Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Taika Waititi to direct THOR 4, AKIRA put on hold

In a surprise move, Taika Waititi has confirmed that his next project will be a follow-up to his 2017 movie Thor: Ragnarok, rather than his live-action take on Akira that Warner Brothers had fast-tracked for a May 2021 release.

Waititi was in the middle of meeting Japanese actors for the key lead roles in Akira (presumably Tetsuo and Kaneda), so the decision to pivot to Thor 4 is surprising. However, according to the Hollywood Reporter's sources there were some concerns over the currently in-development script, and by putting Thor 4 first, Waititi is giving the script more development time. This seems to have been confirmed by the fact that Warner Brothers is still keen on having him direct, so have put the film on hold until Thor 4 is done rather than looking for another director. The power Waititi has over the project is notable in that he apparently convinced the sceptical studio to cast Asian actors, re-set the film back in Neo-Tokyo (several previous iterations of the script relocated the action to a futuristic New York) and mount the film as a multi-part project, all of which seems to remain in play.

Waititi's next projects for release are Jojo Rabbit, a smaller-scale movie starring Scarlett Johansson, which is due for release in October, and several episodes of The Mandalorian, the Star Wars live-action show debuting on Disney+ in November. Waititi may also helm an episode or two of the second season of What We Do in the Shadows, the hit comedy based on his 2014 movie of the same name (he helmed three episodes of the first season), depending on other commitments.

Disney and Marvel likely put significant monetary incentives in front of Waititi to helm Thor 4, especially given that the movie may also function as a stopgap Guardians of the Galaxy film (given the events of Avengers: Endgame) which Disney may find desirable given that James Gunn will not be able to start work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proper until 2021 (for a likely 2022 or 2023 release at the earliest), given his commitments to the new Suicide Squad movie.

A timeline for Thor 4's release date is likely to be announced this weekend at the San Diego Comic-Con, where Marvel will outline their movie projects for the next few years.

Akira fans don't have too much to complain about, however, as the original creator is working on a brand-new anime adaptation of the original manga for television. Unlike the 1988 movie (which is also getting a Blu-Ray and 4K remaster for release next April), this new adaptation will faithfully cover all six graphic novels and over 2,000 pages of the story. The original film, released before the manga was complete, had to heavily compress the story to fit into two hours.

It is also possible that the new anime - which we'll be lucky to see before 2022 or thereabouts - will further interest in the live-action movie, which Warner Brothers has taken into consideration in the decision to bench the film whilst Waititi is busy at Marvel.

Dying Light: The Following

Kyle Crane has helped defeat Rais and bring some measure of relief to the plague-infested city of Harran, but supplies of the drugs needed to control the plague are running low. Following rumours that some people living just outside the city have found a cure, Crane finds that the infection is also spreading into the countryside, and he has to ally with a religious cult and help out the local survivors before he can learn the truth about what's going on.

Dying Light was a splendid game, an open-world, zombie survival game with added parkour. The Following is an expansion to the game, rivalling the original in size, and changes things up by taking Kyle out into the countryside. Wide open fields replace the dense urban jungle, but to get around faster Kyle has the added ability to drive a souped-up buggy around. Harran's backwater includes a chemical plant, a granary, a lighthouse, a coastal town, a dam, mountains and forests among other attractions, which makes for a nice change of scenery from the original game.

Your progress from Dying Light carries over to The Following (and vice versa, as you can return to Harran at any time to address any left over business there), meaning that if you've completed the base game you will already be a relatively skilled and badass zombie-slaying, wall-running hero. The Following is a tougher game than Dying Light, so I would not recommend tackling it without having finished off the base game first.

The setup is pretty standard. Early in the game you befriend a bunch of survivors holed up in a farm, who give you missions. As you complete missions, your standing with the community grows. As it grows, the "Faceless" (acolytes of the mysterious "Mother," a religious figure) get in touch and give you more dangerous tasks, which eventually culminate in you learning more about their alleged cure to the plague. Unlike Dying Light, which had you frequently running into the main villain or his henchmen, the story in The Following is much less dominating to the narrative. Instead, the game encourages you more to go off-script and deal with side-missions, help out random survivors in the wilderness and take part in optional activities like time trials and races (amusingly, Crane is as bemused as the player that people are setting up races in the middle of a zombie apocalypse). A completionist approach makes The Following almost as long as Dying Light itself, so you get plenty of game here for your buck.

Despite being an expansion rather than a sequel, The Following has a different feel to the base game. The wild open spaces means that you'll be relying more on the buggy and less on your parkour skills. Indeed, it's only in the coastal town area and the granary and adjacent industrial plant that you'll be making a lot of use of your old parkour skills from the base game. Combat is also different, as guns are much more commonplace and you should have some meaty high-value melee weapons from the end of the original game as well. This takes away some of the incipient, claustrophobic terror of the original, particularly when your buggy is seriously upgraded and becomes capable of mowing down hordes of Volatiles with flamethrowers, an electrified cage and UV lights, but it does make the game's power fantasy much stronger, especially given that the rate of progression through the game remains modest, and it's still unlikely you'll max out the skill tree in any one playthrough.

The gameplay loop remains compelling, the graphics are effectively gory, combat is more satisfying and the buggy is fun to drive around. But The Following has several weaknesses, some of which it shares with the base game. The game regularly gets context-confused about what you're doing, resulting in you jumping off a wall to your death instead of pulling yourself over the top of the roof. A good 50% of my deaths in the game were from the game getting itself into a tiswas rather than my own errors, which is frustrating. The game also carries on the tiresome modern gaming phenomenon of making your character "respawn" rather than actually reloading an earlier saved game, sometimes resulting in you dying and reappearing halfway across the map for no discernible reason, or being able to cheese a challenging fight by constantly dying and charging back into the fight (as the zombies you killed previously are still dead). The rather odd ability to fast-travel around the map by dying and respawning in a tower closer to where you're trying to get to also remains intact. The buggy is also not entirely well-integrated with the base game. It's too easy to get the buggy stuck in an unrecoverable position which the "reset buggy" command won't fix, forcing you to walk on foot to the nearest garage to summon the vehicle back again. The buggy is also hungry on petrol, making the early game a bit boring as you constantly stop to loot gas from cars until you finally start unlocking the gas station safehouses, at which point you never need to worry about petrol again.

These niggles make The Following (****) occasionally frustrating, but when the game lines up and everything starts working as it should, it becomes a genuine joy to play. The combat is crunchy, the story is unobtrusive until the very end when it suddenly asks the player some very tough questions, the environment is fun to explore and at 20-25 hours in length, it's neither too short nor outstays its welcome. It is available now on Steam for PC and via the relevant online stores for X-Box One and PS4. Dying Light 2 will be released in the spring of 2020.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Amazon LORD OF THE RINGS presentation confirms Rings of Power focus

Amazon are deep in pre-production for their Lord of the Rings: The Second Age TV series, which is due to start shooting in New Zealand in the next two months. Up to this point the exact setting within the Second Age, which lasted for almost three and a half thousand years, has been unclear, but a private presentation by Amazon back in April suggests that it will focus on the forging of the Rings of Power.

The forging of the Rings of Power was always the most likely place for this story to start, as it's the strongest connective tissue between the Second Age and the events of Lord of the Rings (which takes place 4,859 years after the forging of the One Ring). In this story, the Dark Lord Sauron, disguised as the elven prince Annatar, goes among the elven-smiths of Eregion, who live in the shadow of Moria, and corrupts them with promises of riches and power. He tricks them into forging the Seven and Nine Rings of Power to corrupt dwarves and men, but is taken by surprise when the elven master-smith Celebrimbor forges the Three Rings for the elves. Sauron then uses the knowledge he has gained to forge the One Ring itself in the fires of Mount Doom, betraying the elves and leading to a devastating war with Sauron's forces. Established characters like Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn and possibly Thranduil (the father of Legolas) play roles in this conflict.

The Amazon presentation doesn't feature any footage from the series - because it hasn't shot a single frame yet - but it does feature a shot of the iconic One Ring, glowing with its famous inscription.

With a five-season run planned for the series, it's likely we will see further seasons exploring later periods of the Second Age, including the Downfall of Númenor and the War of the Last Alliance.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Happy 50th Anniversary to Space Oddity

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of "Space Oddity", the breakthrough single for David Bowie.

Inspired by the Apollo space programme and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (released a year earlier), "Space Oddity" was the first single released from Bowie's second album, David Bowie (rather confusingly, the same name as his first album; the second was later renamed Space Oddity to reduce confusion). David Robert Jones had started making music at school, where he played recorder and saxophone. He formed his first band, the Konrads, in 1962 when he was 15. He went through a succession of other bands - the King Bees, the Manish Boys, the Lower Third, the Buzz and the Riot Squad - before going solo. Adopting the stage name David Bowie after being confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees, he released his self-titled debut album in 1967 but it didn't do very well.

Bowie regrouped after meeting choreographer Lindsay Kemp, who instilled in him a keen appreciation for image and artistry. He also began a relationship with dancer Hermione Farthingale. This burst of inspiration resulted in his second album and the title song, which was recorded in February 1969. Released on 11 July, just five days ahead of Apollo 11's landing on the Moon, the song was an immediate hit and a breakthrough for Bowie, who was largely unknown at the time.

The song didn't make Bowie an overnight superstar, but it did raise his profile and his next two albums - The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971) - did a lot better before Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) blew him through the stratosphere.

In 2016 the song took on a new resonance when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded an acoustic version of the song on the International Space Station, making it the first music video to be actually, specifically filmed in space (as opposed to singles using footage from NASA missions, which had happened previously). In 2018 the song was played on the sound system of the Tesla Roadster fired into space as a publicity stunt by Elon Musk's SpaceX company.

Blogging Roundup: 3 June to 10 July 2019

The Wertzone

Brand new AKIRA anime in development
THE WALKING DEAD unexpectedly ends
Netflix release first official images from THE WITCHER TV series
Netflix and Warner Brothers developing a SANDMAN TV series
LORD OF THE RINGS TV series to film in Auckland, New Zealand
FINAL FANTASY TV series in development, based on FF14
WHEEL OF TIME Season 1 to shoot for nine months in Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic
Rosamund Pike cast as Moiraine in WHEEL OF TIME TV series
Unknown Pleasures at 40
Tatiana Maslany teases new ORPHAN BLACK announcement for Thursday
PHOENIX POINT gets release date
LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS renewed for second season at Netflix
Terry Pratchett's AMAZING MAURICE AND HIS EDUCATED RODENTS optioned for film
DUNE TV series based on authorised fanfiction in development
FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE (Part I) gets release date
Confirmed: BALDUR'S GATE III is happening
CYBERPUNK 2077 gets release date and bonus Keanu Reeves
AVENGERS: ENDGAME directors working on a MAGIC: THE GATHERING TV series for Netflix

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Angel: Season 5
Stranger Things 3
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE gets director, new writers and confirmed filming location
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III
The Expanse: Season 3
Schitt's Creek: Seasons 1-5
Year of the Rabbit: Season 1
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Angel: Season 4
Love, Death and Robots: Volume 1
Anarch by Dan Abnett
The Warmaster by Dan Abnett
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Salvation's Reach by Dan Abnett
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Wertzone Classics: Chernobyl
Good Omens

RIP Rip Torn & Freddie Jones
The new LORD OF THE RINGS TV series, explained
The Marvel Cinematic Universe Timeline (updated)
Cities of Fantasy: Tar Valon
RIP Peter Allan Fields
RIP Paul Darrow

Atlas of Ice & Fire
A Map of China Mieville's Bas-Lag

SF&F Questions: Which is the longest-running SF or Fantasy TV series?
Cities of Fantasy: Tar Valon

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

RIP Rip Torn & Freddie Jones

Two very different but distinguished actors have sadly passed away this week.

Rip Torn (1931-2019) is best-known for his recurring role on The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) and 30 Rock (2007-09) but his career began way back in Hollywood in 1956. His promising career was nearly derailed by conservative opponents in the 1960s when he discussed forming a national theatre company with Robert Kennedy and lost a lead rile in Easy Rider following a war of words (and allegedly knives) with Dennis Hopper, but he got back on track in the 1970s with roles in movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth.

His main genre credentials include the boss of the agency in the Men in Black trilogy and guest shots in TV shows such as The Man from UNCLE. He also occasionally provided vocal roles for video games, such as God of War III (2010). He is survived by six children, including actress daughter Angelica Page.

Freddie Jones (1927-2019) is probably best know to SFF fans for his memorable turn as the mentat Thufir Hawat in David Lynch's 1984 film version of Dune. He began acting in the 1960s, appearing in TV shows such as Z-Cars, The Avengers and The Caesars. After building up a solid filmography in the 1970s, he auditioned for David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980). Lynch was impressed by Jones enough to cast him in both Dune and Wild at Heart (1990).

In his later career, Jones was cast on soap opera Emmerdale, where he played Sandy Thomas from 2005 to 2018. He left the role last year after deciding to retire from acting at the age of 90. He is survived by three children, including actor Toby Jones.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

The nation of Erusea has launched a surprise attack on its neighbours and its sworn enemy, the Osean Federation, by employing a huge number of unmanned drones. Seizing key locations across the continent of Usea, the Eruseans plan to win the war quickly by using their superior technology. Osean forces are pushed to the fringes of the continent, but quickly mount a counter-offensive, pitting the men and women of their air force against the Erusean AI in a desperate struggle for victory.

Back at the turn of the century, space combat games were all the rage. The X-wing, Freespace and Wing Commander series saw players take to the void to battle enemies in games which were perfectly-balanced mixes of arcade action, battle tactics and squadron management. This style of gameplay was extended to more realistic aerial combat as well, particularly in Crimson Skies. As the genre died on its feet, however, the Japanese company Namco took the concept further with their Ace Combat series on console.

The series hit the big time with its fourth through sixth entries and a spin-off prequel, which all took real jet aircraft and put them in the hands of fictional countries fighting one another on an alternate-reality version of Earth with completely different landmasses, in the so-called "Strangereal" universe. After the release of Ace Combat 6 in 2007, the series went in odd directions which annoyed long-term fans, with a much more arcadey experience based on Quick Time Events in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011) and an online-only game in Ace Combat Infinity (2014). Clearly these didn't work out as Namco have gone back to basics with the release of Ace Combat 7.

Ace Combat 7 casts the player as "Trigger," an ace pilot flying for the Osean Air Force. Early in the war Trigger is flying standard combat missions, but after a case of friendly fire he is sent to an expendable penal squadron, flying the most dangerous missions possible. After clearing his name (although the game is a bit vague on this point) he returns to front-line duty as the war enters its most intense phase. The game's story is somewhat opaque and, it has to be said, overwrought, with lengthy cut scenes featuring inscrutable characters philosophising at length. The story itself isn't particularly complex - two countries fighting, one using AI-powered drone superweapons, the other a plucky band of heroes flying against the odds - but these often non sequitur cut scenes do seem to be trying to make more of the material than there really is. Still, given the typical patriotic, militaristic gung-ho nonsense you might expect from such a game, it's refreshing to find one that instead asks more interesting questions about the morality of warfare and when it is right to fight and when not to. The game also juggles extremely detailed versions of real aircraft like the F-22, F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon and A-10 Tank Buster with advanced drones and even some hard SF ideas, like a space elevator being much of the focus for the action and the plot.

Ace Combat 7's world and story are a bit odd, but the gameplay is superb. Anyone who's even played a LucasArts or Volition space combat game, or Crimson Skies, will be pretty much at home here. After a detailed briefing, you jump in a jet fighter, customise its weapons loadout and take to the skies. As you progress through the game's generous 20-mission campaign you gain additional points which can be used to unlock better technology and weapons, including longer-range missiles, de-icing technology, lasers and whole new planes. Most missions start with you in the air and headed towards a target and they then leave it to you on how you approach the mission.

The flight model is not, in any sense of the world, realistic, but it is instinctive and fun. You can throw your fighter through loops and turns which would kill a pilot in real life, survive one or two direct hits from missiles without suffering a scratch and, in some cases, fire over 150 missiles from a single aircraft (which makes the fact that you only carry 5 flares to be all the more bizarre). You can also fly at much, much lower speeds than you could get away with without stalling in real life, allowing for greater accuracy in ground-attack missions against static targets. It's all much more Freespace 2 than F-22 Air Dominance Fighter, but given that Freespace 2 is one of the greatest games of all time, that's not exactly a problem.

You can control the game with a console joypad or mouse-and-keyboard, and the game is arcade enough for that to be viable. However, the best way to approach the game is to switch on Advanced Flight Mode (also known as "perfectly normal mode" to anyone who has ever played a flight sim before) and use a joystick-with-HOTAS setup, such as the Thrustmaster series. This gives you much finer control over speed, which is the key between the aerial dogfights being joyfully engaging and a tough, circular slog of chase-the-other-plane's-tail. In fact, using this setup may give you an unfair advantage, as many of the game's reportedly extremely tough missions become fairly straightforward. However, you can't remap controls on the joystick and some standard options (like using the hat control to look around) are missing, which is a bit odd.

The game continues through some brutal difficulty spikes early on, although the game can be tough but usually fair: if you lose a mission, there's usually a reason for it and a way of re-attempting the attack which will bring you victory. Oddly, the worst difficulty spikes are early on, particularly around Missions 4-8. After that point the game becomes a lot easier and I sailed through most of the second half of the game without requiring a second attempt at a mission.

Progression is fairly solid and it is impossible to unlock the tech tree in a single playthrough, providing an impetus for tackling multiplayer and tackling the campaign+ mode, which also unlocks tougher difficulty levels for the more ambitious player.

There are a few negatives to the game. There are some basic controls missing from the game, which make it tougher than it needs to be. Targeting is particularly under-developed, with the inability to target the closest enemy or target an enemy who is currently targeting you. The absence of these options - which were standard even in sims twenty years ago - makes selecting targets a bit more laborious than it needs to be, since the "select next target button" is a bit hit and miss (often ignoring targets within firing range to lock onto something on the other side of the map). Given the ludicrous number of missiles you can carry, the game is also extremely stingy on flares, which given how much time you spend jinxing away from missiles can be frustrating. The biggest problem is that your wingmen are pretty much just there for show. They rarely engage with the enemy properly and often when they do hit a target they do no damage: I've seen a single enemy fighter hit six or seven times by AI players, but it won't get shot down until I've hit it twice. The same is true of ground targets. AI players will also not get shot down by chance, only if the story requires that they die on a particular mission. There's also no option for you to bail out, which feels very odd (especially when allied players will sometimes bail out if their aircraft are too damaged).

These niggles are pretty minor, but they take the shine off Ace Combat 7 (****½) a little bit, which is disappointing as this is otherwise a supremely competent, highly enjoyable and rewarding game. More complex than its "arcade sim" moniker suggests, with an original and interesting storyline and great gameplay, I'd say this is required playing for anyone pining for the good old days of space and aerial combat games. It is available now for PC on Steam.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Angel: Season 5

Angel and his team have made a deal with the devil, joining forces with their former enemies at Wolfram & Hart following their mutual battle against the evil Jasmine. Angel believes his team can rehabilitate the law firm and turn them into a force for good, but some (including their old allies from Sunnydale) believe they will be corrupted and swallowed by the beast. The return of an old friend turned enemy turned unreliable ally causes Angel to question his place in the world...and the loss of another friend threatens to destroy the team altogether.

Angel's fifth and final season is an interesting one. The fourth season (and to some extent the second and third as well) had gone into an incredibly dark, intense and serialised direction which the studio had not been entirely comfortable with. For the fifth season they wanted more stand-alone episodes and a lighter tone, which the show initially struggles a little bit with. It's hard to go as dark as Angel did in Season 4 and then reel it back in.

Moving the action to Wolfram & Hart shakes things up nicely, bringing in new and former recurring characters (like Mercedes McNab's Harmony and Christian Kane's Lindsey) and setting up a new paradigm. This allows the show to switch back to a monster/case-of-the-week storyline (albeit with serialised subplots continuing between episodes, such as Fred and Wesley's growing attraction) without it feeling too contrived. The addition of Spike to the cast takes a bit more work, since his sacrifice at the end of Buffy gave the character a powerful send-off and bringing him back to chase ratings on the sister show is a bit cheesy. That said, the addition of Spike - a second vampire with a soul - helps Angel's character, by causing him to question his own place and purpose in the world. James Marsters is good as usual and the writers find things for Spike to do to develop the story and characters without him dominating the show (as arguably he did on occasion in Seasons 4-7 of Buffy).

In the second half of the season the writers seemed to realise the writing was on the wall for the show, so started layering in more serialised storytelling, setting up both an absolutely shocking, heart-wrenching plot twist that comes out of nowhere (and is beautifully sold by all the actors, particularly Alexis Denisof and a never-better Amy Acker) and a final confrontation with the forces of evil, an all-star group of villains which, it turns out, the first half of the season was cleverly setting up and foreshadowing. This gives Angel - both the show and character - its mission statement back, to present a band of people fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness, no matter the cost. If Buffy was about growing up, Angel is about working out what to do with the rest of your life and if you can find something to believe in and fight for. It's a universal theme, but one arguably rarely presented as well and without cliche as in this show.

Angel's fifth season (****½) falters slightly early on but recovers to deliver a second half which sums up the character, the show and the entire Buffyverse in tone, and gives the show and the universe one of the best, messiest and most realistic endings an SFF show has ever had. It is available now as part of the complete series boxed set (UK, USA).

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Stranger Things 3

Hawkins, Indiana, 1985. School's out for the summer and the kids are enjoying themselves...apart from Will, who is annoyed at his friends constantly dropping him to hang out with their girlfriends. There's a new shopping mall in town and things seem to be on the up...until Dustin and Steve uncover evidence that the Russians are in town.

Stranger Things is the jewel in Netflix's crown, the show that made the streaming service must-watch television in 2016 and then exceeded that with its second season a year later. The streamer has had mixed success in replicating its appeal, with the ending of old mainstays Orange is the New Black and House of Cards making it even more dependent on the old favourite to deliver in its third season.

Fortunately, the third season delivers despite facing a number of obstacles. These include the young child actors growing up, something the show chooses to lean into and make the focus of a series of storylines, and the show of course simply not being as fresh as it once was. The 1980s nostalgia and the borrowing of tropes from Spielberg, Carpenter, Dante and Hughes movies was interesting in Season 1 and Season 2 kept things fresh by mixing things in with the increased spectacle of a James Cameron movie, but Season 3 faces the problem that the show is running out of 1980s tropes to exploit. Fortunately, the Duffer Brothers are canny enough to find new angles to tell their story (even if this means drawing inspiration from other decades), this time leaning on films like Red Dawn, The Terminator, The ThingMallrats and Dawn of the Dead, and exploiting themes of paranoia and the fragmenting of friend groups as they age.

Structurally, Season 3 splits the main cast up early on and has them taking on their own individual missions. Dustin, Steve, newcomer Robin and Erica (the ultra-sassy sister of Lucas, promoted from a scene-stealing role in Season 2) discover evidence of Russian agents working at the mall and investigating. Hopper and Joyce become embroiled in a battle of wills with a mercenary with a Terminator-like focus. Much of the rest of the gang discover evidence that the Upside Down is still impacting on events in this world, despite Eleven closing the gate in Season 2, and find themselves in a battle against a new monster, this time one that is exceptionally gross. Once again, for a show with so many young protagonists, it's a bit odd that you don't really want to be watching this with sub-teenage kids due to the amount of gore and swearing on display.

Splitting the cast up, Fellowship-style, allows their individual stories to rattle along nicely and the show is confident enough to hold fire on realising the full stakes and scope of the threat until the end of the fourth episode, devoting the first three episodes to set-up work and seeing our heroes having fun instead. This mostly works quite well, although Stranger Things is starting to feel like fanservice central. So we have Dustin and Steve's slightly incongruous friendship, simply because fans loved their bromance in Season 2, and we have the morally ambiguous Billy walking around without his shirt on. A lot. The show dodges a bullet this time around because those stories end up being good enough to maintain the viewer's interest (Billy even becomes somewhat sympathetic by the end of the season, a major feat given how under-developed he was in Season 2) and them leading to some genuinely good moments, such as the friendship between Steve and co-worker Robin which goes in a somewhat unexpected direction. The show even finds ways of subverting audience expectations, like not over-relying on Eleven's powers to get the kids out of every jam they find themselves in.

For a show with dimension-hopping kids fighting horrendous biological horrors, criticising the show for being unrealistic may be churlish. But, that said, there are some moments that do stretch credulity way past the breaking point, like a hostile foreign power somehow building a massive base of operations in the middle of rural America and running huge, energy-draining experiments without anyone noticing. There are also some storylines that are definitely under-developed, like dozens of people going missing and no-one really seeming to care, the kids vanishing from their homes for days on end and their parents shrugging it off with, "it's summer, what can you do?" (bearing in mind it's only two years since Will's disappearance traumatised the town). Cary Elwes gets some nice material as the town's corrupt mayor, but his story abruptly halts halfway through the season and is paid only lip service in the finale, whilst a subplot (begun in Season 2) with Karen Wheeler being tempted into an affair with a younger man also ends up fizzling out with no real resolution. Of course, with at least one more season to come, some of these elements may be explored further.

The third season of Stranger Things (****½) remains highly compelling viewing, with spectacular visual effects and production values, outstanding performances by the excellent cast and the writers finding surprising ways to take what might have been otherwise a stale story. However, the show also suffers from some issues with repetition, credibility and some undercooked subplots. With the Duffer Brothers still split on whether to end the show with its fourth or fifth season, I'm thinking that wrapping it up sooner, whilst it's still fresh (and before the kids enter college) might be a better idea. The show is streaming worldwide on Netflix now.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Brand new AKIRA anime in development

Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo is returning to his most famous creation for a new project.

His seminal graphic novel collection is getting a brand-new anime adaptation, this time for television. The 1988 Akira animated movie, although a classic, had to compress six very large volumes totalling some 2,000 pages into under two hours, which resulted in a film that left out very large chunks of the narrative. As the film was also released two years before Otomo completed the manga, there were also some significant differences in the story and ending.

The new adaptation aims to adapt all six graphic novels very closely, so will probably be a multi-season project using the latest animation techniques. The 1988 original movie is still getting some love, however, with a brand-new 4K remaster underway for release in April 2020.

This news comes a few weeks after it was confirmed that Taika Waititi will be helming the long-awaited live-action version of the story, for release in May 2021.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019


In the beginning - well, 1993 - was The Settlers, a real-time strategy game before the genre really existed, but one that focused less on war and almost entirely on resource-gathering. Rather than amassing an army to crush your foes, you instead built up a complex economy of different resources, manufacturers and builders to enrich your faction at the expense of others.

The Settlers was a great game, but also a somewhat obtuse one at times. Northgard, from Shiro Games, feels like a modern take on the same idea, but ramps down the complexity a few notches, adds a few more options for people who like smashing things with axes and also takes some inspiration from the Age of Empires and WarCraft series to make something altogether quite pleasing.

A game of Northgard starts with a town hall and a few villagers. You control and can see a single province or territory; you can't venture into the fog of war with your villagers either, as they have to be explored first. Your first order of business is therefore to build a scout camp and dispatch scouts to investigate the surrounding region. Additional provinces are exposed, but you can't build on them willy-nilly. First you have to colonise them by spending food (or, for some clans, gold). Your villagers gather food in small amounts as a default action, but you can increase your food income by building fisherman's huts, farms or hunting lodges. You can't do these at will either, but only in provinces where those resources (fish, arable land or game) are available.

As well as food, you need wood, which can be cut down from forests. As well as food and wood, you can acquire stone, iron and "lore," which can be gained by training shamans and priests, or by sending villagers to worship at shrines. Lore unlocks the tech tree, which allows you to upgrade your units or change how the map in question works.

Every game of Northgard is also a battle of time against the approaching winter. In winter food and wood production slows to a halt or, if you're not careful, can go into reverse; lose your food reserves and people start starving. It's therefore a good idea to build up food in the summer and try not to lose too much in the winter, or build so many food-generating buildings that you can stay in the positive even during the winter.

That sounds great, but there are more complications. Each province can only sustain a limited number of buildings. Build tons of food-production buildings, but then you might not have enough space to construct barracks and other military buildings. You can expand, but that means spending food on new territories, food you might want to save for the winter...and so on. Each game of Northgard is a carefully-balanced puzzle, forcing you to make tough choices on what to do next. These choices aren't helped by the varying ways to win a map: achieve fame and glory by rushing through the tech tree and sending raiders to spread your name far and wide? Or go for an economic victory? Or amass a huge army and smash your enemy to kindling? Each option has drawbacks and benefits.

The result is an engrossing strategy game that combines the economic nous of the Settlers series with the careful building up of an Age of Empires and, when the mayhem finally flies, a real-time wargame in the WarCraft mould, although the number and type of military units is somewhat restricted. Achieving a military victory is tougher than it sounds, as every soldier you send off to war is someone not available to hunt for food or chop wood against the coming winter. Losing your army in battle can be utterly catastrophic, meaning that warmongering in Northgard can be a more daunting option than in other games.

Northgard has a story-driven, single-player campaign which is good fun and introduces you to the game mechanics slowly. The characters and story are rather forgettable, but the missions are fun and the narrative drive of each mission provides a sense of purpose which is missing from the skirmish game. Once you have completed the story campaign, the skirmish mode awaits, which is the meat of the game, allowing you establish how many enemies there are and what clan you wish to control (each Viking clan has different powers, which can radically shift the early game in particular).

Negatives? Well, the game uses non-standard RTS controls which some may find irritating (alt-click to add units to a group rather than the standard shift-click, for example). The game is also on occasion rather obtuse about what is causing your production rate to drop, and sometimes information is not transmitted properly. It would also be handy if there were faster ways to locate your units: more than once I spent a good few minutes hunting down a scout who'd disappeared way off over the horizon somewhere, so he could come back to my territory to explore a shipwreck.

But these are niggles. Northgard (****½) is a cunning, rich and charming strategy game that is compelling and constantly rewarding. It is available now on Steam.

THE WALKING DEAD unexpectedly ends

In a move that redefines the meaning of the word "surprise," writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard have terminated their long-running, giga-selling Walking Dead comic with this month's issue.

The Walking Dead began in October 2003 as the "zombie movie that never ends," with Kirkman painting a picture of a world in disarray after an unexpected zombie apocalypse. Main POV character Rick Grimes, a police officer who was shot and fell into a coma in one world and awoke in another, led readers through sixteen years and 193 issues of hell, with Rick amassing a collection of friends and allies, all trying to survive in this new world. Along the way they battled a succession of powerful villains, including the Governor, cannibals and Rick's baseball bat-wielding nemesis, Negan.

Kirkman claims that the decision to end the comic in this fashion came because he didn't want fans counting down to the end, or perhaps over-hyping it. Announcing it was the final issue just a couple of days before release had been his plan for several years.

In 2010 AMC began airing a TV series based on the comic, starring Andrew Lincoln as Rick. The show became an international phenomenon for several years, before it's star was eclipsed first by Game of Thrones and then by Stranger Things. More recent seasons of the show have had a cooler critical reception and suffered from plummeting viewing figures. The show has also deviated from Kirkman's source material, including killing off major characters who are still alive many years later in the comic timeline. However, the show remained popular enough to spawn a spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, and a forthcoming series of TV movies. The show's tenth season will begin airing later this year.

In 2012 Telltale Games released The Walking Dead, an episodic adventure game which set new standards in writing and characterisation in video games. Several sequels followed, although these were again more coolly received after the original creative team behind the first game quit the company.

The end of the comic series will likely have little impact on the TV show, since the the TV series has deviated quite far from the original. In particular, it will be impossible for the TV show to end the same way the comic book does, as the comic book relies on several characters who have been killed on the TV series.

The new LORD OF THE RINGS TV series, explained

I previously posted an FAQ on the Lord of the Rings TV project about eighteen months ago when it was first announced. Given a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, I thought it might be a good idea to update where we are on this project.

So, what's going on?

In brief, the Tolkien Estate and Trust - the family and company which has handled J.R.R. Tolkien's affairs since his death in 1973 - has joined forces with Warner Brothers and its subsidiary New Line (which produced Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and, with MGM, co-produced the Hobbit trilogy) and Amazon Television to create a new TV series based on the Middle-earth works by J.R.R. Tolkien. This TV series is in pre-production and is due to start shooting as early as next month (August 2019), with a view to it airing in early-to-mid 2021.

What is this TV show about? Is it a remake of the Lord of the Rings movies?

No. The Lord of the Rings TV series is a prequel to the movies and will be set in the Second Age of Middle-earth's history. This period of history lasted for 3,441 years, ending 3,018 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings.

The precise period within the Second Age is unknown, but the smart money is that the TV series will cover the forging of the Rings of Power by the elven-smiths of Eregion, led by Celebrimbor, after he is deceived by Sauron. This is the incident that sets in motion the entire chain of events leading to The Lord of the Rings, incorporating the War of Sauron and the Elves, the Downfall of Númenor, and the War of the Last Alliance (glimpsed briefly in the opening moments of The Fellowship of the Ring) along the way.

If it's not Lord of the Rings, why is it using the Lord of the Rings name?

For legal reasons. Warner Brothers/New Line have the television rights to The Lord of the Rings, so will need to use the Lord of the Rings name to signify that. Also, as brand-awareness goes, it's the most attention-grabbing name to use. The final name of the series is also likely to be different, with the current smart money going on The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age.

Wait, don't they also have the rights to The Hobbit?

The Hobbit's rights are a complex mess (see the "brief history" of the rights below). They were originally owned by United Artists and then picked up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) when they took over UA. Warner Brothers and New Line allied with MGM to make the Hobbit trilogy, but by all accounts it was a nightmarish legal process lasting the better part of a decade to get there (which is why there was such as huge gap between The Return of the King and An Unexpected Journey). For this new TV series, Warner Brothers and New Line appear to have taken the view that it is not worth the trouble of aligning with MGM again, so are proceeding without any material from that book.

What about The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales?

This situation has not been clarified and there has been no formal announcement that the rights to those books have been sold. However, Amazon's use of the map of Númenor, which is a copyrighted part of Unfinished Tales, suggests that a deal has been done with the Tolkien Estate, allowing them to use the Númenor-relevant chapters from that book and maybe The Silmarillion.

If the Tolkien Estate hasn't definitively sold the rights to The Silmarillion, why are they involved?

This is a more speculative area, because the Tolkien Estate has not made a direct statement (their only comment so far has been through a Hollywood lawyer). Of the Tolkien Estate's members, Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien's eldest surviving son and literary executor) was by far the most vocal in his opposition to adaptations based on J.R.R. Tolkien's work. However, Christopher resigned in August 2017 and it appears that the other board members are far less vociferous in their objections: Priscilla Tolkien (Christopher's younger sister), for example, advised Ralph Bakshi on his animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 and Simon Tolkien (Christopher's eldest son) supported Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.

In addition, the Tolkien Estate had to go to court several times to defend its rights in different matters relating to both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, matters which may not have arisen had the Estate been more closely involved from the start. The rest of the Estate may have also taken the view that if this adaptation is proceeding, they might as well take a role to try to exercise a positive influence on the process.

How long will the series be?

The commitment by Amazon is apparently for five seasons and a potential spin-off show.

What is the cost of the deal?

Amazon had to pay between $200 million and $250 million for the rights up-front, along with certain guarantees for how much money they would put into the series budget. Apparently the per-season budget is guaranteed at between $100 million and $150 million, although the number of episodes per season has not yet been decided. Assuming the $250 million and $150 million figures are accurate, this deal will cost Amazon approximately $1 billion, or almost twice the total cost of all seventy-three episodes of Game of Thrones on HBO. This would make the series comfortably the most expensive ongoing TV show (not a mini-series) ever made.

Is anyone from the Jackson movie series involved?

Peter Jackson has apparently held discussions with the team at Amazon and may take a consulting role, but will not be involved on a day-to-day basis.

However, the series will be shooting in New Zealand and, given the relatively small size of the New Zealand film industry, it is likely there will be some creative crossover between the movies and the TV show.

Will the series use the movie art design, sets, effects, actors or other elements?

Given Warner Brothers/New Line's involvement, this would certainly be legally possible, but so far unconfirmed. In the case of actors, there are only a few actors from the Lord of the Rings movies who'd would appear in The Second Age, most notably Elrond, Galadriel, Elendil and Isildur, and it is unclear if those actors would be interested in appearing in a project where Peter Jackson is not involved.

It's more likely that the series will focus on new castmembers playing younger versions of the film characters, re-casting roles where necessary.

Will the new series be filmed in New Zealand or elsewhere?

The series will be primarily shot in and around Auckland, New Zealand, which won the right to shoot the series following a tense competition with Scotland.

When will the new TV series air?

The series starts shooting in August 2019, with production expected to run through mid-2020. On that basis, with a significant amount of post-production to follow, the show is likely to air in early 2021.

Who are the creative talent involved?

Patrick McKay and John D. Payne are the showrunners and principle writers. Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones) joined the project late in pre-production to serve as a creative consultant and producer, with the possibility of an expanded role in Season 2. Gennifer Hutchison (Breaking Bad) is also a writer on the project.

J.A. Bayona (The Orphange, The Impossible, A Monster Calls) is directing at least the first two episodes and serving as a producer.

With production due to begin fairly imminently, casting announcements are expected any day.

Why Amazon?

This TV project was proposed to HBO, Netflix and Amazon, since it was (correctly) assumed that they would be the only three companies with deep enough pockets to entertain the deal. HBO turned the project down for cost and because of their commitment to their ongoing Game of Thrones franchise, specifically the upcoming spin-off prequel series. Netflix also appears to have balked at the cost, offering $100 million instead for the rights and being outbid by Amazon. Netflix also have their own epic fantasy TV shows in development, including one based on the Witcher novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, a fresh Chronicles of Narnia adaptation and a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

A Brief(ish) History of the Middle-earth Movie and TV Rights

J.R.R. Tolkien (b. 1892) created Middle-earth c. 1916, when he began writing a book eventually entitled The Silmarillion, a collection of fictional legends and stories set in a fantasy land called Middle-earth. Tolkien spent the rest of his life developing The Silmarillion and died in 1973 with the book still incomplete. However, he used the incomplete "Legendarium" as a source work for two novels published in his lifetime: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit between around 1930 and 1936, and it was published in 1937. He then wrote the much longer Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1947, spent two years editing it and a further five years trying to get it published; it finally appeared in three volumes in 1954 and 1955 and was a modest initial success. However, a very public and famous copyright battle erupted in 1965 when an American publisher, Ace, released an unauthorised paperback edition of the book. Tolkien and his publishers won the battle and many curious readers, particularly in the United States, picked up the novel. Thanks to strong word-of-mouth and an adoption by the 1960s counter-culture, the novel's sales exploded worldwide between 1965 and 1969.

In 1969 Tolkien, keen to ensure the financial security of his grandchildren, sold the screen rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists for a significant sum and these rights were then further acquired by producer Saul Zaentz in 1976. However, United Artists believed that anyone wanting to adapt the books would need to start with The Hobbit and saw it as the more valuable asset. Accordingly, United Artists sold only the full screen and production rights to The Lord of the Rings to Zaentz and held onto distribution rights to The Hobbit. These rights were acquired by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1981 when they bought United Artists (who were in danger of going bust after the massive failure of the movie Heaven's Gate).

Zaentz and UA collaborated to allow the production of a cartoon version of The Hobbit with animation studio Rankin/Bass in 1977 and an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 with Ralph Bakshi. When the producers could not agree on terms to make a second part of The Lord of the Rings, they parted ways and Zaentz, UA and Rankin/Bass reconvened to make an animated sequel called The Return of the King in 1980. However, by the mid-1980s the rights to The Lord of the Rings had reverted to Zaentz whilst UA/MGM retained some rights to The Hobbit.

In 1995 New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson began considering plans for a Tolkien trilogy. He proposed a one-film adaptation of The Hobbit and a two-movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Several studios expressed an interest, but most notably Miramax, the studio owned by the Weinstein Brothers. Miramax spoke to Zaentz and found him willing to sell the rights, but quickly became aware of the MGM stake in The Hobbit rights. Miramax was unable to meet MGM's price for The Hobbit rights and suggested that Jackson proceed with The Lord of the Rings alone. Later Miramax, suffering financial problems, reduced the scope of the proposed film from two movies to one. Jackson was unable to comply, but found a new partner in the shape of New Line Cinema, who not only embraced the project but gave Jackson three movies to adapt The Lord of the Rings. The three movies were released between 2001 and 2003 and grossed just under $3 billion at the box office, becoming a cultural phenomenon. New Line licensed the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and also production rights to The Hobbit from Zaentz for an unclear period of time, but it seems to have extended into the early-to-mid 2010s.

In 2008 Warner Brothers bought out New Line and inherited their licensed rights. With considerably deeper pockets, they moved to ally with MGM and secured the rights to make The Hobbit. Originally Jackson and director Guillermo Del Toro planned a two-film version of The Hobbit and a third "bridging movie" linking The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, drawing on the appendices in the latter. However, Warner Brothers got cold feet on this idea, eventually insisting on three movies based on the very short Hobbit (which is only one-fifth the length of The Lord of the Rings). Del Toro quit the project and Peter Jackson was persuaded to take over at short notice, resulting in the Hobbit trilogy of movies released between 2012 and 2014. The trilogy took slightly more money than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but on a much higher budget and the critical reception was lukewarm in comparison.

Meanwhile, when J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 his literary rights were inherited by his third son and literary executor, Christopher. Christopher, working alongside several assistants (most notably Guy Gavriel Kay, a future, highly accomplished fantasy author in his own right), assembled his father's incomplete manuscripts to publish The Silmarillion in 1977. A further collection of short stories, essays, maps and background information on Middle-earth was published as Unfinished Tales in 1980. Along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these two books would be considered part of the Tolkien "canon" (although debate would continue to surround the later two books due to Christopher's editorial choices, some of which he himself would later regret). Christopher Tolkien also published the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series, which collects every early draft, abandoned fragment and partial manuscript ever written by Tolkien on the subject of Middle-earth. Later on, drawing from the same material, Christopher Tolkien would produce The Children of Hurin (2007), Beren and Luthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018), fleshing out episodes from The Silmarillion into longer stories.

Christopher, as J.R.R. Tolkien's literary executor, was 100% adamant that he would never sell the film or TV rights to The Silmarillion or the other posthumous material and this remained constant, right up to Christopher resigning as head of the Tolkien Estate in August 2017. Following Christopher Tolkien's departure, a deal was done between the Estate and Amazon. It is unclear what this deal involves, except that Amazon's project apparently has access to very specific material from Unfinished Tales and possibly The Silmarillion.

One thing that is clear is that Christopher's departure and Amazon's entry to the TV market are both gamechangers for the fields of fantasy and television.

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LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE gets director, new writers and confirmed filming location

Amazon's upcoming TV series, The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age*, has acquired its first director.

J.A. Bayona will direct the first two episodes of the series. Spanish director Bayona won critical acclaim for his movies The Orphanage (2007), The Impossible (2012) and A Monster Calls (2016). He also directed the first two episodes of Penny Dreadful in 2014. More recently, he directed Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom (2018).

Gennifer Hutchison has also been added to the writers' room. Hutchison is best-known for writing five episodes of Breaking Bad and eight of its spin-off show, Better Call Saul. She was also on the production staff of The Strain.

The series will start production next month in Auckland, New Zealand. Peter Jackson's six previous Middle-earth movies were shot in New Zealand, but it looked like the new series was going to move filming to Scotland after positive discussions there. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacina Ardern made a personal telephone call to Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, to secure the deal for New Zealand instead, although it remains possible there will be a small amount of filming in Scotland.

* possibly not the final title

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Eight months after the defeat of Thanos, the world is still getting used to the idea that half of the human race, presumed dead for five years, has now returned. The Midtown School of Science and Technology has restarted its academic year to account for those students who disappeared, including Peter Parker and his friends MJ, Ned, Flash and Betty. Parker is overwhelmed by grief for those who perished in the battle against Thanos and looking forward to a school trip to Europe, which he plans to treat as a vacation. When powerful monsters arise, targeting cities across Europe, and Nick Fury and a new superhero named Mysterio join the fight, Parker has to decided whether to reprise his role as Spider-Man or give it up to have a normal life.

Far From Home is the (count 'em!) eighth Spider-Man solo movie this century, the eleventh in which the character appears at all, and the third to be released in the last two years, after 2017's Homecoming and 2018's Into the Spider-Verse. It's also the twenty-third movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the fifth to feature Tom Holland as the MCU's version of Spider-Man. It's also the first MCU movie released since the explosive Avengers: Endgame and partially deals with the fallout of the epic events of that film. It's a movie that's wearing an awful lot of hats and, unfortunately, isn't as adept at swapping between them as may be wished.

The first part of the movie is dedicated to picking up the pieces after Endgame. The heroes who fell against Thanos are being mourned and Parker is trying to work out if he is ready to step up as part of the next generation. Nick Fury and Mariah Hill are also back in the fight, but are off-balance since they are five years out of date on the latest intel. The arrival of new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) bolsters the ranks of the fallen heroes and gives Parker the opportunity to retire Spider-Man. There's a lot of emotional depth riding on this story, but it has to be said that the "Spider-Man struggling with the responsibility of being Spider-Man" trope is so worn that it's effectively no longer usable, and seeing Peter Parker agonising over his choices of being a normal young guy or a superhero is so rote that the experienced superhero viewer's eyes may glaze over. We've been here so many times before that it's gotten stale.

One Parker works out his confidence issues, the movie stops being a (rather ineffective, it has to be said) epilogue to Endgame and instead it relaxes and starts having fun, so does the audience. A bunch of monsters are causing havoc and Spider-Man has to stop them. The trick is that Parker's friends will catch on instantly that he is Spider-Man if Spider-Man shows up all the time to save them on the wrong side of the Atlantic, forcing him to go undercover as European knock-off hero "Night Monkey" instead. We get several major battles in European cities, namely Venice, Prague and London, and again it's laudable to see a lot of time being spent on evacuating and protecting civilians, and trying not to destroy major landmarks. There's a lot of fun stunts and explosions and reasonably well-judged use of CGI.

This is all fine, and Far From Home (***½) never really rises above being fine. The performances are all pretty solid, the tie-ins with the rest of the MCU are intriguing and there's some setup work for future movies here which makes them potentially very interesting indeed. But Far From Home itself never really rises above being okay, watchable and possibly a bit forgettable in the long run. It does feel a little too ordinary after Homecoming gave us a terrific battle of wills between Holland's Spider-Man and Michael Keaton's Vulture, and Into the Spider-Verse's dazzling descent through the multiverse. It's a fun two hours with lots of spectacle and some good performances, but ultimately does not rise above that.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III

Cyprus Ultimate, homeworld of House Varlock, is under attack by a vast ork horde led by Warboss Gitstompa. The Blood Angels Space Marine Chapter under Gabriel Angelos responds, but to Angelos's fury he is prevented from assisting by Inquisitor Holt. It becomes clear that something greater than a mere ork raid is taking place when Eldar forces led by Gabriel's old ally/enemy Macha arrive. A powerful artefact, the Spear of Khaine, becomes the price for all three armies as an even greater threat arises.

Dawn of War III is the third game in the venerable series which began way back in 2004 with Dawn of War, a real-time strategy game in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. That game was popular and certainly fun to play, but suffered with the round peg of real-time strategy being whacked into the square hole of overpowered Space Marines and Predator tanks. Although a solid game (spawning several expansions), Dawn of War didn't quite fit the Warhammer 40,000 setting.

The sequel, 2009's Dawn of War II, switched to being an action-strategy game, drawing more inspiration from the likes of Diablo than the real-time strategy genre. Instead of being able to build tons of units, you instead deployed individual heroes, each of whom was accompanied by a strong bodyguard. You then guided these hero units across the battlefield, making lots of use of specific powers with cooldowns. Despite arguably feeling more like Warhammer 40,000, at least with the high-powered units like Space Marines, the game faced a mixed reception due to the much smaller army sizes and resulting smaller battles, and the removal of base-building and defence.

Dawn of War III arrived a surprising eight years after the previous game in the series and made the cardinal mistake of trying to appease fans of both earlier games in the series, by restoring much of the base-building, defence and territory acquisition elements of the first game, but also retaining the second game's focus on hero units which require detailed micro-managing on the field of battle at the same time you're also mustering a large force of dozens of units to stomp across the map. In the immortal words of Ron Swanson, "Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing." Dawn of War III suffers accordingly from its lack of focus and its attempts to please everyone.

That's not to say that fun can't be had with the game. The storyline - although tiresomely leaning on the "enemy sides who fight each other for the whole game before joining forces against a mutual threat" cliche that was dull and boring when StarCraft did it twenty-one years ago - is perfectly enjoyable and it's fun catching up with returning characters from the original game and its expansions. For the first time in a linear Dawn of War campaign, you can also play all three of the base game's playable sides, with the story rotating through the Space Marine, Ork and Eldar factions. This is at first fun, but rapidly becomes frustrating, as you spend an entire mission (which may last anything up to two hours) learning the intricacies of one faction, only having to switch to a new faction in the next mission and it may be several missions before you get back to the same side (especially given the prevalence of missions where you don't engage in standard battles, instead guiding a hero unit on a solo mission behind enemy lines).

Once battle is joined, the game can become frantic, with modern graphical power making explosions, special abilities and so on quite spectacular. However, outside of the fighting the game is cumbersome. As with most of Relic's real-time strategy games going back to Dawn of War, controlling resource points on the map is key. Unlike other Relic games, these resource points are extremely rare, sometimes with only 3 or 4 on a whole map. This wouldn't be a problem if you had the ability from both the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series to build defences around each resource point as you see fit. You can't. Instead, the resource point gets a single turret if you build a listening post on it and that's it. You can't build static defences at all, which is preposterous (the orks can build Waaagh! Towers, but only five maximum on a single map, and their guns are pretty feeble). The income from each resource point is also risible, even when you fully upgrade it. As a result, gathering resources is much slower and more precarious than in Relic's previous four real-time strategy games and seven expansions.

Worse still is the inexplicable removal of Relic's superb cover system, which allowed your unit to take cover in bomb craters or destroyed buildings, or hide behind wrecked vehicles. This is gone, replaced by carefully marked "cover shelters" which your units have to capture before being able to take cover. This is insane, makes no sense, and makes battles a frustrating start-stop affair rather than the rolling back-and-forth of previous games.

Unit costs are also far too high. More than half of the maps in the game I completed without even hitting the halfway point on the unit cap, as building a full-size army took such an ridiculous amount of time that it frequently wasn't worth even trying.

Later in the game it perks a bit more into life, by giving you much more starting resources so you can field a much better force. The last few missions also focus on the deployment of large-scale war machines on the battlefield, which are great fun (particularly House Varlock's Knight, a building-sized war mecha). The last few missions are far superior to the rest, allowing you to experience the game's full range of tactical and strategic options. But I suspect many players will have given up in frustration long before then.

Dawn of War III (**½) is not a complete disaster, and can be enjoyable in parts. But by trying to merge the MOBA-like qualities of Dawn of War II to the RTS stylings of the original, the game has ended up being a weird hybrid which doesn't achieve the strengths of either genre. Worth playing if you are a fan of the first two games, but only if you can get it cheap.

Monday, 1 July 2019

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Timeline (updated)

Following the release of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, I thought it might be interesting to run down a timeline of major events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the relevant backstory.

This is an update of an article published in April 2019.

Nick Fury of SHIELD, who plays a decisive role in assembling the Avengers.

Some notes on this timeline: the canonicity of the spin-off comic books, books and TV shows is open to question (particularly the films' resistance to incorporate the large-scale events of Agents of SHIELD or the Netflix series), so I've restricted things to the movies themselves and their direct publicity materials.

It's also well-known that the team at Disney have themselves retconned the timeline several times, resulting in some on-screen dating evidence that is flat-out wrong and has to be ignored (such as the "Eight years later," title card in Spider-Man: Homecoming). At other times writers seem to have assumed that movies have taken place in the year they were released and then ignored information to the contrary, creating more problems.

The Timeline at the MCU Wiki was useful in assembling the list, although their tendency to use weighted averages to try to pinpoint precise dates feels somewhat inaccurate. I have followed their reasoning in some matters (particularly the convincing arguments for putting Iron Mann in 2009 versus 2008) but have deviated from it where it feels necessary.

For the most part, the precise dating of each film and event is much less important than the order the events take place in.


The Infinity Stones.