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.

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Ian Cameron Esslemont's new MALAZAN novel finally gets a release date...and controversial cover art

After numerous delays, Ian Cameron Esslemont's new Malazan novel finally has a release date. Forge of the High Mage (previously called The Jhistal) is the fourth novel in his successful Path to Ascendancy prequel series, telling the story of the forging of the Malazan Empire. It will be published on 6 April 2023.

However, it's the novel's cover that has generated some harsh criticism. The artwork is a bit weird and off-centre, and more than a few observers have said it is clearly AI-generated (with the hastily-Photoshopped compass and telescope being particularly notable). AI-generated artwork has boomed over the summer with the launch of several apps which see computers generated images based on just a few keywords, with results ranging from excellent to poor. The rise of AI artwork has been cited as a threat to the livelihood of actual human artists, many of whom were already struggling from decreasing pay as publishers attempt to reduce overheads.

The publishers have not yet commented on the origin of the artwork and it will be interesting to see if it turns out this was an original painting after all (it does have some hallmarks of regular Malazan cover artist Steve Stone).

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS to get two new novels to tie in with upcoming movie

Dungeons & Dragons is getting back into the novel market, at least tentatively, with two new novels commissioned to celebrate the release of the feature film Honor Among Thieves in March.

The two books are called The Druid's Call and The Road to Neverwinter, written by E.K. Johnston and Jaleigh Johnson respectively. Both books are set in the Forgotten Realms world, as is the movie, and will be set before the events of the film. The Druid's Call tightly focuses on the character of Doric, the tiefling druid we saw wildshifting into an owlbear in the trailer, whilst The Road to Neverwinter explores how the rest of party got together and headed for Neverwinter in the first place, and is a much more direct prequel to the film.

E.K. Johnston is a newcomer to the franchise, having previously written a series of stand-alone novels and contributing to the Star Wars setting with the novel Ahsoka (2016) and an additional trilogy. Jaleigh Johnson is a D&D and Forgotten Realms veteran, with five previous novels in the setting to her name: The Howling Delve (2007), Mistshore (2008), Unbroken Chain (2010), The Darker Road (2011) and Spider & Stone (2012).

More than two years ago, I noted the bizarre decision by Wizards of the Coast to terminate the extremely lucrative D&D fiction line several years earlier. Starting in 1984 and running until 2016, first TSR and then Wizards of the Coast published some 623 novels and short story anthologies set in the various Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings. These books shifter vastly in excess of 100 million copies (probably closer to 200 million) and made best-selling superstars of R.A. Salvatore and the team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, whilst authors like Paul S. Kemp, Elaine Cunningham, Troy Denning and Forgotten Realms creator Ed Greenwood did very well indeed. The novels were credited with bringing hundreds of thousands and possibly of millions of people into playing the D&D tabletop game.

However, Wizards of the Coasts' corporate overlords, Hasbro, were apparently always unhappy with running a publishing arm, despite it being an incredibly successful one, as it did not fit in with their core business model focusing on toys and games. After the launch of D&D 5th Edition in 2014, they decided to terminate the publishing business and switched instead to licensing their worlds to third-party publishers. But the cost of the licence was so extortionate that publishers felt it was not worth the effort of publishing authors even like Paul Kemp, Elaine Cunningham and Ed Greenwood, who were usually guaranteed at least a hundred thousand sales in hardcover and much more in paperback and ebook (and these are not chump figures at all). Only R.A. Salvatore seemed worthwhile, and between the end of 2016 and just a couple of months ago, the only D&D-branded novels still coming out were additions to Salvatore's Legends of Drizzt series, with two new trilogies being published. A couple of months ago, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman joined the party with the first book in a new Dragonlance trilogy.

Whether this is a limited marketing event solely related to the film coming out, or it might be the first signs of a wider publishing effort to bring more D&D novels to the shelves, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

CD Projekt Red announce multiple new WITCHER games, new IP and CYBERPUNK 2077 sequel

CD Projekt Red have confirmed they have a lot more Witcher games coming down the pipe in future, committing to no less than five new games, as well as the first game in a new IP and a sequel to Cyberpunk 2077.

The already-announced project is code-named "Polaris," although in reality it's being informally called The Witcher 4. The game picks up after the events of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its expansions; is a large-scale, open-world CRPG; will probably not focus on Geralt as the main character (based on previous statements); will use the Unreal 5 Engine; and is the beginning of a new Witcher trilogy. The game currently has 150 people working on it internally at CDPR.

Obviously as part of that announcement, CDPR have also confirmed that effectively The Witcher 5 and 6 (though they probably won't be called that) are also in the planning. The plan is to release the two sequels at 3-year intervals after the initial release, which will be ambitious.

Alongside that is "Sirius," an "innovative take on The Witcher universe telling an unforgettable story for existing Witcher fans and new audiences." This game is being worked on the Molasses Flood, an American studio based in Boston which CDPR acquired a year ago. The developer is known for their survival and base-building games, The Flame in the Flood and Drake Hollow, suggesting this will not be an RPG but a different genre within the same world.

"Canis Majoris" is the final title and is, intriguingly, "a story-driven, single-player, open-world RPG set within The Witcher universe." It is being worked on by a 3rd-party studio led by ex-Witcher veterans from CDPR.

CDPR - perhaps unwisely given how this turned out last time - have also confirmed they are working on "Orion," a full sequel to Cyberpunk 2077. That makes sense since, despite its rocky launch, the original game has now sold over 20 million copies. Although not confirmed by CDPR, it's likely this game will also move to Unreal Engine 5. It has no title, though fans are inevitably already calling it Cyberpunk 2078.

This is in addition to Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, the major story expansion to Cyberpunk 2077 and the current primary focus for the company, with over 350 people involved. This title is set to launch in 2023.

CDPR have also teased "Hadar," a third, new IP project, which is in the very earliest prototyping stage.

Saturday, 1 October 2022

Blogging Roundup: 1 August to 30 September 2022

The Wertzone




Atlas of Ice and Fire

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Return to Monkey Island

Guybrush Threepwood, pirate adventurer, would-be nemesis of the ghost pirate LeChuck and implausibly successful wooer of the beautiful Elaine Marley, has finally worked out that, despite all of his adventures, he has never actually worked out what the Secret of Monkey Island actually is. Returning to his original stomping ground of Melee Island, he sets out on his new quest, only to learn with horror that LeChuck is already three steps ahead of him.

Released back in 1990, The Secret of Monkey Island almost immediately became acclaimed as one of the greatest video games of all time. Fiendish puzzles, funny writing, awful puns and the daftest protagonist name in gaming history combined to make a memorably brilliant, if rather short, game. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge followed a year later with a better story, more interesting puzzles, a much greater variety of locations and fantastic music. It also, infamously, had a very strange ending that left a lot of people scratching their heads.

That ending was never really resolved. The creative team behind the first two games, most notably lead designer and writer Ron Gilbert, left LucasArts and moved on. A separate team eventually made a third game in 1997, but wisely skipped past the ending to the second title and picked up some years later with only minimalist references to what happened in the meantime. The Curse of Monkey Island was a great game in its own right, despite the change in ownership. Escape from Monkey Island (2000) and Tales from Monkey Island (2009) followed, to a middling reception. Better-received were HD remakes of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2 in 2009 and 2010, which introduced them to a new generation and got people thinking about that crazy ending again.

Now the unlikely has happened: Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman have reunited to make Return to Monkey Island, a game that finally picks up after the ending of Monkey Island 2 and forges on. The new game also doesn't eject the others from continuity: having kinda explained the ending to Monkey Island 2, we fast-forwards a few years past all of Guybrush's other adventures to pick up on him returning to Melee for his new expedition. He and Elaine are now happily married and Elaine is running a campaign to eliminate scurvy from the Caribbean, leaving Guybrush free to take up his quest.

The first two-thirds or so of Return to Monkey Island is a journey which will trigger the nostalgia feels in players. This part of the game almost exclusively uses locations from the original title in the series, so once again you'll visit the SCUMM Bar, hang out at the Governor's Mansion and visit the Voodoo Lady for enigmatic advice, before visiting Monkey Island, falling off the overlook again and sneaking onto LeChuck's ship. But this is a melancholic form of nostalgia: Melee Island has had an economic crisis, a lot of the old businesses are shut down, and there's newcomers who don't recognise Guybrush or particularly care about him being a regular from years or decades before. There's still plenty of laughs here, but Return also examines its own status as a legacy sequel made years after the originals (not always the best of ideas) in a way that that is smart without vanishing up its own posterior.

The latter third of the game opens up and Guybrush gets to explore a series of new islands and locations never before seen in the series. This sequence feels somewhat briefer than it should be, possibly a budget issue or the decision they had almost too much material for one adventure game but not enough for two, so trimmed some things to keep it in the confines of one title. This has the unfortunate effect of meaning that the game is dominated by locations you've seen before, whilst the new and fresher material is crammed into a relatively brief part of the game towards the end, before we once again return to a familiar location for the grand finale.

But ultimately it works. The puzzles are fine, not too obtuse apart from a couple of eye-rollers (a built-in hintbook pretty much means you never need to look up online solutions, although the game encourages you to use it as little as possible), and the story is entertainingly told, with that undercurrent of melancholic nostalgia running through it to make it more interesting. 

Return to Monkey Island (****½) is, improbably, excellent. Once you get over the stylised new art direction, it works really well and the music is fantastic. Creatives in their fifties revisiting the scene of their greatest hit from their twenties could have gone badly wrong, but Return to Monkey Island emerges as far smarter, funnier, emotional and engaging than it really should. Even if its own ending does definitely skim around the edges of taking the mickey, but it does earn it. The game is available now on PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch.

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

Netflix's AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER remake in post-production, announces remainder of main cast

Shooting on Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender remake wrapped a few months ago and the series is deep in post-production. Netflix have now chosen to reveal the rest of the main cast from the series.

The full announced cast (including previously-announced roles) now comprises:

Main Cast
  • Gordon Cormier as Aang, the Avatar.
  • Kiawentiio Tarbell as Katara.
  • Ian Ousley as Sokka.
  • Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko.
  • Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as General Iroh.
  • Daniel Dae Kim as Fire Lord Ozai.
The Avatars
  • Yvonne Chapman as Kyoshi, a prior incarnation of the Avatar.
  • C.S. Leek as Roku, a prior incarnation of the Avatar.
  • Meegun Fairbrother as Kuruk, a prior incarnation of the Avatar.
The Southern Water Tribe
  • Casey Camp-Horinek as Gran-Gran, matriarch of the Southern Water Tribe.
  • Rainbow Dickerson as Kya, Sokka and Katara's mother.
  • Joel Montgrand as Hakoda, Sokka and Katara's father.
The Northern Water Tribe
  • Nathaniel Arcand as Arnook, the chief of the Northern Water Tribe.
  • Amber Midthunder as Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe.
  • Irene Bedard as Yagoda, a Northern Water Tribe healer.
  • A. Martinez as Pakku, a Waterbending master.
  • Joel Outlette as Hahn, a Northern Water Tribe soldier.
  • Sebastian Amoruso as Jet, the leader of the Freedom Fighters.
The Fire Nation
  • Ken Leung as Commander Zhao.
  • Elizabeth Yu as Princess Azula.
  • Momona Tamada as Ty Lee.
  • Thalia Tran as Mai.
  • Ryan Mah as Lieutenant Dang of the Fire Nation Navy.
  • Francois Chau as the Great Sage of the Fire Temple.
  • Hiro Kanagawa as Fire Lord Sozin.
The Earth Kingdom
  • Maria Zhang as Suki, commander of the Kyoshi Warriors.
  • Tamlyn Tomita as Yukari, Suki's mother.
  • Danny Pudi as the Mechanist, an inventor from the Earth Kingdom.
  • Lucian-River Chauhan as Teo, the Mechanist's son.
  • Utkarsh Ambudkar as King Bumi of Omashu.
  • Arden Cho as June, a bounty hunter.
  • James Sie as the Cabbage Merchant.
The Air Nomads
  • Lim Kay Siu as Gyatso, an Air Nomad.
  • George Takei as Koh the Face-Stealer.
  • Randall Duk Kim as Wan Shi Tong, the spirit who guards a great library.
It's notable that James Sie reprises his role as the Cabbage Merchant from the original animated television series, making him the only actor to play the same role in both versions. Daniel Dae Kim voiced General Fong and Hiroshi Sato on the original Avatar and The Legend of Korra, whilst George Takei memorably voiced the Warden on the original show ("Get me someone I haven't thrown overboard!").

Based on the characters announced, it looks like Netflix's Avatar will draw primarily on the first season (of three) of the animated series for its storylines, but some characters from Season 2 of the animated series will also be debuting early, such as Ty Lee and Mai. No casting has been announced for the fan-favourite role of Toph, making it more likely that, as in the animated series, she won't appear until a potential second season of the remake.

Netflix have not announced a release date for the show, but early 2023 seems like a reasonable bet at this time. Albert Kim is serving as showrunner and head writer.

Marvel's BLADE loses director just ahead of shooting

In surprising news, Marvel's new take on Blade has lost its director just two months before shooting was due to start.

Bassam Tariq (These Birds Walk, Mogul Mowgli) was hired to direct the film a year ago. The movie had not been on Marvel's radar, but actor Mahershala Ali had contacted them directly to propose starring in the film, which was then put into a fast turnaround. The film was teased with Ali debuting in an off-screen voiceover at the end of Eternals.

Marvel and Tariq have stated the split was amicable, with the reason for the split being changes in Marvel's schedule, suggesting that the filming dates may have shifted or Marvel may be considering a delay that would have clashed with another project the director had lined up. However, officially the movie's production still has a start date of November 2022 and a release date of 3 November, 2023.

Finding another director at such short notice who'll be willing to take over a script and pre-production they had no hand in, is going to be tough.

Age of Empires IV

The venerable real-time strategy series is back. A year ago, after a sixteen-year gap, Microsoft released Age of Empires IV, the latest in one of the most beloved strategy series of all time. It has a very strong heritage to live up to, so the question is if it has succeeded, especially with new franchise developers Relic coming on board. Relic have a solid pedigree, but their last game was the very underwhelming Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III, so a lot was riding on this game for them as well.

The answer to whether this game is a success is, "kind of." The first surprise is that, despite the name, Age of Empires IV is not a sequel. Up to this point the series has always proceeded linearly forwards in time: the original game covered the empires of antiquity, so Rome, Egypt etc, and the second covered the medieval period, whilst the third game took us into the Age of Sail and colonisation. You might be forgiven for thinking Age of Empires IV would take us forwards into the Napoleonic era. Instead, Age of Empires IV is a remake of Age of Empires II. Once again we're in the Middle Ages, and once again we're fighting the Battle of Hastings, guiding the Mongols across Eurasia and fighting the Hundred Years' War between England and France.

Age of Empires IV is perfectly adequate at doing that. As with prior games in the series, you usually start with a town centre and a bunch of villagers whom you can set to work on building up resources: food, wood, stone and gold. You then expand your settlement by adding blacksmiths, universities, markets, barrackers, archery ranges and so on, as well as watchtowers and walls. Age of Empires IV tweaks the formula, mainly by adding a secondary research facility known as the Arsenal and moving some upgrades around between buildings, but it does not significantly rework it. There are some features like now being able to station your units atop walls rather than just behind them, but mostly it's low key changes.

The 3D engine is nice but not a huge advancement on the 3D engines of Age of Empires III and the now-twenty-year-old spin-off, Age of Mythology. The graphics are in fact a tad disappointing for a 2021 release, especially since they are so inexplicably resource-hungry. My PC (16 GB RAM, 12 GB graphics card) which can handle Cyberpunk 2077 and Spider-Man with everything turned up to max (albeit only in HD), chugged regularly with the considerably more visually underwhelming Age of Empires IV. Also, not much is done with the 3D engine. You can zoom in and out a bit and spin the camera a bit and that's it. This isn't Total War or even the much more versatile 3D camera of Relic's own Company of Heroes series.

More baffling, given the modern graphics and physics at work, is a lack of features from older games. In earlier games in the series you got a damage bonus from being on higher ground, but that disappears in this game and both attack and defence bonuses are missing, meaning units on walls with cover are just as vulnerable as if they are standing exposed in a field, which is a bold choice for both a modern game and also for the developers who made RTS cover such a huge feature of their Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series. There's also no ballistic or physic tracking of arrows: arrows will automatically hit their target (even blatantly swerving in mid-air to hit them like a smart missile) even if the target is moving at speed, which is baffling. In earlier games keeping your army active and smartly moving was a key tactical skill, here it is entirely absent.

Balancing against that is somewhat greater factional differences. Earlier games were notorious for having very samey sides, with maybe one or two unique units and maybe a single unique building or upgrade. Age of Empires IV does go a bit more into making the sides different, with French cavalry being much more hard-hitting than anybody else's, whilst the English have superior longbows. Most interesting are the Mongols, who can pack up their entire base and move it around the map in a matter of seconds which can give rise to unorthodox strategies (a Mongol wonder that can heal all the units around it becomes a mobile field hospital). I do feel this is has been a tad exaggerated. The factions are still mostly very similar, certainly a long way from the balanced-but-asymmetric design of, say, the StarCraft games or even Relic's own Company of Heroes series.

Age of Empires IV does impress with its amount of content: the game ships with four complete campaigns (Normandy, Muscovy, France and the Mongols), eight civilisations, a robust single-player challenge mode, skirmish maps and of course multiplayer. Focusing on just the single-player content, I got about 40 hours out of the game, which is reasonable and a long way from those RTS games which ship with one campaign lasting maybe a quarter of that. Presentation is also excellent, especially the FMV movies which accompany the campaigns with lots of video footage of the actual locations, with CG imposed on top of the real topography to depict the battles. There's also bonus videos on things like how to make a bow and how different tactics developed. There's a nice history documentary feel to the game which is unique and intriguing.

Less appealing are the bugs: as well as the choppy performance, the game's autosaves are disruptive to gameplay. Units will often go into idle mode for no apparent reason: villagers in particular may need to be manually told to do something two or three times before they actually do it. You can't tell a villager to build a wall halfway across the map and expect them to do it, you have to manually watch over them to make sure they don't do 25% of the task and then just doze off (literally, as idle villagers now go to sleep standing up), which is infuriating. Individual missions also have a plethora of bugs, with triggers often not triggering, enemy units not showing up when they're supposed to, or taking some weird path that leaves 50 men wedged behind a bush. It's also concerning that many of these bugs remain extant in the game almost a year after release. There's also the lack of basic QOL features, like being able to easily assign WASD to camera controls.

Taken on its own merits, Age of Empires IV is perfectly fine (bugs excepted). It's safe, but the gameplay loop remains compelling and there's some interesting strategies to tease out. However, the game has to deal with a 500-ton elephant in the room called Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. This ultra-HD remake of Age of Empires II only came out three years ago and has seen three expansions released since then, the most recent only in April. Age of Empires II has less bugs, more responsive and easily customisable controls, a stronger interface, more focused gameplay and, although only being in isometric 2D, has sharper, more vivid and far better-performing graphics. It is also a more interesting tactic experience, with ranged weapons performing better from hills and tougher stone buildings (those in IV tend to collapse far too easily to just guys with swords and torches, even massive fortresses).

Age of Empires IV (***½) is solid, and will no doubt be expanded with interesting future content. But it's also a game that arrives being almost pre-redundant, since Age of Empires II Definitive Edition does almost everything that IV does in the same time period, but better, with less bugs and a far vaster amount of content, and will take you a lot longer to play through. The game is available now on PC.

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

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Marvel finally confirms DEADPOOL 3 for 2024, starring Deadpool and Wolverine

After several years with little news, Marvel has finally confirmed that Deadpool 3 will hit cinemas on 6 September 2024. Ryan Reynolds returns as the Merc With A Mouth and will have a new buddy: Hugh Jackman will reprise his role as Wolverine from the Fox X-Men movies.

Deadpool (2016) and Deadpool 2 (2018) were both released by Fox to critical and commercial success, with Reynolds' charismatic performance especially praised (specially after he played a mute version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009). Work on a third film was put on hold as Disney bought out Fox, with development resuming once the deal was completed. Deadpool is notable as the first Fox-originated franchise that will directly continue into the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity.

Hugh Jackman first played the role of Wolverine in X-Men (2000), reprising the character in X2 (2003), X-Men: Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011), The Wolverine (2013), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) and Logan (2017). As of Logan, Jackman shared the record with Patrick Stewart as Professor X for the longest period spent playing a Marvel character on screen. However, Stewart pulled ahead by portraying an alternate-universe version of the same character in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). Jackman reprising the role of Wolverine in Deadpool 3 would give him the record again.

Deadpool 3 will be directed by Shawn Levy (Free Guy, The Adam Project) and again written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, possibly with input from Reynolds (whose script contributions to the second film saw him get a writing credit). The film will still be rated R and apparently the plan is to segue between the Fox universe and the MCU in an interesting and amusing way, possibly helped by the multiverse concept in full play in the MCU at the moment.