Wednesday 31 October 2012

Wertzone Classics: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

2015. The Earth is under attack by waves of UFOs. Alien infiltrators are kidnapping humans to unknown ends, or simply going on the rampage to spread fear and terror. To fight back, the nations of the world have established XCOM, an elite force designed to combat the alien menace. With a fleet of interceptor aircraft and well-trained soldiers at their disposal, the forces of XCOM must discover the enemy's purpose, turn their own weapons against them and win the war...or risk the extinction of humanity.

XCOM: Enemy Unkown is a remake and update of the classic 1994 strategy game, UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defense in the USA), which in turn was heavily inspired by the 1970 Gerry Anderson TV series UFO. It's a turn-based strategy game in which you command the defence of Earth against an encroaching alien menace. The original game is still held as one of the best strategy games of all time (if not one of the best games of all time) and remaking it is a brave move, but one that Firaxis seem to have pulled off well.

As with the original, the game is divided into two distinct sections. Between missions you hang out at your base, which is initially small but can be expanded to incorporate new laboratories, workshops and other facilities. At your base you can research new technologies, recruit new soldiers and build new equipment for them. You can also upgrade your interceptor aircraft and build and launch new satellites to increase your chances of intercepting the UFOs before they can cause havoc. Increasing your satellite coverage is also important to mollify your financial backers: if a country suffers too much damage in an alien attack or does not feel that XCOM is protecting it, it will withdraw from the XCOM project, delivering a serious blow to your finances. Once you don't have anything more to do, you can hit a button to speed up time, with the game pausing again to let you know about important news (such as research being completed or the completion of a facility's construction) or with news of a fresh alien incursion. Sometimes you have to scramble interceptors to shoot down a UFO, but at other times UFOs will land of their own accord. In either case, once an alien hotspot has been detected, you can send a Skyranger dropship packed with troopers to investigate.

At this point the game moves onto a 3D map depicting the area of operations (sometimes a town packed with civilians, or an empty stretch of countryside, or an alien base).You move your troops around this area in turns. On each turn you can move your troopers, have them fire at any aliens in range or switch to an 'overwatch' mode, which basically stores up their move until the aliens' turn, when they can automatically fire on any aliens who venture into their line of sight. You have to be careful as the aliens often do the same thing, and moving might trigger an alien attack of opportunity on their turn. Combat is undertaken by your troops aiming at the enemy with a percentage chance being shown of how likely the attack will be. Cover is vitally important, with both full and half-cover available to protect combatants, so flanking is critically important, as is the use of heavy weapons that can destroy cover. As the game proceeds your squad size increases (from four to six troops) and you gain access to devastating new weapons, including laser and plasma weapons, as well as psi-powers and expendable robotic drones.

The game itself is fairly straightforward, but what prevents the standard prodcedure (research and build stuff, shoot down UFO, fight on 3D map, rinse and repeat) getting repetitive is the importance placed on your decisions. Do you expand satellite coverage early on, but then lack the funds needed to research new weapons? Can you risk neglecting your interceptors' weapons in favour of upgrading your troopers' rifles? This also extends to your individual (and highly customisable) soldiers, who gain experience and new abilities between missions. Gaining new abilities (such as the ability to use three medikits per mission instead of one) comes at the cost of sacrificing others, and careful decisions have to be made. You can be fairly ruthless, upgrading your troopers' offensive weapons whilst ignoring their defences, since recruiting fresh troops to replace the slaughtered is inexpensive. But experienced combat veterans have powerful abilities, so you may want to pump resources into armour instead. There are numerous approaches you can take to the game, which immensely rewards replayability.

Presentation-wise, the game is slick but not lightweight. The UI is straightforward and instinctively easy to understand, whilst the 3D graphics are more functional than impressive, but with an attractive art style and some cool explosions. Sound effects are good, the alien designs (many of them directly upgraded from the 1994 originals) memorable and interesting, and there's even some pretty good characterisation of your various advisors. One mild misstep is a lack of personality and character amongst your soldiers (since you have full control of their development), which makes some events in the endgame not resonate as strongly as they should.

The game is quite hard, even on the easier difficulty levels, and does not tolerate too many mistakes. Many players, particularly those not familiar with the original, may find themselves having to play through several dummy runs to get acquainted with the concepts and controls before launching a proper campaign (this is not helped by a story-driven tutorial mode which doesn't actually do a good job of giving you the tech you need urgently in the early game period). Still, it's a refreshing change to find a game these days which will punish you but not overwhelm you with frustration to the point where you stop playing. On the contrary, XCOM is compulsive stuff, with the "Just one more turn," mentality resulting in you staying up until ridiculous hours trying to acquire that plasma rifle or bring down that alien base.

On the negative side, the game does lack some of the freedom of the original, such as the ability to exchange equipment in the field and bring a lot more troops to the battlefield, whilst the inability to destroy cover deliberately with normal weapons seems a bit limiting. But these are fairly minor complaints. More serious is a series of crashes I experienced shortly after installation, but these stopped after an hour or so and never reoccurred.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (****½) is a smart, intelligent and engrossing game, with compelling (but also challenging) gameplay and some fiendish opponents. It's a superb update of a classic game but also a great game in its own right, and a clear front-runner for game of the year. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).

Tuesday 30 October 2012

George Lucas sells STAR WARS to Disney

George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm and its properties, including Star Wars, to the Walt Disney Corporation for a whopping $4 billion. Lucas has issued a statement saying he belives it is time to sell the franchise to a new generation of young film-makers.

So long and thanks for all the Sith.

 "For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next,” said George Lucas, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lucasfilm. “It's now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I've always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime. I'm confident that with Lucasfilm under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, and having a new home within the Disney organization, Star Wars will certainly live on and flourish for many generations to come. Disney's reach and experience give Lucasfilm the opportunity to blaze new trails in film, television, interactive media, theme parks, live entertainment, and consumer products."

What effect this will have on The Clone Wars TV series and the long-in-limbo live-action TV show is unknown. However, so-far unsubstantiated Twitter chatter is that Disney is moving immediately into the planning process on a seventh Star Wars film, possibly for release in 2015.

On the plus side, George Lucas no longer gets to write Star Wars material. On the downside, it looks like the carefully-constructed Star Wars Expanded Universe could get chucked out the window in favour of a new series of films. Potentially controversial.

UPDATE: Disney confirm that Star Wars Episode VII is in active development for a 2015 release. 
Oddly, there's been no mention of what this means for the Indiana Jones franchise yet.

LANDS OF ICE AND FIRE now available

The Lands of Ice and Fire, a companion volume to A Song of Ice and Fire comprising a dozen large poster maps, is now available in the USA. Its official UK release date is 8 November, but don't be surprised to see some early copies slipping onto shelves before that date.

Qarth and the Jade Gates, featuring the hitherto-unmentioned island of Great Moraq. The forested region just to the east is the kingdom of Yi Ti.

The map collection features the first canon-for-the-books maps of eastern Essos, including the Jade Sea region. These maps introduce a whole host of new locations to the world of Westeros and Essos, some of which may be referenced in future books.


After receiving a few requests for this over the last few years, I have added a Paypal Donations button to the blog (see top-right) for those wishing to help make a contribution to the site. A few clarifying points below:
  1. There is no alternate or 'exclusive' content for those who choose to contribute. This is a purely voluntary thing. You - thankfully - won't get a "I'm in Wert's Zone!" T-shirt for contributing :-)
  2. Please contribute based on your enjoyment of the blog's content so far, not on what I might do or not do with the blog in the future.
  3. Contributions will go towards the upkeep of the site. Although Blogger provides a free service, there are additional charges involved in running the site which have become steeper recently (i.e. my monthly internet bill and my rent for the property from which I bloggeth).

To emphasise, this is a purely voluntary endeavour. My heartiest thanks to any who do contribute.

Monday 29 October 2012

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

The enigmatic nation of Invierne is menacing the borders of both its neighbours, vast Joya d'Arena and its former vassal state of Orovalle. The two kingdoms have allied together against this threat through a marriage pact, with King Alejandor wedding Princess Elisa of Orovalle. This simple alliance is strengthened by the fact that Elisa is the bearer, the wielder of the Godstone. For two thousand years the bearers have performed great acts of bravery and heroism against the forces of evil.

However, Elisa is no hero. Pampered and overweight, she doubts her holy mission. But the boiling deserts of Joya d'Arena will prove her testing ground as she struggle to unlock the secrets of the Godstone, and those of the bearers who came before her.

Fire and Thorns (published as The Girl of Fire and Thorns in the USA) has the whiff of the standard fantasy epic to it. It's the opening volume of a trilogy, it features a callow young protagonist who grows into their destiny as the book unfolds and it's set in a fictional world. That said, it does feature a (relatively) uncommon setting, influenced heavily by Moorish Spain, and there is no map (somewhat irritatingly, as the book does feature some fairly intricate geography which the vague descriptions in the book don't really help establish).

The book is told in the first person by Elisa, who makes for an engaging protagonist. Much has been made by readers about the fact that Elisa is overweight when the book begins and that the author raises the issues of body image and confidence issues and explores them in an interesting manner. This much is true, although there has also been criticism of the fact that as Elisa transforms from callow youth to badass warrior queen she also drops the weight, which seems to be suggesting that overweight people can't be confident and strong rulers in their own right. This is a slightly problematic issue, although I think it's more a reflection of the fact that the story takes our heroine across burning deserts and through thick jungles on months-long journeys where it is implausible she wouldn't get fitter (unlike a certain other author's character called Samwell Tarly, cough). Still, the author does manage to raise and explore the issue without overburdening the book with it.

Fire and Thorns is in YA territory. There is no overt sex or swearing, and the violence is somewhat mild, although several major characters are killed in a rather offhand manner. There is the threat of gushing romance, but it never really materialises (somewhat thankfully) as the war and action storylines take prominence. More disappointingly, there is some very solid set-up done for some promising political intrigue which never really materialises. The resolution of the political plot is in fact rather disappointingly pat and convenient. However, there are some solid twists in the magical storyline, as Elisa uncovers the history of the Godstones and discovers their true purpose.

Caron writes engagingly, making Fire and Thorns (***½) a fast, easy and, despite the aforementioned issues, enjoyable read. Those looking for something dark and gritty best look elsewhere, but for a lightweight, easy-to-read fantasy this is more entertaining than most. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 28 October 2012


The city of Dunwall and its surrounding territories are ruled by the Empress Kaldwin, a fair and strong ruler. When she is assassinated and her daughter Emily kidnapped, her bodyguard Corvo Attano is held responsible and imprisoned. After six months, a brutal new regime under the Lord Regent has been established and the city placed in a state of fear. When Corvo is rescued by loyalists to the old regime, he is given the tools to carry out a series of missions aimed at removing the Lord Regent, rescuing Princess Emily and restoring justice to Dunwall. But a virulent plague and uncertain loyalties amongst the various factions make Corvo's job a lot harder as he must decide to take the path of blood-soaked vengeance or striking surgically from the shadows.

Dishonored is a first-person action game developed by Arkane Studios, with several of the developers of the Thief, Deus Ex and Half-Life franchises working on it. It is a richly atmospheric game which, refreshingly, rewards you for avoiding violence, chaos and killing (though still allowing you to pursue that course if you really want to).

The game places you in the role of Corvo, a bodyguard-turned-secret agent. You have a variety of tools at your disposal to carry out missions, including magical powers (the ability to blink - teleport short distances - is essential) and equipment including crossbows with sleep darts to knock out foes. You can also knock out unsuspecting enemies with sneak attacks and, if really necessary, use firearms and swords for direct combat. You can also use your magical powers to possess other creatures (including human characters) for brief periods. Each mission is set in a substantial area of the city of Dunwall, with you able to scale buildings using your powers and hide in the shadows from unsuspecting guards, or try a frontal assault option and wade through rivers of blood on your way to your objective. However, using violence and killing people increases the amount of chaos present in the city, which affects the number of guards (and rats) on later levels, and their alertness.

Dishonored's biggest success is its setting, with Dunwall being a grimy industrial city with a tech level more like Victorian England than a traditional high fantasy location. There are echoes of steampunk and China Mieville's world of Bas-Lag in the setting, which is a fascinating place to explore. There are also numerous books, posters, notes and audio logs dotted around the city which unveil its history in some depth and add to a feeling of immersion in the game. The depiction of grimy tenement blocks, rich manor houses and immense official structures (such as prisons, fortresses and fortified lighthouses) is remarkable, giving the game a tremendous sense of place. These settings also reward exploration, with Corvo often able to find bonus items and cash by thoroughly exploring every area rather than blitzing straight through.

The game's freedom has been its main talking point, with players having multiple paths to victory. This is true to a large degree, although there are still only a finite number of ways to proceed. The game is open enough to allow for two or three playthroughs using different styles (to unlock the several different endings), although arguably the game's freedom is not sufficient to justify more than that. With no multiplayer, the game's long-term replayability may be in doubt, though the (often difficult-to-achieve) achievements do help with that issue.

The writing and the characterisation in the game is fairly solid, and there's much amusement to be gained by eavesdropping on conversations from the shadows or spying through keyholes (sometimes learning something valuable that opens up new ideas and objectives). The game gives out an achievement for 'ghosting', which is not only getting through the game without killing anyone but getting through the game without anyone being aware you were even present. Achieving this is highly satisfying. The game also allows you to complete it without ever having to kill anyone, even assassination targets, which is an improvement over the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which was impossible to complete without killing at least three mid-game bosses.

The game is well-paced, with missions taking anything up to three hours apiece to carry out if you are thoughtful and methodical. There have been complaints by some players about the game being too short, although to complete the game in much less than eight hours or so is only possible if you take the frontal assault option, which seems to be missing some of the point of the game. For my first playthrough I took a non-lethal course, methodically exploring each mission to start with and then picking up the pace in the later missions (where there is a much greater sense of urgency to events). This led me to completing the game in just under twelve hours, a very satisfactory amount of game for my money (and also leaving several other endings and playstyles available to be explored).

Dishonored (****½) is an intelligent and atmospheric game which gives the player a lot of freedom in how they choose to approach it and what they want to get out of the game. Surveying a target from a rooftop, coming up with a plan to get in without being seen and executing that plan successfully is great fun; when the plan goes awry and having to come up with a new idea on the fly even moreso. The game does falter a little towards the end, with a sequence set in a flooded part of the city going on a bit too long and the player being railroaded into the nearest thing the game has to a boss fight, but overall this is a rich and compelling game experience.

The game is available now on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).

The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove

2196. For more than a century, the Earth has been under the rule of Chung Kuo, a world-spanning civilisation founded by a Chinese warlord using advanced technology. That warlord was later deposed by the T'ang, seven senior rulers who feared his insanity. The T'ang now rule a strictly hierarchical world at peace, but one where the powers of the privileged few are built on a pyramid of oppression and strictly-enforced order. With thirty-six billion people packed into the vast, continent-spanning cities of 'ice' (a nanotech-based material with super-strong properties), the dangers of chaos are all too apparent.

But there is growing discontent in Chung Kuo. Wealthy industrialists and ambitious scientists want change and growth to prevent stagnation. The enforcers of order will not stand for this. When the Minister of the Edict, whose job it is to prevent any drastic change to the order of things, is assassinated, it becomes clear that a war is coming. The War of Two Directions, which could spell a new dawn for humanity or spell its utter extinction.

The Middle Kingdom is the third novel in David Wingrove's revamped Chung Kuo mega-sequence. Originally published in eight volumes in the 1980s and 1990s, the series was abruptly cancelled and the author forced to write a highly unsatisfying quick ending which satisfied no-one. With new publishers Corvus at the helm, Chung Kuo has been recast in twenty volumes, including an all-new beginning and ending. The first two novels, Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, showed the foundation of Chung Kuo and the destruction of the world before, serving as scene-setting prologues. The Middle Kingdom, picking up a hundred years later, is where the story itself really gets started. It's also where the series catches up to the original series, and in fact The Middle Kingdom consists of the first half or so of the original novel of the same name, published in 1988.

This means that you don't need to have read the first two novels to leap straight into The Middle Kingdom. For those who have read the first two books, The Middle Kingdom features a surprising (and welcome) shift in gear. The first two books were extremely fast-paced, with some character development and worldbuilding having to be sacrificed to get through epic events in a reasonable page-count. The Middle Kingdom is slower-paced, with events more deliberately unfolding. Characters are established and explored, the opposing thematic concepts of change and stasis are set up well and complex conspiracies unfold with relish. This doesn't mean the book is devoid of incident, with several assassinations and bombings, some underworld crime machinations and high-level political intrigue making for a busy novel, albeit one that is not as rushed as its predecessors. The pacing is pretty solid, though the later-novel introduction of a whole new major character and situation does betray the book's status as merely the opening salvo in a much vaster tale.

The characters are split between the Chinese and Western-descended inhabitants of the world (those who've read the first two books will know that Africa and the Middle-East did not fare well during the takeover) and such characters are present on both sides of the central thematic argument of the series. Wingrove's characterisation is pretty good, though he tends to lean a little more towards the broad rather than the subtle. Still, it is effective. Wingrove is also non-judgemental (at least at this stage) about his thematic argument: in a society of almost forty billion people, utterly dependent on technology to survive, the dangers of both change and stagnation are clear. With a few exceptions, his characters are not clear-cut good or bad guys either, with both honourable men and the amoral present on both sides of the debate.

The Middle Kingdom (****½) is a highly enjoyable SF novel that leaves the reader eager to read more. It is available now in the UK, with US readers able to order (with free delivery) from the Book Depository. The fourth volume in the series, Ice and Fire, will be published in December.

Far Cry 2

A small, failed Central African state is gripped by a terrible civil war. Two rival factions, the UFLL and APR, are fighting for supremacy and both sides have drafted in foreign mercenaries to fight for them. One such mercenary is on a secret mission for an outside power, however: to find and assassinate the Jackal, a noted arms dealer who is providing weapons to both sides.

The original Far Cry, released in 2004, was an excellent first-person shooter. The game employed a structure that was both linear and freeform: a linear sequence of missions taking place on islands, but each island was fairly substantial in size, with multiple ways of completing each mission. The successor - Far Cry 2 isn't a true sequel as it does not feature any of the same characters or locations as the original - takes this to the next level. The entire game takes place on two immense open maps, with multiple missions available at any one time, as well as the ability to simply go exploring for the sake of it.

It's a pleasing evolution of the original Far Cry formula, but very quickly flaws become apparent. Having an immense open-world game as an RPG, with dialogue and skill trees and the ability to complete missions non-violently, makes a lot of sense. However, Far Cry 2 is still a first-person shooter. People talk to you, but you can't talk back. There are multiple missions available but they pretty much all involve killing people and blowing things up. A few missions can be completed by stealth, but the game's stealth mechanic is extremely under-developed (in fact, it's less successful than in it's four-year-older forebear) and making a single noise allows enemies to zero in on your position from hundreds of yards in all directions, even through trees and grass, making it a difficult option to pursue.

In addition, whilst you can choose from a plethora of optional side-missions (which pretty much all involve killing people and blowing things up), your progress through the game is determined by a series of core missions for the two rival factions. So Far Cry 2 demolishes much of its early open-world promise by not giving you much freedom to do things other than the way the game wants you to: killing everything in sight and doing the same sequence of main storyline missions. This problem is intensified by the fact that, aside from a few characters in neutral areas, everyone in the game is unrelentingly hostile to you on sight. People driving down the road will stop and open fire on you for no reason. There are checkpoints where the guards don't bother stopping or searching you, but just instantly attack, even if you are doing a mission for their side. Wiping out the checkpoints is pointless as they respawn within minutes, and the canny player will soon be driving off-road to their objectives or will be taking to the rivers, which are marginally safer (thankfully the second map is based around a huge lake, which makes it much easier to avoid the checkpoints).

In terms of writing, the game makes a half-hearted stab at political commentary: the two sides in the civil war are indistinguishable from one another and make cynical deals with one another and outsider mercenaries several times through the game. The plight of civilian refugees in such conflicts is also intermittently highlighted, with you having the option of helping an underground railroad which is transporting refugees across the border. The game does at least get across the idea that Africa has been badly mistreated by outside powers for centuries and that cynicism and greed constantly undermine attempts by its people to bring law and order to the continent. However, it also undermines that idea by portraying every single person in the game (bar only two characters of note) as a psychopathic lunatic armed with a machine gun.

In terms of game mechanics, Far Cry 2 has some great ideas - weapons that degrade and rust easily, the freedom of attacking a target any way you like, some good use of vehicles, 'buddy' mercs who sometimes help you out on missions - but then enforces repetition. 90% of the missions in the game unfold in a very similar way, with some fairly solid combat (let down a bit by the ludicrous number of bullets it takes to kill someone) that becomes old hat very quickly. A few missions stand out, such as an early assault on a floating village and a later battle in a cliff-side town, but much more frequently you're fighting in some nondescript villa or mining camp. However, the final mission - a homage to Heart of Darkness - is excellent, a tense and dark adventure that is unrelentingly linear but also well-paced and atmospheric.

This gets to the root of Far Cry 2's main problem: the game is open-world and freeform, something that is usually a welcome change from linear corridor-shooters, but does nothing interesting with the concept. It might as well have been a standard shooter, and the final excellent mission even suggests it might have been better off to have taken this course. A few memorable moments and a great setting aside, Far Cry 2 is ultimately a let-down after its excellent predecessor (and even the flawed-but-solid Crysis games being developed by the original Far Cry developers in parallel to this). Its ambition is laudable, but its execution is lacking.

Far Cry 2 (**½) is available now on the PC (UK, USA), PlayStation 3 (UK, USA) and X-Box 360 (UK, USA).

Friday 26 October 2012

Schwarznegger to return as Conan?

Universal Pictures, Paradox Entertainment and Arnold Schwarznegger have done a deal which opens the way for a new Conan the Barbarian movie starring the ex-Governator.

The new movie will ignore both the recent Jason Momoa film and the 1984 Conan the Destroyer (starring Schwarznegger) and will instead work as a successor to the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian, the movie which began Schwarznegger's ascent to superstardom. The new film will depict Conan in the closing stages of his life, as an old king and warlord ready for one last glorious adventure before the end. This story idea tracks with Robert E. Howard's original stories, which depict Conan in his old age as King of Aquilonia.

The producers of the project cite Unforgiven as their inspiration for the tone and direction of the picture, which they hope will be darker and more philosophical like the original movie. It remains to be seen if the picture will be formally greenlit.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

New Daniel Abraham cover art

Here's the cover art for Daniel Abraham's next two novels: Abaddon's Gate, the third volume of The Expanse (written with Ty Franck under the pen name James S.A. Corey); and The Tyrant's Law, the third volume in The Dagger and the Coin:

The Tyrant's Law will be published in May 2013, with Abaddon's Gate following a month later.

Our first glimpse of Asshai

The Lands of Ice and Fire - a collection of poster maps depicting the world of A Song of Ice and Fire - will be published next week. io9 have released some more sneak peeks of the collection, including our first-ever canon glimpse of Asshai and the Shadow Lands:

Readers of the books know that Asshai is a highly mysterious city located in the far south-eastern corner of the explored world, on the eastern shores of the Jade Sea, five thousand or more miles from Westeros. Beyond Asshai lies the even more enigmatic 'Shadow Lands', the home of mysterious people who always go masked in public (such as Daenerys's sometimes-ally Quaithe). Asshai was first mentioned in A Game of Thrones (published in 1996), but this is the first time it's been officially depicted visually in any form.

Sunday 21 October 2012


In the middle of a house move at the moment, which is why updates have been thin on the ground. I'm also starting a new job which may continue to keep things on the quiet side around here for the next few weeks.

Currently Watching: Red Dwarf Season 10 (okay), Chuck Season 5 (entertaining), Merlin Season 5 (rather PG Game of Thrones-esque this year).

Currently Reading: The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove.

Currently Playing: Dishonored, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

PROJECT ETERNITY smashes funding goals

As covered previously, Obsidian Entertainment have been working on a brand-new, 'old-school' RPG with the working title Project Eternity. The game is heavily influenced and inspired by their own classic games (when they were working as Black Isle), such as Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and the early Fallout games, as well as those of their associated companies, such as BioWare's Baldur's Gate titles. To help fund the title, Obsidian requested fans to pledge $1.1 million via the Kickstarter crowdfunding website.

Click for massive version.

A month later, the Kickstarter has come to an end with Obsidian having raised $3,986,929 via the website, plus an additional $140,099 in PayPal contributions. The result being that the game achieved all of its planned stretch goals and will now be radically enhanced as a result. This includes the game now shipping on PC, Mac and Linux platforms, in multiple languages and with several added areas (including a whole new city and a major, 14-level dungeon complex).

The game is tentatively set for release in April 2014.

Sunday 14 October 2012

WING COMMANDER creator resurrects space combat

Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander franchise, has announced a new, PC-only space combat game. The game is extremely ambitious and highly modular in design, consisting of multiplayer, co-op, single-player sandbox, linear mission-based and MMORPG elements. As well as private backing, the game is also being crowd-funded (and, just a few days after its announcement, has already raised more than a quarter of the funds asked for).

The new project's overall title is Star Citizen. Set several centuries hence, it establishes a traditional space opera universe in which characters can fly around and trade between planets and star systems. This part of the game can be played on the public servers, in which case it works like an MMORPG (complete with skill trees and experience for characters). However, players can also play on their own in single-player mode, effectively replicating the experience of the X or Elite series or Roberts's own Privateer games and Freelancer. They can also play in small, closed servers with just friends rather than strangers.

The game will also ship with a mission-based, linear single-player campaign. Though using the same setting and art assets, this is structured differently enough from Star Citizen 'proper' to have its own name: Squadron 42. In this sub-game players can take on military roles and fight in an extended war. This game can also be played co-op with several players on the same side. This mode is meant more for fans of the Wing Commander, X-Wing/TIE Fighter and Freespace games.

Roberts explains the concept in full in this lengthy (but interesting) speech.

The initial release of the game is not expected until 2014.

Neil Gaiman announces new novel

Neil Gaiman's new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, will be published on 19 June 2013. Gaiman discusses the novel on his blog and has also released a cover blurb:

 "The Ocean At The End of the Lane is a novel about memory and magic and survival, about the power of stories and the darkness inside each of us. 

It began for our narrator forty years ago when he was seven: the lodger stole the family's car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed.  Creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and a menace unleashed -- within his family, and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. 

His only defense is three women, on a ramshackle farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac -- as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly's wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark."

This will be Gaiman's first adult solo novel since Anansi Boys was published in 2005. This news was a slight surprise as it was assumed Gaiman would be working on American Gods II, since the in-development American Gods TV series at HBO will be covering the second book as well as the original and some new stories.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck to pen a STAR WARS novel

James S.A. Corey - the gestalt entity formed by the unholy union of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck - will be penning a Star Wars novel.

Probably not the cover art for the book.

Del Rey will be releasing a new series called Rebel, which focuses on the classic heroes of the Rebellion. The series will comprise books on Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but AbraFranck will be tackling Han Solo. It sounds like the book will be published in late 2013.

Excerpt from R. Scott Bakker's THE UNHOLY CONSULT

R. Scott Bakker has released an excerpt from The Unholy Consult, the third and concluding novel in The Aspect-Emperor trilogy (and the sixth book overall in the Second Apocalypse sequence) via the Second Apocalypse forum. Note that this excerpt contains several major plot revelations.

The Unholy Consult will likely be released in mid-to-late 2013.

THE WORLD'S END starts filming

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright have reunited to start filming the third movie in their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. The first two movies in this very loosely-connected trilogy were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of which were international hits. Martin 'Bilbo Baggins' is the third actor to appear in all three movies, whilst Paddy Considine also returns after appearing in Hot Fuzz. Rosamund Pike and Eddie Marsan round off the list of announced actors. A new poster for the movie has also been released:

The movie will be released on 14 August 2013 in the UK and 25 October 2013 in the USA.

Trivia: World's End is an area of Chelsea, London named after a pub (the same pub that will feature in the film prominently). The first episode of the 1964 Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth was also named after this area.

Monday 8 October 2012

Terry Pratchett's CITY WATCH TV series greenlit (apparently)

News from a few weeks ago suggests that the TV series based on Terry Pratchett's City Watch Discworld novels has been greenlit to go into active production. A formal announcement doesn't seem to have been made, but attendees at the official Discworld Convention in Birmingham in late August seemed to be talking about the project as a done deal.

The proposed project would be an ongoing series with a first season of 13 episodes, unlike the existing Discworld TV adaptations (Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, Going Postal and the forthcoming Unseen Academicals) which are two-part TV movies. The series has the current working title The Watch. The series will be produced by Pratchett's own production company, Narritiva, in association with BBC Enterprises. The only announced writer so far is Guy Burt, who has worked on The Borgias and The Bletchley Circle. The series will comprise adaptations of the existing City Watch novels (presumably starting with the first, Guards! Guards!) and all-new adventures.

Narritivia is also developing a four-part TV mini-series based on Terry Pratchett's immensely popular collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. This project will be co-written by Monty Python's Terry Jones and the somewhat-less-reputable Gavin Scott (whose credits include the rather poor TV adaptations of The Mists of Avalon and A Wizard of Earthsea).

The Wheel of Time So Far: Part 15 - Knife of Dreams

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, Part 14.

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.

Rand al'Thor confronts the Forsaken Semirhage.

Follow the break for the summary:

Sunday 7 October 2012

No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston

The Fourlands are recovering from a devastating invasion by the Insects. The Emperor San has ordered reconstruction efforts to be undertaken, under the watchful eye of his immortal Circle, but many feel that these efforts are proceeding too slowly. Refugees from the front clog the cities and dissatisfaction is spreading. When the Swordsman Gio is unseated by a skilled newcomer, his resentment fuels the flames of rebellion.

Meanwhile, the Messenger, Comet Jant Shira, is commanded to join an expedition to a newly-discovered land beyond the ocean. Terrified of the sea, Jant can only get through the journey by lapsing back into his drug habit. The new land of Tris turns out to be a wonderful paradise, but the Fourlanders' arrival sparks fear and trepidation...even before an Insect gets loose on the island.

No Present Like Time is the second of four novels in Steph Swainston's Castle series, set five years after the events of The Year of Our War. Whilst earlier events are referenced and provide notable backstory for this volume - such as the characterisation of Jant and several other members of the Circle - the main storyline of No Present Like Time is self-contained.

As before, the novel unfolds in the first-person from Jant's perspective. The book contains three principal storylines: the discovery of Tris and the events that unfold there; the rebellion against the established order led by the deposed Swordsman; and Jant's own personal crisis as he deals with his wife's supposed infidelity and his own resulting lapse back into drug use. There is a feeling of duality to the novel, as the external, large-scale and major events in the outside world impact on Jant's own personal life and emotional development, the epic made personal.

This blending of big events and Jant's own personal issues is more successful than in the first novel, The Year of Our War, which I enjoyed but overall felt was not an altogether successful blending of traditional epic fantasy elements and the New Weird (Swainston is regarded, by no less than China Mieville, as one of the leading authors of that much-debated movement). Here Swainston is much more confident in melding these elements into a much more cohesive whole. She also makes much better use of the Shift, the other-dimensional realm that Jant visits in his drug-induced state. The Shift is a place where sharks can take on a human aspect and drive cars made of animal organs, and where time can be rolled back and forth at will (I suspect this is also the part of the book which Mieville nodded approvingly over the most). However, rather than just being the destination for an excursion to Weirdsville for its own sake, the Shift plays a key role in the narrative, both thematically and practically.

There are some weaknesses. The book features no less than two separate visits to Tris, complete with descriptions of the sea voyages there and back. In a novel that's only 400 pages long, that doesn't give the author much time to pack everything in. The result is that Tris itself feels somewhat under-developed. We don't see any more of it than a single town and the fascinating culture-clash between the democratic, Senate-led Tris and the Empire of the Fourlands, ruled by its immortal god-emperor, is not expanded upon satisfyingly. Also, as the rebellion against the Emperor gets going off-page during the toing and froing across the ocean, it is never really convincingly established either. Swainston does a great job of using it for plot and character purposes, but the thematic chance to really challenge and question the way the Empire is run is not exploited to the full.

Nevertheless, No Present Like Time (****) is a significant improvement over its forebear and is an enjoyable read, packed with satisfyingly fantastical ideas and some excellent character development of both Jant and several of the other major principals. However, some other elements could have done with a bit more fleshing-out. The novel is available now in the UK (as part of The Castle Omnibus) and USA.