Thursday, 31 January 2013

WARCRAFT movie gets greenlight

Yeah, it's happening. Somewhat unexpectedly, since Sam Raimi jumping ship seemed to sink the project, but Legendary Pictures are now pushing ahead with an adaptation of the venerable RTS (and, more recently, life-destroying online RPG) series.

This news may attract a lot "Meh," from the audience, but there are two interesting things about the announcement. The first is that their director of choice is Duncan Jones, who previously helmed Moon and Source Code. Jones is noted as a more thoughtful, minimalist director than what you'd expect for this kind of project. The Hollywood Reporter is also reporting a budget of over $100 million: impressive, but nothing like the $200 million + you'd normally expect of a film of this magnitude.

At this point there is no word on casting or storyline, although Blizzard are going to be heavily involved. Blizzard lore-master Chris Metzen is consulting and advising on the script, so something faithful to the mythos is to be expected.

At this stage there is no word if an ironically Jack Black-voiced Pandaren will feature as comic relief.

The Shape of Things to Come: 2013

I decided to roll all of my normal 'looking ahead' posts into one this year. It's a bit late, so January is missing from these lists and thus it's a list looking forwards to the next eleven months, rather than twelve.


2013 looks set to be an interesting year. At the more literary end of the spectrum we have new novels by Graham Joyce and Christopher Priest (two novels in three years is, by his standards, astonishingly productive). At the diametric opposite end of the scale we have Raymond E. Feist's last-ever Riftwar novel, which is being published to a reception of stone-cold indifference by most SFF readers. Inbetween we have the ongoing re-release of David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series (set to expand by four volumes this year) and the resumption of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, which reaches its ninth and penultimate volume. Neil Gaiman also presents us with his first adult-oriented, full-length novel in eight years, which should be worth a look.

Sadly, we have to bid farewell to Chris Wooding's splendid Tales of the Ketty Jay series, which is wrapping up after four volumes. Peter Brett's Daylight War has some hard work to do to make up for the deficiencies of the second volume, whilst Daniel Abraham hits us with another fantasy/SF double-whammy with The Tyrant's Law and Abaddon's Gate. Richard Morgan's divisive Land Fit For Heroes trilogy (no word yet on if it is indeed expanding to four books) also reaches its third volume with The Dark Defiles.

In the area of SF, Alastair Reynolds has the sequel to his Blue Remembered Earth coming out, whilst Stephen Baxter returns to interstellar exploration and colonisation with Proxima.

Undated, but pretty certain to hit in 2013, is Ian Cameron Esslemont's Assail (working title). Easily the most eagerly-awaited of Esslemont's novels, this book takes us to the much-dreaded continent of Assail. Expect to see a showdown involving the T'lan Imass, Silverfox, the Crimson Guard and much more besides. Less certain for 2013 is Fall of Light, Steven Erikson's middle volume in his Kharkanas Trilogy, which might still just sneak out before the end of the year The ever-fecund. Brandon Sanderson, meanwhile, has several dozen novels due out, with his second Stormlight novel being the most eagerly-awaited (but also one of the most likely to slip to 2014). Stephen Donaldson is also tentatively scheduled to publish the tenth and final Thomas Covenant novel (thirty-six years after the first), The Last Dark, before the end of the year.

That's about it for the epic fantasy big-hitters. No Rothfuss, and Lynch's Republic of Thieves remains MIA. Martin fans will get some more Song of Ice and Fire morsels in the form of a narrative history of the Dance of Dragons, which will appear in Dangerous Women, and then a big coffee-table guidebook to the world with The World of Ice and Fire, which is tentatively scheduled for November (but again delays are possible).
At this stage my most eagerly-awaited novel of the year is River of Stars, a semi-follow-up to Guy Gavriel Kay's excellent Under Heaven.


The Daylight War by Peter Brett
Jimmy and the Crawler by Raymond E. Feist
Dreams and Shadows by Robert Cargill

The Art of War by David Wingrove
The High Kingdom by Pierre Pevel

The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Abominable by Dan Simmons
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Son of the Morning by Mark Alder (MD Lachlan)

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham
Magician's End by Raymond E. Feist
Dangerous Women by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (ed.)
The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck)
The City by Stella Gemmell
On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski
Cold Steel by Kate Elliott
The Dragon Queen by Stephen Deas
Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp
An Inch of Ashes by David Wingrove
Requiem by Ken Scholes

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts
The Glass God by Kate Griffin
Gallow: The Crimson Shield by Nathan Hawke (Stephen Deas)

Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honour of Gene Wolfe by Bill Fawcett (ed)
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
War Master's Gate by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan
The Ace of Skulls by Chris Wooding
Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik
Gallow: Cold Redemption by Nathan Hawke (Stephen Deas)

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
The Broken Wheel by David Wingrove
Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age by Kim Stanley Robinson
Gallow: The Last Bastion by Nathan Hawke (Stephen Deas)
Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Drakenfield by Mark Charan Newton

The World of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson
Moon's Artifice by Tom Lloyd

The White Mountain by David Wingrove

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
The Last Dark by Stephen Donaldson
Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams
Assail by Ian Cameron Esslemont
New Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
King of Cobwebs by David Keck

Possible For 2013 But Uncertain
Fall of Light by Steven Erikson
The Free by Brian Ruckley
Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton
Stormlight Archive #2 by Brandon Sanderson
Next Gaunt's Ghosts novel by Dan Abnett
Dresden Files #15 by Jim Butcher
The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker
The Sea Beggars by Paul Kearney
The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
Endlords by J.V. Jones
Triumff: The Double Falsehood by Dan Abnett
The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia by Harriet McDougal


In terms of games, 2013 is looking reasonably good at this point, though (thankfully for my wallet) not as jam-packed as last year. There's a lot of much-delayed games coming out in 2013, such as Aliens: Colonial Marines (which somehow looks less interesting with every trailer that appears) and StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, which is arriving a full two years behind schedule. I expect both will be playable, but will be surprised if either is outstanding (in particular, Blizzard really need to hire some new writers).

Also long-awaited is SimCity 5: A Truckload of DRM (or just SimCity as we now have to call it). Long-term fans of the venerable city management series have seen increasing disappointment as they learned of the always-on internet connection and the fact that the biggest cities you can build in the game are disappointingly small.

Looking much more interesting is BioShock Infinite. Whilst I was somewhat underwhelmed by the original BioShock's gameplay, certainly the art direction and visuals were striking and the sequel is following up on that end of things in spades. Hopefully the gameplay will match up this time.

Unfortunately, the dissolution of THQ has left the release dates for Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light and South Park: The Stick of Truth all up in the air. Though the three games have all been rescued (by Sega, Deep Silver and Ubisoft respectively), their transition has left final release dates in some doubt. In particular, there is a legal tussle over South Park that could delay it indefinitely, which is a shame as it was looking like a particularly interesting take on the RPG genre.

Also suffering a delay is Grand Theft Auto V, which slips back four months to September, but only with the console versions confirmed. We all know there will be a PC version - given they released GTA4 on PC at a time when PC sales were rock-bottom and still sold shedloads, they'd be completely idiotic not to now the PC format is back on top of its game - so Rockstar's refusal to confirm it is just tiresome.

Arriving at the end of the year will be the new consoles, and with them the first 'next-gen' titles, such as Star Wars 1313 (likely a launch title for them). However, potentially more interesting is the arrival of the first batch of bigger games funded through Kickstarter (a few, like FTL, have already come out). Wasteland 2, Double Fine Adventure and Carmageddon: Reincarnation should prove whether the concept has legs. 2014 promises even more Kickstarted goodness, with Project: Eternity, Star Citizen and Elite 4 (hopefully) all arriving in force.

For me, the most promising game of the year is easily Rome II: Total War (or Total War: Rome II under Creative Assembly's new naming scheme). There hasn't been a really good Total War game for me since 2006's Medieval II, but Rome II looks like being both more epic and more fun than the last few games in the series.

Dead Space 3
Aliens: Colonial Marines
Crysis 3

Tomb Raider
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
BioShock Infinite

Company of Heroes 2
Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse
Metro: Last Light
South Park: The Stick of Truth

Grand Theft Auto V

Late 2013

Rome 2: Total War

The Elder Scrolls Online

Star Wars 1313

Wasteland 2

X: Rebirth
Carmageddon: Reincarnation
Double Fine Adventure 


Film-wise, 2013 looks a bit same-old, with a strong focus on superhero movies (even if these are some of the more interesting ones). We'll have to wait and see if Zack Snyder can resurrect the Superman movies (I'm not holding my breath), but Thor, Iron Man and a Japanese-influenced Wolverine should at least be fun.

The trailers are also suggesting that Into Darkness will be a more interesting, larger-scaled movie than J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek movie (which I was underwhelmed by: all the right ingredients, but not mixed together quite well). Benedict Cumberbatch certainly looks like a far more compelling villain than Eric Bana, at any rate. Also packed full of CGI and large explosions is Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, which initially looks like a Michael Bay Transformers movie with added Idris Elba (which is in itself quite a good idea, actually). However, Del Toro's trademark weirdness could make this a bit more interesting than it appears.

Later in the year we have sequel city, with the second Hunger Games movie hoping to repeat the better-than-the-book trick of the first one. There's also the second Hobbit movie. I'm hoping against hope that Peter Jackson learns the art of editing so we can get a lean 90-minute (okay, two hours max) action movie, but I'm not holding my breath on that one. What is likely to be a lot shorter and a lot funnier is The World's End, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's long-awaited conclusion to their thematic Three Colours of Cornetto trilogy (following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).

For me, the movie I'm most interested in is, perhaps unexpectedly, Riddick. The third film to feature Vin Diesel's titular character, we've been promised a picture that jettisons most of the excesses of the second film in favour of a tighter scope and more condensed storytelling. With Katee Sackhoff on board to provide support and Karl Urban resuming his role from the second film, this could be a bit of a dark horse.


Star Trek: Into Darkness
Iron Man 3

Man of Steel

World War Z

Kick-Ass 2

Pacific Rim

The Wolverine


The World's End

Thor: The Dark World

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


Crimson Nuptials. Does more need to be said?

Community Season 4
Game of Thrones: Season 3
Doctor Who: Season 33.5
Doctor Who: 50th Anniversary Special
The Walking Dead Season 3.5/4.0

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Walking Dead: Season 1 (adventure game)

The dead have risen and the world has been thrown into ruin. A band of survivors gathers together to try to escape the chaos, but find that their greatest enemy may not be the walking dead, but themselves.

Much has been written about Telltale's computer game adaptation of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic series, usually involving such words as 'amazing', 'intense', 'emotional' and 'cried like a three-year-old'. They are not far off. With The Walking Dead, Telltale have achieved what may be the finest computer game adaptation of a pre-existing franchise in gaming's history, something that supports the original story whilst also standing completely on its own two feet.

The Walking Dead takes place in the same world as the comics (but not the TV series, which is an alternate reality) and is canon to them. The developers - working alongside Kirkman - take advantage of this to show off the backstory of comic characters Hershel and Glen, but for the most part the focus is firmly on the original characters created for the game. Chief amongst these is the player-controlled protagonist, Lee Everett. Lee is a criminal who was on his way to prison when the zombie apocalypse broke out, and some of the game's tension comes from whether he is honest or not about his background to his new-found friends.

The core relationship of the game is between Lee and eight-year-old Clementine, a young girl he rescues from a zombie attack on a house. A long-term goal of the game is to reunite Clementine with her parents (if they are still alive) in Savannah, Georgia, but as the game continues Lee becomes convinced that the chances of her parents still being alive are very slim and takes on a father-figure role himself. The relationship is well-portrayed by the writers and actors, with the apparent oddness of an unrelated non-parent (who is also a convicted felon) caring for a young girl he just met being addressed. The characterisation is extremely strong, though to so more of it may risk spoilers (a problem for any review of the game).

The game has echoes of events from other incarnations of The Walking Dead, such as whether it's a good idea to teach young children how to use firearms against zombies or not, but Telltale puts their fresh spin on each idea as it comes up. Particularly well-handled is the way that the same major worldbuilding bits of information from the graphic novels are discovered by this group of characters, but in a rather different manner to the comics. For example, the knowledge that everyone will become a zombie when they die (regardless of whether they are bitten or not) - a major revelation in the comics and TV series - comes up almost immediately in the game, whilst a more minor piece of info about the zombies that the comic series threw in almost immediately takes a long time to come up in the game, and is much more decisive (and horrible).

The Walking Dead's storyline is impressive, with the zombies acting as a catalyst for how the characters interact with one another and deal with the pressure of a crumbling civilisation. The game hits many of the same beats as the TV series and the comics, but in a much more immersive way due to the way your decisions have lasting consequences, and some events can be changed. The dialogue is well-written, with each of the five episodes having its own self-contained plot and thematic arc as well as contributing to the overall storyline of the game. Given the lack of time (even at 15 hours, there a lot of characters to get through), Telltale achieve an impressive amount of depth for each character in the game as well. In terms of writing, structure and pacing, The Walking Dead is excellent.

Where the game comes off the rails a bit is the gameplay. Simply put, you spend the majority of your time watching The Walking Dead, rather than playing it, and most of your controls are based around choosing dialogue options. The sections where you get to take control of Lee, talk to other characters at leisure, explore areas and solve puzzles are the most fun in the game, but also the rarest (roughly boiling down to one or two such sections per episode). There's also a significant number of irritating Quick Time Events as well. It's a tribute to the writing skills of the team behind the game that these issues are not the total game-killers they'd be in other titles, but it does make The Walking Dead less of a game and more of an interactive comic (though still a very good interactive comic).

More problematic is the fact that the game is sold as one where your choices matter, but the truth of that is up for debate. At one stage you choose to save one character or another and this leads to some different character scenes and dialogue for a while, but ultimately has no long-term ramifications. The major beats of the plot and most character deaths also happen regardless of your dialogue and choices, with what you do more impacting on other characters' reactions to you and what they do rather than anything substantive in the storyline. Oddly this doesn't seem to matter: moreso than in most games, it's the journey that matters much more than the resolution.

The Walking Dead (****½) is an intense, well-written and extremely atmospheric adventure game, but one where you do not have as much control over what is going on as what is promised or written. How much of an issue this is will be up to the player, but I found it easily ignored in favour of the smart writing and the fascinating character relationships. The Walking Dead: Season 1 is available now on PC, X-Box 360 (UK, USA), PlayStation 3 (UK, USA) and iPad/iPhone. A second 'season' will be released later in 2013.

Monday, 28 January 2013

WHEEL OF TIME game not dead at Obsidian, KotOR 3 a possibility

I missed this when it went up over a month ago, but Kotaku have published a thorough interview with the founder and CEO of Obsidian Entertainment, Feargus Urquhart. The interview is extremely informative and revealing.

First up is the surprising news that the Wheel of Time RPG is not entirely dead. Previously Obsidian had signed a deal with Red Eagle to make a game based on the setting, but then all news on the project dried up. The article reveals that, despite no forwards movement on the project for almost three years, the game is actually still viable, provided that Red Eagle finds a publisher and provides funding. I'm not holding my breath on this realistically ever happening, but it's good to know that Obsidian are still ready to go with the project if it does ever become a reality.

Secondly, Urquhart talks about the success of their Project Eternity Kickstarter appeal, and how it has opened other doors. He reveals that he has been talking to companies like Ubisoft, Bethesda and LucasArts about future projects. Based on comments elsewhere in the article and some things that have happened since, it sounds like Obsidian have - very tentatively - been talking about doing a Might and Magic game with Ubisoft (although that possibly might have been related to Ubisoft picking up the South Park RPG Stick of Truth, which has indeed just happened); to Bethesda about a potential Fallout: New Vegas 2 (or even an Elder Scrolls game); and to LucasArts about a Knights of the Old Republic III for next gen consoles and PC. None of these things are 'go' projects or particularly likely to happen, but they're all potentially mouthwatering prospects.

Finally, Urquhart talks at length about their highest-profile failures, particularly the incomplete Knights of the Old Republic II and the furore surrounding Alpha Protocol. What is particularly intriguing is the fact that Alpha Protocol has been selling very well over a long period of time, enough that Obsidian have hopes of being able to revisit the idea of a sequel with Sega a couple of years down the line (although given the summary cancellation of Obsidian's Aliens RPG - also mentioned in the interview - that may be more wishful thinking than anything else).

Overall, a very interesting look at what might just be my favourite game developers around at the moment.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

J.J. Abrams will direct STAR WARS: EPISODE VII

Despite repeatedly saying that he would not direct Star Wars Episode VII: Absolutely Nothing to Do With Thrawn, Sorry, it was surprisingly announced yesterday that J.J. Abrams would, in fact, be directing the movie.

"Okay, George. So the main bad guy is a billowing cloud of black smoke and Luke has to defeat him by running around the corner and sticking a plug in the ground."
"Fine, but only if Jar-Jar's kids are in it. One of them can be a Jedi with dual-wielding lightsabres which he comically uses to smash up the scenery whenever the pace slackens."

Abrams had previously ruled himself out of contention, citing both his commitment to the new Star Trek movies for Paramount (Abrams's second Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, is out this year) and his overwhelming fandom of the Star Wars franchise preventing him from approaching a new film with the necessary detachment. Clearly these issues have been overcome, with Abrams agreeing to produce a potential third Star Trek movie (as well as being on board for a fifth Mission: Impossible film).

Star Wars Episode VII will be released in 2015 (possibly May). Michael Arndt is writing the script, with Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg co-producing.

Colour me cautiously optimistic. Although I have strong problems with Abrams's Star Trek work (so far), I enjoyed his work on Lost (though Abrams's involvement after the first season was limited) and Cloverfield, which he produced. Star Wars, if done right, could also be a better match for his skills.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

James Purefoy and Kevin McKidd rule out GAME OF THRONES roles

In an interview with Empire Online to publicise his new TV show, The Following, James Purefoy has confirmed that he will not be appearing in Game of Thrones due to lingering annoyance with HBO over how they ended Rome, and that his co-star Kevin McKidd is of a similar mind.

According to Purefoy, he and McKidd decided on this commitment over lunch:
McKidd and I had lunch the other day, and I said to him, "Have you been asked to do Game Of Thrones?" And he said, "I'd never do it. Because they stole our fucking show." He worked out that if Rome had run for the entire seven seasons that it should have run, we would only have finished it last year. And he feels that HBO did Game of Thrones instead of us, so they stole our show. I kind of agree with him. I won't be doing Game Of Thrones, even if they ask me.
Context: James Purefoy played Mark Antony on HBO's Rome, with McKidd playing the role of Lucius Vorenus. Rome ran for two seasons, airing in 2005 and 2007, and remains the most expensive ongoing weekly show that HBO has ever mounted (the budget for Season 1 exceeded $100 million, or $31 million more than GoT's second season). The show was a co-production between the BBC and HBO. When the BBC decided not to contribute past the second season, HBO cancelled the show for lack of funding and disappointing ratings. Some years later they acknowledged this was a mistake, with the show's performance on DVD and other foreign sales ultimately proving lucrative enough to sustain the show for further seasons.

An attempt was made several years ago by Rome showrunner Bruno Heller to get a spin-off movie off the ground, but this project never made it out of development hell. HBO are currently developing a fresh TV adaptation of Robert Graves's novel I, Claudius (not related to the 1970s BBC mini-series) which some are citing as a spiritual successor to Rome, but due to the much later time period no Rome actors are expected to appear.

Given that HBO was extremely premature - and ultimately proven mistaken - in its decision to cancel Rome, I can understand McKidd and Purefoy's decision not to appear on further HBO series. However, some of their Rome co-stars have chosen to take another view, with both Ciaran Hinds (Caesar) and Tobias Menzies (Brutus) joining Thrones in its third season, as Mance Rayder and Edmure Tully respectively.

Curiously, Purefoy was much more positive about Thrones in an interview eighteen months ago:
If it was the right role on Game of Thrones, definitely. Of course! It’s a terrific series. It’s a great series of books. I love HBO. I’m on record saying that HBO is the best television company in the world, and I believe they are. I think they absolutely understand how to make television that is really, really vital and interesting and visceral, and all the things that television really should be. I’m a big fan of HBO.


Bethesda and Blizzard have released trailers for their upcoming games The Elder Scrolls Online and StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. Both trailers are unfortunately just CGI 'flavour' trailers rather than showing any gameplay.

First up is The Elder Scrolls Online, which takes the Elder Scrolls universe into the MMORPG realm. Set a thousand years before the events of Skyrim, the game will feature the entire continent of Tamriel (including locations already familiar to players of Skyrim and Oblivion) and will focus on a three-way war for control of the continent:

Second is StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. The long-awaited expansion to StarCraft 2 itself, Heart of the Swarm focuses on the Zerg species and adds RPG elements to the strategy game. The trailer features most of the opening cinematic to the game, apparently:

No release date has been set for The Elder Scrolls Online, whilst StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm will be released on PC on 13 March.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is now twenty years old. The first episode aired on 3 January 1993, whilst The Next Generation was still on the air, and it was for 176 episodes over seven seasons, ending in May 1999.

Deep Space Nine was originally dismissed as the unwanted stepchild of the Star Trek franchise. After a brief eruption of press surrounding its start, it was soon overshadowed by the end of The Next Generation, the release of the first Next Generation movie (Generations) and the arrival of Star Trek: Voyager. However, in the years since DS9's conclusion, it has been critically reappraised and is now often widely cited as the best of the six Star Trek television series.

Deep Space Nine was the result of a conversation in 1991 between Brandon Tartikoff (the then-head of Paramount Television) and The Next Generation producer-showrunners Michael Pillar and Rick Berman, whilst TNG was in its fourth season. With TNG expected to end after six years (it ultimately ended after seven), Paramount was keen to expand the franchise and keep the name going through a new show that would initially air alongside TNG and then take over from it afterwards. Tartikoff himself suggested that if both the original series and TNG were, in Gene Roddenberry's Western analogy, "Wagon Train to the stars," then the new show could be "The Rifleman in space." Rather than being based around space travel and exploration - an area TNG was already handling well - the new show would be set in one location and would deal with the characters exploring issues in greater depth.

Pillar and Berman developed the premise even further. They initially discussed a planetside starbase but realised the costs of location filming for every episode would soon become ruinous. They instead settled on a space station as the main setting. They also decided to use a non-Federation station, feeling this would force the characters to solve problems through ingenuity rather than the superior technology of Starfleet. They also decided to explore some of the races and situations established in TNG rather than relying on old Star Trek stand-bys like the Klingons and Romulans. In particular, the Ferengi and Cardassians of TNG were to be explored in much greater depth than on TNG and a new culture, the Bajorans, was introduced as well (with enough forewarning that their backstory could be established on TNG a year before DS9 aired).

Despite initial plans to not involve space exploration as a major theme, the writers changed their minds and established that a stable wormhole was located in the Bajoran system, linking Federation territory to the Gamma Quadrant on the far side of the Galaxy. This allowed them to explore unknown space or have new aliens arriving on DS9 whilst still retaining a static setting.

For their cast of characters, the producers cast Avery Brooks as Commander Sisko, a survivor of the Battle of Wolf 359 on TNG. Arguably the most professional military commander of the various Star Trek characters, Brooks played Sisko as reserved in command but also a man of deeply-held convictions, a strong family man and also a man with a dry sense of humour. In particular, Sisko was much more of a rule-bender than Picard ever was, feeling the ends often justified the means (most devastatingly in the sixth season episode In the Pale Moonlight, which may just feature the most amoral act ever performed by a main character in Star Trek's history). Backing him up was a considerably more dysfunctional crew than any seen before or since in Star Trek: Nana Visitor as terrorist-turned-solider Kira Nerys; Siddig El Fadil as the arrogant-genius Dr. Bashir; Rene Auberjonois as the shapechanging security chief Odo; Terry Farrell as Lt. Dax (a 28-year-old woman with the memories of a 300-year-old slug living in her abdomen); Cirroc Lofton as Sisko's son Jake; and Armin Shimerman as the station's resident Ferengi barkeep Quark. In addition, Colm Meaney's character of Chief Miles O'Brien was transferred over from TNG (and promoted to the main cast).

It would be fair to say that, like its forebear, DS9 took a while to find its feet. Early episodes focused on the Bajoran political-religious situation and tended to over-emphasise TNG characters and situations (the Duras sisters, Lwaxana Troi, Q and Vash all appeared in DS9's first season). The results were episodes that were often very well-made - and certainly DS9's first season wipes the floor with TNG's first two seasons - but tended to be a little too safe, too neat and too traditional. A notable exception was the episode Duet, a morally complex story which packed genuine emotional power. The second season saw the show adopt more of its own identity, relaxing on the Bajoran stuff (after the opening trilogy) and instead hinting at an enigmatic new threat on the horizon called 'the Dominion'. In the second season finale, the Dominion was revealed to be an anti-Federation, an alliance of several powerful races in the Gamma Quadrant that viewed the Federation as a distinct threat.

DS9 took a big step forwards in the third season. Writer Ira Steven Behr was promoted to showrunner following Michael Pillar's departure and immediately began steering the show away from technobabble solutions to episodes in favour of more human drama. Rules banning holodeck malfunction episodes were put in place. Another important addition was the arrival of Ronald D. Moore from TNG writing team and the addition of a starship permanently stationed at DS9, the Defiant. The third season focused on the cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, with the threat represented by the Dominion becoming pressing. This culminated in the two-part storyline Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast, in which the Dominion destroyed a large portion of the Romulan and Cardassian fleets, vowing that the Federation and Klingons would be next.

For Season 4, the DS9 production crew was ordered to shake up the show in some fashion. A new title sequence was adopted, Sisko was promoted to full captain (in the Season 3 finale) and Michael Dorn was brought on board to reprise his TNG character of Worf. The writers decided to follow up on the Dominion threat in the previous season by having the Dominion orchestrate a split between the Federation and Klingons, leading to a state of near-war between the two sides for most of the season. Whilst successful and highly popular with the fans, the writers did feel this took them off where they were planning to go. In Season 5 they arranged a rapprochement between the two sides just in time for the outbreak of full scale war against the Dominion at the end of the season. This war lasted until the final episode of the series.

Whilst the Dominion War, and the years of cold war leading up to it, are often considered to be DS9's primary storyline, the show's actual main plot centred on the fact that Sisko was 'the Emissary', a Bajoran religious figure with a connection to their gods, the Prophets. In fact, the Prophets turned out to be ultra-advanced aliens living in the wormhole, but who still considered Sisko to be bound to them. Sisko's arc over the seven seasons would see him initially rejecting but later embracing his role as the Prophet. Similarly, Sisko's Cardassian opposite, Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), would transform over the course of the series from an antagonistic villain to a semi-ally to ultimately Sisko's nemesis, and serving as his equivalent amongst the Pah-Wraiths, a group of 'evil' Prophets. This story arc, though sometimes risking cheese, was well-handled by the writers and actors and gave the show a dramatic spine which began in the pilot and concluded satisfactorily in the final episode of the series, giving the series a coherent, overall storyline and direction that none of the other Star Trek series possessed. Given that this arc was unplanned and was handled by many different writers over the course of seven seasons, the fact it ended up being as cohesive and solid as it did is impressive.

After DS9 ended the cast and crew went on to other things. Most notably, a lot of them regrouped four years later for the 'new' (or I suppose we should be saying now, 'newer') Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore was the main showrunner and brought on board DS9 writers David Weddle, Bradley Thompson, Michael Taylor and Jane Espenson (Ira Steven Behr was busy on The 4400). Like DS9, the new BSG was darker and more cynical than its parent series, more willing to challenge audience assumptions, kill off characters and feature long-running storylines. Ultimately, however, BSG's story arc collapsed under a morass of unanswered questions and incoherent storytelling. This indicated that DS9 had been lucky to get away with telling a long-running, multi-year arc with almost no forward planning (and DS9's arc had never been quite as intricate as the storyline BSG set up anyway).

Deep Space Nine should be applauded for many things, including the most reliably consistent standard of storytelling, directing and acting across the various Star Trek series. It had very, very few unwatchably awful episodes and several that must rank amongst the very best episodes that Star Trek as a whole has ever produced: In the Pale Moonlight, Trials and Tribble-ations, The Visitor, In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light, Call to Arms and Far Beyond the Stars. By Star Trek standards, the show was relatively gritty and hard-hitting. Relatively major characters died (though only one amongst the regular cast), major Star Trek planets were devastated and most of the final two seasons were dedicated to a gruelling war which exposed the idealism of the Federation as being worth fighting for, but also perhaps somewhat naive in the face of some threats (though the revelation of the existence of the Defiant-class warships and Section 31 showed that the Federation wasn't perhaps quite as toothless as had been thought).

The show generally maintained an optimistic outlook, however, and did not descend into outright bleakness, despite coming closer than any other Trek show (particularly in the amazingly depressing Siege of AR-558). On the flipside the show did comedy better than any of the other shows and in the Odo-Quark relationship had perhaps the most intriguing and well-developed character relationship in the history of the franchise. It also featured the most complex and layered recurring Star Trek character ever, with Andrew Robinson's portrayal of Garak being nothing short of genius. DS9 was also unusual in having a regular, recurring cast of villains including Marc Alaimo's Dukat, Casey Biggs' Damar, Salome Jens's female changeling and, most memorably, Jeffrey Combs's Weyoun. Weyoun may be Star Trek's most amiably entertaining villain, a diplomat with the spiel of a smooth used-car salesman backed up by the most ferocious fighting force in the Galaxy. His ability to ponder the aesthetic value of a painting whilst simultaneously discussing the execution of terrorist suspects was both amusing and chilling.

Deep Space Nine is available in full on DVD right now. A Blu-Ray release, with the show fully remastered in HD, is planned for when the re-relase of TNG is completed. Based on the timescale for that, I expect DS9 will start appearing in that format in late 2015.

The Proof House by K.J. Parker

Thanks to the efforts of Bardas Loredan - fencer turned bowyer turned sapper - the city of Ap' Escatoy has fallen, allowing the Empire to begin its expansion into the lands held by the plains tribes. Loredan is reassigned to an imperial proof house, testing armour to destruction, until his previous relationship with the leader of the tribes is discovered. Loredan is the only person that Termai, sacker of Perimadeia, fears and the Empire plans to make good use of that fact in its invasion.

The Proof House is the third and concluding volume of K.J. Parker's debut work, The Fencer Trilogy. As with its two predecessors, Colours in the Steel and The Belly of the Bow, it's a novel that wears the clothes of epic fantasy but seems resolutely unimpressed by them. Wars, battles, sword fights, clashes of armies and so forth are all featured, but presented with dripping cynicism and sarcasm by the author, who is far more interested in her(?) characters. The Fencer Trilogy is less about the trappings of the subgenre and more about family relationships, particularly the extremely dysfunctional (to the point of murder) Loredan clan. The novel is driven, as to some extent the previous ones were, by Gorgas Loredan's insistence on repairing the damage he did to his family as a youth, utterly unaware that his crimes are past forgiveness or forgetting.

Elsewhere, Parker continues to base her narrative around the trappings of medieval-style warfare. The first book revolved around swords and the second around bows, with both standing as metaphors for the novels' themes. This continues in the third novel, which is about armour and how it is tested to be 'proof' against the pressures that will be brought to bear against it. This thematic element is a bit overstated in this third volume, with what was previously a subtle and clever analogy instead being rammed down the reader's throats with less nuance. This is a shame as other elements are handled in a far more enjoyable manner, such as the final conclusions about the Principal (including some interesting information about its temporal-manipulation effects) and the resolution of Temrai's storyline from the first novel.

The novel's biggest weakness is the fact that a major new political power - the Empire - appears literally out of nowhere and is described as the largest and most powerful nation in the world with an army numbering in the millions (individual provinces can field armies in the hundreds of thousands by themselves), with its nearest borders being only a few hundred miles from Perimadeia, Shastel and other familiar locations. Yet it somehow went completely unmentioned in the first two novels of the series, stretching credulity past breaking point. This is a shame as the Empire is a reasonably well-constructed fantasy nation (as these things go) and the increasingly bemused meta-observations by one of its provincial officers on the plot is quite amusing.

The Proof House (***½) is a clever novel that uses the trappings of epic fantasy to criticise the subgenre intelligently, whilst also featuring some dark humour, nuanced characterisation and an appropriately messy ending. Some shaky worldbuilding and over-egged thematic elements leave it as the weakest of the three novels in The Fencer Trilogy, but still a worthwhile conclusion to the story. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


HBO have released another promo video for the third season of Game of Thrones. This one is a general look at Season 3 from the actors and producers, and features glimpses of new characters and actors:

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Tad Williams completes latest novel

Via Facebook, Tad Williams has reported that he has completed Happy Hour in Hell and sent it off to his publishers. This is the second novel in his Bobby Dollar series (the first, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, was released last year to a warm reception). Williams also reports that he is starting work on the third book, Sleeping Late on Judgement Day.

The novel is provisionally scheduled for release at the end of this year.

FALLOUT TV series in the works?

Bethesda has filed a trademark for an 'ongoing television program set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world', sparking speculation that they are planning to turn their Fallout franchise into a TV series.

The Fallout series depicts a parallel history where the United States built a technologically-advanced future based on the designs and visions of the 1950s, only for this world to be destroyed in a nuclear war between the USA and China in 2077. The games are set between 100 and 205 years later and show the rise of new societies from the ruins of the old one. There are four main games (Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas) and two spin-offs (Fallout: Tactics and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel), as well as a tabletop wargame. The series was created by Interplay and Black Isle Studios, who created the first three games in the series. After Black Isle's dissolution in 2004 (whilst working on a third game in the series), other studios produced the spin-offs for Interplay. Bethesda bought the rights to the Fallout franchise in 2006 and released Fallout 3 in 2008. They then hired Obsidian Entertainment to make New Vegas, which was released in 2010.

Bethesda are currently working on Fallout 4, which will almost certainly be set in Boston (Bethesda researchers have visited the city recently, making notes on its layout and geography), and there is widespread speculation that they will start work on Fallout Online once The Elder Scrolls Online is released later this year.

Bethesda applying for this copyright does not necessarily mean that there will be a Fallout TV series - they may be simply trying to protect against another show being made using the same concepts - but it does indicate they are at least thinking about it. Reactions will likely be mixed. Whilst Bethesda are to be thanked for raising the profile of the Fallout franchise and introducing it to a huge number of new fans, it is also the case that their interpretation of the franchise in Fallout 3 was simplistic, though fun. This was particularly shown up by New Vegas, where Obsidian (consisting of many of the writers and developers of the first two games) delivered both a better game and a considerably more interesting and more nuanced view of the setting. If a Fallout TV series is to proceed, hopefully Bethesda would involve some of the Obsidian talent (particularly Chris Avellone and J.E. Sawyer) in some capacity.


Mega-City One: a vast metropolis of 800 million people stretching along the Eastern Seaboard of North America and a safe refuge from the radiation-ravaged Cursed Earth beyond. Fifteen thousand crimes take place daily in this huge city and only the men and women known as Judges - law-enforcement officers who summarily evaluate crimes and dispense sentences - can try to keep the peace.

Cassandra Anderson is a new recruit to the Judges who has already failed one evaluation. She has been given a second chance due to her powerful psychic powers and Judge Joe Dredd, one of the city's most effective Judges, has been assigned to undertake her second evaluation. Anderson's test takes place in Peach Trees Block, a kilometre-high residential block of eighty thousand people, which has been taken over by a criminal gang and turned into a drugs factory. The two Judges have two hundred floors to ascend and countless obstacles in their way...and no back-up.

Dredd is the second attempt to make a live-action movie based on the extremely popular Judge Dredd comic book. First appearing in 2000AD in the late 1970s, Judge Dredd is a satire on police procedurals and action movies. In particular, it pokes fun at the fascistic idea of single 'good' police officers being trusted to carry out law enforcement without oversight (something presented as laudable in Hollywood cop movies of the 1970s and 1980s, with 'good' policemen being hampered by bureaucratic officials from doing What Is Right in their eyes). Another film version was made in 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role. Whilst the 1995 moved nailed the offbeat, demented feel of Mega-City One in the comics and had some great (if impractical) production design, it was a failure in the departments of story, character and Rob Schneider. The 2012 film improves upon it in almost every department (starting with the laudable decision to not cast Rob Schneider) to deliver a highly entertaining action movie.

Playing Dredd this time out is Karl Urban (or, more accurately, Karl Urban's Chin), who brings the requisite amounts of gravitas and presence to the role without descending into camp (as Stallone had a tendency to on occasion). He doesn't wisecrack (though a couple of his deliberately-understated reactions are quite amusing) but gets about business with relentless, grim efficiency. Dredd is presented as a force of nature. Staying true to the comics, he does not remove his helmet (unlike Stallone) and is presented as the faceless embodiment of The Law. However, he does have a highly practical and more flexible side to him, as shown by his willingness to ignore minor crimes, like vagrancy, whilst investigating much more serious ones. One of the limitations from the comic is that Dredd's character changes very slowly, only over years or decades, whilst writer Alex Garland only has an hour and a half to work with here. He can only hint that Dredd's opinions and character has been changed by his experiences in the block and with Anderson in the final scenes, but this is actually successful. Dredd himself looks surprised - or as surprised as a chin can be - by his final decision in the film which reflects his experiences.

Olivia Thirlby plays Anderson with understatement. Anderson is a rookie who takes the carnage of dispensing justice on the streets with much less stoicism than Dredd, but is not presented as weak, only inexperienced. Anderson's psi abilities allow her to take courses of action that Dredd simply never considers (and usually rather less violent ones) and are used in a manner that makes sense: an elaborate deception and trap that is laid for her fails in a rather spectacular fashion. With Dredd not evolving much as a character over the course of the film, it's Anderson whose character evolution and arc is more central to the film and this is handled well by the writer and actress.

Opposing both is Lena Headey as 'Ma-Ma' Madrigal, the gang leader who has effectively taken over the block. Ma-Ma is presented as an utterly ruthless criminal whose backstory (one of abuse before killing her abuser and taking over his crime empire) is not allowed to excuse her actions. She is a sociopathic monster rather than a scheming villain, which would not fit in well with the film's stripped-down atmosphere. Headey does some excellent work with the material she's given, though we actually spend a lot more time with Wood Harris (noted for his role as Avon Barksdale in The Wire). Though given a fairly limited character, Harris also does some good work, particularly in his psychic sparring scenes with Anderson where he tries to shock her with mental imagery only for Anderson to turn them back against him.

The film has a laid-back, minimalist atmosphere. In early scenes this is disappointing, with Mega-City One looking suspiciously like a mildly CGI-enhanced versions of Johannesburg (where the movie was filmed). The crazy exuberance of the city in the comic, which is the one thing the 1995 movie did get right, is simply not present here and Mega-City One becomes just another characterless, futuristic cityscape. In particular, presenting the blocks as being massively spaced out means that the Block Wars of the comics are simply not possible now. However, this minimalism does work well once Dredd and Anderson hit the block and the mayhem kicks in. The aliens and robots of the setting are not in evidence, with Dredd and Anderson instead having to take on a tower full of human criminals (a tower considerably larger in volume than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, for comparison's sake) in a focused hour or so of combat scenes and psychological warfare. Aside from a few moments that don't make sense (like a certain scene with three miniguns which is not only gratuitous, but completely pointless) these scenes are directed with energy, vigour and an awful lot of CGI blood.

CGI is used sparingly throughout the film, with real explosions, bullets and models preferred. The most notable special effect sequences are those involving the 'Slo-Mo' sequences, where time is slowed down to a fraction of its normal rate by drugs. These add an air of balletic elegance that counterpoint the more frenetic action scenes. The film's score is also a success, with stripped-down industrial tracks giving way to more appropriately atmospheric mood pieces during the Slo-Mo scenes.

Overall, Dredd (****) is a film that overcomes a low budget and limited premise though excellent performances (even by the bit-players), some impressive effects and a relentless pace, helped by a concise running time. Though the film's disappointing box office performance - which in the UK at least could be attributed to a crazy decision to not show the film in 2D in most cinemas - makes a sequel unlikely, I for one would welcome a return for Karl Urban's take on the lawman. The movie is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman

The Kindly Ones, three powerful beings also known as the Furies. They have the power to even harm the Endless, if they should be summoned to do so by a mortal with a just grievance...and if that member of the Endless has spilled the blood of one of their own family. When Lyta Hall's young son Daniel goes missing, she blames Dream and calls upon the Kindly Ones for aid. When they agree - for Dream has the blood of his own son on his hands - a sequence of events is set in motion which will profoundly change everything.

The Kindly Ones is the ninth of the Sandman graphic novels and is also the largest. It is a sustained storyline, originally published across thirteen issues of the title's original comics run. It was also deliberately written by Neil Gaiman to be read as a single graphic novel, a decision that provoked the ire of some readers of the comic who felt that many of the individual issues failed to satisfy when taken on their own merits. However, read as a single story it becomes clear that The Kindly Ones may be the strongest of The Sandman's long storylines.

The Kindly Ones takes no prisoners. Previously, Gaiman was careful to reintroduce older characters in a way that newer readers would still be able to follow and enjoy what was going on. He has no truck with that here, instead pulling together dozens of characters and narrative strands from earlier issues and collections. These storylines include: the aftermath of Dream's slaying of his son Orpheus, Delirium's acquisition of a talking dog named Barnabas; the saga of Lyta Hall and her infant son Daniel; the relationship between Dream and the witch Thessaly; the retirement of Lucifer as Lord of Hell and his vow to destroy Dream; Desire's long-standing ire with his/her brother; the adventures of the faerie lord Cluracan and his sister Nuala; the resurrection of the Corinthian; the misadventures of Rose Walker; and numerous subplots involving the inhabitants of the Dreaming, including Cain and Abel, the raven Matthew, the librarian Lucien and handyman Mervyn. It's a challenging juggling act which Gaiman pulls off with skill, by drawing the various narratives together in often surprising ways. The story also revisits the very beginnings of The Sandman, with the manor house where Dream spent seventy years imprisoned figuring prominently.

As well being a feast for continuity lovers, the collection also delivers its own thematic arc: this is a Greek tragedy, pure and simple. Events build slowly and with growing intensity towards an ending that is not actually that inevitable, but only becomes so when the Sandman refuses to allow himself to deviate from what he sees as his own responsibilities and obligations. A key theme referred to throughout the comics, but much more prevalent here, is that the Sandman used to be far too rigid for his own good, but has changed since his imprisonment by humans. The Kindly Ones shows how far he has changed...and how far he has to go. As a result, The Kindly Ones offers the most insight into the character of Dream himself, even when he is not actually on the page. Other characters are also well-served, with even minor players from earlier issues getting moments to shine.

The art style in the collection has attracted a lot comment. It's an interesting choice, giving the largest and most coherent Sandman storyline the most stylised and perhaps 'weird' art style in the history of the series. The juxtaposition of the heavy drama and odd art style actually works well, with the art tying in well with the more oddball moments of the story (such as Cluracan giving birth to his own nemesis).

The Kindly Ones (*****) is Neil Gaiman at the top of his game, delivering the rich and powerful climax (though not the conclusion) that The Sandman deserves. The collection is available now in the UK and USA, and as part of The Absolute Sandman, Volume IV (UK, USA).

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Merlin: Season 5

Three years into the reign of King Arthur Pendragon, Camelot is experiencing a golden age. The people are prospering and Arthur's attempts to forge a peace between the kingdoms of Albion appear to be bearing fruit. But Morgana is still at large, vowing to destroy the kingdom. When Mordred - whom Merlin has foreseen will kill Arthur - joins the Knights of the Round Table, the glory days of Camelot are doomed and Arthur's path is set on a road that will lead to Camlann and Avalon.

Over the course of its five seasons, Merlin has evolved from a simple kid's show to something more interesting. The show's early-evening timeslot still prevents much in the way of blood and gore from appearing, but the producers have shown a willingness over the last two seasons to embrace the Arthurian legends (even the darker elements) more wholeheartedly. They've dropped the tiresome 'comedy' episodes (which rarely raised a smile) in favour of pursuing the more dramatic parts of the storyline more intently and this has paid off.

The final season of Merlin is the show at its best. The actors have matured to the point where they can handle more dramatic storylines convincingly. In particular, the perennially under-used Angel Colby gets more to do this year as Guinevere with a disturbing multi-episode arc which tests the show's limits on what constitutes childrens' entertainment. Also well-served is newcomer Alexander Vlahos as the adult Mordred (he previously appeared in the first two seasons as a child played by Hugo's Asa Butterfield), who gets a highly satisfying storyline which avoids cliche and puts Merlin in a very difficult - and unlikable - position, which Colin Morgan rises to with skill.

Of course, the show has not lost all of its foibles. The same few patches of woodland are used to represent widely varying locales across dozens of miles. Camelot's security still has enormous holes in it. The geography of Albion still defies logic (especially when it is confirmed in the final episode that Albion - even with its Alp-like mountain ranges and vast canyons - is indeed supposed to be the island of Britain). Despite being proven right dozens of times, Merlin's suggestions and warnings are often ignored (even by those who know the true extent of his abilities). Morgana continues to be defeated every other week, leaving her as a rather toothless villain by season's end. The show also continues to have its young male cast strip to the waist at every possible opportunity, to the point of self-parody (note: may not be counted a fault by some). Some might also question the wisdom of leaving 'the big reveal' to the final episode, although it does provide Morgan and Bradley James with several of their best scenes together in the entire series. And, even though the show is more willing to push the boundaries of its audience and timeslot more freely than before, it still pulls its punches more often than might be wished.

For all of that, the show remains entertaining. The cast do good work and the writers clearly relish the fact they have a final ending to work towards. As the last few episodes tick down and several supporting cast are killed off (rather unpleasantly in some cases) the stakes are raised for a final episode that is surprisingly emotionally powerful (and truer to the legends than could have been expected a few seasons back). The ending isn't exactly wrapped up with a neat bow, although most of the questions that the series has raised are finally answered.

Merlin's final season (****) is a satisfying ending to the show. Whilst Merlin will never be counted as one of the all-time classic SFF series (and Game of Thrones has definitely stolen some of its thunder by tackling similar themes in a much more uncompromising way), it was still a fun show that evolved and matured away from its inauspicious start to become something much more interesting at the end. The season is available on two DVD box sets now, with a full-season set to follow.

Friday, 11 January 2013

CDProjekt on CYBERPUNK 2077 and THE WITCHER 3

CDProjekt have released a CGI trailer for their upcoming SF RPG, Cyberpunk 2077 (based on the classic 1980s pen-and-paper RPG, Cyberpunk). It features lots of bullets and a woman in unseasonal garb:

Meanwhile, CDProjekt have also revealed that they have another game much closer to release and that everyone can guess what it is. There'll be more on this - almost certainly The Witcher 3 - next month.

You can now play Mario in SKYRIM

So, Skyrim is now a Super Mario Brothers title.

Any further comment at this time seems redundant.

GAME OF THRONES Season 3 teaser trailer

This is slightly different, showing the three-eyed crow flying across 'our' world to herald the arrival of Season 3 of Game of Thrones (which debuts on 31 March).

We likely won't see the first 'proper' trailer, featuring a decent amount of new footage, until next month, but there's another behind-the-scenes featurette airing in the States on HBO next week.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

More detailed plans for PLANESCAPE: TORMENT successor emerge

InXile Studios may be hard at work on Wasteland 2, the crowd-funded sequel to the seminal 1988 computer RPG Wasteland, but they have already announced their next project. With most of the writing and concept art completed for Wasteland 2, those teams have started work on a game that may be called Numenera: Torment. This game will be a spiritual sequel to the classic 1999 RPG Planescape: Torment, widely-regarded as the finest (and most literate) computer roleplaying game ever made.

The new game will not involve any of the characters or situations from Planescape: Torment (which is copyrighted by Atari and Wizards of the Coast), but will share a similar focus on characterisation and philosophical matters, such as the nature of life, death and consciousness. The setting will be Numenera, a new roleplaying setting created by Monte Cook. Cook is a highly respected RPG game designer and worked extensively on the original Planescape setting for the Dungeons and Dragons game in the 1990s.

The game itself is being worked on by Colin McComb, one of the main designers on the original Planescape pen-and-paper setting and a key creative force on Planescape: Torment. The director of the game is Kevin Saunders, who has joined the team from Obsidian, where he led the Mask of the Betrayer team. Also on board are Torment designer Adam Heine and Dana Knutson, the concept artist whose work on Torment was crucial.

The game will use all-new rules for skills, character creation and combat. Full-scale work on the game will begin after Wasteland 2's planned release date (still scheduled for October 2013). There will be another Kickstarter campaign further down the line to help fund the game ahead of time.

Since Planescape: Torment is one of my favourite RPGs of all time (the computer game equivalent of Gene Wolfe), this is a project that I'll be watching with great interest.

What now for THE WHEEL OF TIME?

A Memory of Light is now out, but already the question has been asked if this is truly the end, or if there will be further instalments/expansions of the series. Brandon Sanderson has addressed this issue in both a blog entry and also an interview on Here's a brief summary of what the situation is:

The Outriggers
During the writing of Knife of Dreams (2002-05), Robert Jordan revealed that he had come up with an idea for what he called some 'outrigger' stories. These stories would not be direct sequels to or extension of The Wheel of Time but would expand on some characters and feature side-storylines that would not be addressed in the main series. The storylines for the outriggers were not revealed at the time, although there was some fan speculation that elements such as Talmanes and the Band of the Red Hand's adventures whilst employed by King Roedran of Murandy (in the several months between The Path of Daggers and Knife of Dreams) would be suitable for exploration.

Later on Jordan confirmed that one of the outriggers would focus on Mat Cauthon and Tuon returning to the Seanchan home continent to stabilise the Empire and assert Tuon's rule there. This story would take place about ten years after the main Wheel of Time series. Initially it appeared this would just be one book, but in recent years Team Jordan have indicated there was enough scope for a trilogy. However, it has also been revealed that Robert Jordan himself only wrote two sentences of notes for the books, clearly not enough to base anything solid on. As a result, despite some initial musings by Tor Books and by Team Jordan, the outriggers will now not be written for a dearth of Jordan-written material and a reluctance to turn the series into an open world franchise.

The Prequels
When Robert Jordan expanded New Spring into a novel, he also revealed plans for two other short prequel novels. One would focus on Tam al'Thor, and the other on Moiraine and Lan's continuing adventures, ending immediately where The Eye of the World begins. However, Jordan again apparently did not write much in the way of notes for these books and again, they will now not be written.

The Encyclopedia
Work on The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia is well underway. This book is being written by Harriet McDougal and other members of Team Jordan (Robert Jordan's assistants) and will feature extensive new information on the series. Early reports indicated that the book will feature a 10,000-word vocabulary for the Old Tongue and might feature new maps and tons of notes on characters, places and events. The book will be illustrated, but should not be expected before 2014 at the earliest.

The long-gestating and highly ill-advised Wheel of Time movie project is apparently still percolating at Universal Studios as it has done for the last few years, with no sign of any movement on it. The new Wheel of Time RPG appears to be effectively cancelled, with Red Eagle failing to raise any money for it from publishers and Obsidian Entertainment (the superb game development studio that had originally been hired to work on it if the money had been raised) moving onto other projects. It's possible that the completion of the series will spark renewed interest from those quarters, but at the moment there is no news on them.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Last Battle has begun. The fate of the world and time itself hinge upon Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, and his allies. The great city of Caemlyn burns, the Borderlands are overrun and Lan Mandragoran's army at Tarwin's Gap has been overwhelmed. Rand must convince the nations of the world that they must stand united against the Shadow or face oblivion.

For Rand's allies, they have their own struggles to face. The Black Tower is in jeopardy of falling to the Shadow, and it falls to the least-powerful of the Asha'man to try to save the day. Mat Cauthon must convince his wife, the proud Seanchan Empress, to join the great coalition against the Dark One. Perrin Aybara hunts the wolf dream for the creature known as Slayer. And Egwene al'Vere must confront the possible annihilation of the Pattern itself, which is in danger of unravelling from the use of the forbidden weave known as balefire.

On a day that dawns twice, the forces of the Dragon Reborn and those of the Shadow meet in two titanic conflicts. On the Field of Merrilor, millions will fight and die in the greatest battle the world has seen in three and a half thousand years. In the shadow of Shayol Ghul, Rand al'Thor must confront the Dark One and end this struggle once and for all.

The Wheel of Time is finished. That's a statement that's going to take a while to get used to. The first volume of the series, The Eye of the World, was published in January 1990. George Bush Snr. and Margaret Thatcher were still in power and the Cold War was still ongoing. Fourteen books, four million words, eleven thousand pages and over fifty million sales (in North America alone) later, the conclusion has finally arrived. Can it possibly live up to the expectations built up over that time?

It is a tribute to the plotting powers of Robert Jordan, the writing skill of Brandon Sanderson (who took over the series after Jordan's untimely death in 2007) and the hard work of Jordan's editors and assistants that A Memory of Light is - for the most part - a triumphant finale. Given the weight of expectations resting on the novel, not to mention the unfortunate circumstances under it was written, it is unsurprising that it is not perfect. The novel occasionally misfires, is sometimes abrupt in how it resolves long-running plot strands and sometimes feels inconsistent with what has come before. However, it also brings this juggernaut of an epic fantasy narrative to an ending that makes sense, is suitably massive in scope and resolves the series' thematic, plot and character arcs satisfactorily - for the most part.

It is a familiar viewpoint that The Wheel of Time is a slow-burning series, with Robert Jordan not afraid to have his characters sitting around talking about things for entire chapters (or, in one case, an entire novel) rather than getting on with business. However, Jordan at his best used these lengthy dialogue scenes to set up plot twists and explosive confrontations further down the line, pulling together the elements he'd established previously in surprising and interesting ways. This reached a high in the slow-moving sixth book, which ended with what is regarded by many as the series' best climax to date at the Battle of Dumai's Wells. Steven Erikson (whose Malazan series is the most notable recent mega-long fantasy series to have also reached a final conclusion) used the term 'convergence' for such structural climaxes and it's fair to say that this is what A Memory of Light is: a convergence for the entire series. All thirteen of the previous novels lined up plot cannons in preparation for the Last Battle, and in the closing chapters of Towers of Midnight Brandon Sanderson started triggering them.

The result is not The Wheel of Time you may be familiar with. A Memory of Light is a brutal, bruising, 900-page war novel that kicks off with all hell breaking loose and doesn't pause for breath until the ending. The prologue starts with a well-paced sequence as we find out the state of play for the major characters, intercut with Talmanes and the Band of the Red Hand engaging hordes of Shadowspawn on the streets of Caemlyn. The rotation of scenes between the desperate street fighting and more familiar politicking is highly effective and is exhausting in itself. Immediately after this we alternate between Rand's attempts to pull together a coalition against the Shadow whilst a small group of Asha'man try to save their organisation from destruction against overwhelming odds. No sooner is that over than the Last Battle is joined in full force. Vast armies clash, channellers engage one another in One Power exchanges that dwarf anything seen before in the series and lots of stuff blows up. There's more action sequences in A Memory of Light than the rest of the series put together, more than earning the adage 'The Last Battle'.

The action sequences (which make up almost the whole book) are, for the most part, impressive but benefit from unpredictability. Jordan has been criticised for making his characters too safe, with almost no major character of note (on either side) dying in the previous books of the series. This limitation has been removed for the Last Battle. Major characters, middling ones and scores of minor ones are scythed down in this final confrontation with near-wild abandon. Some get heroic, fitting, blaze-of-glory ends. Some die in manners so unexpected, offhand and callous that even George R.R. Martin might nod in approval. Many of the survivors are seriously wounded, either in body or mind. Jordan's experiences as a Vietnam vet informed Rand al'Thor's arc in The Gathering Storm, and resurface here when one major character is tortured by the Shadow before being rescued, but spends the rest of the book suffering the effects of his experiences. The war scenes are suitably epic and exciting, but Sanderson remembers to include moments counting the cost of such a struggle.

That said, there is an annoying discrepancy in the Last Battle sequence compared to earlier novels. Based on the army sizes in previous volumes and the number of channellers in each faction, the good guys should have brought the better part of a million troops and five thousand One Power-wielders to the Last Battle, and the Shadow several times more. There is no indication that such vast numbers are present, which seems rather odd. There is also the fact that the channellers suddenly seem to be much less effective in mass combat than previously shown. This is most blatant when Logain is angrily told that he and a couple of dozen Asha'man cannot hope to defeat a hundred thousand Trollocs by themselves. Given this is exactly what happened in one scene in Knife of Dreams, I can only conclude that the channellers were deliberately reduced in power for this book, which is very strange.

For the most part, this is the level of problems A Memory of Light presents: something mildly irritating to those who prefer consistency from fictional works but ultimately not hugely relevant to the overall thrust of the narrative. Similar issues can be found with a number of very minor subplots that the novel fails to resolve (or even address) from earlier volumes. In some cases these may be examples of what Robert Jordan himself said would happen in the last book, with some elements left deliberately hanging to give the illusion that life goes on after the last page is turned. In other cases, it may be that Jordan did not draft out how those storylines ended, so Sanderson chose to leave them rather than risk too inventing too much of his own material. Sanderson even refuses to name an important river that Jordan did not name himself, resulting is a slightly awkward battle sequence where characters talk about the 'river on the border', the 'river on the battlefield' and so on, which is a bit laboured.

However, whilst the war scenes rage there is also a philosophical struggle at the heart of the book, and of the series. This struggle is shown in the confrontation between Rand and the Dark One in which their visions of the world and the Wheel are shown in conflict with one another. Robert Jordan was convinced that whilst there were certainly complexities and shades of grey in real life, he also believed that real good and real evil existed, and these ideas form part of the philosophical struggle that takes place alongside the battles. How successful this is will vary (perhaps immensely) from reader to reader, but is not helped by some muddling of the issues. The primary struggle of the books has consistently been Good vs. Evil, but in this philosophy-off the idea of the Creator personifying Order and the Dark One Chaos also arises, possibly as their primary roles. This is in conflict with the rest of the series and is also more tiresomely familiar and predictable. Once that interpretation arises, it's impossible not to think of the ending of the Shadow War in the TV series Babylon 5, and the resolution we get is not a million miles away from it (Rand even gets a line almost as awful as "Get the hell out of our galaxy!").

On the prose side of things, it's pretty much the same set-up as The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight: acceptable, faster-paced and a bit less prone to unnecessary introspection. Where Sanderson comes undone (yet again) is his very occasional use of terminology and language that Jordan would never have used, particularly modern words and terms. Though relatively rare, they still jar a little bit when they appear. The book's centrepiece is a single chapter that is almost 200 pages (and 70,000 words) long in hardcover, with some 70 POV characters playing a role. Apparently both Sanderson and Jordan wrote parts of this chapter, and a few minor inconsistencies aside their writing styles mesh very well. The very last section of the epilogue, written by Robert Jordan himself before he passed (including, rather eerily, Jordan's epitaph from his own funeral), is indeed a fitting way to end the book.

Taking everything into account, A Memory of Light (****½) is a lot better than perhaps we had any right to expect. The book is a relentless steamroller of action, explosions, plot resolutions, deaths and philosophical (if somewhat confused) arguing. Some elements are under-resolved, or a little too convenient, or not fleshed out enough. But that's par for the course with any ending to a series this huge. The big questions are answered, the final scene is fitting and the story ends in a way that is true to itself, which is the most we can ask for. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.