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.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Rebooted HERO QUEST smashes crowdfunding target

Hasbro launched a crowdfunding programme for a new version of classic 1989 board game Hero Quest yesterday. They asked for $1 million to get a new version of the game funded and out to market in 2021. At just under the 24 hour mark, they sailed past the target. With the campaign expected to run until 6 November, it looks possible that the campaign might pull in several multiples of the target.

Additional stretch goals will be unlocked as more funding comes in. At $1.2 million, the game will gain a new Warlock character class courtesy of designer Shauna Nakasone. At $1.4, $1.6 and $1.8 million the game will add new models (dice, skeletons, goblins respectively). At $2 million the game will add an entire second, new campaign called Prophecy of Telor, designed by original Hero Quest creator Stephen Baker.

Additional stretch goals will be unveiled after that, with designer Nikki Dawes working on a Druid character class and Teos Abadia developing a further campaign called The Spirit Queen's Torment, which intriguingly will allow orc heroes to join the party.

Controversially, the crowdfunding campaign has only been open to contributors from the USA and Canada. Hero Quest was originally a British game, developed by British designer Baker and co-designed with British company Games Workshop. The game launched first in Britain (ahead of its American release) and was an immense smash hit here, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the UK by itself. The game was also immensely popular across Europe (particularly in Spain) and Australia as well.

With the game fully funded, it will be launched as retail project via Hasbro's wargaming and board gaming arm, Avalon Hill, in late 2021 and will presumably be available worldwide. The first two of the original game's expansion packs, Kellar's Keep and Return of the Witch-King, are also being rebooted, with a possible eye to the other expansions following.

More information on the game will be revealed at the virtual PulseCon 2020 this weekend.

BALDUR'S GATE II - the LORD OF THE RINGS of western RPGs - turns 20

BioWare's classic computer roleplaying game, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, turned 20 years old this week. The sequel to the 1998 original, Baldur's Gate II was bigger, more epic and exhausting to make, but more exhilarating to play. It was the last 2D game BioWare made, switching to a 3D engine for their next games Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and never looking back. They have acknowledged that they will likely never be able to match the scale and scope of the game again.

BioWare shipped Baldur's Gate in late 1998. A 2D CRPG launching in the initial age of 3D games - being released within weeks of Half-Life, in fact - Baldur's Gate proved to be a huge hit. Using the Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset and the Forgotten Realms world, Baldur's Gate and its excellent Infinity Engine caught the public imagination. BioWare's publisher, Interplay, even borrowed the engine so their in-house CRPG studio, Black Isle, could make their own variants, Planescape: Torment (1999) and Icewind Dale (2000).

Baldur's Gate allowed the player to create any character they wished and then guide them through a lengthy adventure. Starting with the murder of the player's adopted father by a mysterious stranger, the player would explore a semi-open world brimming with adventures, side-quests, monsters and treasure. They'd join forces with a band of bickering companions, some of whom would hate and fight one another. The player would even be able to romance some of these companions. All the while a compelling central storyline would unfold, culminating in the reveal that the lead character is one of the "Bhaalspawn," descendants of the slain God of Murder, Bhaal, and poised to inherit his murderous power. The original game ended with the party defeated another of the Bhaalspawn, Sarevok, and defeating a conspiracy to destabilise the Sword Coast and the great city of Baldur's Gate. An expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), expanded the original game with a series of new quests and a "super dungeon" adding many hours of new content.

With Baldur's Gate a huge hit, the team at BioWare started work on a sequel. With the engine already mature and ready to go, the designers were able to focus almost exclusively on creating content. In less than eighteen months, they had created a game almost four times the scale and scope of the original Baldur's Gate. The new storyline would expand on the "Bhaalspawn" elements from the original, with a new villain called Jon Irenicus trying to capture the main character to gain access to his or her power. In a deviation from the original game, where Sarevok appeared fleetingly, Irenicus makes more frequent appearances in the game throughout its length and is ruthless and threatening, killing several major characters from the first game and kidnapping another. Actor David Warner (Time Bandits, Titanic, Star Trek) was praised for his memorable performance as Irenicus, often cited as one of the greatest video game antagonists of all time for his conviction and menace.

Although the new storyline was memorable and well-handled, praise was also lavished on the game's immense number of side-quests, some developing into significant sub-plots lasting hours in themselves. These appeared in the game's second act which, as is traditional with BioWare games, is wide open and allows players to travel around, meet people at random and achieve different goals. Although not an open world game as such (even arguably as much as the original), Baldur's Gate II was still huge in scope with more than 350 locations to visit, dozens of dungeons to explore and thousands of enemies to fight. The game also gave more power and choice to the player, including greater character customisation options and bringing in rules from the just-released 3rd Edition of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game.

One of the game's most popular features was a home base. Depending on the main character's class, they would receive one of several potential strongholds. Over the course of the game the stronghold could be built up and improved on, and would provide a valuable location for players to retreat to between quests.

The game expanded the combat from the original game, offering a ton of elements to give players granular control over how they handled it. They could transform the game into a turn-based affair, pausing the game after every six-second action to issue new orders, or play completely in real time, able to pause with a tap of the spacebar to issue new orders. This freedom is, curiously, missing from in-development Baldur's Gate III, which has mandated turn-based combat only to the frustration of some long-term fans.

Baldur's Gate II was released in September 2000 and sold immensely well, garnering critical acclaim for its huge scope and length, as well as its refined game engine. The game such a success that Interplay wanted a sequel in development ASAP, but BioWare felt burned out on the Infinity Engine and had plans for an ambitious 3D engine that would allow gamers to replicate the tabletop D&D experience, including having one player serve as an online Dungeon Master in creating their own adventure. BioWare decided not to proceed with a full sequel but to "super-size" the planned expansion for the game into a proper ending to the saga. Released in September 2001, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal brought the Bhaalspawn story to a conclusion and was well-received, with its scope and size considered surprisingly huge for an expansion. BioWare would release their 3D, player-driven game, Neverwinter Nights, in June 2002 as their last (to date) D&D video game.

The size and scope of Baldur's Gate II could not be replicated in a 3D engine and BioWare decided not to even try, instead focusing on much shorter but much more "cinematic" game experiences, blending action and roleplaying. They also began developing games with a view to releasing console versions. Although the CRPGs developed during this period were highly successful and critically acclaimed for their stories and characters - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), Jade Empire (2005) and Mass Effect (2007) - they faced some criticism for being short and "dumbing down" RPG elements in favour of action. BioWare tried to reverse this course with Dragon Age: Origins (2009), a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate II set in their own original world, but matching the older game's epic story and focus on strong characters. Even this game couldn't match Baldur's Gate II's scale (coming in at around a third the size), but it was critical and commercial success, generating two sequels: Dragon Age II (2011) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014).

Those wanting a genuine successor to Baldur's Gate II had to wait a long time to get it. Obsidian Entertainment's Neverwinter Nights II (2007) and its two expansions focused more on single-player adventuring than BioWare's original, and scratched an itch for D&D CRPG fun in the Forgotten Realms setting. Obsidian went on to develop several "spiritual successors" of their own in a modern take on the Infinity Engine, resulting in Pillars of Eternity (2015), Tyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018). Their forthcoming new game Avowed is set in the same world as Pillars of Eternity, but draws more on Skyrim for inspiration than Baldur's Gate. Pathfinder: Kingmaker (2018) likewise channelled the spirit and energy of Baldur's Gate II, and made a rare attempt to try and match its size and scope. Arguably it was Larian Studios who delivered the first significant improvement to the isometric formula with Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and Divinity: Original Sin II (2017), which added environmental physics puzzles to the mix.

Although it's very different in moment-to-moment gameplay, which is more action-based, CD Projekt Red's The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015) might be the closest game to Baldur's Gate II in terms of the sheer epic nature of the storyline, the memorable cast of characters and the compelling plot which twists and turns over dozens of hours, whilst also giving the freedom to pursue a vast array of side-quests.

In 2019 it was confirmed that Divinity studio Larian would be helming the proper, official Baldur's Gate III. Taking place about 130 years after events of Baldur's Gate II, the epic new game sees the player creating a character who gets caught up in a battle between mind-flayers, dragons and demons, extending from the Forgotten Realms into the layers of Hell itself. Although the story is new and largely separate from the original games, some characters and dangling plot threads are expected to be addressed in the new game.

Baldur's Gate II set new standards for fantasy roleplaying games in terms of scope, storytelling, characterisation and adventure. Despite many brave attempts, it's never been quite matched and its influence looms large over the entire Western canon of digital roleplaying games. Whether Larian can match that legacy with Baldur's Gate III remains to be seen, but they certainly have an uphill task on their hands.

Baldur's Gate III will enter Early Access in October 2020 and will be released fully in 2021. Baldur's Gate II is available to play now in its updated "Enhanced Edition."

Ex-Blizzard personnel, disheartened by life under Activision, set up a new company and two new studios

A group of former staffers from Blizzard Entertainment have founded a new company in apparent protest over the treatment of their former home by parent company Activision, which acquired Blizzard in 2008.

The new company is called Dreamhaven and has been founded by former Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime. Morhaime ran Blizzard until 2018, stepping into an advisory role for a year before leaving altogether. Dreamhaven will run two development studios: Moonshot Games and Secret Door. No games have yet been announced, but presumably both studios will be anxious to get projects underway ASAP.

Blizzard Entertainment was founded in 1991 under the name Silicon & Synapse. They released their first two games, Rock n' Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings, in 1993 before before switching their name to Chaos Studios, Inc. They became known as Blizzard in 1994.

Blizzard had their first big hits with WarCraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) and its sequel WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), fantasy real-time strategy games inspired by Warhammer and Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis. They achieved even greater success with a science fiction variant on the franchise, StarCraft, which was released in 1998 to universal acclaim and enormous sales, becoming the biggest-selling real-time strategy game of all time with over 20 million copies sold.

They also began development of a dark fantasy action roleplaying game, Diablo (1997), and achieved success with more sequels: Diablo II (2000) and WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002). In 2004 they shifted gears again and released World of WarCraft, the most successful and popular online roleplaying game of all time with more than 100 million player accounts and over $10 billion in generated revenue.

The game's immense success saw them acquired by Activision in 2008. However, as part of the deal Blizzard continued to operate autonomously and they continued to release sequels: the much-delayed StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was released in 2010 and Diablo III in 2012. Both games were criticised, StarCraft II for the immense wait for the second and third parts of the campaign (the final part was not released until 2015) and Diablo III for technical problems and an "auction house" approach which was believed to be nickel-and-diming loyal fans. Diablo III's problems were fixed by the release of the critically acclaimed Reaper of Souls expansion in 2014. StarCraft II's sales topped out at under 20 million, with the game losing online momentum and long-term fans preferring the original game's unit balance and online play. In recognition of this, Blizzard abandoned plans for a StarCraft III in favour of StarCraft Remastered, released in 2017 to critical acclaim. Diablo III and Reaper of Souls went on to achieve tremendous success with over 30 million sales, but "cold feet" by Activision executives saw a second expansion cancelled and developers transferred over to a fast-tracked Diablo IV.

Blizzard experienced further controversies when a second MMORPG they put into development in 2007, Titan, was cancelled in 2014 after an immense amount of money had been spent on it. Blizzard salvaged the game's plot and art assets to create an online action game called Overwatch (2016), which proved an unexpected huge hit with almost 50 million sales to date.

Despite delivering massive sales successes - by some metrics Blizzard's games have sold over 250 million copies, making them one of the most successful development studios in history - rumours began to spread in 2018 that Activision was unhappy with Blizzard's development schedule, which saw games released only when "they were done" and not iterated on annually, like Activision's own Call of Duty franchise which has delivered a new game annually since 2005. Blizzard was forced to cut costs and downsize, angering executives and developers alike who were well aware of the continued massive revenue being generated by Overwatch, Diablo III and even the then-fourteen-year-old World of WarCraft. Morhaime stepped down around this time. Activision was also criticised for its handling of Diablo IV, cancelling an early version of the game which would have represented a more radical shift away from the classic gameplay (and would have perhaps been released as a spin-off rather than a continuation of the main series), losing key staffmembers and cancelling the formal announcement of the game in 2018 in favour of derided mobile spin-off Diablo Immortal, to the bafflement and then fury of fans.

This is familiar territory for Activision, who acquired original Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward in 2003. After initially giving Infinity Ward a lot of freedom and rewarding them for early successes, Activision took closer control of the company, forcing them to release games annually and bringing in other studios to help speed the production of spin-offs. They also refused to consider letting Infinity Ward work on new IPs or experiment more dramatically with the gameplay. As a result, the founders of Infinity Ward quit the company in 2010, triggering an epic series of suits and counter-suits that lasted several years. Many other Infinity Ward developers followed them out the door and they established an new company called Respawn, which collaborated with Electronic Arts on the Titanfall franchise (including the hugely successful multiplayer spin-off Apex Legends) and the recent Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, with EA guaranteeing them greater freedom to work on different projects.

It sounds like history has repeated itself, with reports of numerous Blizzard developers and staffmembers quitting the company to join forces with Dreamhaven.

Blizzard continues to work on Diablo IV, Diablo Immortal and Overwatch 2. Dreamhaven's new projects have yet to be announced, but I suspect that both Microsoft and Sony would be very happy to have their games on their new consoles and the PC platform.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Hasbro unveils new HERO QUEST project

 Hasbro has unveiled their fresh take on classic 1989 board game Hero Quest.

As related previously, Hero Quest was launched in 1989 as a collaboration between Milton Bradley Games (a subsidiary of Hasbro) and Games Workshop. The game saw a band of heroes braving a dungeon, depicted on a single board which would be adjusted with scenery into numerous different configurations. The game was a revelation at the time for its detailed miniatures and intricate scenery (particularly the impressive furniture). The game was a bestseller in both the USA and across Europe, although sales dropped off in 1992 and the game was cancelled after several expansions and a revised "advance" edition.

The new game is true to the original but has some updates to the gameplay to make it more streamlined and user-friendly. It has also removed any Games Workshop IP-derived creatures and characters to avoid potential legal issues, with "Chaos Magic" becoming "Dread Magic," Chaos Warriors becoming more generic "Dread Warriors" and Fimirs becoming a new race of aquatic monsters, the "Abominations".

The game has several improvements, such as using full plastic models for the doors (rather than card), plastic engraved dice and plastic bookshelves and fireplaces. The game will also allow players to play as either male or female versions of the four main characters.

The game is being crowdfunded via Hasbro's inhouse Hasbro Pulse Lab system. Players can preorder the base game for $99.99 or the "Mythic Tier" at $149.99, which includes additional miniatures based on the guy who gives the party its missions, Mentor, and the evil Witch Lord Zargon (who replaces Morcar, who is now a Chaos Lord in Warhammer). It will also include two full expansions based on the originals: Return of the Witch Lord and Kellar's Keep.

If the game exceeds its funding goal of $1 million, it will unlock additional bonuses like a new character class, the Warlock, and an entire new campaign book from original Hero Queste designer, Stephen Baker.

At this time of writing, the game had exceeded $200,000 in funding in less than 45 minutes, so it's quite likely the game will hit and then smash its goal.

Unfortunately, Hasbro Pulse does not ship directly to Europe, Asia or Australia, and only to Canada with hefty shipping fees. Given the absolutely titanic popularity of Hero Quest in many of those territories - and this is a British game in the first place! - that is disappointing.

Some fans have also expressed dismay at the price and the lack of any updated gameplay, noting that contemporary dungeon crawlers like Descent, Imperial Assault and, especially, Gloomhaven and Frosthaven have much more gameplay and many more ideas than Hero Quest at a cheaper price point.

More details should be released at Hasbro's virtual games event this weekend. They are currently targeting a late 2021 release date.

Actor Michael Hogan is seriously ill, costars and fans rallying around

Canadian actor Michael Hogan is seriously ill after suffering a fall which resulted in a brain injury, with his wife stepping up as a full-time carer. The accident happened back in February, but his family had kept the news secret until this week when they agreed to let it be made public and set up a Gofundme page to help make up for the family's loss of income.

Michael Hogan is best-known for playing the role of Colonel Saul Tigh on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, from the pilot mini-series in 2003 to the final episode in 2009. He was an initially divisive figure among fans, a drunkard and a has-been with a failed marriage who takes his inadequacies and rage out on subordinates, particularly Lt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) and is almost presented as the antagonist of the show in the opening episodes of Season 2, when he has to take command of Galactica when Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) is temporarily incapacitated. However, his characters underwent a major rehabilitation when he was among the colonists on New Caprica put under Cylon occupation at the end of Season 2. Tigh became an indefatigable resistance leader, ruthless in the pursuit of securing freedom and liberty for his people. Hogan's stellar performance - easily the equal of his much more famous co-stars Olmos and Mary McDonnell - sold the transformation and made him a firm fan favourite in later seasons, bolstered by a major character revelation in the final season of the show.

Hogan has also appeared in a veritable galaxy of other genre shows in a career spanning forty years: The Twilight Zone, War of the Worlds, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Millennium, The Outer Limits, Earth: Final Conflict, Andromeda, Warehouse 13, Dollhouse, Smallville, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, Fargo, 12 Monkeys, The Man in the High Castle and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

He also had a small but highly impactful number of voice-over appearances in video games, playing Captain Armando-Owen Bailey in Mass Effect 2 and 3, Doc Mitchell in Fallout: New Vegas and General Tullius in Skyrim.

Many of Michael Hogan's friends, colleagues and convention buddies have rallied around him and his family at this time, including Katee Sackhoff, Jewel Staite, Bear McCreary, Mary McDonnell, Amanda Tapping, Tricia Helfer, Rekha Sharma, Aaron Douglas, Sam Witwer, Jane Espenson, Mark Meer, Michael Trucco and Edward James Olmos.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Microsoft acquires Bethesda for $7.5 billion

In seismic news, Microsoft have acquired Zenimax Media, their games division, Bethesda Softworks and no less than eight subsidiary development studios in a huge deal worth $7.5 billion or, for context, almost twice what Disney paid for Lucasfilm in 2012.

The deal is the second-largest video game acquisition in history (behind only Tencent's acquisition of Finnish mobile developer Supercell in 2016, for $8.6 billion) and sees Microsoft take over the operation of Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, Zenimax Online Studios, Arkane Studios, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog and Roundhouse Studios. Combined with Microsoft's recent acquisition of studios including Obsidian Entertainment and inXile, this means that Microsoft now owns 23 games development studios, a formidable concentration of creative firepower.

It also means that Microsoft now owns many of the biggest IPs in gaming, including The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, WolfensteinDishonored and Prey, among many others.

The immediate fallout (so to speak) is to place the release of the next games in those franchises on the PlayStation platform in some doubt. Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo, in development at Arkane and Tango Gameworks, respectively, are timed PlayStation 5 exclusives and presumably those contracts with Sony will have to be honoured, but the question is whether other games like Bethesda's next big CRPGs - Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI (the sequel to uber-hit Skyrim, rumoured to have the working title Redfall), not to mention the further-off Fallout 5 - will remain multiplatform or become X-Box and PC exclusives.

Another strength of the deal is that it allows Microsoft to share out the franchises with other studios. Obsidian, for example, developed the critically-acclaimed Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesda in 2010 and it's been speculated that they might collaborate again in the future. The acquisition of Obsidian by Microsoft meant that was unlikely, but the new deal now makes it entirely possible for Obsidian to work on, say, Fallout 5 at some point in the future (something that would please many fans).

The news comes ahead of the November launch of both the X-Box Series S and X consoles and also Sony's PlayStation 5. In the runup to launch, the X-Box had gained a narrow technological lead over the PlayStation, but the PlayStation's lineup of exclusives was more impressive. With Bethesda's catalogue potentially becoming X-Box exclusive, that may convince some waverers to support Microsoft over Sony. It'll be fascinating to see how this develops.

Update: Microsoft have confirmed that they will honour the PS5 exclusivity contract over Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo, and have not ruled out future games appearing on PlayStation as well.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Dune (1984)

The known universe is ruled by the Emperor of the Imperium, Shaddam IV, who serves with the support of the Great Houses of the Landsraad. The growing popularity of House Atreides and its charismatic duke, Leto, spurs Shaddam to ally with the sworn enemies of the Atreides, the Harkonnens, and lure them into a trap by offering them the planet Arrakis - Dune - as a new fiefdom. Arrakis is the source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance known to exist, essential for the Spacing Guild to undertake FTL travel and for the prescient powers of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. But when the trap is sprung, the young scion of House Atreides, Paul, escapes into the desert with his mother and allies with the native Fremen, whom they start forming into an army.

Dune is science fiction's biggest-selling novel, and one of its most acclaimed. Frank Herbert's book, published in 1965, has become a taproot text of modern SFF, influencing everything from the original Star Wars to A Game of Thrones to The Wheel of Time and more. Unsurprisingly, this has made it a ripe prospect for adaptation to the screen. The first attempt, by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, failed in the 1970s due to budget concerns. A mini-series, released in 2000, was never more than functional. Denis Villeneuve's promising new film version is, at this time of writing, unreleased and its quality remains to be seen.

David Lynch's 1984 film version is the best-known adaptation to date and the most divisive. It's a curious film, made by a hugely talented and respected artist but one that was also made in thrall to commercial concerns that inhibited his creative freedom. It feels very much like the same problem that, a decade later, beset David Fincher's Alien 3. Both films emerge as interesting curiosity pieces, but beset by problems.

On the positive side of things, Lynch's film has incredible atmosphere and tone. The industrial gothic set design is impressive and many of the visual effects stand up, including the model work and the imposing sandworms (plus the still-freaky-as-hell Guild Navigator in the opening scene). The costume design is also sumptuous. Lynch is a painter on film, and there are many fantastically-framed shots. This is a film that does not lack for epic imagery.

The cast is also fantastic. For 1984 its cast was as stacked as the 2020 film's is today. Francesca Annis as Jessica, Jürgen Prochnow as Duke Leto, Max von Sydow as Liet-Kynes, Sean Young as Chani, Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Freddie Jones as Thufir Hawat, Siân Phillips as Revered Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Brad Dourif as Piter De Vries, José Ferrer as the Emperor, Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, Linda Hunt as the Shadout Mapes and, of course, Sting as Feyd Rautha. It's a galaxy of stars, most of whom give their all. Particularly good is Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, who despite his relative inexperience at this point gives a solid performance and is able to nail both the lighter, more boyish qualities of Paul at the start of the film as well as his darker, more messianic tendencies which evolve as the story continues.

The film does have several key weaknesses. The most notable is pacing. Because the Dune universe is strange and dense, Lynch makes the key decision to spend the first half-hour of the film engaged in laborious exposition. This is completely at odds with his later films and TV shows, where any kind of exposition or context is often missing altogether, and one wonders if his experience with this film made him leery of making the same mistake again. It takes the film 25 minutes just to reach the first scene from the actual novel, all spent in setting up concepts like the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild and the mentats. On top of that we get an introductory speech by Princess Irulan (who otherwise has just one line of dialogue in the entire film) further expanding on the spice melange and the importance of Arrakis. I can't help but feel that maybe Frank Herbert had the right idea starting the action more in media res and explaining things as he went along.

This slow start to the film is something it never really recovers from. Lynch expands a lot of time on the Atreides arrival on Arrakis, the first meeting with Dr. Kynes, the first encounter with a sandworm and so on, so that it takes ninety minutes to get Paul and Jessica to their first meeting with the Fremen. From that point to the end of the movie is just forty-five minutes, so Dune backs in a colossal amount of exposition, characters and action into the same amount of time as a network TV procedural. It's mind-bogglingly rushed, and likely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read the book (and even book readers may find themselves bemused from time to time).

Later three-hour cuts of the film - done without David Lynch's approval, and he withdrew his name from them - tried to solve some of these problems by increasing the run time and introducing more exposition, voiceovers and title cards, as well as reinserting some cut scenes, but these don't really help overcome the fundamental pacing problems and may exacerbate them (viewers' mileage will vary, though).

This problem is annoying because there is much here to enjoy. Dune is visually powerful and weirdly interesting, with a stellar cast and excellent location filming in a real desert (a key weakness of the 2000 mini-series is that it had no location filming at all), as well as a great score. But the pacing makes the first half of the film too slow and the second half far too rushed, and too many key concepts from the book are explored only in a half-arsed kind of way. Lynch seems reluctant to remove extraneous book material that doesn't impact on the film, which is why we end up with a pointless Duncan Idaho (who, from a film-only perspective, feels redundant as a character) and the Shadout Mapes, who shows up to offer a warning that everyone already knows about and could have been cut with little loss.

The biggest problem - certainly the one Frank Herbert objected to the most - is the ending, which undercuts the thematic point of the novel and renders the story as an unironic run-through of the Hero's Journey, with Paul as the white saviour/chosen one figure who is going to right wrongs and deliver peace and justice. The novel, and much moreso its sequels, is about the danger of the myth of the "superman" and giving absolute power into the hands of a "hero," with no concern about how it might corrupt him. In this sense, the film fails to deliver the story from the novel, which is more of a warning than a celebration.

If you're already familiar with the Frank Herbert novel, David Lynch's Dune (***) is an interesting interpretation of the book and features much that's impressive. However, the film fails to honour the themes and ideas from the novel (and the ending undercuts them), it is paced poorly and is a little too scared to remove elements from the book that don't work on screen. The film in is an honourable, watchable and interesting failure, but a failure none the less. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Tatiana Maslany cast as She-Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Tatiana Maslany, the Canadian Emmy-award winning star of the excellent SF clone drama Orphan Black, has been cast in the role of Jennifer Walters, better-known as She-Hulk. She will play the role in a Disney+ live-action series alongside Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

Jennifer Walters debuted in The Savage She-Hulk #1, published in 1980. Walters, a lawyer by trade is the cousin of Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, and inherits his powers after being given an emergency blood transfusion by him after an accident. She-Hulk is notable for retaining much of her human levels of intelligence and control even after "hulking out". The character has been a member of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Defenders and SHIELD at different times and her legal expertise has proven useful when various fellow heroes have gotten in trouble with the law.

She-Hulk is the latest in a series of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV series which will air on Disney+. It will be part of the second batch of MCU TV shows, following on from the first batch consisting of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki and What If...? Other shows in the second wave will include Hawkeye. Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight. She-Hulk is expected to premiere in 2022.

RIP Terry Goodkind

According to his official Facebook page, the fantasy author Terry Goodkind passed away yesterday at the age of 72.

Born in Nebraska in 1948, Goodkind had little initial interest in writing due to dyslexia, with which he had little support through education. He instead worked as a woodworker, artist and house-builder. It was whilst building his own house on an island off the coast in Maine in 1993 that he conceived of an idea for a fantasy novel which became Wizards' First Rule, the first volume in The Sword of Truth series. The book was published in 1994 by Tor Books with a huge marketing push, as they believed it could replicate the success of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence.

The Sword of Truth never achieved either the critical or commercial success of The Wheel of Time, but it did become Tor's second-biggest-selling series of the late 1990s. The series concluded in 2007 after eleven volumes, having sold over 25 million copies. Goodkind attempted to shift gears to write a contemporary fantasy, The Law of Nines, for a different publisher but the novel did poorly and plans for further books in the series were shelved. Goodkind returned to the Sword of Truth world to pen a series of prequel and sequel novels. In total Goodkind published twenty-two novels in his lifetime.

The Sword of Truth was adapted for television by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. Renamed Legend of the Seeker, two seasons of the show were produced in 2008-10.

Goodkind was a controversial figure in the fantasy field, a form of notoriety he seems to have enjoyed. He was an avid follower of Objectivism and its creator Ayn Rand, whom he frequently named as his favourite author. He is the biggest-selling and most popular Objectivist author since Rand herself, and his novels frequently featured lengthy asides where the characters debated Objectivist philosophy. Goodkind also didn't hide his political preferences in his books, in one novel casting thinly-veiled caricatures of Hilary and Bill Clinton as the main villains and showing disdain for pacifists and peace protesters. Several of his novels also featured non-sequitur essay-length discussions of the evils of socialism and communism.

His books initially attracted praise for their action and focus, but this rapidly died away as the series took on a distinctly repetitive and lecturing tone. Goodkind was dismissive of reviewers and, oddly, the entire SFF genre, repeatedly stating that his books were not fantasy because they dealt with "important human themes" and he regarded them as philosophical works. Goodkind's conception of the novels as weighty thematic tomes and the more general reader conception of them as ultraviolent and decidedly kinky pulp fiction were at such variance that it became a source of considerable humour on some fantasy websites; something Goodkind seems to have, oddly, encouraged, perhaps believing there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Goodkind did also experience more negative forms of controversy: he posted a medical report of his own health widely interpreted as mocking a dying Robert Jordan at the time (Jordan profoundly disliked Goodkind and his books, considering them to be sailing a bit too close to the wind of his own work), and in 2018 publicly mocked the cover art produced for one of his novels (leading to a rare apology). He wasn't always combative in his dealings with other authors, and occasionally praised other works of fantasy, noting that he was fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Outside of his writing, Goodkind was an amateur racing driver and continued artistic pursuits outside of his work. No cause of death was given. He is survived by his wife, Jeri.

It's fair to say that Terry Goodkind was a controversial figure in the SFF field but one who did bring a different perspective to the genre and seemed to genuinely relish his notoriety.