Saturday 31 December 2011
Shadowheart is the fourth and final novel in the Shadowmarch sequence, the third major series by American author Tad Williams. The series is a slow-burner, with a pace that can best be called 'relaxed'. Empires may be forged, armies may clash and ancient secrets may be unveiled, but it all happens at a leisurely, chilled-out rate. This is epic fantasy at its cosiest and most predictable. Which is not to say the series is unenjoyable. Williams has saved the best for last here, with a plethora of battles and a smattering of intrigue to digest before the grand finale (complete with the villains all receiving appropriate come-uppances) and the long, 100-page epilogue in which the characters' fates are all neatly wrapped up and explained.
As with the previous books, the best moments are reserved for Ferras Vansen and Chert the Funderling, who are now leading the subterranean war as the Funderlings try to hold back the invading Xixians with the extremely reluctant help of the Qar. These underground battle sequences go on for a bit too long, but for the most part are exciting and tense. This is more than can be said for the scenes involving Barrick Eddon. Having spent two enormous books travelling beyond the mystical Shadowline in search of his destiny, his abrupt return to Shadowmarch smacks of plot convenience at its most blatant. Whilst his character arc was formerly one of the most interesting in the series, as he left behind his life as a crippled royal to embrace an alien culture, here it ends in a damp squib as Barrick becomes more enigmatic and dull.
Despite these issues, Williams ties together a large number of plots, character arcs and ideas that he has established over the preceding 2,500 pages and fuses them into a reasonably good ending. There's nothing too surprising here, but Williams' solid writing skills make it all readable enough. However, the feeling remains that Williams has been wheel-spinning with a series that seems to be more of a tribute to other fantasy works (glimmers of A Song of Ice and Fire and the works of Jack Vance can be detected) and also a call-back to his own earlier (and rather more impressive) Memory, Sorrow and Thorn sequence rather than exploring fresher ground (as he did so successfully in Otherland).
Shadowheart (***½) ends the series in an effective enough manner, but, despite its immense length, this remains a minor work from an author capable of a lot more. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Thursday 29 December 2011
The new third version of the game features a host of changes, most notably the long-awaited introduction of custom battle maps and settlements, putting iconic locations such as Minas Tirith and Edoras on the battlefield to be fought over. These replace the generic Medieval II towns that had stood in for the settlements in previous versions of the game. More information on the game, including download links and installation information can be found on TWCenter.
Wednesday 28 December 2011
Merlin reaches its fourth and penultimate season by embracing something of a new format. The regular cast has been swollen by the addition of the Knights of the Round Table, former guest characters like Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and Gwaine (Eoin Macken) who are now series regulars. Uther, played as always with steely resolve by Anthony Stewart Head, has a much-diminished role as Arthur (an increasingly accomplished Bradley James) rises to the fore, now advised by his uncle, Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker, who veers unpredictably from nuanced to hammy, sometimes in the same scene). Whilst the new format is effective, there is a cynical feeling (engendered by three previous seasons of the series pulling its punches on a regular basis) that we'll be back to the 'farting monster of the week' set-up by episode four at the latest. It's therefore something of a shock when the series undergoes some massive developments in just the first few episodes, and the manner in which these developments are carried out is unexpectedly brutal.
Obviously Merlin - a show which is aimed at a audience 'from eight to eighty' as the BBC puts it - isn't going to go all Game of Thrones and start dropping beheadings and incest on us. But still, compared to the show's good-natured, lightweight approach in the first three seasons, this year gives the series teeth. Some recurring characters are killed off and there are multiple big shake-ups to the series format. The show is more serialised, with less stand-alone episodes than previously. Best of all, there are no tedious comedy episodes this year, with humour instead allowed to develop alongside more dramatic, darker storylines simultaneously. There's also more effective use of computer effects, with the producers realising that 'less is more' and making a few big, well-rendered CGI army shots is better than making lots of middling-quality ones.
There's still a few problems, however. Morgana's new secret hideout seems to be a hut about three miles from Camelot. How this has evaded detection is unclear, especially since Morgana's agent in the royal court frequently rides out (in an over-dramatic gallop) to give her detailed reports on what's going on, again with no-one noticing. There are also long-established problems that reappear, such as the same recognisable patches of forest being used for multiple scenes supposedly set in widely-separated locations. The additional issue of Camelot only appearing to have about 200 men under arms whilst all of the surrounding kingdoms can apparently muster armies in the tens of thousands in hours also recurs frequently, straining credulity.
If you can overcome these issues, Merlin's fourth season (****) emerges as the strongest year of the show yet, by a considerable margin. It is available on DVD in the UK in two volumes. A fifth and final season will air in 2012.
Sunday 25 December 2011
Friday 23 December 2011
This also means we can assemble a complete map of the continent for the first time:
Interesting stuff. The novel is published in the UK on 19 January 2012.
Thursday 22 December 2011
From the trailer, that's obviously 'a mild understatement'. Much of the film appears to involve the crashed alien spaceship from LV-426 (and we may even see that crash in the trailer), the 'space jockey' aliens play a role, the Prometheus logo is pretty much identical to the Alien one and, most tellingly, the trailer bears an uncanny resemblance to the original Alien teaser, even using some of the same sound effects. So yeah, Alien prequel, totally. And there's nowt wrong with that, since the trailer looks impressive. Ridley Scott returning to SF (get this, his last SF movie was Blade Runner) is an enticing prospect, and the film looks solid enough at this stage.
io9 have a very interesting shot-by-shot analysis of the trailer here. And who the hell is that guy in the space jockey's control room?
Brandon Sanderson has confirmed that A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final novel in The Wheel of Time sequence, is done.
"Ladies and gentlemen, A Memory of Light--the final book in The Wheel of Time--has been finished."
But still, the bulk of the work has been done, and the book will be on shelves in less than a year. Sanderson also seems to have taken a more definitive stance on the two prequels and three side-novels that Robert Jordan had planned for The Wheel of Time world, indicating that they will probably never be written.
Wednesday 21 December 2011
Looks like Jackson has done a good job of recapturing the feel of the original movie, and it's good to see McKellen and Holm back in their old roles. Freeman also looks promising as the young Bilbo, and Richard Armitage seems to be doing a good job as Thorin (though he's still a bit more Klingon-esque than I think most people had in mind). Overall, looking good.
Tuesday 20 December 2011
Unfinished Tales occupies an awkward place in the Tolkien canon. Unlike the History series, which consists of almost exclusively non-canon material (early drafts and rough notes of material that was eventually finalised and published), the material in Unfinished Tales was specifically written by Tolkien to flesh out other parts of his mythos that were not explored in the books themselves. In particular, the writings include a series of essays which were designed to answer a wide number of issues brought up by readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in correspondence. Some of these essays were written very late in Tolkien's life and represent his last - and often only - word on subjects such as the origins of Gandalf and his fellow wizards, the backstory of Galadriel and the history of Numenor during the Second Age. As a result some fans hold Unfinished Tales to be the fourth Middle-earth book, only marginally less important than The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Others choose to disregard it as anything more than a curiosity, since as Christopher Tolkien himself notes it's unlikely J.R.R. would have permitted even the completed writings in the book to be published without more polish.
Unlike The Silmarillion, which was presented as a single narrative, Unfinished Tales is a collection of stories and fragments intermingled with Christopher Tolkien's editorial notes. These are kept to a minimum in some of the stories and essays, but in others are much more prevalent (something he apologises for, but regards as necessary in the case of works where his father was working on several drafts simultaneously, risking confusion to the reader). Christopher's notes are fascinating, well-written with a clear eye for detail and minimising confusion. He assumes the reader is already familiar with the Middle-earth mythos (since they're unlikely to be reading this book otherwise) and is able to delve into various topics in depth. Whilst he clearly loves and respects his father immensely, it is also amusing to detect the vague frustrations that creep into his notes, most notably when trying to fathom why Tolkien abandoned particular narratives at key points (feelings the reader may share as the book unfolds).
The first story is 'Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin'. The story of Tuor's arrival in Gondolin and the events leading to the fall of that city in the War of the Jewels was the first story Tolkien ever wrote set in Middle-earth, and is still one of his most memorable narratives. However, the version in Unfinished Tales was written much later, in 1951 (the much more complete original can be found in The History series), featuring a more conventional prose style than the archaic original. It's stirring, epic stuff, featuring some great imagery as Tuor is confronted by the Vala Ulmo, Lord of Waters, and has a great destiny laid before him. The story proceeds with power and momentum until it abruptly halts just as Tuor reaches Gondolin itself. Even with the earlier version available and a much more compressed account of events readable in The Silmarillion, this is still a frustrating moment.
The second story is 'The Tale of the Children of Hurin', a much longer story (almost a hundred pages, taking up a quarter of the book) featuring the adventures of the doomed, tragic Turin. Unlike the story of Tuor, this tale is more or less complete, though somewhat complex due to competing drafts and different versions existing. Many years later Christopher used this material (along with some other, later unearthed manuscripts) to form the basis of The Children of Hurin, so if you already have that book be aware that you will find much of this material familiar. But still, it's a powerful story, the darkest thing Tolkien wrote set in Middle-earth, featuring lust, incest (though unwitting), war and the 'hero' bringing death and ruin to all those around him.
The next section of the book moves into the Second Age of Middle-earth, which Tolkien left somewhat vague and under-developed compared to the First Age (covered in The Silmarillion) and the Third (the setting for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). We start off with 'A Description of the Island of Numenor'. For fans of worldbuilding, Tolkien's description of the island empire and the accompanying map will be fascinating. However, it's the following story, 'Aldarion and Erendis', which is more intriguing. It depicts the marriage of the noble lady Erendis to Aldarion, later King of Numenor, and touches on larger aspects (such as Aldarion's re-opening of relations between Numenor and the elves of Middle-earth), but for the most part it's a strong character piece. For those who claim Tolkien is overly-romantic, this account of a failing relationship due to outside pressures (Aldarion's lengthy absences from home) is surprisingly realistic. The story breaks off towards the end, although this is more of a relationship study than a tense narrative, so is less grievous a loss than some of the other texts in the book.
Tolkien follows this up with an account of the Kings of Numenor and the major events of their reigns. This is again primarily of interest to worldbuilders, but Tolkien manages to put in some great details and elements that could have been mined to produce further stories, but sadly it was not to be. This is then succeeded by an account of the history of Galadriel and Celeborn, something that Lord of the Rings fans will be more interested in, but frustratingly is also the most 'unfinished' of all the works in the book. Tolkien conceived of several competing, but radically different possibilities for the couple's backstory and reached no firm conclusions before his death, leaving several versions which are mutually contradictory. Christopher Tolkien suggests appreciating these contradictions as part of the literary effect of having a fictional history and mythology, which may be the best approach. Even in their differences, these versions reveal more fascinating information on Sauron's activities in the Second Age and characters briefly mentioned in Lord of the Rings, such as Celebrimbor, Nimrodel and Amroth.
The final sections of the book deals with the Third Age and consists mainly of finished essays and narratives, though in some cases with competing drafts which the editor takes pains to clarify. This section begins with an account of the Battle of the Gladden Fields (the engagement where Isildur lost the Ring), here revealed to be a much larger conflict than the brief skirmish suggested by Lord of the Rings and depicted as such in the films (by necessity, since Peter Jackson did not have the film rights to Unfinished Tales he could not use the account of the conflict here). He follows this up with the history of the Rohirrim, the development of the relationship between the Rohirrim and people of Gondor, and the founding of Rohan itself, again depicting worldbuilding information through a story (here the friendship of Steward Cirion of Gondor and Eorl, founder of Rohan).
This is followed by sections fleshing out The Lord of the Rings. 'The Quest of Erebor' explains how Gandalf came to join forces with Thorin and the dwarves and how he convinced them to recruit Bilbo Baggins to join their quest. This was actually a chapter from The Lord of the Rings, written as part of Tolkien's attempts to better-connect The Hobbit and the later work, but was wisely exorcised for killing the pace of the novel (it was supposed to be a discussion between Gandalf and Frodo between the victory over Sauron and the Scouring of the Shire, where it would have been ill-suited). However, as a stand-alone narrative it's a valuable - and enjoyable - asset in clarifying the relationship between the two books. This is followed up by 'The Hunt for the Ring', a detailed account of how the Ringwraiths set out in search of the Ring after losing track of Gollum (who had been captured by Aragorn). Though rather brief, this short piece does feature a memorable confrontation between Saruman and the Witch-King of Angmar. Rounding off this section is 'The Battles of the Fords of Isen', revealing in detail the battles fought by Rohan against Isengard on the Isen (alluded to but unseen in The Lord of the Rings). Again, it's not essential but does help flesh out a side-element of The Lord of the Rings.
Rounding off the book are three complete essays on three separate topics. The first expands on the Druedain or Woses, the wood-men who help the Rohirrim bypass Sauron's armies to reach the Pelennor Fields. Tolkien reveals in this essay that he was considering giving the Druedain a much bigger role in the backstory of Middle-earth, and even have them playing a role in The Silmarillion, but passed away before this idea could be fully fleshed-out. The second discusses the Istari, or the order of wizards that Gandalf, Radagast and Saruman belong to. We learn the names of the other two wizards who vanished into the east (Alatar and Pallando) and some interesting backstory emerges here. The third and final essay delves into the Palantiri, the magical seeing-stones which play a major role in The Lord of the Rings. This is atypical Tolkien, since normally he preferred to leave the magical elements of his world vague and mysterious, but here he delves into the capabilities of each palantir with the kind of magic system-building enthusiasm we now see with writers such as Brandon Sanderson.
Unfinished Tales (*****) is a fascinating book, representing a collection of writings by the most influential fantasist of all time extending over thirty years. Many of the individual stories and essays are excellent, certainly all are interesting and the only complaint that can be made is that several break off with no resolution. But then the book does tell you that on the cover, so it's hard to hold that against it. Unfinished Tales is available now, in numerous editions, in the UK and USA.
Sunday 18 December 2011
Shadowrise is the third novel in the Shadowmarch series. Originally planned as a trilogy, the final book in the series grew too large to publish in one volume, so was split in half (though each half is almost as long as the first two books in the series by themselves). Williams has form on this, as this also happened with the paperback edition of the final volume of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.
As with the first two books in the sequence, Shadowrise is well-written with some interesting characters. Williams has always had an enjoyable prose style, and that remains true here. Unfortunately, that can't quite overcome several problems. One is that the story unfolds with all the verve, vigour and energy of a particularly lazy sloth on sleeping pills. Chapters seem to endlessly pass which, whilst individually well-written, seem to consist of characters doing little but sitting around and talking about the plot, the backplot and what might happen next, often introducing little to no new information the reader needs to know.
Quite a few of Williams's characters are reactive, spending most of their time wringing their hands and agonising over what to do next. Notably it's those characters who actually make plans and enact them who carry the book, most notably Ferras Vansen and Chert the Funderling. Barrick's journey beyond the Shadowline has an unusual, weird tone to it that is rather different to the rest of the book and features some genuinely unsettling fantastical moments, but is undermined by Barrick's total lack of agency in the storyline. He has no idea about what's going on, neither does the reader, and this makes following that subplot rather tiresome. Worse still is Briony's storyline in Syan, in which it appears that Williams was setting up some rich court intrigue, realised halfway through he couldn't be bothered, and simply ejected Briony from that storyline rather abruptly. Whilst it's good to get this part of the story out of the way, it does render Briony's entire storyline in the last two books somewhat pointless. Also pointless is Qinnitan's subplot, which feels like makework as Williams tries to find something for her to do rather than simply getting her from Point A to Point B.
As the book continues, it starts to pick up some energy towards the end as important plot revelations take place and we actually get some energetic action sequences, rousing the narrative from its lengthy torpor. Naturally these are just in time for the inevitable cliffhanger ending into the final novel in the sequence, Shadowheart.
Shadowrise (***) is readable enough, but so long-winded that it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to carry on at times. Williams has just enough good ideas and interesting characters to make it worthwhile, but unfortunately this novel does little to dispel the impression that Shadowmarch is his weakest major work to date. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Monday 12 December 2011
Random House Audio have listened to their concerns. The new edition of the audiobook will be available as a digital download from Audible (US, USA) this week, on Thursday, whilst a CD edition will follow in March 2012.
NEW YORK, NY (December 12, 2011)—Random House Audio announces today that it will release a new recording of George R.R. Martin’s A FEAST FOR CROWS, the fourth book in Martin’s bestselling series, A Song of Ice and Fire, narrated by fan favorite, Roy Dotrice.
Dotrice earned a passionate following from listeners and a Guinness World Record for his work on the series, creating 224 voices for the first book in the series, A GAME OF THRONES.
The new recording will be available December 15th, published by Random House Audio, and HarperAudio UK, and clocks in at 33 hours, 48 minutes long.
A U.S. & Canada CD edition will be published by Random House Audio in March 2012 to coincide with the second season premiere of the HBO series, “Game of Thrones,” which will feature Dotrice onscreen as Hallyne the pyromancer, chief of the Guild of Alchemists.
“Fans from all over the world requested a Roy Dotrice recording of A FEAST FOR CROWS,” says Amanda D’Acierno, Vice President and Publisher, Random House Audio. “We are so pleased to be working with HarperAudio in the UK to publish this edition for our listeners.”
The A Song of Ice and Fire series has more than 12 million of the five books in print, including more than 313,000 audio CDs and digital downloads. The series has developed a huge cult following, peaking this year with the release of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS and the premiere of the HBO TV adaptation.
“My brother left no true born heirs. By right and birth and blood, I do this day lay claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros. Let all true men declare their loyalty. The Iron Throne is mine by right. They will bend the knee, or I will destroy them. The cold winds are rising.”
Sunday 11 December 2011
Originally released in 2001, Anachronox was the third and final of the flagship launch titles produced by Ion Storm, following on from the appalling Daikatana and the sublime Deus Ex. A computer RPG, the game used the Quake II engine (then already dated due to the release of Quake III) and was critically lauded upon release. Commercially, it was a failure due to poor marketing, but the game became a cult hit and attracted a small but devoted fanbase who remain active to this day.
It's hard to sum up Anachronox easily. It's a game with plenty of humour, but it's not a comedy. It's set in an SF milieu, but also features superpowers and magic. It was developed by an American studio but features a Japanese-style turn-based battle system (both Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series are cited by the developers as major influences) and several minigames. This mixing and blending of genres makes it a unique game, not quite like anything else out there, but also contributed to its poor marketing and lack of strong sales.
Most of Anachronox is played as more of an adventure game than anything else. You initially control Sly Boots and his AI assistant, Fatima. The game demonstrates its inventiveness and humour almost immediately: Fatima is an associate of Boots who has died, but her consciousness has been preserved as an AI system and placed inside a robot which floats around the environment and is a shaped like a large, metal arrow. Yes, in Anachronox your mouse pointer is a character. This is an awesome idea, and leads to some humourous moments as characters in the city of Anachronox start getting annoyed if you hover your mouse pointer over them, since this results in Fatima's robot body buzzing around them.
"I SHALL KILL YOU...WITH DEATH!!!"
This is actual dialogue in the game rather than me taking the mickey for once.
In traditional RPG style, you soon accumulate a large number of companions, two of whom can accompany Sly at any one time. You can switch between these companion characters at will to take advantage of their special powers in combat, or their knowledge in conversations with NPCs. At several moments in the storyline, the game splits the team up and proceeds down several parallel paths simultaneously, with the game moving back and forth between the different characters and sub-teams to tell the story in full. In terms of format, this style of playing will be familiar from the two Knights of the Old Republic RPGs from BioWare and Obsidian, but Anachronox predates them by several years.
One of the highlights of the game's design is that the characters' special powers and abilities in combat are based on their characterisation. For example, Grumpos, the grumpy old man character who reacts to any dialogue options with sarcasm or caustic remarks about how great things used to be, has a special attack that allows him to waffle on at extreme length about various tedious subjects to bore an enemy into a stupor. Combat is played out on a grid which allows characters to position themselves, attack or carry out healing or buffing in a manner familiar from Japanese RPGs. Combat is not a strong focus of the game, however, and a surprisingly small amount of game-time is spent fighting. Battles are also usually avoidable, with lurking enemies visible in the distance, allowing players to choose alternate routes. Combat is enjoyable, especially as its relative infrequency means it never becomes repetitive or tiresome.
Something that Anachronox manages very well is tonal variation. The game has a lot of humour in it, but it also has some extremely dramatic scenes and elements of political satire and commentary as well. It moves between scenes of comedy, drama, tragedy, pathos and satire, and handles these transitions well thanks to some great writing, a fine ear for dialogue and the game's constant streak of inventiveness.
It's impossible to talk about Anachronox without mentioning it's most barmy story element. In one lengthy sub-quest, Sly and his team arrive on the planet Democratus, where the ideal of democracy and collective leadership is worshipped but in practice is rather unsatisfying, reduced to a tiny, self-sustaining elite being voted for by a mostly-sheep-like populace who vote on pointless subjects for the most spurious of reasons. The satire here is obvious, but also rather amusing. At the end of the quest, after Sly and his friends have saved the planet from being devoured by a swarm of space-insects, the rulers of Democratus decide to hold a planetary referendum to vote for a suitable reward. Sly and company flee rather than endure the planet's long-winded voting process. Later on in the game, whilst in a bar, the crew are rather bemused when the door opens and the entire planet floats into the room. The populace of Democratus voted to miniaturise the entire planet and join Sly's team. From this point on, the planet Democratus is a member of the player's party and can participate in battles (using a fearsome planetary defense network and its own gravitational field as weapons) as well as conversations. Sly can also seriously confuse and distract NPCs by just talking to them with a 7-foot-wide planet floating over his shoulder.
Later on, after a confrontation with the supervillain Rictus (catchphrase: "I SHALL KILL YOU...WITH DEATH!!!"), our heroes are about to die inside Rictus' exploding ship so Democratus reinflates itself to its full size, scattering the party about the planet's surface (and tearing the ship apart and dumping its exploding engine core in a remote area). The party has to reconvene through a series of sub-quests, including a Quantum Leap-inspired quest set in a mountain village and another one where a down-on-his-luck alcoholic superhero regains his mojo by saving a young girl from death. This latter quest has no dialogue and plays out through music and the characters exchanging facial expressions. It is brilliant.
Criticisms of Anachronox are mainly related to its age. It's an older game now, so players may find it fiddly to get it working on modern systems (this post may be helpful). The graphics have dated somewhat, though this means even people with bottom-of-the-line laptops should be able to play it with no problems. From a game design issue, the opening couple of hours on Anachronox features a lot of fetch-quests and running back and forth through a re-arranging landscape which can be occasionally frustrating. More seriously, the game ends on a titanic, never-resolved cliffhanger (Anachronox wasn't the first game in a planned series, but actually the first half of a storyline that was broken in half due to length). Surprisingly, the game's creators have not ruled out pursuing a sequel, so have never explained how the cliffhangers was going to be resolved (but have promised to do so if they can't get the sequel made by 2021 at the latest).
But that should be no reason not to check out this barmy, inventive, hilarious, nicely-written and finely-characterised game. Anachronox (*****) is still available from Amazon (UK, USA) but surprisingly hasn't yet appeared on digital download sites.
As previously hinted, Railsea will indeed be China Mieville's second YA fantasy novel. The American cover art was revealed a few weeks ago, but now we have a cover blurb as well:
From China Miéville, New York Times bestselling author of Un Lun Dun, a thrilling new young adult novel that reimagines Moby-Dick in an unforgettable and fascinatingly imagined setting.The novel is currently scheduled for release by Del Rey in the USA and Pan Macmillan in the UK on 15 May 2012.
Sham Yes ap Soorap, young doctor’s assistant, is in search of life’s purpose aboard a diesel locomotive on the hunt for the great elusive moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack. But on an old train wreck at the outskirts of the world, Sham discovers an astonishing secret that changes everything: evidence of an impossible journey. A journey left unfinished…which Sham takes it on himself to complete. It’s a decision that might cost him his life.
With C&C4 ending the core GDI/Brotherhood of Nod storyline and with the Red Alert subseries having reached a level of lunacy that would be hard to continue, it's the Generals subseries that has been revived. The original Command and Conquer: Generals was released in early 2003, followed several months later by an expansion, Zero Hour. Whilst initially regarded less fondly than either the original franchise or the Red Alert spin-offs, Generals has subsequently gained a strong fanbase due to its highly moddable engine and engaging gameplay modes (mostly introduced in Zero Hour). The storyline depicts a near-future cold war between the USA and China with Middle-Eastern terrorists trying to ferment trouble between them. Eventually the USA and China heart-warmingly join forces to wipe out the terrorists.
The original game was controversial and was accused of cashing in on the iconography of the War on Terror, with the inclusion of suicide bomber units being particularly criticised (although they'd been present in earlier C&C games without much fuss being made). However, the game also had a satirical edge to it, particularly with regards to media coverage of modern wars. Between-mission cut scenes were news reports on the conflict, sometimes amusingly 'spun' to have little relation to the actual in-game events. It was a reasonably good game, especially in multiplayer, although technically it was disappointing, with the SAGE game engine being creaky and over-demanding in power compared to the quality of the graphics delivered.
The latest game is being made by a new studio which will operate under the BioWare brand, with technical advice and expertise from the 'main' BioWare studio available. The title will use the Frostbite 2 engine, most recently used in Battlefield 3. Unfortunately, being an EA release, it will also almost certainly use the Origins DRM and registration system, which requires a constant internet connection. This system has also been controversial as EA has recently banned a number of people from the Origin network for making forum posts critical of EA, meaning they cannot play the games they have legally purchased.
Generals 2 will be released in 2013, hopefully by which time EA will have revised or dropped their DRM system.
My own experience with STALKER begins and ends - so far - with Shadows of Chernobyl, the first game in the series. Released in 2007 after a lengthy development period, the game was noted for being heavily broken on release, with numerous patches and fan-mods required to bring the game to an acceptable level of stability. Once you got over that hurdle, the game was remarkable. Set in the Zone of Alienation surrounding the Chernobyl ruins, the game depicted a world populated by people and factions vying for their own interests, as well as thousands of animals and mutants who would go about their daily business completely ignoring the player unless you became a threat or got too close. The game had a storyline - actually a rather interesting one, derived from Soviet and post-Soviet Russian science fiction novels and movies - but its characters were lacking and the English translation perfunctory at best.
What the game successfully achieved was a fusion between RPG-style open-world freedom and FPS gunplay. Combat was dangerous but also satisfying, fast and furious, with a solid selection of weapons on display and an impressive amount of freedom to approach combat in any way you might wish. This was as far as you can get from the 'shooter-on-rails' format the FPS genre has since degenerated into. The game's sense of place was impressive given it was based on a real location that has suffered a real cataclysm, giving a creepy, but compelling, atmosphere to the game. This even bleeds over into different games using the same setting: it's no coincidence that the hands-down best mission of Call of Duty 4 (a game that is otherwise the total antithesis of the STALKER series' ethos) was the one set in Pripyat featuring a desperate battle around the famous fairground wheel. But Shadows of Chernobyl goes further in creating a genuine sense of unsettling 'weirdness' that is quite remarkable.
Sadly, I never got further than about halfway through the game, with one crash too many exhausting my patience. I've always planned to go back and try it again with some of the more recent mods, or perhaps to simply go for Call of Pripyat, its direct sequel (the second game, Clear Sky, was a mostly-unrelated prequel and also the buggiest and weakest game of the series by all accounts). With my 'to-play' list starting to rival my 'to-read' list in size, this won't be any time soon. But certainly there's something fascinating about these games, and the closure of the studio making them is a real shame. Hopefully another developer will save STALKER 2 from oblivion and help bring it to release.
Friday 9 December 2011
Death Masks, the fifth book in The Dresden Files, is the busiest book in the series to date. It sports at least four distinct plot threads (along with several related subplots) which interconnect with one another in a number of unexpected ways as the novel progresses. Each one of these plots would be enough to drive a novel by itself and Butcher seems to delight in upping the ante and complexity of the series to new heights. Combined with the ongoing, series-spanning storylines, this makes Death Masks the most epic book in the series to date.
That said, Butcher takes care to ensure the story is fully comprehensible at all times, and drives the narrative forward with his customary energy and vigour. He also finds time for some accomplished characterisation, with recurring crimelord Jonny Marcone being developed particularly well. It's also good to see some other characters like Susan and Michael returning, along with the introduction of some intriguing new characters like the Archive (a mystical repository of knowledge taking the form of a little girl) and Nicodemus (a potential new nemesis for Harry). The first appearance of the Order of Saint Giles and the Denarian sect of demons also expands the scope of Harry's world impressively.
Death Masks (****) is another very strong entry in the series. New readers will be lost (I recommend they start with the first book, Storm Front) but returning fans will find yet another page-turning and entertaining urban fantasy novel. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
The STALKER series, comprising Shadows of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, Call of Pripyat and the in-development STALKER 2, has been a big hit on PC since the release of the first game in 2007. The series has sold over 4 million copies worldwide and been held up as an example of the continued potential success of PC-only games in the console-dominated marketplace. The series is set in the near future when a second explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor has resulted in a series of reality-warping anomalies opening in the surrounding area. Various factions are contesting control of these anomalies, which they hope to exploit for personal gain.
No firm reason has been given for the shutting down of the company, although the failure of GSC to win interest for a console version of the series has been cited as a possible reason. Possible political issues in the Ukraine, where GSC is based, have also been suggested.
GSC being shut down and STALKER 2 being indefinitely delayed (and likely cancelled, unless someone else steps in) is sad news. Whilst undeniably buggy as hell (though the third game is much more stable), the STALKER series is notable for its hardcore approach to survival and tremendously powerful, bleak atmosphere. Hopefully someone will step in and rescue the development team and the game series from fading away completely.
Monday 5 December 2011
The most notable bit of news is the hithero-unknown (to me, anyway) piece of information that the game uses Unreal Engine 3, which means it should look pretty awesome. The new screenshots accompanying the article confirm this:
At the link are some more shots, including one that shows combat in-progress. The game is due for release on PC, X-Box 360 and PS3 in the Spring. Whilst developed by Cyanide, it's a different studio operating on a different continent to the poor RTS released earlier this year, and hopefully should be a better game.
Sunday 4 December 2011
Out in the Roughs, Waxillium Ladrian has spent twenty years trying to bring peace and order to a rough, frontier land. Called home to the city of Elendel by the death of his uncle and forced to inherit his family's estate and business, Waxillium finds trading his six-shooters for cost ledgers to be harder than he'd expected. A spate of kidnappings and disappearance soon tempt him back to a life of law-enforcement, but Wax needs to face his own guilt before he can face down an old enemy.
The Alloy of Law is a (mostly) stand-alone novel set in the same world as Brandon Sanderson's earlier Mistborn Trilogy. Sanderson has previously announced that he plans three trilogies set in this world, one set in a medieval era, one in a contemporary setting and one in a futuristic milieu. The Alloy of Law is a side-story unrelated to these planned future works, though Sanderson layers some hints for the second trilogy into the narrative and also sets up a sequel (or potentially several sequels) for this book in its closing pages.
Written as a side-project to help the author stay fresh whilst bringing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence to its long-awaited conclusion and coming in at barely a third the length of his last novel, The Way of Kings, it'd be easy to dismiss The Alloy of Law as a bit of fluffy filler to tide his publishers over for a year. This would be a mistake as The Alloy of Law is one of Sanderson's best novels to date.
Sanderson has always been a solid, entertaining author but his most laudable aspect has been the way he's grown and learned with each novel. Arguably his biggest problem has been the length of his books: the Mistborn volumes and certainly The Way of Kings, whilst good books, felt overlong for the amount of plot in them. With The Alloy of Law written as a short side-project, Sanderson has forced himself to write much more concisely, tightly and efficiently than normal, resulting in his most focused, page-turning novel to date. Sanderson has also learned a lot about how to deploy humour in a book (probably learning from his issues - eventually resolved - with handling Mat in the Wheel of Time books), with this book also being his funniest.
Although Sanderson's lightest and most humourous book to date, The Alloy of Law has its share of darker moments, opening with Wax accidentally killing an innocent person and being haunted by it through the book. It also touches upon more epic elements, with several potential references to upcoming storylines in the second Mistborn trilogy. The book also continues Sanderson's tradition of featuring minor links to his other fantasy novels with the appendix apparently being written by the world-hopping Hoid (and featuring a reference to the events of Elantris). The updated setting is another plus point, with the mixture of magic, steam trains, guns and electricity being unusual for a fantasy and blurring the lines between epic fantasy, steampunk and urban fantasy to create something that is more interesting than the norm. Action sequences - something Sanderson has handled quite well throughout his career - are also very strong, with some of his more colourful and memorable battles and duels being depicted here.
Sanderson delineates his main three characters - Waxillium, Wayne and Marasi - well, though the POV structure is a little distracting. The entire first half of the novel is from Wax's POV but suddenly switches over in the latter half to include Wayne, Marasi and the main villain. It feels that Sanderson could have found a more consistent structure to use than this. He also nicely inverts some cliches, such as when Wax finds himself betrothed to a woman who initially appears to be a severe harridan but becomes more well-rounded a character as the book proceeds.
On the negative side, some of the secondary characters aren't as well-defined as the three heroes. In addition, there are moments when it sounds like the lawless frontier would have been a more interesting setting than yet another fantasy city (albeit one that more resembles turn-of-the-century New York than a typical fantasy conurbation), though the culture clash between the two settings is something Sanderson handles well.
The Alloy of Law (****½) is a tight, well-written fantasy novel that uses traditional tropes and ideas but combines them with an unusual (for epic fantasy) setting to produce something fresh and engaging. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Tuesday 29 November 2011
Summer Knight, the fourth novel in The Dresden Files, picks up some months after the events of Grave Peril and is the first book in the series to feature extensive continuity call-backs to previous volumes without a huge amount of exposition about what's been going on. Four books and twelve hundred pages into the series, I guess Butcher decided it was time to stop catering for newcomers and get on with business.
Having covered evil warlocks, werewolves, vampires and ghosts in the first three books, Butcher explores the faeries of his setting in this volume (though they showed up in the previous book, there's more revealed about them this time around). Making faeries work as threatening forces is tricky in supernatural fiction due to the cliches that come to mind when they show up, but Butcher does a good job here, defining the Sidhe of Dresden's world in some detail as threatening and sometimes malevolent beings who are dangerous and tricky to deal with. Their addition to the story, along with more information about Dresden's wizardly colleagues, expands the scope of the worldbuilding nicely.
Butcher's prose is as enjoyable as ever, with Butcher continuing a nice line in black humour. This book is notably lighter in tone than the dark Grave Peril, but things are still grimmer than in the first two, slighter novels in the series. The continuation of an over-arcing story arc from the third book (which still isn't resolved at the end of this volume) gives a more epic feel to events, with Harry's mission in the book having larger and more important ramifications in the wider conflict and world. It's good to see returning characters like Billy and his werewolf pack, the Alphas, whilst Karrin Murphy returns to the forefront of the action and, as she puts it, successfully kicks some major supernatural arse in one well-realised action sequence.
At this point The Dresden Files is becoming an enjoyable television series in novel form (which makes the failure of the TV version of the series more of a shame, though that may be down to how much they deviated from the source material). Each novel so far has had a satisfying self-contained narrative, but also added to the mythology and, in the third and fourth books, has brought in larger storylines spanning multiple volumes that bring a more epic feel to the series.
Summer Knight (****) is another well-written entry in a highly enjoyable fantasy series. It is available now in the UK and USA.
Check out the TWCenter forum here to see what is needed, and hopefully we can be claiming the Iron Throne ourselves in 2012.
So, that's five years, 1,407 posts, well over 1.6 million site visits (and over 2.5 million page views) and 354 book reviews under my belt. Where from here? Onwards and upwards, hopefully (and definitely a page redesign at some point). Thanks to everyone for stopping by over the years. Sorry for the lack of cake :-)
Human Revolution is the third game in the Deus Ex franchise, serving as a prequel to the events of the original Deus Ex and its lacklustre sequel, Invisible War. Set twenty-five years before the first game, Human Revolution helps show how that world of nanotech and enhanced humans came into existence. As a prequel, Human Revolution requires no existing knowledge of the earlier games and makes an ideal jumping-on point for new players.
Contrary to screenshots which suggest that it's a FPS, Human Revolution is a science fiction roleplaying game played from a first-person perspective. The game is built around the idea that though there is a central narrative the player must follow (this isn't an open-world SF RPG like Fallout 3), the player has tremendous freedom in how he or she follows that narrative. The game has a robust combat system which will satisfy those who like shooting things, but it also has a solid stealth mechanic for those who prefer sneaking around in the shadows (or, more often, inexplicably large air ducts). The game also has a hacking system so players can also hack into computer networks and turn automatic defences against enemy forces. Even within a particular play style, there is flexibility, with the ability to stun or knock out opponents rather than killing them being a particularly welcome feature (and the game has achievements for those who complete the game without killing anyone). Most players will probably mix and match styles as the mood takes them, or depending on the mission.
Deus Ex was infamous for its tremendous flexibility and freedom, adapting its storyline to cater for the player deciding to kill off major NPCs on a whim and letting them simply escape from tough bosses rather than being forced into difficult battles (especially if they were not built for combat). Human Revolution isn't quite as liberal in its approach to gameplay, most notably due to the four tough and unavoidable boss fights which have been commonly and frequently criticised. In a game which enjoys giving you different options in almost every circumstance, being forced into situations where you have to break out the heavy artillery is annoying, especially if you've been upgrading your character for say stealth or hacking and are not optimised for combat.
However, this is the only major criticism I can level at the game. In almost every other arena, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a triumph. The game has a fantastic atmosphere and sense of place, backed up by an absolutely superb soundtrack and carried through some top-notch writing. Deus Ex is one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time, and there were doubts that Human Revolution could live up to that precedent. These doubts have been laid to rest. The game is more than worthy of its illustrious heritage, and deserves plaudits for its clever design. It employs regenerating health and a cover system, two features of modern FPS games which are often groan-inducing and tiresome (is there a company somewhere that specialises in building chest-high walls and inexplicably littering them over levels?), but Human Revolution takes ownership of them. The regenerating health is justified as a force-shield, whilst the cover system (well-implemented as these things go) does double time as a tactical combat mechanic, allowing your character to move around whilst suppressed, rolling from cover to cover, firing blindly and finding sniper vantage points. Actually, the cover system pulls triple duty as a stealth mechanic in non-combat situations as well.
The game has a lot to say about the rights and wrongs of cybernetics, augmentation and the power of corporations and governments, but tries not to get preachy. As the game progresses, your character can develop his own opinion on matters, informed by the events he's experienced and the choices he's made, and the multiple endings (there are four radically different resolutions, each with three different endings based on your character's actions earlier in the game, meaning a total of twelve possible outcomes) can see him reaching very different conclusions. Whilst you can't create your own character, you can certainly develop him in more depth than in most CRPGs. This is helped by an excellent 'dramatic conversation' mechanic where you must argue with a major NPC over an important topic, trying to convince them to help you or surrender without the need for violence. Major plot revelations crop up in these conversations. However, it's odd that there aren't more of these (there's only three or four in the game), as in their own way they are more critical to the game than the tedious boss fights.
The game's central storyline is gripping, tightly-written and populated with memorable, well-acted and flawed characters. However, the game has two large hub areas (in Detroit and Heng Sha) where you can wander off from the main story for a while and pursue some side-quests. A couple of these side-quests are extensive, taking a couple of hours apiece to complete, and are a great opportunity to gain additional XP and increase your character's skills and augments. These hub areas are rich in incidental detail and flavour (overhearing citizens discussing the news stories of the day, being offered food from stall-owners etc), but arguably there's little to do in them outside of the (relatively few, for the size of these areas) quests and buying some equipment and weapons from a few vendors. A bit more going on in each zone would have expanded the play-time (which at 25 hours is reasonable but not particularly notable for an RPG) and made the game a little richer. Also, the game rarely strays far from the traditional FPS paradigm of having most of its actions set indoors in successions of corridors and offices. A little more variety in locations (perhaps more outdoor opportunities for stealth or combat) would have been nice.
These kind of complaints are very minor. In a world of increasingly bland and 'safe' first-person shooters, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (****½) stands out with its strong writing, well-defined characterisation and its refreshingly open approach to freedom and choice, whilst having compelling action sequences as well. It's one of the strongest RPGs, and indeed games overall, of the last couple of years and is well worth a look. It's available now on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA), as well as on the OnLive cloud gaming platform for PC and Mac users (UK, USA).
Monday 28 November 2011
Looks like a lot of fun, though what modern gamers more used to the likes of Skyrim will make of it is unclear. But for older gamers hankering for some old-school gaming, it could be just what the duergar ordered. The game is currently scheduled for release in early 2012 on PC and Mac.
Sunday 27 November 2011
Grave Peril is the third novel in the Dresden Files series of urban fantasies and an important turning-point in the series. The first two novels, Storm Front and Fool Moon, were entertaining but little more than enjoyable fluff. Grave Peril is a considerably darker and more personal book, with Butcher's writing much more confident and assured as he puts Dresden through the emotional wringer. Whilst reading the book I was in put in mind of those 'gamechanger' episodes of Buffy and Angel when Joss Whedon would rip up the status quo by doing something to the characters that hurt them badly and established a new paradigm he would have fun setting up and exploring.
Grave Peril expands the cast of the Dresden Files with Michael Carpenter, a Christian knight armed with a magical sword, joining Dresden in his battle with the forces of evil. We also get a greater depth of worldbuilding, with both the vampire and Sidhe inhabitants of Dresden's world being fleshed out in a lot of detail. Whilst Butcher's approach does not stray too far from standard fantasy/horror depictions of these creatures, he succeeds in making them feel fresh and interesting, a near-impossible task given how ubiquitous these forces have become in recent supernatural fiction.
Butcher's writing is fun and enjoyable, with more of Dresden's attitude, character and humour bleeding through the first-person prose. His writing has definitely stepped up in quality from the first two books in the series and he effectively conveys the horror of several disturbing scenes in the book. He's become better at conveying emotion since the opening volumes of the series and several scenes are real gut-punches. There's also a more epic feeling to events, with ramifications from this book likely to extend over several books to come, opening up the story to something larger and more interesting in scale.
Some complaints remain. As with Fool Moon, Dresden is injured several times in the book and Butcher goes a bit overboard in his descriptions of how tired, hurt and helpless Dresden feels due to these injuries. There is the feeling that with each successive volume, Dresden's powers and abilities with magic are growing (along with those of his allies) and this requires Butcher to go to some lengths to 'nerf' Dresden's abilities to simply stop him using a hand-wave of magic to solve all of his problems. However, this is a minor issue, and Butcher's impressive improvement in the areas of prose and characterisation overcome it quite handily.
Grave Peril (****) is where The Dresden Files comes of age, and it does so with aplomb. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
There you go. From such small seeds etc.
Oblivion is the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series of roleplaying games (the fifth, Skyrim, came out a few weeks ago). Originally released in 2006, Oblivion was the first game in the series to be developed with the latest generation of video game consoles in mind as well as the series' traditional home on PC, and was an early showcase for the graphical capabilities of those consoles. Five and a half years on, it remains an impressive game, even if time has not been kind to many of its niggling faults.
Like the first three games in the series - Arena, Daggerfall and Morrowind - Oblivion is an open-world RPG which gives the player a huge playing area to travel around in straight away. Whilst there is a core narrative relating to the search for a new Emperor and shutting down the portals to Oblivion, the player is free to completely ignore this in favour of pursuing side-quests, secondary narratives (such as joining the Thieves' Guild or Dark Brotherhood, both of which have extensive questlines of their own) or simply raiding dungeons for loot for personal gain. This freedom is both exhilarating and also daunting, as some players might feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice on offer. For this reason, the game pushes it core storyline much more strongly than previous games in the series to give players something more tangible to hold onto and pursue.
Unfortunately, the central storyline ends up not being particularly interesting, which is annoying as it also seeks to subversively overthrow some of the cliches and conventions of fantasy RPGs. Initially the game leads you to believe that your character is the 'chosen one' who must save the world, but amusingly you quickly discover that you're not. Your job (if you choose to pursue the central storyline) is to find the true heir and clear the way for him to save the world. Essentially, you're a fixer who has to rush around solving problems and leaving the way clear for the real hero to do his stuff. This is a bold narrative decision, but also one that can be potentially frustrating, making you feel like you're playing second fiddle to an NPC. For this reason, the main storyline is rather short (if you concentrate on it and don't get distracted by other quests, you can finish it in less than ten hours) and also teams you up with the 'real hero' only for the final mission of that storyline. However, be advised that starting the main quest (by following directions to the city of Kvatch after speaking to the old dude at the monastery at the start of the game) will result in portals to Oblivion opening all over the countryside and result in constant, extremely annoying, battles with imps and lesser demons when you're simply trying to get around. Completing the main quest closes the Oblivion portals, thankfully.
The game engine is rather old (it was first used in 2002's Morrowind) but was hugely upgraded for Oblivion. On release the visuals were absolutely, jaw-droppingly beautiful and still look impressive today (and can be made truly awesome with high-texture mods). Vast forests, grassy plains, towering mountains, medieval towns and ancient ruins are a constant feast for the eyes, and rendered with tremendous atmosphere. Even more impressive is the freedom you have to travel everywhere: if you can see it, you can walk there. In Oblivion it's often appealing to simply go for a walk or ride through the countryside in a random direction and see what you bump into.
Unfortunately, the game is less accomplished in its depiction of people and creatures. Human characters are stiff, with somewhat oddly-rendered faces and clunky animation. Monsters fare better, with a variety of interesting creature designs. Interacting with other living creatures is also hit or miss. The game suffers massively from a very limited voice cast. Aside from Patrick Stewart (who has about five lines in the whole game) and Sean Bean (voicing the 'proper' hero), everyone else, even major NPCs, is voiced by the same small pool of actors. When Brother Jauffre, a major character in the game, is talking to you in the exact same voice that the innkeeper round the corner was using to talk to a customer who was also voiced by the same actor, any sense of immersion in the game is seriously dented. Dialogue and the writing in general are also, for the most part, cliched and predictable.
Combat and magic use are pretty solid mechanics, with a nice physicality to the combat making it feel like you are in a serious melee. The game allows members of all classes to develop skills outside of those classes, so a sword-wielding mage or a magic-casting warrior are viable possibilities. Unfortunately, the game's levelling mechanic is a little bizarre, since you only level up when your core class skills are practised to a high enough level. Since the entire game world levels up with you (i.e. visiting a wilderness area at Level 1 might result in combat with a bandit in leather armour equipped with a short sword, whilst visiting the same area at Level 20 will reveal a plethora of bandits in magical armour armed with sorcerous blades), there is no real imperative to level up, so it's actually better to pick a class opposite to what you want to play and then develop the non-class skills to high levels. In fact, the level-scaling mechanic is a seriously annoying feature, and one that is a dealbreaker for many players. PC gamers can simply mod the feature out, but console players are stuck with it.
It's a tribute to Oblivion's team of developers that the game can survive an indifferent plot, some bad writing and a series of immersion-shattering, poor design problems. This is mainly down to the inventive and better-written side-quests. Joining the Dark Brotherhood (the assassins' guild) results in a tense, dark-tinged and morally challenging questline that puts the main story to shame. Individual quests are also very strong. Going to sleep on a boat-turned-tavern in the capital's port results in the inn being stolen and sailed out to sea! This leaves you having to take on the hijackers and return the boat to port. Another quest finds you having to venture inside a magical painting to rescue its creator, with a completely different art style to the rest of the game. A visit to a village in night results in you being attacked by invisible fiends, which turn out to be cursed villagers forced into invisibility by a dubious mage (which is a bit harsh if you've already killed several of them without realising what they were). Also, simply not following any quests at all and going dungeon-diving at random can result in memorable encounters and some sweet loot.
The central draw of the Elder Scrolls games, and indeed Bethesda's Fallout games which are in a similar vein, is the chance to experience your own narrative at your own pace. No two players will ever play the game in quite the same way or experience the same quests in the same order, and it's this involvement of the player's decision in determining the narrative which can be extremely compelling and result in unique stories. For example, in my first play-through I wandered into a dungeon holding a powerful warrior named Umbra, one of the few non-level-scaled characters in the game. Since I was only Level 3, I died near-instantly. After trying a few different tactics to overcome her and steal her sword (one of the most powerful magical weapons in the game), I gave up and fled the dungeon. As I looked back I saw the maniacal super-warrior chasing me along the lakeside. Fleeing at a full run past a guard patrol, I watched as they engaged Umbra and promptly expired. Still, their sacrifice allowed me time to escape. Thinking no more of the incident, I played on for about another 30 hours, bringing the main quest to completion (amongst many other things). On a whim I decided to travel on foot back to the Imperial City alongside Martin (Sean Bean's character) rather than fast-travel there. As we approached the lakeside, we noted numerous corpses of guardsmen, bandits, monsters and merchants along the road. There were dozens and dozens of them. Hearing a familiar cry, I saw Umbra emerge from nearby rocks and attack. It turned out that Umbra had spent the intervening in-game time (weeks, at least) wandering back and forth slaughtering everything in sight. Now considerably more hardcore and with Lord Boromir Stark at my side, I engaged the nutcase in battle and defeated her, getting her mighty sword just in time for the main quest's climactic, huge battle. Awesome.
It's moments like this that allow Oblivion (****) to overcome its many issues and emerge as a highly enjoyable computer roleplaying game. PC gamers also have access to a truly vast number of mods and expansions which do everything from upgrading the graphics, making the characters more realistic and fixing the level-scaling issues to completely overhauling the game and providing new storylines and entire new maps to play on. The game is available now (in a special edition including the expansions) on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).