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.

Friday, 3 April 2020

TALES FROM THE LOOP arrives on Amazon Prime

The first season of Tales from the Loop has hit Amazon Prime Video today (USA, UK).

The eight-part series is set in Ohio in 1982, in a town called Mercer which sits on top of a gigantic particle accelerator known as the Loop. Various scientific experiments have been run at the facility for the preceding thirty years and detritus from these experiments litters the landscapes, including escaped robots and mysterious spheres with strange properties. Each episode focuses on a different character and their interaction with the Loop and its properties.

The series is based on the work of Simon Stålenhag, a Swedish artist who rose to fame with his atmospheric paintings merging 1980s nostalgia and hard-edged SF technology. His work resulted in both a 2014 art book and a 2017 roleplaying game, although the TV series draws solely on the art book for copyright reasons (and also re-sets the action from Sweden to Ohio).

The creative team behind the project is strong, with Stålenhag working as a concept artist, Philip Glass as the co-composer, Matt Reeves as a producer, Jodie Foster among the directors and Rebecca Hall and Jonathan Pryce leading the cast.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

LAST OF US II delayed indefinitely due to coronavirus pandemic

The eagerly-awaited video game The Last of Us II has been indefinitely delayed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The movie and TV industries have been hit badly by the pandemic, which has seen almost the entire global TV and film production industries shut down until further notice. The video game industry has been much more bullish, developers announcing that they are much better equipped to work from home and some even citing the advantages of doing so. CD Projekt Red recently confirmed that, after a few days' delay whilst they transitioned to home working, they are full steam ahead on Cyberpunk 2077 (due for release in September) and a new game in The Witcher series.

However, it appears that whilst development work can continue from home, the pandemic is impacting on the ability to manufacture and deliver physical copies of the finished game. The release of Final Fantasy VII Remake, the first major release during the pandemic (Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons both managed to slip out just ahead of most countries going into lockdown), has become fragmented with some countries receiving their copies of the game almost two weeks ahead of the official release date, whilst other territories may not receive copies until after the date given worldwide delivery disruptions. There is also the matter of retailers such as Amazon low-prioritising entertainment products in favour of essential goods.

The Last of Us II is functionally complete and ready to roll, with Sony admitting the main problem is the practicalities surrounding the release of the game.

Fans will be hoping that other games will not be impacted, particularly the year's other big release, Cyberpunk 2077.

HBO is currently developing a Last of Us television series with Sony Television, with Chernobyl head writer Craig Mazin attached to write.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

LIFE ON MARS revival mini-series in the planning stages

Matthew Graham, the co-creator and co-writer of the time-travelling metaphysical police drama Life on Mars and its sequel series Ashes to Ashes, has confirmed that he is developing a mini-series revival of the franchise.

Life on Mars starred John Simm as Detective Sam Tyler of the Greater Manchester Police. He is hit by a car and goes into a coma, but when he wakes up it's 1973 and he is working for a considerably less professional, more sexist police force under the leadership of DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Tyler has to solve crimes whilst navigating culture-clash issues, avoiding altering his own past and finding out what has really happened to him and if he can return to his own time.

The show aired two seasons in 2006 and 2007 and was both a critical and commercial success (an American remake starring Harvey Keitel was less accomplished, and axed after a single season). Simm declined to return for a third season, so the concept was rejigged as Ashes to Ashes. A new police officer, Alex Drake, who is obsessed with the strange story of Sam Tyler, finds herself in London in 1981, working for Gene Hunt who has moved down south to help combat a deadly crime wave in the capital. Ashes to Ashes ran for three seasons from 2008 to 2010 and ended on a surprisingly definitive note which fully explained the strangeness and seemed to close the door on any further adventures in this world, although Glenister did reveal that a 1950s or 1960s-set prequel series focusing on a young Gene Hunt had been discussed as a joke, with the title The Laughing Gnome (all of the show titles come from contemporary David Bowie song).

Although Ashes to Ashes was well-received, fans were disappointed that it did not reveal the fate of Sam Tyler and other key characters on-screen, instead relaying news of their fates in dialogue.

Life on Mars: The Final Chapter (working title) will be partially set in the 1970s, partially in the 1980s and mostly in an "alternate now." The series will also involve a TV show-within-a-show called "Tyler: Murder Division." Provisionally, Philip Glenister and John Simm have agreed to return and the writers want to bring back as many characters from both series as possible.

The producers actually let slip the news in a tweet on 30 March, and have confirmed that the news is not an April Fool's (which, in the UK at least, ends at midday anyway). The timescale for the new series will, of course, depend on when the current pandemic crisis eases.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

RIP Stuart Gordon

Maverick theatre director and cult SF/F director Stuart Gordon has sadly passed away from multiple organ failure at the age of 72. He is best-known as the co-creator of the Re-Animator and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchises.

Gordon was born in Chicago and rose to fame on the city's theatre scene in the late 1960s, working in "shock performances." The Game Show (1968) featured audience members (actually plants) being attacked by performers and a political allegory version of Peter Pan (1968) saw him arrested for obscenity. The following year he created the Chicago Organic Theatre Company and performed numerous plays, including works by David Mamet. He created and wrote the play E/R Emergency Room which ran for many years and in 1985 was adapted as a TV series which lasted for just one season, but cast George Clooney and Mary McDonnell, who later appeared in the considerably more successful but very similar drama series ER.

In 1985 Gordon directed his first feature film, the cult science fiction/horror B-movie tribute Re-Animator, starring Jeffrey Combs. The movie was a surprise hit and later had two sequels, Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), although Gordon was not involved. Gordon returned to the franchise for Re-Animator: The Musical (2011), which had a successful run in Los Angeles and New York.

Gordon then directed the horror movies From Beyond (1986) and Dolls (1987) before writing the script for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). He was due to direct the film, but had a bout of illness and Joe Johnston was drafted in to replace him. He later produced the sequel, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

Gordon also wrote and directed the cult movie Robot Jox (1990) and the less well-received Space Truckers (1996). His other film directorial credits include The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), Fortress (1992), Castle Freak (1995), The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit  (1998) and King of the Ants (2003).

For television he also directed episodes of Bleacher Bums, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show, Masters of Horror and Fear Itself.

Gordon's work is noted for its dark sense of humour and ability to provoke a strong audience reaction, whilst also retaining a solid emotional motivation for the characters. His work will live on, with a new Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movie in development with Rick Moranis slated to return to his starring role.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

THE MANDALORIAN adds Michael Biehn and Rosario Dawson for Season 2

The Mandalorian is adding some geek starpower to its second season.

Perennial 1980s legend Michael Biehn is joining the show as a bounty hunter. Biehn is best-known for playing the roles of Kyle Reese in The Terminator (1984) and Corporal Hicks in Aliens (1983), both directed by James Cameron. He has also appeared in films including Navy SEALS (1990), Tombstone (1993) and The Rock (1996).

In an also-exciting bit of casting news, Rosario Dawson (Kids, Sin City, the Netflix Marvelverse) is joining the show as former Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka was a regular character in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and a recurring one in Star Wars: Rebels, in both cases voiced by Ashley Eckstein. Dawson, a huge Star Wars fan, has expressed a long-standing interest in playing the character.

Season 2 of The Mandalorian completed principle photography several weeks ago, before the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown of filming projects worldwide. Work on the series has been continuing with the visual effects teams working remotely, although given the show's immense effects requirements it is unclear if it will be possible to complete the show in the same timeframe working just from home. Both The Walking Dead and Supernatural recently confirmed that it was impossible to complete the post-production requirements for their already-filmed episodes through remote working alone, putting both series on indefinite hiatus. Officially, Season 2 of The Mandalorian is set to air in October, but given the current situation delays may be possible.

Jim Butcher surprise-announces that two DRESDEN FILES novels will be published this year

In a swanky new trailer for the much-delayed sixteenth Dresden Files novel, Peace Talks, it was surprisingly confirmed that the seventeenth book in the series has also been completed and will be released this year as well. Jim Butcher's Battle Ground will be released in September, just two months after the release of Peace Talks.

The previous book in the series, Skin Game, was published in 2014. The six-year wait has been down to a variety of causes, including Butcher building a new house, a project was went horribly off-schedule. It does appear that Butcher is trying to make good on the delay though, releasing new books at an impressive clip and raising hopes that we'll see another book in 2021 as well.

Peace Talks will be released on 14 July 2020, with Battle Ground to follow on 29 September.

Monday, 23 March 2020

HALF-LIFE 3 (probably) confirmed

Well, it only took thirteen years, but it now appears likely that a proper sequel to Half-Life 2 and its expansions is finally on the way.


The news came in the closing moments of the latest game in the Half-Life series, Half-Life: Alyx. An "interquel" set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, the game was expected to be a VR showcase and a stand-alone story that would not impact on the future of the series. However, the game's ending is a huge surprise and ties directly into the cliffhanger ending that we were left on thirteen years ago in Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

The game follows Alyx as she gets wind of an artifact that the Combine has hidden in City 17's Quarantine Zone, an area where the flora and fauna of the alien border world of Xen has manifested on Earth. Early in the game it appears to be a weapon of mass destruction, but as the story progresses Alyx's supporting team, including her father Eli and "guy in the van" Russell, discover that it is in fact a prison constraining an individual in temporal stasis. Combine data files confirm that the individual escaped from the Black Mesa Research Facility and raised hell along the way. Eli concludes that the prisoner is none other than Gordon Freeman (the playable character in Half-LifeHalf-Life 2, and the latter's two expansions).

After numerous challenges, Alyx breaks into the prison and opens it, only to find it isn't Gordon at all but instead the mysterious G-Man, a familiar figure from previous games in the series. The G-Man tells Alyx that he is grateful for her intervention and offers her a reward, a "nudge" in time. She asks him to make it so the Combine never invaded Earth, but he refuses, saying that would be far more than a nudge. Instead he offers to change the future for her. He shows her the moment five years in the future that her father, Eli, is murdered by a Combine advisor in the closing seconds of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and offers her a chance to intervene. She does so, killing the advisor before it can kill her father. The G-Man then cautions Alyx that she is now his new operative, to replace Gordon Freeman whose performance is becoming "unsatisfactory." Like Gordon and Adrian Shephard (from Half-Life: Opposing Force) before her, Alyx is recruited into the G-Man's private group of operatives and seemingly removed from space/time.

There is then a flash of light and, post-credits sequence, the player resumes control of Gordon Freeman at the very end of Episode Two. A confused Gordon sees a now-alive Eli in front of him, the Combine Advisor dead in the background, and Alyx nowhere to be seen as Eli rants about this being the "unforeseen consequences" they were warned about previously. Eli vows to kill the G-Man - who can briefly be seen walking off in the distance - and throws Gordon's crowbar to him, telling him he has work to do.

The ending retcons that of Episode Two, in which Eli is killed and we end with Alyx weeping over her father's body. Writer Marc Laidlaw later revealed how he planned to resolve the cliffhanger in Episode Three, with Alyx and Gordon journeying to the Aperture Science vessel Borealis which was caught in multiple time frames and using it as a bomb to sever the link between the Combine homeworld (revealed to be an enormous Dyson Sphere) and Earth. At the last minute the G-Man would appear and rescue Alyx, but leave Gordon to his fate. Gordon would be saved and returned to Earth by the vortigaunts, with Alyx now missing and Gordon planning to find and rescue her, possibly going up against the G-Man directly.

It appears that Half-Life: Alyx has fulfilled some of the same story criteria whilst changing things around, so that Alyx's recruitment takes place at the end of Episode Two (presumably her memory of the intervening period was suppressed or eliminated) instead and Gordon's search for Alyx and a way of defeating the Combine once and for all will now simultaneously play out in a prospective Half-Life 3.

And does this mean Half-Life 3 is on the way? It appears so. Valve know their customers and wouldn't have an ending like this unless it was setup work for a future game in the series. It's also clear that Alyx was partially a way of updating their tech, engine and assets in preparation for an even more ambitious project, with the pre-release interviews for the game leaning heavily on the idea that more Half-Life content will be coming down the pipe (global pandemic notwithstanding, of course).

When Half-Life 3 might appear is another question, but fans may take heart from Alyx's unusually fast development time (the game was developed in about three years, surprisingly efficient for a modern AAA shooter). The real question is in which format it will appear. Half-Life: Alyx got away with being a VR game because of its status as a side-project. Making Half-Life 3 itself VR-only would be vastly more contentious and controversial, but if the sales for Alyx are good enough maybe Valve will be tempted to go down that route.

In the meantime, fans and theorists are going to have a field day working out what this all means for the slow-gestating franchise.

Black Mesa 1.0

For Gordon Freeman, it's just another day at work at the Black Mesa Research Facility. At least, until portals to another dimension open up, depositing hostile creatures into the facility and overloading its power systems. Equipped only with his Hazardous Environment Suit and a number of mundane and experimental weapons, Gordon must fight his way to the Lambda Complex, overcoming aliens and a secret US marine force sent in to restore order...and eliminate witnesses.

Black Mesa is a fan-made recreation of classic first-person shooter Half-Life (1998), made with the approval of original developers Valve Software. The game was previously released in 2012 (my review here) after eight years of development, but was missing the final chapters set in the mysterious alien world of Xen. After a further eight years of development, the Xen chapters have been added and the rest of the game overhauled and given a shine. It's now possible for players old and new to enjoy the full Half-Life experience from beginning to end.

The question is how the game holds up, and the answer is remarkably well. The Source Engine is getting on a bit and early chapters of the game do feel a lot more dated than they did eight years ago, especially character models. The outdoor areas also feel like they could do with a bit more of an overhaul, with lighting effects and distance views feeling distinctly under-par, although not too bad.

Luckily, for the most of the game you're fighting alien monsters in relatively tight confines, and then enemy soldiers in larger and more elaborate areas and for this the graphics are more than adequate. Half-Life's prize assets, in its sense of pacing, location and level design, remain intact and improved upon. Enemy AI also remains formidable, especially for the soldiers, and combat is still ferocious and fun without getting bogged down with modern frippery like cover systems and regenerating health. If you enjoyed Black Mesa's original release in 2012, you'll still enjoy the Black Mesa parts of this game and possibly even moreso. Some changes for the 1.0 release include slimming down several levels and making them shorter and leaner to improve the game's ferocious pacing, simplifying a few puzzles and generally making the experience tighter.

And then we get to Xen.

Xen has always been a millstone around Half-Life's neck. After fighting alien monsters in familiar surroundings (ordinary office rooms, industrial locations, warehouses), we take the fight to the alien homeworld, a collection of floating asteroids and moons linked by teleporters or long-range jumps. It worked okay in 1998 but some of the platforming jump puzzles were tedious and the unfamiliar visuals made finding the path forward a chore. The main thing in its favour was that it was short: from beginning to end Xen took maybe an hour to an hour and a half to get through, considerably less than the 10+ hours spent in Black Mesa itself.

Black Mesa's Xen has been radically overhauled. It looks graphically gorgeous, with constant, amazing vistas that look like they've jumped off a 1970s prog rock album cover. The soundtrack in this part of the game is also fantastic, with ethereal, haunting tunes. It's all very moody.

It's also now very long. Xen is more than twice as long as its 1998 incarnation and maybe closer to three times. The first half of Xen has been improved a lot with pacing and more focus on traversing larger environments through logical puzzles and ferocious combat, with a lot of the detailed platforming from the original release thrown out. There's even some new enemies, such as underwater barnacles that pull you down rather than up, and infant houndeyes which now explode rather than erupting sonic blasts at you. This part of the game is great fun, with a lot of thought that's clearly gone into how to make Xen better from a gameplay perspective whilst retaining its alien landscape and atmosphere. There's a few too many power cable puzzles in this part of the game, but nothing too outrageous.

Unfortunately, things get less impressive when the player encounters the Gonarch. The infamous pendulous mobile testicle monster was a horrific revelation in the original game, but a bit of a chore to fight. For some reason, the Gonarch boss fight has now been increased in length several times over, with Freeman playing cat-and-mouse with the creature through an underground cave network full of flaming gas traps and not-always-clear paths forward. Even worse, the Gonarch is completely indestructible until you finally corner it in its lair, but no information is relayed to the player to confirm this, meaning a lot of ammo is wasted before you can finally kill the damn thing.

The section after the Gonarch is then mind-numbingly tedious. The sumptuous vistas disappear and Freeman instead spends what feels like ages clambering through narrow pipes connecting power cables together and trying to find the path forward, which becomes progressively more laborious (especially when the path forward is sometimes just blindly hurling yourself onto a conveyor belt or standing on the edge of a bit of scenery that looks more like a bug than a clear path forward). The only good point in this section is a sequence where Freeman apparently (it's a bit unclear) frees the vortigaunts from slavery, which much better sets up the events of Half-Life 2.

Things rally at the last hurdle: the battle against the Nihilanth is much more involved, with Freeman ascending on a huge lift through different environments home to various aliens that he must fend off before proceeding. The ferocious combat in this section makes up for the final boss fight, which was perfunctory in the first game and, though better in Black Mesa, still a bit too straightforward.

The addition of Xen makes Black Mesa functionally complete, but it also feels like it could have done with a lot more polishing and cutting. The sequence is far too overlong and doesn't add much to the game. In fact, condensing the time between the Gonarch and the Nihilanth (which in the original game were much less than half an hour apart) back to the original and streamlining out some of the more tedious forcefield and power supply puzzles is all that's needed to bring the game to perfection. Crowbar Collective have promised a Black Mesa 1.5 at some point which will bring all the graphics up to a much higher quality and iron out the problems, and I hope they considering making big changes to Xen to make it more worthwhile. I do wonder if they rushed Black Mesa 1.0 out of the door to tie in with the release of Half-Life: Alyx (a VR interquel set between Half-Life 1 and 2), which is due in a few days.

As it stands, Black Mesa 1.0 (****½, falling to *** for the final section after the Gonarch fight) is the best modern way of experiencing Half-Life, with most of the game now a crisp, fast-paced, action-packed shooter which still stands head and toes above the competition. I played Halo: Reach, reportedly the best game in that series, a few weeks ago and Black Mesa is superior on every front, from enemy AI and weapons loadout to level design and pacing. The first part of the Xen section is also breathtakingly impressive and enjoyable to play. The second half is much more of a chore, and drags down the game's overall quality. This is something that hopefully will be fixed in forthcoming revisions. The game is available now via Steam.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

The TV shows that are still (hopefully) coming out in 2020-21

We've been focusing a lot on the TV shows that have been shut down and temporarily cancelled recently because of the coronavirus pandemic. The good news - albeit very relatively at this time - is that quite a few shows finished shooting before the pandemic took place and are still on track to come out later this year or early next, so we won't be completely bereft of new content during this time.

Red Dwarf
TV special, 9 April, Dave (UK)

Red Dwarf, the world's longest-running SF sitcom, is back with a special 90-minute TV movie on 9 April to air on Dave in the UK. The Promised Land pays off a storyline from Season 1 of the show (which aired way back in 1988), where it's revealed that the rest of the humanoid Cats who descended and evolved from Lister's pet feline have fled into space. The Promised Land reveals their fate, which unsurprisingly means more mayhem and craziness for the crew to overcome.

The Last Kingdom
Season 4, 26 April, Netflix (worldwide)

Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his motley crew of warriors and followers are back to help secure the young King Edward on his throne, as he seeks to carry on the work of his late father, Alfred the Great, in unifying the kingdoms of England. Based on Bernard Cornwell's novels The Pagan Lord (2013) and The Empty Throne (2014), this season carries Uhtred's saga into the 10th Century.

His Dark Materials
Season 2, October, BBC (UK), HBO (USA)

His Dark Materials started shooting its second season before the first even began airing on the BBC last year, and principle photography was completed in the New Year. That's great news with the bulk of the show in the can and ready to roll.

However, it has been reported that several pick-up scenes for the show were not yet in the bag with a view of getting them done later this year. How important these scenes are and how practical it would be to proceed without them is open to question. So whilst it's possible we'll see more His Dark Materials before the year is out, whether it will be complete is another question (and, of course, if the pick-up scenes are really vital and from early in the season, this may not be so doable).

The Expanse
Season 5, late 2020, Amazon Prime Video (worldwide)

Filming on Season 5 of The Expanse was well underway before Season 4 aired and wrapped on 21 February. The Expanse has fairly extensive post-production requirements - likely far more for Season 5 (which adapts the very busy novel Nemesis Games) than ever before - so it hitting its late 2020 date will be dependent on how much post can be done working remotely.

The Mandalorian
Season 2, October, Disney+ (worldwide)

Filming for the second season of The Mandalorian was completed on 8 March, just before projects started being shut down, so the tentative release date of October remains on the cards. However, The Mandalorian requires extensive post-production visual effects, so it hitting this date is based on the ability of the team at Lucasfilm to work effectively from home on post-production. In theory this date should be doable, but we'll see as the situation progresses. The Season 1 vfx requirements were extremely elaborate, requiring the use of state-of-the-art mocap facilities, and if these shots were not completed as part of the main shoot, we might potentially see delays.

Of course, it is vitally important that cast and crews of our favourite shows and everyone else stay safe at this time rather than worrying about entertainment, but at least a few of these series will be back on air in the coming months.