Tuesday 31 January 2012

Impressive WITCHER trailer/cinematic

CDProjekt's critically-acclaimed Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, their second game based on Andrzej Sapkowski's excellent Witcher books, is getting a re-release in April. The game is launching for the first time on X-Box 360 with lots of new content, which is also being added to the PC version of the game via a free 'Enhanced Edition'. One of the more notable new features is a new opening cinematic featuring the titular king-assassination. It is pretty awesome (especially after the second half).

The cinematic is the work of the Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning Tomas Bagiński, who also created the impressive lengthy opening (based on the short story, 'The Witcher', from The Last Wish) to the original Witcher game in 2007.


Aliens: Colonial Marines has been delayed until the autumn. But to compensate (at least a little) Gearbox have released a new trailer for the game. No gameplay, but some nice CGI and great use of the Clint Mansell soundtrack from the film Moon.

The game is a direct sequel to the movie Aliens. It focuses on the recovery of the Sulaco (the ship used by Ripley and the marines in that film to get to LV-426 and subsequently escape) by a rescue team of colonial marines, who then backtrack the ship's course to LV-426 and subsequently learn the fate of the planet after its nuking in the movie. Established characters are not expected to appear (since they bailed out of the Sulaco at the start of Alien 3). The Aliens universe will also be explored this July in Ridley Scott's new film Prometheus, set before the events of the original Alien.

Monday 30 January 2012

Your Highness

I'll skip my usual plot summary, as doing so would cause me to lose the will to live. Suffice to say, Your Highness is a stoner comedy where brothers Danny McBride and James Franco have to team up to take on the evil wizard (Justin Theroux) in order to save the kidnapped Zooey Deschanel. A bewildered Natalie Portman helps out for a bit. Suffice to say the good guys win.

Your Highness is a movie that catastrophically fails on numerous levels. First up, it's a stoner comedy which is trying to make the 'add marijuana use to any given scene to make it using' formulae still work. The conceit here is that the film is a high fantasy, so characters breaking out weed whilst on a quest to save the world (or at least the female lead's virginity) is supposed to be tonally jarring and hence amusing. The problem, of course, is that even the serious Lord of the Rings movies had weed jokes in them, so this doesn't really work.

Secondly, the film's leads are rather unlikeable. Danny McBride (also the film's writer) plays Danny McBride, the quintessential supporting man who is best-deployed in short bursts (he worked quite well blowing up an entire jungle in Tropic Thunder and then doing nothing else of note in the film). He can't handle the lead role for an entire movie, and his jokes become repetitive and fall flat. He has occasional moments of competence, but no more. Worse is Franco, who plays his flamboyant, heroic role with all the charisma of a wet blanket, not to mention adopting a bizarre nasal accent that is seriously annoying. Completing a trio of ineptness, Deschanel plays her role as if she is severely concussed for the whole movie, a curious choice from someone who is actually a very good actress.

Supporting actors fare better: Theroux's ferocious, scenery-chewing performance is just what the script calls for and he makes even the most tired gross-out gags amusing. He also gets the best lines. It's therefore a shame he gets relatively little screen-time. Charles Dance, playing the brothers' fierce, authoritarian father (trivia: he was recruited straight from the set of Your Highness to play Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones), also succeeds by playing his role straight. But again, he's in the film for only a limited period. Portman is more variable, in some scenes phoning it in and in others at least trying to get into the spirit of things. Portman went straight from filming Your Highness to principal photography on Black Swan, which I suspect was a tonal shift so jarring it caused whiplash.

We must take a brief moment to salute Toby Jones, an excellent and interesting actor who in Your Highness has to utterly humiliate himself several times over in the pursuit of McBride's comedic vision, and does so without at any time descending into a towering rage and murdering his co-star with a chainsaw. Such restraint can only be marvelled at.

Another major failing of the film is that it seems to draw inspiration from other, superior movies. When a film is making you think of The Princess Bride, Lord of the Rings or Krull, it's probably not a good idea for the film not to be a patch on any of them.

Your Highness (½ a star and lucky to get that) is not particularly fantastical (having a paedophile muppet wizard doesn't count), definitely not original, is mostly utterly unfunny (some honourable exceptions for Theroux) and almost everyone involved seems to be rather embarrassed by the project. The studio certainly was, sitting on it for more than a year before finally trotting it out somewhat sheepishly to the cinemas, where it promptly bombed. Definitely one to avoid.


Here's the latest trailer for Season 2 of Game of Thrones:

The series starts airing on 1 April in the USA and the day after in the UK.

Sunday 29 January 2012

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 1 - The Age of Legends and before

A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final novel in the Wheel of Time sequence, is currently scheduled for publication in November this year. As with The Crippled God and A Dance with Dragons, fans are debating whether to undertake re-reads of the entire series before the final book comes out. As I did for A Song of Ice and Fire, here is my attempt at a 'story so far' to help jog people's memories (or act as summaries for those who don't want to endure the third-quarter slump the series suffers through). This is a much bigger project than the ASoIaF catch-up and may take a lot longer to get through, so bear with me on this :-)

Obviously, there will be huge spoilers throughout for books in the series if you haven't read them.

The Wheel and the Power
Time is said to be a wheel with seven spokes, each spoke representing one of the great Ages of history. The Wheel of Time weaves the tapestry of history out of the fabric of people's lives, each person's life being a thread in the pattern. The energy that drives the Wheel is the One Power, drawn from the True Source. This energy is divided into two halves: saidar, which only women can use, and saidin, which only men can use. The Wheel, the universe and all of creation were forged by a being known as the Creator and opposed by a being known as Shai'tan, the Dark One. At the Moment of Creation, the Creator imprisoned the Dark One within a prison of energy, there to remain bound for all time.

A Portal Stone, an artifact of the Age before the Age of Legends.

The First Age
Rand al'Thor's struggle against the Dark One takes place at the end of the Third Age, the Age of Prophecy, but the seeds for that struggle were laid many thousands of years earlier, in the First Age.

In the First Age, humanity discovered the ability to channel the One Power, that is to use the energy that drives time itself to conjure fire from the air, to heal all injuries short of death and perform other apparently supernatural feats. According to myth, the person who discovered the Power was called Tamyrlin. Others later also developed the ability to wield the One Power. These early channellers created devices - Portal Stones - that could allow them to travel to parallel worlds or vast distances in the 'real' one, as well as creating glass columns that could show images of the distant past or future.

Few hard facts about the First Age are known. Most information from this time comes in the form of obscure myths and legends, but what they mean is unclear. Popular stories tell of Lenn, who flew to the moon in an eagle made of fire, and his daughter Salya who travelled amongst the stars. Another legend refers to a great global confrontation between Mosk, a giant who possessed a lance of fire that could reach around the world, and his rival Merk. Mosk also warred with Alsbet, the Queen of All. Stories also speak of Materese the Healer, Mother of the Wondrous Ind. Some items from the First Age are also alleged to still exist, some in the museum in the Panarch's Palace of Tanchico. Amongst these are a frieze showing an animal with an incredibly long neck, now thought to be extinct, and a strange three-pronged symbol that apparently was once a sign for hubris and pride.

An artifact of the mythical First Age, currently on display in the Panarch's Palace of Tanchico. Private viewings can be arranged for modest remuneration to the Panarch's office.

When and how the First Age ended is unclear, except that it seems to have accompanied the banding together of the channellers of the One Power into an organisation known as the Servants of All, Aes Sedai in the Old Tongue. It appears that the First Age ended in some kind of catastrophe, as knowledge of the the workings of the Portal Stones and much other information about this Age was subsequently lost.

The ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends.

The Age of Legends
The Second Age, the Age of Legends, lasted for many thousands of years and was an unusually long period of prosperity and peace. Mankind used the One Power to eliminate war, poverty, hunger, disease and crime. The Aes Sedai guided humanity but did not rule it. Instead, a world parliament made up of elected officials guided the world through this golden age of peace, meeting in the great city of Paaran Disen. Scientific research and artistic endeavours were the main motivations pursued by people at this time.

The Aes Sedai were powerful and prevalent. Only three in a hundred people were born with the ability to channel, but channellers could live for in excess of seven hundred years (thrice the length of a non-channeller at this time), so were more commonplace than their low birth rate would suggest. Aes Sedai carried out great scientific works, led research projects into new uses of the Power and were great healers and advisors to the world parliament.

Technology and knowledge of the Power developed together, although even at the height of the Age the Aes Sedai were still unable to replicate the powers shown at the end of the First Age (they still could not replicate the Portal Stones or fully understand their workings). However, they were able to create great aircraft that could cross the oceans, sho-wings, and personal hovering vehicles known as hoverflies, jumpers and jo-cars. The Aes Sedai had other methods of crossing vast distances, such as Travelling, a form of the Power that allowed portals to be opened directly from anywhere on Earth to anywhere else. Technology even extended into the areas of entertainment - three-dimensional images were projected straight into people's homes - and clothing, with the creation of streith, a fabric that could shift colour and size depending on the wearer's mood.

The Aes Sedai also had the power to change human behaviour. Criminal and violent tendencies were identified early on and 'edited' out using a method of mental manipulation called 'Compulsion' (widely-used at the time, but long since banned in the Third Age). As a result crime was almost completely eliminated. Combined with bountiful resources, there was no longer any reason for war or conflict, and the terms became obscure, only known to historians.

The Aes Sedai also assisted in manipulation of the natural world. Using powerful ter'angreal - devices that could harness the One Power towards specific goals - Aes Sedai were able to change weather patterns across large areas. Using dozens of weather control ter'angreal, Aes Sedai could shift weather patterns over whole continents. They could bring rain to areas affected by drought, helping in the growing of crops.

Of the great cities, Paaran Disen was the largest and most influential, the seat of the world parliament and the Hall of the Servants, the base of operations of the Aes Sedai. One of the other notable cities of this time was V'saine, a university town whose dominant college, the Collam Daan, was recognised as the leading institution in the research of the One Power. To show their mastery of both the Power and mundane science, the heads of the Collam Daan commissioned the building of a new research laboratory, called the Sharom. This took the form of a vast metallic sphere, floating a thousand feet above the rest of the Collam Daan on anti-gravity fields. The most advanced, high-energy experiments into the nature of the One Power and the True Source were carried out here.

An Ogier.

The Aes Sedai also undertook research into the Portal Stones of the First Age. Exploring the worlds reached through these Stones, the Aes Sedai discovered unusual races and odd parallel universes with differing laws of physics, or where human life did not exist at all. Around this time a race of nonhuman beings known as the Ogier appeared on Earth. Some conjecture that they came from one of these Portal Stone worlds. The Ogier, studious and peaceful, dwelt in harmony with nature in groves of peace and tranquillity called stedding. The Aes Sedai themselves experimented with creating nonhuman intelligences, eventually crafting a race of beings known as the Nym. The Nym were huge, towering creatures made of living matter who enjoyed an inherent connection to nature. The Ogier, the Nym and some humans could together
manipulate the elements in a method called 'seed singing', conjuring the maximum growth possible from fields or plants. The Aes Sedai seem to have retreated from the idea of creating other races themselves, but at least some seem to have pursued theoretical research into the idea further.

The Age was one of peace and calm, but on a personal level people still got angry, and occasional fights and violence took place (although almost never escalating to dangerous levels thanks to intervention). One group of people rejected even this minor display of aggression and dedicated themselves to a philosophy of total peace and pacifism known as the Way of the Leaf. This group named itself the Da'shain Aiel and gave themselves over to the service of others. Many became assistants and aides to the Aes Sedai. Others became seed singers (the Da'shain showed a great affinity towards both the Nym and Ogier). All only wanted to live in peace and harmony with others.

As a convention, most people in the world were born with two names (an identifying name and a family one). However, a third name could be added in return for achieving great things in a person's chosen field. One of the more common failings of this Age was that some individuals became obsessed with gaining a third name, and thus showing that they enjoyed the respect and admiration of their peers. As the Age continued and greater advancements in science, technology and the Power were made, so the opportunities for achieving a third name dwindled, and some individuals fell to pride and ambition in trying to achieve this goal.

Mierin Eronaile, better-known to history as Lanfear.

Creating the Bore
Mierin Eronaile was a talented individual, said to be one of the most skilled researchers and scientists looking into the very make-up of the One Power. She was also formidably gifted in the Power herself, possibly the most powerful channeller of saidar in the world. Yet her skills had not earned her the respect necessary to be given a third name. A dalliance with Lews Therin Telamon, the First Among Equals (the leader/chairperson of the Aes Sedai) which ended badly, further angered Eronaile. When Lews Therin took up with Ilyena Moerelle Dalisar and later married her, Eronaile was filled an unreasoning hatred towards the other woman.

Eronaile threw herself into her work. Along with another Aes Sedai, a man called Beidomon, she uncovered evidence of the existence of a previously unknown source of energy, similar to the One Power but not divided into male and female halves. Using this energy she believed humanity could achieve things far beyond the capabilities of even the One Power. Confident in her own abilities, she undertook an experiment at the Sharom in V'saine. This was a brute force procedure, blasting a tunnel or bore straight into this untapped energy source where it could be studied in more detail.

The project was a catastrophic failure. The backblast from the creation of the Bore consumed and obliterated the Sharom, sending the huge structure crashing down onto the Collam Daan, destroying it utterly. Dark energy spilled forth from the Sharom, causing the skies to go black. Thousands died. It was one of the greatest disasters of the Age of Legends. Beidomon and Mierine Eronaile had survived thanks to safety precautions put in place before the experiment, but the disaster affected them in very different ways. Beidomon, horror-stricken (especially once the true outcome of the experiment was known), eventually committed suicide. Eronaile's failure seemed to fuel her anger and resentment against the rest of the world, especially Lews Therin and his wife, and she became consumed with winning him back and embarrassing her rival, Ilyena.

The disaster was horrific, but ultimately would have been dismissed as a one-off incident. Unknown to anyone at the time, it had far-reaching consequences which would take some time to become clear.

The Collapse
It is unclear exactly how the downfall of the Age of Legends first manifested itself. According to some reports, sports which had previously been safe thanks to safety precautions suddenly became dangerous, even lethal. Sportsmen who enjoyed the game of 'swords' removed such safety precautions and displayed their injuries and scars with pride. Bizarrely, some refused Aes Sedai Healing even to the point of death.

Crimes gradually went from rare, abnormal events to becoming increasingly common. Riots, outbreaks of mass public disorder and random destruction of property started taking place. The normal responses - medical intervention, use of Compulsion and so on - proved ineffective. As the years passed these outbreaks of chaos became commonplace. Some cities became havens of illegal behaviour and chaos.

The world parliament proved unable to deal with the situation. They looked into various solutions but none presented itself. To investigate, they called upon the foremost experts in the world to study the phenomenon and find a cause. Elan Morin Tedronai, the world's foremost philosopher, postulated that humanity's darker sides, having been held in check for millennia, had suddenly been unleashed in an outpouring of rage, blood and chaos. He began investigating the triggering mechanism and quickly noted that the destruction of the Sharom and the Collam Daan had taken place close to the first reported outbreak of violence. However, nothing at the site suggested a connection.

Ultimately, he discovered that a remote volcanic island in the northern ocean had become uninhabitable following the events at V'saine. Travelling there, in the heart of a tall volcano, he found a 'thinning' in the fabric of reality separating the material world from a prison forged of the One Power itself. This prison contained an entity identifying itself as Shai'tan, the Great Lord. This entity was the source of the undivided energy that Mierine Eronaile had discovered. This being, known to history as the Dark One, told Elan Morin that the experiment at V'saine had blasted a hole into its prison, through which its influence was seeping into the world. It was not enough to allow it to escape its prison, but was a start. The entity's knowledge was immense and it granted Elan Morin the use of the True Power, its own equivalent to the One Power. Elan Morin's hunger for knowledge and power provided the Dark One with a way of corrupting him and turning him to its cause.

Eventually, Elan Morin revealed the existence of the Dark One to the world at large. Millions of ordinary people swore themselves to its cause, becoming known as the Friends of the Dark. Channellers also flocked to its banner, becoming known as Dreadlords for their ability to unleash vast destructive energies in its service. The Dark One granted twenty-nine of the Dreadlords the ability to use the True Power, naming them its 'Chosen'. Elan Morin, cursed by the people as Ishamael, the 'Betrayer of Hope', was the first and greatest of these. Other great figures also swore themselves to the Dark One's service, such as the geneticist Ishar Morrad Chuain (Aginor), the psychologist Karamile Maradim Nindar (Graendal)...and the scientist Mierin Eronaile, who was given the name Lanfear or 'Daughter of Night'. The Chosen, once their existence became known to the world at large, became more popularly known as the Forsaken.

The world parliament was forced to respond. Lews Therin Telamon, the First Among Equals of the Aes Sedai, was given emergency powers to respond to the threat. He began using the Power and the science of the Age to forge weapons and began training armies to defend humanity from the Dark One. His ultimate goal was to find a way of re-sealing the Dark One's prison completely, shutting away its evil influence from the world. Before he was ready, the Dark One's minions struck.

A Myrddraal leading Trollocs into battle.

The War of the Shadow
The War of the Shadow began almost exactly one hundred years after the disaster as V'saine. The Dark One's minions made an attempt to breach its prison completely and release it into the world. Lews Therin's forces tried to stop them. For the first time in millennia, a battle was fought. This battle escalated into open, all-out conflict. The War of the Shadow, the War of Power, began.

Lews Therin and his forces were caught on the back-foot by the revelation that the Friends of the Dark had been breeding, in secret and for decades, monstrous creatures in the service of the Dark One. Aginor, a great genetic engineer, had blended animal and human stocks to create hideous creatures known as Trollocs. They bred profusely, ate anything (but preferred human flesh) and were ferocious, though it has to be said also somewhat stupid. To Aginor's own surprise, a small number of other creatures emerged from the vats used to create Trollocs. These beings were humanoid with no sign of their animal heritage, but had no eyes. They could also move from place to place through shadows and were much stronger than humans. Aginor himself did not understand how these creatures, the Myrddraal (also called Fades or Eyeless), came into being, though some theorised they were formed when channellers were added to the stock used to create them. Others suspected the direct intervention of the Dark One using its limited influence: Myrddraal are arguably the most fanatical servants of the Shadow, even moreso than the Forsaken themselves. Other forms of 'Shadowspawn also appeared, such as Grey Men (assassins able to blend in with their surroundings), Draghkar (winged humanoids capable of sucking out people's souls), Darkhounds (ferocious animals), gholams (shapeshifting creatures immune to the One Power) and jumara (hideous worm-like creatures, believed to be capable of transforming into a more threatening form).

Vast armies of Trollocs, led by Dreadlords and Myrddraal, fell upon the human armies under Lews Therin's leadership, scattering them. Lews Therin tried to rally his followers but faced insurmountable opposition. The Shadow enjoyed victory after victory for three years, with its eventual success apparently becoming inevitable. The Light was stunned by the defection of several senior generals - including Lews Therin's friends Barid Bel Medar (Demandred) and Tel Janin Aellinsar (Sammael) - to the Shadow, as they wished to join the winning side.

At this point, Lews Therin suddenly unleashed new strategies and new tactics. What these were is unknown, but it is reported that the Ogier - albeit reluctantly - entered the war on the side of the Light. It may be that the Ogier's arrival and their superior strength and discipline served as a counterweight to the intervention of the numerically superior Trollocs and other forms of 'Shadowspawn'. However, it may also be that the Shadow had grown overconfident and lazy, relying on superior numbers to win every engagement, allowing the Light to exploit their weaknesses to achieve success. The Light won the upper hand and reversed the Shadow's onslaught for four years in a row, achieving tremendous successes. Lews Therin became known as 'the Lord of the Morning' and 'the Dragon' for his impressive victories.

In the eighth year of the war, the Shadow responded once more and ground Lews Therin's forces down to a stalemate. Anxious to find a way of breaking the stalemate, one of the sides (history does not record which) found a form of the One Power called balefire. Using this ferocious weapon, both sides blasted entire cities out of existence, killing millions. Balefire not only utterly destroyed whatever it touched, it also erased them backwards in time for short periouds. The unrestrained use of balefire by both sides for a year created innumerable temporal paradoxes, threatening causality and reality itself with dissolution. With no formal truce or discussion between the two sides, all use of balefire was suspended before the end of the year.

The Strike at Shayol Ghul
At the beginning of the ninth year of the war, the Shadow gained a strategic advantage that became unstoppable. Millions and millions of people in the service of the Light had been slaughtered, and could not be replaced easily. On the other hand, Shadowspawn could be bred almost as fast as they were slaughtered. The balance of power tilted back in favour of the Shadow, and this time could not be countered.

In the Hall of the Servants, Lews Therin proposed a bold stroke. He would lead the remaining Aes Sedai in a single, massive assault on Shayol Ghul, the volcano which served as the Earthly link to the Dark One's prison. There he would use seven powerful ter'angreal known as the Seals to collapse the Bore and repair the Dark One's prison. This plan was rejected by Latra Posae Decume, the leader of an ajah (a temporary political faction among the Aes Sedai) known as the Fateful Concord. Decume believed that the seals could be used to destroy the Dark One's prison, and could facilitated its escape into the world. She counter-proposed the creation of the two most powerful sa'angreal (devices which increased the amount of the Power that could be used by an individual exponentially) in history, the Choedan Kal. These would be used to seal Shayol Ghul away from the rest of the world, ending the Dark One's influence and giving the Light time to work on a safer method of sealing the prison permanantly.

The two sides were deadlocked, so it was decided to proceed with preperations for both plans simultaneously. Unfortunately, armies of the Shadow overran the area where the 'access keys' for the Choedan Kal were being created, and these were lost. Lews Therin moved to proceed with his plan, but Latra Posae and her followers refused to take part. Lews Therin and the 113 most powerful Aes Sedai sworn to his service - all men for reasons not entirely clear - chose to undertake the attack anyway.

The Dragon and the Hundred Companions launched their assault on Shayol Ghul, Travelling there with ten thousand regular human troops. Battle was joined. By great fortune, the thirteen most powerful of the surviving Forsaken were found to be at Shayol Ghul at the time of the attack. In a ferocious battle Lews Therin successfully placed the Seven Seals on the Dark One's prison, creating an imperfect patch across the Bore, but enough to re-seal the prison. The Forsaken present, bound to the Dark One by ties of the True Power, were drawn into the prison and sealed away as well. The exception was Ishamael, who managed to avoid being permanantly drawn into the prison. Instead, he was partially bound and was able to escape for periods of forty years or so every few centuries.

At the moment of victory, triumph turned to disaster. The Dark One's counterstroke tainted saidin, placing a rotting curse upon the male half of the True Source. Every male Aes Sedai present went insane on the instant, unleashing maddened, uncontrolled eruptions of the One Power. This radiated out across the world, ultimately affecting every male chaneller over the course of months.

Lews Therin Telamon after being driven insane by the Dark One.

Lews Therin, crazed as his fellows were, Travelled back to his home in Paaran Disen. In his maddened state he slew his wife and his children, his servants and friends, leaving his palace in smouldering ruins. Ishamael appeared and taunted Lews Therin, using the True Power to Heal his madness and reveal what he had done. Traumatised by this revelation, Lews Therin Travelled to a remote part of the world and there channelled more of the Power than he could safely handle, immolating himself in a funeral pyre. As he died, an immense mountain pulled itself out of the ground around his grave, a mountain that became known as the Dragonmount.

The War of the Shadow had been won, but at tremendous cost. The high technology and learning of the Age of Legends was lost in the chaos and tumults of the years that followed. Hundreds of millions were killed as the male Aes Sedai continued to unleash random, uncontrolled eruptions of the One Power. Entire continents sank beneath the waves, mountain ranges were levelled, and others pulled themselves out of the ground. Almost every trace of the world before was lost in a period that became known as the Breaking of the World.

Next up: the Breaking, the exodus of the Da'shain Aiel and the re-establishing of civilisation.

New cover art: Kemp, Martin, King

Some upcoming cover art:

Gollancz in the UK are reissuing their George R.R. Martin books in new covers. Neither The Armageddon Rag nor Tuf Voyaging have been available in UK editions for well over twenty years. Incidentally, the Eye of Sauron is on the cover of The Armageddon Rag as it's about a rock band called the Nazgul.

Meanwhile, the UK paperback editions of A Dance with Dragons launch in late March. Incidentally, this leaves the UK paperback sequence of A Song of Ice and Fire now listed as:

A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire
A Clash of Kings: Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire
A Storm of Swords - Steel and Snow: Book Three Part One of A Song of Ice and Fire
A Storm of Swords - Blood and Gold: Book Three Part Two of A Song of Ice and Fire
A Feast for Crows: Book Four of A Song of Ice and Fire
A Dance with Dragons - Dreams and Dust: Book Five Part One of A Song of Ice and Fire
A Dance with Dragons - After the Feast: Book Five Part Two of A Song of Ice and Fire

Seems a bit unwieldy. I think Voyager need to find a way of getting ASoS and ADWD in one paperback volume apiece. If much larger books in the UK can be published as one volume (Hamilton's The Naked God, several of Diana Gabaldon's novels, most things by James Clavell), then so can these.

Meanwhile, there's the first non-tie-in, original novel by Paul S. Kemp, The Hammer and the Blade: Tales of Egil and Nix, on its way from Angry Robot Books in July.

Finally, Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence is getting a new lick of paint for its UK editions. These should be percolating onto shelves in the near future.

New Malazan reading order

Following the publication of Orb Sceptre Throne, it's now possible to work out a new reading order for the books to best account for the information given by both authors. This list is not the chronological order of the novels, which would likely be very confusing, but a 'best' reading list accounting for publication and chronological orders:
  1. Gardens of the Moon
  2. Deadhouse Gates
  3. Memories of Ice
  4. House of Chains
  5. Midnight Tides
  6. Night of Knives*
  7. The Bonehunters
  8. Return of the Crimson Guard**
  9. Reaper's Gale
  10. Toll the Hounds***
  11. Stonewielder
  12. Orb Sceptre Throne****
  13. Dust of Dreams
  14. The Crippled God
* Night of Knives introduces several characters who play a role in The Bonehunters.
** Return of the Crimson Guard picks up shortly after The Bonehunters, whilst Reaper's Gale tells us explicitly that a year has passed since the events of TBH.
*** According to dialogue, Toll the Hounds takes place six years after Memories of Ice. According to every other piece of information in the whole series, this is flat-out impossible, and needs to be ignored. Orb Sceptre Throne retcons it to about two years after MoI. The presence of a child born after MoI who is five years old in TTH also has to be ignored.
**** According to dialogue and various events, Orb Sceptre Throne takes place before the conclusion of the Dust of Dreams/Crippled God duology.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian Cameron Esslemont

With the Pannion Seer defeated, the Jaghut Tyrant Raest imprisoned and peace declared with the Malazans, the beleaguered citizens of Darujhistan are finally hoping for a time of peace and prosperity. Of course, this is the perfect time for an ancient force of unspeakable evil to escape from the barrows outside the city and unleash a new age of chaos and war across most of Genabackis. This war will draw in the Moranth and the Seguleh, the Rhivi and the remnants of the Malazan armies still stationed on the continent. Far to the south, treasure hunters are looting the crashed ruins of Moon's Spawn, searching for the storied Throne of Night, whilst in another realm hunters are searching for the missing High Mage Tayschrenn at the very Shores of Creation. But the fate of Darujhistan, Genabackis and maybe the world will rest in the hands of one fat thief and a bunch of Malazan deserters who want nothing more than to run their pub in peace.

Orb Sceptre Throne is Ian Cameron Esslemont's fourth entry into the Malazan world, expanding on the novels written by his friend and collaborator Steven Erikson. It's an interesting book in that, unlike Esslemont's previous novels which largely focused on new characters, this novel extensively features characters Erikson has used and developed in several previous books, most notably the curiously-dictioned Kruppe. This poses challenges for Esslemont, but thankfully he overcomes them with aplomb. Kruppe occasionally feels a bit off, but most of the other shared characters (Caladan Brood, Duiker, the ex-Bridgeburners, Torvald and Rallick Nom and more) come across very well.

The narrative is, as is typical with Malazan, somewhat disjointed, with several apparently unconnected storylines unfolding before converging at the end. This disconnect seems more pronounced than is normal for Esslemont and is briefly worrying, since he has far less page-time to play around with than Erikson (despite being almost exactly 600 pages long in hardcover, this is the one of the shortest books in the series). However, as the storylines move together and things start making sense, the book picks up a tremendous momentum. The second half of the novel is stuffed full of battles, plot revelations and character moments that are satisfyingly epic. By using elements familiar to readers from other books, Esslemont is able to imbue events with more meaning than would otherwise be the case. When four hundred Seguleh (the sword-wielding taciturn badasses of the Malazan world) show up, the reader knows that some serious carnage is about to go down, for example.

For this reason, Orb Sceptre Throne works much better for established Malazan fans than newcomers, particularly those who have already read Gardens of the Moon, Memories of Ice and Toll the Hounds. A number of plot elements stretching all the way back to Gardens of the Moon are expanded upon and backstory is (finally!) given for the Seguleh, the Moranth and indeed Genabackis as a whole. It's also nice to see some established characters given more depth and bigger roles than previously, such as Antsy, who becomes a major player in events at the crashed Moon's Spawn.

On the negative side, there's a number of story elements that are somewhat obtuse, either referring to storylines still to be detailed or referring very obliquely to events in other novels. Some characters fare better than others, and notably after the initial ferocious power and abilities shown by the antagonists, they seem to be caught a bit flat-footed by the forces arrayed against them at the end of the book. Also, it's confusing why Esslemont alludes to the fact that a fan-favourite character is still in the environs of Darujhistan when that character plays no role in the book (despite events being more than epic enough to attract his attention).

Despite these minor niggles, Orb Sceptre Throne (****½) is a well-written, thoroughly enjoyable addition to the Malazan canon. It is available now in the UK and on 22 May in the USA.

Wertzone Classics: Portal 2

Chell, a test subject at Aperture Science, has successfully destroyed the insane AI known as GLaDOS and escaped from the facility. Unfortunately, injured in the final battle, she was 'rescued' by a robot from the facility and returned to cold storage. Awakening many years later, Chell finds herself once against trapped in the facility. With the help of a friendly AI, Wheatley, she must flee once more...something made harder when GLaDOS is brought back online.

Released in 2007 as an add-on to the 'Orange Box' compilation, Portal was a surprise success for its developers, Valve. It won several Game of the Year awards and glowing plaudits for its conciseness and the cleverness of its central mechanic, not to mention the frequently hilarious writing (and the brilliant closing song). Portal 2 has a lot to live up to and is put in a difficult situation for a sequel. Sequels are usually bigger, more epic and larger in scale than the original, but the Portal concept wouldn't really work on a vaster canvas. Making a sequel to Portal that respected the original game without ruining the things that made it brilliant would therefore appear to be a tall order.

Happily, Valve have pulled it off. From start to finish Portal 2 is almost unimpeded brilliance. The game is longer than Portal, coming in at about eight hours compared to the original's three. Since even the splendid original game was risking becoming stale at the end, Valve have split the sequel into three clear sections. In the first Chell uses portals very much as in the first game and is aided by Wheatley and opposed by GLaDOS. At the end of this sequence Chell finds herself in the most ancient parts of the facility, where a very different set of puzzles await using different mechanics. In this section she has no enemies or opponents but is guided through the puzzles via messages pre-recorded by Aperture Science's long-deceased founder, Cave Johnson. After this she returns to the upper levels where an all-new set of challenges await, leading to the epic conclusion.

As such Valve neatly avoid what could have been the game's biggest pitfall, outliving its welcome. The shifts in tone, plot and game mechanics are handled well, but still combine to form a coherent game. The cast has been enlarged with the addition of Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais's wingman, who increasingly is outshining his partner) as Wheatley. Valve wanted a completely different type of vocal performance for Wheatley then you normally get in a video game and Merchant's half-ad-libbed dialogue is different and more immediate, not to mention hilarious. J.K. Simmons (best-known as J. Jonah Jameson in the Raimi Spider-Man movies) provides the recorded voice of Cave Johnson and his deadpan delivery of increasingly deranged dialogue is also excellent. Ellen McLain also returns as GLaDOS and, in one of the more inspired ideas in the game, is given more dramatic meat to work with as GLaDOS begins to suffer an immense internal struggle as she and Chell discover the secret past of Aperture Science.

Graphically, the game looks great with some impressive production design and animations. The Source Engine (eight years old in 2012) is definitely ageing, but nevertheless remains impressive. The puzzles are fairly fiendish and require some lateral thinking in order to make sense of all the new elements ('paints' that give different effects to surfaces, catapults that throw the player around, tractor beams and light-bridges), but the gradual introduction of these elements allows the player to get to grips with them effectively. There's a few puzzles near the end of the game that are really tough, but nothing too frustrating. More complex are the puzzles in co-op mode, but with two players working on solutions these shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Events in the game build and culminate in the final battle, which is once again impressive. However, the finale of the game must rank amongst the most bizarre - but also brilliant - in gaming history. From the unexpected opera serenade to Wheatley's closing, introspective monologue it's thoroughly entertaining. Things are left open for the continuation of Chell's story (either in further Portal games or possibly future Half-Life titles) but there is no cliffhanger.

Portal 2 (*****) is funny, clever, dramatic, well-acted and constantly inventive, and one of the best games in Valve's already stellar history. It is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and the USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

Saturday 21 January 2012

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Tanzania, 2161. The matriarch of the Akinya family, Eunice, a famous pioneer of space travel and exploration, has died at the age of 130. The family convenes for the funeral, but grandson Geoffrey would prefer to be carrying on his research into elephant cognition. When an anomaly is discovered amongst Eunice's possessions, Geoffrey is asked to investigate, the beginning of a journey that will take him from Earth to the Moon to Mars...and further still.

Alastair Reynolds's new novel is the first in a new sequence, Poseidon's Children, which will span 11,000 years of human history. As such, the three books in the sequence will presumably be stand-alones, divided by immense gulfs in history, but with added context given to the reader by reading all three in order. Reynolds and his publisher have backed away from the 'trilogy' moniker (and the 'Book One of Poseidon's Children' tagline present on some early drafts of the cover has been removed) to de-emphasise the idea this is a serialised story that people will have to wait years to be concluded.

Reynolds is noted for having a somewhat grim vision of the future in his previous books, so Blue Remembered Earth is notable for its more optimistic tone. The human race has become richer and more technologically advanced than ever before, with Africa now driving the world economy and formerly war-torn, poverty-stricken states are now prosperous and driven. The price of this new era of peace and development is the Surveilled World, a state of near-total coverage of the planet by AIs which intervene if any crimes are detected. As a result almost no crimes or murders have been committed in decades (although Reynolds, a noted fan of crime thrillers, can't help dropping one puzzling and apparently impossible murder in as a subplot). This near-total surveillance state is not so prevalent on other planets and moons, however, due to time-lag issues.

The book is essentially a treasure hunt, with Geoffrey and his sister Sunday following the trail of clues left behind by their grandmother which ultimately leads to the Big Reveal. The trail, and the resulting plot, are somewhat convoluted and, it has to be said, unconvincing. Nevertheless, the story is entertaining with a constant stream of inventive ideas: an area on Mars controlled by rogue machines; an AI simulacrum of Eunice who provides advice and becomes more and more like the real Eunice as they uncover more information; attempts to help improve the quality of life for zoo elephants by merging them holographically with a real herd in the African wilderness; and a system-wide telescope being used to scan for signs of life on other worlds. The characters, particularly Geoffrey and Sunday (our main POV characters) are well-developed as we learn their respective reasons for turning against the family's strict business-oriented hierarchy, but even their antagonistic siblings (who initially appear to be villainous) are fleshed-out satisfyingly by the end of the book.

As the most low-tech of Reynolds's books to date, Blue Remembered Earth is perhaps his most conservative in terms of ideas and scale and scope. This isn't a bad thing and he seems to enjoy working under greater technological constraints than previously, but occasionally he seems to chafe against the restrictions (the robots on Mars and the large-scale mining of the Oort Cloud both seem somewhat more advanced than the tech elsewhere). He also doesn't fully explore the freedom implications of having a state of total surveillance, other than in a cursory surface manner.

Still, Blue Remembered Earth (****) is highly readable, brimming with ideas and refreshingly optimistic. Recommended. The novel is available now in the UK and on 5 June 2012 in the USA.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Warner Brothers developing OTHERLAND movie

Warner Brothers have optioned the film rights to Tad Williams' Otherland sequence of SF novels. John Scott III is writing the script (he's also adapting Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel for 20th Century Fox).

From the sound of the press release, the film producers are not planning a faithful adaptation, but will instead compress the 3,300-page story (in paperback) into a single two-hour movie. Expect about 5% of the plot from the books to end up on the screen.

An odd choice, it has to be said. Given Otherland's episodic nature, a 3-4 season TV adaptation is a much more logical way of adapting the series. Whilst the film may be entertaining, it will certainly not be a faithful adaptation of the books.

In the meantime, a free-to-play Otherland MMORPG will be released later this year by DTP Entertainment.

The Million Malazan March

The paperback edition of The Crippled God has been released in the UK. The cover blurb includes a nice factoid: worldwide sales of The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence have now passed 1 million copies.

Splendid news! The Malazan series has been a bit of a slow-burn, taking seven years to sell 250,000 copies (as revealed in a press release when The Bonehunters came out). Selling an additional 750,000 copies in the next five years clearly shows the acceleration in sales (coinciding with the books coming out in the USA as well). Whilst it's not on the level of sales of some of the genre-leaders, it's still an impressive figure for such an allegedly 'difficult' series. Congratulations to Steven Erikson and his publishers.

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION re-assembled from scratch for Blu-Ray

Paramount have pulled out all of the stops for the forthcoming Blu-Ray release of Star Trek: The Next Generation, going as far as re-assembling every single one of the 178 episodes from scratch.

Back in the day, ST:TNG was produced with all the raw elements (live action, model shots, visual effects etc) on film. However, these elements were then transferred to video tape before the elements were assembled into the final episode. The previous VHS and DVD releases came from this video master tape. Unfortunately, this wasn't going to cut it for Blu-Ray and HD, so Paramount had to go back to the original film rolls - stored for a quarter of a century in a salt mine in Pennsylvania - and basically re-assemble every episode from the ground up.

It's an impressive amount of work that, based on the video above, seems to have paid off.

A precise release date for the Season 1 Blu-Ray set has not been set, although I'd put money on it being September 2012 (the 25th anniversary of ST:TNG's first episode airing).

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Details for UK pb split of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

In their latest catalogue, HarperVoyager have confirmed the titles for the two-volume paperback edition of A Dance with Dragons.

Part 1 will be called Dreams and Dust whilst Part 2 will be titled After the Feast. Part 1 will use the one-volume hardcover art, whilst Part 2 will use a new image of a sword hilt (similar to the unused art above, but with a different hilt design). Both will be published on 29 March 2012. Somewhat bizarrely, the two parts will also be printed as ebooks, although the one-volume ebook will (presumably) remain available.

This is not the first time a Song of Ice and Fire novel has been split for UK paperback publication. A Storm of Swords was released in two volumes in 2001, subtitled Steel and Snow and Blood and Gold respectively.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

What's up with HALF-LIFE 3?

The non-appearance of the next game in the Half-Life series has become a bit of a running joke in the gaming community over the past few years, but in the last few months slivers of evidence have started mounting up that Valve are close to some sort of announcement about the future of the franchise. However, a recent comment by a Valve employee seemed designed to end such speculation, hinting that any announcement about the game is still some way off. Rock Paper Shotgun has highlighted some of the problems gamers are having with Valve over the issue.

The Half-Life series is a best-selling first-person shooter gaming franchise developed by Valve Corporation. It consists of the games Half-Life (1998), Opposing Force (1999), Blue Shift (2000), Half-Life 2 (2004), Episode 1 (2006) and Episode 2 (2007). Valve have also developed Portal (2007) and Portal 2 (2011), which are set in the same universe but follow a mostly-unrelated character and storyline.

The Half-Life series is frequently cited as the best first-person shooter series of all time, notable for its focus on atmosphere, immersion and puzzle-solving as well as combat. The series is also one of the most commercially successful video game series of all time, with more than 20 million copies sold since 1998, and has an immense number of fans.

The series charts the adventures of Gordon Freeman, a scientist at the Black Mesa Research Facility. An accident at the facility results in alien creatures from the planet Xen invading the facility. Freeman, armoured in an experimental Hazardous Environment Suit, is able to halt the invasion and destroy the alien controller, the Nihilanth. His skills are noted by the mysterious 'G-Man', who initially appears to be a shadowy government inspector but is ultimately revealed to be some kind of non-human (or possibly post-human) intelligence with formidable powers over time and space. He 'stores' Freeman and reawakens him ten years later to deal with a new crisis.

By this time Earth has been invaded and occupied by the Combine, an interdimensional alien race whose attention was drawn to Earth by the original Black Mesa incident. Freeman joins the Resistance, including some old colleagues from Black Mesa, and is able to help disrupt the Combine's control of Earth by destroying the Citadel, the Combine base of operations in City 17 in Eastern Europe. This prevents reinforcements from reaching the planet. However, in the finale to Episode 2, as the Resistance meet to discuss their next move the Combine attack in force and kill several key members. At the same time, several Resistance members run into trouble whilst investigating the Borealis, an Aperture Science vessel which holds some impressive technology on board (Aperture Science is the company which plays a key role in the Portal subfranchise, and is Black Mesa's sworn rival). The game ends at that point.

What next?
Originally, Episode 2 was going to be followed by Episode 3, which would conclude the Half-Life storyline. Additional games set in the same universe, possibly developed by outside teams like Opposing Force and Blue Shift, would still be possible, but Episode 3 would answer most of the remaining questions in the franchise. Based on the 18-month development time of the previous episodes, it was assumed that Episode 3 would be released in mid-2009. However, as time wore on and that date came and went, Valve seemed reluctant to mention the game. They instead released several completely different titles: Left 4 Dead (2008), Left 4 Dead 2 (2009), Alien Swarm (2010) and Portal 2 (2011), with Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive planned for release in 2012.

Valve's way of working is highly unusual, with the company consisting of a large number of people who agree to work on projects by consensus. Newell is the head of the company and its main spokesman, but also chooses not to exercise executive control, preferring to let his team work on projects that excite them. The end credits on Valve games notably do not identify the 'jobs' that people have on the games, simply listing everyone involved by name and that's it. A more formal structure appears to have existed at one point. During the development of the first two Episodes it was suggested in the press that Valve had one team working on Episode 1 and another on Episode 2, and that when the Ep 1 team finished their work they moved into working on Episode 3. It's likely that the concept art released for Episode 3 (constituting just about the only hard information we have on the game) was created around this time. Subsequently it appears that Valve has pursued several projects simultaneously and 'focusing' only to bring a project to completion and shipping.

What now?
That Valve's focus has moved away from the Half-Life franchise is not surprising. Some of the people at Valve were working on the Half-Life brand non-stop from 1996 to 2007, which is a long time to spend in one universe. Moving on to other projects, even tangentially related ones like the two Portal games, appears to be an important way of recharging the creative batteries. I also don't doubt that Valve have thrown around ideas, maybe put together some demos and things, for the next Half-Life game. The suggestion that Episode 3 or Half-Life 3 has been in full development behind-the-scenes at Valve for the past five years and could be released in 2012-13 seems very fanciful given their other projects, however (though if that turned out to be true, it would be great and Valve does have form on this).

However, by ending Episode 2 on huge, multiple cliffhangers and then saying that Episode 3 would follow (even if it would take longer than Episode 2), Valve did make a commitment to fans that the story would be concluded. The timescale is unimportant. If Valve said that the next game was a full decade away, that would be fine, but some kind of additional communication over the matter would be helpful. There are signs of hope: Portal 2 featured an Easter Egg in which the player stumbles across the drydock for the Borealis (the ship that will play a large role in the next game, whatever and whenever that is, based on Episode 2), which at least confirms that the next Half-Life game has not been forgotten about.

Hopefully the current wave of discussion will get a bit more information from Valve about what's going on with their most popular franchise.

GoT Season 2 UK airdate and a Golden Globe Award

HBO has previously confirmed that Game of Thrones will return for its second season in the USA on 1 April 2012. This has now been backed up by Sky Atlantic saying the season will start airing in the UK on Monday, 2 April 2012, less than 24 hours after US transmission.

Meanwhile, Peter Dinklage has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Tyrion Lannister, adding to his already-impressive Emmy Award for the same role. Dinklage thanked George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and his family in the speech, but also paid tribute to Martin Henderson, a British dwarf who'd been injured in a mean-spirited prank, resulting in the incident becoming a trending topic on Twitter and making headlines all over the world.

Thrones failed to win the coveted Best Drama Award, however, which went instead to Homeland.

Monday 16 January 2012

More XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN screenshots

Rock Paper Shotgun have some great new screenshots from XCOM: Enemy Unkown, the remake of the classic 1994 strategy game from Firaxis.

They also report that the XCOM first-person shooter has been delayed to 2013, meaning that the turn-based strategy game remake will hit the shelves first, later this year.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan, the young son of the barbarian chieftain Corin, witnesses the destruction of his home village and the murder of his father by the warlord Khalar Zym. Years later, having grown into a skilled and resourceful warrior, thief and pirate, Conan bumps into one of Zym's minions and follows the trail back to Zym himself. Zym is trying to resurrect his dead wife and unleash a series of events that will turn him into a god, so Conan sets himself against Zym's plans, against overwhelming odds.

Robert E. Howard's signature character, Conan the Barbarian, is one of the most important and influential characters in modern fantasy fiction. A brooding warrior from the north, a barbarian of inventive cunning, Conan is the archetype for every big, burly warrior fantasy has produced since. Unfortunately, he's not been well-served by film adaptations. John Milius' 1982 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is admirable on many levels, but its depiction of Conan (particularly his tendency to look freaked out and bellow "Crom!" every time he encountered magic) was very much at odds with the original source material.

The latest take on the character was described during production as an attempt to get back to the Robert E. Howard short stories. In particular, actor Jason Momoa refused to watch the Schwarzenegger movies whilst binging on the Howard shorts. This was a laudable ambition, but unfortunately the movie as produced falls far short of being a fitting homage to the Howard Conan.

The film's first misstep is giving us - like the 1982 movie - some kind of tedious origin story for Conan in which his family is butchered by the main bad guy, whom Conan spends years searching for. The idea seems to be to give Conan a personal stake in defeating the enemy (whether James Earl Jones's Thulsa Doom in the original movie or Stephen Lang's Khalar Zym this time around), but this seems unnecessary. Simply having Conan bump into the bad guy's plan and oppose him for some less melodramatic reason (he's after Zym's gold, or finds his ambitions offensive, or simply has a whim to stop him) would be more in keeping with Howard, and would also have the benefit of being less cheesy and cliched.

This opening sequence of the film is pretty poor, with a badly-choreographed major battle sequence and rather feeble character development. The scene where the young Conan wipes out a band of marauders is pretty good, but everything else about this sequence disappoints. After this we get some scenes which are actually pretty decent. Jason Momoa is actually very good as the adult Conan, moving and looking much more like the Howard character than Schwarzenegger ever did. The film notes that Conan has a more varied CV than just 'brawling warrior' and shows his thievery skills and even his part-time job as a pirate in action. There's even a few shout-outs to Conan's literary adventures which are entertaining. This middle sequence of the film also features its stand-out action beat, a confrontation between Conan and Zym with sorcerous warriors made of sand joining the battle and is actually very entertaining.

Unfortunately, it's mostly downhill from there. The film's somewhat shaky grasp on plot logic begins to disappear in the second half and the fight choreography goes to hell, with poor editing making scenes comes across as nonsensical and random. A particularly promising fight with a giant squid monster is undermined by this problem, and the final confrontation between Zym and Conan is wrecked by it. The development of the characters also gets tossed aside. The revelation that Zym is motivated by the murder of his wife threatens to give depth to the villain until the writers also reveal that his wife was a deranged witch trying to destroy the world, which reduces Zym to simple 'evil madman' status. Rachel Nichols's Tamara initially appears to be an individual character with her own motivations and goals (noting that she is no man's plaything, not even Conan's), but this is chucked out ten minutes after she turns up, with her predictably falling in love with Conan and then becoming no more than window-dressing. Nonso Anozie's pirate captain Artus is a hugely enjoyable character who promptly disappears halfway through the movie for no real reason.

What makes Conan the Barbarian (**) all the more depressing is that the ingredients are sound. Stephen Lang can be a great villain, as we saw in Avatar, but is under-used here. Jason Momoa is a great Conan and emerges from the film with his go-to SF/fantasy warrior credentials (earned in Stargate: Atlantis and Game of Thrones) intact. Some of the action sequences are good and some of the ideas are okay. But the direction is pedestrian, dialogue is often risible, characterisation is almost non-existent and the editing totally inept at times. Not totally without merit, but mostly a failure. The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Wertzone Classics: The White Rose by Glen Cook

The Black Company - or rather the handful of its survivors - has broken ranks with the armies of the Lady and sworn its allegiance to the White Rose, who is prophecised to bring the Lady down. But the Lady's armies have besieged the Plains of Fear, hemming the Company and their allies in. As the threat draws in, Croaker, annalist of the Company, receives anonymous messages relating how the wizard Bomanz awoke the Lady and the Taken in the first place. As events unfold, it becomes clear that the Lady's husband, the evil Dominator, is planning his own return to the world, a prospect that cows even the Lady, and that the growing war will soon develop a third side.

The White Rose concludes the original Black Company trilogy, wrapping up story and character arcs begun back in The Black Company and continued in Shadows Linger. Based on those two books, the reader might go into this novel expecting a massive magical conflageration and battles of mythic proportions. Again, Cook blindsides the reader by crafting something far less predictable and much, much weirder.

Much of the book takes place on the Plains of Fear, an area warped into what can only be called surrealness by the presence of a god manifesting as a tree. Talking, teleporting menhirs warn of strangers on the plain, whilst flying manta rays and immense windwhales pass overhead. These chapters are more akin to the New Weird than anything in the epic fantasy canon, and keeps things fresh and offbeat. After this sequence the story moves to the Barrowland, the prison of the evil Dominator, where an unlikely alliance of convenience must be struck in order to ensure the Dominator's destruction.

The White Rose is certainly not the ending that I think anyone was expecting, but this is a good thing. Scenes where the apparently evil, amoral Taken and their mistress show their doubts and fears in the face of the threats of both the White Rose and the Dominator show an impressive degree of characterisation. Cook also reveals the backstory of the wizard Bomanz which shows that history has been rather unkind to him, and sets the warped version of history that Croaker and his friends are familiar with straight. Cook's succinct but still memorable prose and typical mastery of pace drives the story to a conclusion that it is expectation-defyingly small in scale, but nevertheless logical.

The White Rose is the third book of ten (so far) in the Black Company series, so obviously there is more story to come, but Cook brings things to a solid conclusion and the book has no cliffhanger for future books, making it an ideal pausing point for those not wishing to plough through the whole series in one go.

The White Rose (****½) shows Cook defying expectations once more and delivering a morally complex, atypical epic fantasy that is compelling to read. It is available in the UK and USA now as part of the Chronicles of the Black Company omnibus.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Niko Bellic is a veteran of war and ethnic strife in the Balkans. Tiring of a life of violence and brutality, he receives an invitation to move to Liberty City, where his brother Roman reports he has made a new life for himself involving fast cars and beautiful women. Moving to the States, Niko finds his brother's stories were exaggerated. He runs a cab firm and is in debt up to his eyeballs with various shady characters. Proving his usefulness in eliminating opponents, Niko finds various factions in Liberty City vying to employ his talents and his new life in a new country becomes even more violent than the one he left behind.

Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008 and at the time of its release was reportedly the biggest-budgeted game of all time (a record later lost to The Old Republic) and the fastest-selling (since outstripped by Modern Warfare 2 and 3). Despite the title, it was the sixth 'main' game in the Grand Theft Auto series and the first in the series to appear on current-generation hardware, featuring massive advances in graphics over the previous games in the series. It was greeted with near-unanimous critical acclaim but fan reaction was more mixed, with criticisms over the toning down of the wackiness of the series and the reduction in game size and character customisation from the colossal San Andreas.

In general terms, the game plays in an identical manner to Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas. Your character has the freedom to pick from one of several missions from one of several characters at a time, or can go off and do odd jobs for money or can simply chill out and explore the city. Given the leap to the next generation of hardware, it's surprising how similar the gameplay is to the previous titles in series. Of course, graphically the game is a massive leap forwards in quality and players will likely spend early parts of the game simply gawping at the sun rising over the ocean, or the monumental size of the city and its dozens of skyscrapers when seen from a helicopter. On PC, adding a graphics mod (like the mighty IceEnhancer mod, if your PC can handle it without instantly exploding) can make the game even look semi-photorealistic and absolutely jaw-dropping. Liberty City's fidelity to the real New York City is also startling: one of my NYC-based friends reported even finding his apartment building in the game, let alone faithful renditions of the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, MetLife Building, Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building.

GTA4 with the IceEnhancer mod. If your PC has a modern graphics card and is cooled by liquid nitrogen, your game can look like this.

A noticeable addition to the game is a cellphone, through which your character can receive missions and call up contacts. The cellphone (which also doubles as a camera and MP3 player) is a handy addition to the gameplay and provides the game with its biggest single step forwards over previous titles in the series: the ability to interact with other characters. In previous games, you could only interact with characters in missions and cut-scenes, and had no say over how your relationship with these people developed. In GTA4, you can ring up contacts and arrange to meet them outside of missions for drinks or going to shows or playing games. This improves your relationship with these characters, and at a certain point you can call on them for resources or favours. Additional depths to these characters are also revealed in conversations that take place during these meetings. The game essentially gives you some control over how interpersonal relationships develop during the story, which is fairly remarkable for a non-RPG.

Unfortunately, a potentially paradigm-shifting mechanic bogs down into a minor annoyance when, whilst clinging to the roof of a truckfull of heroin with the driver trying to shake you off to your imminent death, you get a phone call from a friend asking you to play darts with him. When you say no because you are about to die in the face, they get the huff and your reputation points with the character go down. By the late-game period, when you have more than half a dozen friends and contacts, the calls and texts begging for you to hang out with them become a constant stream of annoyance, and this results in them being ignored by most players. Fortunately they are purely optional.

The meat of the game, then, is the plot and the missions, and both are well-executed. The storyline is excellent, probably the best in the entire series, and is depicted through convincing writing and strong voice acting. Niko's character development is great, as he tries to be a good person but all too easily is dragged back to a life of violence and crime. This is Rockstar's latest attempt to present a three-dimensional protagonist who is realistic and complex but must also be capable of committing whatever mayhem the player wants him to and is their best attempt yet (Vercetti in Vice City being an unredeemable villain and CJ in San Andreas being too nice, conflicting frequently with the player's lunatic actions). Other characters are also excellently developed, with Niko's brother Roman and Jamaican friend Jacob being notable. For a game with an ethnically diverse cast (the game has lots of satirical commentary on American immigration issues), however, it is disappointing that the game's only gay character of note being presented as a mincing, effeminate cliche, although his role as Niko's conscience in several missions is important.

A rare quiet moment in the game, with the insane ultraviolent mayhem on hold.

The missions are great, ranging from assassinations to massive all-out battles to car chases to helicopter duels amongst the skyscrapers of the city. Towards the end of the game (the single-player missions will take about 25 hours to complete) things start getting a tad repetitive, but generally speaking the missions are varied and fun. Combat has been given a big overhaul, with the addition of cover mechanics. However, enemy AI appears to almost be unchanged from previous games in the series, with them being worse shots than Imperial Stormtroopers, and rarely challenging. Car handling has also been made more realistic, with the cars being heavier and more difficult to stop (aside from the best sports cars). This makes the choice of which car to take on a mission far more important than previously. The game's handling of police pursuits has also been made more realistic, with it being possible to escape the police's attention by getting out of a search zone and lying low. However, it's also much easier than before, and the police are much less of a threat than in previous games.

Where the game succeeds is in its depiction of a modern city riven by competing interests (corporate, government and criminal) and its portrayal of Niko as a bewildered individual caught in the middle of it all. The game is a lot of fun, if not quite as insane as the previous instalments of the series, with occasionally effective musings on the nature of violence and its eroding effect on the soul. The game is also heavily satirical, passing commentary on the USA and the issues it faces on many levels (the war on terror, corporate power, the economy, immigration, civil rights) through dialogue and also the game's numerous, entertaining radio stations (and yes, Lazlow returns to Liberty City with a new show).

Overall, Grand Theft Auto IV (****½) is an impressive, engrossing game. It lacks the tonal variety that the different cities and cultures of San Andreas brought to proceedings, but it has more depth of character and a stronger plot than any previous GTA game. It's also a tragedy, a rather startling choice for Rockstar and a genuine risk for them to take with one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world. Artistically, it pays off handsomely. The game is available in a collected package with its two spin-off episodes, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballard of Gay Tony, on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).