Friday 29 November 2013

WARCRAFT film moves dates to avoid STAR WARS

The WarCraft movie has moved its release date. Originally slated for release on 18 December 2015, Blizzard and Universal have decided to move the date due to Disney and Lucasfilm committed to the same day for Star Wars: Episode VII.

As related earlier this month, the WarCraft movie will be an origin story, featuring the first conflict between the Alliance under Anduin Lothar and the Orc Horde commanded by Durotan, as related in the first two strategy games in the series. Duncan Jones, the director of Moon and Source Code, will be helming the picture. Rumours that Jones's dad will be cameoing as the king of the goblins cannot be substantiated at this time. Mainly because I made them up.

Thursday 28 November 2013

HERO QUEST maybe not returning after all

Just a few days into its campaign to resurrect the classic 1989 board game Hero Quest, Gamezone Miniatures have run afoul of IP laws and had the project suspended.

So far the only official word is that the Kickstarter is the subject of a copyright dispute, with no word given on what parties are involved. The most likely possibility is that Hasbro, who own the Hero Quest brand name and the original game rights, were not impressed with Gamezone's claim that they would be shipping the game outside of Spain and other countries where they still have the licence. According to Gamezone, they had been in talks with Hasbro about officially licencing the game to other territories (presumably for a fee); Gamezone saying they could ship anywhere in the world effectively meant they were saying this was not required and the game could be delivered regardless of talks with Hasbro, which Hasbro may have taken a dim view of.

An alternative possibility is that the famously litigious-even-when-they-don't-have-a-leg-to-stand-on Games Workshop decided to get involved. Whilst Hero Quest was created and owned by MB (owned by Hasbro), Games Workshop created the lore for the original game and manufactured the miniatures, some of which were drawn from its Warhammer IP. The only Warhammer-specific monsters in the original game were Fimirs and Chaos Knights, neither of which were apparently going to feature in the new version; all of the other creatures were 'standard' elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, undead, gargoyles etc. Removing the few (and always very vague) references to the Warhammer world from the setting and plot description would also be very easy.

Even if Gamezone's project is unable to continue, hopefully the fact that people were willing to back it to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars sight unseen might mean that the project could be continued by Hasbro themselves. More news as it appears.

Under the Dome: Season 1

The town of Chester's Mill is sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible dome. The inhabitants - and various visitors - have to manage dwindling supplies and social disorder whilst trying to figure out how to escape.

We live in a golden age of television, with TV shows pushing further in crafting excellent narratives and creating compelling characters out of even the most mundane of situations. Rising budgets and production values mean that TV shows now often look like movies, sometimes with big movie stars opting for the less-lucrative but more creatively and artistically rewarding opportunities to slowly explore and develop characters over hours and maybe years. It's a great time to be a TV fan.

Under the Dome therefore stands as a stark warning that we should not be complacent or overconfident that this is a state that will last forever. Under the Dome is a horrible show, so terrible that on a fundamental level all involved with it must know how bad it is, and therefore can only have made it deliberately as a warning to others to stay on the ball and avoid this show's pitfalls.

Under the Dome is based on Stephen King's quite excruciatingly awful novel of the same name, but in a move that is actually impressive, is awful for completely different reasons. The primary weaknesses of King's novel - the ludicrous implausibility at how quickly everything disintegrates and its unhealthy obsession with raping Twilight fans (seriously Stephen, we know you're a Harry Potter fan but that's just juvenile) - are fortunately missing from the TV show. Brian K. Vaughan - the man credited with saving Lost from a dip in form during its early third season - has great credentials and is a good enough writer to know what to change from the book (i.e. almost everything apart from the dome itself and a few character names) to make it work on TV. But pretty much none of it does work.

The biggest problem is the total lack of decent, compelling characters. Our main lead appears to be Dale 'Barbie' Barbara, but he is a rather unsympathetic killer and thug. Actor Mike Vogel initially gives it his all, but after a couple of episodes seems to realise that the inexplicable lurches in his character's motivations aren't going away and decides to sleep-walk through the rest of the series. Rachelle Lefevre also gamely engages with her character of Julia before realising she doesn't have a character, just a cliche (unconventional journalist from out of town with totally amazing hair), and likewise phones it in. The young kids are more enthusiastic and get some credit for being the only people in town actually bothered about what the dome is and where it came from, but their lack of experience and some poor direction results in them lurching from painfully over-acting to massively underselling big moments.

There are some good points in the cast. Natalie Martinez's character of Linda has some bizarre character turns and is rather gullible at times, but she at least just about manages to sell the idea of a character cracking up from the stress of the situation (whether that was the aim or not). Dean Norris also brings some much-needed charisma to the antagonistic role of 'Big Jim' Rennie, even if some of his quite astonishing lines are delivered through teeth hugely gritted as he tries to forget he went from filming Breaking Bad to this mess (a drop in quality only comparable to Natalie Portman appearing in Black Swan and then Your Highness). However, the good work of others is undone by Alexander Koch as Junior. His utter lack of acting talent and the way he seems to have only three stand-by expressions he moves between, sometimes randomly, is almost hypnotic. It's certainly the worst performance by a regular in a TV series that I've seen in many, many years.

The writing is also awful. Brian K. Vaughan has some seriously good work to his name, but he seems unable to employ it here. Dialogue is expositionary, unconvincing and wooden in the extreme. You can predict how entire scenes will go - sometimes down to lines - from their opening moments. The show also starts back-pedalling from its premise - a bunch of people trapped together in a dome - immediately by periodically bringing in new characters and unconvincingly explaining they've been in hiding since the dome came down. When the writing doesn't even have the courage to deal with the basic premise of the show, there's a huge problem.

Under the Dome's first season (*½) is almost irredeemably bad. The writing is almost completely bad, the acting is mostly bad, very little about it (from character motivations to the supply situation to the utter lack of contact with the outside world after the third or fourth episode) makes any kind of sense and the whole thing feels like a big, dead, inert weight. A few flashes of competence from a couple of the actors are the only thing that makes watching it even remotely bearable. Still, it's a vast improvement on the novel.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

LES REVENANTS wins International Emmy Award for Best Drama

French drama Les Revenants (aka The Returned in the UK and USA) has won the International Emmy Award for Best Drama.

The drama was made by and airs on Canal+ in France, with Channel 4 repeating the show in the UK and the Sundance Channel in the United States. Canal+ begin shooting the second season early next year and it will air in the autumn of 2014 in France. The UK and USA are both planning their own versions of the drama.

This is the second year in a row that France has won the award, with Canal+'s crime drama Braquo winning last year.

WASTELAND 2 approaches completion

InXile Entertainment today confirmed that Wasteland 2, their forthcoming post-apocalyptic RPG, is nearing completion. The game's beta testing stage will commence in mid-December, allowing thousands of players the chance to try a 10-hour slice of the game (which, depending on some reports, may only be about a quarter of the whole game). They will be testing for bugs and reporting back on gameplay issues such as combat and UI, which inXile can tweak before the final release.

No final release date has been set yet, but typically betas last 2-3 months, making a Spring 2014 release highly likely. Wasteland 2 is the sequel to a 1988 RPG which is counted as being highly influential; the Fallout franchise was created by the same team ten years later when they were unable to use the Wasteland name.

With work drawing to a close on Wasteland 2, the inXile's team are now ramping up work on Torment: Tides of Numenera, their other RPG which will be a spiritual successor to the classic 1999 game Planescape: Torment. That game is expected to be released in 2015.

FOUNDATION movie becomes a TV series

Roland Emmerich's Foundation project has moved from the big screen to television, with the director confirming that his next film will instead be the unasked-for Independence Day sequel.

According to Emmerich:
"We're trying to do it as a big mini-series, but even there you would have to change the story itself and set it in a time when the galaxy has fallen apart - and then you're pretty much making a TV show with all these characters and playing all the scenes out. You can [do that] and we'll see what happens. We tried so hard [to make it into a movie], honestly, because it's one of my most favourite books. I just love it."

Here's a thought. If you love the book so much, why not just do an adaptation rather than arse around with it? If anything, the episodic structure of the books (the first three 'novels' in the series are actually linked collections of short stories and novellas) would map onto a TV series very well.

This is still early in development, with no writer or studio yet attached.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

HERO QUEST returns

Back in 1989 Games Workshop joined forces with MB Games to produce Hero Quest, a miniatures boardgame which pitted four heroes against the forces of a diabolical wizard. The game drew on the Warhammer world and setting for inspiration, though foreknowledge of that game was not required. The game was immensely successful in Europe and a minor hit in the USA, spawning both an SF spin-off (Space Crusade, based on the Warhammer 40,000 setting) and numerous expansions to the base game. Now it's coming back.

The original Hero Quest and its monsters, board and scenery.

Gamezone Miniatures have the licence to reproduce the original board game in Spain, as well as adding various new features to it (the 'scenery' markers in the original game were cardboard tokens, but in this release will be small 3D models). Gamezone are also talking to other IP holders (Hasbro own the Hero Quest IP in the UK) about rolling out a wider release. However, the game will be available (in English) from Spain for international orders.

The Kickstarter has already been an enormous success, raising over $320,000 of a mere asked-for $58,000 in just a day. It's expected that the appeal will comfortably raise more than $1 million before the Kickstarter closes in 30 days' time.

A rough mock-up of the new version.

Teaser trailer for ORPHAN BLACK Season 2

Orphan Black was the best new SF show of 2013, despite some stiff competition from The Returned (and absolutely none whatsoever from Under the Dome; look forwards to a review soon). It's back on BBC America (in the USA), SPACE (in Canada) and BBC-3 (in the UK) next year. The following is a teaser trailer that SPACE dropped in just before airing the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, just to make all of its viewers even more excited than they had been previously.

Orphan Black returns on 19 April in the USA and Canada, and likely August again in the UK.

Monday 25 November 2013

Warner Brothers considering HD update for BABYLON 5

George Feltenstein, Senior Vice-President for Theatrical Catalogue Marketing at Warner Brothers (translation: he's one of the guys in charge of the DVD and Blu-Ray department) has recently confirmed that the company are actively looking into the possibility of re-releasing Babylon 5 on Blu-Ray. Feltenstein acknowledged that this would be expensive and possibly impractical, but that the B5 fanbase is large enough to warrant making the effort.

"Babylon 5 is an extraordinarily important franchise to all of Warner Brothers. So much so that it is of course very much on the minds at everybody at Warner home video, and bringing Babylon 5 to a next generation shall we say, is very much on the minds of everyone involved. The fact that the show was post produced on video tape and FX were done on video tape makes bringing another iteration a very expensive proposition. But it is being discussed in the highest of quarters."
"There might be hope, but there is nothing to report that’s a fact. Lets just say that the powers that be are very smart and they know the fan desire is out there."

Babylon 5 aired 110 episodes (and seven TV movies, including the pilot) between 1993 and 1998, with additional TV movies being made in 2001 and 2007, as well as a short-lived spin-off series called Crusade which ran for 13 episodes in 1999. Though it enjoyed solid ratings for most of its run, Babylon 5 was never the ratings juggernaut that the various Star Trek shows were. However, its critical acclaim was immense, often eclipsing that of its contemporary Star Trek shows. It won two back-to-back Hugo Awards in 1996 and 1997, as well as various Emmies for its cutting-edge CGI effects work. The original series was released on DVD in 2003 and 2004 and according to some sources has made over $500 million in worldwide sales for Warner Brothers.

Like most US TV shows of the time, Babylon 5 was recorded on film but mastered - having special effects, music and sound effects added - on video tape. Video tape cannot be upscaled to high-definition resolution, preventing the show from being upscaled as-is and released on Blu-Ray. Instead, the only way to upscale the entire show is to go back to the original film elements, extract a HD image and then re-edit each episode from scratch. Whilst the original audio tracks can be re-used, the special effects would also all have to be remade from scratch and edited back in. In the case of Babylon 5, which sometimes had 100 CGI shots per episode, this would be extremely expensive and time-consuming.

However, last year CBS began re-releasing Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray and put the show through this extremely laborious process. Each season takes over four months (and closer to six for the first couple) and $9 million to bring up to scratch. The Blu-Ray re-releases have been extremely successful and wildly acclaimed, and some of the same personnel are now allegedly working on a similar Blu-Ray re-release for The X-Files for next year, whilst the ST:TNG team is rumoured to be moving straight onto Deep Space Nine (which has many more CGI shots) once TNG is completed early next year. Warner Brothers have certainly been monitoring the situation and the sales to judge whether it is worthwhile to pursue a similar process for Babylon 5.

The viability of this plan would depend on the original film stock having been stored in good conditions. According to rumour, the Babylon 5 pilot episode's film has been damaged in storage, initially by flooding and later by rats getting into the facility. The status of the rest of the show is not known. If it has all been stored, then upgrading the show's live action scenes to HD will be relatively quick and easy. More complex are the CGI scenes and composite scenes (scenes mixing live action and CGI, including every time a PPG weapon is fired), which would need to be completely redone from scratch. The cost of this may be too much to be practical. Still, it's encouraging to know that WB are at least looking into the matter.

Friday 22 November 2013

Telltale working on a GAME OF THRONES game (rumour)

Telltale Games, the well-respected adventure game studio behind the critically-acclaimed Tales of Monkey Island, The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, is developing a Game of Thrones title according to several industry reports.

"In the game of Game of Thrones, you win or you reload."

Telltale recently confirmed that they had secured a major and exciting licence. Previously they had spoken of the great potential offered by the Game of Thrones licence for storytelling, and it was a property they were interested in working on:
"I think we’d like to do that. It has a lot of what we need in a franchise, for sure. The intrigue, the threat, that looming threat that can be called in on you at any time. Or someone you love, similarly. It’s a dangerous world, basically, and a haywire, chaotic world with a lot of group dynamics. That’s super interesting."
Based on information from, it appears that such a game would be based on the HBO TV series rather than the Song of Ice and Fire novels. We await official word on the rumours from Telltale, HBO and George R.R. Martin. Based on the superb quality of their Walking Dead game (easily the best slice of the franchise released in any medium to date), I hope this news is true.

Doctor Who at 50: The Eleventh Doctor (2010-13)

Matt Smith (1982-  ) played the Eleventh Doctor in 44 episodes airing over three seasons and several specials. He also appeared in two episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures and voiced the Doctor in a series of computer games. He was 26 when he was cast in the role, making him the youngest actor to play the Doctor to date. During Smith's tenure the show achieved a major breakthrough in popularity in the United States.

The Eleventh Doctor (2010-13)

When David Tennant announced he was leaving Doctor Who in 2010, there were doubts about how someone could fill his shoes. Tennant had expanded upon and consolidated the success of Christopher Eccleston's season, winning significant critical and popular acclaim for his performance and elevating the show onto another level of success.

There was also a significant change behind the scenes: Russell T. Davies, who had masterminded the show's return in 2005, had departed and handed the reigns to incoming showrunner Steven Moffat, who had written several of the show's most popular episodes since its return. One of Moffat's first jobs was to cast the new Doctor and settled on Matt Smith.

Matt Smith was only 26 when he was cast, three years younger than Peter Davison had been when he started in the role. There was widespread scepticism over the decision, some believing that Smith was too young. However, others pointed to Smith's experience in television and on stage. He had played a lead role in BBC dramas based on Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart novels (appearing opposite Doctor Who star Billie Piper) for which he had received good reviews.

With a new Doctor also came a new companion, Amy Pond (played Karen Gillan), and a new 'reboot' of the series. Thanks to the presence of mysterious cracks in space and time, the events of the Eccleston/Tennant era seem to have been forgotten about (Pond has never heard of the Daleks, despite their very public two attacks on Earth in the previous seasons) or even erased, allowing Moffat to move forwards without getting tripped up in cumbersome continuity. It is notable that, with the exception of Rose in the 50th Anniversary Special, no contemporary Earth-based recurring characters from the Eccleston/Tennant era reappeared in the Smith one (not counting Sarah-Jane Smith in her own series).

Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). Appearing regularly across three seasons, they are the longest-running companions since the show's return in 2005.
Whilst each of Davies's seasons had revolved a recurring 'arc' element, Moffat took this to new extremes, with a much more involved storyline for each season and a more complicated over-arcing storyline taking in all of Smith's run. These arcs involved time travel, paradoxes and crossing timelines (something previously forbidden, but done much more readily during Smith's tenure). Whilst some applauded Moffat for using the show's time travel premise much more inventively than in the past, others criticised the storylines for being extremely confusing and also rather implausible. There was also criticism that characters Moffat had used once highly effectively - such as River Song and the Weeping Angels - had become watered down through over-use through multiple episodes. Attempts to freshen up the Daleks, by having them 'win' one episode and return in force rather than the scattered individuals encountered in the Davies era, were also generally unsuccessful, with criticisms of both the design of the new Daleks (forcing a backpedal to the previous design) and again their over-use removing their sense of menace.

A lot of these criticisms were resolved during Smith's final season when Amy Pond departed the show and a new companion, Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Louise Coleman) was introduced, along with a recurring band of the Doctor's allies based in Victorian London, the 'Paternoster Gang'. These elements re-focused the storyline on the Doctor's identity, a key theme in the run-up to the show's 50th anniversary in 2013.

However, the Matt Smith era did face one significant hurdle: the BBC's budget crisis. Due to the global economic crisis of 2008, the BBC faced significant budget cuts. Starting in 2010, these cuts were applied to Doctor Who. Initially these cuts forced a reduction in budget-per-episode, but by 2012 they had grown serious enough to start affecting the number-of-episodes per season. Rather than filming cut-down seasons, Moffat elected to extend the seventh season (of the 'new series') over two years instead, including a number of special episodes to appear afterwards to celebrate the 50th anniversary. The result is that in the last two years of Smith's run only (all of 2012 and 2013) only 16 episodes were made, compared to 27 in the previous two years. Fans were highly critical of this due to the fact that the show was still making the BBC immense amounts of money in overseas sales and merchandise. However, due to the way the BBC was structured, this money could not go back into Doctor Who by itself, but into the BBC's overall budget. How the budget will affect episodes going forwards remains to be seen.

Clara Oswald (Jenna Louise Coleman), Strax (Dan Starkey), the Doctor (Matt Smith), Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) confront the Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant) in The Name of the Doctor).

Also during the Matt Smith era, Doctor Who made significant inroads into SF fandom in the United States. Doctor Who had been a cult hit in the States since the late 1970s, when Tom Baker episodes were shown on various PBS stations, but the revived series had aired on SyFy and been quite badly treated. With the move to BBC America halfway through Tennant's run, the show suddenly got a lot more attention. Smith was the first Doctor to really embrace the American experience, visiting San Diego Comic-Con and having episodes filmed in the United States.

In 2013 Smith announced he was leaving the role of the Doctor. Despite a flurry of rumours that the next Doctor would be a woman, it was eventually announced that Peter Capaldi would be taking over the role, becoming the oldest actor to play the role since William Hartnell in 1963. He is due to take over from Matt Smith in the 2013 Christmas special, the 800th episode of the series.

Season 31/Series 5: 3/4/10-26/6/10 (13 episodes)
5.1: The Eleventh Hour ****
5.2: The Beast Below ***
5.3: Victory of the Daleks ***
5.4/5.5: The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone ***½
5.6: The Vampires of Venice ***
5.7: Amy's Choice ***
5.8/5.9: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2 episodes) ***½
5.10: Vincent and the Doctor ****
5.11: The Lodger ***½
5.12/5.13: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang ***

Season 32/Series 6: 25/12/10, 23/4/11-4/6/11, 27/8/11-1/10/11 (14 episodes)
6.X: A Christmas Carol (1 60-minute episode) ***
6.1/6.2: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon **½
6.3: The Curse of the Black Spot **½
6.4: The Doctor's Wife *****
6.5/6.6: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People **½
6.7: A Good Man Goes to War ***
6.8: Let's Kill Hitler **
6.9: Night Terrors ***
6.10: The Girl Who Waited ****
6.11: The God Complex ***
6.12: Closing Time ***
6.13: The Wedding of River Song **½

Season 33/Series 7: 25/12/11, 1/9/12-29/9/12, 25/12/12, 30/3/13-18/5/13, 23/11/13, 25/12/13 (17 episodes)
7.X: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (1 60-minute episode) ***
7.1: Asylum of the Daleks ***½
7.2: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship ***
7.3: A Town Called Mercy ****
7.4: The Power of Three **½
7.5: The Angels Take Manhattan **½
7.6: The Snowmen ****
7.7: The Bells of Saint John ***
7.8: The Rings of Akhaten **
7.9: Cold War ****½
7.10: Hide ****
7.11: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS ***
7.12: The Crimson Horror ****
7.13: Nightmare in Silver ***
7.14: The Name of the Doctor ***½
7.15: The Day of the Doctor (1 90-minute episode)
7.16: 2013 Christmas Special (1 60-minute episode)

(7.15 and 7.16 are formally their own self-contained episodes, not part of Season 33/7 or the upcoming 34/8, but for simplicity's sake I have included them as part of that season)

The Eleventh Doctor will regenerate into his twelfth incarnation in the 2013 Christmas Special, under circumstances yet to be revealed.

The Eleventh Doctor's Companions and Allies
Amy Pond (Karen Gillan): Seasons 31-33 (5.1-7.5)
Rory Williams (Peter Darvill): Seasons 31-33 (5.1, 5.6-5.9, 5.12-7.5)
Clara Oswald (Jenna Louise Coleman): Season 33-  (7.1, 7.6-  )
Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh): Season 32- (6.7, 7.6, 7.12, 7.14)
Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart): Season 32- (6.7, 7.6, 7.12, 7.14)
Strax (Dan Starkey): Season 32-  (6.7, 7.6, 7.12, 7.14)

Wednesday 20 November 2013

BLACK MESA gets a new engine, official Steam support

Black Mesa, the excellent recreation of the original Half-Life in the Source Engine, has won the approval of Valve and is getting an official Steam re-release. This re-release will run on an updated engine, possibly Source 2 (currently being used for the in-development-but-not-formally-confirmed-yet Left For Dead 3 and Half-Life 3) or the latest version of the original Source that is powering the likes of Portal 2 and (in a heavily modified form) Titanfall. There will also be other, unspecified, extras.

According to the team, the original version will remain available for free, whilst the new version will incur a 'minimal' cost. They also report that the second part of Black Mesa, which will cover the controversial Xen levels of the original game, is still a way off as development for the past year has focused on the Steam version of Black Mesa.

Black Mesa is excellent, so this news is welcome. It's also possible (my speculation) that an official release will pave the way for it to come out on consoles as well.

HBO no longer developing AMERICAN GODS

Neil Gaiman has confirmed that the American Gods TV series has moved networks. It was formerly in development at HBO for several years, with Gaiman recently reporting that he'd completed a third draft of the pilot script and excitement was building at HBO over the project.

However, via Reddit, Gaiman has announced that the series is moving ahead elsewhere and a formal announcement will be made soon. Given that the series seemed to moving forwards on all thrusters at HBO, this news is most surprising.

Guillermo Del Toro's TV series greenlit

Guillermo Del Toro is executive producing a new TV series, The Strain (which depicts an infection of New York by creatures that are somewhere between vampires and zombies), based on a trilogy of novels he co-authored with Chuck Hogan. The project originally began as a TV series and became a book series when the original network passed on the project, so it's come full circle.

A non-broadcast pilot was produced last year, directed by Del Toro, with John Hurt starring as Professor Abraham Setrakian. Sadly, Hurt elected not to play the role full-time in the series and will be recast. The other castmembers, most notably Corey Stoll as protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, will be retained. Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings's Sam Gamgee) will also have a recurring role alongside Kevin Durand (Keamy from Lost).

The series has been picked up for a 13-episode first season by FX. Apparently they envisage the show running for either three or five seasons, depending on ratings. On top the normal series budget, FX are also dedicating $500,000 to the creation of the creatures that will be needed for the series.

Del Toro's day-to-day involvement in the show is likely to be limited, especially if the Pacific Rim sequel is greenlit, so the show will be primarily run by Carlton Cuse, the former co-showrunner on Lost.

The books aren't great, but they are serviceable popcorn entertainment. Hopefully the TV series will be a bit better.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Happy 15th anniversary to HALF-LIFE

Valve's seminal masterpiece, Half-Life, celebrates its 15th birthday today. The original game was released on 19 November 1998 and completely changed the face of gaming, especially in the first-person shooter genre.

Fighting a helicopter is ten-a-penny in modern shooters. But in 1998 this was totally jaw-dropping.

Half-Life was notable for its total immersion: the main character, Gordon Freeman, never spoke and there were no cut scenes to take you away from the action. Instead the game involved you in its world and action at every turn. Exposition and plot development was fairly restrained, with you picking up clues on what was going on in the world from overheard conversations and notes pinned to walls. The combat was sublime, especially at the time, and the game was noted for its strong art style, sense of place and exceptional AI. Some criticisms were levelled at its linearity, overly-frequent load points and the dull closing levels on the planet Xen, but overall the game is well deserving of its masterpiece status. Two expansions from Gearbox followed, Opposing Force (1999, excellent) and Blue Shift (2000, meh). Last year a superb modern remake of the pre-Xen levels, Black Mesa, was released and was totally worthy of the Half-Life name.

After a long delay, the game was followed by a sequel, Half-Life 2, released in late 2004 to almost as much acclaim. Two of three planned expansions followed, Episode One (2006) and Episode Two (2007), as well as two games set in the same universe but focusing on different elements, Portal (2007) and Portal 2 (2011). Valve went on to also create Steam, the PC's biggest digital gaming store (with over 65 million active accounts) which has been credited with helping save PC gaming from falling into obscurity and restoring it to the front line of gaming popularity.

It has been informally confirmed (via many, many leaks from Valve) that Valve are now working on Half-Life 3, which replaces and supersedes the missing Episode Three, but it is unknown when we will get to see it.

So happy birthday to Half-Life and congratulations to Valve, who have gone from a bunch of ex-Microsoft developers and Quake map-makers into one of the biggest and most important companies in gaming. And it all began with a certain tram ride a decade and a half ago.

PREACHER TV show given a pilot order by Sony

Garth Ennis's ultra-dark, ultra-violent comic book Preacher is to be adapted for television. HBO was offered the project several years ago and passed on it, by some reports to make Game of Thrones instead. Sam Mendes was then tipped to direct a movie version, but eventually opted for Skyfall, noting that the property was better-suited for TV. Sony Pictures Television, the makers of the recently-concluded Breaking Bad, have now picked up the TV rights.

Rumours that Arseface will be played by Piers Morgan cannot be substantiated at this time.

Sony have given an order for a pilot, with AMC (which screens The Walking Dead) picking up the US broadcast rights. Seth Rogen (yes, that one), Evan Goldberg and Breaking Bad writer Sam Caitlin are developing the series. Ennis is on board as a creative consultant.

Preacher centres on Jesse Custer, a preacher from Texas, who gains tremendous powers to influence other beings with the Word of God. Custer also learns of chaos erupting in Heaven in the wake of God going AWOL, with the angels urgently dispatching agents to recover the Word of God. Vampires and other supernatural entities also feature. The comic ran for 75 issues, running from 1995 to 2000, racking up huge amounts of both controversy (for its depiction of the Christian religion) and accolades alike.


Harebrained Schemes have released some new info on the first major expansion to their recent hit RPG, Shadowrun Returns. Formerly entitled Berlin, the new expansion has now been renamed Shadowrun: Dragonfall, though it will still be predominantly set in Berlin.

In addition to the name change, the expansion will feature upgrades to the engine, including the much-requested ability to save anywhere (this feature will also be patched back into Shadowrun Returns itself). The expansion will differ in format from the linear main game and will instead be based around hubs where, as well as pursuing the main storyline, the player will be able to pursue a large number of optional side-missions.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall will be released in January 2014.

Monday 18 November 2013

Doctor Who at 50: The Tenth Doctor (2005-10)

David Tennant (1971-  ) played the Tenth Doctor in 47 episodes airing over three seasons and a subsequent series of special-length episodes. He appeared in more episodes than any Doctor since Peter Davison and had more screen-time in the role than any Doctor since Tom Baker. He also reprised the role in web minisodes and on The Sarah-Jane Adventures before returning in the 50th anniversary special. He had three long-running companions and a number of short-term ones and recurring allies. The Weeping Angels and River Song also debuted during his tenure.

The Tenth Doctor (2005-10)

Doctor Who had returned to BBC screens in March 2005 to huge ratings and critical acclaim. The BBC was pleased and commissioned two further seasons and a Christmas special in short order. However, Christopher Eccleston had announced that he was standing down at the Ninth Doctor before the season had even finished airing, prompting Russell T. Davies to have to quickly find a replacement. Whilst several actors were considering (including, according to rumour, Bill Nighy as an older Doctor) Davies's first choice was David Tennant, whom he had worked with on the ITV mini-series Casanova. Tennant, a fan of the show since childhood, did not formally audition and was instead offered the role off the cuff at a screening event. He said yes immediately.

Tennant's appearance came at the end of the finale to Eccleston's season, via a specially-filmed segment inserted into the episode months after the rest of it was shot. He then immediately began filming the 2005 Christmas special and the next season. To preserve continuity, Billie Piper continued in the role of Rose as his companion. Tennant was immediately popular, with fans and critics praising his enthusiastic and energetic performance which contrasted with Eccleston's more reserved and intense demeanour. During Tennant's first season the Cybermen also returned (for the first time since 1988's Silver Nemesis) and the season concluded with a monstrous three-way battle between humans, Daleks and Cybermen on Earth in the Torchwood Institute.

The success of the show led to the BBC requesting not just one but two spin-off shows. One would air at a later time than Doctor Who and would be darker, more adult and edgy. The other would be a children's programme. Davies had been working on an idea for an SF drama series when he was invited to take over Doctor Who, so combined this idea with Doctor Who's continuity to create Torchwood. This new series would see a secret organisation tackling alien threats to Earth whilst the Doctor was elsewhere. John Barrowman returned as Captain Jack Harkness (last seen in the final Eccleston story). The series aired for two full seasons before falling foul of reduced BBC budgets in the wake of the financial crisis: its third season, a mini-series called Children of Earth, aired to popular and critical acclaim in 2009. A fourth, Miracle Day, was a co-production with the American Starz network which aired in 2011 and was again a ratings smash, but the critical reception was more mixed. Since then the show has been on hiatus.

The Cybermen returned in Rise of the Cybermen, their first appearance for 18 years.

The second spin-off show was conceived whilst Davies was working on the second new season of Doctor Who. To complicate Rose Tyler's relationship with the Doctor, Davies wanted to bring back classic companion Sarah-Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen), who had travelled with the Third and Fourth Doctors from 1974 to 1976 as a way of demonstrating to Rose that she might not be anything special and would one day be left behind as well. Impressed by Sladen's enthusiasm and performance, not to mention the very positive fan reception to the news of her return, Davies proposed The Sarah-Jane Adventures, a new drama series for CBBC. This spin-off began airing in 2007 and finished in 2011 after five seasons, ended only by the sad news of Elisabeth Sladen's premature passing.

Back on the main show, Davies and Tennant proved a winning team. Through three full seasons of the show (from 2006 to 2008) they delivered both ratings success (frequently bringing in more than 10 million viewers per week, figures unseen since the 1970s and unheard of for a modern British drama) and critical respect, with episodes penned by Steven Moffat being particularly highly regarded. Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and the Silence in the Library two-parter (which introduced the character of River Song) were all proclaimed as classics. The show also won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation for three out of the four years that the Tennant era was eligible. The show even finally succeeded in cracking America: SyFy dropped the show after two years, so it was transferred to BBC America. The BBC America network was rapidly gaining kudos and critical appeal and Doctor Who proved its ace calling card, delivering impressive viewers (compared to its subscription base).

Blink is the most critically highly-regarded episode since the show's return in 2005. It was written by Steven Moffat, introduced the Weeping Angels and won a Hugo Award.

After the fourth season since the show's return, it was decided to give Tennant a much-needed break. Instead of a full fifth season, a series of TV movies was commissioned. However, during the planning process both Tennant and Davies decided they wanted to leave the show. The TV movie format and the resulting greater budget allowed Davies to send Tennant out with a massive bang in a story that revisited the Time War and the Doctor's greatest enemy, the Master (now played by John Simm). Tennant spoke publicly of the difficulties of the decision and how he had wrestled with it, reflected in his final line as the Doctor: "I don't want to go!"

With the mutual departure of Tennant and Davies, Steven Moffat was appointed as showrunner. After a casting process, the role of the Doctor was given to Matt Smith. But Tennant's involvement was not over: three years later it was confirmed that Tennant and Billie Piper would return for the show's 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, to air on 23 November 2013.

Season 28/Series 2: 25/12/05, 15/4/06-8/7/06  (14 episodes)
2.X: The Christmas Invasion (1 60-minute episode) ***½
2.1: New Earth ***
2.2: Tooth and Claw ***½
2.3: School Reunion ***½
2.4: The Girl in the Fireplace ****½
2.5/2.6: Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (2 episodes) ***
2.7: The Idiot's Lantern ***
2.8/2.9: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2 episodes) ***½
2.10: Love and Monsters *
2.11: Fear Her *
2.12/2.13: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2 episodes) ***½

Season 29/Series 3: 15/12/06,  31/3/07-20/06/07 (14 episodes)
3.X: The Runaway Bride (1 60-minute episode) ***
3.1: Smith and Jones
3.2: The Shakespeare Code
3.3: Gridlock
3.4/3.5: Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks **½
3.6: The Lazarus Experiment
3.7: 42
3.8/3.9: Human Nature/The Family of Blood ****
3.10: Blink *****
3.11/3.12/3.13: Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (3 episodes) ****

Season 30/Series 4: 25/12/07, 5/04/08-5/07/08, 25/12/08, 11/04/09, 15/11/09, 25/12/09, 1/1/10 (14 episodes, 5 TV movies)
4.X: Voyage of the Damned (1 60-minute episode) ***½
4.1: Partners in Crime
4.2: The Fires of Pompeii
4.3: Planet of the Ood
4.4/4.5: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2 episodes)
4.6: The Doctor's Daughter
4.7: The Unicorn and the Wasp
4.9/4.10: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead ***½
4.8: Midnight ***½
4.11: Turn Left ****
4.12/4.13: The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (2 episodes, second episode is 65 minutes) ***
4.14: The Next Doctor (1 60-minute episode) ***½
4.15: Planet of the Dead (1 60-minute episode) ***½
4.16: The Waters of Mars (1 60-minute episode) ***½
4.17/4.18: The End of Time (1 60-minute and 1 75-minute episode) ****

The Tenth Doctor regenerated at the end of The End of Time, having absorbed massive amounts of radiation in order to save the life of Wilfred Mott.

The Tenth Doctor's Companions and Recurring Allies
Rose Tyler (Billie Piper): Seasons 28, 30 (2.X-2.13, 4.11-4.13)
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman): Seasons 29-30 (3.1-3.13, 4.4-4.5, 4.12-4.13, 4.18)
Donna Noble (Catherine Tate): Seasons 29-30  (3.X, 4.1-4.13)
Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke): Seasons 28, 30 (2.X, 2.3-2.6, 2.12-2.13, 4.12-4.13, 4.18
Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman): Seasons 29-30 (3.11-3.13, 4.12-4.13)
Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins): Season 30 (4.1, 4.12-4.13, 4.17-4.18)
Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen): Seasons 28, 30 (2.3, 4.12-4.13, 4.18)

The Witcher

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a warrior who hunts down and kills monsters using specialised training and unparallelled knowledge of alchemy. Having lost his memory, Geralt finds his way back to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen, which soon comes under attack from a cult of mages, rogues and assassins known as Salamandra. The witchers' investigation into this cult leads Geralt to the kingdom of Temeria, where tensions seethe between the human and non-human inhabitants. Geralt must brave the perils of court intrigue, assassinations in back alleys and diplomacy with the fanatically hostile elves to track down and destroy Salamandra, and find the clues to his own lost past.

The Witcher was originally released in 2007 in a state that can charitably be called 'imperfect', with loading times that could be measured in interglacial epochs and some iffy graphics and voice acting. A year later, the game was re-released as an 'Enhanced Edition' with much better animations, re-recorded voice acting and faster load times that made it possible to finish the game before the heat death of the universe. CD Projekt's commitment to their game and making it as good as possible for their customers is, and remains, highly laudable.

The game itself is by turns frustrating, inspiring, compelling and ragequit-inducing. I started playing it in 2007 but was stymied by the load times. I restarted it in 2009 with the Enhanced Edition and got about halfway through before being frustrated into abandoning the game. Finally, I recently resumed the same save and managed to finish the game off once and for all. This tells you two things: that the game is so annoying that giving up is a viable option, but that it's also good enough to drag players back after years to finally complete it.

The game's structure is traditional: there's an opening action sequence which doubles as a tutorial, where an amnesiac Geralt is re-trained in the ways of witcherdom whilst fending off enemies. There's then a sequence of large, semi-open areas where you can follow the main storyline or pursue many (and I mean many) side-quests to help build up Geralt's funds and experience (which improves his skills). Unlike some mainstream RPGs, The Witcher sometimes prevents the next part of the main quest from triggering until you've completed some more side-missions, for both story purposes (characters and events from apparently unrelated side-quests have a tendency to become hugely important in the main storyline hours later) and mechanical ones: this game is tough and unforgiving, and Geralt needs every scrap of experience he can get to get through the game. Another major twist to the structure is that consequences do not immediately follow decisions: in some cases a dozen hours may pass before the outcome of a previous decision becomes clear, by which time you've committed to it. This prevents the, 'make decision, see village immediately explode, reload to make alternate choice' approach which works in other games.

Geralt spends a lot of his time talking to people and in combat (and sometimes talking to people whilst in combat). The talking part is okay, although the game assumes a greater familiarity with the source material (Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books and short stories) than most players in the UK and USA will have. Sapkowski is a European superstar who has sold millions of books from Spain to Russia, but in English he remains relatively obscure. Fortunately, the amnesia storyline means that most characters will reintroduce themselves (if rather briefly) on the first meeting and the rest of their development takes place as the game unfolds, which is more naturalistic and convincing than most RPGs where characters will introduce themselves with massive infodumps about themselves and the world. The characterisation is surprisingly nuanced and, though most characters have huge flaws, they usually have laudable aspects as well. When Geralt is presented with the choice of siding with the human-supremacist Order of the Flaming Rose or the elf/dwarf rebels, the choice is complicated by the primary Order character being a reasonable, honourable guy who might be able to moderate the Order's extremism and by the rebels, though having a just cause, being indiscriminate terrorists who kill civilians and soldiers alike. Whichever side you choose, or if you choose to stand aside, there will be both good and bad (but mostly bad) consequences regardless.

Combat is cheerfully horrible. Most RPGs have you clicking on an enemy and constantly fighting until you throw in a special move or maybe some magic or potions. The Witcher has you clicking for each sword move and being able to chain attacks together to create combos that inflict massive damage. This is fine, but the game seems to be pretty random in when it recognises a mouse click or not, and some chains unleash some unfeasibly long animations in which it's unclear if your mouse clicks are having any effect and other enemies are hitting Geralt continuously. Beat 'em up style combat in an RPG has worked very well before - in Jade Empire - and since - in Dark Souls - but in The Witcher it doesn't really work at all. This is not helped by the fact that getting through the game on any difficulty higher than Easy also requires the use of alchemy to make potions and bombs. For those who find alchemy mind-numbingly dull and don't fancy spending a fifth of the game picking flowers, there's no easy way around this. It also doesn't help that alchemy often completely destroys balance. After trying to get through the game's climactic fight with an evil wizard several times through combat alone and dying horribly, I downed one of the basic potions in the game (make me invulnerable to knockdowns) and promptly killed him in less than a minute.

Geralt gazes moodily across an atmospheric landscape whilst musing on his woes. This happens a lot.

Fortunately, magic is handled a lot better and is deceptively powerful: The Witcher's spells are rarely visually impressive but they do tend to pack a lot of damage once you've put more skill points into them. Frankly, without magic (and my trusty Ignii spells) I would not have been able to complete the game as combat alone is so astonishingly terrible. The game is also refreshingly conservative in giving you skill points, with it being almost impossible to max out more than a couple of skills in a single playthrough. This forces more tactical decisions on where to put your advancement points. The game also avoids some unnecessary inventory management (fortunately, as your inventory is absolutely tiny) by giving Geralt two special swords at the start of the game which are periodically upgraded. This prevents you from having to stat-compare every sword you find on the off-chance it's better, unlike other RPGs like Dragon Age.

Graphically, the game looks pretty good. Though based on the ancient Aurora Engine (first used for the 2002 game Neverwinter Nights), CDPR have completely reworked it to produce far more stunning visuals. It still looks pretty good today. The motion-captured combat animations are also astonishing. Clicking the mouse like a nervous rodent may be tedious, but the results with Geralt rolling, spinning, kicking, back-swiping and occasionally knocking enemies back with the hilt before decapitating them are all smooth and stylish. There's a fair amount of blood in the game, but unlike Dragon Age it doesn't go berserk and leave you coated in gore after every fight. The graphics in the swamp (despite it being the most annoying RPG gaming location of all time) are extremely atmospheric, the lighting is great and the game nails the atmosphere of a medieval city convincingly.

Aside from the combat and occasionally non-existent explanations for what the hell is going on, the game's biggest flaw is its confused approach to gender politics. The game features several strong female characters and women are shown working as soldiers in armies and having tremendous magical powers. However, it also allows Geralt to have sex with about half of female characters in the game (with no consequence: witchers cannot bear children due to the drugs they have to take to gain their powers, and Geralt's proper long-term girlfriend is pretty broad-minded) and collect 'cards' to show the success of his conquests. Female characters (both human and not) also appear fully nude in the game whilst the men (and Geralt) keep their clothes on at almost all times. It's a tawdry and weird thing to put in the game, though arguably the open-minded approach to sex and sexuality is refreshing compared to its non-existence in most other games.

In summary, The Witcher (***½) looks good, has a refreshingly focused storyline (no 'save the world' nonsense here) and some really impressive character development. Its depiction of choice and consequence is up there with Black Isle/Obsidian at their best, and its moral ambiguity is refreshing after so many tediously moralising games where everything is either good or evil and nothing inbetween. On the negative, it has a confusing attitude towards sexism, the combat is utterly atrocious and the game is a little over-reliant on fetch quests and toing and froing between a relatively small number of locations (the game gets a lot of mileage out of limited assets without being too obvious about it). It's also far too long, clocking in north of 50 hours to complete. What it does do, however, is shake CRPGs out of their complacency and bring some very interesting new ideas to the table. Despite the negative, it's definitely worth playing. It is available now on PC in the UK and USA. Its sequel is The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, available now. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt will conclude the saga when it is released in 2014.

Sunday 17 November 2013


The BBC have released a drama for An Adventure in Space and Time, a one-off 90-minute TV drama set in 1963 which chronicles the creation of Doctor Who.

The drama airs this Thursday in the UK on BBC-2.

Saturday 16 November 2013

New Paul Kearney cover art

Solaris have unveiled the cover art for their second reprint of Paul Kearney's opening three novels. The Way to Babylon will be published on 27 May, 2014.

Solaris also have an art blog about the creation of the cover. Please note that there is an error in that blog post: Kearney's first three novels are stand-alones, not part of a longer series (though they do share a couple of thematic ideas). This is the second of Paul's first three, stand-alone novels to be reprinted, following A Different Kingdom (due in January 2014) and to be followed by Riding the Unicorn (due in late 2014).

Paul is currently working on a new novel (and potentially and tentatively a new series) which I think will excite a lot of SFF fans, which he hopes to be able to tell us more about very soon. And no, it's not related to the Sea-Beggars series, which remains in limbo until Bantam USA sort themselves out.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Locke Lamora is dying, poisoned by an enemy during his previous con. However, he receives an offer from the least likely source imaginable: the Bondsmagi of Karthain, his sworn enemies. In return for saving his life, they want him and his stalwart companion Jean to help their allies win an election in their home city. The only problem is that the rival faction has the same idea, and has hired the one person in the world who can match Locke in a battle of wits: his former lover, Sabetha.

The Republic of Thieves has finally arrived, six and a half years after the publication of the previous book in the series, Red Seas Under Red Skies. The medical and personal problems which have afflicted Scott Lynch's writing have been well-documented elsewhere and seem to be resolved, with the next book in the series, The Thorn of Emberlain, reportedly already nearing completion and hoped for publication in late 2014. Hopefully this is the case, because The Republic of Thieves marks the end of the 'stand-alone adventure' phase of the series and the arrival of what appears to be a somewhat more serialised mode of storytelling.

Like its two predecessors, Republic is divided into two storylines. We have a present-day storyline set in Karthain and featuring Locke and Jean trying to win an election in which they are opposed by someone who knows them better than they know themselves. We also have a lengthy flashback to when the gang were teenagers and sent to work in the city of Espara, where they find themselves trying to stage a play (the Republic of Thieves of the title) despite their director being in prison. The book alternates between the two storylines as it progresses.

Both storylines are entertaining, though the flashback one is arguably the stronger of the two. The secondary characters in the theatre company and city of Espara are more strongly-defined and the escalating catastrophes of things going wrong and then getting worse is quite compelling (overcoming the weakness that we know the 'regular cast' survives because, hey, flashbacks). The current-day storyline, set in Karthain, is hampered by the fact that no-one (not the Bondsmagi, Locke or Sabetha) seems to really care who wins the election. There's some interesting (if more broadly-defined) characters featured in this section and the various vote-winning ploys are amusing, but the lack of stakes makes this storyline flag a little. The alternating structure is also not entirely successful: the chapters are quite long and involved, so you're just being absorbed into one storyline when the other resumes, and then the same problem recurs. Reading the flashback chapters as one self-contained novel and then the present-day storyline as one chunk does improve this issue and restores some pace to both narratives, which otherwise tend to bog-down mid-book. There is a large focus on the Locke/Sabetha relationship in both timelines, which tends to get a little repetitive and isn't helped by the 16-year-old Locke and Sabetha discussing relationship issues with impressive and not entirely convincing maturity, which in thankfully isolated moments threaten to the turn the novel into a fantasy version of Dawson's Creek, though Lynch manages to avoid it becoming too annoying. These discussions also later provide important groundwork for the development of their relationship in the present day storyline.

On the plus side, Lynch delves into Locke's psyche a lot more than in previous books and we get closer to finding out what makes him tick. He also lifts the veil on the Bondsmagi, and we learn more about their history, culture, beliefs and organisation. The story about how the Bondsmagi will save Locke in return for helping them out in a minor issue seems rather thin, and it's rather a relief to find that there is more going on than meets the eye. In particular, the closing chapters of the book (and the twist ending) do explain a series of oddities in three volumes to date. There are some complaints that, as a heavily-trailed character, Sabetha is disappointing but if anything this appears to be deliberate. Whilst intelligent and highly capable, Sabetha isn't the paragon Locke lionises her as, and discovering there is a plot reason why Locke is so unhealthily fixated on her is a relief. In fact, there is an argument for readers to read the last few chapters to discover the spoiler and then read the novel knowing about it, as it makes a whole bunch of decisions earlier on more comprehensible than if read cold. Fans of Jean will appreciate that he gets some very good development in the flashback chapters, but will be less impressed that he seems to be sidelined in the present-day story.

Both the twist and another subplot in the book (reports coming in of a brewing civil war in the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows) seem to mark an end to the stand-alone nature of each novel. It looks like that, from now on, the plot of each book will lead into the next (as Republic's apparently does into The Thorn of Emberlain). Those who were expecting and even hoping for this series to consist of isolated, repeated heists and capers may be disappointed by this, whilst those who have dismissed the series for being a bit lightweight for the same reason may be moved to a reappraisal. Whilst some may mourn the loss of the 'Fantasy Ocean's 11' approach to the series, I think it's interesting and healthy for an author to evolve his story and characters from book to book and not be trapped into doing the exact same thing for ten books running, and The Republic of Thieves certainly does that.

With The Republic of Thieves (****) Lynch has delivered a book packed with his trademark sharp dialogue, wit and cunning plotting, and with big improvements in worldbuilding and the portrayal of characters' emotions. It's a transformative book in the series, raising the stakes and making it more clear what the series (and the potential sequel-series Lynch has mooted) will actually be about. There are pacing issues and reading the two narratives as separate novels rather than one big intertwined one may be a better idea, whilst the stakes of the story are somewhat murky and only revealed at the end. However, this is  a step-up in quality from Red Seas Under Red Skies, even if it doesn't match the enjoyability of The Lies of Locke Lamora. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday 14 November 2013

DOCTOR WHO minisode answers question fans have been asking for seventeen years

The Night of the Doctor is a preview 'minisode' for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, Day of the Doctor. It sets up the episode nicely and features an event fans have been demanding to see for seventeen years, just to fill in one of the last remaining continuity gaps in the series.

Great stuff.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug by Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Abrams

Earlier this year, Raymond E. Feist concluded his Riftwar Cycle of epic fantasy novels. The sequence that began in 1982 with the publication of Magician concluded with Magician's End, resulting in a massive series consisting of thirty novels spread over ten sub-series. Six of the novels were co-written with other authors, but the rest are solely by Feist. However, it's less well-known that the world of Midkemia is not Feist's creation, instead being conceived by Stephen Abrams. Abrams and Feist attended the University of San Diego together in the 1970s and Abrams created the world for use in roleplaying games. Feist later (with Abrams's permission) used the setting for his novels, fleshing it out further.

Thirty-five years later, Feist and Abrams have regrouped to deliver a companion book to The Riftwar Cycle, featuring maps, artwork and further information on the world of Midkemia not given out in the novels. Whilst I haven't followed the later Riftwar novels (I bowed out after the quite amazingly boring Talon the Silver Hawk), I did enjoy the early ones and particularly liked the worldbuilding (haphazard as it was) depicted in the books and the spin-off computer games (Betrayal at Krondor and Return to Krondor), so I was looking forward to seeing that background fleshed out.

I was disappointed. As a companion book, Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug is sorely lacking in almost every department. The first thing that grates is a lack of proof-reading: the book is riddled with spelling errors on both the maps and in the text (Shamata is frequently rendered as 'Shomata', whilst 'Murmandamus' is spelt in several different ways depending on the writer's whim of the moment). The maps are pretty, but difficult to use. The fonts render many names difficult to read and the artist seems to frequently get bored and only fill in the trees around the edges of the forests, making it look like Midkemia's woodlands are all plains surrounded by a ring of trees. Also - though this is a long-standing problem from the book maps as well - the mountains are depicted as quite ludicrously-sized given the scale used. The continent of Novindus continues to look like a small island instead of a huge landmass. There is also a discrepancy between the size of the Empire of Great Kesh on the maps and its reported size in the books (several times that of the Kingdom, whilst the maps show it as roughly the same size), and contradictory statements in the book which say that Kesh is sparsely-populated with the cities separated by vast gulfs of wasteland, whilst the novels report that Kesh has many times the population of the Kingdom. There's also the problem of the maps featuring locations that don't actually exist when the map was supposedly made: Port Vykor (or Vikor, as the maps never seem to agree on a spelling), founded after Rage of a Demon King, is shown on maps pre-dating Magician, more than fifty years earlier. Oh yes, and there's supposed to be two world maps of Midkemia, showing the state of the world at the start of Magician and after Magician's End (both visible on various fansites promoting the book) but only one of the two world maps is actually in the book. The other one seems to have simply been forgotten. This is made more amusing by the surviving book having 'MAP II (2)' written on it with 'MAP I (1)' nowhere to be found (in the UK first edition, it should be noted).

Then there's the actual text itself. Those expecting a book which talks about geography, history, society, customs, cultures and so on will be in for disappointment. The text is a fairly basic plot summary of the events of The Riftwar Cycle. Sidebars and illustrations show there is some potential in this approach: a map of Sorcerer's Isle appears at the relevant point in the text, followed by maps of the Sunset Islands when they first appear and so on. Occasionally the summary of plot elements the reader is probably already familiar with is interrupted by a little bit of background information on politics or culture, but such moments are rare and fleeting. The depth and usefulness of the plot summary amusingly mirrors the general consensus of the quality of the books: the events of Magician are covered in substantial depth, then Silverthorn through Rage of a Demon King in somewhat less detail, and then all of the books afterwards (which is almost two-thirds of them) are covered in just a few pages of confusingly repeated names and events which sound generic to the point of painfulness (having bailed out after Talon of the Silver Hawk, I see I'm not missing very much).

Only one of these maps is actually in the book. Oops.

The book is accompanied by artwork from Steve Stone. These aren't actual illustrations, however, but rather stiff and unconvincing 'photo art' featuring posed models in front of CG backgrounds. Occasionally this is effective (Amos Trask's ship running the Straits of Darkness is pretty good) but most of the time it's awful, not helped by occasional re-use of the same model to depict completely different characters.

There are moments when the book comes to life: the opening couple of chapters feel more inspired and some of the maps expanding on the somewhat-confused geography of Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon are genuinely useful. Occasional bursts of background material hint at much more interesting detail. Getting 'canon' maps of the Keshian Confederacy and the full Empire is also gratifying (though it turns out they are pretty much the same as the ones that have been available on the Elvandar website for many years). But ultimately this is a companion book which tells us almost nothing about the history, chronology, societies and cultures of the world it's named after, which is a baffling choice.

Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug (**) is a disappointing volume, featuring almost none of the information that I suspect readers will really be interested in or expecting. Instead, it's an unproofed plot summary of books they've already read, interspersed with bad artwork, ill-detailed maps and an astonishing number of spelling mistakes. There are a few, scant interesting nuggets of new information to be found and some maps that helpfully clarify confusing descriptions in the books, but beyond that this book is not really that useful. One for die-hard fans and completists only. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday 11 November 2013

WARCRAFT movie will not be based on WORLD OF WARCRAFT

Director Duncan Jones has revealed some information about the upcoming WarCraft movie at the recent BlizzCon event in California. The most notable is that the movie will not be based on World of WarCraft, but will instead reach back to the origins of the WarCraft franchise.

Concept art for the WarCraft movie. Clockwise from top-left: Draenor, Dalaran, Stormwind and Ironforge.

The film will pit humans and orcs against one another. The human faction will be led by Anduin Lothar, whilst Durotan (father of Thrall) will command the orcs. Those savvy with WarCraft lore will recognise these names from the 1995 game WarCraft II, in which they played important roles. According to Jones, the movie will present the POV of both the orcs and humans rather than suggesting that one is good and the other evil.

Draenor, Dalaran, Ironforge and Stormwind are the locations for which Jones showed off concept art. Bill Westenhofer, the head of effects, is a regular World of WarCraft player and says that he often logs into the game to drawn on actual locations and environments for inspiration. There is also an urge to do as much as possible in-camera rather than using CGI: the preference at the moment is to use prosthetics for the orcs, for example.

The WarCraft film is currently in active pre-production and will start shooting in Vancouver in early 2014. The film will be released on 18 December 2015, when it will face off against Star Wars: Episode VII.

Blizzard have also confirmed that they are working on new versions of WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness and WarCraft II's expansion pack, Beyond the Dark Portal, which will be compatible with modern PCs.