Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Volume 2 of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS adapts more SFF short stories

As with its forebear, the second volume of Love, Death + Robots is adapting a series of short stories by SFF authors into animation. We now have the list of which stories have been adapted.

  • Pop Squad by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Life Hutch by Harlan Ellison
  • Ice by Rich Larson
  • The Tall Grass by Joe Lansdale
  • Automated Customer Service by John Scalzi
  • All Through the House by Joachim Heijndermans
  • The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard
  • Snow in the Desert by Neal Asher
It's a solid selection of short fiction, with some good talent involved. Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther, The Wire, Creed) stars in Life Hutch, both voicing the lead character and having his physical appearance reproduced in CG. The absence of stories by women is notable (after Volume I's sixteen stories only included two), although Volume 3 (still in production) is rumoured to have a Sucker of Souls sequel by Kirsten Cross.

Volume 2 of Love, Death + Robots will be released on Netflix on 14 May. Volume 3 will reportedly follow in 2022.

Wertzone Classics: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is not a happy man. He has a thankless job, a bunch of incompetent subordinates and he doesn't get no respect or, more accurately, actually gets no respect. The arrival of a fresh, eager-eyed new recruit (a six-foot-tall dwarf named Carrot - long story) whose relaxed and literal approach to policing (such arresting the head of the Thieves' Guild for being a thief) is another headache for Vimes to deal with. At the same time, the Unseen University Librarian is upset over the theft of a book that could be used to summon dragons and, in an almost certainly unrelated incident, people over the city are vanishing, leaving behind only fine traces of ash and scorched brickwork. Yes, things are definitely afoot...

Guards! Guards! is Terry Pratchett's tribute to detective novels and all those hapless extras dressed in chainmail who's only job in films is to run into the grand hall and get cut down by the hero. No-one ever seems to ask them if they want to. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch is arguably the most popular and enduring of all of Pratchett's creations and this first book about them is one of the very best Discworld books, a solid combination of Pratchett's gifts for plot, satire, pacing, character and engaging in weightier themes of love, life, death and, er, municipal governance.

This unrepentantly eighth book in the Discworld series introduces some of its most popular characters: Captain Vimes of the Night Watch, a drunkard with a tiny sliver of civic responsibility that's just waiting to be reborn; his deputies Sergeant Colon (one of the most sergeanty sergeants ever committed to the page) and Constable "Nobby" Nobbs (a specimen who may be human only by dint of all other species refusing to acknowledge him); and their cheerful new recruit Carrot, a man raised by dwarfs and who is at all times surrounded by an impenetrable air of naivete which is more effective than full plate mail. There's also Lady Sybil Ramkin, who feels like a prototype for half the cast of Downton Abbey combined into one human being, and also the debut of the immortal Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, fast food seller and related purveyor of gastro-intestinal distress to the masses. Established characters also return: Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, a man so deviously cunning he could have Machiavelli for breakfast and Littlefinger for lunch before polishing off all of the Borgias for dinner, and of course the Librarian, who by contrast would settle for a nice banana.

Also returning, with an increased starring role, is Ankh-Morpork itself. In the great lexicon of fictional cities, Ankh-Morpork ranks right at the very top for its sheer believability as a metropolis for fantasy hijinks. For its first few appearances, the city was just a backdrop but in Guards! Guards! it is the star, Pratchett selling the grubby city through the unabashed and wholly irrational love that Captain Vimes has for it (whilst acknowledging it's million faults, oddly the same number as its population). What was once a self-acknowledged Lanhkmar tribute act is now a very effective solo artist in its own right, and will only get better from hereon out.

Pratchett's writing takes another significant upward swing with this volume, exuding a greater level of confidence than ever before. He's funny when he wants to be, dramatic when he needs to be, even touching when it is required. The story threads are laid out, developed and then resolved with impressive efficiency and maximum comedic impact. The way the last few paragraphs hilariously resolve very minor story points from a hundred pages previously is very clever.

Guards! Guards! (*****) is not the best Discworld book, but it's certainly not far off. Funny, dramatic and just brilliantly entertaining from start to finish. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the book here.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

RUMOUR: WHEEL OF TIME TV series to resume filming in the Czech Republic imminently

This is so far not confirmed, but it looks like the Wheel of Time cast and crew are regrouping to finish off the shooting of the first season of the much-delayed show. Josha Stradowski, who plays Rand al'Thor, is back in the Czech Republic and apparently already on location (in a photo later deleted), whilst Madeleine Madden (Egwene al'Vere) was back in Prague a couple of weeks ago.

Production of the eight-episode first season of the Wheel of Time TV series began in September 2019 and continued until March 2020, when it was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic with six episodes completed. Filming resumed in September and continued until December, when a second wave of the virus shut down production, although the crew were able to pick up some additional unit shooting in Spain.

Although the overwhelming majority of the material for the show was in the bag, they hadn't quite finished up everything they needed to, with several more scenes needing to be shot to finish off production on the season. Once that is done, Amazon can throw the marketing switch and get started on prepping the show for transmission.

Although the physical filming of the show has been stretched over an immense timeframe - nineteen months and counting so far - the post-production team has been hard at work on editing the completed material and working on the significant vfx requirements for the show. According to various rumours and reports, multiple episodes are already complete and could be aired tomorrow if the whole season was completed. This means that it should not take too much longer to finish the season off once the last shots are in the can.

The first season of Wheel of Time, assuming they get the final shots done relatively quickly with no further interruptions, is likely to air on Amazon Prime before the end of this year.

Robert's Rebellion spin-off off the table (again) at HBO

It has been clarified that HBO are not developing a Game of Thrones spin-off show about Robert's Rebellion, arguably the most important event in the backstory of the series. Instead, journalist James Hibberd has confirmed that rumours of this were the result of confusion over the recently-announced stage play project.

The stage play will tell the story of the Great Harrenhal Tourney in the Year of False Spring, where Lyanna Stark met Rhaegar Targaryen, sparking a chain of events leading to Robert's Rebellion. George R.R. Martin had previously said that the true story of the tourney and the Rebellion is something he is not interested in pursuing, as the Song of Ice and Fire novels will reveal the backstory of the Rebellion even as it expands the current-day storyline, and by the end of the novels readers will know all the important beats of the war. Creating a spin-off novel or TV show based on the Rebellion would simply be "joining the dots," and not interesting in itself.

Clearly he changed his mind on the tourney, perhaps because it takes place on a much smaller scale with a constrained cast of characters in one location, suiting the medium quite well. The Rebellion itself, however, sounds like it has returned to not being on the cards.

HBO are instead about to imminently start shooting House of the Dragon, a prequel series about the Dance of Dragons, a bloody civil war that raged within House Targaryen about 170 years before the events of the books and TV show. They are also in discussion on multiple other projects, including an animated series, a series about the great explorer Corlys Velaryon, a series set in the slums of Flea Bottom in King's Landing, and another epic show about Nymeria and her flight to Dorne after her homeland is destroyed by the Valyrians. HBO has also been developing ideas for adapting the Dunk & Egg prequel novellas, although Martin has also been reluctant to discuss that project before the novella series is complete.

Olivia Colman and Emilia Clarke join Marvel's SECRET INVASION

British actresses Olivia Colman and Emilia Clarke have both signed on to Marvel's upcoming Disney+ TV show Secret Invasion.

The series, which is a semi-sequel to Captain Marvel, features the return of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, leader of the alien Skrulls. In the comic book story of the same name, the shapeshifting Skrulls conduct a clandestine invasion of Earth which is stopped by the Avengers. However, the Skrulls in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are more sympathetic and presented as potential allies of the human race. It's more likely that the MCU version of the story will feature either civil war within the Skrulls (as some wish to take over Earth and others work alongside humans) or possibly a struggle between Skrulls and their traditional enemies, the Kree.

Colman is one of Britain's leading actresses at the moment, noted for her facility with both comedy and drama. Her roles include Broadchurch, The Crown, The Night Manager, Green Wing, Peep Show and Fleabag on television, and The Favourite and Hot Fuzz in film. She has won an Oscar, four BAFTAs and three Golden Globes, though she has not nailed down an Emmy despite multiple nominations.

Clarke is best-known for her role as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO's Game of Thrones, and has also appeared in films including Solo, Be Before You and Last Christmas. She has also become active in charity work, particularly neurorehabilitation after she revealed she had suffered two brain aneurysms whilst working on Game of Thrones. Like Colman, she has been nominated for multiple Emmy Awards.

Kyle Bradstreet is serving as head writer of the project, which is expected to last for six episodes. Production is expected to start in the summer for a late 2022 debut.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Prince Teppic is the heir to the desert kingdom of Djelibeybi*. His father, a non-traditional man with odd ideas, decides to send him to get the best education possible outside of the Old Kingdom, by sending him to join the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild. Seven years later, Teppic is summoned home by sad news and sets about building the greatest pyramid ever seen on the Disc. This proves to be a Very Bad Idea.

Pyramids is one of those rare books in the Discworld series, being a total stand-alone. Its characters and events do not recur elsewhere in the series (brief cameos by Death and the Librarian excepted) and its events are barely referred to elsewhere. It's a viable jumping-on point for new readers, although in terms of quality it's not among the best books in the series, though certainly not among the weakest either. It's a middling Discworld book which, fortunately, means it's pretty good.

The book is primarily concerned about ossification, ritual and conservatism, how slavishly following ideas because they're old and "have always worked" is not good enough and can lead to long-lasting harm. It's also Pratchett's first tilt at religious fundamentalism, and how people in power use and abuse religious faith to further their own ends, although here he takes the idea to extremes by having the fundamentalist being so unflinching in his belief that he's become incorruptible by dint of every idea outside of his very narrow worldview simply bouncing off him. Pratchett would address these ideas again later on in Small Gods.

Pyramids risks being a lazy comedic novel using stereotypes (the times Pratchett does this, with "fantasy China" in Interesting Times and "fantasy Australia" in The Last Continent, are among the Discworld series' weaker efforts) and the presence of gags about pyramids, mummies and the Sphinx do occasionally teeter on the edge of Carry On territory, but Pratchett does back off and instead uses the setting as a framing device for more interesting ideas about religion and science. The result is probably the best fantasy novel inspired by Egypt outside of N.K. Jemisin's more original Dreamblood duology.

The novel also has an interesting structure which seems to be inspired by the original Star Wars movie. Although Teppic is somewhat more worldly wise, he does have a Luke Skywalker vibe going on, whilst his much more charismatic friend Chidder has a Han Solo thing . Chidder even owns an unconventional freighter which is actually a faster-than-expected smuggling ship (the Unnamed), and both have tension with the beautiful Ptraci, who turns out to have a secret identity you're already probably well ahead of the curve on. Oh, and there's even a hairy sidekick who can't talk English but is vastly more intelligent than anyone expects. Once this was pointed out to me I couldn't ignore it.

Finally, the novel riffs on the state of hard science fiction in the late 1980s. Back then there was a seismic shift going on as the SF genre stopped focusing so much on spaceships and adventure stories in favour of long, complicated novels and series about cutting-edge ideas. SF authors were scrambling to stay current ideas being theorised by the likes of Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time came out whilst Pratchett was writing Pyramids - even if they didn't fully understand them, leading to lot of novels about knotty time travel or black holes where the word "quantum" is subjected to a lot of questionable abuse. Pratchett has great fun riffing on this tendency, whilst also employing it himself, with the novel featuring some clever ideas on time running at different speeds and time warps stripping people of some of their dimensions.

There's a lot going on in Pyramids (****) - it was the longest Discworld book to this point, though still not cracking 400 pages - and sometimes it feels a bit crammed with ideas that it doesn't have time to fully explore, which is why some overspill into later novels (Small Gods addresses some of the same themes more elegantly). It's a funny book but also a smart one with some really cool ideas about time, space and advanced camel mathematics. It is available in the UK and USA. I previously reviewed the book here.

* Pratchett was reportedly disappointed that Americans didn't get this joke, so created the nearby kingdom of Hersheba just for them.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries

AD 3015. The Inner Sphere is gripped by the Third Succession War, with the great powers clashing for control of human space. With the regular armies of the Great Houses stretched, it's a time of opportunity for mercenary companies to make money and gain a reputation for themselves.

Is there much more we can ask from video games than the ability to jump in a giant robot and use the giant robot to destroy other giant robots and occasionally just smash up a city for the sheer hell of it? It could be argued not, and, since 1989, the MechWarrior series of video games has satisfied that urge in a very enjoyable manner.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is the first single-player game in the series since 2002 and makes a ton of concessions for new players. It is set earlier in the timeline than any previous game and does not require foreknowledge of the wider BattleTech franchise. However, if you played the outstanding 2018 turn-based strategy game BattleTech (to which this is a real-time companion), you'll find a lot here that's familiar in terms of mechs, terminology, equipment and even UI, especially the menus and the systems for outfitting your mechs. MechWarrior 5 is also somewhat more forgiving than its brutally tough cousin, despite also being a lot more hectic.

MechWarrior 5 consists of two game modes. The first has you on board a Leopard dropship, where your mechs and mechwarriors are based. You can wander around the ship in first-person and explore the ship and inspect your mechs at the correct scale, which is very impressive. For certain campaign missions and story moments, you can also wander up to characters to engage in conversations which further the story. Using menus you can also select your next mission, move the ship to another system and engage in equipment and mech purchase, maintenance and selling. You can also hire and fire pilots or review your progress so far. This is similar to the metagame in BattleTech, although the ability to actually walk around the ship is cool for a bit; it later becomes a bit pointless and you can do everything through menus instead. There's also much less character here. In BattleTech you could talk to characters, even upgrade the social features of the ship to make your pilots happier. In MechWarrior 5 there's somewhat less to do other than selecting missions and maintaining your war machine.

Once you arrive at a star system with contracts available, you can choose which mission to take and then engage in negotiations with the faction in question. You can discuss pay for the mission, how much salvage you can claim and insurance for mech damage. There's some gambling here, since salvaging an enemy mech could net you several times the pay for the mission, but that only applies if you can disable an enemy mech without blowing its reactor, so upping the hard cash reward for the mission might be preferable. The more jobs you do for a faction, the more negotiating points you can get as your standing with them improves. However, sometimes a faction may direct you into combat against another faction, resulting in a corresponding drop in reputation with that faction, which might become a problem later on when you need that faction to give you more jobs. This system is fun and makes choosing which missions to take on and who to appease and who to annoy a rewarding and interesting system of choices.

Once a mission is locked in, the Leopard lands and deploys your lance of mechs into real-time combat: you can bring up to three fellow mechs into combat with you, which can be controlled by AI or other human players of your choosing. Sometimes the dropship dumps you straight into a mass firefight (with the dropship laying down impressive volumes of covering fire) but more often it drops you outside a combat zone and you have to head in, perhaps using the terrain for cover, going the long way around to take the enemy by surprise or just charging in all guns blazing.

Combat is fast, furious and frantic, but you have a good amount of feedback thanks to a radar and robust damage report models for your mechs plus the enemy and allied troops. You can be more tactical and hold back with a sniper mech to attack from a distance with gauss guns and long-range missiles, perhaps directing your more brawler-focused allies into close combat, or vice versa. Like a good space or air combat game, the game mixes real-time action and a more strategic element of commanding allies; MechWarrior 2 (the game that popularised the franchise) was consciously echoing contemporaries X-Wing and Wing Commander but in a giant robot, and MechWarrior 5 feels like a solid upgrade of that, feeling like a contemporary of Ace Combat 7 and Star Wars: Squadrons (but still in a giant robot). Combat is something the game nails very satisfyingly, which is important as you're going to be doing a hell of a lot of it.

The game provides context for what you're doing through three tiers of missions. The first is story missions, which propel the game's main storyline forward. The storyline isn't fantastic (and certainly not as good as BattleTech's) but it does have some solid voice acting from Elias Toufexis  (Adam Jensen from the Deus Ex franchise) and it does have some excellently-designed mission setpieces. These missions are triggered intermittently when you gain reputation levels. There are 15 such levels in the game and you gain rep from completing jobs for factions. Once you get to a new level, new story missions appear and you can get those underway.

The second tier of mission is quests, marked on the map by yellow circles. These are, effectively, side-quests with their own storyline and characters, along with unique dialogue, with quite large reputation and cash rewards. These questlines take you back and forth across an entire warzone with twists and turns in the story, and sometimes the ability to switch sides and work for the opposition who may contact you with a much better offer. Quests are not necessary to proceed, but bulk out the game in terms of giving you meaningful stuff to do.

The lowest tier are procedurally-generated missions which are simply infinite in number, randomly generating rewards, opposition and terrain and throwing you into battle. These missions are good for picking up salvage, cash and grinding smaller amounts of reputation, though for those who want to make faster progress, quests are a better bet.

These combine into a fairly compelling experience: you do missions to increase reputation, salvage and cash; you spend those resources to improve your pilots, mechs and equipment; and then you unlock the next part of the story and move on. You can complete MechWarrior 5 in around 30 hours (roughly half the length of a BattleTech campaign) but also expand it out for much longer than that as you track down rare mechs and equipment and exhaustively try to complete every quest chain in the game.

So, with great combat, the ability to co-op every single mission and solid upgrading and loot mechanics, it'd be easy to recommend the game unambiguously. However, there are a fair few problems with the game. None of these are massive by themselves but the accumulated array of them can be fairly vexing.

The first is how fresh enemy mechs are spawned mid-mission. Originally they appeared out of nowhere way too close to your lance, resulting in damage and mission losses for no apparent reason. Patches improved this by making the enemy appear a lot further away, but it's still a disconcerting experience that feels a bit weird. 

The second is that your radar works in the weirdest way imaginable, with it working based on line of sight. So you have to see something before your radar can lock on, with enemy mechs vanishing from view if they just pass behind a boulder for a few seconds. Even worse is the low range of your radar, with you sometimes able to see a bunch of enemy mechs a couple of kilometres away and even hit them with dumb-fire weapons (like gauss guns and plasma cannons), but not able to actually lock onto them with missiles until they're much closer. This is all pretty dumb, and a let-down on how radar worked in BattleTech, where you could use sensor abilities to target enemies from much further away and you could also use telemetry feeds, so one scout mech on a recon mission could allow all your troops to lock on from much further away.

The third is that AI in general could be a bit stronger. The enemy default stance is to bum-rush you, sometimes allowing you to wipe out what would be a formidable enemy force because their light mechs outrun their heavier support, allowing you to destroy them piecemeal as they arrive. Enemy AI also seems reluctant to use long-range weapons or jump jets. Allied AI can also be ropey, particularly in base defence missions where you allies sometimes careen through allied structures without a care in the world (resulting in amusing screams of rage from your employers) and happily discharge their plasma cannons and missiles at the enemy even if you're standing right in front of them (which can be fatal).

These problems are annoying and frustrating but - very happily - they've also mostly been fixed by MechWarrior 5's outstanding modding community. As I related previously, I installed a number of mods which fixed almost all of the above problems instantly. Better Spawns removes random mech spawns altogether and replaces them with an enemy dropship arriving and dropping the mechs manually. The AI fix mods make both allied and enemy AI much stronger, so your allies stop shooting you and blowing up allied bases and the enemy will use missiles and jumpjets from time to time. The 3D Hud dramatically improves weapons and damage feedback. Max Tonnage removes the very arbitrary-feeling weight limits on missions that feels nonsensical (given that enemy spawns seem to be based on your tonnage, this doesn't make the game a cakewalk either), and the JumpShip Animation dramatically speeds up the game by removing unskippable cut scenes. The only outstanding problem is the radar, which apparently will be addressed in the forthcoming expansions.

Without the mods, MechWarrior 5 (***½) is a great game beset by annoyances. With those mods, MechWarrior 5 (****½) becomes a rich, compelling game experience mixing fun mech management with satisfying, crunchy combat.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is available right now on PC via Epic Game Store, which easily allows for modding, and on the Xbox Game Pass, which very much does not. The game will launch on Steam on 27 May alongside a new expansion, Heroes of the Inner Sphere, and an Xbox One/Series X version of the game.

Friday, 16 April 2021

RUMOUR: The first 1-2 seasons of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE have cost almost half a billion dollars

The Hollywood Reporter has indicated that the upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series, The Second Age*, has cost almost half a billion dollars so far. In fact, they put the figure at $465 million.

The Reporter is pretty reliable in these matters, but I've filed this under "rumour" because the source is the New Zealand government and they did not precisely break down the costs involved.

We know there are eight episodes in each of the first two seasons of the show, and the first two seasons have been commissioned together and completely written. There were also reports a while back that the LotR team were shooting up to 20 episodes in the first extended filming bloc (which began in February 2020 and is expected to continue for several months to come, although there was an extended break last year for writing), which some took to mean they were filming the first two seasons - 16 episodes - back-to-back, which makes sense. As a result, the cost may be spread across two seasons rather than one. This is backed up by a Reuters report where they learned that Amazon was earmarking $500 million for the first two seasons in combined production and marketing costs.

Back in 2017, it was widely reported that Amazon had paid $250 million to the Tolkien Estate for enhanced rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's books not previously covered by any prior deal, now believed to consist of all Numenor and Second Age-related material in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Amazon had also tapped Warner Brothers and their subsidiary New Line to cooperate on the project, giving them access to the Lord of the Rings rights (used previously to make Peter Jackson's 2001-03 movie trilogy). It was reported that Amazon would be spending up to $150 million per season on five seasons of the series, for a total expenditure of $1 billion.

This new report indicates that that ceiling will be hit considerably sooner than expected. Assuming the costs are indeed divided between two seasons, that would make the cost of each season around $232.5 million, or $29 million per episode. The previous most expensive TV show of all time was either HBO's The Pacific, which cost over $20 million per episode, or Disney+'s currently-airing Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with a reported budget of $25 million per episode, although these are both classified as mini-series. The most expensive ongoing TV show of all time is HBO's Game of Thrones, where the budget reached $16 million per episode in the final season.

This would easily make Lord of the Rings: The Second Age the most expensive TV show of all time, if not quite by as much as some people are saying. However, if the original quote was correct and those costs are just for the first season, the first eight episodes by themselves, then obviously they would rocket up to insanity: $465 million for the season, or $58,125,000 per hour. Each of the three Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies had a budget of around $90 million for three hours, for comparison.

Lord of the Rings Colon Undisclosed Subtitle is currently shooting in New Zealand and expected to air on Amazon Prime Video, probably in early 2022.

* My placeholder title to stop people constantly asking why they're remaking the movies, which they're not; not the likely final title of the series.

Cover art for Joe Abercrombie's WISDOM OF CROWDS revealed

The UK cover art for Joe Abercrombie's next novel, The Wisdom of Crowds, has been revealed.

The novel concludes the Age of Madness trilogy, which began with A Little Hatred and continued with The Trouble with Peace. The book will be released on 16 September this year.