Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Game of Thrones: The RPG

Mors Westford is a former knight in the service of House Lannister. For refusing to take part in the mission to kill Princess Elia Martell and her children during the Sack of King's Landing, Mors was declared a traitor. He escaped punishment by taking the black and now serves on the Wall as one of the Night's Watch's finest trackers and soldiers. When wildlings cross the Wall and hole up in the abandoned castle of Icemark, it falls to Mors to flush them out. After this mission Mors encounters a young woman on the run and discovers a labyrinth conspiracy originating in King's Landing.

Meanwhile, Ser Alester Sarwyck returns home to his castle of Riverspring (near the source of the Blackwater Rush) upon learning of the death of his father. Riverspring is in danger of falling into the hands of Alester's brutal bastard half-brother, Valarr, so Alester travels to King's Landing to win the support of Queen Cersei in his attempts to succeed his father. He also discovers evidence of a conspiracy involving a young woman on the run to the Wall, and begins his own investigations. Ultimately, his and Mors's paths will cross, and they will have to join forces to defeat the conspirators even as Westeros descends into the chaos of the War of the Five Kings all around them.

It would be fair to say that Cyanide's first crack at the Song of Ice and Fire computer game license, Game of Thrones: Genesis, was not a notable success. An exceptionally poor strategy game that failed to capture the flavour of the novels, it was unsurprisingly critically pounded. Expectations for their second game based on the franchise, a roleplaying game, were accordingly lowered.

For its first third or so, Game of Thrones: The Roleplaying Game meets these low expectations. Graphically, the game is serviceable but disappointing. Talk of it looking like a previous-generation game is somewhat hyperbolic, and there's some nice design work in the game, but ultimately it does look about five years old. Cyanide had limited resources to use to work on the game, and graphically some shortcuts had to be taken.

In terms of structure, the game is more successful. Game chapters alternate between Mors and Alester, with each chapter usually ending on a cliffhanger before switching characters. In this manner the game reproduces the structure of the novels. It's a nice conceit which actually works quite well. The game also initially unfolds in two different timelines, with Alester playing catch-up with days and weeks passing during his adventure whilst Mors's story unfolds in real time. This results in a countdown until the two storylines meet and synch up, which also gives the game a feeling of progress.

Control-wise the game is a mixed bag. The game is overwhelmingly focused on combat to the exclusion of almost any other game mechanics. All of your skills relate to combat (none of your skills affect dialogue choices, for example) and the game throws you into battle extremely frequently. Combat is undertaken almost entirely through status-altering attacks and managing your health and energy (special attacks cost energy, and working out when to use a special attack and when to conserve energy is vital). However, once you gain access to certain skills, most notably knockdown attacks, combat becomes almost perfunctorily easy (a couple of late-game boss fights aside). It isn't the worst combat system ever (it's a huge improvement over the likes of say, The Witcher's) but it falls short of its potential.

The game otherwise unfolds in the traditional modern CRPG formula, with you having a main questline to pursue as well as side-quests. Whilst still favouring combat as your main way of progress, some of these quests can be resolved through dialogue instead, which mixes things up nicely. Unfortunately, the writing and dialogue tends towards the banal, making following these side-quests somewhat tedious in places.

After a first half that can charitably be called 'variable' in quality, however, the game unexpectedly takes a turn towards the impressive. The plot twists and turns through a series of brutal, murderous twists that equal anything in the novels and the storyline accelerates into high gear, moving from an action-based storyline of conspiracies and intrigue to more of a gut-wrenching tragedy. The finale is surprisingly affecting, and definitely one of the best endings to a CRPG in recent years.

Game of Thrones: The Roleplaying Game (***½) is a long, slow burn which takes an apparent age to really get going. Indifferent graphics, dodgy writing (for the most part) and only a semi-successful combat system threaten to sink the game altogether before the writers spring a series of impressive surprises on the player that takes the story in an altogether unexpected direction. Ultimately, however, the impressive ending justifies all that went before it, making the game worthwhile and enjoyable. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and the USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3), as well as from Steam.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Guardians of Paradise by Jaine Fenn

Taro and Nual are Angels, formidable assassins who have discovered that the Sidhe - the long-defeated former slavemasters of humanity - have secretly returned and are undertaking clandestine operations against human interests. Their attempts to expose the truth to the rest of human society lead them into a meeting with Jarek Reen, a space trader who has had his own run-in with the Sidhe, and the formation of an alliance to bring the Sidhe down.

Guardians of Paradise is the third (of, currently, five) novels in the Hidden Empire sequence. The first two books in the sequence featured completely different characters operating on different worlds, whilst this third book brings them together and sees them pool resources to defeat the Sidhe. You can read either Principles of Angels or Consorts of Heaven first, but you need to have read both to fully appreciated Guardians of Paradise.

Like its two predecessors, Guardians of Paradise is entertainingly-written and is an easy read. Unfortunately, it lacks the dash of New Weird that made Principles of Angels so promising and threatens to languish at the same 'nice but unexciting' level as Consorts of Heaven for much of its length. The bulk of the book takes place on Kama Nui, an exotic water world which serves much of human space as a resort planet. Its inhabitants are restrained from killing (even during wars and political intrigue) by severe social customs, which reduces the level of tension to our characters (lessened even more by Nual's formidable powers) but does increase the plausibility that they could survive the situations they encounter on the planet (especially Taro, who is still green as grass in his role as an assassin).

Characterisation of the central trio of characters is adequate, but also a bit perfunctory. Other characters flitter in at the edges of the story (especially the Sidhe), but a major problem with the book is that there is little feeling of a bigger culture or society beyond what is going on in the plot. The worldbuilding is highly concentrated on the areas around our characters, but our knowledge of the wider human society beyond that is almost non-existent. Whilst this is efficient and certainly keeps the page count down, it also harms immersion in the story.

That said, an uninspiring first half takes a dramatic upward swing once our characters move into a position to confront the Sidhe directly. A rather unexpected element of horror enters the story at this point, with the revelation that there may be more threats out there than just the Sidhe, and suddenly the story and the writing kick more decisively into gear. The final section of the book is more enjoyable than what came before, with the characters and storyline clicking more decisively, and things end on a ambiguous, disturbing note.

Guardians of Paradise (***½) recovers from a stodgy first half to become a decent, compelling SF novel. It's still a bit lightweight compared to the bigger names in the genre, but certainly there are signs of Fenn developing into a more interesting and talented author. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Why you should think carefully before buying the Westeros Map app

A good while ago, an interesting app appeared on iTunes. The app was an interactive map of Westeros, the setting for the Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones TV show. Users could search for obscure locations from the books and scroll around the map. As a free app, it was pretty good, although it was very heavily based on the same art style as the official map created by HBO for the TV show. The guy who created it, one Sergey Rekuz, posted on the Westeros.org forum and, given its usability, handiness and noted non-profit-making stance, he was allowed to advertise his product.

Tear's famous map of Westeros, still the definitive online map of the setting (and not at all affiliated with the iTunes app).

However, a few months ago something more dubious happened. The app was expanded with several modules that had to be paid for. The first such module was a map of Essos, the continent to the east of Westeros. This was then expanded by a 'cities map' and a 'coat of arms' pack, both of which also had to be paid for. When we asked Mr. Rekuz if he had gained permission from George R.R. Martin, his publishers or HBO to charge for such products, he blithely responded that since the maps were 'original' (i.e. created by his artist) he did not need to ask for any such permission. He became fairly irritable - and irritating, it has to be said - in this discussion and his product was subsequently banned from being advertised on the board until the legal situation had been clarified.

As of right now we are still waiting for legal clarification of the situation. Since the Essos map incorporates a reproduction of the copyrighted map of Slaver's Bay published in A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons, I cannot see how it is legal to sell that image online, even a fresh reproduction of it. The same goes with the the city map pack, which includes a reproduction of the King's Landing map from A Clash of Kings, and the coat of arms pack, which includes reproductions of the secondary and minor house sigils from the books, some of which have also been copyrighted by GRRM.

The legal situation will be addressed by Bantam Books and HBO in due time, of course. What is more concerning is the fact that the creators of the app are essentially demanding payment for fanfiction. Their map of Essos has been supersceded by the substantially more authoritative map released by HBO in April 2012, so is now completely inaccurate (and we know now that the canon-for-the-books map of Essos in the forthcoming Lands of Ice and Fire book has been changed even further from this). It is also rather pointless to pay for the non-canon map when you can simply visit the HBO website map and see a much more accurate map of Essos completely free of charge.

The same is true for the cities map. The maps of Pentos and Braavos are simply fan intepretations of those cities and are not canon in any way, shape or form. A canon map of Braavos will also appear in The Lands of Ice and Fire, whilst to my knowledge there are no plans for a canon map of Pentos at this time. As for the map of King's Landing, a simple Google search will reveal, for free, the original map from A Clash of Kings, the more ornate one from the limited edition of the novel and even the full-colour, highly-detailed map from Green Ronin's Peril at King's Landing adventure book. Paying for this product is, aside from any legal considerations, therefore completely pointless.

To anyone planning to purchase this product, I advise caution based on the above facts.

A comment on this issue by George R.R. Martin's other half, Parris:
"thanks Adam for getting the word out about this person who is using the creative work of GRRM and multiple people and companies involved in making legit and 'canon' maps and histories of Westeros without permission to make money for himself.

There are dozens of people who are working on making the forthcoming books focusing on the maps of Westeros and the history of Westeros with GRRM's approval and collaboration. Some of those people are going to get not only a fee for their work, but royalties based upon sales.

This person is ripping off the intellectual property of GRRM and other people to make a profit for himself.

We have contacted the proper people at both Bantam and HBO, and hope that the outcome will be that this person takes down his counterfeit apps and that will be the end of it.

There are other outcomes that could take longer, but would be much more difficult for him, and much more costly.

I've heard that he's claiming 'fair use' allows him to take so much material for GRRM's stories to profit himself.

I do not think he knows what that phrase means when it comes to intellectual property.

For those who have accounts at the app stores where he is peddling his apps, it would be a good thing if you all could comment on his apps that these are not approved by GRRM and in some instances are very inaccurate and misleading."

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 10 - Lord of Chaos

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

Rand al'Thor wins many new allies to his cause and wins a great victory.

 Follow the break for the summary:

Friday, 24 August 2012

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad

The 23rd of August, 1942, is a significant date in history. Seventy years ago, the German Sixth Army began its assault on a remote, obscure city in southern Russia called Stalingrad. This battle - begun as a mere sideshow to a grander attempt to cut off Russia's supplies of oil - proved the most significant turning point of the war and became - arguably - the most famous single battle of the conflict. Two totalitarian superpowers clashed for control of a city bearing the name of one of their leaders, fighting a gruelling battle lasting six months and costing over one and a half million lives.

Russian Katyusha rocket batteries during the Red Army's counter-attack at Stalingrad.

As related in my article on Barbarossa last year, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union on 21 June, 1941. They attacked on a vast scale, using over three million troops and thousands of tanks and aircraft. By the autumn they had taken or besieged most of Russia's major cities but Hitler proved uncharacteristically timid when the time came to advance on Moscow (likely due to Hitler's obsession with the story of Napoleon's defeat in Russia). By the time he finally authorised the attack it was too late in the year, and the German armies were finally halted by freezing temperatures. An unexpected Russian counter-attack in December threw the Germans back almost a hundred miles from Moscow, the first significant tactical defeat suffered by the Germans in the war, but failed to rout them. A new front was stabilised, and both armies reinforced and prepared for a resumption of hostilities in the spring.

As 1942 opened, the Russians anticipated a renewed offensive on Moscow and concentrated a significant portion of their resources on defending the city. However, Hitler believed that Moscow was, in itself, not a strategically worthwhile target. With the Red Army focused in the north, Hitler believed an opportunity existed for a stunning victory in the south. He divided the former Army Group South into two forces, Army Group A and B, and planned for them to advance eastwards, along the northern coast of the Black Sea. In the basin between the rivers Don and Volga, one group would turn south into the Caucasus Mountains with the objective of capturing almost all of Russia's major oil fields, in what is now Chechnya and Armenia. The other would turn north and take and hold the city of Stalingrad, to be used to secure the German flanks against a possible counter-attack.

It was an impressive plan, concentrating the Germans' offensive power against the weakest part of the Russian line and designed to cut off the Red Army from the source of its fuel. If the Germans could pull one more rabbit out of the hat, they might simply starve the Russians into surrender due to a lack of supplies, rather than face a battle of attrition that the numerically superior Russians could win.

The plan - Operation Blue - began unexpectedly early on 19 May 1942. Marshal Timoshenko of the Red Army launched an offensive designed to recapture the city of Kharkov, but in doing so exposed his flank and was comprehensively defeated, losing a quarter of a million men in the process. Maintaining the momentum of the counter-attack, the Germans advanced eastwards. On 23 July the city of Rostov fell, allowing the Germans to advance swiftly eastwards towards the Volga.

The task of taking Stalingrad fell to the Sixth Army under General von Paulus, a notable formation which had already won impressive victories in France and the initial invasion of the USSR. In accordance with blitzkrieg doctrine, which required an overwhelming aerial bombardment to soften up the target ahead of an infantry and armoured attack, the German Luftwaffe launched a massive bombing raid on Stalingrad on 23 August, 1942. The attack flattened a large portion of the city, killing upwards of 40,000 civilians. Elements of the Sixth Army entered the city's suburbs on the same day, marking the beginning of the battle.

The Sixth Army Advances

Reducing the city to rubble proved to be a costly error. The closed-in streets of the city had now been turned into a bewildering warren of collapsed walls, bombed-out streets and half-fallen buildings. The Germans found it almost impossible to deploy their tanks with any effectiveness, whilst the close nature of the fighting restricted the use of both air power and heavy artillery. They were also confounded by the unusual layout of the city.

Stalingrad - formerly Tsaritsyn and today called Volgograd - was only about two miles wide, but extended along the Volga's shores for about seventeen miles. The German plan for taking the city involved multiple incursions from the suburbs to the river, reducing the city to several small pockets of resistance which could then be eliminated in detail. The problem was that the Volga - almost two miles wide at Stalingrad - proved a straightforward (if extremely hazardous) way of reinforcing the city. Red Army troops would pour across the river on a daily basis, braving aerial and artillery bombardment to reinforce the troops already in the city. The Germans found it difficult to seal off each pocket from reinforcements, especially the core of the city where the bulk of the 62nd Army, commanded by the formidable General Chuikov was concentrated. Chuikov was a charismatic commander who would allegedly break off from key radio conferences with his commanders to run outside his bunker and personally drive back German assaults with a machine gun before nonchalantly rejoining the conversation (although sadly this is probably apocryphal).

As a result of the ferocious Russian defence, the Battle of Stalingrad descended into a grinding battle of attrition, something the Germans had purposely avoided in WWII up to this point. Their key weapons of blitzkrieg, speed and movement were denied to them by the terrain and by Hitler's insistence that the city had to be captured and fortified, rather than simply razed. In addition, the Sixth Army found itself at the end of a very long, very tenuous supply chain (Stalingrad was 1,380 miles from Berlin), with every bullet, can of fuel and replacement soldier having to travel a long way to reach the troops. Russian reinforcements were able to enter the city almost at will, however.

The result of this was a gruelling infantry battle, with some buildings being captured, recaptured, bombed and then reoccupied multiple times during the same day. On both sides snipers wreaked havoc on enemy morale, with several of them becoming extremely famous (Vasily Zaitsev - the main character in the movie Enemy at the Gates - is the most famous, although his famous 'sniper duel' with a German counterpart appears to be apocryphal). To the Germans' shock, a significant number of the Russian soldiers they faced were women: more than 75,000 women fought at Stalingrad, as medics, snipers, pilots and (despite official policy to the contrary) as front-line combat troops. A large number of civilians who'd been trapped in the city during the battle were also pressed into military service. Bolstered by such factors, the Russian defence was tenacious and impressive, but still the defenders gave ground. By the start of October over 80% of the city was in German hands.

However, Stalin and his most skilled general, Marshal Zhukov, had concocted an utterly audacious scheme to defeat the Germans. Rather than flood the city with reinforcements, as they could have done, they only sent in enough men to hold the city and pin the Germans in place. At the same time, they assembled two immense formations, one to the north and the other to the south, of Stalingrad. As von Paulus became more desperate for victory, he reassigned all of his elite units into the city itself, leaving the flanks of the Sixth Army to be guarded by allied troops: Hungarian, Italian and Romanian forces supplied by Hitler's erstwhile allies to help make good Germany's lack of manpower (at least compared to the USSR). Unfortunately, these troops were known to be of inferior quality to the German soldiers, lacking their training and equipment.

On 19 November 1942 - the day the Second World War apparently spun on a dime - the Red Army hit the demoralised, under-equipped Hungarian and Romanian forces on the flanks of the Sixth Army with everything they had. In less than two days the Russians shattered the flanks and overran them, sweeping around the Sixth Army in two huge waves which met at the town of Kalach, the main river crossing over the River Don directly on the Sixth Army's line of retreat. The Sixth Army was completely surrounded, and the besiegers had suddenly become the besieged.

The Sixth Army Besieged

Immediate efforts were launched to relive the Sixth Army, but the German armies operating in the Caucasus were too far away to immediately respond. The Sixth Army itself was massively outnumbered - by at least three-to-one, not counting the Russian troops inside Stalingrad itself - and could make no headway. Initially there was panic at the German high command about how the Sixth Army could feed itself, leading Goering to declare that he could keep the entire army fed and resupplied by the air. In the event, the Luftwaffe never managed to deliver enough supplies to keep even half the Sixth Army fed for one day.

The only hope was for a German army to relieve Stalingrad. Field Marshal Manstein led three Panzer divisions in a relief effort which got to within 30 miles of the city, but suddenly had to abandon the attack when the Russians set in motion an even larger operation, this time designed to retake Rostov and trap the entirety of the former Army Group South in the Caucasus. This would have been a catastrophe of unprecedented scale for the German army, but the Russian effort was thwarted and the German forces in the Caucasus were able to escape the trap before it could be sprung. However, this now put the German armies hundreds of miles to the west of Stalingrad, unable to offer even a glimmer of hope for the besieged Sixth Army.

Despite this, Hitler refused to permit the Sixth Army to surrender. He encouraged von Paulus and his men to fight on to the bitter end and die gloriously in the name of the Reich. He even promoted Paulus to Field Marshal, noting that no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered or been take alive, a subtle hint as to how he hoped Paulus would comport himself. Paulus declined to die a 'heroic' death, however. On 1 February 1943 he offered unconditional surrender. Somewhere between 90,000 and 110,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner and the Sixth Army ceased to exist, the first time an entire German field army had been completely destroyed during the Second World War. Less than 6,000 of those troops would survive to see home again, the majority dying of disease in Soviet gulags. As the defeated soldiers were marched out of the ruined city, Russian soldiers and civilians jeered at them and the prescient insult of, "This is how Berlin will soon look!" was commonly made.

The defeat shocked the Germans. The size of the calamity could not be covered up, and unusually pessimistic Nazi leaders such as Goebbels took to the airways to warn German citizens that they would now face 'total war'. For the Russians, it was a morale boost on an unprecedented scale. It passed the strategic initiative in the war to them and it also showed the value of planning long. Stalin's insistence on constant attacks was now replaced by patient planning, something that paid off just a few months later in the Battle of Kursk (a victory for the Russians as great, if not moreso, as Stalingrad's).

Stalingrad was a significant defeat for the Germans. It wasn't their first major defeat in the war (they'd been beaten by the British at El Alamein in October 1942 and at Moscow in December 1941)  but it was the first time an entire German field army had been comprehensively destroyed. Whilst the destruction of the Sixth Army was impressive, it was more significant in forcing the hasty German evacuation of the entirety of southern Russia, ending the threat to Russia's oilfields, without which the Soviet Union could not stay in the fight. It also restored faith and hope to the Allies that the Russians could prevail: even after the Russian victory at Moscow, expectations that the Russians could win the conflict had still been low in London and Washington. The battle became a symbol of Russian defiance, and even during the Cold War when the USSR's role in Hitler's defeat was underplayed in the West, the name of Stalingrad was still infamous.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

SyFy options BLAKE'S 7 remake

The American cable channel SyFy has picked up the rights to the planned Blake's 7 remake that's been doing the rounds in Hollywood.

Interesting news. SyFy, which has lost all of its future-set, space-based SF shows in recent years, has been making noises about getting back to making 'proper' SF shows. Given the success of Battlestar Galactica (yet another space opera that began 1978 and was rebooted to great success), it's unsurprising that they'd look at the Blake's 7 project. I must admit, given their timidity about new SF projects (such as shelving the completed BSG spin-off pilot for the time being), they seem to be pretty bullish about the new show. They've agreed to skip the pilot stage and, if they like the first script, commission a 13-episode season straight off the bat.

Martin Campbell (director of the James Bond movies Casino Royale and GoldenEye) will be directing the first episode of the new series, assuming a full season order is given.

Cover art for BLOOD AND BONE by Ian C. Esslemont

Here's the UK cover art for Ian Cameron Esslemont's Blood and Bone, his forthcoming fifth Malazan novel.

The novel is due for release in November this year. Barring last minute delays, that will make for three Malazan novels in one year (following Esslemont's Orb, Sceptre, Throne in January and Erikson's Forge of Darkness this month).

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ken Scholes completes REQUIEM

Ken Scholes has completed the fourth and penultimate novel in the Psalms of Isaak series, Requiem. The book has been significantly delayed due to health issues, but it's now in and will be published by Tor in the USA in June 2013.

The previous book in the series, Antiphon, was published in September 2010. Scholes has one more book in the series to write, with the working title Hymn.

George R.R. Martin's items in the Texas A&M archive

Some of George R.R. Martin's personal papers and items have made their way to the Texas A&M archive, where they are being stored for future study. This is traditional in the publishing world for well-known authors, with J.R.R. Tolkien's papers residing at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Via Winter is Coming, a few images from the collection have appeared on Tumblr. Most interesting is the above map of the lands beyond the Wall, from A Song of Ice and Fire. Presumably this is one of GRRM's original hand-drawn maps (or a copy of one), which the versions in the books were replicated from by professional artists. Interesting stuff.

Chris Avellone details ideas for a TORMENT successor

In December 1999, Black Isle released what continues to be widely regarded as the greatest CRPG of all time: Planescape: Torment. It was only a modest hit, especially compared to its fellow games using the Infinity Engine (the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series), but a critical success, appearing on numerous 'best games evaaah' lists up to this very day.

Your party at this point in the game consists of an animated suit of armour, a floating skull, a man permanently on fire and a steampunk robot. Plus yourself, an immortal, intelligent zombie (sort of).

The chances of a sequel ever appearing are pretty much zero, since Wizards of the Coast shut down the Planescape D&D setting shortly after the game was released and have subsequently heavily retconned elements of the setting in the 3rd and 4th editions of the game. In addition, with the D&D rights lying with Wizards and the Torment rights lying with Interplay, navigating the legal minefield to be able to make the game in the first place would likely be time-consuming and complex.

For this reason, Torment's lead writer, Chris Avellone, has been musing on the idea of doing a 'spiritual successor' to the game, but not an actual sequel, for a while. He's told Kotaku about some of the ideas he and his company, Obsidian (the successor to Black Isle), have been kicking around. This includes maintaining a non-traditional fantasy setting (no elves, dwarves etc), having a small, focused cast of supporting characters and bringing back an overhead, isometric viewpoint.

Avellone, whose other credits include Knights of the Old Republic 2, Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Alpha Protocol, is currently working on Wasteland 2.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

Bobby Dollar is an angel who serves as an advocate for the recently deceased. Whenever someone dies, their soul is fought over by Heaven and Hell, with advocates from both sides competing for it. Dollar's latest case is complicated when the soul in question vanishes, and even the infernal legions of Hell seem at a loss as to what's going on. As Dollar investigates, he uncovers ancient conspiracies, political infighting even amongst the ranks of the angels of Heaven and that he himself has been targeted by every supernatural gang in California. He just doesn't know why.

The Dirty Streets of Heaven is the opening novel in the Bobby Dollar series by Tad Williams. Williams is best known for his shelf-destroying epic fantasies and the extremely slow pace of his novels. His recent Shadowmarch series suffered from a glacially ponderous structure that sometimes threatened to spill over into outright boredom. However, Williams's move into urban fantasy has been like a shot of pure storytelling adrenalin. The Dirty Streets of Heaven moves like a whippet with its tail on fire.

The book outlines its ground rules early on: Heaven and Hell are real, but their forces have been in a state of uneasy peace (or a Cold War) for millions of years. Complex rules govern their interactions. The relationship between the two sides shifts by location; Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths experience different results to those of nominally Christian denominations. Also, being an atheist is no help either. Spirits in Heaven have their memories wiped of their mortal lives, allowing them to start over, whilst those in Hell are damned by their previous actions and forced to recall them vividly. Given the low-key nature of a lot of urban fantasies, it's interesting to see Williams outlining an epic backdrop right from the very start.

Bobby Dollar is our only POV character (the novel is told from the first-person) and is a complex individual, nominally on the side of Light but a bit too fond of mortal vices like sex and drink. His superiors despair of his methods, but he gets results and remains loyal to the Highest (who hasn't been seen or head in eons), so is tolerated. Dollar has a bunch of allies and helpers, such as fellow angel Sam (who he was in the angel special forces with) and a superb information-broker who has unfortunately been cursed into a reversed werepig, only lucid and capable of intelligence speech between the hours of midnight and dawn when he is in the shape of a pig.

Freed from the language and technological constraints of medieval fantasy, Williams goes to town in this novel. The author is clearly having a lot of fun as he hits the reader with a lot of inventive ideas, fast-paced action scenes and decent moments of character introspection. The relatively short length (400 pages makes the book a novella by Williams's normal standards) means that the pace has to be fast and furious, packed with plot twists and revelations

The only complaint that the solution to the mystery in the book relies a little too much on the metaphysics of the setting, which have not been fully explained, so it's hard for the reader to solve the puzzle themselves (half the fun of a good mystery).

Beyond that, The Dirty Streets of Heaven (****½) is Williams on top form, delivering a page-turning, highly inventive, fun read and his best book in a decade. The novel will be available on 4 September in the USA and on 13 September in the UK.

Planes and automobiles in GTA5 (no trains yet)

Rockstar have revealed three more screenshots from Grand Theft Auto V.

It looks like push-bikes will be back in the game.

Along with, unsurprisingly, cars. This is the GTA5 version of perennial series favourite, the Cheeta. The 'San Andreas' plates have gotten the Internet worked up, before it was pointed out that Los Santos is still in San Andreas State and would still have San Andreas plates, regardless of how much of the state actually appears in the game.

Also, jet fighters laden with missiles. Something tells me that GTA5 is easing off on its predecessor's slightly more realistic take and might be headed back to the wackiness of San Andreas.

Rockstar have also said they will be releasing more pictures later this week, along with a new trailer in the near future. However, they have still not mooted a possible release date for the game (though May 2013 is widely speculated).

Two more warriors cast for GAME OF THRONES

Game of Thrones has added two more members to its cast for the third season.

Ed Skrein is a British musician and DJ who recently moved into acting. As a musician he has released a solo album and worked with artists such as Asian Dub Foundation and Plan B. He has appeared in the movies Piggy and Ill Manors, the latter directed by Plan B.

Skrein will be playing the role of Daario Naharis. A mercenary in the Stormcrows, he is one of Prendahl's lieutenants. He is charismatic, handsome and disreputable.

Jacob Anderson is a young British actor who has appeared in TV series as Primeval, Silent Witness and Episodes, as well as the movie Adulthood (which also featured musical contributions by Skrein, coincidentally).

In Thrones Anderson will be playing the role of Grey Worm, one of the infamous warrior-eunuchs known as the Unsullied, the elite troops of the slave city of Astapor.

Both actors will debut in the third season, due to start transmission on 31 March 2013 on HBO.

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 9 - The Fires of Heaven

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

 The Aiel, Rand al'Thor's latest allies.

Follow the break for the summary:

More info about DRAGON AGE III leaked (allegedly)

Dragon Age III may soon be competing for some kind of award for the most information ever revealed about a formally-unannounced game. This time around, the leak comes from a survey BioWare have been conducting of their fans to test out some early ideas they are discussing for the game.

A fanmade logo for the game, nothing official.

First up is a bare-bones plot summary:
"A portal between the worlds unleashes hordes of demons in the land, civil wars rip apart nations and the corruption is limitless. Someone is behind the shadows, drawing the threads which destroy the world. Time has come for the Inquisition.

Take the Inquisitor's cloak and lead the only force able of bringing light into the darkness. Choose the direct method and gather your armies, send spies into the shadows or engage in a political war, make friends and use your connections indirectly: it is up to you how you lead the inquisition. But you'll have to take lead of it from the beginning. Make your player a rogue, warrior or mage and set up your crew from up to ten (!) complex companions to lead them against those who attack you by systematically spying on, revealing and destroying them."

And then a slightly more detailed one:
"The great nation of Orlais, the most powerful empire in Dragon Age, tears itself apart in civil war. The stout men and women of Ferelden struggle to recover and reclaim their nation from the horde of vile Darkspawn that lay waste to its lands a decade ago. The Chantry, the once-unified faith of the Dragon Age world stands divided. The Templar order has broken away, claiming the church has become too lax in policing the dangerous powers of the mages. The Mage circles have rebelled, believing the Templars have become too strict, too zealous in their duties, and too quick to slaughter those who step out of line
The world of Dragon Age is one on the brink of collapse, and when a desperate gathering in the name of peace becomes the epicentre of a magical blast that decimates the Chantry's leadership, it becomes clear that someone or something is manipulating events to drive the world into chaos. From the ashes of that explosion, some new rises: The Inquisition. As the Inquisitor, it falls to you to build up your power and martial your forces, uncover secrets and build connections across the world. You must explore forgotten spaces, uncover ancient mysteries and uproot those who would destroy the fabric of the world."

For possible images related to the art style of the game, check the link.

Finally, a list of potential subtitles for the game. This is intriguing, as BioWare haven't used a subtitle on one of their sequels since Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, a dozen years ago:

Dragon Age 3: The Breach
Dragon Age 3: Exarch
Dragon Age 3: Inquisition
Dragon Age 3: Inquisitor
Dragon Age 3: Apocrypha
Dragon Age 3: Please Throw Us a Bone on This One, It Will Be Good This Time, Honest

(note: one of these subtitles might not be accurate)

Since this appears to still be in the early stage of development (and the game remains - ludicrously - not formally announced yet by either BioWare or Electronic Arts), some or all of this may have changed by the time the game is finally released. Or it might have been a fake in the first place, of course.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 8 - The Shadow Rising

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

Mat Cauthon must face a moment of destiny within the Aiel Waste.

Follow the break for the summary:

Bethesda headed to Boston for FALLOUT 4 (rumour)

It's been widely speculated for a while that Bethesda would be setting Fallout 4 in Boston, Massachusetts. That speculation has gained some credence with reports that Bethesda writers and researchers have been spotted in Boston undertaking research for an upcoming game.

MIT, Boston. Expect to see a Fallout-ised version of this vista if the rumour is correct.

Fallout 3 featured multiple references to the Commonwealth, a small nation established in the ruins of New England following the apocalyptic war. Several characters were featured who hailed from 'the Institute', widely taken to mean the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (or its Fallout equivalent). With Bethesda apparently planning to steer clear of the traditional Fallout stomping-ground of the California/Nevada/Arizona area (the setting for the first two Fallout games and the more recent New Vegas), fans had been speculating that either the Commonwealth or New York would be the focus for Fallout 4 and this now seems more likely.

According to Bethesda, their next game would feature the Creation Engine used by Skyrim (an updated version of the Gamebryo Engine used on all their titles from 2002's Morrowind through 2010's Fallout: New Vegas). Some Fallout fans had been hoping that Bethesda would farm out Fallout 4 to Obsidian, the company behind the excellent New Vegas, whilst they themselves would focus on The Elder Scrolls VI. Clearly this is not the case, with Bethesda now looking like they'll be alternating franchises, perhaps letting other companies come in to handle other projects along the way.

The use of the Creation Engine suggests that Bethesda envisage Fallout 4 as a current-gen title, which is odd given that the new consoles will likely launch no later than the start of 2014 and that seems a little too soon for Fallout 4. It's possible that Bethesda will release low-spec versions of the game for the current-gen consoles and upgraded, more advanced ones for PC and the next gen machines. I doubt Fallout 4 will arrive before the middle or end of 2014 at the earliest, if not later.

The Dark Knight Rises

Whilst Batman Begins were merely a successful superhero movie, its sequel, The Dark Knight, was a bona fide phenomenon. The movie was both critically acclaimed and hugely successful, making over a billion dollars at the box office. Director Christopher Nolan hesitated over making a third film, worried it could not possibly live up to expectations (especially given that the tragic death of Heath Ledger meant that the Joker could not return). Ultimately he decided to embrace the challenge and has delivered a - somewhat - satisfying resolution to his take on the Dark Knight.

Picking up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham City is now virtually crime-free thanks to laws passed in the wake of Harvey Dent's death. Batman (who took the blame for Dent's death) has disappeared, with Bruce Wayne now living in seclusion. Commissioner Gordon, guilt-ridden by both keeping the secret of Dent's insanity and death and Batman taking the fall for it, is planning to retire. Suddenly, the city is plunged into chaos by the arrival of Bane, a former member of the League of Shadows who is planning something audacious. Wayne is forced to don the mask of the Batman once again...

Drawing on elements from the comics - most notably the Knightfall arc - Nolan has created yet another story in which Wayne's character is dragged through the wringer. From the start we know this is not going to be as dark as the previous movie: the title and the thematic direction of the movie are both about redemption. Wayne is haunted and trapped by the decisions he made previously and cannot move on, despite entreaties from Alfred to do just that. When Wayne Manor is robbed by a clever thief, Selina Kyle, Wayne is reinvigorated and gets back in the game, just as the true threat from Bane becomes apparent.

The Dark Knight Rises is driven by Nolan's typically intense direction and some exceptionally good performances. After being a bit lost in the mix in the previous film, Christian Bale brings his A-game to this movie and forms its heart. As usual, Michael Caine gives excellent support as Alfred and Gary Oldman continues to be brilliant in every scene. However, it's the newcomers which really impress. Anne Hathaway is particularly excellent as Selina 'Catwoman' Kyle, with an angst-ridden character that rivals Batman (though with a superior line in caustic humour). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also superb as the police officer determined to live up to Batman's ideals, whilst French actress Marion Cotillard does great work as Miranda Tate (really impressing in a small role). Unfortunately, Tom Hardy's impressively physical work as Bane is undercut by a somewhat unconvincingly campy vocal performance. Intermittently disturbing, Bane's voice veers too much from the unintelligible to the ludicrous to be truly effective.

As usual, there are both great action setpieces and a laudable focus on characterisation, with several of the most powerful scenes in the movie being dialogue exchanges between Wayne and Alfred, or Wayne and Gordon-Levitt's Blake. Nolan also overcomes The Dark Knight's biggest issue, its dodgy pacing, by making the story in Rises bigger and giving more work to do to the supporting characters. Still, whilst the story is paced better it's still very long at just under three hours and the movie can't quite sustain interest consistently over its full length.

Where The Dark Knight Rises runs into problems is the underlying conflict of the whole series, namely how well Nolan's more realistic take on the franchise can mesh with its sillier excesses. Nolan's dedication to keeping it (relatively) real is stretched thin in the latter part of the film as the situation gets increasingly ludicrous and some contrived double-crosses and plot twists not so much dent disbelief as completely shatter it. After two movies spent dodging cheese and corn, Nolan can't quite keep up the dance any more and there are some groan-inducing lines and moments as the movie draws to its climax.

The Dark Knight Rises (***½) is a decent ending to the trilogy, with excellent performances and atmosphere let down by the decision to embrace cliches rather than subvert or challenge them. The ludicrously bombastic score doesn't help either. However, Nolan has still managed to deliver the best third entry in a superhero franchise of all time and the movie remains extremely entertaining. It is on general release in the UK and USA right now.

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 7 - The Dragon Reborn

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

Rand al'Thor takes his destiny into his own hands.

Follow the break for the summary:

Saturday, 18 August 2012

THRONES gets two more castmembers

Two additional castmembers have been announced for the third season of Game of Thrones.

Connoisseurs of American cable drama may have spotted British actor Dan Hildebrand before. He played two separate roles on Deadwood, namely Tim Driscoll in the first episode and then the recurring role of Shaugnessy in the third season. He has also played the role of Sean Casey on Sons of Anarchy.

Hildebrand will be playing the role of Kraznys mo Nakloz. Kraznys is one of the richest slave-traders in the city of Astapor, on Slaver's Bay. He is immensely wealthy and tremendously arrogant. He employs a translator, Missandei of Naath (Nathalie Emmanuel), in his dealings with outsiders.

Meanwhile, British actor Ramon Tikaram has also joined the cast. British drama watchers should be familiar with his work in cult British drama series This Life, as well as a recurring stint on EastEnders. More recently he has been playing in The King and I on stage.

Tikaram is playing Prendahl na Ghezn, the commander of the Stormcrows. The Stormcrows are a noted mercenary army operating on the continent of Essos. Prendahl's lieutenants include the redoubtable Daario Naharis (who is still to be cast).

Speaking of Daario, he seems to be the highest-profile character we know will be in Season 3 to be announced (and I think we can conclude at this stage that Oberyn Martell has been delayed to the fourth season).

Friday, 17 August 2012

Ciarán Hinds is Mance Rayder in GAME OF THRONES

After a significant amount of speculation, HBO has announced that Ciarán Hinds will be playing the role of Mance Rayder in the third season of Game of Thrones (and, based on the books, presumably for several seasons afterwards).

Ciarán Hinds is a distinguished Irish actor with a long history on stage, television and film. His film work has included roles in John Boorman's Excalibur, Persuasion, Munich and Miami Vice. On TV, he was a main character in the BBC mini-series version of Ivanhoe and Channel 4's Cold Lazarus (the final work by the famous Dennis Potter) before achieving arguably his career highlight of playing Gaius Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome. Hinds's performance as the infamous Roman leader was flawlessly compelling, making the complex character come to life. Hinds's Caesar is, for my money, the definitive depiction of the character. More recently he played Aberforth Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and was reunited with Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black.

Mance Rayder is a much-mentioned character in the first two seasons of Game of Thrones. He is a former member of the Night's Watch who ultimately found the rules and regulations of the order too much to bear. He turned his cloak and left the Wall to seek a new life amongst the wildlings. Over a period of several years, he rose to become a respect chieftain and battle-commander, and eventually was proclaimed the King-beyond-the-Wall by acclamation. At the end of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, he has assembled an army of thousands of wildlings in the Skirling Pass for unknown reasons.

This is excellent news. I've been a fan of Ciarán Hinds's work for almost two decades and he will be a tremendous asset to the production. It's true that Hinds is older than Mance in the books, but it's also true that we knew the character was going to be older anyway: Mormont spoke of Mance as a near-contemporary in earlier episodes and in Season 1 we learned that Mance was King-beyond-the-Wall more than a decade before the events of the series, making him substantially older than in the books. Dominic West, who was offered the role but declined, would have been a fine Mance, but I think Hinds has the potential to be an even better one.

Hinds is the second Rome alum to be cast in Thrones. Tobias Menzies, who played Brutus in Rome, has also been cast as Catelyn Stark's younger brother, Ser Edmure Tully. Both can be seen in this excellent scene from the first season (as first pointed out by Westeros.org):

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Forbes reveals list of 2011's top-earning authors

Forbes has published its annual list of the world's fifteen biggest-selling authors, with almost half the list clocking in as SFF writers.

Riding high, as may be expected given his recent critical and commercial return to form, is Stephen King. King comes in at #2 on the list, having earned $39 million in 2011 (compared to first-place James Patterson, who scored a whopping $94 million). Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy, reaped the rewards of pre-movie success by earning $20 million, placing her at #9 on the list. Just behind her is perennial mega-earner Dean Koontz, who scored $19 million to reach #10. J.K. Rowling is at #11, heaving earned $17 million in 2011. An impressive achievement, given that her last novel came out four years earlier.

Buoyed by the success of the HBO TV series, George R.R. Martin appears at #12, having apparently earned $15 million in 2011 (and having shifted between 8 and 9 million copies of his novels in that year alone). Impressive, and even moreso when it becomes clear that he outsold Stephanie Meyer (of Twilight fame), who earned $14 million and came in one place lower. Bringing up the lower end of the list is YA fantasy author Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson fame) at #15, who made $13 million.

From this we can deduce that writing SFF can be extremely healthy for your bank balance. But generally only if you have been around for decades or have a major film or TV series being made of your work.

New David Brin cover art

With the success of Existence, Orbit are relaunching David Brin's earlier books in the UK to accompany the release of the paperback edition of that novel on 1 November.

Also released on 1 November are The Postman and Earth. The Postman is a post-apocalyptic story in which a man chooses to provide hope to the survivors of a nuclear war that the US government still exists and will save them. Forget the horrible Kevin Costner movie (which shares very little in common with the novel beyond the basic premise), The Postman is an enjoyable novel about hope and the morality of lying for the greater good. Earth is Brin's epic SF story about a black hole that appears at the Earth's core and threatens to destroy the planet.

Released on 6 December is Uplift, an omnibus of the Uplift Trilogy, consisting of Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War. The second and third books in this sequence are widely regarded as Brin's best novels, winning him multiple awards.

An omnibus of the Uplift Storm Trilogy (Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and Heaven's Reach), entitled Exiles, follows on 17 January 2013.

Monday, 13 August 2012

New CHUNG KUO cover art

I've previously revealed some of the cover art for the forthcoming volumes of the 'remastered' Chung Kuo series by David Wingrove. The full cover art for Books 3 and 4 - The Middle Kingdom and Ice and Fire - has now been unveiled:

In addition, a tiny thumbnail of the cover art for Book 5, The Art of War, has appeared on the Corvus website:

The current release schedule for the series is:

Book 3: The Middle Kingdom - 18 October 2012
Book 4: Ice and Fire - 1 December 2012
Book 5: The Art of War - 1 March 2013
Book 6: An Inch of Ashes - 1 July 2013

There will be twenty books in the series altogether, already written by David Wingrove and to be published by the end of 2015. The first two books, Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, are already available.

The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Emma Bannon is a powerful sorceress in the employ of Victrix, Queen of England, vessel of the god-spirit Britannia and ruler of the Empire. Archibald Clare is a mentath, a human capable of staggering feats of logic and deduction. When other mentaths start turning up dead on the streets of Londinium, Bannon and Clare have to join forces and uncover the reasons for the deaths...and the nature of a conspiracy that threatens the nation.

The Iron Wyrm Affair is a curious hybrid of alternate history, fantasy and steampunk, with a dash of SF added to proceedings (mentaths essentially being mentats from Dune). The early part of the novel struggles as Lilith Saintcrow tries to find a way of simultaneously balancing these elements, introducing the characters and establishing the plot without it all falling into a mess. She succeeds mainly by adopting a, "Damn the torpedoes, fall steam ahead!" approach and trusting the reader to stay with her. This pays off about a third of the way into the book, when it starts to fulfil its billing as a glorious alterno-history romp through a Victorian England that never was.

So we have a book that features mustachioed Italian assassins, German engineers who become enraged after being denied breakfast, and ancient dragon-spirits lurking in the slums of the city. There are steamborgs and primitive mecha, sorcerous duels and Holmesian moments of impressive logical deduction. The book has its fun factor turned up fairly high, but Saintcrow mixes in some nice moments of characterisation, particularly of Bannon who has a complex backstory. Archibald Clare is more straightforward, but Saintcrow includes some interesting elements to his character, such as his not-very-mentath-like ability to reason away the unreasonable (such as the existence of sorcery, which drives many mentathes insane due to its irrationality).

After a slow start, the pages start flying as the conspiracy is unravelled, the stakes are raised and the pace quickens. Events culminate in a grand, explosive finale, the hints of further adventures to come and, of course, the consumption of a well-earned cup of tea.

The Iron Wyrm Affair (***½) is a solidly-executed novel which combines several genre elements into a successful whole. It's definitely at the more lightweight end of the genre spectrum, but remains an entertaining read. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Paris, 1931. Hugo Cabret is a young boy living in Gare Montparnasse, a railway station. He has no family and is trying to salvage parts to fix an automaton, believing it contains a message from his late father. Constantly hunted by the Station Inspector (who delights in finding orphan boys and sending them to the orphanage) and thwarted by a toy stall owner who takes his father's notebook, Hugo's quest seems doomed...until he discovers another piece of the puzzle.

Hugo is director Martin Scorsese's tribute and love letter to the pioneering days of the cinema. The director's first family film and his first movie made in 3D, it's a bit of a new direction for him but also one that he embraces. Hugo is vibrant, colourful, entertaining and amusing, let down only by a slightly excessive running time.

The movie hinges on the central performance of Hugo and actor Asa Butterfield (best known for playing the young Mordred in the British TV series Merlin) does great work in the role, nailing the loneliness of the young boy looking for a place in the world. Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) is equally capable in the role of Isabelle, a young girl who befriends Hugo and encourages his quest. Older, more established actors like Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee also bring their A-games to the movie, with Kingsley particularly successful in his role as real-life movie pioneer Georges Méliès. Arguably the biggest revelation is Sacha Baron Cohen, who leaves behind his increasingly predictable comedic roles (though not entirely his comedic talents) in the role of the Station Inspector, initially presented as a straightforward antagonist who becomes more nuanced as the film progresses.

Visually, the film is a delight. Scorsese uses a combination of sets, CGI and illustrations to create a vivid, exaggerated version of the real world. Scorsese makes the slightly 'false' look of CGI into a virtue, using it imaginatively and contrasting it against the much more primitive effects of early 20th Century cinema, but which were equally groundbreaking in their day. Scorsese is well-known as a film historian and a keen preserver of old movies as well as a director, and he combines these interests with a solid storyline (adapted from an award-winning book by Brian Selznick) to create a film that is close to his heart. Crucially, however, he prevents the film from tipping into self-indulgence by ensuring that these elements are driven by the story rather than any kind of lecturing.

Where the film stutters is its pacing. For a film meant to appeal to children as well as adults, the two-hour running time is a bit long for such a slight story, especially one where the writer and director have to keep contriving dramatic situations out of misunderstandings which could be solved in a single line of dialogue (why does Hugo never tell Georges that the notebook is his father's? Why doesn't he tell the Inspector that Georges is now looking after him?). This problem is accentuated by the presence of under-developed sideplots, such as the Inspector's faltering attempts to romance a flowergirl (a heavily under-used Emily Mortimer), Christopher Lee's lack of screentime and an amusing but very slight storyline involving two station workers (Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour). Perhaps expanding these storylines and dropping some of the repetitiveness of the main storyline might have been a better idea and could have filled the running-time more effectively.

Still, despite this problem Hugo (****) is visually arresting and well-directed, with some educational value regarding the early days of cinema and some excellent use of emotion without descending into mawkishness (one shudders to think what an off-form Spielberg would have made of this script). The film is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray) now.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 6 - The Great Hunt

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

Rand al'Thor pursues the Horn of Valere across thousands of miles and entirely different worlds.

Follow the break for the summary:

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 1 (remastered)

In 1987 Paramount undertook one of the bravest gambits in their history. They revived their most famous franchise, Star Trek, as a new, ongoing television series. Unable to afford to bring back the original actors, they created a new ship and a new crew, boldly going where no-one had gone before roughly a century after the events of the original series. Everyone expected the new series to flop badly, but instead it was an instant smash hit. 27 million people watched the pilot and the show would go on to last for seven seasons and 178 episodes (a hundred episodes more than the original series). It spawned no less than three spin-offs (the superb Deep Space Nine and the somewhat-less-accomplished Voyager and Enterprise) and led to a resurrection in small-screen SF shows of all stripes.

It would be fair to say that the series did not start off at its most promising, however. The show spends most of its 25-episode first season finding its feet. Fierce behind-the-scenes battles between Gene Roddenberry and his writers resulted in some muddled scripts, whilst Roddenberry's own vision of an egalitarian, equal future are let down by some dubious sexism (it's not until quite late in the season that the female characters get some interesting storylines and cool moments) and racial stereotyping (the episode Code of Honour is particularly wince-inducing in this regard), severe enough to draw criticism from the show's own star.

What saves the first season from early disintegration is Patrick Stewart's thoughtful and intelligent performance as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart hits the ground running and never gives anything less than 100% to the role and to the scripts, regardless of how hammy the dialogue or how embarrassing the storyline. His co-stars are more variable but generally improve as the season goes along, with arguably only Denise Crosby not hitting the same level of quality as the rest of the cast by the end of the season. Brent Spiner, in particular, embraces his role as the android Data with enthusiasm and aplomb.

It can also be said that, generally, the season improves as it goes along. Early episodes include the aforementioned stereotype-filled Code of Honour and the excruciatingly awful Justice (Jogging Aryans try to kill Wesley Crusher for crushing a flowerbed but relent when even their own Space Alien God thing realises this is lame). Elsewhere, the likes of Where No-One Has Gone Before and The Last Outpost hint at potentially interesting ideas, only to be weakened by sloppy execution. The failure of the Ferengi to impress as villains and the difficulty of using the super-powered Q (a fine performance by John de Lancie) too frequently both leave the show without a convincing set of antagonists, although the rise of the Romulans as a threat towards the end of the season does alleviate this issue. Later on we have more solid episodes like 11001001 (which sets up an intriguing alien race, only for them never to appear again), The Arsenal of Freedom (a brainless but nonetheless effective action episode) and Skin of Evil (which, despite one of the worst alien costumes in the show's history and some poor voice work, does offer up some solid dialogue and the biggest shock in the entire show's run), whilst even weaker episodes show some promise. Angel One has an unappealing premise (the crew visit a planet where women are the 'dominant' gender) but there are some surprising flashes of competence (particularly the notion of the women of the planet being larger and stronger than the men, who are all played by actors of limited height) before it falls apart into embarrassing sexism. Symbiosis sets up a genuinely unsettling and complex moral mess for Picard to deal with, but sabotages it with an awful, "Drugs are bad, m'kay," message.

A special word must be reserved for Conspiracy, probably the most unexpectedly violent episode in the entire history of Star Trek and certainly the goriest, featuring people's heads exploding after being hit by phaser blasts and monstrous creatures (though awfully-realised) eating their way out of corpses. For those planning to revisit the series with younger children, caution is advised with regard to this episode.

Ultimately, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is horrendously uneven. Even the worst episodes usually have flashes of competence, but there is a notable lack of really strong, totally satisfying episodes (Datalore and Heart of Glory probably come the closets, but even they have problems). That said, there is a certain amount of enjoyment and interest to be gained by seeing the cast improving episode-by-episode, and certainly by seeing the impressive remastering job that has been performed on the series.

To bring Star Trek: The Next Generation to high definition, a team of editors had to fully re-edit and reassemble every single episode from scratch. This involved retrieving the original film canisters (all 25,000 of them) from storage and re-inserting every optical effect in the series. It was a huge job, apparently taking some six months and costing more than $9 million for the first season alone (hence the somewhat high price for the Blu-Ray set). However, their work has paid off. The show now looks like it was filmed yesterday, with the re-editing of the show using modern equipment having the most satisfying side-effective of eliminating all bluescreen artifacts from the series. Matte lines around spaceships are now a thing of the past and the slight discolourations as characters passed in front of viewscreens or windows are now gone. The series looks vivid and impressive, fifty times better than it ever has before. Each episode is also accompanied by its trailer which remains in standard-definition, allowing viewers to see how effective the re-mastering has been.

This first season release is also accompanied by a number of new documentaries, featuring new retrospectives from the cast and crew on its creation as well as the new editing team on the remastering job. These documentaries are a welcome addition, featuring some interesting perspective and trivia about the series. All of the special features from the 2002 DVD release have also been included, albeit still in standard definition.

In terms of quality of the episodes themselves (***), the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation can be said to be 'watchably disappointing'. However, the fantastic remastering job and the extra content rise the overall quality of this set (****) to something far more worthwhile and interesting. The series is available on Blu-Ray now (UK, USA).

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Minor update about GRAND THEFT AUTO V

Rockstar have released a tiny amount of additional information on the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V.

They have released two screenshots. The one above is the more interesting, depicting the sprawling city of Los Santos (apparently the biggest city in a GTA game to date) from what appears to be a commandeered police helicopter. Does the presence of large suspension bridge hint that GTA5's version of Los Santos will be more of an amalgamation of Los Angeles and San Francisco? Possibly. The other screenshot is rather more chilled out:

A release date for GTA5 has not yet been mooted. However, Rockstar are adamant that they're not going to talk about the game too much in the near future. This to me suggests that a 2012 release date is now impossible (compare the amount of attention that Dishonored, not due until October, is now getting in the gaming press) and we will most likely see the game in May 2013. The spring is a more favoured date for Rockstar and is perfectly situated so as to catch the largest amount of attention before Sony and Microsoft wheel out their new consoles at the end of the year.