Sunday 28 April 2013

Matt Stover's ACTS OF CAINE series comes to the UK

The first four volumes in Matt Woodring Stover's critically-acclaimed Acts of Caine series are being published for the first time in the UK on 27 May.

The books are only being published as ebooks, though hopefully a UK publisher will follow up with paper copies at some point.

The series is set on a futuristic Earthwhich has discovered the existence of Overworld, a parallel world with a culture and tech level more like traditional epic fantasy worlds. The central character is Hari Michaelson, an actor on Earth who travels to Overworld to play the role of the deadly assassin Caine. His adventures are recorded to be shown as entertainment on Earth. Needless to say, complications and mayhem ensue.

To date, four books have been published: Heroes Die (1997), Blade of Tyshalle (2001), Caine Black Knife (2008) and Caine's Law (2012). Stover has projected up to three more volumes to follow. I will be reviewing the series in the coming months.

 Update: From Scott Lynch, via the comments:
"Oh, you fortunate people. HEROES DIE and BLADE OF TYSHALLE directly informed the writing of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA... I'd dare say they were what taught me how to craft a novel. Matt is criminally underrated, and these books are bog standard for him, which is to say 'brilliant.' They're bold, startling, multi-layered, humane, and laugh-out-loud wonderful at frequent intervals. I'm not really anything resembling objective on Matt any more, and he's a friend, but I appreciated his work before I ever got to really know him."
Update 2: The UK ebooks have their own cover art, which is, erm, disappointingly generic:

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

The armies of Antea have conquered Asterilhold, but Geder Palliako, the Regent, allows his troops no time for rest. His plans, and those of the cult of the spider goddess, have taken on a note of urgency as they try to unearth the conspiracy that resulted in the death of the last King of Antea. In Camnipol, the disgraced wife of the traitor Dawson is working to both reestablish herself and her household and to bring about Geder's downfall. In the wilderness of the southern jungles, Marcus Wester and the renegade spider priest Kit are searching for a powerful weapon to use against the cult. And in the city of Suddapal Cithrin is apprenticed to an experienced banker to complete her training. But as the armies of Antea advance, Cithrin discovers that making money may be less important than finding a good cause on which to spend it.

The Tyrant's Law is the third volume in the five-volume The Dagger and the Coin, bringing this series past its halfway point. Those who've read The Dragon's Path and The King's Blood will know what to expect: well-crafted characters in an interesting (if not overtly original) world taking part in a plot inspired by a mixture of Babylon 5, Firefly and the real-life history of the Medicis. Like many such epic fantasy series with a number of entwining plots and character arcs, the series risks getting more diffuse the further it goes on, but Abraham prevents sprawl by maintaining a tight grip on a small number of POV characters: the entire plot unfolds from the POVs of Cithrin, Marcus, Clara (Dawson's widow) and Geder alone. This keeps the pace brisk and the word-count low, though not the page-count; due to a questionable decision to print the book in a font so large I briefly thought it was the edition for the hard of seeing, the book is exactly 500 pages in length, which seems rather unnecessary.

Still, The Tyrant's Law is a very good fantasy novel. Abraham has always been more interested in the nuances of characters than in massive battles and magical fireworks, and his most enviable skill is developing characters concisely and establishing convincing depths within them. So whilst we have no new POV characters, all of the returning faces get new dimensions added to them and more development into fully-rounded individuals. Geder becomes more accomplished in the arts of political intrigue, Clara becomes a convincing intriguer and Cithrin, already a skilled financier, learns some things about family and responsibility. Though not POV characters, both Yardem and Kit also develop in intriguing ways. Abraham undercuts some traditional epic fantasy tropes as well, such as turning a Conan-esque raid on a temple into a moment of profound character and spiritual revelation.

In some areas The Tyrant's Law is a bit of a let-down on The King's Blood. There's a lot of wandering around the countryside and at two separate times the same characters head into the wilderness to find a secret magical MacGuffin, giving rise to a feeling of repetition (though again Abraham subverts expectations with a surprisingly epic flashback ending). Cithrin being reluctantly apprenticed to yet another Medean bank executive (albeit a rather different character) and learning valuable life lessons also feels a bit over-familiar. The Tyrant's Law is a middle volume and showing some of the weaknesses of that position, but overcomes most of them through some solid plotting and decent characterisation.

If there is one major criticism that can be made of the series, it's that Abraham has deliberately set out to write something more traditional after the relative commercial disappointment of his debut sequence, the lyrical and imaginative Long Price Quartet. As a result, whilst Long Price felt like it was written from the heart, Dagger and the Coin sometimes feels a little too artificially-constructed and a little too knowing in its references. This isn't a major problem, but it does make one feel that this series is going to end up in the 'enjoyably good series' pile rather than the 'modern fantasy classics', where Long Price firmly resides. Still, with two more books to go, Abraham still has time to elevate the series to a new level.

The Tyrant's Law (****½) will be published in the UK and USA on 14 May.

Saturday 27 April 2013

UK cover art: Tad Williams and Guy Gavriel Kay

Some new cover art for the UK market. First up is Happy Hour in Hell, the second volume in Tad Williams's Bobby Dollar series and the follow-up to last year's enjoyable Dirty Streets of Heaven. The UK edition is released on 26 September.

More imminent is Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars, which is already out in the USA (and e-book worldwide) and picking up good reviews. The UK print edition is out on 3 July.

Thanks to Jussi on the Westeros forum for spotting these.

Friday 26 April 2013

New XCOM game out in August

Or, more accurately, the old XCOM first-person shooter has been rejigged as a third-person action game and will be out in August.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (and sadly not Mad Men vs. Aliens) is the new name for what was previously called just XCOM. The game has had a highly troubled history, with development extending back a good four years. The success of last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown seems to have caused a bit of a rethink and the game has moved away from a first-person viewpoint to a third-person one, with a cover system apparently inspired by the turn-based game. The setting - 1962 America - remains intact but there is now a traditional XCOM base hub from where players will choose missions (which will include both story-based essential assignments and optional side-objectives) and learn important information.

On the negative side, the FPS version's more intriguing elements, like a focus on investigation and clue-gathering with combat being a secondary concern, sound like they've been watered down, with combat now the square focus of the game. Some of the more intriguing alien designs have been retained, however.

Finally, it remains unclear if The Bureau is a prequel to Enemy Unknown or is still set in a parallel universe, as the FPS version was. We'll find out on 20 August.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Does DOCTOR WHO need more people in charge?

Occasionally I am asked why I don't review Doctor Who on the blog. The answer is pretty simple: I do not regard Doctor Who as a serious SF drama. I enjoy watching the show, especially with my girlfriend's son, but usually as a way of switching my brain off and just having fun without having to worry about analysis. If I did try to analyse the new show and review it with its myriad plot holes (which at this point are so numerous as to make the show resemble Swiss cheese) and often very ropey writing, I would probably go mad.

"Splendid fellows, all of you."

It was not always so. I grew up with Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, although I didn't count myself a fan until Remembrance of the Daleks and the final two seasons of the original show. I spent most of the first half of the 1990s collecting large numbers of Doctor Who stories on VHS. A few years back I revisited some of the more classic stories, like The Caves of Androzani and The Ark in Space, and found (dodgy effects and being filmed on video aside) that they still stood up quite well. The new series has had some very good moments, such as The Doctor's Wife, Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and, most recently, Cold War, but generally speaking it has been mostly incoherent and confused.

There has been much discussion in fan circles of why this is so, with some going as far as saying they are going to 'break up' with the show. Some have cited the decision to move the show to mostly self-contained 45-minute episodes (rather than the 25-minute, three-to-seven part serials of the old series), which severely curtails the time available for plot setup, resolution and characterisation. There may be something to this, as Doctor Who does not have a regular cast outside of the two or three central figures and each story needs to establish its own cast, location and threats, which is a tall order in just a few minutes. This is the inverse of most shows, where the cast and location are fixed and a small number of guest cast come in every week who can be set up quite quickly. However, I don't think it's the whole story, especially as most of the two-parters (which are roughly the length of the old four-parters) suffer from the same issues.

More convincing is the argument that the show has become way too dependent on season-spanning story arcs: Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Mr. Saxon, the disappearing planets, the crack in time/exploding TARDIS, the 'death' of the Doctor and now the mystery of Clara Oswald. In contrast, the old show had exactly two season-spanning story arcs in twenty-six years (three, if you count the much looser 'E-space' trilogy in Tom Baker's final season). Doing a season-spanning epic story arc is great if you have a really compelling storyline for it. At the moment it feels like the story arcs are there simply because it's 2013, and almost every series has a big story arc of some kind, so Doctor Who needs to do one as well. Doctor Who has never been a trend-follower, so it's not entirely clear why it has to be one now.

However, I have also been pondering if one of the problems with the new series has been that it puts way too much work on the shoulders of a single person: the showrunner/head writer. Since 2005, Doctor Who has been run by just two people: Russell T. Davies (2005-10) and Steven Moffat (2010-present). Davies and Moffat have both been in charge of the show and have also been the head writers, each penning several episodes per season in addition to handling rewrites on other writers' scripts as well. There have been other producers (a veritable revolving door of them, in fact) but their roles on the show seem to have been more like facilitators and enablers rather than having a strong say in the creative process.

Going back to the original series, there is a stark difference in how the creative workload was handled. Going right back to 1963, the first showrunner, Verity Lambert, was not a writer. She made business decisions and had a strong say in the creative process, but the creative direction was handled by her script editor, David Whitaker, and the individual writers. An associate producer, Mervyn Pinfield, was also present to help with production issues, although in reality Pinfield was actually only present due to BBC concerns that Lambert, who was only 28, might be too inexperienced to handle the whole show; this criticism was withdrawn after Lambert overruled the BBC executives who didn't want to include the Daleks in the series and was shown to be right, with a massive boom to the show's profile and popularity following their introduction.

Throughout most of the show's history this pattern was repeated: a strong producer focusing on the big picture but rarely actually writing episodes, with a script editor who handled the creative direction of the show. The show's most creative and interesting periods were usually the result of an excellent producer and a good script editor working in concert: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks during most of the Jon Pertwee era and Philip Hinchliffe and Robert Holmes during the early Tom Barker period are the most notable examples of this. Later partnerships were more troubled but also successful on occasions: the pairing of Graham Williams as producer and Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) as script editor resulted in one of the very best Doctor Who stories of all time (City of Death) but also several of the very worst. John Nathan-Turner's controversial, long period in charge of the show in the 1980s was marked by bursts of creativity led by strong script editors, most notably Eric Saward in the late Davison and Colin Baker years, and Andrew Cartmel at the end of the original run.

Did these guys blow up the TARDIS? Maybe. Yes. No? Who cares?

This set-up may also be more familiar from American television, which is often handled by two or more executive producers with a number of other writers working for them. Game of Thrones is handled by two showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Lost was handled by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Battlestar Galactica was handled by Ronald D. Moore, who focused on the show's writing, and David 'not that one' Eick, who focused more on production. Babylon 5 divided its executive producer credits between head (and often the only) writer J. Michael Straczynski, business facilitator Doug Netter and on-set producer John Copeland. The Star Trek shows of the 1980s and 1990s may have been overseen by Rick Berman, but he devolved a lot of authority to individual showrunners, such as Michael Pillar, Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga, Jeri Taylor and Manny Coto, each of whom in turn was supported by other writers and producers. And so on. Running a TV show is a big job, and arguably requires more than one person in charge.

Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are interesting in that both are quite capable writers (the latter rather moreso than the former, to be frank) but in both cases their writing seems to have suffered when they had to handle production duties as well. Moffat wrote several of the very best episodes of the new run when he was working as just a jobbing writer under Davies, but since he became showrunner the quality of his scripts has nosedived. Even great concepts he created under Davies, such as River Song and the Weeping Angels, seem to have gone off the boil under his stewardship of the whole series. Arguably the role of the showrunner-producer should be more focused in one direction or the other. If Moffat wants to keep writing, he needs a strong production partner who can keep an eye on the show as a whole (and who perhaps can advise Moffat when, for example, he has incomprehensible and overly-confusing story arcs for two seasons in a row). If he wants to run the show in an oversight capacity, he needs a strong writing partner who can focus on the show's creative direction.

As it stands, the constant comings and goings of the sub-producers and the seeming lack of anyone equal in rank to Moffat as producer means that the show is way too dependent on just one person, which is definitely a recipe for disaster.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Trailer for Joss Whedon's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

So, how do you follow up one of the most expensive - and most successful movies of all time? That's right, you hire a bunch of mates you've made over seventeen years of making TV shows and films and stage your own version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in your house and back garden and film the results.

The film stars Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice, reprising the thwarted lovers relationship they honed to perfection over five seasons of Angel. Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Castle) plays incompetent policeman Dogberry, with Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel Universe movies and the upcoming Agents of SHIELD TV series) as Leonato and Sean Maher (Firefly) as Don John. The UK release date has been set for 14 June.

This wasn't very much on my radar until I saw the reviews, which have been largely positive (The Guardian review above even suggests it's the best modern Shakespeare movie since Luhrmann's Rome + Juliet). Assuming my local cinema shows it, I'll try to check it out.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

WORLD'S END release date brought forwards

The movie The World's End has had its release date brought forwards by a full month. The film will now be released on 19 July in the UK this year (the US release date of 23 August remains - so far- unchanged).

The World's End is the third and concluding film in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's thematic Three Flavours of Cornetto trilogy, following on from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (Paul, though also starring Pegg and Nick Frost, was created by a different team), as well as their TV show Spaced. As well as starring Pegg and Frost and being directed by Wright, some other actors from the earlier projects are reappearing: Paddy Considine (one of the Andys from Hot Fuzz), David Bradley (the incomprehensible farmer from Hot Fuzz) and Mark Heap (tortured artist Brian from Spaced) will also have roles in the new film. Apart from Pegg and Frost, the only actors to appear in all three films are Martin Freeman, though he will have a larger role than his two brief appearances in the prior movies, and Rafe Spall (who also appeared in Spaced).

The film's premise is that a bunch of friends go out on the town in London to recreate an epic pub crawl from their youth, only to get caught up in the disaster to end all disasters.

The World's End has done a straight swap with Kick-Ass 2, which is now being released on 23 August in the UK (and 16 August in the USA).

HOMEWORLD IP bought by Gearbox

Redoubtable shooter developers Gearbox have, for reasons still not yet adequately explained, bought the rights to the Homeworld series of space-based strategy games for a cool $1.35 million. They outbid strategy specialists Stardock and Paradox to get the rights. Given Gearbox's recent mishandling of the Alien licence and their release of the terrible Duke Nuke'Em Forever, the news generated the following reaction amongst the Homeworld fanbase:

Once the initial shock wore off, it appeared that Gearbox are primarily interested in updating the existing games for re-release on modern PCs (and possibly other formats). Whilst the money spent indicates they will be pursuing a fourth game in the series, they have also indicated a willingness to talk to other companies about it. There is some hope that they might talk to Blackbird Interactive, where quite a few of the original Homeworld developers ended up to work on a new strategy game called Hardware. Another company, Team Pixel, had also put a lot of work into a possible iOS-based version of the game, which I imagine Gearbox would be very interested in.

Confusingly, the purchase only includes the rights to Homeworld and Homeworld 2. The fate of the rights to Homeworld: Cataclysm (the best of the three games in the series) seems to be unknown at present.

Update: The original Homeworld creators at Blackbird have congratulated Gearbox and released some unseen concept art about the game. Blackbird also indicated they would be open to talking to Gearbox about any future project. Gearbox outsourcing a Homeworld 3 to Blackbird (the same way that Bethesda outsourced Fallout: New Vegas to Obsidian, where most of the original Fallout creators had ended up) would be a very smart move indeed.

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall

Daud is a killer, the greatest assassin in the city of Dunwall. His most recent mission was to kill the Empress Kaldwin, but what should have been his greatest success has also caused him to doubt the path he is on. An overheard remark about someone called 'Delilah' intrigues him and leads him onto a new mission, to find out who this person is and what she wants.

The Knife of Dunwall is the first bit of DLC (downloadable content) expanding on the storyline of Dishonored, one of the best games of last year. Players of that game will recall that Daud was the sworn enemy of the game's protagonist, Corvo, and their paths intersected several times through the game. The Knife of Dunwall and a forthcoming second DLC both focus on Daud and reveal what he was up to whilst Corvo was in prison and during the events of the first game.

Players of Dishonored should be instantly at home. Daud has many of the same powers, abilities and items as Corvo, or near-equivalents (instead of a magical heart he was a special vision power which shows him where secret items are located). He can blink around maps, scale buildings and carry out lethal assassinations or silent takedowns with just as much ease. One difference is that Daud, having a voice actor, is not a silent protagonist and speaks during the game (though not often, as he's fairly taciturn, as befitting the morally ambiguous-but-badass assassin trope; see also Fett, Boba), and thus has a bit more of a personality.

The game takes place over three maps. The first two are huge and sprawling districts of the city, with Daud given objectives he can complete through stealth, trickery or all-out assault. As with the main game, you can complete missions through 'ghosting' (going through the level so no-one knows you were ever there) or through non-lethal routes (knocking enemies out rather than killing them), though with The Knife of Dunwall this is a lot harder. Enemies tend to patrol in groups, making it trickier to take them down silently, and they tend to congregate in small areas, making stealthing or ghosting past them much more difficult, especially if there are tasks to be undertaken in the area. You have some new equipment to help out though, with the stun mines being particularly useful to those who prefer a non-lethal approach to things.

Unfortunately, the DLC will not take you long to finish. The first two maps are extensive. Exploring every nook and cranny and taking a stealth approach resulted in them lasting about two hours each, which compared favourably to the original game. The last map is much smaller, revisiting the Flooded District of the original game, and even for a stealth player will likely take less than an hour to finish. In total, the DLC lasted me a bit under five hours, not unreasonable for £8 but likely to leave a lot of players asking for more. The writing is fairly solid, with an interesting character arc revolving around one of Daud's fellow assassins which ends rather unexpectedly. A sequel DLC, which picks up after The Knife of Dunwall's somewhat cliffhangery ending, will follow later this year.

The Knife of Dunwall (****) is a worthwhile - if brief - companion title to Dishonored. Revisiting Dunwall in Daud's shoes is fun, and if you really enjoyed Dishonored you'll likely really enjoy this. Those looking for a longer experience may be advised to wait until the next expansion is released to play both together.

Traitors' Gate by Kate Elliott

An invading army is laying waste to the lands of the Hundred. The reeves, the giant eagle-riding police force of the land, are unable to hold them back. In desperation they have struck up an alliance with an exiled outlander prince and his militia, but the enemy are led by corrupted Guardians, resurrected beings with the power to look into souls and strike people dead with a glance. The only hope of victory may lie with the uncorrupted 'pure' Guardians. But to achieve this, they may have to give up a terrible secret...

Traitors' Gate concludes the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott, or rather it concludes the opening three-book arc of the series. Future books are planned picking up the story some generations further down the line. For now, however, it is a self-contained trilogy with no major cliffhangers or unresolved plot elements.

It's been five years since I read the first two volumes in the series, so I was initially a bit swamped as I caught up with what was going on. The core storyline is fairly straightforward, but the secret to the success of the trilogy is how Elliott layers in thematic elements to apparently trivial characterisation and how she addresses a wide range of different topics - from sexuality and female empowerment to commerce and religious freedom - within the confines of a more straightforward story. In fact, my biggest complaint about the trilogy as a whole is that it like it could have done with an additional book to help flesh out the world and cultures (a far cry from her prior Crown of Stars series which, whilst very good, could have probably done with at least a volume being shaved off its length).

The book and the trilogy as a whole also explores the concept of corruption and the ethics of the use of power. Elliott has little truck with evil magic or other examples of simplistic morality, instead citing that every person has within them the capacity for good or ill, the Guardians included, and she contrasts well the rigid thinking of the Qin (who prefer to see the world in absolutes rather than shades of grey) against those who are more open to a more complex view of the world. There's a good culture clash element which is not over-egged. There's also a feeling of melancholy to the story: the Hundred is an open-minded, tolerant land which has to become harder and more regimented to fight the invaders and in the process loses something of itself.

The worldbuilding is excellent - the Hundred is not another European medieval fantasyscape but an original creation drawing on many sources - and the characterisation is fairly strong. The pacing is a little off: for almost three-quarters of the length of the novel it honestly feels like there is no way of defeating the enemy and most of the time is spent on less-important character arcs, and suddenly everything spins on a dime. It is done reasonably convincingly, but certainly the ending feels a little abrupt. However, the ending is also deliciously messy. Allies suddenly find themselves at odds and what seems like deliverance could be (and we don't find out for certain) enslavement under a different name.

Traitors' Gate (****) concludes an accomplished fantasy trilogy with intelligence and complexity. Elliott has crafted an interesting world here and it'll be interesting to see what happens there next. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Tropico 4

A Caribbean politician becomes the ruler - 'El Presidente' - of the small country of Tropico, scattered across several islands. He must guide his nation to peace and prosperity, evading rebel coups and placating the feuding superpowers along the way.

Tropico 4 is a city-building simulator, belonging to the same genre as the SimCity series. The twist of this game is that the setting is the Caribbean and the emphasis is on building relatively small cities based around industry and tourism, with the player also having to balance the needs of both the people, foreign powers and a number of internal factions to achieve success.

Whilst there are various scenario and sandbox modes, the core of the game is the campaign. This is a story-driven narrative that unfolds across 20 scenarios (although, rather lazily, there are only 10 maps: each map is used twice, but in most cases is supposed to be a different island) and acts as an extended tutorial: the very brief actual tutorial isn't much help, but the missions expand on the concepts from the tutorials quite nicely. In most cases, the game unfolds the same way: you start off with a palace and several other buildings and have to build up both your population (by allowing large-scale immigration and building homes for the newcomers) and your sources of revenue (by building mines, plantations, farms and tourist facilities). However, you also have to keep the population happy by building healthcare, religious, entertainment and education facilities, and you also have to keep the various factions happy. The capitalists will be satisfied if you build mines across the entire island, but the resulting pollution will annoy the environmentalists. Immigration will anger the nationalists, but the lack of free healthcare and housing will irritate the communists. Unhappy citizens will become rebels, requiring you to build up a military force to deal with them, which means diverting funds away from the economy. And so on.

As a city-builder, Tropico 4 is very entertaining. Building networks of roads and slamming down buildings like an overgrown Lego set is satisfying, and the game's impressive 3D engine allows you to zoom down to street corners and see what individual citizens are up to. A comprehensive almanac reports back on how happy the citizens, factions and foreign powers are and offers suggestions on how to improve weaker areas. Most of the scenarios will be completed before your cities get too large, but on a few occasions I ended up with substantial metropolises incorporating huge residential areas, large industrial zones, a thriving tourist sector and entertainment-focused downtown areas. When everything goes to plan, it's a very satisfying experience.

The game does have its issues. As with all of these sort of games, it won't be long before you work out an optimum early-game build-order which gets you a lot of cash in short order, which makes the rest of the mission trivially easy. The campaign, complete with scripted and often-unpredictable events, is good at throwing you curveballs you have to deal with on the fly, ranging from out-of-control UN inspectors imposing arbitrary restrictions on your economy and industry to rogue Russian nuclear missiles threatening to hit the island. Another problem is that there is often a substantial lag - sometimes 3-5 years of in-game time, maybe half an hour of real playing - between you doing something and the results starting to trickle in (most notable when it comes to building new agricultural projects). Most annoying is that the game is centred around the road network and particularly whether there's enough garages for everyone to park their cars (without garages your population will be reduced to walking everywhere, which is hideously inefficient). You'll end up with garages on every corner and at every single out-of-town facility on the island, and a road network covering almost every open surface area to reduce the hideous traffic bottlenecks that slow down your economic development.

Once you get used to the game's eccentricities, it doesn't take long to realise there isn't a massive amount of depth here. There's dozens of buildings, numerous factions and foreign powers to appease, but it's all on a fairly broad base lacking more interesting subtleties or complexities. Once you understand the game's systems, it's fairly easy to get every faction behind you, avoid rebellions and make absolute bucketloads of money. The sheer depth and replayability of something like SimCity 4 is missing. Tropico 4 is certainly much more approachable and easy to play than some of the more hardcore city builders, and may make a viable step-up for someone used to playing CityVille who wants to tackle something more interesting, but ultimately the game runs out of steam before the campaign itself is completed, although the last couple of missions do reignite some interest with more original plot twists.

It's also worth noting that Tropico 4 is a refinement and expansion of Tropico 3 rather than a radically different game. Newcomers to the series are certainly advised to start with Tropico 4, which has a more refined interface, a more compelling (and useful) campaign and (slightly) better graphics, but those who have already played the third game may not find a lot more here than in the existing title.

Tropico 4 (***½) is a fun city simulator. It's enjoyable, has an amusing (if occasionally close-to-the-knuckle stereotyping) sense of humour and is far less obtuse than some similar games. However, it also lacks a huge amount of depth and is unlikely to have people continuously returning to it for years to come. Recommended, especially on budget. The game is available now (bundled with the Modern Times expansion, which is pretty much more of the same) in the UK (X-Box 360, PC) and USA (X-Box 360, PC).

Sunday inspirational message

WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE cover art and release info

Bantam have released some more info about The World of Ice and Fire, including the cover art and a confirmed release date of 5 November 2013.

Saturday 20 April 2013

George R.R. Martin buys a movie theatre

In one of the more random news bits from this week, it has been revealed that George R.R. Martin has bought the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The theatre was closed in 2006. Martin, a regular attendee of the theatre after he moved to Santa Fe in 1979, has not yet confirmed his plans for the property. In a statement he did clarify that this project does not mean he'll be making popcorn for attendees rather than getting on with his books.

Rumours that GRRM is going to hang the above on the wall have not yet been substantiated.

"I will not be doing it myself, of course. So please, readers, fans, don't get nuts. I am a novelist and a screenwriter, not a theatre manager, it won't be me standing at the concession stand asking if you want butter on your popcorn. My job remains the same as before: editing anthologies, creating and producing television and writing the occasional script, and... first, foremost, always... completing A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. This does not change that." 

Martin bought the property under the company name 'Faceless Man', hinting that he may also be planning to use the cinema as the headquarters for an international guild of shapechanging assassins.

All men must die. Actually, only those who ask, "Is it in 3D?"

Thursday 18 April 2013

Microsoft and NBC may resurrect HEROES

There are many TV shows that have ended before their time and fans want to see them back. Squarely not amongst that number is NBC's Heroes. Airing for four seasons in 2006-10, Heroes was infamous for having an excellent first season and then suffering a catastrophic collapse in quality. When the show finally slinked off the air, few people cared.

However, Microsoft and NBC are in discussions to resurrect the show. The thinking is to bring it back as a Netflix-style on-demand series, a bit like House of Cards, but which will air exclusively on Microsoft's download service. This service will launch with the next X-Box (but will probably also be available via the existing X-Box 360) and form part of Microsoft's multimedia-device strategy for their new machine.

Whilst a nice idea, I don't think a new Heroes - even one with a mostly new cast and possibly new producers - is the show to do it with. The show's reputation is in shambles and its return would not really excite that many people. Microsoft would be better off partnering with, say, SyFy and maybe trying to bring a different type of superhero show to the screen...

Now that might work.

Superb UK vampire series ULTRAVIOLET to be re-released on DVD

Ultraviolet, probably the finest vampire-based TV series of all time, is to be re-released on DVD next Monday.

The six-part series originally aired in 1998. It stars Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Carribean, This Life, Coupling) and Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther), with a very young Stephen Moyer (True Blood) providing able support. Susannah Harker and Philip Quast round off the recurring cast. The premise is that vampires (never called that in the series, only 'leeches' or 'Code 5s') are real and a secret government organisation - part-funded by the Vatican - is fighting them. The tone is serious and grim, with an emphasis on the scientific ramifications of the existence of vampires. It's also extremely well-written (by BAFTA-nominated UK writer-director Joe Ahearne, who later worked on Doctor Who) and superbly acted, with a nice twist in the final episode.

This edition features a new documentary about the series. However, disappointingly, it is only being released on DVD, as the series has not yet been remastered for Blu-Ray. At the moment it appears to be a UK-only release, although the previous edition is still available in the USA.

Disney to release five new STAR WARS movies in five years

Disney have announced that they will be releasing a new Star Wars movie every year from 2015 to 2019. Episode VII will be released in summer 2015, to be followed by Episode VIII and Episode IX in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Stand-alone films focusing on side-storylines or certain characters will be released in 2016 and 2018. There will also be additional side-films, but their release dates are uncertain at the moment.

Whilst Disney's plans for Star Wars were known to be ambitious, the scale of the plans is somewhat surprising, not far off the aggressive release schedule for their Marvel universe movies. The announcement also seems to deny J.J. Abrams's suggestion that the first film could be delayed from 2015, since the pre-production window for the movie would be uncomfortably small (Abrams has only just started work on the project, and will likely not hit it full-time until Star Trek: Into Darkness is released in a few weeks, leaving only two and a bit years before release).

On the one hand, it'll be good to see new Star Wars material not written or directed by George Lucas on the screen. On the other, they risk oversaturating the audience with too many Star Wars movies. The Marvel universe films work with frequent releases because they mostly focus on completely different casts and the setting is - superheroes aside - contemporary. Unless they come up with something special here, Disney could be about to shoot the golden goose before it even lays the first egg.

Monday 15 April 2013

Bethesda confirm they are now moving on from SKYRIM

Bethesda have confirmed that they have completed their release schedule for Skyrim, the fifth title in the Elder Scrolls series. Work is now underway on their next game, which will most likely be Fallout 4 based on the company's previous comments.

The news surprised some people, first for suggesting that work on the next game was not further advanced than it appears to be: Fallout 4's release had been anticipated for 2014, if not a surprise release for late 2013, as Bethesda had indicated that their next game would be on the current-gen Creation Engine that Skyrim also used. This news hints that Fallout 4 (assuming it is their next game) will not be out until a lot later and will either use a new engine or the current one will be tweaked for next-gen systems (given the impressive scalability of the engine on high-end PCs, this is possible).

More surprising is the indication that Skyrim's expansion cycle is complete. Bethesda had suggested that their DLC (downloadable content) packs for Skyrim would be substantial in size and quality. However, they only released one such substantial expansion with Dragonborn. The first DLC, Dawnguard, was a relatively short adventure, whilst the second, Hearthfire, only added a few cosmetic tweaks to the game. Rumours had abounded that two more substantial DLCs were planned. If this was true, they clearly have now been abandoned.

Whilst we are unlikely to see Elder Scrolls VI for another five or six years, hardcore fans will get to play The Elder Scrolls Online before the end of this year. An MMORPG, The Elder Scrolls Online has been developed by Bethesda's sister company, Zenimax Online Studios, but (personally speaking) looks rather underwhelming at this point.

Thursday 11 April 2013

CHUNG KUO update: cover art and omnibus e-books

The cover art for the seventh volume in the Chung Kuo series, The Broken Wheel, has been released:

The book is due for publication in November. The sixth volume, An Inch of Ashes, (cover art here) is out on 4 July.

Interestingly, Corvus are also listing an e-book called Chung Kuo: The Epic Begins for release on 4 July. It appears to be an omnibus edition combining the third and fourth books in the series, The Middle Kingdom and Ice and Fire. Exactly why you'd call an omnibus The Epic Begins and then start with Book 3 is a bit beyond me, but omnibus e-books seem like a great idea, as the individual volumes have been fairly short so far (which I know has put off some people from trying the recast version of the series: £18 for 250 pages in hardcover has raised some eyebrows).

UPDATE: An e-book omnibus of the first two volumes has indeed appeared on Amazon, entitled The Rise of China, which combines Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain. It is due for release on 2 May.

FLASHBACK remake confirmed

Ubisoft have confirmed the existence of Flashback, a HD remake of the 1992 Amiga game of the same name.

News of the game was leaked several months ago under the working title Flashback Origins. However, the Origins bit has been dropped. The game appears to be a mostly-faithful reimagining of the original game.

Flashback was at first glance a straightforward platform game, with the player guiding the protagonist, Conrad B. Hart, as he attempts to recover his missing memories and fend off an alien invasion of the Solar system. The game starts on Saturn's moon Titan, which has been terraformed, and later travels to Earth and to the alien homeworld. The game is notable because, as well as combat sequences, it also features RPG-like levels where Conrad has to interact with non-hostile characters and do jobs for them in order to progress. There were also an extensive number of cut-scenes, which was highly unusual at the time. The game was highly praised on release for both its more tactical combat (Conrad has grenades and a deployable forcefield as well as his gun to use) and is astonishing, rotoscoped animation. The rotoscoped animation drew parallels to both Prince of Persia and especially Another World, as the latter was released by the same publisher as Flashback (though developed by a different team). Flashback was more pulpy and action-packed than the slow, moody Another World and was considerably longer.

The game was ported to consoles and the PC following the initial Amiga release. It was followed in 1995 by Fade to Black, a full-3D, polygon-based sequel that more closely resembled (the later-released) Tomb Raider. It had a much more mixed reception than the original.

Even the original game's cover art was fairly iconic at the time.

The new version looks like it's kept the side-platforming action and excellent level design intact, as well as the different regions Conrad has to fight through. Even the cut-scenes look faithful to the original.

The game will be released later this year. So far only X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 versions have been confirmed (almost certainly through X-Box Arcade and PlayStation Network rather than boxed copies), although I'll be surprised if this isn't also available on PC and, possibly later, mobile devices as well.


SyFy has announced that it is producing new mini-series based on the classic SF novels Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke and Ringworld by Larry Niven.

Ringworld is set eight centuries into the future and revolves around an expedition to a vast artificial ring in the space, so huge it extends completely around its star. It was an inspiration behind the titular structures of the Halo series of computer games (although, properly speaking, the Halo rings are much closer in size and function to one of Iain M. Bank's Culture Orbitals). The novel was published in 1970 and won the triple crown of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. The novel has three sequels (The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne and Ringworld's Children), so presumably if it's a big hit SyFy can turn this into an ongoing franchise. The four-hour mini-series is being produced by MGM TV in conjunction with Universal Cable Productions. Michael Perry (co-creator of The River and writer of Paranormal Activity 2) is helming the adaptation.

Childhood's End was originally published in 1953 and, alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, is one of Clarke's best-known novels. Its iconic opening, which huge alien ships arriving at Earth and plunging the major cities into shadow, was later echoed by both the V mini-series in 1983 and the movie Independence Day in 1996. It is noted as one of Clarke's most speculative novels, featuring paranormal elements and talkative aliens, rather unlike his later books which were driven much more by hard science and completely unknowable alien intelligences. This mini-series will be helmed by Michael DeLuca (a producer on Seven, Boogie Nights and The Social Network).

Whilst sounding promising, it's hard to forget the complete pig's ear that SyFy made of both the Earthsea and Riverworld books, and the channel's seeming difficulty in actually making SF in the last few years. Alongside the the Blake's 7 reboot, this indicates that SyFy is at least focusing on the right ideas. It remains to be seen if they can follow through with them.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

GAME OF THRONES nominated for two BAFTAs

Game of Thrones has been nominated for two BAFTA television awards.

The show has been nominated in the category of Best International Series, where it faces stiff competition from The Bridge, Homeland and Girls. It has also been nominated for the Radio Times Audience Award, where it will face Call the Midwife, The Great British Bake-Off, Strictly Come Dancing, Homeland (again) and - the almost certain victor - the Olympic Games 2012 Opening Ceremony.

The Audience Award is open for voting by the general public. You can vote here, but the vote is only open to UK residents.

The awards will be handed out on 12 May. It remains to be seen if the show can bring home some BAFTAs to add to its eight Emmy Awards (six Creative Arts, two 'normal'), one Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, one Peabody, one Hugo and two Television Critics Association Awards.

Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin has confirmed that the fan-favourite character of Strong Belwas from the novels has been cut from the TV series. Changes made for the third season, most notably at the end of the first episode, rendered the reasons for him being in the show moot. Sad news, but cast compression on a project this size is unavoidable (and I very much doubt it's the last time it'll happen).

BLAKE'S 7 reboot greenlit

SyFy has greenlit the Blake's 7 reboot being helmed by former Heroes writer Joe Pokaski and James Bond director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale). A 13-episode first season will go into production later this year.

The reboot will be set in the year 2136 and will see seven criminals - six guilty and one not - being sent into exile on a prison colony. They escape and acquire a powerful alien spacecraft, with which they can begin a fight back against the totalitarian government that rules the human worlds.
FremantleMedia International today launches the eagerly anticipated remake of the cult drama Blake’s 7 to international buyers at MIPTV. In development with US cable network Syfy, the 13 x 1 hour series will be produced by Georgeville TV, the independent studio co-founded by Leon Clarance of Motion Picture Capital, the financing arm of Reliance Entertainment, and producer Marc Rosen. The science fiction classic will be written by Joe Pokaski (Heroes, CSI) and directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, GoldenEye).

The year is 2136, Blake wakes up on one side of the bed. He reaches for the other side. There’s nobody there. As reality sets in, this handsome ex-soldier sits up, and looks at a photo of his wife Rachel. Beautiful. Deceased.

A revolutionary reinvention of the long-running BBC series made in the late 1970s, Blake’s 7 tells the story of seven criminals – 6 guilty and 1 innocent – on their way to life on a prison colony in space, who together wrestle freedom from imprisonment. They acquire an alien ship which gives them a second chance at life and become the most unlikely heroes of their time.

David Ellender, CEO FremantleMedia International and Kids & Family Entertainment said, “Blake’s 7 was such a forward-thinking concept that the show continues to have resonance with audiences today. Its complex characters and gritty storylines, coupled with the highly talented team and modern production techniques are sure to appeal to both original fans of the show and new viewers.”

Leon Clarance, co-founder of Georgeville Television and CEO of Motion Picture Capital, the finance arm of Reliance Entertainment, said, “Joe Pokaski and Martin Campbell have worked tirelessly with the Georgeville TV team to create an amazeballs reboot of this classic space opera which I watched with my father when I was a child. This reimagined classic for a new generation of science fiction fans will enthrall original and new fans alike. I couldn’t be happier to have our beloved show handled internationally by the passionate team at FremantleMedia” 

Blake’s 7 is one of several premium drama offerings in the FremantleMedia International scripted portfolio which includes Wentworth (10 x 1 hour), a FremantleMedia Australia production set to premiere on Australia’s Foxtel in May this year, and The Making of a Lady, a psychological event thriller produced by Runaway Fridge and which captivated UK audiences when it aired on ITV1 in December 2012.

This premise is similar to that the original Blake's 7 - which ran for 52 episodes and four seasons from 1978 to 1981 - although there are several key differences. The original Blake's 7 was set closer to a thousand years in the future and there were only ever five or six human (or humanoid) characters, with the remaining one or two places taken by AIs. This description implies there will be seven human characters and the setting will be much closer to that of the present day.

From the sound it, then, both Zen and ORAC will be missing (which will anger fans) and the show will be asking audiences that humanity has established an interstellar civilisation in just 120 years, rather than the 800+ years of the original, which seems rather implausible. In addition, the suggestion that Blake is a soldier will also annoy a lot of fans. Blake in the original series was an engineer, a fixer whose attitude towards being a freedom fighter mixed charisma with naivete. Not being a soldier, more of a problem-solver, was a key point of his characterisation. This new version sounds altogether more cliched.

No casting information has yet been announced, although it has been confirmed that Pokaski will be writing the first episode and Campbell will be directing. Pokaski may also be writing the majority (or all) of the season, but Campbell's involvement beyond the first episode is unclear. It is also unclear at this stage who will be the showrunner.

At this stage, I am unconvinced by the project, which seems too conservative and predictably dull. With some better writers (Pokaski's heavy involvement with the second through fourth seasons of Heroes, which were terrible, is not encouraging) and the right cast, it could still turn out okay though. Maybe.

New Cover Art: Alastair Reynolds & Chris Wooding

Two forthcoming releases have had their cover art revealed. First up is On the Steel Breeze, the second novel in Alastair Reynolds's Poseidon's Children sequence and the sequel to last year's Blue Remembered Earth. On the Steel Breeze will be out on 15 August:

Second is the fourth and concluding volume in the Tales of the Ketty Jay sequence by Chris Wooding, The Ace of Skulls. This book is set for release on 19 September:

Wooding has also provided an update for American fans of the series. The much-delayed third volume, The Iron Jackal, will be published by Titan in March 2014 and The Ace of Skulls in August 2014.

Provisional release date for new Steven Erikson novel

Steven Erikson's Fall of Light, the second novel of The Kharkanas Trilogy and the sequel to last year's excellent Forge of Darkness, has had a provisional release date set. The current date is 2 January 2014.

Erikson's comrade in arms, Ian Cameron Esslemont, also has a new book tentatively scheduled for November 2013. This book is bearing the title City in the Jungle, a working title for his previously-published Blood and Bone, and fans are speculating this is actually the book formerly known as Assail and will be the last one in Esslemont's Novels of the Malazan Empire series.

As usual, these dates are not yet 100% confirmed. No cover art has yet been unveiled.

Friday 5 April 2013

Microsoft creative director tells people to go buy PlayStations

Well, as good as. 

Adam Orth is a creative director at Microsoft Studios and a fairly influential voice within the company. Strong rumours have been circulated for a while that Durango - the codename for the next X-Box - will require an always-on Internet connection, in contrast to its rival, the PlayStation 4, which will not. Gamers have been grumbling about this, with many diehard X-Box fans saying they will switch to PlayStation for the next generation if the next X-Box is online only.

Orth took to Twitter to criticise people for not having an always-on connection, stating that they "should definitely get with the times and get the Internet. It's awesome." When Manveer Heir, a senior designer at BioWare, pointed out that some people live in rural areas with spotty or no Internet connections, Orth expressed bewilderment than anyone would want to live in such areas. Other issues, such as many Internet companies imposing crippling bandwidth restrictions on users which would prevent them downloading entire games or even playing multiplayer on their consoles, were not discussed.

Orth has been thoroughly condemned for his remarks, though Microsoft's reaction was bizarre. Aaron Greenberg, a chief of staff at Microsoft well-known for his accessibility via Twitter, even said he didn't know who Orth was (which in a company as large as Microsoft is actually possible, but he should have perhaps resorted to a five-second Google search before replying). Heir later took to Twitter explaining that Orth is "a good guy," and that his remarks have been overreacted to, though by this time the damage was done.

Always-online requirements remain controversial almost a decade after the first games appeared that required them. Internet infrastructure - especially in rural areas where millions of gamers still live - is simply not up to the job of managing always-online requirements and even where it is, companies still impose cripplingly low bandwidth restrictions. Dismissing a large swathe of customers in this manner is simply going to push them onto the PlayStation 4. With the dwindling number of Microsoft exclusives (they are pretty much left just with the Halo series and not much more), the reasons for buying the next X-Box over the PS4 are likewise becoming non-existent. Unless the next X-Box is comprehensively more powerful - or substantially cheaper - than the PS4, it looks like Sony might have the next gen in the bag already.

Indeed, there were a lot of happy faces at Sony this morning, as this tweet from Sony CEO Kaz Hirai indicates:


UPDATE: Bah, the Sony CEO Twitter reply was from a parody account. Still funny though.

Thursday 4 April 2013

BioShock Infinite

1912. Booker DeWitt, a war veteran and former Pinkerton agent, is recruited by a shadowy figure to undertake a dangerous mission: he must go to the city of Columbia and rescue a girl called Elizabeth. He must take her back to New York to clear his debts. Booker agrees, but finds his task is more complex than he could possibly imagine: Columbia is a city floating in the sky, held in place by quantum engines. Even worse, Booker's coming has been foretold by the city's messianic leader, the Prophet Zachary Comstock. DeWitt is the False Shepherd who is prophecised to kidnap Elizabeth and expose her to lies. As the entire city turns against him, Booker is forced into a dangerous alliance with an underground resistance movement if he is to save Elizabeth and discover the truth about the city...and himself.

BioShock Infinite is the third game in the BioShock series, following on from BioShock and BioShock 2. However, it is a stand-alone game that does not require foreknowledge of the older two games to be enjoyed (though there are a few nods to those who have played the earlier titles).

In fact, it would be more accurate (not to mention appropriate) to say that there are in fact two BioShock Infinites. The first is a narrative and character-based game featuring a complicated storyline and an exploration of themes revolving around the American ideals of free speech, equality, liberty and responsibility. The narrative is recursive, using time loops and parallel universes to drive forwards the storyline and melds elements of hard SF, steampunk and revolutionary fiction together. The storyline is also highly focused on individual characters, including Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth (Booker's companion for a chunk of the game), the Lutece twins and the rarely-seen, often-heard ruler of Columbia, Zachary Comstock. The narrative is twisted and twisting, complicated (though mostly cohesive) but well-told and addressing issues that most games pretend simply don't exist, such as racism and prejudice, and doing so intelligently. In short, it's a bit of a triumph.

The second BioShock Infinite is the actual gameplay, wherein you blow away a truly vast number of adversaries with an exotic selection of advanced weapons and semi-magical powers. Enemies are defeated more quickly if you shoot them in the head (causing their skulls to explode) or use your powers to lift them into the air and then blast them over the edge of the city. BioShock Infinite is a startlingly violent game where your path through the excellent story is soaked knee-deep in blood.

There's a bit of a dissonance between the story and the gameplay. Ken Levine and his team have attempted here to create a complex and literate narrative, perhaps gaming's answer to Ulysses, except that Leopold Bloom didn't periodically wander out onto the streets of Dublin to mow down hordes of enemies with a crank-powered rotary chain cannon (literary critics are divided on whether this would have improved the book). This collision between gameplay and story is something that the original BioShock also suffered from, though in Infinite they do a much better job of trying to integrate the two together. For a start, combat is fast, fluid and fun, a far cry (no pun intended) from the often-stodgy shooting of the original game. There are a few similar problems, such as the fact it's bewilderingly easy to get stuck on the corners of buildings and platforms and the game seems highly reluctant to let you jump over anything (often resulting in your character bunny-hopping like a maniac to clear a two-foot step whilst multiple opponents are firing missiles at your head), but broadly speaking the combat - incongruous to the setting as it often feels - is pretty good. It's particularly good fun to take to the overhead sky rails to zip above enemies' heads, either shooting them from afar or jumping off to perform a melee takedown. Booker's different powers - Vigours - are varied and entertaining to use, and intelligent use of Vigours can mean the difference between a fight being a dull slog and an exhilarating demonstration of power. It's all cool, but it also feels rather distanced from the actual storyline and the quieter moments of exploration and dialogue.

Much has been made of the game's environment and with good reason. The art direction is stunning. BioShock Infinite is hardly at the cutting edge of visuals (the Unreal 3 Engine is starting to show its age) but its colourful palette, World Trade Fair-inspired architecture, open spaces and blazing sunlight combine for a vivid gaming experience. The game may be shifting far fewer polygons than Crysis 3, but the ingenuity and originality of the design more than makes up for that. It's a game so striking that it's fun just to wander around and look at things. Unfortunately, this artistic excellence does not extend to character animations, which are often unconvincing and wooden. It's not Bethesda-bad, but it's certainly somewhat lacking compared to the game's strengths in other areas.

Much has also been made of your AI companion, Elizabeth, who accompanies you for roughly four-fifths of the game. Elizabeth doesn't fight, but she can help you explore areas and finding money, and also scavenges extra ammo, health and salt (which recharges your Vigours) for you mid-combat. She is also an accomplished lockpicker, and can use lockpicks to open sealed doors. Lockpicks are severely rationed for the first half or so of the game, forcing you to carefully explore each area before moving on, but later on become so commonplace that such care is no longer required. Elizabeth's voice acting is good but her animation is somewhat lacking. She also has disconcerting tendency to teleport around the map, as her pathfinding leaves something to be desired. Combined with her inability to fight, this makes her rather less impressive a companion character than Alyx Vance in the nine-year-old Half-Life 2, which seems rather poor going.

The game's biggest weakness is the same as with BioShock before it. Irrational Games (and Looking Glass, where its founders worked beforehand) started off with roleplaying games, most notably the System Shock series, which is the spiritual predecessor to the BioShock series. These games were roleplaying games with shooter elements, whilst the BioShock series are shooters with a few roleplaying elements grafted on. This is fine, except that the complicated story, more notable characters and even the fascinating environment feel like they've still been designed for a roleplaying game. The result is a game which hints at immense depth but it held back from fully exploring or embracing it by its shooter credentials.

As it stands, BioShock Infinite (****½) is a very strong shooter with an unusually deep story, complex characters and thematic elements that don't entirely gel with the game's genre. It's still a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking game, but one that does not fulfil its full potential due to genre limitations. However, it's still a remarkable game, with a genuinely intelligent and smart ending, one of the best endings a game has ever had. It is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Disney shutting down LucasArts

LucasArts, the game-making division of Lucasfilm, is being shut down by the company's new supreme overlords at Disney.

Disney is instead switching video game development of Lucasfilm properties (i.e. Star Wars) to external companies under a licencing model. The fate of 1313, a new Star Wars game internally developed by LucasArts and set between Episode III and IV, is unclear, although rumours have stated that the game has been on hold since late last year as Disney wants all new Star Wars games to focus on the time period of the new movies.

LucasArts was founded in 1982 and worked on some very early home video games before the release of its first big hit, Maniac Mansion, in 1987. That game introduced the SCUMM Engine, which put impressive graphics and a mouse-driven interface into the adventure genre, previously dominated by text inputs. Further games refined this system, such as the brilliant Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the latter of which may still be one of the very best movie tie-in games ever made. LucasArts adjusted their formula in 1990 with the quirky and enjoyable LOOM, which replaced the typical command system with a music-driven one. In 1990 LucasArts released arguably their best-known, non-Star Wars game with The Secret of Monkey Island, following that up a year later with the epic and superior Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was released in 1992, followed by Maniac Mansion 2: Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max Hit the Road in 1993.

Following this point, the widespread adoption of 3D technology for games left LucasArts feeling that their adventure games looked outdated. The Curse of Monkey Island (1997) was their last adventure game using 2D animation, with both Grim Fandango (1999) and Escape from Monkey Island (2000) featuring 3D graphics. Though critical acclaim was still forthcoming (rather less for Escape), LucasArts wound up its adventure-producing division in 2003. Many of the people working there went on to found Telltale Games, who eventually ended up producing episodic new Sam and Max and Monkey Island games. Their most recent hit was The Walking Dead episodic game series.

Meanwhile, LucasArts branched into other areas of gaming. In 1993 they published X-Wing, a Star Wars-themed competitor to Chris Roberts's Wing Commander series of space combat games. The critically-acclaimed series eventually ended up comprising four core titles: X-Wing (1993), TIE Fighter (1994), X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (1997) and X-Wing Alliance (1999). Disappointing sales for X-Wing Alliance - accompanying the wholesale collapse of the space combat simulator genre after a decade of success - saw the series cancelled at that point. LucasArts moved into console gaming, working with BioWare to produce the RPG Knights of the Old Republic in 2003 and with Obsidian on the ill-fated Knights of the Old Republic II in 2004. They also produced the action game Star Wars: Republic Commando in 2005.

Increasingly, post-2000 LucasArts was working more and more with external companies to produce their games, with LucasArts often only providing oversight. The most recent example of this is the highly troubled MMORPG The Old Republic, co-produced with BioWare and apparently the most expensive computer game of all time (with rumours abounding about how close the game has come to breaking even). It is likely that these elements also factored into Disney's decision to shut down the company.

Sad news for the once-great games development company which kick-started the careers of, amongst many others, Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer.