Thursday 30 April 2009

Skeleton Moon

Anyone who's a player of D&D 3rd Edition or Pathfinder may be interested by this new adventure from Paizo Publishing, which was written by my gaming group's occasional DM, Ben. It's a fine adventure at a cheap price for a digital download, so you may want to check it out. When we played it, we had four 3rd-level adventurers investigating the abscondment of a member of the Pathfinder Society from his duties, and getting into some dodgy situations as a result. It was a lot of fun.

Heroes: Season 3.5 - Fugitives

Given that the first half of Heroes' third season was almost unwatchably bad, it is unsurprising that many fans have given upon the show and its ratings are in decline in the USA. However, before the second half of the season debuted it looked like there was still hope the show could be redeemed. Writer-producer Bryan Fueller, credited with being behind the energy and enthusiasm of the first season, returned after a long absence and some new blood was added to the show, such as BSG's Mark Verheiden. The producers most responsible for the nonsensical plot twists the series had taken in Season 2 and the first half of Season 3 were both summarily fired. So, was this emergency surgery enough to save the show?

Events pick up after the end of the previous volume, 'Villains', with Nathan Petrelli now convinced that people with abilities are dangerous and need to be controlled. He recruits Noah Bennett to his cause and is assigned a tough enforcer, Danko, to carry out the mission. A new government organisation is set up to control the heroes and in the first episode these agents strike, taking the heroes prisoner and packing them on a flight to take them to an institution where they can be studied. Thanks to Claire and Peter's machinations, the plane crashes and our heroes are now on the run from the government.

The first few episodes of 'Fugitives' are unexpectedly good. Peter and Hiro's powers have been radically weakened so they are no longer show-breakers and the battle of nerves and wits in the agency's HQ between Danko, Bennett and Nathan is well-played. Tracey gets a lot more to do than she did last half-season and Ali Larter excels in the role, turning Tracey into an angry, driven woman who no longer fears her powers. Sylar also gets a sidekick, which is quite amusing, though ultimately the plot goes nowhere. Some former characters the show seemed to have forgotten about also return unexpectedly in new and logical roles. There seems to be a bit more thought going on than there was previously.

This culminates in the episode Cold Snap, written by Fueller, which sees Tracey's story reach its climax, the unmasking of the mysterious 'Rebel' and the culmination of another story thread between Matt Parkman and Daphne. These story elements are handled very well with a deft touch and the result is the best episode the series has done since the end of Season 1. It really fills the viewer with hope that the series, at long last, is starting to get back on track.

These hopes are immediately dashed as the plotting towards the end of the series becomes incoherent. Sylar's character is destroyed by atrocious writing and completely unbelievable character turns. The attempts made to make Danko sympathetic are utterly pathetic. The Season 3 finale is the most contrived, nonsensical and borderline-insane 44 minutes of television I have seen in a long time. It reads like particularly moronic Heroes fan fiction and the script should have been burned and the writers responsible for it fired immediately. The fact that they went ahead and produced it boggles the mind.

To some extent, these problems are still not fatal. Fueller's return to the show was very late in the day and the ending of the season was locked and scripted to the point where there was little he could do to save the finale. For Season 4, which commences with the volume 'Redemption', there needs to be a major cull of the weaker writers on the show, a lot of fresh blood needs to come on board, the remaining baggage from earlier in the show (particularly Sylar, who serves no useful purpose any more) needs to be swept away, they need to stop wimping out on showing us the major fights and, generally, the show needs a total revamp. If they can pull that off, a good show can still be dragged from the wreckage of the last two seasons. Given the falling ratings and increasing critical scorn, they're very lucky to have a fourth season at all, but it will be the last unless they can turn things around very quickly.

Heroes: Fugitives (**½) is the strongest 'volume' of the show since the first one, but this isn't saying much. Of the dozen episodes here, there are about four which are really good and a few others that aren't offensive. But the show is still nowhere near the form of its first season and is clearly on its last legs if things do not decisively change for the better.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Caprica: The Pilot

Tensions are rising between the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. The poorer planets are feeling oppressed and exploited by the richer, whilst the more powerful worlds are arrogant and decadent. On Caprica, richest and most powerful of the twelve worlds, people live increasingly empty lives. A new technological innovation, the holoband, has led to the creation of stunningly convincing artificial worlds or 'V-clubs' where young people can murder and torture one another for pleasure. Sickened by the collapse in morals around them, a small group of people have been swayed by the argument that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing god who can save them if they chose to be saved. But some the followers of the One God believe more direct action is needed, and one troubled young man proves his faith by stepping onto a packed commuter train laden with explosives.

In the aftermath of the disaster, two men are brought together by shared grief: computer programmer and entrepreneur Daniel Graystone and lawyer Joseph Adams. Both of them lost a daughter on the train, Zoe and Tamara, and both are searching for answers. Daniel soon learns that his daughter may not have just been an innocent bystander and, buried in the depths of the V-club, Zoe hid a programme of stunning complexity that may provide him with the breakthrough he needs in the creation of a new military robot for the Caprican government: the Cybernetic Lifeform Node. For Joseph, whose brother is a high-ranking member of the Tauron crime syndicate, his life becomes more dangerous and complex as he tries to provide a living for his son, William, and find a way to cope with his own sense of loss.

Caprica is a prequel series to Battlestar Galactica, beginning fifty-eight years before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies and about six years before the beginning of the First Cylon War. Absolutely no knowledge of BSG whatsoever is required to watch this show. Whilst BSG was a space opera, Caprica is resolutely a planet-bound drama, focusing on the characters, the politics, the crime syndicates and scientists of their world. There isn't a single space shot in the whole pilot movie, not even an establishing shot of Caprica, which seems to be a declaration that this show is going to try to do something different.

Yet it shares more similarities with the progenitor show than just a shared background. It's similarly ruthless and hard-edged. The pilot does not shy away from scenes of violence. In fact, the opening sequence in the V-club is far more explicit in violence and nudity than anything seen on BSG. The questions raised in BSG about artificial sentience and what constitutes a person or a soul are explored in even greater depth in this opening episode, and it's fascinating to see Caprica as technically more advanced than it is later on (due to the First Cylon War forcing humanity to abandon its more advanced technology that can be easily hacked by the Cylons). Those claiming this show isn't science fiction simply because it focuses more on an AI singularity than on space battles are seriously in error. This show has the potential to be a far more hardcore SF show than BSG itself.

The characters chosen to tell this story work very well. Eric Stoltz is the biggest name and plays Daniel Graystone as a driven man whose desire to learn, to innovate and to always come out on top is beginning to compromise his morals, and this character development is complicated by the death of his daughter and the manner in which he deals with his grief. Esai Morales brings significant gravitas to his role as Joseph Adams, and you could easily imagine him being related to Edward James Olmos (and yes, there's a reason why the surname gets changed). The interplay between these two very different men is interesting to watch and the scenes with the two actors are impressively handled.

The rest of the cast likewise impresses. Polly Walker, recently seen as Atia in Rome, takes on the role of Sister Clarice Willow, the head of the school where the cult of the One God has taken root. She has only a few scenes but channels an impressive amount of intensity into a very different role. Alessandra Toressani as Zoe Graystone is a bit more variable, but most pulls off a very tricky and demanding role, rising above the simple 'troubled teen' archetype to take the character into a somewhat more disturbing place. Paula Malcomson as Amanda Graystone also gives a remarkably good performance as the mother who has to cope with the loss of her daughter.

Special effects-wise, Caprica obviously doesn't have tons of space shots like BSG, but if anything it has a harder job, transforming downtown Vancouver into Caprica City without it standing out to the viewer. There's a couple of impressive sequences (the destruction of the train, most notably), but mostly their work is confined to establishing shots which, curiously, aren't as impressive as the stunning establishing shot of Caprica City in the BSG finale (which I'd assumed was test-run for Caprica). Bear McCreary is also on board for the music and his work is initially more muted than BSG, though BSG fans will take great delight at spotting a couple of themes from the parent show that are deployed at strategic moments.

Caprica's pilot episode does have one significant problem: it feels like we cover about 50% of the plot needed to get us to the show's end-point (presumably the start of the war) in just the pilot by itself. I'm not sure if there's enough plot strands to fill a single 20-episode season, let alone a multi-year ongoing series, and this raises the prospect of dreaded filler episodes (and BSG showed that this team are particularly inept at handling filler). But, given that the pilot has an excellent cast, solid writing, a compelling and dark storyline and an atmosphere not quite like anything I've seen before in SF, I'm more than willing to give them a chance to show what they can do.

Caprica's pilot (****½) is available on DVD now in the United States. There is no immediate UK release planned. The pilot will air on the Sci-Fi Channel in the United States and on Sky One in the UK and Ireland in early 2010, followed by the rest of the first season.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

The City and The City by China Mieville

Note: there is an informal 'embargo', at the author's request, on reviews giving away the central 'twist' to this novel before it is released. This makes it one of the toughest reviews I've had to write. I will revisit the novel in this thread once it is released to explore these issues in more depth.

On the eastern edge of Europe lies the city of Beszel. A young American archaeology student is murdered and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crimes Squad is called in to investigate. At first the case appears to have been a cross-border violation between Beszel and its close neighbour of Ul Qoma, with whom it shares frosty relations, necessitating the calling in of the far better-equipped 'Breach' department to deal with the matter. When it is revealed that the border crossing was handled legally, Borlu finds himself seconded to Ul Qoma to aid their end of the investigation, working alongside Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt. Their investigation soon turns deadly and Borlu has to consider dangerous acts if he is to bring the murderer to justice.

China Mieville's latest novel has been heralded by advance publicity as his best, but that's a bit of a stretch. Mieville has explored the urban environment in many interesting and refreshing ways, but given he's covered the same ground now in five previous novels and many more short stories, it could be said that this is yet another visit to a well that is starting to run dry. There is a totally brilliant but completely impractical conceit at the heart of The City and The City which makes reading it an oddly tricky task: the story is gripping, the characters convincing and interesting, but buying the backdrop is hard work. Unlike Mieville's Bas-Lag novels or most of Un Lun Dun, this book is set firmly in the real world with the addition of these two cities at the eastern edge of Europe, and neither the world nor humanity at large operate in the way that Mieville needs them to for the conceit to work. If this was Bas-Lag or another fantasy world, then fair enough, but it's a world with iPods and Google and Chuck Palahniuck novels instead. Revelations at the end of the book show that Mieville is aware of the problem, but paradoxically those same revelations also make the conceit even harder to swallow. The irony is that Mieville, for all his New Weird credentials eschewing traditional genre conventions, is nevertheless normally remarkably thorough and cohesive in constructing his novels and his 'weirdness' makes sense, if often in a very oblique or surreal fashion. Here things don't quite add up in the same way.

If you can push that to one side and accept the book as is, it's another great novel for Mieville. It's a very solid murder mystery, intelligently written with a solid resolution. The central characters, not just Borlu but the people around him and the people he is investigating, are all well-drawn with convincing motivations and rationales. It's imaginative, but also a little grim. That occasional sense of playful humour that even Perdido Street Station possessed is absent, and whilst the central idea is great elsewhere Mieville's imagination is kept firmly in check.

The City and The City (****) is an impressive novel built around a concept which is not handled as well as it could have been if it was in Bas-Lag or another secondary world. But the prose is peerless, the characters are well-defined and the mystery intriguing, and it'll probably still be one of the highlights of the year come the end-of-year discussions. The novel is published on 15 May in the UK by Macmillan and on 26 May in the USA by Del Rey. Del Rey have a video of the author discussing the book here.

Monday 27 April 2009

Paul Kearney on his current projects

Over on Chronicles Network, Paul Kearney has commented on his current projects. At the moment, the Monarchies of God reprints are going ahead after a delay due to the publishers not being able to get hold of the original manuscripts. However, the final Sea-Beggars novel and the two new Macht books are currently up in the air due to the ongoing sale of Solaris. Once Solaris' fate is decided, there should be some more news on that front.

On a happier front, Paul also has some good news about his foreign sales in the same post, notably that a Spanish version of Monarchies is on the way (and given that Spain is an influence on some aspects of Monarchies, that is appropriate).

In the meantime, Paul is now also working on a new, non-fantasy novel.

Some more forthcoming cover art.

The cover of the forthcoming Subterranean Press version of The City and The City by China Mieville:

And the UK cover for the next Discworld novel by Sir Terry Pratchett.

Bet you they stick the Librarian in goal. And who convinced the Patrician to be the umpire?

The Wertzone: Plans, Thoughts & Explanations

Graeme's post here is interesting, in which he asks people what they want to see more of on his blog. It's an interesting post, mainly as it's not something I've massively thought about over the years. I post stuff I want to post on my blog and if other people like it, than awesome. My original thought on the blog was to make it a repository for my online reviews all collected into one easy-to-access space, and its subsequent very moderate rise in popularity has been a happy side-effect of that.

That said, I do try to break things up a little for variety's sake, if nothing else. I had a few book reviews in rapid succession last week, and now there have been a few computer game ones as well, and there's a couple of DVD ones coming up. I know some people out there only stop by for the book reviews and ignore the games, and possibly vice versa, so mixing it up is also good for them as well. I've also got some increased coverage of Transformers coming up (an article on the Marvel comics and some reviews of the graphic novels) which may very well bemuse those stopping by to see what the latest Richard Morgan novel is like :-)

Whilst I'm mulling over this point, this is also a good point to answer a couple of long-standing questions people have asked me irregularly:

Why no competitions?
I now have enough contacts at various publishers to start organising competitions, but to be blunt I'm not a fan of them. People like Pat handle them far better than I do, and for me they would be the point where the fun of blogging goes out the window and it turns into an (unpaid) job. I may revisit this point in the future, but for now unless it was for something very special, I'm not going to be running any competitions.

Why no interviews?
This is a tougher one, but again it's not really where my strengths lie. I'm not a fan of the stiff email-exchange format a lot of online interviews take and I'd much prefer to talk to authors face-to-face. Unfortunately, opportunities for the latter usually arise at publisher events when alcohol is on hand, and structured conversations tend to fall apart under those circumstances :-) That said, this is something I will revisit at some point.

Why not more opinions/articles on the latest hot blog discussion topic?
Specifically, why didn't I say anything about the recent queryfail/editorfail/racefail etc palava that absorbed a lot of e-hours? Well, to be blunt a lot of those discussions are completely fruitless. When you get people genuinely saying, with apparently straight faces, that writers should not write about people or cultures or genders they are not a member of, then there's not much point getting into a discussion with them. I'm also usually pretty late hearing about these topics and getting into them three weeks after they flared up seems a bit pointless. I like discussing news items and I like talking about reviews, things that are solid and can be discussed. I think there are more than a few of the SF&F blogs out there which get into these discussions regularly have a tendency to wander off into in-depth conversations about something someone you've never heard of said at a convention three years ago which indicates they might actually be a member of the Illuminati or something. Who gives a toss? I'd much rather be talking about the new Alastair Reynolds novel, or if Caprica is engaging in the issues of artificial sentience in a meaningful way (the answer to the latter, by the way, will be answered next week), or if Blake's 7 is a better space opera than BSG (the answer to that is kind of).

Anyway, just something I thought worth mentioning after reading Graeme's post.

Currently Reading: The City and The City by China Mieville
Currently Watching: Lost Season 5 (TV), Heroes Season 3.5 (TV)
Currently Playing: Mafia

Sunday 26 April 2009

Some Big Fallout News

Continuing our recent computer game theme, there have been some recent developments on the Fallout gaming front that will be of interest to fans of that game.

Even 200 years after the nuclear apocalypse, electricity pylons are still standing. That's some badass engineering.

First off, the last of Fallout 3's downloadable mini-expansions, Broken Steel, is released on 5 May. Broken Steel, unlike the others, follows directly on from the end of the original game (which it partially changes) and will see your character tying up some loose ends from that title. Your character can also now increase his experience to Level 30, and there are new NPCs to team up with, new enemies to kill and new weapons and perks to acquire. As well as a new storyline following the battle between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave, there are some new side-quests as well. Broken Steel is the largest of the three DLC expansions and already looks like being the best. More here.

Secondly, in a surprising and most welcome move, Bethesda have announced that Obsidian Entertainment will be developing Fallout: New Vegas, a stand-alone spin-off that will launch on PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2010. Reading between the lines, it sounds likely that New Vegas will use an enhanced version of the FO3 engine and will be a self-contained RPG set in the same universe, likely in Nevada. This news is welcome and appropriate because Obsidian are, effectively, the successor company to Black Isle, who created the original Fallout and Fallout 2 in 1996-97, and several people working on the game worked on the original games as well as titles such as the immortal Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II. Obsidian are also among the most respected creators of RPGs out there, alongside their occasional partners BioWare, and are notable for their excellent handling of dialogue and characterisation, areas which some reviewers (cough) feel Bethesda could do a bit more work.

In less happy news, Bethesda have terminated their business contract with Interplay which would have allowed the latter to develop a Fallout Online game. According to Bethesda, Interplay failed to meet the terms of their agreement, something Interplay are disputing. Oh well.

Saturday 25 April 2009

Homeworld 2

One hundred and fifteen years after the resettlement of Hiigara, the former Exiles have built up a technologically-advanced civilisation spanning much of the Inner Rim of their galaxy. But a new threat has arisen. The warrior-clans of the Vaygr have unified under a warlord named Makaan and vowed to unite the three great hyperspace cores that will awaken Sajuuk, a legendary figure in galactic mythology, and harness his power for their own. To combat this threat, the Hiigarans have built a new flagship, the Pride of Hiigara, and transferred their core from the old Mothership to it. But, before the Pride can be launched, the Vaygr launch a pre-emptive assault, destroying the Pride's construction facilities and besieging Hiigara. With the homeworld only days from falling, the Pride and its fleet must unite the three cores and awaken Sajuuk to defeat the Vaygr before Makaan can do the same.

Homeworld 2 was released in 2003, four years after the first game in the series and three after the well-received stand-alone expansion, Cataclysm. The reason for the lengthy delay was due to Relic pursuing an original project, Impossible Creatures, with Microsoft and returning to the Homeworld series somewhat belatedly. The publishers, Vivendi, were clearly unimpressed and there was very little publicity for the game. It is also likely that any planned sequel or expansion was shelved even before the game was completed, since Homeworld 2's end sequence seems to rather hurriedly describe another sequence of complicated events that sound like they really should be game missions.

Homeworld 2 is something of an evolution and expansion of the original game. Principally, the game is played more or less in the same manner as before. You build up a fleet of ships from your mothership and its attending carriers (the sequel adds mobile shipyards as well, where you can build the biggest vessels in the game) and take the fight to the enemy. Each mission has a different objective, whether it's blowing up an enemy ship, recovering a vital artefact, or holding off an enemy force until you can escape. The game's intricate and mythology-heavy storyline is relayed through Relic's trademark black and white animated cut scenes, which remains a highly effective and atmospheric method of getting across information efficiently. There's also a lot of in-game cinematics which depict the changing circumstances of this new war.

Homeworld 2 is different to its forebear in that it's based around more mythological ideas than the first game. Indeed, with its prophecies, chosen ones and heroes prophesied to return from the dead, it feels like it's more of a fantasy story than hard science fiction. The number of macguffins in the story, from oracles to keepers to super-dreadnoughts, is a bit cheesy but the stakes are high and the drama is played out intensely. Unfortunately, the game's reliance on its storyline interferes with the strategic aspects of the game. Often missions are lost because a mission-specific event has an enemy fleet jumping in on top of your mothership whilst your fleet is attacking an enemy base on the far side of the map (your mothership can move this time, albeit incredibly slowly), leading to the annoying situation where some missions can only be completed after you've attempted them three or four times and can get your fleet in position to jump enemy forces when they arrive. For a strategy game, this can be rather annoying.

On the plus side, there are many innovations. Ships now have sub-systems that can be upgraded and improved (not just your mothership as in Cataclysm but your battlecruisers, shipyards and carriers as well), and the game is more strategic than before. Bombers, fighters and corvettes are necessary right through the game (in the first two you could stop bothering with them about halfway through and it didn't really matter) and you can now combine your capital ships and fighter wings into massive strike groups. When you order these groups to engage enemy fleets, the ships in the group will automatically select the best targets for them to deal with. So flak frigates will target enemy fighters, ion frigates and bombers will go after enemy capital ships and so on. The AI used in this is excellent and remains impressive six years on, although it's a little too good. A strike group maxed out with ships will annihilate entire enemy fleets with no need for you to issue any more orders which is impressive but does reduce the player to a bit of a spectator at times. But when the game looks this good (and the graphics are still gorgeous today) that's not too much of a hardship. Sound is also exceptional, with the music possibly being the best out of all three games and given the quality of the first two games' music, this is quite remarkable.

The game suffers from one, massive flaw that is a dealbreaker for many players. The game scales its difficulty based on the size of your fleet, so the enemy is always given between two and four times as many ships as you have at the start of each level. This is an artificial and unconvincing way of providing a challenge and makes it feel like the game is being deliberately unfair to the player. In addition, the difficulty curve is insane. The third and fourth missions in the game are, ludicrously, the toughest (mission four in particular is ridiculously hard and it's possible to break it by sending a probe to check on the enemy base - a fairly standard tactic - as this means several cut scenes won't trigger and you can't finish the mission or the game). Once you get past them, the game eases off a bit and it's possible to finish the rest of the game in a few hours.

Homeworld 2 (****) is a fine addition to and expansion of the series, even though the somewhat cheesier story, the scaling flaws and difficulty curve all mean it's not as satisfying as the first two games in the sequence. It's well-produced, still looks great and offers some interesting tactical and strategic advances, but it lacks some of the character and charm of its predecessors. Still, the Homeworld universe is a fascinating place, and we are long overdue a return visit. In 2007 THQ, Relic's current owners, bought the Homeworld licence from Vivendi and it is now widely believed there will be a Homeworld 3 some day (there are some comments at the end of this interview here with Relic that suggest this could be on the horizon). The game is available now on budget in the UK (PC, Mac) and USA (PC, Mac).

Homeworld 2 has seen some excellent mods produced for it over the years, most notably the Battlestar Galactica mod Fleet Commander, which allows you to command Colonial battlestars or Cylon baseships in combat, or the Homeworld 2 Complex series which turns it into a massive, multi-hour strategic online challenge. The game's excellent mod scene ensures there's a lot of free content out there that can make the game last a lot longer than its otherwise modest length would ensure.

Friday 24 April 2009

Wertzone Classics: Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Cheradenine Zakalwe is a (non-Culture-born) agent in Special Circumstances, skilled in steering less-developed planets towards the path that the Culture thinks is best for them. Unlike most SC agents, Zakalwe's speciality is fighting and the use of weapons in both prosecuting wars, and averting conflicts. His handler is SC agent Diziet Sma who, along with her drone companion Skaffen-Amtiskaw, has to set out to locate Zakalwe when his abilities are needed again.

I've read enough of Iain Banks' other work to be able to say that Use of Weapons is almost certainly his masterpiece, which is really saying something compared to the high quality of his other novels. In this book everything just works. The characters are sublimely handled, with Banks immersing you in their lives to the point where you stop thinking of them as characters and instead accept them as people. The structure of the story is inventive without over-relishing its own cleverness. The chapters alternate between a forward-moving story about Diziet tracking down Zakalwe for a new mission, and how that mission unfolds, and a backwards-moving one as we follow Zakalwe's story back to his youth. Just to shake things up, both narratives also feature flashbacks to earlier events as well. The structure could have confusingly imploded in on itself (and earlier drafts stretching back fifteen years before it was published are apparently far more complex), but in the published book it works effortlessly. The storylines may be moving in different directions and feel dislocated from one another, but they collide with impressive force at the end of the novel in a stunning final chapter.

Banks' signature creation, the Culture, has never been so convincingly portrayed or as well-handled as in this book, and its total bafflement at Zakalwe's antics (personified by Skaffen-Amtiskaw's exasperation with events) is amusing to see. In fact, there's a lot of Banks' traditional black humour running through the book, lightening the gloom that threatens to descend during some of Zakalwe's more introspective moments.

Use of Weapons (*****) is a spectacularly good science fiction novel that addresses questions of memory, motivation, guilt and conscience in a consistently entertaining and sometimes very funny manner. A masterful novel from a writer at the very height of his powers, and highly recommended. The novel is available now from Orbit in the UK and USA.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Wertzone Classics: Homeworld Cataclysm

Fifteen years have passed since the Exiles returned from their four-millennia sojourn on the desert world of Kharak and reclaimed their homeworld, Hiigara. Their return sparked the fall of the decadent and corrupt Taiidani Empire and the death of the immortal Emperor, plunging the Galaxy into a time of strife and chaos it is only now, and rather shakily, recovering from. A new Taiidani Republic, allied to the Hiigarans, has arisen to replace the old empire. Meanwhile, the Exiles have split into their former political and familial groupings, the Kiith. Kiith Somtaaw are among the smallest of the clans, specialised in mining operations. After a time of political controversy amidst the Kiith, Somtaaw has become a mobile group based around two large, modular mining ships, the Kuun-Lan and the Faal-Corum.

When an Imperialist Taiidani strike group breaks through the defensive lines around Hiigara, the Hiigarans scramble a response. The Kuun-Lan plays a key role in defeating the Taiidan force but, as usual, the Somtaaw go unthanked for their efforts. Whilst helping in the recovery of a warship on the outer edges of the system, the miners stumble across an ancient beacon of some kind, more than a million years old. Attempts to analyse the beacon soon become problematic when the organic residue coating the beacon suddenly spreads and overruns the lower decks of the Kuun-Lan, which are jettisoned. Kiith Somtaaw has inadvertently unleashed a bio-mechanical virus which subverts both technology and organic beings into a rapacious and growing threat, code-named 'The Beast', a threat which cows even the powerful Bentusi. Spreading at an exponential rate, the Beast will overrun and destroy civilised space in a matter of months. With little choice, Somtaaw rebuilds the Kuun-Lan as a warship and takes the fight to the enemy.

Cataclysm started life as an expansion for Homeworld that got bigger and more ambitious, and eventually became a 'stand-alone expansion', although that's doing it a disservice. It's actually bigger and longer than Homeworld itself with two brand-new factions sporting new fleets and units (although the Beast fleet consists mainly of altered ship models already existing from Homeworld), not to mention significant improvements to the game interface. The result is a game which successfully improves upon the existing, winning formula. This is all the more impressive given that the game was created by Barking Dog Studios rather than the original team at Relic, although Relic did provide assistance and advice.

The first and most notable difference is how your mothership operates. Your new command ship, the Kuun-Lan, is a versatile and powerful ship in its own right which can now, thankfully, move around the map (the Homeworld Mothership, somewhat daftly, couldn't). As the game progresses you can upgrade the command ship with new modules, research posts, weapons and defences, so by the final mission the vessel sports forcefields, repair drones and some pretty lethal weaponry. In most other respects the game operates in a similar way to the original, but a lot of the micro-managing elements have been streamlined or removed. Ships are now more versatile: the Somtaaw destroyers have both beam and missile weapons, whilst in Homeworld you had to choose between building beam destroyers or missile ones, whilst the new resourcers can also carry out repair and salvage operations, whilst again the first game had separate repair, salvage and resource ships. The interface has also seen the vital addition of a time-skip facility, which is both vital when your fleet has to cover vast distances around the map and also for the end-of-mission harvesting-every-thing-on-the-map-before-moving-on phase. The absence of this feature from the original game, even after patches, is the sole reason I docked it half a star.

Cataclysm, as the title suggests, is considerably more violent than the first game. Missions are usually more action-packed and feature rapidly shifting and changing objectives that require readjustment of tactics on the fly, at least considerably more than was required in Homeworld itself. The game is also more frugal with the more powerful units, holding back on the ion cannon warships until mission seven or eight, whilst in the original game you got them on the fifth mission. This makes the game tougher than the original. The fact that the enemy you are facing has the supremely annoying ability to take over your vessels and turn them against you if you aren't careful also contributes to this more challenging difficulty level.

The story is excellent, tense and well-depicted in between-mission cut scenes and in-game cinematics. Although sporting some similarities to the Borg, the Beast is a formidable and threatening foe that is considerably more daunting than the Taiidani of the original game. The fact that Kith Somtaaw is a mining family lacking heavy weaponry during the early stages of the game adds to the desperate feel of the game. However, the narrative is slightly incongruous when compared to the mythology-heavy stories of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, and given the sheer scale of the war against the Beast its complete lack of referencing in Homeworld 2 is unusual. Also, part of Homeworld's success was down to its slower, less frantic pace, with its majestic depiction of space travel and combat. Cataclysm does away with this in favour of more epic, intense battles. Cataclysm's soundtrack is also less satisfying than Homeworld's, and doesn't replicate the original game's excellent use of classical music at appropriate moments.

Homeworld: Cataclysm (****½) is a superior RTS that is a more than worthy follow-up to the original Homeworld. It fixes a number of issues with the first game's interface and is more tactically challenging, making for a slightly superior gaming experience. However, the writing, music and generally more epic 'feel' of the first game is still more impressive. As a result the two games come out even. Both are excellent, both will run on even the lowliest modern laptop, and both are available, with some difficulties, in both the UK and USA. Check them out if you haven't already.

Next up, Homeworld 2, which isn't quite as great as its forebears but still worth a look.

Wheel of Time Book 12 Cover Blurb

Tor have published their late 2009 catalogue, and have included a write-up on The Gathering Storm. No cover yet, although according to Brandon Sanderson's blog the cover will be similar to that which was leaked last month, save that Rand is facing the reader and not doing a weird dance any more. My guess is we will see that in the near future. There's also some titular confusion going on, with the catalogue calling the book A Memory of Light: Gathering Clouds - Book Twelve of The Wheel of Time. Gathering Clouds was the working title which has been ditched. The Gathering Storm will be the correct title, apparently. I'm not too keen on this confusing Book 12 of WoT/Book 1 of AMoL thing going on either. My idea is that they should ditch AMoL on the covers at least and just have A Memory of Light as the title of the final book when it is released in 2011.

The blurb:
"Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle, looms. And mankind is not ready.

A Memory of Light was partially finished by Robert Jordan before his untimely passing in 2007. Brandon Sanderson, New York Times bestselling author of the Mistborn books, was chosen by Jordan’s editor—his wife, Harriet McDougal—to complete the final book. The scope and size of the novel was such that it can not be contained in a single volume, and so Tor proudly presents A Memory of Light: Gathering Clouds as the first in a short sequence of novels that will complete the struggle against the Shadow, bringing to a close a journey begun almost twenty years ago and marking the conclusion of the Wheel of Time, the preeminent fantasy epic of our era.

In this epic novel, Robert Jordan’s international bestselling series begins its dramatic conclusion. Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, struggles to unite a fractured network of kingdoms and alliances in preparation for the Last Battle. As he attempts to halt the Seanchan encroachment northward—wishing he could form at least a temporary truce with the invaders—his allies work in desperation to forestall the shadow that seems to be growing within the heart of the Dragon Reborn himself.

Egwene al’Vere, the Amyrlin Seat of the rebel Aes Sedai, is a captive of the White Tower and subject to the whims of their tyrannical leader. As days tick toward the Seanchan attack she knows is imminent, Egwene works to hold together the disparate factions of Aes Sedai while providing leadership in the face of increasing uncertainty and despair. Her fight will prove the mettle of the Aes Sedai, and her conflict will decide the future of the White Tower—and therefore the world itself.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow."
Sanderson has also confirmed on his Twitter that the final edit has been done, the book has gone off for a final round of approval and then should enter production for its planned release date, which at the moment is 30 October from Orbit in the UK and 3 November from Tor in the USA.

There's also a report here from JordanCon 2009, where among other things the story for the 'outrigger' Wheel of Time novels Jordan planned before his death can be found.

New Press Release on the Game of Thrones TV series

The government of Northern Ireland has officially confirmed that it lobbied HBO for them to film A Game of Thrones in the country. Previous reports about the filming location had merely mentioned 'Ireland', leading many fans and commentators to assume the show would be made in the Republic, which has already seen many major film and TV productions filmed there including the likes of Braveheart and The Tudors. According to the report, the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister spoke to HBO representatives in LA last month to secure locations in Northern Ireland, with the massive Paint Hall Studios in Belfast playing host to interior filming. A Game of Thrones will become the biggest television project to ever be filmed in the province according to this BBC piece on the project.

This news comes shortly after strong rumours started circulating that there will be additional filming in Morocco and Scotland, and that casting has already gotten underway behind firmly closed doors. The pilot will start filming in October 2009. The earliest possible air date for the series I would estimate to be late 2010, but 2011 is far more realistic at the moment.

Word from GRRM here and some more local reaction here.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

This book has an interesting history behind it. Back in 2006 movie director Guillermo del Toro started developing a TV series with Fox. For unknown reasons the series never happened, but del Toro retained ownership of the scripts, story outline and character arcs he'd spent some time and effort creating. With his movie calendar fully booked up for the next decade, he clearly wouldn't be able to bring the project to the screen by himself either, so he decided to team up with thriller writer Chuck Hogan to turn the story into a trilogy of novels. With the story and character arcs already conceived, the writing proceeded pretty quickly. The first book, The Strain, is released next month and will be followed by The Devouring next year and the as-yet-untitled third book in 2011.

The book opens in 2010 when a Boeing 777 flying from Germany lands at John F. Kennedy airport, New York City. Moments after landing and turning off the runway, the plane suddenly goes dark. All communications are lost and rescue teams can't get inside. When they eventually do enter the plane, they find that all but four of the 300-odd passengers and crew are dead, killed by unknown means. The four survivors are taken to hospital, but then disappear.

At the same time, an elderly and frail billionaire, Eldritch Palmer, flies into New York on a mysterious mission. Another old man, Treblinka concentration camp survivor and pawn shop owner Abraham Setrakian, realises that the moment he has been awaiting for almost seventy years has arrived. An ancient compact has been broken and an ancient curse has been unleashed upon New York. The exponential curve of this curse will see the city destroyed in one week and the entire United States in three months, unless it is stopped.

The Strain is rollicking good entertainment. Those looking for literature which addresses the musings of the human soul best look elsewhere. This book is a combined thriller, horror story and action yarn with some sweet explosions, a frankly unnecessary number of decapitations and gloriously over-the-top action sequences (reading about a ninety-year-old man hurling himself into battle with a silver sword and massive UV-generating explosive device is unusual, to say the least). Del Toro's influence is clear, from the unpleasant descriptions of various creatures' anatomies to his gleeful depiction of violence (clearly gleaned from his Hellboy experiences), whilst experienced thriller writer Hogan gives a steadier sense of pace to proceedings. The first half of the book builds a palpable sense of dread and horror, with a creepy eclipse thrown in as well, the writers cheerfully not caring that New York City won't see another eclipse for eighty years: maybe they've been watching Heroes? The tension of the first half is then released in the second half, when the gloves come off and wholesale destruction kicks in.

The book has some interesting protagonists, with CDC Dr. Ephraim Goodweather as our main POV on events. Setrakian is a font of exposition who unusually shrugs off the 'elderly mentor' role to mix it up with the bad guys and also provides the most genuinely disturbing scenes in the novel, as he flashes back to WWII and his initial encounter with the horror in the concentration camp. Unfortunately, the fact that Goodweather's superiors don't believe him about how serious the outbreak is and its true extent means that he has to rebel against the system and act as a rogue agent for the good of the people, which is a bit corny, but the writers pull it off so fair enough.

The Strain (****) is tremendous, page-turning fun and is fuelled by one of the more innovative imaginations working in cinema today backed up by a solid thriller writer. It will be published in the UK by HarperCollins and by William Morrow in the USA, both on 2 June 2009. Del Toro is interviewed about the book here.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

A few months after the events of Storm Front, wizard Harry Dresden is going through some lean times. Following the events of the prior novel, his stock with the Chicago PD is at a low and word has gotten out that Dresden may be in cahoots with the city's foremost gangster. However, an outbreak of savage killings every full moon sees the police reluctantly enlist Dresden's aid once again.

Fool Moon is a notable step up in quality from the first Dresden Files novel. The writing seems altogether more confident, the characters are better-written and the book is altogether better-paced and more enjoyable as a result. Some new characters who look likely to return in later volumes are also introduced, and Dresden starts to confront the possibility that there is some other person out there manipulating events against him, which looks set to be the beginning of some kind of long-running story arc. Butcher also shows a ruthless side, killing off a couple of recurring characters from the first novel, just to keep the reader guessing on what will happen next.

There aren't too many problems, although as with the first volume, the novel rarely rises above the entertaining popcorn level. There's also a repeat of a story element that was tiresome in the first book, namely that halfway through proceedings Dresden gets seriously injured and spends the rest of the book fighting the enemies despite suffering significant aches and pains that are described again and again in tedious detail. We get it. Dresden is overcoming serious odds to beat the bad guys. Move on. Dresden needs to either start hitting the gym or stocking up on some healing magic soon. There's also the continuing and wholly artificial distrust between Dresden and his police contact Murphy who, despite have her life saved by Dresden several times in these two books, continues to be wary and distrustful of him. Also, Butcher continues to be unsure just how widespread knowledge of magic and the occult is, with ordinary human characters varyingly reacting to the revelation of magical deeds with apathy or amazement.

Fool Moon (***½) is a fun and enjoyable novel that shows the writer's growth in talent and ability over its predecessor. It is available now in the UK from Orbit and in the USA from Roc. The limited edition from Subterranean Press is also still available at this time of writing.

Monday 20 April 2009

Gollancz July 2009-January 2010 Catalogue

Orion have released their latest catalogue of upcoming releases for both their books and their SF&F imprint, Gollancz. Lots of great books and great cover art in there. The cover for the new paperback edition of The Man in the High Castle is also brilliant (it must have been done before, surely?):

There's also the cover to Fire, Kristin Cashore's quasi-prequel to her debut novel, Graceling, which is also pretty smart.

I suspect the talking point will be that Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves is listed for November 2009. I guess we'll soon see if that is confirmed or not. However, The Wise Man's Fear is nowhere to be seen, although Rothfuss has indicated he's nearly done on a draft to hand in to his publisher. Assuming no major problems, early 2010 would appear to be doable for that book. Another mouthwatering prospect from the catalogue is a one-volume edition of Jack Vance's superb Lyonesse Trilogy.

All-in-all, it's looking like a good few months for Gollancz.

Sunday 19 April 2009

J.G. Ballard has passed away

The science fiction and literary author J.G. Ballard passed away this morning at the age of 78 after a long struggle with prostate cancer.

James Graham Ballard was born in 1930 in the International Settlement in Shanghai, where his father worked, initially as a chemist for the Calico Printers Association and later as chairman of its Chinese subsidiary. Ballard and his parents were interned by the Japanese after they captured Shanghai during WWII, and he spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.

After the war, Ballard studied in England and attended King's College, Cambridge, planning to become a psychiatrist. He became fascinating with writing and in 1952 switched to an English course, but did not finish it. He had several jobs, including a two-year stint with the RAF, and his first SF short story was published in New Worlds in 1956. Ballard had an interesting relationship with SF, seemingly loving the possibilities offered by the genre but apparently not impressed by the way the genre was developing at the time, as his tastes ran more to the avant-garde and literary end of the spectrum.

Ballard's first full-length novel, The Wind from Nowhere, was published in 1961 and depicted a world where civilisation has been destroyed by super-hurricanes. He became a full-time writer and quickly followed the first book up with The Drowned World, in which the melting icecaps have left the cities of Europe and North America submerged in tropical lagoons. This was followed by its thematic sequels, The Burning World and The Crystal World, where the world is destroyed by drought and a form of crystallisation, respectively. In each case, the overt disaster story aspects of the book are downplayed in favour of the characters and other elements that Ballard is keen to explore (most notably the impact of such events on the human psyche).

Ballard's wife died from pneumonia in 1964, and Ballard began to write books that were less overtly science fiction and moved more towards contemporary and literary fiction, although often containing surreal moments or disturbing imagery. He spent the next few years writing a series of hard-hitting short stories which were then combined to from an extremely controversial novel, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which equated the death of JFK with a sexual event and seemed to glorify horrific events. Among the more notable sections was the story 'Crash!', which examined humanity's fetishisation of the motor car. This inspired him to write a novel version, Crash, which was published to even more controversy in 1973 and was made into a movie by David Cronenberg in 1996. The Atrocity Exhibition was briefly banned in the USA and the movie version of Crash raised questions in the British Parliament on what is 'acceptable' to depict in cinema.

Crash raised Ballard's profile and he followed it with a string of successful novels, such as Concrete Island, which is a retelling of the traditional castaway story except the island is in the middle of vast traffic intersection from where it is impossible to escape; and High Rise, set in a vast city-in-a-building concept where the people never need to leave, but where this leads to social breakdown.

Ballard's breakthrough into mainstream success came with 1984's semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun, which was made into a movie by Stephen Spielberg in 1987 (starring a young Christian Bale as Ballard's proxy character). A (much more overtly fictional) sequel, The Kindness of Women, followed in 1991. Later novels included the well-received Cocaine Nights in 1996 and Super-Cannes in 2000.

Perhaps fittingly, Ballard's final published work was Miracles of Life, his 'proper' autobiography, which was released in 2008 and detailed his life and also reflected on the changes he made to it in the stories of Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. Whilst being treated for prostate cancer, Ballard conducted a series of interviews and discussions with his doctor about life, which he turned into a manuscript entitled Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life.

Ballard's work was introspective and contemplative, with themes such as war, destruction and sexuality often being examined in uncomfortable and unsettling ways meant to provoke the reader. Like many other writers of the 1960s, his unhappiness with the ray guns and shiny spaceships school of SF led to writing stories that were more bizarre and less rigid in form, effectively bringing about the New Wave movement, of which Ballard, like his friend Brian Aldiss, was a leading contributor. His later books, although still invoking SF concepts where necessary, see a notable shift more towards contemporary and literary fiction. Ballard was one of the most provocative and fascinating authors of his generation and the literary world will be a poorer place without him.

Saturday 18 April 2009


A new BSG comic mini-series written by Kevin Fahey (a scriptwriter on the TV show) and with the approval of the TV staff launches this month in the USA. The Final Five four-issue series will delve into the deep backstory of the TV show, taking the reader back to Kobol four thousand years before the start of the TV series and explore hitherto unrevealed information about Pythia, the Thirteenth Tribe, its exodus to Earth, the Twelve Tribes' later migration to the Colonies and the origins of the Final Five. The first few pages are previewed here. Dubious likenesses apart, it looks like interesting stuff, although I'm already hearing rumbling dissent over whether it will be considered canon or not (the Sci-Fi Channel says yes, Ronald D. Moore says maybe).

In related news, the BSG spin-off series Caprica's pilot episode hits DVD in the USA on 21 April. No word yet on a UK release. The pilot will air ahead of the main series in early 2010 on the Sci-Fi Channel in the USA and on Sky One in the UK. Meanwhile, the second half of BSG Season 4 will land on UK DVD on 1 June.

Pat Rothfuss has just announced he will be visiting Paris on 17-19 May and London on 21-25 May, and will be arranging signings whilst he's around. More news here.

I recently had the pleasure of playing in a Pathfinder roleplaying game campaign run by my friend Ben Wenham, whose adventure Skeleton Moon is being professionally published by Paizo, the team behind Pathfinder. The game is excellent, a real advance and streamlining of the D&D 3rd Edition rules-set which eliminates a lot of the crap from the rules whilst emphasising the good points. There is also a UK convention for fans of the game and roleplaying in general which will be held on 11-12 July in Birmingham. More details on Paizocon UK can be found here.

Currently Reading: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
Currently Playing: Company of Heroes - Tales of Valour, Homeworld.
Currently Watching: Lost Season 5 (TV).

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Transformers (2007)

This is a hard film to write a review of, as the story is fairly confusing (buried as it is under several tonnes of heavy metal, explosions and attractive young women) and somewhat lacking in logical coherence. That's right, it's a Michael Bay movie. Sticking on one of his movies and expecting a masterpiece of scriptwriting and subtlety is clearly a doomed venture. When Bay's in the zone, he can pull off a spectacularly entertaining but brainless piece of hokum like The Rock or Bad Boys. When he isn't, he just creates a horrific mess like Armageddon and The Island, movie which are so stupid and inane they actually drain your intelligence from just looking at them.

Fortunately, Transformers (2007) falls into the former category. Everyone concerned, from producer Stephen Spielberg down to the extras, seems to be aware that they are making a movie based on giant robots that turn into cars and jets and fight one another, and as such the important thing here is to have a laugh (because you could take it seriously and be respectful to the original stories, but then no-one would watch it). Hard-core 1980s Transformers fans were upset at the lack of adhesion to the established mythos in the film (although the return of original cartoon voice actor Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime did mollify them a bit). Other fans knew there had been dozens of reboots and fresh continuities for the franchise stretching back to its start and accepted the movie as yet another variation on the story. Casual cinema-goers didn't care and just sat back to enjoy the explosions.

Transformers has several things going for it. It's Michael Bay's best film by some distance (not saying much, it has to be said) and there's a solid sense of humour attached to the picture with some genuinely funny comedic moments sold by a solid lead performance by Shia LeBeouf, who manages to do some good work with some pretty ripe lines. Megan Fox is similarly inoffensive as the female lead Mikaela, whilst there are some good supporting performances from the likes of Jon Voight and Kevin Dunn. But let's be honest here, you don't watch Transformers for the human performances, you watch it for the giant robots throwing one another around, and on that level the movie is a qualified success. There's not that much Transformer carnage in the first half of the movie, probably a result of even this film's insane budget not quite being enough to cover two solid hours of CGI robot mayhem, but what there is okay. In terms of the continued development and advancement of Hollywood special effects, Transformers is probably the biggest step forward since The Return of the King.

There are problems, however. The action is impressive but Bay is paradoxically fond of both unnecessary slow-motion shots and also insane rapid-cuts. These two factors combined make it almost impossible to follow what's going on (especially on the big screen), as least not until a second or third viewing. The design of the Transformers is notable and different, but by going for a 'realistic robot' look rather than the stylised approach that every other iteration has taken to date, the robots lose some of their character and it's often hard to tell them apart from one another. Also, some of their appearances (most notably Frenzy) bring to mind Johnny Five from Short Circuit, which is not so great an association. Solid attempts are made to bring some life to each individual Transformer, but only really Optimus Prime and Bumblebee get any distinctive sense of character given to them. We know Ironhide likes to blow stuff up and Jazz likes rap music but that's about it as far as characterisation for the rest of the Autobots goes. As for the Decepticons, they're pretty much a faceless and featureless bunch, with only Megatron and Frenzy getting any sense of character attached them.

Obviously, again, we need to remember that this is a movie about giant robots blowing one another up. But the lack of decent character scenes to establish a context for the carnage makes the whole movie a pretty shallow experience. When one Transformer - whose 1980s incarnation was a firm favourite for many kids due to his distinctive characterisation in the comics and cartoon series - dies, there isn't really any emotional reaction because he was only introduced half an hour earlier and he didn't really do anything to endear himself to the audience. There's also a severe logic failure at the end of the movie when the Autobots decide to take refuge in a city rather than fight the Decepticons in the open, with the net result that lots of civilians are killed and half the city is trashed. Impressive and fun to watch, yes, convincing or logical, no.

Transformers (***) is mindlessly entertaining with some nice shout-outs to the old-school Transformers fans in the audience (some dialogue from the 1986 movie is recycled; Prime wields his energy axe from the cartoon series in one battle; and an old VW appears in one scene as a nod to Bumblebee's original form). Could it have been a lot more than the sum of its parts? Possibly, but given the constraints of budget and having to reach out to the widest possible audience, what we got wasn't too offensive. There is certainly plenty of scope for improvement in the sequel, however.

The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA). The sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, hits cinemas in July.

Monday 13 April 2009

David Gemmell Legend Award finalists announced

The first David Gemmell Legend Award shortlist has been announced. The nominations are:

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
Heir to Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier
The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski
The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Disappointing not to see Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand on there, as it was both the best book of 2008 (although there wasn't much between it and Last Argument) and the most 'Gemmell-like' book on the list by miles. Also surprised not to see Peter Brett's The Painted Man, as he'd picked up a lot of praise and momentum along the way. My shortlist vote will definitely be going to Abercrombie, although it's nice to see both Sapkowski and Sanderson also nominated.

The Awards will be held in London on 19 June and I will be attending. There may be pictures.

Wertzone Classics: Homeworld

The Kushan people were inhabitants of the desert planet Kharak, located on the outer edge of their galaxy (what we call the Whirlpool Galaxy). After a long dark age they recreated a technological civilisation and explored their world. And what they found was puzzling. Their DNA was not compatible with that of any other creature on the planet. In addition, it seemed unlikely that a humanoid species would evolve naturally on a world with only small habitable regions at the two poles. Eventually, a satellite survey mission discovered a metallic object buried below the great desert. It was an immense spacecraft, over 4,000 years old. Buried deep inside it was a guidestone showing a route across the Galaxy from a world near the core: Hiigara. In the Kushan language, 'Home'. The Kushan realised that they were not native to Kharak and had been exiled more than thirty thousand light-years for reasons unknown.

Best. Game. Ever. Or Top Twenty at least.

The Kushan began construction of an immense spacecraft, known as the Mothership. Equipped with a hyperspace core recovered from the derelict, the Mothership had the ability and range to reach Hiigara and investigate the situation there before reporting back to Kharak. More than half a million colonists volunteered to enter cryo-sleep and accompany the Mothership on its mission. But, whilst the Mothership was engaged in its final hyperspace test on the outskirts of the Kharak system, something went horrendously wrong. A fleet of ships belonging to the enigmatic Taiidan Empire emerged above Kharak. Declaring that the Kushan had violated a four thousand-year-old treaty forbidding them to develop hyperspace technology, the Taiidan launched a devastating nuclear bombardment of the planet. The entire population was annihilated as the populated zones of the planet were destroyed. However, the Taiidan did not account for the Mothership. With nothing left to lose, the Mothership set out with its precious cargo on its original mission. But now it had a new task as well: to avenge the destruction of Kharak as well as finding a way back to their Homeworld.

Homeworld was originally released in September 1999 and was the first release from Relic Entertainment, who are now one of the biggest companies in the real-time strategy genre. Their later games would include the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Homeworld itself is the first in a series and was followed by Homeworld: Cataclysm in 2000 and Homeworld 2 in 2003. Homeworld 3 seemed to be off the cards for a long time since Relic were acquired by THQ whilst the game rights remained with Vivendi, but over a year ago THQ bought the Homeworld property from Vivendi, raising the hope that a new Homeworld game could be on its way soon.

Homeworld is infamous as the first real-time strategy game set in space that utilised full 3D movement. Your 'HQ' in the game is the Kushan Mothership, which starts each level by hyperspacing into a new region of space. Your fleet deploys from the Mothership and you can commence harvesting resources (asteroids and pockets of gas) and expending your forces. Homeworld features a persistent fleet model, so the fleet you leave one mission with is the same force that appears at the start of the next. You also carry researched information and resource units (money, basically) between missions as well, meaning that canny (and extremely patient) players will wait until they've harvested every single possible resource from one level before jumping to the next. Each region or area has a specific objective, whether it's the acquiring of resources, the destruction of an enemy force or investigating a mystery before moving on. In this manner Homeworld is actually fairly reminiscent of a TV series. In fact, those detecting similarities between Homeworld and Battlestar Galactica are on the money: the game started as a concept for a BSG adaption, but when Universal made it clear they weren't interested, an original storyline was developed instead.

Homeworld remains a terrific game. The art direction is absolutely stunning, with both your ships and those of the enemy having a crisp feel very reminiscent of SF book covers from the 1970s, particularly the art of Peter Elson or Chris Fosse. In fact it's worth playing with the Taiidan ship skins because, whilst not the 'canon' ship designs, their bright primary colours and more interesting gun arrangements are a joy to control in battle. Graphically, the game is nowhere near as dated as you'd expect. The models are not as sophisticated or have as many polys as modern games, of course, but the game still looks great and even the cheapest modern laptop should be able to handle the game with everything turned up to maximum. In terms of control the game does not stray far from being a traditional ground-based RTS "but IN SPACE", but it features some innovative touches to allow control of spacecraft in a fully 3D environment, such as the camera 'focus' system and the long-range sensor manager system, both of which are initially a little odd but once mastered allows for instinctive control of the battlespace. The game's music is brilliant. The original soundtrack is fantastic, and its use of classical music at key moments is extremely well-handled. The original song by 1970s prog group Yes that accompanies the closing credits is a bit left-field, but it works nicely as well, tying in the whole retro-sci-fi feel of the game.

The missions are varied, giving a real sense of progress as you move closer to the Homeworld. The excellent between-mission loading screens show your progress so far and how far you have to travel (although modern PCs tend to load the levels in about two seconds, not leaving much time to appreciate the artwork), and visually this is communicated in the missions themselves, with the first few missions taking place on the outer edges of the Galaxy with a night-black sky and the Galactic Core getting noticeably brighter and dominating more and more of the sky with every mission. As the game progresses your fleet becomes larger and more powerful, and more backstory about the reasons for your race's exile are revealed. It's all interesting, well-thought-out stuff, although some explanations for the game universe's deep history have to wait for the sequels.

There are some flaws, as you may expect with a game that's ten years old. First off, there's no ability to skip time in the game. This means that you often complete a mission and then have time to go off, make a cup of tea and watch half an hour of TV whilst your collectors finish mopping up the resources on any given level. Towards the end of the game, when you've maxed out your supply limit and have more money than God, you can ignore this tactic, but for the first two-thirds of the game or so it's absolutely essential. The persistent fleet tactic also means it's possible, particularly on second through fifth levels or so, to build a fleet that's completely ill-suited to the next mission, forcing you to reload the previous level just to finish it with a more balanced fleet. However, this happens extremely rarely and usually maintaining a sensible attitude, such as keeping back some money for the start of the next mission to see what the challenge is, will prevent this from occurring. Towards the end of the game there is also the argument that tactics go out the window as your vast fleet simply concentrates all its fire on one enemy ship at a time and massacres its way through the enemy without too much trouble. This argument is rebutted by the grand finale, however, where pursuing this tactic is extremely ill-advised. The final complaint is that the Mothership not being able to move is daft (although explained by the ship's sublight engines not being finished before it had to do the hyperspace tests at the start of the game) and a bit of an artificial and cheesy game limitation. However, I don't think it's a particularly major flaw (especially as the later games sensibly dispense with it). Finally, Relic have shut down the game's multiplayer lobby and it's unclear when it will be back up, making multiplayer matches a bit tricky to organise.

Homeworld (****½) is a genuinely classic game that has withstood the test of time superbly. With a rich, involving atmosphere that genuinely evokes the vast emptiness of space, a gripping story and excellent controls and units, it is a game that every SF and strategy fan should play. It is available now in the UK for ridiculously little money. If you are in the USA, you are less lucky as the game is currently not available, not even on budget. Second-hand markets or eBay might be your best bet, as the prices are pretty steep.

Encyclopedia Hiigara (Homeworld Wiki)
History of Hiigara PDF (spoilers for Homeworld 2)
Homeworld introduction movie