Monday, 31 December 2012

The Wertzone Awards 2012

Once more unto the breach!

Best Novels

1. Existence by David Brin
David Brin returns after a long absence with a sweeping, state-of-the-nation take on what our lives may be like in the mid-21st Century. Strong characters and a thorough exploration of scientific and technological ideas combine for my strongest book of the year.

2. Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Beckett's second novel is difficult to describe, being a piece built more around mood and atmosphere than plot. It's the story of the descendants of an ancient starship crash who discover more about the world around them and their true history, and thus about themselves.

3. Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney
Kearney conclude his exploration of Greek and Persian history through the lens of fantasy with aplomb, with flawed characters finding their destinies against the backdrop of war.

4. Railsea by China Mieville
A vast world consisting of oceans of rails, with immense trains ploughing across them. A crazed and whimsical echo of Moby Dick, but with awesome monsters and concepts straight from Mieville's weird imagination. Also incidental winner of the Biggest Mole Monster in SFF Award 2012.

5. Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
Erikson steps back from the immense complexity of his Malazan sequence to deliver a (relatively) straightforward prequel. Freed from the weight of backstory, Forge of Darkness is Erikson's finest fantasy novel in a decade.

6. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Like Brin, Robinson also undertakes a thorough exploration of what humanity may be like in the future, this time 300 years hence. His effort is larger-scaled, taking in the entire Solar system, but fails compared to Brin due to an undercooked political thriller subplot. Still, a visionary work.

7. Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
A bonkers mashup of Al Swearengen, Rockstar Games and Clint Eastwood, this is a fantasy war western on an epic scale. With Abercrombie's trademark black humour and cynical characters, the story is traditionally bloody, brutal and conspicuously lacking in banjos.

8. Sharps by K.J. Parker
Parker's latest novel veers away from her(?) recent novels in being based around an ensemble cast rather than a single individual. It's also hilarious, with the characters being in the middle of a traditional epic fantasy backdrop but without a clue what's going on.

9. The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham
After the good-but-underwhelming Dragon's Path, Abraham's Dagger and the Coin series explodes more readily into life with this second volume. It's a more coherent and focused work than the first novel, consolidating Abraham's position as one of our most promising (relatively) new fantasy writers.

10. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin's epic fantasy by way of Egyptian history and mythology is a bit of a slow-burner, but a smart and intriguing book.

Bubbling under: Blood and Bone by Ian Cameron Esslemont, Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton, The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams, The Twelve by Justin Cronin, Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds, Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian Cameron Esslemont, The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow, Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey, The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove, Ice and Fire by David Wingrove, Crown of Embers by Rae Carson.

The Wertzone SFF Comeback Award 2012

After a decade being mildly snarky about the Star Wars prequels (among a few other things), Brin returns with his most epic and impressive novel to date. Nicely done.

The Wertzone Award for Best Book Read in 2012 Regardless of Release Date

A book that manages to pack more story, character and thematic exploration into its low page count than some authors manage in entire trilogies. Intelligent and thought-provoking. Next year for the hat-trick?

Best Games

Firaxis's resurrection of a twenty-year-old classic is a resounding success. Eminently replayable with a fiendish, "Just one more go!" feel, XCOM is a fitting tribute to the original game and a thoroughly compelling game in its own right.

2. Dishonored
Darkly atmospheric with an unusual setting and a laudable focus on stealth and intelligence over mindless slaughter, playing Dishonored is a rich (but often stressful) experience with a strong element of replayability to it as you attempt to get that perfect 'undetected' pass of a level.

3. Far Cry 3
As bonkers freeform shooters go, they don't get much more bonkers or more successfully freeform than Far Cry 3. A fantastic sense of setting and place with sublime combat overcomes some early makework problems in the early game. Plus the only game on this list where you can blow up a crocodile with a landmine, and is that not what humanity has striven for since first we looked at the stars?

4. The Walking Dead
A zombie game where the zombies are incidental, serving only as the vehicle which fleshes out character and plot. And with this game (based on being halfway through), Telltale have delivered their best characters and most compelling plot so far, not to mention the finest take on The Walking Dead franchise in any medium to date. Full review forthcoming.

5. Alan Wake (PC Edition)
An older, under-appreciated game on console is brought back to life on PC with jaw-dropping graphics and a sense of atmosphere that is staggering, not to mention some hilarious observations on the life of a 'struggling writer'. The PC version includes the two expansions and is an absorbing game.

6. Black Mesa
A bunch of unpaid fans spend eight years updating the greatest first-person shooter of all time (Half-Life) with modern graphics and production values. Frankly better than almost all of the actual original first-person shooters professionally released this year. Worth it just for the Chuckle Brothers reference.

7. Mass Effect 3
It's been a surprisingly thin year for roleplaying games, but Mass Effect 3 nearly makes up for it by itself. With a thorough exploration of consequence and hopelessness, set against a backdrop of smart characterisation and a soundtrack to die for, this could have been a contender for game of the least before a series of titanic logic failures leads to the single most controversial ending of any popular franchise in the last ten years. The Leviathan and 'Extended Cut' DLCs help repair the damage somewhat, but it's not quite enough to overcome the disbelief. Still, the other 95% of the game is awesome.

8. Max Payne 3
Rockstar were always going to have to work hard to convince fans of one of the finest action games of all time that they were suited to take over the franchise, and in isolated, brilliant moments Max Payne 3 succeeds. In others it disappoints, particularly the game's reluctance to actually let you play it (with frequent, unskippable and tedious five-minute cut scenes). The breathless action sequences and stunning soundtrack go some way to repairing the damage, however.

9. Game of Thrones: The RPG
Awful graphics and dubious combat do not for a good RPG make. However, the awesome characters and a series of plot twists that even GRRM may have considered too shocking elevate this game above its problems to become something really interesting. And, based on the dozen hours I've pumped into it so far, frankly better than Dragon Age: Origins.

10. Alan Wake's American Nightmare
Remedy's quasi-sequel to the excellent Alan Wake has some terrific ideas floating below the surface, but ultimately proves too repetitive to withstand comparison with its older, more impressive sibling.

Best TV Series

1. Game of Thrones
The second season may have been more disappointing than the first, but it was still the television highlight of the year. Peter Dinklage's performance is even stronger this year than in the first, and more screen time for Charles Dance is always a good thing (though skirting the edges of being too much of a good thing). Some of the more tedious aspects ("Ships! Dragons! Ships! Dragons!") are more than outweighed by the outstanding episode Blackwater.

2. The Walking Dead
The second season of this show was probably best first-experienced on Blu-Ray, with the endless wanderings through the forest looking for missing characters getting a bit old by mid-season. But a renewed focus on character relationships and the deteriorating mental state of the redoubtable Shane (along with the occasional zombie massacre scene) do prove ultimately worthwhile.

3. Merlin
The final season of what started as a light-hearted kid's show proves to be unexpectedly dark, with multiple character deaths and a surprising adherence to the original legend's brutal conclusion. Well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable. If only the whole series had been like this.

4. Doctor Who
A switch to more stand-alone episodes after last year's over-convoluted arc proves to be a success, allowing the show to return to its roots as an enjoyable slice of SF hokum. The arrival of mysterious new companion Clara 'Kenny' Oswald, played with infectious enthusiasm by Jenna-Louise Coleman, has also helped revive the show following the exhaustion of Rory and Amy's storylines.

5. Red Dwarf
Given the damage wreaked on the Red Dwarf name by its seventh and eighth seasons (and the horrendous Back to Earth special of a few years ago, now retconned as the ninth season), expectations were accordingly low for this new season. The cast overcome the issues of age to continue to deliver fine performances with some of the best scripts the show has had in twenty years. Whilst there's still lots of misfires, this latest return for the show is worthwhile.

6. Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome
This pilot for an aborted Battlestar Galactica spin-off tries to make up for the problems of Caprica - being too talky and lacking action - but goes way too far in the opposite direction. Dubious characters and workmanlike performances are held up by some remarkable CGI, but ultimately it's for the best the show wasn't picked up.

Best Film

1. Ted
The touching and beautiful story of a young boy and his magical bear who comes to life. Later they take drugs together and meet Sam Jones from the 1980s Flash Gordon movie whilst Patrick Stewart berates Brandon Routh for making Superman Returns in narrative voiceover. Frankly, no other film this year was as much fun.

2. The Dark Knight Rises
Better than The Dark Knight (note: I am well aware that I am the only person on Earth who thinks this), this third movie in the series is a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's grimdark interpretation of the Dark Knight. As usual, Michael Caine is the best thing in it but is given a run for his money by Anne Hathaway's unexpectedly excellent Catwoman and Tom Hardy's evil Bane (despite sounding like he's sucking in helium whilst at the bottom of well).

3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Whilst the overall wisdom of extending a very short novel into a nine-hour trilogy remains to be seen, this first installment works thanks to excellent performances by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Andy Serkis and Richard Armitage and the decision to flesh out the dwarves and their backstory much more than Tolkien did. Also the winner of the Best Hedgehog Scene of 2012 Award.

4. Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's metatextual examination of the horror movie genre risks tremendous smugness in its own cleverness but just about gets away with it with a darkly effective premise. Jet-black humour and a ruthlessness in dispatching major characters combine with inventive methods of murder and misdirection to create something very interesting.

5. The Avengers
Joss Whedon almost loses control of this vast behemoth of a movie several times, but just about reigns it in. The movie risks overwhelming the audience with explosions and action, but an undercurrent of humour and some great character moments (mostly involving Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson) save the film from total Baydom and instead render it nosily enjoyable.

7. The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins's slightly underwhelming novel is transformed into an enjoyable film, even if it adheres too much to the books in not giving the characters real moral issues to address. Still, great performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Donald Sutherland bode well for the sequels.
7. The Woman in Black
Daniel Radcliffe shakes off the Ghost of Potter to deliver a fine performance in this adaptation of Suzanne Hill's novel. Some standard horror techniques are over-used, but the film delivers an atmospheric experience.

8. Prometheus
Ridley Scott's Alien quasi-prequel features some superb acting, stunning set design and phenomenal set-pieces, but sacrifices too much logic and intelligence to achieve it. A visually impressive cinematic experience, but ultimately a hollow one. However, it does confirm the long-held belief that Everything is Better With Idris Elba.

The Wertzone Missing in Action 2012 Award

At the start of the year it seemed very possibly - even likely - that Valve was on the cusp of officially announcing Half-Life 3. That didn't happen, though head of Valve Gabe Newell did confirm that they are at least working on it, and we can expect it to appear some time between now and the heat death of the universe.

The Wertzone Award for Special Achievements in Seriously, Dude, What the Hell?



RobB said...

Nice overview, Adam. Glad to see the appreciation for EXISTENCE, the novel really blow me away this past year.

For TV shows, I'd slot BREAKING BAD ahead of anything else last year (and maybe ever. Has it become available in the UK yet?) As for WALKING DEAD, just wait until you see season three, it was superb and even better than season two.

TED was pretty damned good, wasn't it? I expected to enjoy it, but not nearly as much as I did enjoy it.

As much as I enjoyed WOMAN IN BLACK, Radcliffe's performance gives me high hopes for him being in Joe Hill's HORNS.

Jussi said...

Adam, you gave The Walking Dead Season Two four-and-half stars, Game of Thrones Season Two three-and-half stars. How is it possible that GoT is now above TWD?

Adam Whitehead said...

Because people reading the blog pay more attention to the stars than I do :) The stars tend to be an off-the-cuff reaction which may not stand months later when I revisit the topic. Plus 'Blackwater' was the best episode of television this year without question, better than any episode of THE WALKING DEAD, even if TWD was overall more cohesive than GoT. Plus I watched THE WALKING DEAD in one go on Blu-Ray, which hid some of its pacing problems better than GoT, which I watched on Sky on a weekly basis.

Anonymous said...

Blood & Chrome in your best of, yet "it's probably for the best it wasn't picked up"? Kind of awkward...I've a feeling this is rather a list of what you had time to watch than a best of.


Adam Whitehead said...

Fair point. The list is by necessity limited to what I had time to read/watch/play. For example, I haven't watched COMMUNITY Season 3 or BREAKING BAD or MAD MEN. I still need to start FRINGE (though now at least I own the first four seasons on Blu-Ray). I didn't get round to BORDERLANDS 2 and had zero interest in the new CALL OF DUTY and so on.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I also discovered previous years posts and got myself a list of things to read/ watch. (I actually just watched Ted, on new years eve! downloaded David Brim's novel and got Ursula Le Guin's to the top of the pile.) I love these kind of end of the year lists so much!

I don't know if you are watching Walking Dead S3 this year (or waiting for blue ray?) but imo S3 shows how much S2 sucked. And any TV list without Breaking Bad on it, is just broken :)

On video games, well I'll go ahead and say it: Mists of Pandaria castrated me! I couldn't find time to play anything post September, but he,y the expansion is so good, even binding a Cataclsym hater like me. Mass Effect 3: I can't see the positivies and view it merely on the basis of gameplay etc, since it was a huge disappoinment storywise.

Bob/Sally said...

Great post. Kearney, Abraham, and Jemisin are all high on my must-read list going into 2013, and I think I'm finally ready to proceed with Forge of Darkness and put the disappointment of A Crippled God behind me.

I've kind of lost touch with Doctor Who, but maybe a post-Amy/Rory season will help draw me back . . . well, that at the promise of the big 50th anniversary.

Great to hear Red Dwarf's latest season was a hit. I loved the first 4 seasons, but lost touch for a bit, and was really disappointed by Back to Earth.

RobB said...

Really, can *any* of us get to everything published, filmed or produced? The great TV critic Alan Sepinwall posits that we are in something of a golden age for TV drama. Whether true or not, there is a great deal of quality on TV right now. Lots of good books from which to pluck our next reads, too.

d.orin said...

about your dark knight remark... that makes two of us :D

Anonymous said...

"Better than The Dark Knight (note: I am well aware that I am the only person on Earth who thinks this)"

I find it hard to see any serious difference (except for villain preferences), but The Dark Knight is a much cleaner movie in some respects (generally Nolan tends to be a bit too clean), and so yes, I might also pick The Dark Knight Rises simply for variety's sake. But I'm not a fan here.

And Le Guin is a pretty even writer... (Not in a bad way.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I too am prepared to stand up and be counted as thinking The Dark Knight Rises better than The Dark Knight. I think, though, that to achieve that, it built on the first two movies, and wouldn't be what it was without them. And I've been obsessively rewatching the thing ever since I got my hands on the DVD - until then I was rewatching the first two. So, I should know. ;)


Unknown said...

Nice Post Adam, I've only read the Steven Eriskon Book out of those, as I'm a big fan.
Surprised I've played 5 of the games though.

I'm going to keep an eye out for the walking dead TV series after playing the excellent game. Thanks for the heads up on the books, Once I've got through AMOL I'll probably get red country.