Wednesday 31 July 2013

A sneak peek at the Dance of Dragons

Thanks to, both a sneak peek and a review of the new George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire novella is now available. The Princess and the Queen is a maester's account of the Dance of Dragons, the brutal civil war that took place between differing branches of the Targaryen family approximately 170 years before the events of A Game of Thrones. This civil war almost wiped out the Targaryen family and most of its dragons (the few surviving dragons died a few years after the war).

Rhaenyra Targaryen, the titular princess of the story.

The Princess and the Queen will be published in the Dangerous Women anthology, due out in December this year. At 33,000 words it's the longest story in the collection and clocks in at rather more than a tenth of the length of A Game of Thrones itself. It's a condensed version of a much longer story that Martin plans to publish in a collection - working title 'The GRRMarillion' - once A Song of Ice and Fire is fully completed. The World of Ice and Fire (due next year) will draw on both in its own account of the Dance of Dragons.

Martin is currently working on The Winds of Winter, the sixth and (hopefully) penultimate volume of A Song of Ice and Fire itself. In recent interviews he has said he is writing quickly, but not fast enough to give any indication of a release date.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

GAME OF THRONES finds its Mace Tyrell (plus a general series update)

George R.R. Martin has confirmed the casting of another role for the upcoming fourth season of Game of Thrones.

Roger Ashton-Griffiths is a veteran character actor of dual British and Canadian nationality. He began acting on screen in the early 1980s, winning a role in Terry Gilliam's cult classic Brazil in 1985. He later appeared in such TV shows as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Ivanhoe (alongside Thrones's Ciaran Hinds and James Cosmo) and Martin Chuzzlewit, and films such as The Madness of King George and Gangs of New York. More recently he has appeared in The Brothers Grimm, Torchwood and The Colour of Magic. He also visited the court of Henry VIII twice in 2009, playing Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant and then Sir John Hutton, Henry's envoy to Anne of Cleeves's father, in Season 3 of The Tudors.

In Thrones Ashton-Griffiths is playing the role of Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden, ruler of the Reach and Warden of the South. He is the son of Olenna Tyrell, the 'Queen of Thorns' (Diana Rigg) - who refers to him cheerfully as an 'oaf' - and the father of Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Loras (Finn Jones). During Robert's Rebellion, Mace Tyrell remained loyal to the Mad King and had his armies besiege Storm's End, almost starving Stannis Baratheon and his garrison to death before they were resupplied by Davos Seaworth. Mace appears to be a bumbling fool, but is cannier than he looks. He surrounds himself with able advisers like the outstanding general Randyll Tarly, the diplomatic Mathis Rowan and the admiral Paxter Redwyne and then takes the credit for their accomplishments. He is obsessed with getting a child or grandchild onto the Iron Throne at all costs.

The casting of Ashton-Griffiths as Mace Tyrell confirms that the recently-cast Mark Gatiss will be playing another role. Speculation is rife on what this role will be.

Game of Thrones's fourth season began filming at the start of the month and the production is currently in Iceland, which is serving a larger role with scenes in the south also being shot there as well as material from beyond the Wall. The expanded role of Iceland may have come at the expense of Morocco, as the show appears to have dropped that location. Instead, Daenerys Targaryen's storyline will instead be filmed in Croatia, with the city of Split believed to be standing in for Meereen.

Split, Croatia

The show also recently confirmed its writing and directing line-up for the season. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will again script seven episodes, the bulk of the season. George R.R. Martin has already written his script for the second episode, and story editor Bryan Cogman is stepping up to write two episodes this season. It does not appear that producer Vanessa Taylor, who wrote episodes for the second and third seasons, will be returning this year as a writer.

For the directors, Benioff and Weiss will be co-directing the first episode. Alex Graves, who directed the extremely well-received And Now His Watch Is Ended last year (as well as another episode), is stepping up with four episodes (2-3, 8 and 10). Michelle MacLaren is returning to direct episodes 4 and 5, and Alik Sakharov will be helming episodes 6 and 7. Neil Marshall, responsible for Season 2's stand-out episode Blackwater, will be directing Episode 9, which is again expected to be a big action and effects set-piece episode. David Nutter, who helmed last year's highly-regarded Rains of Castamere episode, is taking a break for Season 4 but hopes to return for Season 5.

Producer-writer-showrunner Benioff recently said that they are fully expecting Season 4 to be the best yet, but he is having 'nightmares' about Season 5. Season 5 will likely be a combination of material from the simultaneously-occurring novels A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, which will be a complicated undertaking.

Cover art for Brandon Sanderon's WORDS OF RADIANCE

Tor have revealed the cover art for Words of Radiance, the second novel in The Stormlight Archive (following on from 2010's The Way of Kings). Once again, Michael Whelan has created the artwork.

Words of Radiance is tentatively scheduled for release in January 2014. The reason for the lengthy delay between the two books was Sanderson's work on The Wheel of Time. With that firmly concluded, Sanderson hopes to deliver new Stormlight books every 18-24 months alongside shorter novels and novellas, with periodic breaks in the series (which will be ten volumes overall) to write other books, such as the two sequel Mistborn trilogies.

Sanderson has a wide-ranging update on the state of play of his various books and series here. His next book will be Firefight, the sequel to Steelheart, followed by Shadows of Self, the sequel to The Alloy of Law. These should both be fairly short books. He hopes to then write Book 3 of The Stormlight Archive for publication in 2015.

Monday 29 July 2013

ROBOTECH live-action movie moving forwards

Warner Brothers and Harmony Gold are pressing forwards with their plan for a live-action adaptation of the 1980s animated series Robotech, finally assigning a director to the long-gestating project.

Robotech was a combination of three separate Japanese anime series - Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA - into a single 85-episode storyline. The story opens in 1999 with the world about to destroy itself in a Global Civil War (WWIII). An alien spacecraft crashes on an abandoned French nuclear test island in the South Pacific, Macross Island. The existence of alien life and the threat it potentially represents convinces the warring factions to stop fighting and begin rebuilding the alien craft to help defend Earth from future incursions. They retro-engineer the ship's technology to create new weapons of war, most notably mecha (piloted, armoured war machines, some capable of transforming into different modes). Ten years later, forty-foot-tall humanoid aliens known as Zentraedi (cloned soldiers serving the enigmatic Robotech Masters) attack Earth in an attempt to reclaim the ship, which it is revealed holds the only energy matrix capable of producing protoculture, an energy source which powers mecha. The ship - the SDF-1 - makes an accidental hyperspace jump to the orbit of Pluto, dragging along most of Macross Island's civilian population with it. Under constant Zentraedi attack, the SDF-1 has to return to Earth over a period of two years. During this period there are major revelations about the SDF-1, its origins and the nature of protoculture, the Zentraedi and the Robotech Masters.

Robotech was a significant hit when it first aired in the USA in 1985 and has spawned TV movies (the most recent, The Shadow Chronicles, aired in 2006), roleplaying games and novels. However, the creators Harmony Gold have also attracted notable criticism for editing the three series into a new story and for refusing to allow the original versions of those stories to be released in the USA. This is most disappointing in the case of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, a huge franchise in Japan which has spawned a significant number of sequel and prequel TV series in its own right.

The Robotech film has been in development since 2007, when former Spider-Man actor Tobey Macguire began pursuing the live-action film rights. Macguire will produce and his original intention was to star, although it is unclear if this is still the case. More recently Leonardo DiCaprio has been linked to the project. In terms of writers, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) was developing a script for some time, but it is unclear if this is still being used (Kasdan is now working on the new Star Wars movies). Nic Mathieu has been tagged to direct. Mathieu has so far only worked in commercials, but his work has been applaude for its use of inventive CGI on a shoestring budget. The Robotech movie project will require significant use of CGI in order to work.

The immense success of the Transformers trilogy has no doubt played a role in Warner Brothers's decision to move forwards with the project. However, the more muted response to Guillermo Del Toro's mecha movie Pacific Rim may serve as a warning on the project: Pacific Rim has made its money back and should be modestly successful overall (probably enough to warrant a sequel), but that has required substantial non-US box office. Outside of the USA, Robotech is not a particularly known property, with Macross being much bigger across most of Asia and Europe. Particularly dangerous is the risk of a boycott by anime fans who only want to see a Macross project on the big screen, not the 'bastardised' Robotech. Existing Robotech fans will also likely be unimpressed to learn that the movie will use all-new mecha designs (the live-action rights for the vehicles were not included in the original deal, so new ones will have to be made) and likely a significantly rejigged storyline and characters.

However, the Robotech fanbase in the USA is still quite strong: just a few months ago a Kickstarter launched by Palladium Books for the Robotech RPG Tactics miniature wargame exceeded its target goal by a startling twenty times.

Sunday 28 July 2013

DOCTOR WHO 50th Anniversary episode will be the biggest drama global simulcast ever

The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who, which will air on Saturday, 23 November, will be simulcast around the world, according to the BBC. 200 countries have bought the episode, according to the BBC, but it is unclear how many of them will be simul-casting.

Joanna Page (playing a guest character), David Tennant, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith at the script read-through for the special.

The BBC has concluded complex negotiations which will allow the episode to be screened simultaneously alongside its UK broadcast (likely to be around 7pm). Aside from a few live sporting events, this is likely to be biggest global simulcast ever, certainly for a drama show. The episode will also be aired in 3D and will be shown in selected cinemas worldwide, although the details of that have not been revealed yet.

The episode will see the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith in his penultimate adventure) and Clara Osborne (Jenna Louise Coleman) joining forces with the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to confront the menace of the Zygons. John Hurt will also star as a hitherto-unknown 'version' of the Doctor, although what exactly that means remains to be seen. A trailer shown only at Comic-Con hints that other enemies and familiar faces may also put in cameo appearances.

The Tudors: Season 4

England, 1540. King Henry VIII has married Catherine Howard and seems to have finally achieved a level of happiness. The execution of Thomas Cromwell has left the government firmly cowed by Henry and the religious Reformation of the country in his hands. However, Catherine's past is colourful and she soon finds old 'friends' creeping out of the woodwork, determined to use her to their own advancement. When Catherine's flighty and irresponsible behaviour irritates and distances Henry, she also finds herself drawn into a dangerous affair.

The fourth and final season of The Tudors picks up with Henry VIII on his fifth and penultimate wife and covers the last seven years of his life. Aside from the controversial life and death of Catherine Howard, this period is most notable for Henry's decision to invade France and besiege Boulogne. These elements are characterised in the TV series as a form of mid-life crisis: all it's lacking is the decision to buy a Harley or an impractical and overpriced open-topped convertible. This is an amusing idea but also one that lends itself to an air of melancholy: as Henry's old leg wound worsens he knows his death is coming and he sets about preparing for it. As old friends and allies also start passing, Henry is forced to consider his life and accomplishments, exemplified in the final episode when he starts having visions of his dead wives and questions whether he was right to divorce or execute them.

As with the previous seasons, The Tudors maintains a certain watchability in spite of its numerous problems and deviations from history. However, the series has definitely suffered from the loss of James Frain as Cromwell. David O'Hara (despite being only four years younger than the actor who played his father in Season 1) steps up as the Earl of Surrey and gives a menacing, charismatic performance but doesn't actually do very much. Henry Cavill rounds off his appearance on the show with a surprisingly effective melancholic performance as Charles Brandon also approaches the end of his life, enlivened only by a new romance. Sarah Bolger (finally promoted to the title sequence cast) is also excellent as Mary Tudor, walking a fine line between being sympathetic but also driven by her religion. For the wives, Tamzin Merchant is effectively flighty and irritating as Catherine Howard should be, but rounds off being a little bit too irritating. Also, the writers ill-advisedly keep the Howard/Culpeper affair storyline going for at least a full episode longer than is really necessary.

Once that's out the way, Joley Richardson gives a much more decent performance as Catherine Parr, Henry's final wife, and portrays Parr as a woman of much greater maturity and intelligence than her predecessor. There's some minor scheming as the reformers in the court find themselves wondering if Parr is religiously acceptable, but that peters out as Henry becomes focused on war instead. The battle scenes are surprisingly good, with the Siege of Boulogne emerging as the stand-out setpiece of the entire series. Afterwards, we're plunged back into minor court politics before the show finally ends.

As with previous seasons, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is really not a great Henry VIII. He nails the king's intelligence but not his charisma, but with the addition of make-up to chronicle Henry's passing years he does seem to improve a little in this final season. At least up until the last two episodes, when he decides to adopt a bizarre and distracting deep voice (presumably under the mistaken impression it helps him sound older) which does not work at all.

That said, the fourth season of The Tudors (***½) does adopt a melancholic and reflect tone in the last few episodes as the king's life draws to a close which ends the series on a surprisingly sombre tone. Whilst The Tudors will never rank among the great historical dramas, it does do enough reasonably well to make it an effective (if far from perfect), basic account of the life of Henry VIII. The series is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening

Several months have passed since the last surviving Grey Wardens in Ferelden defeated the Blight, ended the Ferelden civil war and restored peace to the lands. The hero of that war has found a new job as commander of Vigil's Keep, from where he (or she) will rule over the province of Amaranthine and try to replenish the ranks of the Grey Wardens. However, when Vigil's Keep falls under attack from the supposedly-vanquished darkspawn before she (or he) even arrives, it becomes clear that Ferelden is in danger once again.

Awakening is the expansion pack to Dragon Age: Origins, adding a chunky new storyline (weighing in at around 20-odd hours), numerous new locations and five new companion characters to the mix, as well as a number of modest improvements to the game engine and a plethora of new spells and skills. The default review for expansion packs is, "If you liked the original, you'll love this," and whilst that's true for Awakening it is also true that it may appeal to you even if you disliked the original.

Awakening is a tighter, marginally better-written and characterised and considerably better-paced game than Dragon Age: Origins itself. It often took a conscious effort of will to force myself to load up Origins during the interminable midgame, whilst I tore through Awakening in a couple of days or so. The storyline is more interesting, since rather being another epic battle against the vast forces of evil, it instead explores the aftermath of such a conflict and also delves back into the reasons for it. Looking back, there's rather a lot that Dragon Age: Origins left unexplained about the Blights and why they happen, and Awakening is happy to fill it in, adding depth and understanding to the first game whilst also improving on it.

Some will bemoan the lack of Dragon Age: Origins's cast of characters, though I found them mostly an uninteresting bunch. I did find it odd that arguably the least interesting, Oghren, is the only playable character to continue into this game. Other than that, the characters in Awakening are improvements. Justice, a spirit of law and order forced into the body of a dead human, feels like a character imported from Planescape: Torment with his moody musings on ideology and its rigidity providing some (moderately) intellectual food for thought. Anders, a persecuted and highly sarcastic mage, adds some colour and humour to the game. Nathaniel, the son of your enemy Rendon Howe from the first game, is an interesting addition as he starts out hating you and only over the course of many hours of adventuring learns the truth about his father and how he can escape his father's legacy to become his own man. Standard fare, perhaps, but well-handled.

Where Awakening scores its biggest points is in turning the darkspawn from a raging morass of fanatical monsters into more of a civilisation with different factions and leaders. The threat of one such hostile faction is kept front-and-centre in the game, with side-quests presented firmly as sidelines and not confusing matters. Dragon Age was rather unconvincing in how the darkspawn were a raging menace for the first 10 hours of the game and then put on hold for the next 40-odd hours whilst you dealt with Loghain and then suddenly the darkspawn were back as the main bad guys for the endgame, but Awakening maintains focus throughout. Awakening also abandons the somewhat cheesy 'campfire' mechanic from the first game to give you a permanent base of operations, Vigil's Keep. In between quests it's a good idea to repair to the Keep to offload loot and talk to the keep's inhabitants, who keep up a steady stream of news and provide new quests, and equipment to help in your adventure. You also have the ability to upgrade the Keep by repairing its walls, bringing in new merchants and reinforcing its soldiery. It's another nod for this franchise towards the excellent Baldur's Gate II (though you only have the choice of one base of operations) and this one works a lot better, especially when the endgame asks some really hard moral questions of the player.

On the downside, some of the UI oddities of Dragon Age: Origins remain intact. Characters knocked back from melee by spells or attacks will just stand there a few feet away from the fight until you order them directly back into it. The camera controls remain as mixed a bag as in the original game. Sometimes quests will be rendered un-completable without warning: for example, having recruited a new follower I was directed to return to Vigil's Keep to induct them into the ranks of the Grey Wardens. Yet upon returning to the Keep, whenever I talked to the seneschal to start the procedure, instead he'd demand an answer about an unrelated story event. Replying yes would instigate the end of the whole game, making it impossible to formally induct the new follower into the ranks.

Still, these problems aside Awakening achieves a lot of the promise left unfulfilled by Dragon Age: Origins and works as both an effective epilogue to that game and a bridge to the controversial Dragon Age II.

Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening (****½) is a significant improvement over the base game in terms of writing, structure and characters. The game is available now - in an 'Ultimate Edition' also including the original game - in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

Friday 26 July 2013

Ex-ROME actress joins GAME OF THRONES

HBO has confirmed another casting for the fourth season of Game of Thrones, which is currently shooting in Iceland.

Indira Varma is a familiar face from British television and film. Her first prominent role was as the female lead in the 1997 movie, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (in which she starred alongside Naveen Andrews from The English Patient and later Lost), but she achieved widespread notice playing the tragic character of Niobe in the first season of HBO's Rome. She also appeared in the movie Bried and Prejudie, a Bollywood-style remake of Pride and Prejudice. She has been a regular on British TV over the past decade or so, appearing in Little Britain, Torchwood, Hustle, Luther (alongside Idris Elba) and World Without End. She has also appeared in US shows such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Bones and Human Target. As a prominent and popular actress, Varma was the fan-favourite choice for this role.

In Game of Thrones she will be playing the role of Ellaria Sand, the paramour of Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne. Ellaria is the bastard daughter of Lord Harmen Uller of Dorne and caught Oberyn's eye due to her exotic looks. They have been together for at least fourteen years. She is the mother of Oberyn's four youngest daughters (or 'Sand Snakes'): Elia, Obella, Dorea and Loreza. Ellaria and Oberyn have not married due to Ellaria's low birth. Ellaria is surprisingly relaxed about the prospect of her lover being forced to marry someone else for the good of the realm.

HBO also recently confirmed that actor/comedian/writer Mark Gatiss (best-known for his long association with Doctor Who, as well as working with the League of Gentlemen comedy troupe on TV, radio and film) has been cast, but not in what role. The only remaining major roles to be filled for this season, according to HBO, are Styr, the wildling Magnar of Thenn, and Lord Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and the father of Margaery and Loras (and the son of Olenna).

Thursday 25 July 2013

Scott Lynch auctioning REPUBLIC OF THIEVES for charity

Scott Lynch is auctioning a galley proof of The Republic of Thieves for charity. You can bid on it  here.

The auction is in a good cause, raising money for the families of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives fighting wildfires in Arizona last month. As some may be aware, Scott doubles as a volunteer firefighter when he's not writing fantasy novels. Scott talks about the situation further here.

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony has married Aral Vorkosigan, the Imperial Regent, and is now living on Barrayar, the homeworld of her former enemies. Cordelia is bewildered by Barrayaran society, which is militaristic, elitist, feudal and unforgiving of physical infirmity or weakness. As she sets out to try to make a fairer life for her family and friends, they are all swept up in political intrigue and civil war when Vorkosigan's regency is challenged.

Barrayar is less the sequel to than the direction continuation of Shards of Honour, the first novel in The Vorkosigan Saga. This is understandable, as Bujold wrote them as one one long novel, but broke off before Barrayar was very far underway and ended up writing a whole bunch of other novels before getting back to this one. This sabbatical was for the good, as Barrayar is a significant improvement over the lacklustre Shards of Honour, featuring much more interesting characterisation and a more a gripping plot.

As before, the book is told from the POV of Cordelia and the book is focused heavily on her characterisation as she adjusts to life on a new world. Exploring Barrayar from the outside is a good idea, as Cordelia gets to express the reader's disbelief that such a techno-feudal society could even exist. There are some great moments as well where natives of Barrayar try to 'shock' Cordelia (such as with rumours of a gay affair between two male lords) with scandals only for her to find them bafflingly ordinary and inoffensive. It would be easy for Bujold to make Cordelia arrogant and superior about such things, but she plays fair and on one or two occasions Cordelia has to admit where her own world has gotten things wrong, and where Barrayar may have better ideas (though the reverse situation is much frequent).

In the first novel, Cordelia was stoic to the point of being emotionally inert, but in the sequel she is a much better-nuanced character who reacts more believably to events. Bujold never lets us forget that Cordelia is a trained and professional military officer, so her crisis-management skills and tendency to personally take part in dangerous missions herself are well-founded. The theme of motherhood is also explored, as Cordelia falls pregnant only for her unborn child to suffer injuries in an attempted assassination attempt. Barrayaran tradition would be to have the child aborted, but Cordelia causes a scandal by using imported Betan technology to save his life at the cost of leaving him crippled, to the fury of her father-in-law. The resulting tension may be obvious ('baby in danger' is a bit old-school for an SF trope) but it works quite well.

In the latter part of the novel, when open civil war erupts, Bujold's decision to stick with Cordelia as the POV character pays dividends. Normally in a big SF novel, the author would adopt a multi-POV approach, or stick with the characters in the thick of the action. Instead, Cordelia is cut off from the outside world and has to lie low in the countryside without a clue as to how things are progressing or where her husband is. This approach is purposefully frustrating, as we share Cordelia's annoyance at not knowing what's happening and it works quite well.

On the negative side of things, the focus on Cordelia compromises the characterisation of secondary characters. Aral Vorkosigan himself remains a fairly distant figure and Cordelia's staff get mixed treatment. Bothari is a sympathetic-but-tragic character with an edge of unpleasantness to him, making him a fairly complex and interesting character for the 'badass big arse-kicker' trope. Droushnakovi and Koudelka are likable characters but their inability to progress their relationship and their comedy of manners of constantly misunderstanding what the other person is doing briefly made me think I'd picked up one of the weaker Wheel of Time novels. Cordelia serving as counsellor and den-mother to her staff is an interesting idea, but it slows down the pacing at critical junctures. There's also the bigger problem that Barrayar is not really convincing as an SF society and is rather unpleasant. Though this gives us empathy with Cordelia, it also means that the intricacies and court politics of Barrayaran society come across as being rather flat. And probably the less said about the cliched villain, the better.

Barrayar (****) is a huge improvement over its forebear, featuring a far more interesting storyline, some accomplished worldbuilding (although of an unpleasant and unlikable world) and better characterisation of the protagonist, despite some more mixed results for the secondary cast. Barrayar is available now as part of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus, along with its forebear Shards of Honour (UK, USA).

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Pacific Rim

2025. The cities of the Pacific Rim are under attack by Kaiju, huge creatures from another dimension which enter ours via the Breach, a portal on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. To combat this menace, humanity has built Jaegers, colossal war-mechs piloted by two people using a neural link to share the massive amounts of information flowing through the machines. Initial victories soon turn sour when larger and more powerful Kaiju start appearing, and the world's governments decide to shut down the Jaeger programme in favour of building immense coastal walls. With his resources about to run out, the commander of the Jaeger programme, Stacker Pentecost, stakes everything on a last-ditch assault on the Breach. But first he must find someone to pilot the refitted Jaeger known as Gipsy Danger.

Pacific Rim is director Guillermo Del Toro's homage to Japanese films and TV series about giant robots and huge monsters (it is dedicated to Ishirō Honda, a legendary Japanese special effects artist, as well as Ray Harryhausen). It is part Transformers and part Godzilla, only better than the recent big screen incarnations of either. Like Michael Bay's Transformers films, there's a lot of giant robots in this film smashing stuff up. Unlike Michael Bay's Transformers films, the action is well-choreographed and relatively easy to follow, the stakes of events are clearly laid out and the human characters are sympathetic and well-acted.

The writing is not original and there are few cliches that Del Toro does not leave unexplored in the film. The leading expert on Kaiju biology is a befuddled English scientist with glasses and a tweed jacket (and played by Torchwood's Burn Gorman), whilst Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost (best movie character name ever?) gives inspiring speeches and is authoritative and stern but with a human side to him. Few plot twists can't be seen coming from a mile away, but somehow none of it matters. Del Toro is having a huge amount of fun here and, unlike the ridiculously-over-convoluted plots of the Transformers films, knows it's best to keep things straightforward and simple.

That said, he does throw a few different spins on things. The Jaeger programme is refreshingly multi-ethnic, with Stacker being British, sort-of hero Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) being American and co-lead Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) being Japanese. The other predominantly-featured Jaeger pilots are Australian, Russian and Chinese, and most of the film is set in and around Hong Kong. The casting, the characters, the setting and the film's name suggest this movie is being made with the Asian markets partially in mind, and it'll be interesting to see how it performs when it opens in those markets (it's European and American box office performance has been solid but unspectacular). The ethnic mix is refreshing, but the gender ratio is more bemusing: Kikuchi's Mako is the only female character of note in the entire movie. The female Russian Jaeger pilot gets maybe two lines (though also one of the film's funniest moments, when she and her Russian co-pilot very calmly walk away from a dangerous situation when everyone else panics) and that's about it. True, Mako kicks an enormous amount of Kaiju backside, is a complex character with a well-developed arc and is probably the second best-acted role in the film (after Elba's excellent turn as Pentecost), but it's a bit odd when there seven male characters of note in the film and only one female.

Overlooking that (and hoping it will be rectified in the unconfirmed sequel), Pacific Rim does a lot with its ingredients. The action is genuinely impressive, with the Kaiju/Jaeger fights having a weight and heft missing from similar movies, and the characterisation and drama is no great shakes, but done well enough to keep things moving along. For such an effects-drenched movie, it has a surprising amount of heart and charm (or surprising until you remember it's still a a Del Toro flick), and overcomes some logic flaws with raw enthusiasm. In that sense it feels close to the original Star Wars: an effects-laden movie built around ultimately likable (although unoriginal) protagonists.

Pacific Rim (****½) is an outrageous amount of fun, featuring genuinely impressive effects, astonishing production design and attention to detail but, more importantly, interesting (if archetypal) human characters and a nice line in humour. It even has flashes of intelligence in how it's visually constructed and the worldbuilding behind the film (though with allowances for the premise). As far as huge blockbusters go, this is one of the most satisfying of the last few years.

Monday 22 July 2013

The World's End

Twenty years ago, five school friends set out to do the 'Golden Mile', a pub crawl taking in a dozen pubs in their home town of Newton Haven. They didn't quite make it. Now Gary King is determined to complete the crawl and rounds up his former mates. But once back in their home town, they discover that things aren't quite what they seem...

The World's End is the concluding film in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, following on from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. These films have different characters but a recurring cast and are the creations of Simon Pegg (writer, lead actor) and Edgar Wright (writer, director), supported by Nick Frost (actor). Each film is based around a colour which represents the movie's genre and theme as well as being a flavour of Cornetto: red for Shaun (representing blood and the horror genre), blue for Fuzz (representing the police and the buddy cop/action genre) and now green for World's End. Finding out why the film uses the green colour is part of the fun.
The film is the first collaboration between Pegg and Wright in six years, with both having been busy in Hollywood in the meantime. Pegg has worked on the Mission Impossible and Star Trek franchises and written his own stand-alone SF flick, Paul (also co-starring Frost). Wright helmed the hyper-kinetic, gloriously entertaining Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and has been developing an Ant-Man movie at Marvel. The break has done them both good, with the result being a film that trades less on past glories (aside from the fence gag and the Cornetto motif, there are no returning jokes or sly shout-outs) and stands more on its own two feet. What it does take from its forebears, however, is structure and tone.

Like Hot Fuzz, The World's End centres on a tonal shift which transforms it from one type of film into another. In Hot Fuzz, this moment came about three-quarters of the way through the film when it transformed from a Wicker Man-style rural horror film into a Michael Bay blockbuster, but the film pulled it off through excellent foreshadowing. The World's End's corresponding moment comes in the toilets of the fourth pub, about a quarter of the way into the film, and is less successful: we've known the characters for a lot shorter period of time and the shift is not adequately foreshadowed. The move from surprisingly effective character drama to balls-out action flick is not as well-handled as in Hot Fuzz and the credulity-straining premise of the film is further eroded by the decision our heroes make to complete the pub crawl in the face of all logic. It's a bit like that bit in Shaun of the Dead when Pegg and Frost decide to hole up against the zombie hordes in the pub which doesn't entirely make sense, but you kind of go along with it because it's one thing and the result is uproariously hilarious (most notably, the pool cue accompaniment to Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now'). The World's End instead has to justify its premise eight times (each time they leave a pub and the situation has escalated further) and the results are only moderately amusing.

In fact, The World's End is at its best when the crazy SF stuff is forgotten and we're focusing on the character interrelationships. The five friends are convincingly portrayed. Particularly successful is the way that Gary's unhealthy obsession with the past and how it has increasingly dominated his thoughts the more his adult life has descended into failure, poverty and addiction is both bleak and exceptionally well-played by Pegg; this is Pegg's finest performance since Hot Fuzz and maybe his finest performance ever. It's certainly Frost's, as for once he plays the straight man to Pegg's more erratic lead and does so with a surprising level of maturity. Sadly, this strong performance tails off towards the end of the film when Frost's character falls off the wagon and he reverts to a more familiar 'funny fat guy' routine. Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and an excellent Paddy Considine all provide able support as the other members of the childhood gang. More wasted is Rosamund Pike as the nominal love interest, who gets very little to do.

The SF stuff is rather more unbelievable, with little effort to integrate it into the reality of the film (as with the zombies in Shaun of the Dead). In fact, the SF stuff rapidly becomes a bit of a chore and a distraction from the real story, which is what's going on with Gary. Even the characters seem to feel this way, with a five-minute fight scene with the 'bad guys' ending and the cast immediately returning to interrogating Gary about what's going on in his head. Oddly, this is an SF film where the SF stuff is an unwelcome deviation from the more mundane, character-based drama and relationships. This is The World's End's biggest failure, as both Shaun and Hot Fuzz used their outlandish events to reinforce the drama and characters, whilst in The World's End they merely distract.

That said, what The World's End does have is a really great ending. It doesn't wimp out and the ending integrates the two sides of the film together more successfully than anything up to that point. Indeed, of the three films in the trilogy The World's End is the only one that feels like it could have a really good sequel.

The World's End (***½) is the weakest film in the trilogy, although even in failure it still provides some great laughs and some interesting characters. It is a lot better than Paul, for certain, and seems to prove that Simon Pegg is at his best in collaboration with Edgar Wright. Hopefully it won't be so long before they next team up. The film is on general release now in the UK and next month in the USA.

Friday 19 July 2013


Shadowrun Returns is a Kickstarter-funded, turn-based RPG based on the Shadowrun franchise. A mash up of cyberpunk and fantasy, Shadowrun Returns is set in a future where magic has returned to the world, along with non-human creatures like orcs, trolls, dwarves and elves.

Funded mostly by fans and created by Jordan Weisman, the original creator of the Shadowrun world and game, Shadowrun Returns is the the first major Kickstarter-backed video game to be created and released (FTL was also Kickstarter-funded, but only after most of it had already been finished), and is being seen as an important litmus test for the whole notion of crowd-funded video games. The second such game, Wasteland 2, will be released at the end of 2013, followed by the first half of Double Fine's Broken Age early next year.

Shadowrun Returns is looking good at the moment. It will be released on 25 July and will be available through platforms such as Steam.

Joe Abercrombie sells new fantasy series to HarperCollins Voyager

Joe Abercrombie has announced the signing of a new three-book deal with HarperCollins Voyager. The new books will be set in an alternative-history version of Europe (so not the First Law world) and will be loosely connected to one another rather than forming a single story, so not a trilogy in the formal sense of the word. The new books will also be aimed a wider audience than his previous books, with the books being able to be read by both adult and youngsters.

The first book will be called Half a King and will be published in July 2014. The sequels, Half the World and Half a War, will follow in January and July 2015. According to Abercrombie:

"With this trilogy I’ve set out to do something a little different—shorter, tighter, and with a broad, page-turning appeal—while still giving readers the vivid characters, crunching action, twisting plots and black humour that I’m known for."

Commissioning editor Jane Johnson at HarperCollins:

"I've never experienced such universal enthusiasm for a project in all my years at HarperCollins. We received the submission on a Wednesday and by Thursday afternoon everyone had read and adored it - the whole building was buzzing with the huge potential for this series. Nick Lake (Children's), Emma Coode (Voyager) and I discussed a cross-divisional strategy and on that basis offered immediately. Both Nick and I have been fans of Joe's adult work since The Blade Itself, but I had no idea he had so many other fans in-house."

According to Joe's blog, Joe's next First Law project (probably a new trilogy) will remain at Gollancz, with a publication date to be determined but unlikely to be before 2017. Joe has also confirmed that his worldwide sales have now reached the ballpark of 3 million.

George R.R. Martin smashes up a guitar; Neil Gaiman approves

At this year's Comic-Con, humorous geek-musicians Paul and Storm performed a rendition of their well-known song 'Write Like the Wind', a plea to George R.R. Martin to write the next Song of Ice and Fire book as fast as possible.

This then happened (filmed by Veronica Belmont from the Sword and Laser podcast):

GRRM is rock and roll. Who knew? Apart from everyone who's read The Armageddon Rag, that is.

Patrick Rothfuss's NAME OF THE WIND optioned for television

It has been announced that New Regency Productions and Fox Television have optioned the TV rights to Patrick Rothfuss's novel, The Name of the Wind. If successful, the series would also adapt the other two books in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy, The Wise Man's Fear and the forthcoming The Doors of Stone.

Eric Heisserer will be writing the script. Heisserer's previous credits include Final Destination 5 and the unnecessary prequel to The Thing, as well as the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

There is no word on what network or channel this will air on yet. It's also only an option. A script will need to be written and then greenlit before it moves into production. Given Rothfuss's well-known love of the works of Joss Whedon, which have had 'problems' with Fox in the past, it is surprising that he's agreed to sell the rights to them. Some have suggested that Fox may be intending this project for their FX channel (which is more forgiving of low ratings and usually givest its shows a fairer shake than Fox itself), though that is pure speculation.

It will also be interesting to see how the story is translated to TV. Most of the story is from Kvothe's POV, and in fact there are strong hints that Kvothe is colouring his story for his own ends. How this would be translated onto screen remains to be seen.

Rothfuss recently said that The Doors of Stone should be published some time in 2014.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Metro: Last Light

2034, post-apocalyptic Moscow. A year has passed since the Spartan Rangers discovered and occupied the D6 bunker, making them one of the powerhouses of the Metro. Artyom is now a respected ranger, but is haunted by his decision to nuke the mysterious 'Dark Ones'. When word arrives of a Dark One infant that survived the cataclysm, Artyom sets out to rescue the creature and atone for his actions. Along the way, he discovers that one of the other factions in the Metro has discovered a secret weapon that could turn the tide of power amongst the survivors forever.

Metro: Last Light is the sequel to Metro 2033, picking up where that game left off and building on its storylines and characters. Last Light is pretty unforgiving to those who haven't played the first game, not bothering with backstory or exposition, so I recommend that players either pick up the first game before this one, or make full use of online plot summaries to get them up to speed.

As before, this is a first-person shooter which alternates combat with exploration and survival elements. Combat is great fun and enhanced this time around by the addition of better stealth mechanics: Artyom can knife opponents from the shadows or knock them out if he can sneak up behind them. Given a fairly frugal approach to ammo in the game (although it's not as punishingly stingy as the first game), conserving firepower and resorting to stealth rapidly becomes the first choice in every situation. Stealth is even more important when fighting the game's mutated wildlife, who can't be stealth-killed but can be avoided by hugging the shadows and extinguishing light sources.

The survival element comes in the form of the handy gas mask, which is necessary to survive on the surface and exposed parts of the underground. The mask's filters need to be changed on a regular basis and it can get covered in debris, gunk from exploded enemies and water quite easily, forcing you to wipe it clean. This is fine in general exploration, but mid-combat it can add a panicky moment of blindness which adds to the chaos of combat. The survival element is tremendously enhanced by the impressive visuals and the bleak, lonely atmosphere. Metro: Last Light does atmosphere better than almost any other FPS game I've played.

The moments of bleakness are counterbalanced by the towns (former Metro stations that have been taken over as habitations for survivors), which are bright, warmer and packed with people. The towns are a good place to chill out and restock on supplies before heading out. Unfortunately, as with the first game, they are essentially just shops with only modest improvements in giving you more to do (though a couple of optional missions can be found, along with a dubious strip club and a shooting range mini-game). The towns are crying out for more development, and as with the recent BioShock Infinite there is a feeling that maybe this would have been a stronger game if it had been more of an RPG than a FPS.

Still, an FPS it is and a good one at that. Making the linear corridor FPS (which is what Last Light is, apart from a couple of enormous arena-like outdoor areas where you have more freedom to choose what approach to take next) compelling and interesting is difficult, but 4A Games has managed it by giving the game a sense of place and atmosphere that is second to none. The limited nature of the genre means that you can't explore the people and places as much as you might want to, but through overhead dialogue, some excellent art design and Artyom's own notes, they successfully engross the player in this strange world.

Voice-acting is good and characterisation is fairly strong, although a romance with another character does kind of come out of nowhere. Whilst you spend a good chunk of the game going solo, you also team up with other characters for chunks of it, and they manage to be effective aids in combat without hogging the limelight. One character 'buffs' you by providing you with intelligence on enemy positions and numbers rather than fighting outright, which is a great idea that the game executes well.

Metro: Last Light (****½) is an improvement on its predecessor in almost every department: it's slightly longer, with more impressive graphics, more satisfying combat, vastly superior stealth and a more interesting storyline. On the minus front, it does feel very reminiscent of its forebear, more the second half of the same game rather than a sequel, and arguably the game makes a few too many concessions to the mainstream, with more plentiful ammo and supplies meaning less moments of nerve-shredding terror. Still, it's a bleak, atmospheric and gripping game. It is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Conquering Westeros in CRUSADER KINGS II

The Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings II is a free 'reskinning' of the original game which allows you play in Westeros instead of medieval Europe. The mod also features original artwork and music, and some comprehensive engine changes to account for how life works in the Seven Kingdoms.

PC Gamer is running a diary of a campaign in this game. Even if you're not interested in the game, it's worth a read as the player tries to play as a 'more sensible' version of Ned Stark and immeditely runs into unforseen events that cause total chaos. An entertaining read. Part 1 of the diary is here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here. Further updates to the diary will follow every Sunday until it is completed (or Ned dies, which is an occupational hazard).

Monday 15 July 2013

Design your own PACIFIC RIM Jaeger

Because designing giant robots never gets old. Especially since this one allows you to indulge in national stereotypes.

UK Jaeger puts the hurt down on the monsters whilst the pilots eat crumpets and catch up on their Downton Abbey box sets.

Meanwhile, the USA funds its Jaeger programme with a controversial tie-in with a major fast food retailer. "Go big or go extinct," is criticised on the grounds it suggests the restaurant is threatening to kill its customers unless they go super-sized. Morgan Spurlock to investigate.

Stark Jaeger was uncommonly effective at arctic warfare until it abruptly got killed off without any warning before the end of Film #1.

A Japanese remake of UNFORGIVEN

Back in 1964, Clint Eastwood starred in a movie called A Fistful of Dollars. It's one of the best-known movies of his career and was a remake (if an unofficial one, resulting in a lawsuit) of the Japanese movie Yojimbo. The earlier Magnificent Seven was a (official, this time) remake of Seven Samurai. There's an interesting cross-pollination between the Western and Samurai genres, and now it's getting another iteration with a Japanese remake of Unforgiven.

Yurusarezaru Mono is the story of a respected veteran samurai, Jubei Kamata (Ken Watanabe). Kamata fought for the losing side in the wars that ended the Edo shogunate, but has survived to live as a rancher. When his wife dies and his family falls into poverty, Kamata is reluctantly forced to pick up the sword again as a bounty hunter, setting the scene for a bloody showdown. The film will be released in Japan on 13 September, hopefully with an English-subtitled version to follow.

Saturday 13 July 2013

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk

On 5 July 1943, the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany met in the biggest and most significant battle since the German defeat at Stalingrad. The Battle of Kursk, though not as well-known as Stalingrad, proved to be as significant for the destruction it caused amongst German personnel and material. The battle ended all chances for the Germans to retake the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front and grimly set the stage for two years of heavy fighting that would eventually lead to the Soviet capture of Berlin.

The Battle of Kursk, noted as one of the biggest field battles of the war.

During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russians successfully encircled the German Sixth Army fighting within the city, allowing them to prepare a grander offensive to cut off the German forces trying to seize Russian oil supplies in the Caucasus region. As it turned out, the tenacious German defence of Stalingrad allowed their comrades the time needed to evacuate: hundreds of thousands of German troops retreated from the Caucasus and managed to establish a new defensive line several hundred miles to the west, running from Rostov in the south to Leningrad in the north. This line was almost straight apart from one major protrusion: the Red Army had successfully retaken the city of Kursk, forming an immense (180 miles wide) salient into the German lines.

The German generals immediately saw an opportunity to retake Kursk and eliminate the Russian forces surrounding the city. The nature of the salient would allow German forces to attack simultaneously from the north and south, cutting off the city and forcing it to surrender. This was the classic German strategy, although it was also one that the Russians had used to devastating effect on the Germans at Stalingrad. Despite the likelihood of success, some German generals (such as Manstein and Guderian, the architects of blitzkrieg) thought the plan was too risky, as it mean using hundreds of thousands of German troops to retake a target that was, on its own, of limited value. Hitler, surprisingly, agreed but also noted that this was the last opportunity for the Germans to undertake an offensive campaign that they had a good chance of winning on the Eastern Front. If they succeeded, they could regain the initiative. If they failed, the war would likely be lost.

Unfortunately for the Germans, the Russians were well aware of their preference for attacking salients. Once it became clear that Kursk was a target the Germans could not ignore, the Russians began pouring men, tanks and artillery guns into the area. They established a defence in depth consisting of artillery pieces, minefields and anti-tank guns, with huge numbers of T-34 and KV-1 tanks ready to sweep in and knock out the advancing enemy panzers. And as the Germans dithered, so the vast area surrounding Kursk became even more impregnable.

Offensive Delayed
The original German plan had been to launch the offensive at the start of April 1943, only two months after their defeat at Stalingrad. At this point Kursk was still fairly vulnerable to attack, with the Russian military build-up only just getting underway. Hitler was finally persuaded into approving the operation, but was unhappy with the performance of the German Panzer IV tank against the T-34, the Russian mainstay. He wanted the heavier tanks that had been in development for some time available for use.

The first of these tanks was the Panther, a formidable machine designed to directly rebuff the T-34. Equipped with a heavier gun and better armour (though this resulted in less speed), the Panther was - eventually - the outstanding German tank of the Second World War. Even more formidable - at least on paper - was the Tiger. Larger, more heavily-armoured and better-armed than either the T-34 or Panther, the Tiger was a monstrous machine capable of causing immense damage. The expense of building them meant they would always be some what rare, but they were a much-needed force-equaliser against the numerically superior Russian tanks.

The problem was that the deployment of both tanks was running behind schedule, and the Kursk offensive was delayed several times due to the manufacturers not meeting their delivery targets. The Germans finally received enough of both tank to satisfy Hitler, who set the date for the offensive to begin as 5 July 1943.

The Plan
The German plan called for the 2nd Army to hold the Russians at bay on the west-facing side of the salient whilst the 9th Army under General Model attacked the salient from the north and the 4th Panzer Army (under General Hoth) and Army Detachment Kempf (under General Kempf) attacked from the south. As early as the end of April Model had become concerned over aerial reconnaissance that showed the scale of the Soviet build-up, pictures which convinced even Manstein that the plan was probably too ambitious, but Hitler had become committed to 'Operation Citadel'. General Guderian, infamous for his seeming total disregard for Hitler's formidable temper, suggested that Hitler abandon the operation and indeed all offensive plans for 1943. Instead they could use Manstein's plan to lure the Russians to attack on the southern front and then destroy them with a counter-offensive. Hitler's response was surprisingly downbeat: he agreed with Guderian and said the thought the operation turned his stomach. But it was the only option on the table and he was determined to see it through rather than do nothing.

Soviet signal flares are fired ahead of an armoured assault.

Military Forces and the Opening of the Battle
The three-month delay proved costly for the Germans, as the Russians had time to almost quadruple their own armoured forces in the salient and lay immense minefields. They brought in 300,000 civilian workers to help construct these defences rapidly. They constructed a defensive zone almost 190 miles in depth, the result of an almost unprecedented amount of preparation time: three months in the fast-moving war was almost luxurious. Just under 2 million men and just over 5,000 tanks were deployed in the Kursk region, backed up by over 25,000 artillery pieces and mortars. More than 3,000 aircraft were also assigned to the defence of the region. Startlingly, the Russians were able to deploy a minefield density of over 3,000 mines per square kilometre throughout the forward areas of the salient, enough to immensely slow down the German advance (or so it was hoped).

On the German side, some 900,000 troops, 3,000 tanks (including 240 Tigers and over 200 Panthers), 2,000 aircraft and 10,000 artillery pieces and mortars were deployed for the offensive. Not only were the Germans attacking a numerically superior enemy (not unusual for them), they were also attacking with a deficiency in material and a lack of available reinforcements (which was more unusual) if things went wrong.

In terms of tanks, both sides brought an unusually high number to the battle. The Germans committed 70% of their total available tank forces on the Eastern Front to the operation. The Russians brought in just under half of their total tank forces in existence at that time. The Russians also deployed considerable numbers of anti-tank mines, anti-tank artillery pieces and anti-tank rifles, resulting in a Russian superiority of both armoured numbers and also other anti-tank forces. Hitler was relying on the superiority of the Tigers and Panthers (as well as the newly-deployed Ferdinand tank destroyer) to turn the tide of numbers.

On the aerial side of things, the air superiority that the Germans had enjoyed throughout the war was beginning to wane. Constant British (and now American) air raids on Germany had called away fighters to defensive duties, and operations in North Africa were also putting a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe. The Red Air Force had also been compromised by poor equipment, but by the time of Kursk this had been remedied by the introduction of the Yak-9 and La-2 fighters and especially the Sturmovik IL-2 ground attack aircraft (arguably the outstanding Russian aircraft of the war). The Germans were slower to bring new equipment to the battle, though an upgraded Stuka and more Focke-Wulf FW-190s did help. Overall, neither side enjoyed air superiority in terms of equipment over the battlefield, though the Russians did enjoy numerical superiority.

Probing attacks by German scouts and pioneers were launched on the evening of 4 July. This resulted in a Russian artillery bombardment just after midnight which proved less effective than hoped. A major Red Air Force attack on German airfields was also fought off with heavy Soviet losses. On the southern face of the salient the Luftwaffe was able to quickly achieve local superiority to cover the ground offensive, but in the northern sector the Russians were able to hold the Germans at bay, resulting in aerial stalemate. The Germans returned fire with their own artillery bombardment, but this also failed to make much impact on the Russian positions, which were too well-dug-in.

The Offensive in the North
On the northern sector the Germans launched an overwhelming attack with mobile artillery and infantry, with Model's plan being to break open holes in the Russian lines that their panzers could exploit. Given that the weight of the defences was oriented towards resisting armour, this proved to be a reasonable decision, though it was criticised at the time. The northern forces achieved a breakthrough when they successfully identified a weak spot in the Russian lines between two divisions and drove into the gap, spearheaded by two dozen Tigers. The Russians fought them off by deploying 90 T-34s, but the Tigers made a formidable impression: 42 T-34s were destroyed to the loss of seven Tigers. Despite this impressive showing, the three-hour tank battle delayed the Germans and allowed the Russians to reinforce and beat off the attack.

Elsewhere in the northern sector the Germans ran into repeated problems: the sheer mass of the minefields slowed their advance to a crawl, which made them easy prey for enemy artillery and mortars. In one area the Germans achieved a breakthrough by using their Ferdinand tank-destroyers in an offensive capacity to attack a Russian artillery position, but the destroyers' lack of machine guns weapons left them easy prey for Russian small arms and anti-armour weapons.

With the German advanced slowed - only 5 miles' progress was made on the first day, astonishingly feeble by German standards - the Russians counter-attacked in force on the second day across the northern sector. The T-34s spearheading the attack enjoyed superior speed and manoeuvrability to the Tigers, but were now facing an enemy who could destroy them at range and shrugged off counter-fire (for too long, the T-34's advantage over the Panzer IV). The Russians suffered devastating losses in the attack and had to pull back.

The next few days saw heavy exchanges of fire, but Model refused to mass his tanks for a sustained assault, fearing the depth of the Russian minefields and the formidable anti-tank forces arrayed against him. On 12 July he - reluctantly - began preparations for a major armoured offensive but was caught off-guard by a Red Army advance  on Orel to the north which threatened to encircle him. With little choice, Model withdraw the entire German 9th Army from the battlefield. Whilst his caution had preserved his forces remarkably well (only 143 vehicles lost), it had also failed to achieve anything of note, only to prove the impressive nature of the Soviet defences. Still, Model's deployment of the Tiger tank was successful, achieving a kill-to-loss ratio against the until-then superior T-34 that served as a nasty wake-up call to the Russian commanders that their front-line tank need improving.

Though limited in speed and number, the superior firepower of the German Tiger inflicted tremendous losses upon the Russian forces during Kursk.

The Offensive in the South
The Germans launched a major assault from the south of the Kursk salient on 5 July. Unlike the more cautious attacks in the north, the southern German forces arrayed their tanks in concentrated spearheads. They brought large amounts of fire to bear on single parts of the Russian line. The Russians had also failed to anticipate the likely main axis of attack on the southern front, forcing them to spread out their defences. In short, the attack in the south allowed the Germans to unleash one of their favourite tactics: bringing maximum offensive power to bear against a single part of the enemy line, overwhelming the enemy's superior overall numbers on a local level.

These attacks in the south were impressive, but also exposed some serious problems. 200 Panthers were ordered into the fight, only for a dozen of them to break down before they even started action. After further thirty-three suffered mechanical breakdowns on the battlefield, leading to a failure rate of almost 25% without taking into account enemy action. The reason for this was simple: the Tiger had been deployed on a small level since late 1942 (though Kursk represented its first deployment on a mass scale) and some of its mechanical kinks had been ironed out (though others remained). The Panther had been rushed almost straight from the factory to the battlefield with little time for testing. The Panther's mechanical unreliability proved to be a major headache for the Germans, with battlefield-reliable Panthers not entering service until August 1944, far too late in the day to change the outcome of the war.

Despite the Panthers' teething troubles, the Germans did succeed in penetrating the Russian positions and getting to the second defensive line. Unfortunately, they could not follow up on this success: reinforcements were slow to arrive and in some cases were halted by katyusha strikes knocking out the bridges behind the German front units. Unexpected German tank successes forced some of the Russian armour to dig in. Helped by camouflage, these dug-in tanks worked as stationary (and hard-to-spot or hear) gun turrets and slowed the German offensive even further. Russian armour continued to counter-attack, achieving great successes against the weaker German tanks but continuing to face stiff resistance from the Tigers: one German Tiger destroyed 22 T-34s single-handed, winning its commander the Knight's Cross.

German progress in the south was slow but steady, but on 12 July, the same day the northern front collapsed and had to withdraw, they broke through the Russian lines near the town of Prokhorovka. The Russians had rushed as much armour as possible to meet the incursion, putting the pieces in place for the greatest tank battle in history.

The Battle of Prokhorovka
On the morning of 12 July, General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army advanced on Prokhorovka, its tanks clustered in one powerful spearhead. The Russian 5th Tank Guards Army responded, and the two massive armoured forces collided south-west of the town.

The resulting tank battle was fought on a flat plain extending across seventeen miles and lasting eight hours in stifling heat. The numbers involved are disputed, with conservative estimates stating that only about 900 tanks were involved (593 Russian tanks and 37 self-propelled guns versus 300 German tanks and guns), and more outlandish ones putting the figures closer to 2,000. Whatever the numbers, it was the biggest tank engagement of the Second World War. Hundreds of tanks advanced  across a relatively narrow front, resulting in a lengthy, sustained exchange of fire. The fighting was fierce and at close-quarters, allowing the T-34s to close with and engage the Tigers on a more equal footing. The Germans achieved aerial superiority over the battlefield and inflicted tremendous damage on the Russian forces. Despite the German tenacity and their strength of their tanks, the Russian lines held and the Germans were forced to withdraw. Both sides left hundreds of tanks smouldering on the battlefield, but the losses were more devastating for the Germans, who could ill afford to lose them and were slower replacing them.

Though still formidable, the Battle of Kurk proved the need for an upgraded, more powerful variant of the T-34 to answer the new German tanks.

The Closing Stages
By 16 July the Germans had won some ground and were holding it, but the lack of reinforcements compared to a steady replenishment of Russian tanks and troops began to tell. The German breakthroughs were impressive, but also not as significant as they first appeared: in some places the Germans still had five rings of defences to penetrate before they could capture the salient, and they had exhausted themselves battling through the first two. The Germans had also suffered devastating tank losses, with their problems compounded by the extremely poor performance of the Panther: out of the 200 present in the southern sector on 5 July, only 38 were still operational on the morning of 10 July, to the fury of the tank commanders. Only a few had been destroyed or captured, with the rest simply failing to work.

On 16 July the attack was called off and the Germans, exhausted, fell back to their start line. On 3 August the Soviets launched Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev, a major military operation designed to retake the city of Kharkov. Despite German resistance, the city fell on 23 August. The Germans were forced to retreat towards Kiev, meaning that not only had they failed to take the Kursk salient, but the Russians were able to successfully use the salient as a springboard for further, successful offensives into the southern part of the German lines and begin the re-conquest of the Ukraine.

In the north the Russians had launched Operation Kutuzov, an effort to liberate the city of Orel north-west of the Kursk salient, on 12 July. This operation forced the Germans to completely abandon the northern assault on Kursk or risk being encircled. On 5 August Orel itself fell, driving the Germans even further back and opening up a possible route for the Russians to advance on Smolensk.

By the end of the Battle of Kursk, the Germans had suffered a serious strategic reversal on the Eastern Front. It had lost a substantial number of its tanks on the Eastern Front, lost two major conquests (Orel and Kharkov) and was in danger of losing two, much more important cities (Smolensk and Kiev itself). The technological superiority of the Tiger and - when it worked - the Panther was proven, but both tanks were expensive to build and ineffective against the T-34 when it was fielded against them in superior numbers. Even the technical superiority of the German tanks was lost a few months later when the Russians (for a modest increase in price) upgraded their tanks with a new, heavier gun, resulting in the T-34/85. Once again, the T-34 was able to engage German armour at longer ranges without sacrificing their superior speed.

Kursk was the last throw of the dice for Hitler on the Eastern Front. Never again would the Germans be able to mount a large and sustained offensive in the east, and the stage was set for the infamous Russian offensives of 1944, Operation Bagration.