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, 9 April 2021

Harmony Gold and Studio Nue confirm collaboration for the continuation of the ROBOTECH and MACROSS franchises

Japanese animation companies Studio Nue, Inc. and Big West Co. Ltd. have announced a fresh collaboration with Harmony Gold USA. The three companies previously collaborated in the mid-1980s to bring Studio Nue and Big West's Macross anime series to American audiences, where it was re-edited and combined with two other shows (Southern Cross and Mospeada) to form an original SF epic called Robotech. The business relationship between the parties has been contentious ever since, with Harmony Gold blocking the release of the various Macross sequel and prequel series in the United States.

The new agreement was made confirming that the Macross animated series can now be released internationally, whilst the Japanese companies have dropped their legal claims that were casting doubt on the release of a planned live-action Robotech movie in Japan.

Harmony Gold previously reached a new distribution deal with Tatsunoko Productions, who worked on Macross with Studio Nue, in 2019 which helped pave the way for this agreement with the remaining stakeholders.

The most likely near-term consequence will be the release or re-release of the original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series and its canonical sequels Macross 7, Macross Frontier and Macross Delta, and the prequel series Macross Zero, on physical media and streaming platforms.

The bigger deal will be that the planned film version could move ahead. Directors James Wan (Aquaman) and Andy Muschietti (IT) had both been attached to the film before it had gotten mired in development hell, with the Japanese companies objecting to the film's proposed use of Macross characters and mecha designs. This new deal removes those obstacles.

Other ideas that have been floating around for a while, such as a Netflix-produced total remake of Robotech in the vein of their recent Voltron series, are also made possible by this deal. Despite the franchise's name value, Harmony Gold themselves don't have the funding to make a new series (an attempt in 2006, via a straight-to-DVD movie called The Shadow Chronicles, was a failure), so will need to partner with external studios.

Given the ill feeling between the various entities that have existed for almost forty years, it is remarkable that an amicable solution has been worked out, which can only benefit the fans.

Paramount schedules mystery STAR TREK film for 2023

Paramount has set a release date of 9 June 2023 for the next Star Trek movie, but they have not yet revealed what that movie actually is.

Paramount have spent the five years since the release of Star Trek Beyond developing a large number of potential new film projects to no avail. A direct follow-up to Beyond, focusing on Chris Pine's Captain Kirk teaming up with his father, played by Chris Hemsworth via time travel, was in development for a time before being dropped over a pay dispute. The film was later put back into development again, and then paused a second time.

At the same time, Quentin Tarantino started developing new project. This was eventually revealed as a remake of the classic Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action, in which the Enterprise crew arrive on a planet that's developed into a parody of early 20th Century gangster movies. Tarantino was very enthusiastic about the project, even considering directing, but later committed only to writing and producing. Without Tarantino directing, Paramount's interest in the idea seemed to dry up.

Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley then committed to a new Star Trek movie idea, one which would apparently revolve around a whole new crew and a whole new story. With Hawley much in-demand for Hollywood projects, Paramount seems to have entertained the idea for a while before passing on it, due to a lack of an exciting hook to get people interested.

Finally, just a few weeks ago, Star Trek: Discovery writer Kalinda Vazquez was hired to put together a new proposal, the details of which remain unknown.

According to io9, this new project is not related to any of these ideas. The only thing that is known is that J.J. Abrams will be producing (but not directing) and to get it out in just over two years, they're going to need to put it into production shortly. Very mysterious.

Unrest at Sony as company re-focuses on AAA games at the expense of smaller titles

Jason Schreier at Bloomberg has a fascinating report on unrest and uncertainty at the Sony Studios group of video game developers.

Days Gone, a relatively well-received Sony exclusive from 2019. Sony have shot down plans for a sequel, but the game is getting a second shot at success via a PC release later in 2021.

Sony's PlayStation video game console has been the leading console in four successive generations of hardware: the original PlayStation (1994) emerged triumphant over the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn, whilst the PlayStation 2 (2000) outsold the original Microsoft Xbox, Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube. The PlayStation 3 (2006) initially lost ground to the Microsoft Xbox 360 (released a year earlier), but clawed back the lead to emerge the more successful console, although both were outsold by the Nintendo Wii, which had pivoted to focus on younger gamers. The PlayStation 4 (2013) much more comfortably defeated the Xbox One and Wii U.

The PlayStation 5 was launched at the end of 2020, almost simultaneously with the Xbox Series X, with sales of both consoles being surprisingly comparable. There was a widespread expectation that the PlayStation 5 would, again, comfortably outsell the Microsoft rival. Sony's success is rooted in two factors: their utter market domination in Japan and other parts of Asia, where Xbox sales are almost negligible; and their catalogue of exclusive titles not available on other systems, including the Uncharted, Last of Us, God of War, Horizon, Gran Turismo, Tekken, Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man franchises.

However, in recent years Xbox has deployed a formidable new asset to make their brand more attractive: Xbox Game Pass. Best summed-up as "Netflix for video games," the pass allows gamers to play a large catalogue of hundreds of games for a monthly subscription fee which is far less than the cost of a single video game. With many people buying a game, playing it through once and never touching it again, such a service is hugely more attractive than a much bigger, one-off payment for a title of limited utility. The Xbox Game Pass is also platform-agnostic, being available not just on the Xbox console but also on PC, tablet and smartphones. Microsoft has even offered to make the service available on competitor consoles, including PlayStation and Nintendo Switch, indicating they see the Game Pass as being the future of their video game strategy rather than constantly escalating (and ever-more-expensive) hardware battles.

Simultaneously, Microsoft has gone on an immense spending spree, buying up video game studios by the dozen, to bolster their exclusive games library. This is an area where Microsoft has struggled, with only a small number of popular, exclusive franchises such as Gears of War, Halo and Forza. Their recent acquisition of Bethesda has given them access to several massive franchises, including Fallout, The Elder Scrolls and Doom, as well as critically respected series such as Wolfenstein, Dishonored and Prey. Their acquisition of Obsidian and inXile Studios has also given them access to credible studios with an interest in making challenging RPGs with reactive gameplay.

These moves seem to have given Microsoft a leg-up over the previous generation, resulting in a much closer race between Microsoft and Sony this time out. In addition, both consoles are being negatively impacted by global chip shortages leading to a lack of stock being available, with Microsoft perhaps edging it slightly with console availability, giving Microsoft a chance to make a better case for their console.

None of these things are fatal for Sony - whose dependence on their PlayStation range of products has increased dramatically in recent decades as their former dominance in the TV and hi-fi sectors has collapsed - but clearly they have the company somewhat rattled, and looking for steps they can take to compete.

Sony have their own subscription service, PlayStation Plus, as well as a streaming service called PlayStation Now, which allows gamers to stream PS games without a console at all, but both services feel limited compared to Xbox Game Pass and Sony has shown limited enthusiasm for turning the services into a real competitor. This is because Microsoft have a lot of financial firepower coming in from other quarters and are happier to become platform-agnostic, whilst Sony's business model does rely on their hardware becoming profitable, at least in the second half of its shelf life. Still, the competition of Game Pass will likely force Sony to develop these services further.

Sony have also taken the unprecedented step of making some of their former exclusives available on other platforms. Horizon Zero Dawn had a successful launch on PC in 2020, and Days Gone will launch on PC this year. The real test will be if Sony brings out the Uncharted or Last of Us series on PC, or the much-requested 2015 PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, but there is no sign of this as yet.

Based on Schreier's report, Sony's main response to Microsoft's growing momentum is to double down on the areas where they are already strong: exclusive franchises developed by strong teams. To do this, they are reducing the number of sub-AAA games they're making, apparently dropping "small games that only sell in Japan" (a market that they've probably lost out to the Switch on anyway) and prioritising AAA blockbusters, as well as tightly controlling costs. It sounds like Sony are becoming incredibly risk-averse, which seems like a bad idea when the next generation of video games will require innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, even moreso than normal. The result has been a brain drain as developers at several Sony studios have quit.

Schreier's report does reveal some additional information of note: a thorough Last of Us remaster/remake for PS5 is currently in the works at Naughty Dog, with a remake of the original Uncharted possibly to follow. A fifth Uncharted game is also early in development, with some reports it might be a prequel. A Days Gone 2 has apparently been proposed and turned down, with the development team responsible for that game working on a new project instead.

SAGA due to resume soon

Brian K. Vaughan has confirmed that Saga, the bestselling, multi-award-winning comic he's been working on with Fiona Staples since 2011, will resume in the near future.

54 issues of the comic were released between 2012 and 2018, when the title went on hiatus at what Vaughan claimed was the pre-conceived exact halfway point of the story. Originally the hiatus was planned to last around two years, but has been extended by various issues (including the COVID pandemic).

Vaughan and Staples report they have been hard at work on new issues, which hopefully should be available soon.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

There was an eighth son of an eighth son who became, as is right and proper, a wizard. But, in defiance of tradition, he also had seven sons. And then another one: a source of magic, a sourcerer. The Discworld hasn't seen a sourcerer in thousands of years, since the Mage Wars almost destroyed the world. Soon enough, the re-energised wizards of the Disc are engaged in all-out warfare and the Apocralypse - the teatime of the gods, the return of the frost giants and so forth - draws nigh, provided the Four Horsemen can get out of the pub in time. It falls to a wizard who can't do magic, a might barbarian warrior with three days' experience, a timeshare genie and a homicidal hairdresser to save the day.

Sourcery, the fifth Discworld novel, feels like Terry Pratchett engaging in a reaction against his previous novel, Mort. Mort was a narrow-field, focused and character-based tragicomedy, and easily the best Discworld book out of the initial quartet. It seems like Pratchett may have reacted a little bit against that and turned the subsequent novel into a widescreen epic, arguably the most epic Discworld has ever gotten, with various groups of mages fighting magical wars spanning continents and prophesised destinies being fulfilled.

There's a certain guilty pleasure to this. Pratchett is reasonably entertaining at large-stakes action, especially when it's delivered alongside a broad sense of humour. I suspect in the heart of many authors there's a yearning desire to break out vast magical towers that explode and mighty-thewed barbarian warriors smiting legion of disposable extras with a broadsword so huge it had to be forged with a gantry, and Pratchett does that with aplomb. The sly wit and intelligence of Mort has been sidelined here in favour of much more obvious jokes about barbarians and Grand Viziers twirling moustaches villainously (the sequences in Al-Khali - fortunately only briefly - flirt with Carry On movie levels of stereotyping).

The book adds surprisingly little to the greater Discworld mythos, which is weird given how massive and world-girdling the events are. A line at the end of the book that the memory of these events has been magically removed from the world feels a bit too cheesy; given the dangers the wizards unleash here, it's implausible they wouldn't be chased from civilised society (well, society at any rate), which is why I guess Pratchett decided to jump through some hoops to reset things to a status quo later on. The only lasting impacts are the fate of Rincewind - which sets up the novel Eric - and a larger starring role for the Librarian. We also get a bit more information on the Patrician and his pet dog, Wuffles, who recur later on, even though the Patrician is still a long way off from the peak of his characterisation.

Sourcery (***) is arguably the weakest of the first five Discworld books. It's Pratchett at arguably his broadest and least intellectually vigorous, going for surprisingly cheap laughs. There are some better gags (the One Horsemen and the Three Pedestrians of the Apocralypse) and Rincewind, never the deepest of Discworld characters, get some decent development here, but overall it's a fairly disposable book and not a patch on the novels on either side of it. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the novel here.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

WorldCon 2021 moves to December

The 79th World Science Fiction Convention - WorldCon - is moving date and venue. Previously slated for 25-29 August this year, the convention has confirmed a move to 15-19 December, still in Washington, DC. This will mark the first time a WorldCon has taken place in December.

The plan is to have a full, in-person convention, on the basis that the USA's accelerating vaccination programme should allow such events to take place with minimal or no restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel from countries where the pandemic is also getting under control, such as the UK, should also be possible from that point.

As well as the convention itself, the annual Hugo Awards will be held at the event as well. The actual venue has changed, however, from the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel to the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

The following WorldCon is scheduled for 1-5 September 2022 in Chicago.

Modding MechWarrior

I am currently several dozen hours into playing MechWarrior 5. It's a fun, hugely enjoyable action game where you sit in a giant robot and blow up other giant robots, buildings, vehicles and sometimes just the scenery for the hell of it. It's also a game which is, putting it as charitably as possible, not out-of-the-box, fit-for-mass-consumption due to a combination of bugs and questionable game design choices. Fortunately, it's also a game that's hugely moddable and a large number of the problems have been fixed by the fans. So here's the roster of mods that I'm currently running to make the game more palatable.

Unless otherwise noted, these mods can be natively installed via the Epic Game Store's mod page and hopefully will be available via the Steam Workshop when the game launches on Steam in May.


The heads-up-display in MechWarrior 5 is functional but that's about the most that can be said for it, with information presented dryly as lines of text and bars in the corner of the screen. This mod re-imposes the HUD on your pilot's visor, giving you a nice 3D feeling to the display. It also dynamically puts your weapon information (ammo, temperature, range) on a circular view corresponding to the location of your weapon hardpoints, giving you much more intuitive information on what's happening to your mech at any given time. This dramatically improves information flow mid-battle. 

Better Performance - FPS Drop Fix

MechWarrior 5 has an odd thing where it generates the sound of your weapon firing from the animation rather than just playing the relevant audio files when you hit the fire button. This means the frames-per-second drops noticeably whenever you fire your weapon, and this drop gets worse over the course of a mission. This mod fixes the problem by removing the direct link between the weapon fire animation and sound effect, keeping performance steady.

Enemy Mech Availability Date Fix

One of the cooler things about MechWarior 5 is how the timeline advances as your play the game. The game starts in 3015 and the months and years advance - sometimes quite quickly - as you fly between star systems and engage in lengthy campaign missions. Political borders change in accordance with in-game history, and sometimes missions are generated based on timeline events. These stop in 3049; although you can continue to play, major events are no longer reflected. Long-term BattleTech and MechWarrior fans know that in 3050, a huge event takes place that the game can't take into account, though will likely form the basis of any future expansion or sequel. One problem with this is that the AI sometimes spawns mechs that are not correctly available until much later on. This mod fixes that and keeps everything era-appropriate, hopefully resulting in a more smoothly escalating difficulty level rather than huge spikes caused by the early appearance of an Atlas X (or something).

MW5 Mod Compatibility Pack

Pretty essential, this mod smooths out some minor problems in the base game and makes mods play nicely without one another.

Prime8's Distinct Weapon FX and Weather Improvement Mod

An aesthetic improvement that makes lasers, missiles and autocannon shots all "pop" better, greatly improving visual feedback and information, as well increasing the variety of weather conditions you'll encounter. Plus, they looks really cool.

Remove JumpShip Animation

Like it's near-neighbour BattleTech, MechWarrior 5 likes to play a lengthy, unskippable animation of your dropship docking with a jumpship and making an FTL jump to the next star system. Which is fine, but you only ever need to see it once. This mod disables the animation, greatly improving in-game speed. The dropship animation remains, since the game loads data on the new star system in the background, but that's much shorter and much less of an issue.

Max Tonnage

Found on the Nexus. The game has a variable maximum tonnage allowance on missions, so missions will force you to bring smaller, lighter mechs on low-difficulty missions and only allow you to field a full lance of Assault mechs on late-game, tough missions. Although understandable from a game balance POV, it's pretty nonsensical from a story and lore perspective. This mod resets the max tonnage for all missions to 400 tons, allowing you to deploy four of the heaviest mechs in the game (the King Crab and Atlas) with no issue. Just don't be surprised if low-difficulty missions now become a bit too easy.

TTRulez Enemy AI Mod

This essential mod fixes the enemy AI, making enemy mechs more likely to use long-range missiles, improved swarming tactics and enemy mechs with jump jets will actually now use them.

TTRulez Lancemate AI Mod

This essential mod fixes friendly AI, making allied mechs much less likely to trash the base you're supposed to be defending and more flexible in how they choose targets. Allied AI will also now use jump jets and other ancillary abilities.

Better Spawns

Found at Nexus. The most essential of all mods, this completely rewrites MechWarrior 5's dunderhead spawning system, which sometimes has enemy mechs and vehicles materialising 200 metres away behind a rock (or, in extreme cases, out of thin air). All enemy mechs and ground vehicles now have to be either on the map at the start of the game or be brought on via dropship, giving players more time to notice and react to their arrival. Enemy aircraft are prevented from spawning right on top of you. Vehicles arrive in lance-style groups rather than piecemeal, so present a greater challenge rather than rushing in one-by-one to be cut to pieces by focused fire from your forces. This mod increases the challenge by making enemies arrive more smartly and (in coordination with the Better AI mod) use better tactics, but also evens things out by giving you and your lance mates more time and ability to manage the battlefield.

With these mods installed, the quality of MechWarrior 5 abruptly increases from "okay" to "very good indeed," and I would not recommend playing the game without them.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Paramount+ drops a ton of STAR TREK news

Paramount+ - the revamped version of CBS All Access - have dropped a motherlode of news about the upcoming Star Trek seasons via Twitter. There's a lot to unpack here.

First up, Paramount and Nickelodeon have unveiled the look for Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Prodigy. They also confirmed that Janeway herself is not appearing in the show. Instead, it turns out that Janeway is the face of Starfleet's Emergency Training Hologram, used to help civilians pilot a Federation starship if the crew are incapacitated. They also revealed that Star Trek: Prodigy takes place in 2383, five years after the USS Voyager returns to Federation space, but will be set in the Delta Quadrant, raising interesting questions about how the Federation starship (presumably the USS Prodigy) central to the story ended up there. We still don't have an air date for Prodigy, although it was originally targeting a mid-2021 release.

Second up, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 will air in August this year and will see a return for Jonathan Frakes as Captain William Riker of the USS Titan, although given how Season 1 ended, that's not a major surprise. The producers have also confirmed that Lower Decks has been renewed for a third season, presumably to air in 2022. The trailer also indicates that at one point the team gets to pilot a Miranda-class starship (think of the USS Reliant or Saratoga).

Next, Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 (which wraps shooting soon) has a shiny new trailer and confirmation of a 2021 air date, probably in the autumn.

Finally, Star Trek: Picard Season 2 also has a new trailer and confirmation of a 2022 debut. Tantalisingly, the trailer (and a separate tweet) confirms the return of John de Lancie as Q in live-action. Q had a brief cameo appearance in Lower Decks but it's good to see him return to test his wits against Picard as well.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job. Mort is taken aback to find himself a trainee Grim Reaper, and puzzled because Death does not seem likely to retire or, well, visit himself. But, it turns out, after several million years on the job, Death would like a night or two off to let his non-existent hair down. What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out...

A reviewer more fully embracing of cliche would, at this juncture, feel inspired to say "This is where the fun begins," or look moodily into the middle distance against swelling orchestral music whilst declaiming, "S--t just got real." Mort, the fourth Discworld book, is generally accepted as the book where Pratchett finally nailed it. For many years it was the most-recommended entry point to the series, whilst it's also (by far) the easiest of the books to put on as a stage play. In 2003 it was voted as the best book in the series by the UK's "Big Read" survey. It's also been optioned for film several times, although Pratchett was always dubious of the idea after the first Hollywood producer he met told him how much he loved the book, but perhaps they could find some way of removing Death from the story?

Mort is radically different in tone and feel from the first three books in the series (or the next few, for that matter). It's a hugely concentrated story with only a few major characters: Mort himself, Death, Death's adopted daughter Ysabell (expanding on her brief appearance from The Light Fantastic), Death's manservant Albert, and a small number of characters in the kingdom of Sto Lat, including Princess Keli and the wizard Cutwell. The plot is straightforward: Death hires an apprentice, but doesn't quite take into account that a mortal human's view of the process of ushering souls into the next life isn't going to be as philosophical as a millions-of-years-old, non-human anthropological manifestation and Mort, unsurprisingly, makes a Bad Decision and spends the rest of the book trying to fix or avert it before Death can find out.

The result is a book that is very funny - we learn that Death is a huge fan of cats and curry (not together, fortunately) and has a kind of wistful curiosity about mortal life - but also surprisingly melancholy. It's a book that's about, well, death, which means it's also about life and the transitory nature of it. Pratchett does gentle, melancholic and intelligent humour very well but it seems to be something that almost every single adaptation misses out on, instead focusing on the zany out-there fantasy shenanigans (and admittedly Pratchett can do that really well as well, but it's not his focus). On a first read Mort works well as a reflective, funny novel but it gains additional kudos if you've read Soul Music and Hogfather and know more about the fates of some of the characters in this book.

The book is lean and focused, and also has a really satisfying, poetic ending. Pratchett's endings so far have leaned towards widescreen spectacle because that's what's expected in a fantasy novel - the plucky heroes making a one-in-a-million gamble to try to avert gibbering horrors breaking through the walls of reality - but you get the sense his heart was never really in it. In Mort he goes for a much more personal, character-based ending that's much more appropriate. Oh, there is still a supernatural swordfight of course. Some things are expected.

If there are negatives, they are fairly limited. This is still Early Pratchett, without quite the best-in-class wordplay and more incisive humour and characterisation of later books, but he's definitely getting there at a rate of knots.

Mort (****½) is Pratchett stretching his creative muscles, trying a different tack and finding a mode of storytelling that's exceptionally fine. The novel is available in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the book here.