Saturday 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Electronic Arts announce release window for new DRAGON AGE game

Electronic Arts and subsidiary BioWare have announced the release date for the latest Dragon Age fantasy RPG. The video game, recently retitled Dragon Age: The Veilguard, is due for release in autumn this year. They have also released a gameplay trailer.

The Veilguard is the fourth full game in the series, following on from Dragon Age: Origins (2009), Dragon Age II (2011) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) (though some count Dragon Age: Origins' massive 2010 expansion, Awakening, as an additional full game in the series as well since it is about as large as Dragon Age II). The series is set on the continent of Thedas and chronicles the battling of the player character and various allies against a series of large-scale threats to the continent and the world. Each game in the series has its own antagonists and cast of characters, with relatively light continuity connections between games, although a few characters do appear in multiple titles.

The series so far has acted as something of a travelogue of the continent, with Origins and Awakening set in the kingdom of Ferelden in the south-east; Dragon Age II in the Free March of Kirkwall in the central-eastern region; and Dragon Age: Inquisition in the Empire of Orlais in the centre of the continent. The Veilguard takes place in the Tevinter Imperium, a huge, mage-controlled empire in the central-north region. The game specifically opens in the capital city of Minrathous. The plot follows a new adventurer - yourself - joining forces with a band of seven fellow heroes to save the world from the Dread Wolf, a fallen elven god who banished his fellows and plans to now restore them, despite the fact this will tear open the Veil and release thousands of powerful demons into the world.

The game feels like a bit of a make or break moment for BioWare. The once-lauded RPG powerhouse was famed for its long run of hit games: Baldur's Gate (1998), Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000), Neverwinter Nights (2002), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), Jade Empire (2005), Mass Effect (2007), Dragon Age: Origins (2009), Mass Effect 2 (2010) and, despite an iffy ending, Mass Effect 3 (2012).

However, the wheels seemed to fall off after BioWare was purchased by Electronic Arts (during the development of Dragon Age: Origins). They mandated a quickie Dragon Age sequel, resulting in the controversial Dragon Age II (2011), and both a move to cash in on the open world craze and using the Frostbite Engine, which was not well-suited for open world environments. Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) had a mixed reception, with praise for its story and DLC, but criticisms of its vast amount of filler content; Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) had a similarly mixed reception and disappointing sales. Anthem (2019) was a move to a multiplayer-focused, online style of game which was a bizarre choice for a developer known for deep, single-player roleplaying games. The game was heavily criticised and died almost immediately.

Although Dragon Age II and Inquisition both sold well, Andromeda and Anthem were both flops. This means that BioWare is betting the farm on The Veilguard and a forthcoming new Mass Effect game; if these both do badly, then BioWare's future may be in doubt. More ironic is that the Dragon Age franchise has moved away from the deep, party-based tactical combat of the original game to more of an action game, but Larian's Baldur's Gate III - a sequel to BioWare's own series - sold over 20 million copies by leaning very hard on party-based, tactical combat and even being turn-based.

Whether The Veilguard can stop the rot and rescue BioWare remains to be seen. The game will launch later this year.

Wednesday 5 June 2024

China Miéville completes 1,000-page new novel

Wired has published an interview with British genre author China Miéville about his upcoming collaboration with actor-musician-icon Keanu Reeves, but also touching on his other projects.

As related previously, Miéville has joined forces with Reeves to write The Book of Elsewhere, a tie-in novel to Reeves' BRZRKR comic book franchise. Miéville agreed to tackle the project because he thought it would be interesting to work within the constraints of someone else's fictional universe whilst also delivering a satisfying narrative. The novel will be published on 23 July this year.

However, Miéville fans frustrated with his lack of output in the last decade will be pleased to hear he has a new solo novel in the works as well, and not just in-progress but completed and sent to the publisher. Miéville's last novel was Railsea, published in 2012. He did publish two novellas, This Census-Taker and The Last Days of New Paris, in 2016, and a short story collection, Three Moments of an Explosion, in 2015. However, his fans have been crying out for a new solo novel.

Miéville doesn't reveal much about the new book but at over a thousand pages, it will be his longest book to date (and books like Perdito Street Station and The Scar are not exactly slight novels). Presumably it will be published in 2025, but hopefully we'll get more news soon.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

RIP William Russell

British actor William Russell, one of the original castmembers of Doctor Who, has passed away at the age of 99.


William Russell as Ian Chesterton in Doctor Who's An Unearthly Child (23 November 1963, top) and The Power of the Doctor (23 October 2022). The 59-year-gap between his first and last appearances on television playing the same character, and the 57-year gap between appearances, are both believed to be world records.

Born in Sunderland, County Durham, in 1924, William Russell Enoch attended Oxford University and did his national service in the Royal Air Force at the tail end of the war. He went into repertory theatre and began making screen appearances in the early 1950s. He made his film debut in Gift Horse (1952) and his TV debut in the short film Lonesome Like (1954). He made his breakthrough in 1956, playing the role of Sir Lancelot on the British adventure TV series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which ran for 30 episodes and was a surprise hit on American television (in publicity for which he rode a horse down Fifth Avenue in New York City). He starred in a TV adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby the following year, and was the lead in the 1960 serial St. Ives and the 1961 drama Triton. These roles, supported by a steady stream of guest roles and supporting film appearances, made him a familiar face on British television and film.

In 1963 he was cast in the BBC's new science fiction drama series, Doctor Who. The main role of the mysterious Doctor had been cast with William Hartnell, who was in his mid-50s but somewhat frail. The producers decided they wanted a younger leading male who could handle fight scenes and more physically demanding work. Russell was cast in the role of Ian Chesterton, the science teacher at Coal Hill School in Shoreditch, London. Along with history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), he becomes suspicious over the odd behaviour of pupil Susan (Carole Ann Ford), who is brilliant but has strange gaps in her knowledge. Ian and Barbara follow Susan home to a junkyard, to see her enter a police box. Following her inside, they find a huge, futuristic control room, impossibly larger inside than out. Susan's grandfather, the Doctor (Hartnell), explains they are aliens from another time and space, and their ship, the TARDIS, can travel anywhere and anywhen in the universe. The teachers are sceptical, until the TARDIS takes off and lands on prehistoric Earth, where the four crewmembers are inadvertently responsible for a primitive tribe of cavemen in discovering fire. The Doctor is initially suspicious and hostile towards his new guests but takes responsibility for dragging them away for their lives and tries to return them to Earth at the moment of departure, but this is complicated by malfunctions in the TARDIS guidance system.

Ian and Barbara remained the Doctor's companions for most of the first two seasons of the show, chalking up some 78 episode appearances. Remarkably, this run made them the joint-fourth longest-running companions of all time (behind Jamie McCrimmon, Sarah Jane Smith and K9), which they hold to this day. They left the show in 1965, at the conclusion of the serial The Chase (the penultimate serial of Season 2), when they used a captured Dalek time ship to return home to Earth.

The producers of Doctor Who tried on several times to get Russell to reprise his role on the show, but availability was a key issue: Russell continued to have a prolific career on British TV and in film, including a memorable stint on soap opera Coronation Street (blamed for causing Doctor Who's original demise in 1989 during a ratings showdown) in 1992 and a brief, supporting role in Superman (1978), among many others. He finally reprised his role as Ian for the Big Finish audio drama range, appearing in nineteen stories from 2009 to 2020.

He finally returned to Doctor Who in 2022's The Power of the Doctor, reprising his role as Ian briefly in a "self-help group" for former companions of the Doctor. This appearance, coming fifty-seven years after his last on-screen appearance, broke the Guinness World Record for the longest gap between appearances of an actor playing the same role on television.

Russell passed away on 3 June 2024. He is survived by his second wife and four children, including Alfred Enoch (best-known for playing Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies). He will very much be missed.

Monday 27 May 2024

RED DWARF to return (again)

It's been confirmed that Red Dwarf will be returning - yet again - with new episodes in 2025. The venerable British science fiction sitcom celebrated its thirty-sixth anniversary in February and a long-running rights dispute between co-creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor was settled last year, allowing both writers to continue working with the franchise (they worked on the show together for its first six seasons before splitting in 1993).

The new episodes will be helmed by Doug Naylor again, who has also helmed all of the episodes produced since 1993, and will take the form of a 90-minute special split into three 30-minute episodes for broadcast. With the cast now getting on a bit, there had been doubt over whether the show would return, with the 68-year-old Robert Llewellyn particularly reluctant to don the heavy prosthetics needed to play the android Kryten. But he notes that he was talked back into the role once more, for a possible last (?) hurrah.

Rob Grant has also confirmed that he is working on a new project called Red Dwarf: Titan, a prequel set before the events of the original show with Lister stuck on Saturn's titular moon when he runs into the officious Arnold J. Rimmer. The prequel explores their relationship before they wound up on the mining ship Red Dwarf and its fateful radiation leak which killed the entire crew (bar Lister). This project is being developed as both a novel and a TV show, possibly for streaming. The project may involved the original cast introducing or framing the story, which would obviously need to be recast with younger actors. This might be a crucial moment in determining if the franchise has a long-term future. The premise (four people stuck on a spaceship three million years in the future and thousands of light-years away) does not easily allow for spin-offs, and so far the producers have resisted recasting any of the lead roles (aside from Kryten, who was played by a different actor on his very first appearance, with Llewellyn taking over for the second).

Red Dwarf originally aired six seasons on BBC2 from 1988 to 1993. Two additional seasons were produced in 1997 and 1999 before a long hiatus, caused by problems in trying to get a feature film off the ground. The show returned on comedy channel Dave for a one-off special in 2009, followed by new, full seasons in 2012, 2016 and 2017. Another special aired in 2020.

The new Red Dwarf episodes will shoot in October for transmission in 2025.

Horizon Forbidden West

Aloy and her allies have defeated the malevolent HADES AI and apparently saved Earth from destruction. But it's clear that their actions may have only delayed Earth's demise, not prevented it. Aloy sets out to track down and eradicate all trace of HADES, aided once more - if only for his own inscrutable purposes - by the redoubtable Sylens. Word of a new threat leads Aloy to the Forbidden West, the lands beyond the mountains, where she discovers the possibility of restoring the terraforming AI GAIA to full function, and with it, Earth itself. But naturally, there are numerous complications standing in the way.

Horizon Forbidden West is the sequel to the excellent Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), a post-apocalyptic open world action-adventure game which posited the crucial question, wouldn't it be fun to fight giant robot chickens and T-Rexes? Forbidden West asks the question, basically, wouldn't it be fun to do that some more but with prettier graphics and I guess in California this time? And the answer remains yes, with some caveats.

As before, you play Aloy, the Nora orphan raised as an exile who ended up saving at least three kingdoms' worth of people. In a slightly comical opening sequence, Aloy loses most of her badass skills and equipment from the last game, forcing you to spend a good chunk of the sequel just getting back to parity with where you were before. This would be more frustrating if it wasn't fully expected. Still, Aloy has access to more gizmos, tricks and options this time around, along with many more upgrades for her weapons and tools. In fact, the array of options on offer in Forbidden West is somewhat overwhelming, even compared to its generous forebear.

Also as before, you wander around the map engaging in a mixture of main story missions which further the primary plot, side-missions of varying degrees of interest and complexity, and various repeatable missions which are helpful in grinding your character's experience and skills, but don't vary much from one to the next. There are also a vast number of collectibles, optional activities and achievements to look at, although Forbidden West does a good job of looping these back into the game's worldbuilding; flight recorders aren't just items to be checked off a list, but they also contain vital information on the last days of the war against the machines before the old world (our world roughly forty years from now) crumbled.

The backstory and worldbuilding was Zero Dawn's greatest success, with the mystery of just why the world is now full of robot goats being explored in tandem with the forward moving plot of the game. With that backstory fully revealed by the end of Zero Dawn, Forbidden West might have struggled to have found something to match it. Fortunately it succeeds: the main storyline of Forbidden West is more compelling this time around, with more factions competing for control of the titular area, each drawn in a lot of detail and with a lot of cool backstory, often diving back into areas that Zero Dawn perhaps glossed over. Forbidden West delves into a lot more detail of the ancient war and fleshes it out with stories about stirring last stands and people whom history now calls heroes, but were just ordinary folk trying to do the right thing.

That said, Forbidden West does have a problem in that the primary antagonists don't show up until surprisingly late into the game and aren't given a huge amount of detail (mainly because they're so powerful it's implausible that they'd keep showing up and Aloy would somehow survive). The focus remains on the much less formidable tribal enemies you meet earlier in the game and on the machines.

As with Zero Dawn, the machines remain the main draw of the game. They are fantastically-designed, beautifully-animated and almost always a pleasure to fight. Each machine has strengths and weaknesses, requiring careful analysis before engaging them, and more subvariants this time around means you can't just assume one tactic will work against all machines of the same type. Forbidden West is a more tactical game this time around, requiring some forethought and preparation before the destruction begins. That said, the game does somewhat nerf the first game's more formidable weapons, with Tearblast Arrows now much less effective and vastly more expensive, which feels a little bit of a cheap move from the developers.

The map is larger than Zero Dawn's and the scale is much grander. You start in the Rocky Mountains and make your way to San Francisco (and, in the Burning Shores expansion, Los Angeles), taking in Las Vegas and El Capitan in Yosemite Park along the way. There's a much greater variety of biomes, with snow in the high mountains contrasting with the wastelands of the Nevada Desert, and the skyscrapers of San Francisco and LA becoming a fun, new type of environment to engage enemies in. As before you can proceed on foot, with an enhanced array of parkour moves, grappling hooks and a new paradrop shield which basically eliminates ever having to worry about falling damage again. You also get a new method of travel near the end of the game which is very cool (although it does perhaps expose the artificiality of the map design which is much less apparent at ground level). The writing is mostly solid, aside from the aforementioned lack of depth to the eventual main antagonists, and the characters are mostly likeable.

The game does perhaps falter a tad in pacing. At around 90 hours for a reasonably completionist playthrough (all story and side-quests, most of the collectibles that add story information, but not the grindy hunting grounds), it's a significantly longer game than Zero Dawn and on occasion your eyes may glaze over at how many question marks are covering just the small part of the map around you. Obviously you can motor through the main story much more quickly, but only with the nagging feeling you are leaving yourself underpowered for the main quest by not taking on side-gigs. That said, the story does do a good job of refreshing itself every few hours by introducing new ideas, backstories and characters. The game does have some minor technical issues, like wonky physics (being hit by an enemy and shooting off in a direction never intended by gravity gets old after a while) and occasionally iffy collision detection, but these seem mostly designed to not let Aloy get realistically crushed like a gnat when she's hit by a 15-ton rampaging deathbot, and only occasionally directly inconvenience you.

The game's only other major flaw - if you think it's a flaw - is that it really does not move the needle from the first game's paradigm. Forbidden West is really just more Horizon for people who really enjoyed Zero Dawn, even down to many of the controls being the same. Launching on later hardware, it is a much prettier game, and certainly a larger and more epic one. But it can't quite surprise or innovate in the way the first game did, and I'd hesitated to suggest playing them back-to-back as burnout over ~150 hours of the same kind of gameplay would be a real concern.

The PC version of the game also ships with the Burning Shores expansion, which takes Aloy to the ruins of Los Angeles in search of a new enemy. This is a very solid expansion, adding another ~15-20 hours to the main game with new locations, new mechanics, new robots, new enemies and new allies. It also has the benefit of being much more focused than the base game, with a more constrained map that's easier to 100% explore (despite some new obstacles to travel, but also new traversal options like boats).

Another complaint might be that Forbidden West is the middle part of what is clearly now a trilogy, with the game ending on a major cliffhanger that we'll have to wait quite a long time to see resolved. But there's enough juice in the concept that I think it can sustain a third game to wrap up the saga.

Horizon Forbidden West (****½) can't quite match the original game's freshness or superb backstory revelations, but it's still a compelling and fun action-adventure game (with light RPG elements). It may outlast its welcome, or risk doing so, but for those looking for a game to lose themselves in for a long time with lots of combat, exploration and reasonably effective storytelling, it does the job well. The game is available now on PC and PlayStation 4 and 5.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Friday 17 May 2024

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang

1 November 1988. Erin Tieng, a new resident of Stony Stream, on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, is starting her new role delivering newspapers. Falling afoul of Halloween revellers, she joins forces with three other paper girls for mutual protection: Mac, KJ and Tiffany. The girls find their job complicated by the normal problems: creepy residents, overzealous cops, bullies and, obviously, a trans-temporal war between two different groups of time travellers from the far and even further futures. Sucked into a conflict spanning millions of years, the four girls have to work out how to survive, get home and prevent the annihilation of the universe. And get their papers delivered on time.

Paper Girls was an American comic book published between 2015 and 2019. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, better-known as the writer of the epic science fiction saga known as, er, Saga, the series has become a cult hit over the years. Amazon started adapting the show in 2022, creating a first season that was well-cast and excellently paced with some intriguing variances from the source material whilst also remaining faithful to the big picture. Obviously, being good, it could not be allowed to survive beyond a single season.

The original comic series was collected into a single volume a few years back, large enough to be used to stun a yak if wielded correctly. Read as a single piece, Paper Girls is relentless in its pacing. Every issue throws new ideas, new factions, new characters (or different versions of existing ones) and new creatures at the reader. Weird alien beings from another dimension? Sure. Dinosaurs? Obviously! Older versions of the main characters suffering from existential and mid-life crises? Go wild. This turns the book into a compelling page-turner, if an occasionally confusing one. Unlike the well-paced Saga, it's sometimes easy to lose the thread of what's going on in Paper Girls, what each faction is after, what resources they have access to and so forth.

In a way that increases the reader's empathy with the core quartet of girls, who sometimes get as lost in the morass of competing timelines, alternate selves and wars being fought for obscure reasons that haven't even happened yet. Our central quartet are grounded, interesting characters who grow and learn from their crazy experience. Sure, maybe they take the insane events a little too easily in their stride (the TV show works a bit better by slowing down the craziness, giving them more time to adjust to what's happening), but that also feels true to the 1980s SF movies the comic feels like it's homaging.

Ultimately the crazy SF antics are a backdrop to the simple notion of adolescent friendship. As Stephen King said, the friendships you form in later life are nothing like the ones you form at and before the age of 13 or so, and the whole book feels like it revolves around that idea. This gives the story universality, but can feel a bit like an overtrodden path, especially as contemporary projects like the superficially similar Stranger Things (which started after Paper Girls but obviously got a lot more attention) also went down the same route. But universal narratives which a lot of people can relate to remain powerful, especially if attached to the furniture of combat robots, weaponised lizards and religions emerging from modern corporate entities.

Paper Girls: The Complete Story (****) is a fun, breathless read, if sometimes a tad overwhelming or confusing. The well-drawn central characters pull the narrative back on course when it threatens to meander, and there's enough crazy SF antics to keep genre fans entertained. The book is available now. 

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

The undead plague continues to roll across the United States of America. The east coast is almost gone, and the midwest is under siege. Escaping the ruin of Summerland, Jane McKeene and nemesis-turned-ally Katherine Deveraux try to make it to a neighbouring town, where a scientist hopes to have unlocked a cure for the undead curse...or at least an immunisation. Betrayals threaten, and the last hope of California gleams on the horizon, if they can make it that far.

Deathless Divide is the sequel and follow-up to Justina Ireland's 2018 novel, Dread Nation, picking up moments after that book ended. The first half of the novel is essentially more Dread Nation, continuing story and character arcs directly from that book (you can't really read this novel as a standalone). This remains compelling, with Jane and Katherine's fiery frenemy relationship continuing to provide a solid dramatic spine for the story.

Halfway through, there's an abrupt time jump to a point where things have become considerably more apocalyptic, with Jane and Katherine now separated and pursuing different storylines, which eventually lead them back into contact and on the road to their much-dreamt goal of reaching California. This allows Ireland to explore the two characters' growth and change, or in Jane's case a regression as she becomes hyper-fixated on vengeance against someone who wronged her, to the point of destroying every other relationship in her life.

The book has a grimmer tone even than its forebear, with a real end-of-the-world vibe missing from a lot of other apocalyptic fiction, but Katherine's determination to be bright and optimistic and behave properly cuts through that in an entertaining fashion. The continent may have been consumed by a ravening horde of undead, but that's no excuse for not keeping your weapons cleaned and riding a horse in an appropriate manner for a lady.

Ireland continues to further her successes from Dread Nation: there is some excellent action, some good character arcs and development, and some great use of the premise to explore issues of Civil War and Reconstruction-era racism and resentment (no matter how insane that is in the face of a much bigger, all-consuming threat). She also provides some great zombie action (no easy thing for a foe this overexposed and tired), and the interesting idea of being able to create an inoculation against the undead, raising the bizarre idea of maybe people and zombies could just coexist?

Unfortunately, the book's structure provides its biggest weakness: the move from being a direct continuation of the fall of Summerland to a much larger-scaled story involving travelling to and across California feels a little jarring, and the action in the latter half of the novel, including some very major character beats as they find things they've been looking for since the opening of the first book, feels very compressed. I get the impression, accurate or not, that this could have been a trilogy with the two halves of the novel each serving as its own book. Instead, compressing the two distinct stories into one novel makes things feel a bit too rushed, especially in the rear half.

Still, Deathless Divide (****) is a worthy follow-up to its forebear, being entertaining, well-written and thought-provoking whilst delivering good action. It just feels like the story could have been improved with a little bit more room to breathe.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Homeworld 3

Two hundred and thirty-five years have passed since the exiles returned to their homeworld, Hiigara. The Hiigaran Hegemony has since spread across the Inner Rim of the galaxy, defeating the Vaygr warlord Makaan and activating the long-lost Great Network of hyperspace gates to revolutionise galactic travel and trade. But the gates have now started going dark. A vast area of hyperspace dysfunction, the Anomaly, is growing. Karan S'jet, the ancient navigator who guided her people home, has vanished whilst investigating the phenomenon. Two decades later, her protégé, Imogen, is ordered to take control of the new Hiigaran Mothership, the Khar-Kushan, and complete Karan's work.

Few franchises have proven as stubbornly tenacious as Homeworld. The original game launched in 1999 and was a moderate hit, and was rapidly followed by a stand-alone expansion, Homeworld: Cataclysm in 2000, which also did reasonably well. Homeworld 2 sold very disappointingly in 2003 and had a mixed reaction from fans. Combined with complex rights issues, this basically halted the franchise in its tracks for over a decade, until Gearbox saved the IP rights from obscurity and released Homeworld Remastered in 2015. Blackbird Interactive, a company formed by much of the original development team of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, subsequently released the ground-based prequel game Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak in 2016. But what fans really wanted was another space game.

Eight years on, Blackbird have delivered the third numbered game in the series, the fifth mainline game overall and, thanks to the recent release of Homeworld Mobile and Homeworld: Vast Reaches (a VR game), the seventh title overall. Not bad for a series that has only ever sold modestly and remains obscure to the general games-playing audience.

As with its forebears, Homeworld 3 is a space-based, real-time strategy game. It takes advantage of its setting to operate in full 3D, with battles taking place in all three dimensions and both you and the enemy being able to launch attacks from above and below.

As usual, you have a huge mothership, in this game the Khar-Kushan, which operates as your mobile command centre and ship foundry. Resource gatherers collect resources, normally by mining asteroids or leftover salvage, which provide you with income to build more ships. Ships come in multiple classes, starting with fighters and bombers, and then moving up through corvettes, frigates, carriers, destroyers and battlecruisers.

Ships have specific roles and are best deployed as hard counters to specific enemy ship types: assault frigates chew up fighters, ion cannon frigates are excellent anti-capital ship vessels and minelayer frigates can assemble enormous minefields to disrupt enemy attacks. Bombers can be a relatively cheap way of engaging enemy capital ships without threatening your own, expensive capital vessels. You can put ships into different formations and vary their responses to enemy forces, from passively ignoring them to aggressively pursuing and shooting everything in sight. You can also assign ships to guard other vessels, such as sending a group of fighters to escort your resourcers as they head across the map to acquire more funds.

In terms of controls, there's a modern, WASD-based system which treats the camera like it's a first-person shooter, whilst a "classic" scheme perfectly recreates the interface from Homeworld Remastered (itself based on Homeworld 2's system, and mostly similar to the original game). The addition of the third axis can make using the interface slightly clunkier than in other strategy games, but there are a number of QOL options to make the controls more flexible. Selecting one of your formations and ctrl-boxing an enemy formation will make your ships target and destroy everything in that group rather than having to individually click enemy units, for example. The game also has time controls, for the first time in the franchise since Homeworld: Cataclysm, with you being able to slow down events by 25%, 50% or 75%. You can also pause completely and issue new orders before rejoining the fray. This is important in the most frantic and largest battles.

The game has three modes. The first is the story-based campaign, which follows up on the events of Homeworld 2 a hundred and twenty years later, with voice acting, cut scenes and dialogue explaining the plot. For the first time in the series, the cut scenes are pre-rendered in full 3D; the previous games were infamous for their minimalist, hand-drawn and originally black-and-white animated cut scenes. Deserts of Kharak began the process of "glowing up" these cut scenes into full colour and using rotoscoped animation, but Homeworld 3 goes full AAA with them. Well, AAA for 2007; the animation is surprisingly stiff in places and character facial expressions are sometimes cartoonishly exaggerated, which feels a bit off.

The story starts off very nicely, with a mystery unfolding over the fate of Karan and the nature of the Anomaly. Unfortunately, Imogen later develops the ability to talk to the main antagonist via a hyperspace connection, and she is a deeply underwhelming villain. The Taiidan Emperor, the Beast, Makaan and the Kiith Gaalsien, the villains of the prior games, were all worthy adversaries with some real menace and presence, but the Incarnate Queen is prone to histrionics and petulant fits which remove a lot of menace or tension. This is annoying as the story holds a lot of promise, and the way it is integrated into the mission design is often very good, such as having to defend a ship trapped in ice as it breaks free, or constructing an insane defence around a hyperspace gate to deal with an incoming enemy fleet of stupendous size (think of the battle for Zion's dock in The Matrix Revolutions). A mission where you have to guide your fleet through a colossal asteroid storm, navigating from safe zone to safe zone, is incredibly atmospheric. Another mission has you hiding like a submarine in an ice flow but surfacing to launch surprise attacks on passing enemies.

So the story goes off the boil, but the mission design remains extremely impressive, with some of the best missions in the entire franchise to be found here. It's not terribly long campaign. This is not unusual for Homeworld, which has always had controversy over its modest campaigns, but at just 12 story missions, Homeworld 3 is a startling four missions shorter than the original Homeworld. On normal difficulty, you'll probably put the story away in under 10 hours. For a full-priced release in 2024, this is eyebrow-raising in the extreme.

We have the standard multiplayer/skirmish mode as well, which is fine. More interesting, and possibly the ultimate test of the game's longevity, is the WarGames mode. This mode can be played solo or in co-op, and sees your fleet taking on escalating enemy forces whilst trying to complete objectives. As you go through the missions, you gain experience which allows you to build better fleets next time around. Failure is assumed; there's a roguelike element of learning from your failure, as experience remains in place and allows you to unlock new ships and options for the next run regardless of success. It's a pretty good mode and it has to be said the maps it uses are frequently gorgeous. Map design is in fact extremely strong through all of the game's modes.

The apparent killer feature of the game is, oddly for a space title, terrain. The story sees you investigating vast, ancient megastructures left behind by a long-extinct alien species known as the Progenitors, with battles taking place in close proximity to them. You can send fighters skimming along the surface of these structures or through tunnels in them to jump out and surprise enemies, and even use makeshift cover. This is a splendid idea, but after a while you kind of forget about these options. Your larger ships can't use terrain in this manner, so you usually end up forming a single large fleet and sending it around curb-stomping most opposition without too much trouble, without having to micromanage the terrain.

Homeworld 3 ends up as a reasonably worthy follow-up to the earlier games in the series and I ended up preferring it to Homeworld 2, at least in terms of gameplay. The story is one of the weaker in the series, replacing the epic themes and scope of the original games with something more rooted in a smaller number of individual characters. I am also not in love with the cliffhanger ending, which teases a sequel or later expansion that might never come.

The single-player campaign is also startlingly short. Yes, in 2003 you could get away with a single-player campaign that was 10 hours or less in a full-price game. But it's not 2003 any more. The multiplayer and skirmish modes are fine, but the WarGames mode is the game's secret sauce, being interesting and challenging with some stunning vistas and level design. That said, WarGames will probably, at best, double or triple the time investment of the campaign. I don't see it being something people will play for hundreds of hours on end. Although Homeworld 3 is obviously graphically far superior to 2017's Battlestar Galactica video game, Deadlock, that game did a much better job of combining a tense story campaign with dynamically-generated side-missions to create a much more engrossing campaign which gave the player more control of what was going on across not just a few hours but dozens of them.

Homeworld 3 (***½) should be of interest to established fans of the franchise and anyone who likes exploring the central core appeal of good science fiction, namely 1) the wonder of exploring the cold vastness of the cosmos and 2) having really big spaceships which explode in a cool manner. Whether the game is worth buying at full-price is a little bit questionable, given the extremely modest campaign length, but the WarGames mode is different and interesting, and is especially fun for co-op multiplayer. If you're a total newcomer to the franchise, you'll be better served by picking up a copy of Homeworld Remastered from Steam for a more modest price for a lot more content. The Homeworld franchise's return can be said to have been a success, but not an unqualified one.

The game is available now on PC.

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HOUSE OF THE DRAGON and RINGS OF POWER both get second season trailers

HBO and Amazon have dropped the trailers for their forthcoming sophomore seasons of their big fantasy shows at the same time.

Amazon opened proceedings by deploying Hot Elf Sauron:

The first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power can be best-summed as "okay but disappointing." Lots of potential, but mostly unrealised in the final product with some very strange plotting undercutting a killer premise and an apparent lack of trust in Tolkien's original story and timeline that makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place. Still, this might be worth watching for the insane Clark Kentness of nobody recognising Sauron because he's wearing a nice wig.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Season 2 hits Amazon on 29 August.

Not to be outdone, HBO dropped the trailer for their second season of Targaryen Royal Rumble a few hours later:

HBO know what their audience likes here: dragons, armies marching, some nice scenery and even some Stark teasing. Nice.

House of the Dragon Season 2 rolls onto the battlefield on 16 June.