dialogue the game is almost beyond description. Payne has a constantly-running monologue about what's going on in comic book-like cut scenes which interrupt the action at frequent (sometimes too frequent) intervals. The problem is that Payne has clearly severely overdosed on Bogart movies and Chandler novels and his narration is extremely cheesy:
"The sun went down with practiced bravado. Twilight crawled across the sky, laden with foreboding. I didn't like the way the show started, but they had given me the best seat in the house, front row center."
Sometimes it's just plain clunky:
"Collecting evidence had gotten old a few hundred bullets back. I was already so far past the point-of-no-return I couldn't remember what it had looked like when I had passed it."
And sometimes, gloriously, the writing goes on an extended trip around Planet Strange and explodes through cheese and corn into something that defies rational explanation:
"The Brooklyn riverfront was a maze of rusty containers, sharp-boned cranes looking up from the snowstorm. On a night like this you couldn't help but think of the dark army of dead men, sleeping with the fishes, cement shoes in line. No minotaur lurked in this labyrinth, but somewhere out there, on the clanking deck of his cargo freighter, the skipper of the Charon was waiting, like the ferryman of the river Styx."
However, even the worst dialogue in the game seems to work through the delivery of voice actor James McCaffrey, whose beyond-world-weary, cynical tones perfectly fit the character and help sell his attitude to the player. Slighly less successful are the character models for the cut scenes, which (due to a budget tightening towards the end of development) are basically the developers and their friends and families rather than professional actors. Max Payne himself is based on the game's writer. Oddly, the amateurishness of these scenes is more endearing than disastrous, and adds to the totally barmy nature of the game.


Ultimately, Max Payne works because it's a perfectly-executed action game with a thoroughly-developed central character and a knowing black humour about its own nature (without ever disappearing up its own posterior). Where the game falters is towards its end, when the thematic and character arcs are not brought to as satisfying a resolution as the revenge plot. Payne achieves some of his objectives, but is still left as a battered, traumatised person. It falls to Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne to provide the resolution for Payne's character that is required.

Max Payne (*****) remains, eleven years on, an engrossing and impressive game, mixing together a variety of ideas and different tones into an entertaining whole. The game can be purchased from Steam for PC now, and is also available on PlayStation 3 (USA) and on iOS devices. Max Payne 2 is also available now. Max Payne 3 will be released imminently on PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3.