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, 21 February 2020

Yet another STAR WARS video game cancelled

The Star Wars franchise is in a really weird place right now. The movies are on hiatus (again), but the franchise is taking off on television. The pen-and-paper roleplaying game from Fantasy Flight has been canned despite good sales, but the current books and comics seem to be doing okay. Most puzzling has been the way that Electronic Arts has mishandled the video games licence since acquiring it seven years ago, with the news that an open-world spin-off from the Star Wars: Battlefront series has now been cancelled as well.

In May 2013, Electronic Arts announced that it had joined forces with Lucasfilm to develop a new generation of Star Wars video games. Previous games had been developed either by LucasArts (Lucasfilm's video games division) or in partnership between LucasArts and a host of talented third-party studios, including Totally Games, BioWare, Obsidian Entertainment, Pandemic Studios and Raven Software. These had included well-received titles including TIE Fighter, Knights of the Old Republic, Dark Forces, Jedi Academy and Republic Commando.

EA had worked closely with Lucasfilm and LucasArts on The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer game developed by EA's subsidiary BioWare and released in 2011. EA confidently believed their roster of talented subsidiary studios could release a plethora of high-quality Star Wars video games over the succeeding years. At first EA considered continuing the two Star Wars games in development at Lucasfilm, namely First Assault and 1313. The former was an online multiplayer shooter, whilst the latter was a story-focused action game set in Coruscant's criminal underworld. The former was feature-complete and beta-ready, whilst 1313 was starting to come together in a satisfying manner after several years of false starts.

Ultimately EA decided to bin both games and set their own studios to work. BioWare would continue to work on developing The Old Republic, with an eye to developing a new single-player game further down the line, possibly Knights of the Old Republic III. However, that idea never made it very far as BioWare's next several projects (Dragon Age: InquisitionMass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem) all hit hugely troubled development periods themselves.

Next up was Visceral Games, where a story-focused Star Wars heist game entered development under Uncharted producer Amy Hennig. Simultaneously, Respawn Entertainment was set to work on a story-focused Star Wars shooter/action game and DICE was to work on resurrecting the classic Star Wars Battlefront multiplayer series.

Visceral and Respawn developed their projects in tandem until late 2017, when Visceral was shut down and its Star Wars game abruptly cancelled. The assets from the game were moved to EA Vancouver to develop a brand new "open world" Star Wars game, possibly a reaction to the success of open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher III and Grand Theft Auto V. What exactly a Star Wars "open world" game would look like was rather unclear, but it sounds like it would have involved bounty hunters and space travel between several regions on several different planets. This new game was cancelled in turn in late 2018.

Respawn's project pivoted away from being a straight shooter to being a more general action game, which may have been the reason for Visceral's game being dropped (the two projects sounded more distinct at the start but then became more similar). Respawn's buy-out deal with EA was apparently very generous towards Respawn and granted the company a degree of self-autonomy which EA's othr subsidiaries do not enjoy, explaining why the company got priority in this race. Respawn eventually released their games, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order last autumn to reasonably strong reviews.

EA Vancouver meanwhile set to work on a derivation of the Star Wars Battlefront series, potentially an open-world title which would have used the engine and systems of Battlefront but with a different focus, potentially similar to the relationship between the multiplayer Battlefield games and the single-player/coop-focused Bad Company and Hardline side-games. However, EA wanted the project for the release of the next-gen consoles in late 2020. When it became clear the game would miss that window, they cancelled it last year.

The result is that after seven years, five studios and untold hundreds of millions of dollars, precisely three games have actually been released: Battlefront (2015), Battlefront II (2017) and Fallen Order (2019). Avoiding total embarrassment, these games have sold very well: the Battlefront games have totalled over 24 million sales and Fallen Order has sold over 8 million copies in just two months on sale. But questions need to be asked about why so many promising games from talented developers have been canned and wrecked along the way.

Particularly interesting is the news that a Knights of the Old Republic reboot is in development at EA (but not with BioWare), along with a Fallen Order sequel at Respawn. The future roster of video games beyond that is doubtful at the moment, especially given that the EA deal reportedly expires in 2023, meaning that any game that started development right now is unlikely to be released before it expires.

Eli Roth and CHERNOBYL writer team up on BORDERLANDS film

Eli Roth, the director of films including Hostel, Cabin Fever and The House with a Clock in its Walls, is developing a film based on the Borderlands video game franchise from Gearbox Studios. Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin has written the latest draft of the script.

Borderlands is a science fiction first-person shooter series, noted for its offbeat humour and focus on co-operative team gameplay. The series so far consists of Borderlands (2009), Borderlands 2 (2012), Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014), Tales from the Borderlands (2014-15) and Borderlands 3 (2019). The series has sold 58 million copies to date, making it one of the biggest-selling video game series of the last decade.

The news has come in the wake of a change of fortunes for video game adaptations. Previously seen as a doomed endeavour, several recent video game-to-movie adaptations have enjoyed greater success than any previous attempts, including Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, whilst the Castlevania TV series on Netflix has enjoyed significant success.

The current plan is to fast-track Borderlands to start shooting later this year for a possible late 2021/early 2022 release date.

STAR TREK: PICARD proves a big hit for CBS All-Access

ViacomCBS - the newly-assimilated parent company of CBS - has confirmed that Star Trek: Picard has been a major hit for their streaming service, CBS All Access.

Building on the success of Star Trek: Discovery, which drove several million sign-ups to the service when it launched in 2017, Picard increased the sign-up rate even further.

CBS also confirmed it is continuing to develop the two new Star Trek series it has in pre-production - Section 31 and Lower Decks - and is developing two further projects. It is believed these projects include another animated series aimed at a more adult audience as well as a potential live-action TV series centred on Anson Mount's popular version of Captain Pike.

ViacomCBS is also developing a new Star Trek movie via its subsidiary Paramount Pictures. This film is believed to be the project headed by Noah Hawley and may involve an all-new cast of characters.

Star Trek: Picard runs until 27 March on CBS All Access in the United States and Amazon Prime in most overseas territories. Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery, with a major format shift propelling it into the far future, is expected to start airing in the summer. Section 31 and a second season of Picard are expected to start shooting in the coming weeks.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

London in the late 1970s. Punk rock has taken the UK by storm and Enn and his friends are fully immersed in the scene. They attend an arty party in the hope of picking up girls, only to find themselves in the middle of an alien incursion on Earth, and out of their depth.

What if aliens invaded Earth in the 1970s but were resisted by a group of punk rockers? This is the amusing premise which drives John Cameron Mitchell's 2018 musical comedy-drama, adapted from Neil Gaiman's very short story of the same name (published in 2006). Gaiman's story is only 18 pages long so the film takes the premise and expands it out over a much longer running time.

The film is centred on two characters, would-be punk musician Enn (Alex Sharp) and alien Zann (Elle Fanning), who finds the aliens' strict culture to be suffocating and runs off to explore human culture via a romance with Enn. The aliens are unimpressed and, led by Wain (Matt Lucas) and Stella (Ruth Wilson), they attempt to reintegrate their wayward child, leading to a fierce showdown between the two factions.

The movie is fun, playing on the bizarre culture of the aliens and the interspecies for romance for laughs, but it is not an outright comedy. It also plays into the idea of doomed teenage romance, parental expectations and the merits of freedom of the individual versus the good of the larger society. In this senses the film does fall into traditional punk cliches - the anarchic freedom of punk versus the stifling conformity of the aliens - but it handles them with enough wit and charm to be enjoyable.

The cast is excellent, including a superb turn by Nicole Kidman as punk mentor Boadicea, and His Dark Materials fans can have some fun by seeing two incarnations of Ms. Coulter (Kidman from the 2007 movie and Ruth Wilson from the current TV show) interact. The young castmembers have clearly done their 1970s homework and nail the period and its attitude quite believably. There's some good musical trivia and at least one stand-out musical number ("Eat Me Alive").

On the negative side, the film feels like it's only superficially covering the themes and it does suffer from occasional tonal whiplash, moving from comedy to romance to darker horror moments in a rather inelegant fashion, and the ending is perhaps a little too neat. But ultimately How to Talk to Girls at Parties (***½) is fun, doesn't outstay its welcome and diverting.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Blackbird Interactive announce HARDSPACE: SHIPBREAKER

Blackbird Interactive have announced the second game they have in development, alongside Homeworld 3. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a game where you salvage old spaceships, cutting them into pieces to gain resources.

If the game sounds vaguely familiar, it appears to be because Blackbird have recycled the idea from their first-developed game, Hardware: Shipbreakers. That game was a real-time strategy where the player salvaged crashed starships strewn over the surface of a desert planet. The game eventually transformed into Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, which retained the shipbreaking idea as a minor side-plot.

Shipbreaker will pick up on the idea but from a first-person perspective, in an original universe. The game appears to be a survival sim not dissimilar to titles like Subnautica, but with a somewhat more cynical edge.

The game will be published by Focus Home Interactive and will be developed on Steam Easy Access before final release.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

BALDUR'S GATE III to be released in 2020?

Larian Studios are currently developing Baldur's Gate III, a follow-up to the classic CRPG, Dungeons & Dragons duology from BioWare and Black Isle Studios. Thank to a leak, it looks like the game is aiming for a (probably late) 2020 release date.

The leak came from Google's online gaming service Stadia, which listed the game as one of several titles due for release on the platform in 2020. Although Stadia have withdrawn the announcement, the Internet of course never forgets.

Larian Studios have previously confirmed that there will be a big announcement related to the game on 27 February, which many have taken as likely when a release date will be announced, possibly along with a new trailer and more information on gameplay.

Relatively little is known about the game so far, except that it is a follow-up to the previous games in the series: Baldur's Gate (1998), Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) and Throne of Bhaal (2001). The game will not directly follow up the storyline of those games, instead beginning a new story in the city of Baldur's Gate some 120 years after the events of the previous titles. The game will be party-based and will utilise the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules. It is presumed, but not confirmed, that the game will use the same engine which drove Larian's own original RPGs, Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin II, and will be viewed from overhead. Other details, such as whether it will have real-time combat like the original games or turn-based like the Divinity series, remain unknown as this time.

Halo: Reach

AD 2552. The Covenant - an alliance of alien races bound together under a fanatical religion - have launched an attack on Reach, one of the largest colonies in the United Nations Space Command. Noble Team, a special operations unit composed of specially-trained soldiers known as Spartans, are deployed to halt the Covenant gaining vital intel on alien ruins that predate both their species and humanity, and to try to prevent the fall of Reach until reinforcements arrive.

Halo: Reach was originally released in 2010 and serves as a prequel to the other games in the Halo series, taking place immediately prior to the events of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. For its PC debut, as part of the Master Chief Collection (which will eventually see the entire Halo series released on PC, mostly for the first time apart from old ports of the first two games), Reach has been spruced up with more modern graphics but in terms of mission design and plot it's been left alone.

Approaching Reach fresh, it feels like a curious halfway house between real old-skool FPS games (the 1990s era, arguably running from Wolfenstein through Half-Life 2) and later, crushingly linear console-driven FPS games like the later Call of Duty games. Each level is somewhat open, allowing you to determine how to approach each objective as you see fit, but as the game was built to fit into the hugely restrictive memory of the X-Box 360, so these areas are not particularly large. This means you have the freedom on how to advance and engage the enemy, but this freedom means generally moving across spaces generously twice the size of a football pitch at time linked by lots of corridor shooting designed to hide loading screens, all of which is pretty defunct on modern PCs which could hold the entire game in active memory if necessary. The restrictive weapons loadout of the series is still in place here, meaning you can only carry two weapons at a time and have to switch weapons frequently due to somewhat bafflingly limited ammo capacity.

This mixing-and-matching of weapons on the fly is fun, although somewhat half-hearted; several times per mission you are given a generous opportunity to stop and rearm yourself as you see fit, meaning the "desperate battle against the odds, surviving with whatever weapons you can scavenge" angle never really kicks in. Halo: Reach pulls its punches in delivering a more compelling FPS experience than the standard.

In terms of story, the game is pretty straightforward although not massively driven by exposition. The game seems to assume familiarity at all times with the previous Halo titles (and even the spin-off novels; the book Halo: The Fall of Reach sets up a lot of the events of this game), which was fine when it was launched as a prequel but more of an issue in its remixed form as the first game in the series for modern gamers new to the franchise via the Master Chief Collection. Exactly who the Covenant are, what their objectives are and the significance of both Reach and the alien tech on the planet are all left extremely vague. Mission objectives rarely vary from the FPS standard: go here, shoot this enemy, push this button, watch this cutscene. Regarding the latter point, at least Reach is not obnoxious: cutscenes are usually brief, reasonably well-acted (although always cheesy) and don't outstay their welcome.

Although restricted in size and boiling down to being variations on the standard arena-corridor-warehouse-corridor-arena structure, the level design is usually decent and the game changes things up by introducing vehicle-only levels, including a fun and diverting side-level when it turns into a space combat sim. A later mission changes the game into a helicopter combat game which is also fun, but both side-games and the main mission suffer a little from being too easy; FPS games designed for controllers have to be a little more forgiving of reaction times and responses. When ported to mouse and keyboard, they can become trivial unless redesigned to accommodate the much faster action and responses allowed. Halo: Reach hasn't, exposing the less accomplished enemy AI. Enemy units are well-designed, but "tougher" units are too bullet-spongey, soaking up ridiculous amounts of ammo to hide an inability to make them more of a threat through AI or strategy.

Despite all of these problems, I had fun with Halo: Reach (***½). It's a junk food game which is enjoyable, easy, short (the game barely cracks six hours and can be easily finished off in one sitting) and easy to digest without doing anything really memorable. Its soundtrack is distinctly above average, the graphics are solid for a ten-year-old game (even if the overreliance on static backgrounds is a bit more obvious than it was on release), the controls are responsive and there's a plethora of fun multiplayer modes. However, it is still only a slight and diverting game.

The game is available now as part of The Master Chief Collection, and over the coming months should be joined by revamped versions of Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST and Halo 4 (and probably Halo 5: Guardians, but that's likely a bit further off).

Saturday, 15 February 2020

RED DWARF celebrates its 32nd anniversary

Red Dwarf, the greatest SF sitcom of all time, today celebrates its 32nd anniversary.

The series launched on BBC2 in the UK on 15 February 1988 and has run - somewhat intermittently - ever since. It has chalked up 12 seasons and 73 episodes in that time, a rather modest amount given its longevity, but fans have cited the show's slow rate of release as being helpful to its quality, with the writers and actors only reconvening when they feel they have some new stories to tell.

The premise of Red Dwarf is that the crew of the five-mile-long mining vessel Red Dwarf are wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. The sole survivors are Dave Lister, who had been sentenced to temporal stasis for smuggling an unquarantined cat onto the ship; the aforementioned cat, safely hiding in the cargo hold; and Holly, the ship's computer with an IQ of 6,000. Holly steers the ship out of the Solar system to avoid contamination and waits until the radiation clears...which takes three million years. Lister awakens to find himself probably the last human being alive. His companions are Holly, who has been driven slightly loopy through loneliness; a humanoid creature who is the last known survivor of a race which evolved from his cat; and a holographic recreation of Lister's pedantic and officious superior, Arnold Rimmer.

Over the course of the series, the premise remains constant but also evolves. Kryten, a service mechanoid, is rescued from a wrecked ship in Season 2 and joins the crew full-time in Season 3. In Season 7 the crew are joined by Kristine Kochanski, Lister's ex-girlfriend whom they rescue from a parallel universe (she disappears again by Season 9); whilst in Season 8 they temporarily resurrect the entire crew of the ship. The crew become more knowledgeable and skilled in space travel, but also make a number of powerful enemies, including genetically-engineered mutants and a race of killer androids.

The main reason for the show's longevity, aside from the charisma of the central cast, is that the show is a comedy which just happens to be set in an SF setting, rather than a comedy which takes the mickey out of science fiction (as all too many failed SF sitcoms do). In fact, the show has featured often cutting-edge SF ideas like nanobots, genetic engineering and black/white hole theory, sometimes taken fairly seriously (although often with amusing outcomes for the crew and the plot). The spin-off novels were particularly notable for being written just after the writers had absorbed A Brief History of Time, hence becoming the first SF novels to mix jokes about class warfare, curries and football alongside discussions of spaghettification and quantum singularities. The author of the latter, Stephen Hawking, was a huge fan of Red Dwarf.

Red Dwarf is due back on screens later this year with a 90-minute special which finally addresses arguably the show's biggest dangling plot thread, the fate of the rest of the humanoid cat species.

Here's to 32 years of adventures with the smegheads, and hopefully many more to come.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden & Seed of Evil

Several decades in the future. The world has been destroyed in an apocalyptic war and survivors are eking out an existence in the Zone, a nuclear and biogenetically-devastated wasteland in Scandinavia. Dux and Bormin are mutants, genetic freaks with the characteristics of humans combined with ducks and boars respectively. An innocent-enough mission, to gather fresh resources for their town, the Ark, spirals into a more epic quest which will lead them across the Zone in search of a missing ally, opposed by a crazed religious sect. Their mission will have unforeseen consequences for everyone living in the wasteland...

Mutant Year Zero is the latest iteration of the popular Swedish pen-and-paper Mutant and Mutant Chronicles roleplaying games, and Road to Eden and its expansion Seed of Evil are video games based on the pen-and-paper system. The game mixes elements of CRPGs, real-time action and exploration, and turn-based combat akin to the XCOM series. In practice the game comes across as a curious hybrid of Wasteland 2, Fallout, Freedom Force and XCOM and succeeds in unifying disparate influences into a compelling whole.

You start the game with only two characters - Dux and Bormin - but eventually recruit an additional four characters for a party of six, three of whom can be active at any one time. You can swap characters in and out of the party at any time (apart from mid-combat). Each character has a different set of mutations, effectively a series of powerful special abilities which can equalise the odds in combat. Each mutation has a cool down after use, usually requiring another 2-3 kills, before it can be used again, encouraging players to swap characters between battles to keep their abilities fresh. Equipment assignment is also essential..

The game has many of the trappings of an RPG, such as skill points and levels, but it's not really one. Instead your abilities are all focused purely on combat. There are no dialogue choices and the only thing you can do outside of combat and travelling is picking up scrap (the game's currency), weapon parts (used to upgrade weapons) and rare artifacts (used to upgrade all of your character's abilities at once). At any time you can retire to the Ark to upgrade equipment and buy new equipment, although this is surprisingly limited: you can't sell excess weapons or armour that is no longer needed, although you can break it down for weapon parts. Items are also extremely expensive, even at the end of the game, with rare-as-gold medkits being particularly tricky to acquire.

Combat is the game's primary focus and it works extremely well. At first glance the game resembles XCOM with you being able to carry out 2 actions per character turn, such as moving, firing, reloading, using a mutation or throwing a grenade. The emphasis of the game is on stealth. Enemy units will call for backup and shout warnings, whilst particularly large explosions or heavy weapons fire may bring enemies from significant distances away running to help. Limited hit points mean that you can't stay in a stand-up fight for too long, however. The game's stealth mechanic allows you instead engage enemies quietly using "silent" weapons (such as crossbows or pistols with silencers). As long as you kill them in one round, they won't raise the alarm. In some cases enemies have more hit points than the damage you can output in one round, presenting an interesting puzzle to overcome with your mutations. Some mutations allow you to knock enemies unconscious for a round, giving you more time to kill them, but more effective is working out how to trigger critical damage, such as by taking to higher ground or using mutations or equipment which bolster your critical chances.

Once you've worked out how to optimise your ability to kill enemies in one round, the game becomes a compelling puzzle experience as you sneak around enemy flanks, isolate and take down scouts and enemy patrols once they've moved away from the main enemy group, and even use mind-control mutations to set enemies against one another. Some of you characters can even fly for short bursts, allowing them to erupt out of cover and hover above an enemy before unleashing critical damage.

There are multiple enemy types who can be taken down in a variety of ways. Robotic enemies and medbots are easier to handle as they are vulnerable to EMP grenades and electrical weapons, but organic characters can present more of a challenge. Sometimes avoiding a dangerous group of enemies and coming back later at a higher level is the best way of proceeding.

As your characters grow more powerful and get more options for how to handle the enemies, the game grows far more enjoyable. Those first few hours can be a bit tough, though, and some players may check out from the game's somewhat unforgiving difficulty curve before things even out a bit more.

The story is reasonably interesting, although not the most original, but the characters are entertaining (especially Dux, the wise-cracking, death-dealing human/duck hybrid). It'd be nice if they had a bit more dialogue and in-game chatter - the existing barks get old reasonably fast - but they are certainly a memorable bunch. The world feels a little more generic - STALKER mashed with Wasteland - and the lack of dialogue choices means that it can feel a bit threadbare at times. It is beautifully presented, with very nice use of the Unreal Engine to generate rich landscapes. At 25 hours (about 19 hours for the base game, 6 for the expansion) the game is also long enough to be worth the investment without outstaying its welcome.

There are a few issues. Sometimes the game's interface can be a little counter-intuitive and a bit confusing, such as the inability to enter combat mode as well that makes some passive enemies (who won't react until attacked) impossible to kill. This doesn't stop you finishing the game, but it does prevent you 100% eliminating every enemy in the game. The fact you can't heal naturally at any point (say by returning to the Ark) is also a bit bizarre, forcing you to rely on very expensive or rare-to-find medkits in the wild.

Ultimately, though, Mutant Year Zero (****½) is an outstanding game with some of the best combat yet seen in the stealth-XCOM genre. It certainly put the underwhelming previous game in this field - Phantom Doctrine - to shame with a far more compelling central gameplay loop. The game's difficulty curve is "challenging" at the start, to say the least, but if you can overcome that or if you relish a game which refreshingly doesn't hold your hand and pull its punches, it ends up being an addictive experience. The game is available now on Steam, as well on X-Box One and PS4.