Sunday 30 September 2012

Community: Season 2

It's the second year at Greendale Community College for Jeff Winger and his study group, who are now taking an anthropology class together. Their mutual study time is again interrupted by a succession of unlikely adventures (ranging from Abed having a mental breakdown in which he envisages the world as a claymation film to a total paintball apocalypse) as they grow and learn together. Apart from Pierce, obviously, who becomes even more of an obnoxious bigot.

Season 2 of Community sees the show building on the moderate change in direction seen in late Season 1, when creator Dan Harmon started leaving behind more mundane storylines about relationships in favour of whackier adventures, often revolving around some kind of gimmick or high concept (albeit a well-executed one). Most of the episodes in Season 2 can be summed up by their concept: the bottle episode where everyone searches for Annie's missing pen; the claymation episode; the clip show which doesn't actually use any reused footage; the paintball war sequel two-parter; and the now-famous Dungeons and Dragons episode.

This move to a more concept-driven approach has both upsides and downsides. The show is definitely much more inherently funny in the second season, with both big ideas and small gags being delivered on a more consistently amusing basis. Unfortunately, this moves does come a little at the expense of serious characterisation. Annie and Abed both get some good scenes of emotional development, but other characters suffer: Britta is a lot less present this year and has less to do, whilst Shirley is all but missing in some episodes. Even our erstwhile main character Jeff seems much less the focal character and more just one of the band this time around. The issues with Jeff and Britta seem related to the fact that the will they/won't they dynamic of the first season has been resolved, but indicates there isn't as much to their characters as some of the others without that element. That said, Jeff gets a bit more to do towards the end of the season revolving around his (unasked-for) position as the group's leader and his conflicted feelings over that.

There's a larger secondary cast as well, with the introduction of the Dean's nemesis from a rival college and more recurring students in the anthropology class. Dr. Ian Duncan also has some great scenes as the teacher of the class (replacing ex-Golden Girl Betty White as Dr. Bauer, after a hilarious turn in the first episode of the season) and also a key role in the excellent claymation episode. The Dean is more bearable as well, mainly because he gets an (splendidly-lampshaded in the not-a-clip-show episode) amusing recurring gag. This larger cast makes the college feel busier and more like a real college, but also sometimes dilutes the focus on our core six characters.

Another challenge for the show is how it handles the character of Pierce, played by Chevy Chase. As established in Season 1 Pierce has racist and sexist views, but the show really seems reluctant to have him evolving away from them (since that would be unrealistic for a character of his age, whose views are more likely to be set in stone). At the same time, it's also unrealistic for the other characters to be so tolerant of someone who spends most of his time insulting them. This results in a story arc where Pierce turns into an outright villain whose antics put him at odds with the rest of the group. This is partially successful, giving us the 'Pierce's gifts' episode which is fairly decent, but otherwise sabotaged by the need not to go all-out with it lest it means Pierce not interacting with the rest of the characters at all. A simpler solution would have been to simply remove the character, but apparently the network considered him too key to the show to lose (and, in fact, choosing to remove even the showrunner over Chase between the third and fourth seasons). The entire issue is well-handled in the D&D episode, where Pierce is forced to play separately to the rest of the team (a familiar situation to most D&D groups where the characters become divided), but other episodes struggle to deal with it as well.

Overall, Community remains a funny, well-written and often extremely clever show in its second season (****½). It loses a little depth to the characters in favour of high concepts, but remains resolutely entertaining. The season is available now in the UK and USA.

Red State

Three young men find an online dating site where an older woman is propositioning guys for sex. But the advert is a trap, and they find themselves prisoners of a fundamentalist Christian cult who are trying to purge the world of what they see as amorality brought about by sexual permissiveness and tolerance. When their activities draw the attention of law enforcement officials, the stage is set for a violent confrontation.

Kevin Smith is best-known for his string of comedic movies based on pop culture and lowbrow humour: Clerks, Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and so on. He is also known for his interest in religion and theological debates, which, combined with humour, have formed the basis for arguably his most interesting movie to date, Dogma. Red State marks Smith's return to examining religion but this time around there are no laughs: the film is a straight-up drama.

After almost twenty years spent making comedies, it's good to see Smith trying out new ideas and breaking new ground for himself as a film-maker. It's such a shame then that Red State is a flat-out mess of a film. Many of the movie's weaknesses are also present in Smith's earlier films, but comedies tend to be much more forgiving of long run-on scenes and structural imperfections. Dramas, especially those with an undercurrent of psychological horror, are much less tolerant of such issues.

This problem can best be summed up by the movie's first half-hour. In the first fifteen minutes we are introduced to our three main characters, about whom we virtually learn nothing at all. Aside from their physical appearances, they are interchangeable and do nothing to attract our sympathy or interest. These scenes also establish the presence of a fundamentalist nutjob community in the town, that the town's sheriff has some personal problems and that these three guys are obsessed with sex. The following fifteen minutes form one, incredibly long and tedious scene in which the film's antagonist rants on against the evils plaguing America. Because of this John Goodman, the movie's biggest name, doesn't even show up until halfway through the picture.

The initial half of the film plays around with the ideas of psychological horror, such as the idea of the three prisoners being tortured or forced to watch the execution of other captives. But Smith doesn't have the patience for this and it isn't long before he ditches the idea in favour of a massive Waco-style shoot-out. Any attempt to engage seriously with the issues raised by the film are thrown out the window the second the shotguns and machine guns start being handed out and it isn't long before we are in the middle of what feels like the longest siege scene in American film history. Because of the failure to set up the action scenes in more depth, they also feel rather trite and manipulative, with Smith borrowing the visual imagery of religious cults and sieges such as Waco without actually engaging with them in any substantive way.

The movie does shine a few times: Goodman is great as normal and gets the best characterisation in the movie. Michael Parks is also excellent as the antagonist preacher leading the cult, even selling some of the worst-written scenes and dialogue in the movie. Kerry Bishe isn't given a lot to work with as the preacher's morally-divided daughter, but gives a solid performance as well. Pretty much everyone else in the film is forgettable. The script has potential, but is overwritten with dialogue scenes that go on for far too long after their point is made

Smith does attempt to introduce some moral complexity to the film by shining a light on the dubious activities of the American government in dealing with terrorism, but again in such a ham-fisted way that it comes off as both crushingly obvious and an excuse for more shoot-outs and deaths. And the less said about the ludicrous ending, the better.

Red State (**) shows Kevin Smith trying something new in his career, which is laudable, and also has a few good performances and ideas in it. However, it is also not very well-written, its structure and pacing is shot to hell and the serious issues it attempts to raise come across as paper-thin excuses for scenes of violent carnage. The film teeters on the edge of exploiting real, serious and tragic news stories for cheap thrills, which I am certain was not the director's intention. The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA).

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Gold has been discovered in the hills and mountains of the Far Country, that untamed frontier beyond the Old Empire and far to the west of the Union. Prospectors, mercenaries and those eager to find a new life flock to those lands, only to find the greed and violence of their pasts following them, even those of honourable intentions. Shy South and her adopted father are searching for missing kinfolk, kidnapped for purposes unknown. Their pursuit across the Far Country leads them into an alliance with a fellowship of the plains, a caravan hoping for a better life in the distant mining town of Crease. But, with rebels gathering in the mountains and Nicomo Cosca and his Company of the Gracious Hand also on a sworn mission to root them out for His Majesty's Inquisition, this is a journey where nothing will turn out as hoped.

Red Country is Joe Abercrombie's sixth novel and his third semi-stand-alone set in the same world as The First Law sequence. As with its two immediate predecessors, Best Served Cold and The Heroes, Red Country can be read by itself, but regular readers will pick up on a lot of nods and winks to previous novels, from cameo character appearances to the ongoing development of a 'cold war' between two opposing factions.

The book moves between several major POV characters. Shy is our main protagonist, but shares a lot of the page-time with Temple, a lawyer in Cosca's army whose moral centre is gradually crumbling in the face of so much pain and violence. Other characters also flitter in and out of the story, with Abercrombie re-using the 'POV handover' trick from The Heroes to great effect several times, where the perspective shifts between several characters in succession to help clearly tell the story of a battle or confrontation. As usual with Abercrombie, the characters' personalities and motivations are convincingly laid out and developed, and there are some nice pay-offs for returning characters (Cosca, in particular, gets some fairly thorough character development here). One slight flaw is that the storyline following one of the kidnapped children never seems to really develop, and feels like it either needed several more chapters dedicated to it or the whole thing dropped and the reader (like Shy) made to discern for themselves what happened off-page.

The novel has been billed as 'Joe Abercrombie's Western' and there is certainly a degree of that in the book's influences. Brief nods to The Searchers, Unforgiven and the mighty Deadwood can be discerned, though unexpectedly the most constant cultural reference is the original Star Wars movie: one brief line of dialogue by Obi-Wan Kenobi inspires an entire subplot in the novel. However, there are significant deviations from the Western motif. The West in this case is the long-abandoned northern provinces of the Old Empire, festooned with ruins from ancient times, rather than a totally virgin and untamed land (apart from the natives, of course). The area is also (relatively) close to the Old Empire, the Union and the North, making it much more of a cultural melting-pot and having it effect (and be effected by) events in more established lands than you might expect. Finally, there's no six-shooters, with everyone falling back on the old stand-bys of swords and bows. More or less.

The tone of the book is bloody and cynical, with Abercrombie's trademark line in black humour preventing things from getting too depressing. However, the cynicism feels a little harder-edged and a bit blacker than in his previous books, the humour perhaps a tad less prevalent. It's still a page-turning, well-written book with points to make about human nature, but at times the tone feels wearier than his previous books. However, this also ties in with a feeling of tragedy underpinning the book, one that results in a grimly satisfying pay-off at the end (and one element of the novel that is completely lifted - if appropriately - from a Western).

Red Country (****½) is Joe Abercrombie doing what he does best, writing a story of violence, mayhem and vengeance and the effect it has on all-too-human characters. As with his previous stand-alones, the book works as both a satisfying novel in its own right and also moves a lot of political and religious pieces into position to be (presumably) used to good effect in his next work, a full-on trilogy. Some may find the cynicism a tad overwhelming at times and at least one of the subplots doesn't quite work as well as it could have, but this is a strong effort from one of the better writers in the genre. The novel will be available on 18 October in the UK and 13 November in the USA.

Friday 28 September 2012

Red Eagle fail (again) to make a WHEEL OF TIME game

More than two years ago, it was reported that Red Eagle had signed a deal with Obsidian Entertainment to make a Wheel of Time computer roleplaying game for release on PC and console platforms. Chris Avellone, the well-respected creator of Planescape: Torment and a key writer on games like Fallout 2, New Vegas, Alpha Protocol, Icewind Dale and the forthcoming Wasteland 2 and Project: Eternity, was reported to be working on the initial ideas for the game. Fans and even gamers who had never heard of Wheel of Time were intrigued.

Then nothing. Obsidian moved onto several projects. There was excitement when they reported they were working on a major franchise tie-in game, but this turned out to be a South Park title (due out in spring 2013). More recent reports emerged explaining what had happened: Red Eagle's responsibility had been to find a publisher to fund development of the game. Despite signing a distribution agreement with Electronic Arts in 2009, they were unable to procure funding for the game itself. The last (unofficial) word from the Obsidian camp was that they are not working on the game now, and do not expect to be working on it any time soon.

Then, in a move so low-key that barely any Wheel of Time fan sites even mentioned it, Red Eagle announced they were partnering with Jet Set Games to make at least two WoT games for mobile devices such as phones and tablets. Since almost no-one gives a toss about mobile gaming, the lack of any interest whatsoever was unsurprising. Red Eagle then made the curious decision to put the first game, Banner of the Rising Sun, on Kickstarter, expecting Wheel of Time fans to flock to support the game. Unsurprisingly, they did not. After asking for $450,000 (for a mobile game, remember), Red Eagle had to withdraw the campaign after less than $3,000 was pledged (an unmitigated disaster, in Kickstarter terms).

There has been a sense that Red Eagle's expectations for their WoT projects have been 'unrealistic' (such as their continued, futile insistence on a film over a TV series adaptation), but this situation takes it to a whole new level. Mobile games should never cost $450,000 to produce, not unless it's a tie-in with a Mass Effect or Halo game or something (and even then that's a stretch). For their Kickstarter Obsidian asked for $1.1 million to make a massive, proper PC RPG taking tens of hours to complete and featuring hundreds of thousands of words of writing. Half that for a casual game to play whilst bored on the train is sheer lunacy. The fact alone that Red Eagle were also unable to raise funding for a proper game based on a series that has outsold (overall and - just - per-volume) A Song of Ice and Fire at a time when epic fantay is on fire is perplexing, but then following it up with a gambit that was never in a million years going to pay off is something that moves us into the realm of the truly baffling.

Sunday 23 September 2012

An interview with, er, me

The Fantastical Librarian blog has posted an interview with myself about blogging, reviewing and so forth. Some interesting questions there on why I started the blog and why it has such a silly name :-)

UK cover art for Richard Morgan's THE DARK DEFILES

An early look at the working cover art for Richard Morgan's The Dark Defiles, provisionally due in August 2013:

No, I haven't read the book: it's still being written. The quote is from my review of The Cold Commands and may not be present on the final version of the cover for The Dark Defiles.

Bringer of Light by Jaine Fenn

Jarek, Taro and Nual's attempts to expose and defeat the machinations of the alien Sidhe continue. In alliance with the Minister of Vellern, their latest mission takes them to Aleph, the refuge of the male Sidhe after the devastating war with the females. However, the trio's assumption that the enemy of their enemy is their friend is soon shown to be hopelessly naive. Meanwhile, on the primitive world of Serenein, other allies against the Sidhe find their attempts to keep their people safe may soon be tested...

Bringer of Light is the fourth novel in Jaine Fenn's Hidden Empire sequence, which currently stands at five books. The series so far as been varied in quality, with great ideas often battling against so-so prose and a mixed bag of characterisation (our protagonists are well-drawn, but everyone else is sketchier). The previous book ended with a left-field revelation about a threat to humanity that dwarfs the Sidhe in magnitude that was fairly horrific and executed with deft skill. Whilst that threat is not much expanded upon in Bringer of Light, the upturn in writing quality that delivered it does at least continue through this volume.

The story is bigger this time, with Fenn juggling multiple storylines featuring established characters (Jarek, Taro and Nual visiting Aleph, Urien and Kerin on Serenein) and some newcomers as well. Ifanna's storyline on Serenein is an interesting addition to the mix, less of an antagonist than a well-meaning person drawn into cross-purposes against Kerin's goals (and from Ifanna's POV, fully understandably). All of this results in a somewhat longer book than the previous ones in the series (though at 400 pages it's hardly Peter F. Hamilton territory) and Fenn does a good job of handling the larger scope.

The previous problems in the series do remain, if less prevalently. There's too much use of modern colloquialism in the language and dialogue, which doesn't really sell the idea of the story being set seven millennia hence. There's a certain casual lightness to the story that makes it feel slight, despite some of the ideas and concepts being presented being fairly dark and disturbing. However, these issues are reduced in stature. In particular, Ifanna's story has some fairly unexpected twists and a disturbing - and somewhat tragic - ending that is a step above what we've seen previously. There's also an excellent twist at the end of the book that leaves things in a very interesting place for the following volumes.

Bringer of Light (***½) is a stronger volume in the series than what has come before, continuing to show the author's talents and confidence growing. That said, the feeling remains that the series has yet to hit its full potential. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Black Mesa

When it comes to the genre of first-person shooters, there have been several gamechangers during its lifespan. The mass-popularisation of the genre through id's Doom was an early one. The success of 2001's Medal of Honour: Allied Assault inspiring dozens of 'realistic' shooters using real weapons and history was another. But towering over all of them is Half-Life. Released in 1998 it transformed the genre from mindless shooting to something based more around characters, personal narrative, puzzles and full immersion in the world it depicted.

More recent shooters have seemingly ignored the lessons laid down by Half-Life, becoming lost in a few short hours of tiresome, badly-acted cut-scenes and even more tiresome gimmicks like regenerating health and cover systems. Yet returning to Half-Life, or introducing it to new players, is almost impossible. What was a fantastic-looking game on release is now a painful collection of blocky models and low-res textures. What is needed is a full HD remake of the game which preserves the pacing, weapons and enemies but updates everything else.

Happily, Black Mesa is a (nearly) full HD remake of the game which preserves the pacing, weapons and enemies but updates everything else. Created over a period of eight years (!) - or two years longer than it took for Valve themselves to make Half-Life 2 - by gamers and fans working in their own time, Black Mesa is a carefully-crafted love letter to the franchise. The attention to detail in the game is tremendous, and it's quality easily exceeds that of many 'proper' Triple-A releases. Even the voice-acting (all re-recorded, as reusing the original game's audio files was legally dubious) eclipses that of many supposedly professional games.

The game opens as the original Half-Life did, with you standing on a tram as it makes its way into the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. You play Gordon Freeman, a 27-year-old theoretical physicist and graduate of MIT. Freeman is a silent protagonist who never speaks, allowing the player to come up with his own personality and interpretation for the character. The iconic tram ride shows the similarities and differences between the original game and the remake. The areas you pass on the tram are more or less the same, but are now inhabited by more people with more activity going on. A mech clearing up a chemical spill have now been joined by two scared scientists trapped against a nearby wall. Other spaces, formerly bare, are now bustling with people moving equipment around. The reception area to the main lab has been transformed from a poky square room into a cavernous circular chamber filled with computer screens. A nearby canteen has changed from a small room with a table in it to a large public space filled with vending machines.

There are multiple models for scientist and soldier characters now (including the introduction of female characters), lending more realism to scenes where Gordon forms up a posse. Amusingly, Dr. Kleiner and Eli Vance (from Half-Life 2) show up as younger characters, in keeping with the canon. The developers have resisted the urge to thrown in other appearances from Half-Life 2 characters: Administrator Breen is referenced, but does not appear (as he did not appear in the original game), whilst Barney also does not appear: whilst multiple security guards in the original game had the 'Barney voice', the canon Barney is the one glimpsed briefly trying to open a door as Gordon passes by on his tram journey, and otherwise does not feature in the original Half-Life, only its expansion, Blue Shift.

The weapons load-out is the same as in the original game, and pleasingly you can carry a full arsenal around with you rather than having the current, tiresome restriction of two-guns-per-person (or whatever) shoehorned into the title. The variety and types of enemy is also the same. The integration of the Source Engine's physics system also gives rise to the closest thing the game has to a new weapon, the ability to pick up flares and throw them at enemies, setting them on fire.

As noted above, the game has been redesigned on a micro scale in many areas: few rooms or corridors avoid having had some tweaks to make them more interesting, from whiteboards filled with amusing jokes (or occasionally dirty cartoons) to a mug featuring the Chuckle Brothers (dubious UK comedians) sitting on a security guard's desk. The general layout of the game is the same as before, but a few areas have been opened up. Whilst still a linear shooter, some areas do feature multiple paths, requiring Gordon to scout out surrounding corridors and rooms for bonus weapons and ammo before finding what is the correct way to proceed. These changes, though minor, do hugely enhance the feeling of Black Mesa as a place where, under normal circumstances, people work together.

Something that did come as a surprise whilst playing the game was the fact that, by modern standards, Half-Life is only barely a shooter. The game can happily go half an hour at a time without having any combat, instead throwing puzzles and environmental challenges at the player that must be negotiated without a shot being fired. These range from having to open up valves to prime a rocket engine with fuel and coolant so it can be fired into a blast pit, killing a giant, triple-tentacled monster inside, to finding a way of powering up a computer system so you can use it to unlock a blast door.

Combat, when it does take place, is intense and also quite tough: the AI of both the alien invaders and the marines sent to deal with them and also wipe out any eyewitnesses is impressive, especially given fan consensus that the original Half-Life actually featured better AI than Half-Life 2. Whether the smart, tough enemies of Half-Life would survive the transition to Black Mesa was a key question for many fans, even a dealbreaker, and it's a relief to report that they have. Enemies are smart and canny, knowing when to take cover, flank you and use grenades to flush you into a killzone.

Unfortunately, the game's transition to Source means that the controls suffer a little. The original game sometimes used a feature called 'crouch-jumping' to allow you to reach tall ledges that would otherwise be out of reach. For some reason Black Mesa actually forces you to use crouch-jumping far more than the original game, almost for every single jump in the game. When you have to run fast and crouch-jump (requiring three simultaneous button pushes whilst using the mouse at the same time), it's almost impossible to execute the move. It turns out the development team set the jumping parameters too low, but it's very easy to go into the source files and modify it back to something sane. The game also has a lot of problems with ladders. In fact, the only FPS I've ever seen handle ladders well was the original Half-Life. Every other game, including Half-Life's own sequels and expansions (and now its remake), seems to love sticking you to ladders to the point of mouse-throwing rage when it results in you dying. Also, for some reason, the 'walk slowly' button does not work, which makes traversing the aforementioned blast pit (inhabited by an indestructible triple-tentacled blind monster that hunts by sound alone) absolutely horrendous, although it's completely unnecessary for any other part of the game.

These problems seem fairly minor when you consider the overwhelming quality of the game. A few areas feel like they could have been truncated a little bit (the residue processing sequence in particular is a little dull) but overall, Black Mesa is a phenomenal achievement. The original game's superior level design, excellent weapons and impressive AI are now enhanced by modern graphics, a subtle-but-brilliant redesign of many areas to work better with physics and a new, moody soundtrack. The game does have a different ending to the original, however, concluding in the Lambda Complex as you prepare to teleport to Xen. The thorough, exacting redesign of the game means that Xen is not yet ready. However even this has its benefits, as the Xen levels are the most widely-hated part of the original game. Their absence makes Black Mesa a tighter, more focused (though, at over 10 hours, still very long by modern standards) experience, even if the bizarreness of the place (a refreshing antidote to 10 hours of grey walls) is missed a little.

Black Mesa (*****) is available now from the developers' website, completely legally and free of charge. The game will also be available from Steam in a few weeks.

Friday 21 September 2012

Community: Season 1

Jeff Winger is a hotshot lawyer whose career has been brought to a screeching halt due to the slight problem of his qualifications being non-existent. He has to attend Greendale Community College for four years and pass a series of tests to regain his law credentials. An attempt to seduce a fellow student, Britta, by inviting her to a fictitious study group spirals out of control, resulting in the creation of a real study group. As the group goes through the school year, they learn and grow together. And also inadvertently create a copyright-infringing school anthem, give the college a guy in a gimp suit as its mascot and then almost destroy the place in a titanic paintball game that goes horrendously awry.

Community is entering its fourth season in the USA, but may be one of the best-kept secrets on television. Airing to mediocre ratings in the States and having almost no profile at all in the UK, it's nevertheless a funny, confident show which acts as both an obvious comedy and also something of a commentary on social dynamics and pop culture. The 'community' of the title is a reference to the central characters, who are all outcasts of one type of another, and their bonding together, and also to the wider college around them, personified through a recurring cast of tutors and other students.

Early episodes are mostly spent with the show trying to avoid cliches, with the character of Abed (Danny Pudi) always ready to compare an episode's storyline to something he saw on Friends or M*A*S*H*. This constant meta-commentary and attempts at ironic post-post-modernism are amusing but also slightly tiresome, with the show occasionally feeling a little smug with itself or else flailing at trying not to be caught between cliches. However, it's not long before the writers stop caring about that (at least quite so much) and instead concentrate on having fun. Community melds both the characters and the situations they encounter into compelling storylines that feel a lot longer than their modest 22 minutes-per-episode run times would suggest.

The actors are all excellent in their roles, particularly Joel McHale as Jeff, who has to make an inherently unlikable character likable without weakening the character, which he just about manages to do. The aforementioned Pudi is also great at portraying a character who initially appears to be the most predictable of the group but rapidly develops some interesting depths. Donald Glover takes the initially dull character of Troy and rapidly (by the end of episode two and its iconic Spanish rap number) turns him into a highlight of the show, thanks to some great comic timing. Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley initially appears to be the 'mother' figure of the show, but some revelations about her personal life and gossipping tendencies turn that on its head. There's also a glorious cynicism about the character of Pearce (played by Chevy Chase, enjoying a career resurgence), a casually sexist and racist old man whose role in the group appears to primarily be making the other characters feel good about themselves. Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs round off the primary cast as Annie and Britta, who initially both seem fairly straightforward characters before gaining more layers as the season progresses.

Slightly less successful are the supporting characters, most notably Ken Jeong as 'Senor' Chang whose character is rather broad (more effectively in some episodes than others) and Jim Rash as the Dean, who random weirdness (he has a sexual predilection for people in dalmatian costumes) is wearying. Still, both have their strong moments as the season progresses.

After the first few, slightly more pedestrian episodes, the season takes an upward turn in quality, culminating in the now-legendary paintball episode, Modern Warfare, when the show's ingredients combine together to create something hilarious, mildly emotional and completely demented, leaving the viewer eager to see what the writers and cast can do in the second year.

Season 1 of Community (****½) is well-written, sharply-acted and finely-observed, with more going on under the hood than you might expect from a situation comedy. The show is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Happy 10th birthday to FIREFLY

Today is (disturbingly, as I still think of it as a newish series) the tenth anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Firefly in the USA. Though not actually the first episode, since Fox TV in their infinite wisdom decided to delay showing the pilot until later in the run and instead aired the second episode, The Train Job, first.

The series only ran for thirteen episodes, but has since become a cult phenomenon, selling millions of DVDs and Blu-Rays and spawning a spin-off film, Serenity.

Here's the 10th anniversary Comic-Con panel reuniting Joss Whedon, Tim Minear and many of the cast (not to mention 'The Hat') at San Diego this year:

Tuesday 18 September 2012

BioWare confirm a new MASS EFFECT game and a new IP

The co-founders of BioWare, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, today announced that they are retiring from the company they set up almost twenty years ago. Whilst that in itself has sparked a storm of debate online about why they are leaving - some fans citing the arguably declining quality of their games since BioWare was taken over by Electronic Arts - even more interesting is a statement by Aaryn Flynn, the head of the company's Edmonton and Montreal studios.

Flynn, in a clearly calming-the-waters move, reveals that BioWare are currently actively developing three projects. One of these is the recently-confirmed Dragon Age III: Inquisition, which looks set to launch in late 2013.

Secondly, he confirms that the Mass Effect team is, as expected, working on the long-awaited Omega DLC, which will round off the trilogy's last remaining major unfinished storyline. However, he also unexpectedly confirmed that the team is also starting work on a new, full game set in that universe. Based on previous tidbits, it appears that this new game might be a prequel set centuries or even millennia before the existing trilogy. If true, this will fascinatingly open up the possibility of a game featuring no human characters at all (as the trilogy is itself set only thirty years after humans make contact with the Citadel races).

Finally, he also reveals that BioWare are developing a whole new IP and ficitional universe, based on all-new tech. I'd wager that this game is probably in the earliest stages of development and may be aimed at the next generation of consoles.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

It is more than a quarter of a million years before the time of the Malazan Empire. In this ancient age, the Tiste race is divided between noble families and bickering militias, trying to find their place in the world following the devastating wars against the Forulkan and the Jheleck. When the Tiste ruler, Mother Dark, takes the obscure Draconus as lover and consort, the noble houses are incensed and the seeds are sowed for civil war and religious conflict.

Forge of Darkness is the first novel in The Kharkanas Trilogy, a prequel series to Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. This trilogy will chart the splintering of the Tiste race into the three sub-races seen in the main series book (the Andii, the Liosan and the Edur) and explain much of the ancient backstory to the series. Some characters from the main series - such as Anomander Rake, Silchas Ruin, Hood and Gothos - appear here as much younger, far less experienced figures. However, those hoping for I, Anomander Rake will likely feel disappointed. Rake is a central character in the events unfolding and appears a few times, but much of the action takes place around new, much less important characters. Also, while the story is set more than 300,000 years before Gardens of the Moon, this isn't the alpha-point of the entire Malazan universe. Tiste society is many thousands of years old when the story opens and Rake, Mother Dark, Ruin and Draconus are already important characters with significant histories in place.

Instead, the trilogy is much more concerned with clarification of events in the main series books and explaining why certain things are the way they are. Surprisingly, the series addresses questions that I think most fans thought would simply be left as, "That's how it is," such as the nature of the gods in the Malazan world (and the apparent realisation by Erikson that 'gods' was not the right word to use for them), why the different Tiste races have different appearances and why the Jaghut evolved the way they did. Some long-burning questions are indeed addressed, such as the reasons for and the nature of Hood's war on death, but for the most part Erikson is not really concerned with really addressing obvious mysteries (those left wondering what the hell the Azath Houses are will likely not be satisfied by this book, in which even the race they are named after is baffled by them).

Instead, the narrative unfolds on its own terms. As usual, Erikson has a large cast of POV characters including nobles, soldiers, priests and mages, many of them with slightly cumbersome names. However, Erikson strives to differentiate his characters more from one another then in previous novels. Forge of Darkness enjoys a shorter page-length than most of his prior books (clocking in at a third less the size of most of the Malazan novels) and is far more focused. The plot is a slow-burner, divided into several relatively straightforward narratives. This is Erikson at his most approachable, easing the reader into the situation and story rather than dropping them in the middle of chaos and expecting them to get on with it (such as in the first novel in the main series, Gardens of the Moon).

Of course, Erikson isn't going to give the reader an easy ride. Minor peasants continue to agonisingly philosophise over the nature of existence with surprisingly developed vocabularies at the drop of a hat. There are too many moments when characters look knowingly at one another and speak around subjects so as not to spoil major revelations for the reader, regardless of how plausible this is. There is an awful lot of hand-wringing rather than getting on with business. But there's also a few shocking reversals, some tragic moments of genuine emotional power and some revelations that will have long-standing Malazan fans stroking their chins and going, "Ah-ha!"

Forge of Darkness (****) is Erikson's attempt to channel the in-depth thematic approach of Toll the Hounds but weld it to a more dynamic (by his terms) plot-driven narrative whilst also satisfying the fans' thirst for more information and revelations about his world and characters. It's a juggling act he pulls off with impressive skill, with some polished prose and haunting moments. But those who continue to find his reliance on philosophical asides and long-winded conversations tiresome will likely not be convinced by this book. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Wertzone Classics: Deadwood Season 1

1876, the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. The discovery of gold has inspired thousands of people to break a treaty with the natives and flock to the area to prospect. The camp of Deadwood has been established to cater for their needs and is rapidly expanding into a large town. In such circumstances there lies opportunity, and the criminally-minded Al Swearengen, wanted for murder in Chicago, has set up his own saloon to cash in on such opportunities.

Swearengen's operations are complicated by the arrival of the noted Wild West figures Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, as well as the establishment of a rival hotel and casino across the road from his own joint and the arrival of a former Montana marshal, Seth Bullock, who is looking to open a hardware store. With native attacks still a threat and a cholera outbreak striking the town, Deadwood needs to negotiate some perilous waters if it is to survive.

Deadwood is widely considered to be one of the jewels in HBO's crown. Running for three seasons from 2004 to 2006, the series has attracted critical acclaim matched by perhaps only two other shows in TV history: The Sopranos and The Wire. Unlike those shows, Deadwood was not able to complete its planned storylines and ended prematurely in 2006 for reasons that are still disputed between the show's creator and the studio.

The first season establishes the basic premise of Deadwood: the depiction of the slow metamorphosis of the settlement from a mining camp to a proper Western town. In the first episode, the town is shown to be lawless and almost anarchic. Over the course of the season the institutions of law, order and governance come into being, with in some cases the corrupt figures of the early episodes becoming 'respectable' figures in the new order. This shift is marked by one particular murder, which has significant ramifications for the town and its future. This gives the first season its thematic structure, the arising of order out of chaos.

The writing is exemplary, with David Milch and his writers (although Milch effectively rewrote every script in the season himself) creating a cadence rooted in both historical accuracy and also in getting across the feel of the period. The high levels of modern swearing, for example, are not particularly accurate but Milch felt this was necessary as the contemporary curse words would not resonate with a modern audience. This also extends to the general accuracy of events. Many of the show's characters are real historical figures, with their activities being a mixture of historically real events, real events that have been condensed or moved around in time for dramatic effect, and totally new scenes that better illuminate the characters and themes of the series. If there is a problem in the writing it's the lack of consistency in the use of some devices: E.B. Farnum's tendency to slip into monologue is rather intermittent, for example. Otherwise it's rich, textured and often amusing.

Performance-wise, the show features excellent turns from the likes of Timothy Olyphant (as Seth Bullock), Keith Carradine (Hickok), Paula Malcomson (Trixie), Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) and Molly Parker (Alma Garret), but it revolves around Ian McShane in the role of Swearengen. Swearengen sits at the heart of the series, affecting events around him, like a particularly profane spider in his web. McShane, previously best known as the title role in the easy-goin' British detective series Lovejoy, is a revelation in this role, bringing phenomenal presence and menace to the screen. The characterisation of all of the characters is particularly accomplished, with a real focus on making them real, conflicted people. For example, a bald surface reading of the show would cast Olyphant's Seth Bullock as the hero, standing up to the villainous Swearengen, but in fact the two characters are also shown in the opposing role as well, such as when Bullock loses his temper and almost beats someone to death in a disproportionate response to a threat, whilst Swearengen shows mercy - albeit of a rough kind - and kindness to a desperately ill member of the community. This layering extends to all of the characters, making them much more compelling.

Production values are impressive, with huge sets depicting the town and its interiors. It isn't an action-packed series, with considerably more talking than shooting, but when things do go off, they go off in style.

Flaws are almost non-existent. Some events feel somewhat random, but this may be down to the show being as interested in depicting moments showing day-to-day life in Deadwood as it is in ongoing story arcs. In fact, arguably the most successful episode of the first season is the tenth, which shows a typical 'day in the life' of the town aside from all of the other ongoing shenanigans.

The first season of Deadwood (*****) lives up to the show's reputation and billing as a gripping, entertaining and highly compelling drama series showing the realities of life in the West. The series is available now in the UK (DVD only, so far) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Friday 14 September 2012

Creators of the greatest RPGs of all time collaborate on new game

Obsidian Entertainment have announced their next big RPG: a fantasy game called Project Eternity (working title). This game will be an isometric, old-school RPG that draws heavily on their old D&D games using the Infinity Engine (the Icewind Dale series and the legendary Planescape: Torment).

However, tired of working for publishers who either don't do proper Q&A on their games (resulting in the bug-filled mess of Alpha Protocol), rush them out in an incomplete state (Knights of the Old Republic II) or refuse to pay them a bonus by failing to hit a ludicrously arbitrary Metacritic score by one point despite selling millions of copies (Fallout: New Vegas), Obsidian have decided to take this one to the fans. Via Kickstarter, Obsidian are asking for $1.1 million to help fund the game. They're already at $300,000 less than a day after starting the project.

The creative forces behind the game include Chris Avellone, the writer of Planescape: Torment; Tim Cain, the creator of the Fallout franchise; and Josh Sawyer, the project lead on the excellent New Vegas (who infamously disapproved of the game being somewhat 'softened' for console players and released his own, more hardcore mod for the PC version of the game). They hope to release the game in early 2014.

Kotaku interview Avellone here about the project, whilst GameBanshee talk to Obsidian studio head Feargus Urquhart here.

UPDATE: As of 24 hours later, the amount raised stands at $1,083,000, and should hit the target within a few hours (with 31 days still to go). Obsidian have already said that any money they make over the $1.1 million will go to making the game even more impressive, and some projections are now suggesting they could make upwards of four times the amount they asked for.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Final cover art for THE LANDS OF ICE AND FIRE

The Lands of Ice and Fire - a tie-in map book for A Song of Ice and Fire - arrives at the end of October and the final cover art for the book has been unveiled:

Nothing too surprising, with a map of Westeros and some heraldic symbols forming the front cover to the book (though clearly the Tyrells and Martells annoyed someone).

Four major new old games in the next month

Looking at the more notable new game releases of the next month, it's surprising that four of the highest-profile are in fact remakes or re-releases of older games in new formats.

First up (tomorrow!) is Black Mesa, the free remake of the original Half-Life using the Source Engine. More than six years in the making, the game is looking very impressive indeed. Anyone with Steam installed on their PC will be able to download and play it tomorrow.

That's followed by the release of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition on 18 September. This is an upgraded and updated version of the original game, with significant UI improvements, compatibility with tablets and Macs, and some new content (in the shape of three new NPC companions and a major new dungeon). Baldur's Gate II will follow next year. Both games include the original expansions.

Then, on 28 September, we get Carrier Command: Gaea Mission. From the makers of the ARMA franchise, this is a remake and recreation of the classic 1987 action strategy game, casting the player as the commander of an aircraft carrier playing hide-and-seek with an enemy carrier whilst trying to conquer a chain of islands.

Finally, on 9 October, we get XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A modern remake of UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defense in the United States) from the makers of the Civilization series, the game retains the turn-based tactical combat of its forebear, whilst combining it with impressive modern visuals.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

New WILD CARDS UK cover artwork

The Wild Cards series is being relaunched in the UK by Gollancz with all-new cover artwork.

Wild Cards will be released in November, followed by Aces High the following month. The third book, Jokers Wild, will be released in March 2013. The series will then jump to the newer volumes, with Inside Straight coming out in June 2013. Sales will determine if the other earlier books in the series will be reprinted at a later date.

I must admit, these covers are quite nice. They're not Michael Komarck, but there's some nice understatement to them (er, giant dinosaur aside) and good use of the card motif. It will be interesting to see the covers for the later books.

Terry Brooks's SHANNARA optioned as a TV series

After the success of Game of Thrones, it was only a matter of time before other epic fantasy works were snapped up for translation to the small screen. Now the first has been announced: an adaptation of the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks.

Terry Brooks's Shannara series was optioned several years ago as a big-budget movie to be helmed by Mike Newell, starting with an adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara. This is the second novel in the series, chosen presumably due to 'significant' similarities between the first book, The Sword of Shannara, and The Lord of the Rings. However, the project stalled in development. Now it seems to have been revived, with Sonar Entertainment and Farah Films adapting Elfstones as a TV series. Sonar, under a different name, was previously responsible for the Lonesome Dove TV mini-series.

Obviously this is just an option, not a greenlight, and so far no director, showrunner or scriptwriter has been attached to the project.

Monday 10 September 2012

Updates: Abercrombie and Morgan

With publication of Joe Abercrombie's Red Country just a few months away, review copies have been released into the wild and promotional materials are doing the rounds. Impressively, these have revealed that The First Law has now sold more than 1 million copies worldwide (though not specifying whether this was just the trilogy or includes the two stand-alone novels as well). An impressive achievement from Joe there.

Meanwhile, Gollancz has revealed (via Twitter) that the current working release date for Richard Morgan's The Dark Defiles - the conclusion to the Land Fit For Heroes series - is August 2013. There are two previews of the book currently up on the author's blog.

Intriguingly, Morgan has hinted that The Dark Defiles might become too large for one volume, and he and Gollancz are looking at the manuscript to see if it will be one huge book or two merely biggish ones. Watch this space for news on that.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 14 - Crossroads of Twilight

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13.

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

 Perrin Aybara makes a fateful decision over his destiny.

Follow the break for the summary:

The Walking Dead: Season 2

Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors have escaped from Atlanta. Making for Fort Benning and the hope of rescue, the group is waylaid on the highway by a horde of walkers. With one of the group missing and another severely injured, they find a safe haven at a nearby farm and the hope of a new home. But as the days and weeks pass, the unresolved tensions in the group threaten to tear it apart.

The second season of The Walking Dead picks up shortly after the events of the first. Whilst the first only had six episodes to tell its story, the second has thirteen, giving it more time to explore the premise and characters.

Things get off to a strong start in the first few episodes, which focus on the confrontation on the highway and the attempts to bring the group back together. New characters - the Greene family - and a new location - a large farmstead - are introduced and events unfold with some vigour. However, after the third episode the story bogs down a little as characters start spinning their wheels at the farm. This is where the ramifications of a major pre-season production crisis - a budget cut that infuriated showrunner Frank Darabont and saw him leave the series - are at their most noticeable. Whilst the budget problems ground the series for a little too long at the farm, the producers do make the most of the money they do have. The zombie effects are a cut above the more variable effects of the first season and there are some truly gruesome moments that equal the most visceral scenes of any zombie movie that comes to mind.

The long pause at the farm does allow some effective character development, particularly of Shane (Jon Bernthal), whose growing disillusionment with the group and his inability to accept the new status quo and move on is depicted quite well, even if the story does take a few too many episodes to come to a head. However, probably the best characterisation is left to Daryl (Norman Reedus), who evolves from the quieter brother of racist redneck Merle in the first season into a conflicted, complex character who refuses to fit easily into any stereotype. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), our main protagonist, gets a little lost in the mix this season with storylines focusing mostly on other characters, but comes back strong towards the end of the season as he starts to show signs of not handling the stress of command very well. However, his dynamic with Herschel (Scott Wilson) and the twists and turns it goes through is fascinating, with Herschel moving from a pacifistic man of faith to shotgun-wielding zombie-slayer under Rick's (not entirely laudable) influence. The introduction of Maggie (Lauren Cohan) as a love interest for Glenn (Steven Yeun) also adds a rare glimmer of sunlight to a dark season.

Whilst the season does suffer from some slow pacing in its central section, it remains highly watchable, and the pacing issue is mitigated considerably on DVD without a week-long break between each episode. There are some effective moments of dark humour (the 'zombie well' scene is hilarious), the writing is pretty good and the actors mostly effective. Aside from the pacing issue, the character of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) suffers the worst from inconsistent writing and motivations, which the actress does her best to make sense of but can't quite sell.

Events culminate in a fairly epic two-part season finale in which the bubbling tensions within the group boil over and the biggest battle between the survivors and the zombies to date takes place. Despite some longeurs and niggling problems, Season 2 (****½) ends on a high that leaves a lot of balls in the air for the third season and its promise of introducing some of the best characters and storylines from the comic book to the TV series. The series is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Saturday 8 September 2012

Quick Hits: GRRM, Rothfuss, Abraham, Scholes, STAR TREK

Locus has published its publication list from now until next summer, revealing some interesting information:

Expect the new Dunk and Egg story in 2013.

George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois's anthology Dangerous Women, including the fourth Dunk and Egg Song of Ice and Fire prequel novella, is now listed for release in May 2013. Amazon Germany is reporting that the book collecting all four Dunk 'n' Egg novellas into one volume will come out in May 2014. Whilst we have to take that with a grain of salt, that does tie in with the new story having a 12-month exclusivity contract before it can be reprinted anywhere else.

The same list confirms that the third Dagger and Coin novel by Daniel Abraham will be called The Tyrant's Law and that both it and Ken Scholes's long-awaited Requiem will be out in June 2013.

Meanwhile, Pat Rothfuss has sold a new fantasy trilogy to DAW Books. Despite speculation that this might be the rumoured sequel series to The Kingkiller Chronicle, there are also hints that this might be an urban fantasy trilogy consisting of notably shorter novels by Rothfuss's normal standards. He may also have already written (or partially written) the first book, meaning we might see it before The Doors of Stone (the final Kingkiller book). Hopefully Rothfuss will clear this up on his blog soon.

Finally, the new Star Trek movie allegedly has a title. It's Star Trek Into Darkness. Without a colon, which is apparently a deliberately stylistic choice. Hmm. Not sure about that one.

The Hunger Games

Post-apocalyptic North America is controlled by Panem, a dictatorial state which enforces control through discipline and fear. Every year, two 'tributes' from each of Panem's twelve districts are chosen at random to do battle to the death. The survivor of the carnage becomes rich and famous, and the people are reminded of the Capitol's power. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister's place in the games, and must find a way to win despite her lack of experience and training.

The Hunger Games is an adaptation of Suzanne Collins's YA novel of the same name and closely follows the events of the novel. Like the book, the film pits Katniss Everdeen in a fight to the death against twenty-three other youngsters, including her fellow contestant from District 12, Peeta Mellark. The story is divided into two distinct sections, the first involving Katniss's selection and preparation for the games and the second depicting the contest itself. This shift in setting and tone halfway through the film helps sustain and the tension and drama through the movie's running time (which, at almost two and a half hours, is fairly long for a YA movie).

The script closely follows the plot of the novel, apart from a fairly elegant solution to the problem of the book being based on Katniss's heavily-internalised experiences. In the novel Katniss can only speculate on the motives of the people running the game, but in the film we cut away to what's going on the game control centre and with President Snow. This expands the scope of the film a little and helps set up the sequels rather better than the novel, which was not written with sequels in mind and didn't layer in a lot of foreshadowing for what would come after.

The movie follows the book in presenting the Hunger Games as a satire on modern reality TV shows, but through the visual medium is able to take this a lot further through film clips of people commentating on the game like it was the latest season of The X-Factor. Unfortunately, rather like the book, the film also does not take this satirical edge far enough, instead opting for raising questions and then not exploring them far enough. This problem also extends to the story's use of violence and morality. As in the novel, Katniss and Peeta are never put into a position of having to kill any of the other victims of the game, only the 'bad guys' who revel in it. The movie cops out on putting Katniss and Peeter in real moral quandaries, which is a shame. The film also has variable CGI, with depictions of the Capitol's cityscape looking decidedly sub-par in places.

Aside from that, the film works pretty well. The movie is quite long but there's a lot of plot to fit in. Director Gary Ross has a crip, fast-paced directing style that moves us through the novel's major story beats without sacrificing too much atmosphere. He often finds concise ways of giving us backstory and worldbuilding information without having to waste time on exposition, which keeps things moving along nicely.

Performances are pretty good. The movie hinges on Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss and she nails the role perfectly, bringing the required mixture of anger, determination, bravery and guilelessness. Josh Hutcherson has to settle for merely being good in the role of Peeta, with more established performers like Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and, of course, Donald Sutherland fufilling their roles with aplomb. Sutherland brings an air of real menace to the role of President Snow that bodes well for the sequels. Lenny Kravitz also impresses in the role of Cinna, though this role has been cut down from the books somewhat.

With a good script, economic story-telling and solid performances, The Hunger Games (***½) is overall an enjoyable movie. It loses some of the depth of the secondary characters and subplots over the novels, but on every other level is a very respectable adaptation. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 13 - Winter's Heart

Previous instalments of the series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12.

Spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the series. Note that this summary is designed to help people who have already read the books get back up to speed before the release of the final volume in January. First-timers are advised to read the books directly, as in some cases these summaries may spoil things that are not revealed in the books until much later.

Perrin Aybara leads his forces through the snow-strewn forests of Altara.

Follow the break for the summary:

Friday 7 September 2012

Transformers: War for Cybertron

War has gripped the planet Cybertron. Megatron and his Decepticons do battle against the Autobots under the command of Zeta Prime. Using a substance known as Dark Energon, Megatron launches a devastating assault upon Zeta Prime and the Autobots' greatest defender, Omega Supreme. It falls to a young and untested warrior named Optimus to lead the fight back against Megatron and his troops.

Transformers computer games have been a hit and miss affair over the decades, with the misses outnumbering the hits by quite some margin. For this latest computer game, Hasbro and developers High Moon Studios took a different tack. They decided to develop a backstory and canon exclusive to the game (Hasbro later tried to tie it into their new Prime continuity, but not entirely successfully) and which would not rely on tying in with any other continuity whilst being able to cherry-pick the best ideas and characters from them. This approach - similar to that taken by the recent Batman Arkham games - would hopefully deliver the hit game that fans were waiting for.

They were, to a certain degree, successful. War for Cybertron is easily the best Transformers computer game released to date. It's a tight, focused third-person shooter featuring multiplayer and campaign co-op. The emphasis is firmly on established, fan-favourite characters and on the G1 continuity family, even though the game is not directly linked to any of the established G1 storylines. Peter Cullen has been recruited as the voice of Optimus and, as usual, does great voice work throughout the game. Lines from the cartoon series and movie pop up at unexpected intervals, whilst elements of characterisation and backstory from the comics and animated series are included to delight hardcore fans. When Air Raid mentions Silverbolt being afraid of heights (despite being an aerial assault squad commander) or when it's revealed that Jetfire is a former Decepticon who defected to the Autobots, old-school Transformers fans will no doubt crack grins of appreciation. This extends to a hands-down brilliant boss fight with Soundwave, who disgorges his various minions from his chest to keep you busy and requiring you to defeat them (and their well-established special attacks, like creating earthquakes or sonic waves) in turn before taking him down.

This is all good stuff, showing a keen awareness of the franchise and its history which is laudable. The gameplay is also solid. War for Cybertron sees you controlling a robot and shooting other robots (a lot of other robots) with guns and sometimes missiles (but oddly, no lasers). Sometimes you need to transform into another mode to traverse scenery or to bring more firepower to bear on a situation. The game occasionally interrupts the shooting to have you push a button to open a gate to proceed. Rinse and repeat.

The gameplay is repetitive, but fortunately the developers seem aware of this danger. The levels are fairly short and the different characters and the different weapons available combine to provide some variety in how to deal with situations (although these are more variations on the theme of shooting and blowing things up). The writing is also decent, being of its own ridiculousness, with the likes of Soundwave and Omega Supreme getting some gloriously OTT dialogue in keeping with the spirit of things. There is a nice line in humour ticking through the game as well which keeps things entertaining.

Graphically, the game is no great shakes with some fairly low-res textures. However, the environmental design is great (if a little bit over-used by the end of the game) and the character design is solid. The traditional G1 designs have been altered to create something roughly halfway between the bright, primary-colour-driven original cartoon characters and Michael Bay's grittier, spikier designs (though, unlike the Bay movies, the characters are all easily identifiable from one another), which works well. The game's insistence that all the Transformers fire bullets is a bit odd - I wouldn't mind seeing a return to the lasers of the original G1 comics and cartoons - but can be borne.

Whilst all of this stuff is good, the game still suffers from some issues. It's not the longest game in the world (though this prevents things getting over-used and too stale) and it struggles a bit to accommodate the transforming mechanic. Transforming is often used to get from one combat area to the next or as a way of using more weapons when your robot-mode guns run out of ammo. The game really explodes into life in certain boss fights and large areas when you can use both robot and vehicle abilities to their fullest. However, these areas are fairly rare. Sequences where you are exchanging fire with enemies down long, tight corridors like any other third-person shooter do feel like a waste of the licence. One can't help but wonder if a Far Cry-like approach - giving you an objective an a large open world area with lots of options to accomplish it in - would result in a stronger game.

War for Cybertron (***½) is a solid, entertaining shooter which intermittently achieves brilliance. It's a bit lightweight and under-uses the central Transforming mechanic, but it's a lot of fun. It's available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

The Walking Dead: The Heart's Desire by Robert Kirkman

Rick Grimes and his band of survivors have taken shelter from the zombie menace in an abandoned prison, only to become embroiled in an internal dispute. The arrival of a mysterious, katana-wielding woman sows further discord amongst the survivors. Events eventually prompt a moment of revelation for Rick.

The Heart's Desire is the fourth graphic novel in The Walking Dead series, Robert Kirkman's 'zombie movie that never ends'. It immediately picks up the storyline after the third book, Safety Behind Bars and...well, doesn't go very far at all.

The Heart's Desire can best be summed up as the Crossroads of Twilight (the infamously static tenth novel of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence) of The Walking Dead. Nothing much happens of consequence to the overall story arc. The characters regrouping and taking stock of themselves after the first three books would make sense, but Kirkman is not a sufficiently good-enough writer of character to make this work across such a length of time. He is solid at plotting and structure, but his characterisation skills are highly variable (at best) and quite lacking during this particularly collection. The story breaks down into a melodramatic soap opera, with characters more concerned about who is sleeping with who and who should be in charge than actually dealing with the zombie menace or their own survival.

There are flashes of competence here, but these are not developed far enough. Michonne has a hell of an entrance and shakes things up a bit, but then doesn't really do anything. Rick angsts at some considerable length about the burden of command which would have made for a more interesting storyline if it hadn't been so badly-written. In fact, the entire book seems to be building to Rick's moment of self-revelation at the end which is puzzling: Rick realising that the zombies are not the 'walking dead' is something I think most readers latched onto in issue #1, and is the reason for the title of the entire comic book series. Kirkman presenting it as some kind of massive plot twist is simply inexplicable, and ends the book on a completely pointless note that led this reader with little desire to read on in the series. It is rather telling that the upcoming third season of the TV show will apparently condense the events of the third graphic novel with the one or two that come after it to create a far more compelling narrative than relying on the events of the third and fourth books alone.

The Heart's Desire (**) is a seriously sub-par and disappointing entry to The Walking Dead franchise. It is available now in the UK and USA.