Saturday, 16 January 2077

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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.

Friday, 1 July 2022

Stranger Things 4

March, 1986. Six months after the Starcourt Mall disaster, the town of Hawkins, Indiana is still struggling to return to normal. The gang who have repeatedly defeated incursions into our world from the parallel universe of the Upside Down are split between Hawkins and a new home in California, whilst Sheriff Jim Hopper is missing, presumed dead. However, a trail of clues leads Joyce Byers to realise he is still alive and in prison in the Soviet Union. A new spate of murders in Hawkins leads the authorities to believe a satanic cult is at work in the town, but the truth is that the Upside Down has once again found a way of worming into our world...and this time it wants to stay for good.

Back in 2016, Stranger Things felt like a breath of fresh air. A show rooted in nostalgia that also remembered to bring to bear some original ideas, some great characterisation and a soundtrack to die for. When it came back for the sequel, it took a cue from James Cameron by ramping up the visual effects, the stakes and the emotional throughline of the story to make something outstanding. For its third go-around, the show faltered a little with some silly storylines and some iffy characterisation (remember when Hopper suddenly turned into a massive arsehole for a whole season for no reason?), and a vague sense that maybe the writers were running out of ideas, but rallied at the finish to deliver something very enjoyable.

Going to the well for a fourth time is dangerous. You might come up with something so terrible humanity as a collective whole might recoil from any memory of it existing (or worse, or even worse). You might come up with something that is clearly stupid but also highly enjoyable. Or you could strike out and make something genuinely terrific.

For its fourth season, Stranger Things has decided to really up the ante. Which is a tall order since for both previous seasons it already upped the ante quite a bit. So this time around they smash through the absurdity barrier with budget (several episodes cost more than $30 million apiece), cast size (there are 20 regular and major castmembers, and around a dozen more with important roles) and episode length (the season finale is a bum-numbing two and a half hours, and only one episode is under 70 minutes). If Stranger Things was a network show with 44-minute episodes, its fourth season would be 17 episodes long, but condensed down into nine. It's a lot of television and a lot of show to watch.

The show does its best to pull off its huge scale by emulating The Lord of the Rings, which to be fair if you're going big or going home is definitely a good template to use. The season sets up a new, powerful and singular enemy with "Vecna" (not his real or assumed name, but part of the ongoing Dungeons & Dragons IP-referencing approach which Wizards of the Coast is absolutely loving) and our titanic cast has to split into three subgroups to deal with him and other assorted subplots the show has been generating. Team 1, consisting of Eleven, Will, Jonathan, Jonathan's wholly superfluous stoner friend and a visiting Mike, is out in California where the Byers clan is desperately trying to pretend that everything is fine. Joyce and Murray soon abscond, forming Team 2, who decide to embark on a two-person rescue mission to Kamchatka in the Soviet Far East to rescue the missing Hopper, who was (somehow) captured by the Soviets and taken to a prison. This is actually far more ridiculous than even a brief plot summary can do justice to.

Then, back in Hawkins, Team 3 (Dustin, Lucas, Max, Nancy, Steve, Robin, Erica and New Guy Eddie) get involved in investigating a series of grisly murders which, thanks to a nice tie-in with the real-life Satanic Panic that gripped Americans over Dungeons & Dragons (albeit several years later than in reality), get turned back on them and they find themselves in the frame for it. Obviously new big bad Vecna is behind these events and, once everyone gets on the same page, they decide to take the fight into Mordor the Upside Down to try to vanquish him once and for all.

It's a classic structure and it gives us the prodigious cast of characters - which at times it feels like even George R.R. Martin would frown over and make him reach for the murder pen - plenty to do, especially because the writers also continue giving each character personal crises, romances, thwarted crushes and challenges to overcome. This is all laudable - character development is obviously a good thing - but it does tie in to making this season stealthily almost twice as long as the first, and contributes to sometimes stodgy pacing and some very weird plot transitions. At one point three of our heroes are imprisoned and being systemically choked to death by evil tendrils of doom, and it's a good twenty minutes before the writers have rotated between other characters to get back to them, which is not great for tension.

What remains great are the performances. Previous seasons had put the lion's share of work on a few players, like Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour, but this season everybody knocks it out of the park. Caleb McLaughlin, who was ill-served by the last season, has a great arc and a fantastic emotional moment in the finale, Noah Schnapp gets an equally brilliant moment of emotional catharsis, Natalia Dyer gets a crowning action moment of awesome and Joe Keery gets plenty of fanservice moments which threaten to topple over into cheese, but his charisma keeps it on track. The MVP of the season is Sadie Sink as Max, who gets easily the season's most powerful scenes (with backup from Kate Bush) and maybe the most emotionally bruising ride for a character we've ever seen the show pull off. Only Charlie Heaton as Jonathan is left really hanging with nothing to do, and I think bringing back Matthew Modine as Dr. Brenner was a mistake since he has nothing really major to accomplish except to reiterate his love of making Eleven go through trauma and whine about how it's justified (especially as it means less time for Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens, who was basically Brenner's replacement). Yeah, we got that in Season 1, thanks.

It's to the show's credit that it manages to spin all these plates and move things forward, but the pacing is uneven and sometimes stodgy. I'd have been happy dropping entire subplots and characters if they serve no role here (give Charlie a year off, say he's at college and bring him back for the final season), and certainly condensing others. The Soviet storyline in Season 3 was ludicrous and its sequel in Season 4 is only marginally more interesting, with new arrival Tom Wlaschiha (late of Game of Thrones) doing some heavy lifting to keep this story vaguely compelling. Also, we already have an American Murray, I'm not sure why we need a Russian clone of him as well, who's even more annoying. The fact that the Joyce/Murray/Yuri side of the Russian story is played almost entirely for comedy whilst the Hopper/Enzo side of is played for gritty prison tropes and outright horror is also grating. Stranger Things has terrific form for balancing comedy and horror, but Season 4 definitely feels like it drops the ball a few times with tonal mismanagement.

Stranger Things does a lot right with its fourth season but it also does a lot wrong, particularly as it winds up. It's bum-numbing finale in particular feels off, recursively pushing a character to the brink of death and then wimping out at the last minute (the exact same character they did it to earlier), making sure that only guest stars or people we hate are killed off for real, and then deploying the exact same method of plot resolution that we already saw in previous seasons (it's not a massive spoiler to say that Eleven is involved). The only big shift here is the producers knowing that they have a fifth and final season greenlit already, so we actually get a full-scale cliffhanger this time around, one that does promise to go really big...but that's for a while down the road.

Stranger Things' fourth season (****) is still a big-budget spectacle, watchable and often fun, with great characters whom it's fun to spend time with. It also struggles to balance its huge cast and myriad subplots satisfyingly, and when given the opportunity to do something new or shocking, it decides to fall back on safely emulating tropes and repeating plot points from earlier, better seasons. But if the shine is starting to fade on the show (and ending it after five seasons feels very wise), there's still a lot here to enjoy. The season is now available in full worldwide on Netflix.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Amazon releases first trailer for PAPER GIRLS and confirms airdate

Amazon have released the first (short) trailer for their upcoming adaptation of the Paper Girls comic series.

The comic, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Cliff Chiang, ran from 2015 to 2019 and told the story of four teenage girls in 1988 who are inadvertently involved in a conflict between two groups of time-travellers. The resulting chaos sees them displaced to multiple time periods, meeting later versions of themselves and trying to stay alive whilst also ending the temporal war and restoring the increasingly fractured timeline. Along the way they also have to navigate more traditional coming-of-age problems.

The TV version of the story stars Sofia Rosinsky as Mac Coyle, Camryn Jones as Tiffany Quilkin, Fina Strazza as KJ Brandman and Riley Lai Nelet as Erin Tieng, with Ali Wong playing her older self.

Paper Girls lands on Amazon Prime Video on 29 July.

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Kyle MacLachlan joins the FALLOUT TV series

Kyle MacLachlan has signed up to join the cast of Amazon Prime's upcoming TV show based on the Fallout video game series.

MacLachlan has some solid genre cred, having played Paul Atreides in the 1984 movie version of Dune, Calvin Johnson in Season 2 of Agents of SHIELD and, most infamously, Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks and its movie and mini-series spin-offs. He is also well-known from films including Blue Velvet and The Doors.

Xelia Mendes-Jones (The Wheel of Time) and Aaron Moten (Mozart in the Jungle, The Night Of) have also been cast as regulars for the show. They will join the already-cast Ella Purnell (Yellowjackets, Arcane) and Walton Goggins (Justified).

None of the actors' roles have been divulged, although Goggins has been rumoured to be playing a Ghoul, a human turned into an immortal sort-of-zombie (but still intelligent) as a result of radiation exposure.

The Fallout TV show was developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (Westworld, Person of Interest) and is being showrun by Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Gotham City Sirens, Tomb Raider) and Graham Wagner (Portlandia, Silicon Valley). Production is started to start shortly for a 2023 debut.

The Fallout video game franchise began with Fallout (1997) and continued with Fallout 2 (1998), Fallout Tactics (2001), Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004), Fallout 3 (2008), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Fallout Shelter (2015), Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018). Fallout 5 was recently announced as being in the very early planning stages. The Fallout games postulate a limited nuclear war in 2077 which sees the Earth devastated but not destroyed, with humanity slowly recovering over the next 200 years and new factions arising to contest North America.

Because each Fallout game has a new setting and cast of characters, it's unclear if the Amazon TV show is doing the same thing - a new story and setting in the wider world - or if it will be more directly based on the games.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

RIP Shamus Young

Noted video game critic, modder and webcomic creator Shamus Young has sadly passed away.

Young was born in 1971 and first came to notice in the video game field in the 1990s, designing fan-made maps for Doom. During this period he created the 1995 map "Doom City," which attempted to create an urban environment in the Doom engine, and the 1996 campaign Phobos: Relive the Nightmare, a full nine-level game.

He began blogging and writing about video games and pop culture in the early 2000s, in particular calling attention to writing and how many modern games and movies ignore basic tents of good writing in service to spectacle, often disregarding logic along the way. He also focused on the development of new technology in video games, producing both blog entries and videos on things like raytracing, megatextures and the issues of developing for the famously fastidious PlayStation 3 architecture.

In 2006 he arguably achieved his biggest impact when he launched DM of the Rings, a comedy webcomic that re-imagined Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He used this format to provide alternate explanations for plot choices in the movies, such as Elrond teleporting to Theoden's camp to give Aragorn his sword because he forgot to do so before they left Rivendell. He used the format to comment on Tolkien's original story, Jackson's adaptation choices and the foibles of roleplaying. The format inspired several imitators, such as Darths & Droids which does the same thing (although far less concisely) with the Star Wars movie series.

Young later created the webcomics Chainmail Bikini and Stolen Pixels, and co-hosted the video game commentary series Spoiler Warning. He wrote two novels, The Witch Watch (2012) and The Other Kind of Life (2018), and a memoir, How I Learned (2011), focusing on how he was declared "learning disabled" as a child but overcame adversity to work in the video game field.

Young was also infamous for his lengthy, erudite and witty essays critiquing video game storylines in unusual depth. His analysis of all four Mass Effect games became so huge and renowned that he assembled it into a book, Mess Effect: A Nitpicker's Guide to the Universe That Fell Apart, in 2021.

Young passed away on 15 June from cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife Heather and three children, and will sadly be missed.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

2183. Twenty-five years have passed since humanity discovered it was not alone in the universe. The Milky Way is dominated by the Citadel Council, a multi-species authority that seeks to limit conflict and war and promote peace and trade. One soldier now stands ready to become the first human Spectre, an elite agent with the authority to destroy threats to galactic peace. But their first mission uncovers evidence of a rogue element in the Spectre ranks, and evidence that a powerful, ancient threat is returning to the galaxy after fifty thousand years. With the Council not ready to face this truth, it falls to Commander Shepard to recruit a crew of like-minded allies and expose this new threat.

Yeah, get used to seeing these, Shepard.

If video games are about fulfilling fantasies, BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy offers one of the most compelling in the history of the medium: you are Commander Shepard, Space Adventurer. Your surname is set in stone but otherwise you can determine your Shepard's gender, appearance, abilities, sexuality and personality. You then guide your Shepard through a lengthy quest to save the galaxy, but it's up to you how you do it. You can be the ultimate hero, a paragon of honour and justice, or you can be a brutal, sarcastic antihero. Or maybe you just wing it as the fancy takes you. Depending on your deeds and words, entire civilisations will be destroyed, trusted friends may be betrayed or left for dead, and the fate of trillions of lives hang in the balance.

Most RPGs released since the trilogy have been open-world games, offering freedom in allowing you to travel across a vast landscape and mix and match quests and activities, but none have offered narrative freedom and control in this manner. You can see why, as well. It's very hard to pull off, and even BioWare themselves have shied away from trying to do it again. Their Dragon Age series has offered some of the same ideas of narrative control, but constantly changing protagonists and drastically changing locations between games has minimised the same kind of impact.

Where you command your ship from, and spend a lot of time searching for new worlds to visit in your bouncy tank.

The Mass Effect trilogy is really one immense game split into three for length and pacing reasons, and the Legendary Edition of the trilogy combines them for the first time into one cohesive package. Every bit of DLC is also included (one optional expansion for the first game excepted, which almost everyone ignored first time around anyway) and all three games have been given graphical spruce-ups and had their load times drastically improved. The first game has also had its combat revamped to better match the latter two games in the series. The result is now the best way to experience the trilogy, certainly for newcomers, and seasoned hands will find a more streamlined experience as well.

Martin Sheen plays the main human antagonist and has a blast in the process.

The trilogy's most vital feature is that you get to create your character and take them through all three games, carrying all their decisions with them to make for one epic story. The trilogy is ostensibly made up of roleplaying games, although it ends up being more of an RPG-shooter hybrid. All three games are separated into non-combat areas, where you can pick up missions, engage in dialogue and diplomacy and usually some shopping, and mission levels, which are linear maps where you usually make your way to an objective and shoot very large numbers of people along the way. The most important stuff usually happens in the non-combat zones, where you can guide Shepard through conversations using a radial dial and picking your responses. You can also gain "Paragon" and "Renegade" responses by picking kind or aggressive replies respectively. Increase your Paragon and/or Renegade scores and you can unlock special replies, which can sometimes allow you to avoid combat by defusing situations or intimidating an opponent into backing down. This is usually where you'll decide what kind of Shepard you can be, either a hero or an antihero (you can't really be a villain) or some kind of middle ground, although those trying to have their cake and eat it may find they're locked out of the special replies on both ends of the spectrum.

"Earth!?! Where are we?"

Combat sees you deploy Shepard and two companions and fight in third-person. Combat is inspired by the Gears of War series, with lots of conveniently-placed, chest-high walls to hide behind and fire off shots at the enemy. Combat in the first game is fairly forgettable, improves sharply in the second game and reaches its best in the final title. You can focus on your own fight and let AI handle your companions, or you can pause and give them orders mid-combat. The three games do handle difficulty differently, so I found that Mass Effect 2 could sometimes be challenging on Normal whilst Mass Effect 3 could occasionally feel a bit too easy even on Nightmare, so tweaking difficulty levels to find the right balance is key. However, given the important stuff happens in the dialogue scenes, combat can occasionally feel like a chore. Dropping the difficulty all the way to the easiest level makes combat trivial and allows you to get on with the story.

And it's the worldbuilding, story and characters where Mass Effect shines. Mass Effect is nothing too original - imagine 1990s SF TV classic Babylon 5 mashed up with the 2003 Battlestar Galactica and you're about 90% of the way there - but it almost gleefully mixes and matches its inspirations to create something very enjoyable, if occasionally familiar. The alien races are all memorable and have their interesting foibles and cultural tics, like the third-person-referring Hanar or grumpy space dwarf Voluses, or the Elcor, whose lack of facial expressions and monotonous voices means they have to patiently explain their current emotional state at the start of every sentence. The backstory, painting humanity as newcomers on the galactic stage who are still a bit paranoid about aliens but who are also rising fast in power and influence, angering older galactic civilisations, is also rich and interesting.

Tali, kickass space engineer and one of your best friends in the series.

The in-game story is also excellent, with you initially chasing down a rogue Spectre who has allied to a renegade race of mechanoids. The stakes get bigger and busier, and you eventually have to sacrifice a trusted friend and pull a gun on another when your relationship goes south. Eventually you discover the real threat, a Cthulhu-esque nightmare of techno-horrors from beyond the dawn of time, and have to fend off their first incursion into the galaxy with a massive space battle and a desperate battle up a burning skyscraper...and that's all in just the first game!

The story ranges far and wide across the galaxy, although players are often baffled by the turn it takes in Mass Effect 2. Trying to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that there is a two-year gap between the events of the first two games and Shepard's warnings of the return of the Reapers have been disregarded by the Council, forcing them to join forces with a human separatist organisation with a dubious moral past but who have the massive resources needed to take the fight to a new enemy, the Collectors. The game feels like a huge side-quest from the main story arc, but it's also immaculately structured, with Shepard having to assemble a (more or less literal) Dirty Dozen of specialists in various fields, win their trust and then mount an all-out assault on the Collector home base. The brilliance of Mass Effect 2 is how closely it focuses on your relationship with the various characters: mess up your recruitment jobs and you may find some candidates will not help you, or may stab you in the back, or are so disillusioned with you that they will be killed in the final battle. Mass Effect 2 is distinctly odd when looked at in the grand context of the trilogy but it's a brilliant game in its own right.

One of the problems with facing cosmic techno-horrors from the beyond the dawn of time is that every other side-villain in the trilogy comes across as a time-wasting prat. This guy takes that to another level.

Mass Effect 3 then becomes an all-out war story, with you right in the middle of a desperate battle for survival with entire planets falling and burning, and a desperate resistance being organised against ridiculous odds. This may sound familiar, but really, Mass Effect 3 does an almost unmatched job of putting you in a ludicrously overwhelming situation and forcing you to make very tough decisions on which the fate of the galaxy will depend. It's enough to almost make you forgive the infamously divisive ending, which tries to bring the preceding ~95 hours of great storytelling to a satisfying close and can't quite manage it. It works and more or less fits the themes of the trilogy, but it also does feel like some of the unknowable mystery set up by the first game has been dissipated by lengthy exposition scenes in the third.

The Mass Effect's trilogy's ace card is its cast of characters. BioWare had superb casts of fun characters in earlier games, all the way back to Minsc and Boo in the venerable Baldur's Gate, but it was in Mass Effect where they really nailed it. Almost every character is excellently-written, superbly-acted (Mass Effect may have cumulatively the greatest voice cast and vocal performances of any video game series, ever) and given motivations and backstory that allow you to understand where they're coming from. A few characters are a bit on the bland side - Ashley, Kaidan, Vega, Jacob - and a couple don't feel like they really fit into a Paragon-based crew (Zaeed) or a Renegade-based one (about half the rest), but overall they're a great bunch. And of course Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Liara and Javik are among the best, most entertaining AI companions you could wish for in any game. There's also a few who might annoy at first or don't appear to do much, but gradually reveals themselves to be great picks (Jack, Samara, EDI, Grunt). Forging friendships or even romances with these characters, or encouraging hook-ups between their ranks, is amusing.

It's never revealed how much Shepard is paid for their troubles, but it's clearly not enough as this side-hustling advertising gig indicates.

So far, so good. But there are some issues. The first is that having all three games and their DLC in the same package creates some weird pacing problems, particularly in how you access the expansion missions. Arrival should really only be done after the final mission in Mass Effect 2 (it acts as a bridge to Mass Effect 3), but it's possible to trigger the mission a lot earlier and it fits very awkwardly into the timeline if you do that. Similarly, the Citadel expansion to Mass Effect 3 should be done as late in the game as possible to ensure you get to recruit the largest possible cast of characters from all three games for a reunion, but the lighthearted, comedic tone of the expansion fits awkwardly alongside the increasingly grimdark-AF atmosphere as the trilogy moves towards it conclusion.

There's also a lot of stuff that the games don't tell you that a newcomer should really know, like how regularly touring the ship between missions can unlock new conversations with your companion characters and open up opportunities to gain Renegade or Paragon points, or unlock new missions or "war assets" for use later on in Mass Effect 3 (Legendary Edition carries forwards more decisions from the first two games to help you in the third).

If you immediately got this Baldur's Gate reference, you are automatically a person of taste and refinement. Well done.

There's also the fact that although BioWare tinkered with how the OG Mass Effect works, they don't bring it fully in line with the other two games. Mass Effect is an RPG with a shooter combat mode, whilst Mass Effect 2 and 3 are much more shooters with RPG conversations. The difference is that Mass Effect has non-combat skills and more areas where combat and conversations mix, whilst the other two games only have very modest skill trees and much more clearly delineate their non-combat and combat areas. Mass Effect feels a bit out of keeping with the other two games and not fully integrated into how most of the series works, so the unified experience of playing all three games remains uneven (although less on this time around).

There's also the issue with minigames. Mass Effect 1 and 2 have laborious minigames for lockpicking and hacking, which are both tedious and should be dumped. Mass Effect 3 swaps them out for it simply taking a while and having to make sure nobody's shooting at you at the time. All three games also have an exploration mechanic which they handle differently. Mass Effect 1 has you driving around planets in the Mako, an inexplicably bouncy tank, looking for minerals and (very rarely) shooting bad guys. There's also identikit buildings - seriously, it's worse than Dragon Age II - you can sometimes clear out of enemies and loot. Exploring all these optional planets takes forever (literally 50% or more of Mass Effect 1's total playtime if you're going for an exhaustive run) and isn't much fun.

You will be doing this a lot.

Mass Effect 2 ups the ante with mineral scanning, which means you sit in orbit around planets and move the mouse around looking for minerals. It sounds and plays very dull, but is important to build up minerals for the final battle in the last game. Again, if you go for an exhaustive, 100% playthrough you will probably spend at least five hours accruing far more resources then you will ever need.

Mass Effect 3 has a much faster and more modest scanning game where you go looking for war assets to use against the Reapers. It's a bit more hit and miss, but it's fun to track down missing fighter squadrons or a damaged cruiser which can they rejoin the fleet for the final battle.

By the third game, even villains are stopping to tell Shepard how awesome they are before trying to kill them.

Another issue is that some storylines have not aged gracefully. Various cliches like genius autistic characters (who are then subjected to abuse and torture), wish-fulfilment hot alien space babes (some of the costume choices in the game were corny when the games came out, let alone now) and villains who are villains because villains rear their head from time to time and will make you roll your eyes as often. The games do improve immensely over this, sometimes fast enough for the third game to mock some of the decisions from the first.

Frozen Prothean soldier Javik is a very late addition to the crew (only appearing in the third game) but a superb one, with his bewildered disbelief at the state of the galaxy thanks to "primitive races" of his time being a constant source of comedy.

The biggest weakness of the trilogy is probably how it is divided into distinct "roleplaying" and "shooting" modes. The meat of the game is in the roleplaying sections and the shooting can sometimes feel rote and phoned in, a simple way of adding "more gameplay" to the series. The more hardcore RPG fan, especially those familiar with BioWare's earlier Knights of the Old Republic SF RPG, will bemoan the way tactical, squad-based combat has transformed into real-time twitch shooting. The games sometimes awkwardly move between the two modes and it can be odd seeing a Paragon Shepard extolling the value of all life and then five seconds later is gunning down forty enemies in rapid succession, gaining achievements for the number of people they massacre and set on fire. At its weakest, the trilogy can feel like a very-well written and characterised adventure game that is broken up by an shooting gallery minigame. Combat does improve across the three games, although the ability to split "run," "cover" and "use" into three different commands would make things even better.

It takes a while, but eventually Mass Effect delivers some outstanding CGI space battles.

If you've never played the Mass Effect trilogy before, then Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (****½) is an easy sell. One of the greatest video game stories ever told with one of the single finest casts of characters in video game history, with some genuine weight and consequence to your decisions. The workmanlike combat and tedious minigames can be borne for the sake of just spending time in this excellent world, and the negatives do generally clear up as the trilogy continues. If you're already a hardened Mass Effect fan, than Legendary Edition clears up some inconsistencies, puts all three games in a handy launcher, smooths out the process of carrying your character and decisions through all three titles and adds graphical and control improvements that make the experience just more enjoyable. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is available now on PC, PlayStation and Xbox.

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Scott Bakker's brother shares some insights from the D&D campaign that created the world of Earwa

Scott Bakker's brother Bryan has shared some insights into the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons campaign that resulted in the creation of the world of Earwa, the setting for Scott's Second Apocalypse series (subdivided into the Prince of Nothing trilogy and Aspect-Emperor quartet).

Artwork by the excellent Jason Deem (aka Spiral Horizon)

He includes some reminiscences about the games they played as kids, some maps and illustrations, and even a poem that arose from their gaming. It's interesting seeing standard D&D races like gnomes existing alongside well-known Second Apocalypse names like Scylvendi and Mekeritrig.

At the end, Bryan shares some thoughts on Scott's radio silence for the last couple of years and the prospect of future books in the series. Famously, Scott was debating on whether leaving The Unholy Consult as the last word on the series, as he'd originally planned, or proceeding with a concluding duology/trilogy. That debate still seems unresolved.
For those interested in the now, some have commented on the fact that Scott has been quiet online in recent years. Suffice it to say he has gone through a lot. His singular focus right now is raising his daughter and building his family's future.

As for the future of the series, I've heard him say two things, over the years, about how the Second Apocalypse should end:

One was that there would be a third trilogy outlining the blow by blow of 'you know who's' rise. I know outlines exist for such a story, but just outlines.

The other is that the story is finished. That 'The Unholy Consult', is a fitting way to end a sprawling epic about the death of meaning.

For my part, I can't help but to think that this massive story was where Scott's creative life began and, it would not surprise me if, after his real life trials are complete, he doesn't return to it, before the end.

Like a favourite old coat - warm and comfortable - and smelling of sulfur (:

Sometimes, life does come full circle.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Stephen Strange has helped save the universe from Thanos, but finds his life at home unsatisfying. He has renounced the title of Sorcerer Supreme in favour of Wong to focus on research. The arrival of a young woman, America Chavez, who can travel between dimensions at will, sees Doctor Strange seek the help of Wanda Maximoff, only to discover that she is now the Scarlet Witch, a magical being of incredible power, who wants America's power to be reunited with her children. Horrified, Doctor Strange must take part in a desperate battle to save America and, if possible, Wanda from her new alter-ego.

Way back when, the powers that be very nearly let Edgar Wright direct Ant-Man but then bottled it, apparently scared that Wright's idiosyncratic, highly-identifiable style would be out of keeping with the Marvel Cinematic Universe's fairly pedestrian directing paradigm. Since then, the Marvel movies have kept to a fairly solid "house style" that allows moments of flair or entertainment, but little in the way of identifiable soul.

Until they hired Sam Raimi, that is. The horror auteur behind the Evil Dead trilogy (and its spin-off television series), numerous one-off hits, the Hercules and Xena TV shows and the OG Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi is known for his terrific visual flair and alternating moments of gross-out horror and laugh-out-loud comedy (sometimes in the same scene). And it's abundantly clear here that absolutely nobody was going to put training wheels on Sam Raimi. The 62-year-old director very clearly had an absolute blast making this film, with a riotous energy that harks right back to his forty-year-old horror classic, The Evil Dead.

Marvel do manage to keep the film within the MCU mythos, with writer Michael Waldron doing his best to tie elements from the original Doctor Strange with the Infinity War/Endgame duology with the recent Disney+ show WandaVision, which was still shooting when work on Doctor Strange 2 began. He also wrote and produced Loki, another show which helped introduce the concept of the Multiverse into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And of course he also has to keep the film comprehensible to the casual audience who like seeing Benedict Cumberbatch magic bad guys into oblivion but don't want to keep the MCU Wiki on standby on their phone to look up obscure lore every few minutes.

This combination of Waldron's continuity-heavy script and Raimi's deranged directorial style, somehow, works well. The heavy-hitting cast do excellent work, with Cumberbatch as accomplished as ever as Strange and returning hands Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams all bringing their A-game. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez also gives an infectiously enjoyable performance as America Chavez, despite getting lost in the mix in the latter part of the movie.

The visuals are impressive and in fact work on two levels. The film employs imaginative and impressive CGI (the goofy-but-lethal monster Gargantos is entertaining) but Raimi also sees nothing wrong with grabbing a handheld and hiding behind the bannisters like he's a 20-year-old kid making a movie in a cabin in the woods with his friends. The sheer number of shout-outs to the Evil Dead trilogy borders on silly at times (with zombie versions of the main characters, the signature "dead rising" hand move and the traditionally welcome Bruce Campbell cameo), but the visual style elevates Multiverse of Madness into the upper tier of Marvel movies.

The horror scenes might be a turnoff to younger viewers, though, and I wasn't quite prepared for how dark and grim the film was prepared to go with some concepts and ideas. The film usually peppers comic interludes through the story to lighten the mood, but I'm not sure how much help that will be with very young kids. Some parental advisory is warranted here for those who'd normally let their kids watch the latest Marvel project without any qualms at all.

I can see how the film's crazy and unique directorial tone may have put off some who'd gotten used to the MCU's predictability, but it's to the franchise's credit that even twenty-eight films into the series (putting it ahead of James Bond even including the non-canon films) that they're willing to take a risk here that pays off. Indeed, the film's main weakness is maybe also Raimi's traditional one, namely a messy ending which indicates he wasn't quite sure where to leave things (complete with requisite multi-end-credits sequences to tee up future films, of course).

Otherwise Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (****½) is a never-boring, always-entertaining head-trip through comedy, horror and gonzoid SF weirdness, and a shot in the arm to an MCU that, on film anyway, feels like it's been drifting for a few instalments. The movie is available to watch worldwide now on Disney+.

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Wednesday, 22 June 2022

SHADOWRUN RPG trilogy released on console

It's taken a remarkable amount of time, but the Shadowrun RPG trilogy has finally arrived on console. Shadowrun Trilogy: Console Edition launches today on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox S/X and Nintendo Switch, as well as Xbox Game Pass.

Despite being called a trilogy, these three game are actually independent, self-contained titles. In each game you create a new character in the Shadowrun setting - think of a mash-up of Dungeons & Dragons and cyberpunk, with fantasy races and magic existing in a technologically-advanced near-future - and then embark on a story packed with puzzles, companion characters, dialogue and turn-based tactical combat.

The three games are Shadowrun Returns (aka Dead Man's Switch), Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Each game takes around 15-20 hours to complete, rather more if you go for a completionist playthrough, and they are all well worth your time.

New Middle-earth book announced for 2022

A new Middle-earth book is on its way. The Fall of Númenor will be published on 10 November 2022 and will recount the events of the Second Age of Middle-earth, accompanied by new artwork by popular Tolkien artist Alan Lee.

The book will be published an impressive forty-nine years after the death of J.R.R. Tolkien and almost three years after the death of his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien, who had been entrusted with the maintenance of his father's legacy after his death. Christopher published almost every single word his father ever wrote on Middle-earth, from the semi-complete story of The Silmarillion through numerous early drafts, incomplete short stories and esoteric worldbuilding essays on the most minor facets of live in Middle-earth. Much of this material was assembled in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series and books like Unfinished Tales. A further volume, The Nature of Middle-earth, was published in 2021 with Carl F. Hostetter as editor. This book included more previously unpublished material by J.R.R. Tolkien and was produced with Christopher Tolkien's permission and approval.

This volume appears to contain no "new" information in the form of previously-unpublished material by Tolkien. Instead, it appears to contain all the narratives that Tolkien wrote about the Second Age, assembled into one handy volume. This will likely include The Akallabêth, the closing part of The Silmarillion dealing with the fate of the island kingdom of Númenor; the "Second Age" section of Unfinished Tales which contains an incomplete short story, "Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife," as well as a detailed genealogy of the kings and queens of Númenor and a map of the island; and the "Second Age" material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. There is also some material in the History of Middle-earth series which may be included.

The book is clearly intended as a tie-in with Amazon Prime's The Rings of Power television series, which is set in the Second Age and is concerned with elements including the forging of the One Ring and the rise and fall of Numenor. That TV show hits screens on 2 September.

The Fall of Numenor is not the first "greatest hits" repackaging of material from less-accessible, scholarly works into an easier-to-read format. Christopher Tolkien himself re-edited material from those books into three narrative tomes aimed at the layman: The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018). The Fall of Númenor follows in that tradition.

The book is edited by Tolkien scholar and expert Brian Sibley, who previously wrote the early 1980s BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and served as a consultant on the Peter Jackson movie trilogy, penning several of the tie-in "making of" books, returning in that capacity for the later Hobbit trilogy. He also wrote the booklets accompanying John Howe's "maps of Middle-earth" series in the 1990s.

This book does mark a minor bit of history in Tolkien publishing, being apparently the first Middle-earth book to have been assembled and published without the permission or approval of either J.R.R. or Christopher Tolkien (although I suspect the latter would not have been entirely opposed, given his previous work). Tolkien fans will now be wondering what the future may hold in terms of similar "fixup" works being put together from other sources.