Thursday 30 October 2014

Contract renegotiatons clear the way for a seventh season of GAME OF THRONES

HBO has negotiated new deals with the cast of Game of Thrones, opening up the possibility of a seventh (and probably final) season. The fifth season of Thrones is entering the last month of production, for airing in March or April of next year, and a sixth season has already been greenlit.

"HBO will have its due."

As is traditional for American TV shows, the original cast contract for Thrones was for six seasons, potentially with an option for a seventh. Hollywood contract law prevents actors from being signed up for longer periods without renegotiations. It was anticipated that such contract negotiations would take place a year or so further down the line, but HBO has clearly taken the line that it wants any possible conflicts resolved earlier, allowing them to greenlight (at least unofficially) a seventh season far ahead of writing and shooting. The move is likely expensive for HBO, as it means the raise takes effect from the fifth season rather than just the seventh, but also may reduce the salary demands that would have come with waiting longer. Several Thrones castmembers are on big movie projects and may have held up for much more substantial raises for the final season if those projects had taken off, such as Emilia Clarke's role as Sarah Connor on the new Terminator movie trilogy (although if it's half as horrible as the plot sounds, maybe HBO jumped the gun a bit here).

No mention is made of an eighth season, which may just mean that it was unofficially discussed but more likely means that Thrones will end after its seventh year. This decision was already made some time ago, although the producers later allowed that an eighth season might still be possible. However, this salary news combined with the news that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are already lining up post-GoT projects and the apparently ruthless disposing of major plot elements in the fifth season from the books (where it appears several entire major storylines and subplots from the novels have been jettisoned in their entirety) to allow a faster wrap-up, all heavily indicate that Game of Thrones will end with the conclusion of its seventh season, in just two and a half years.

Monday 27 October 2014

X-WING and TIE FIGHTER re-released

GoG have teamed up with LucasArts to re-release the classic space combat sims X-Wing and TIE Fighter. The games will be available from GoG within the next day.

Released in 1993, X-Wing was a blatant attempt by LucasArts to cash in on the success of Chris Roberts's Wing Commander series by deploying the heavy firepower of the Star Wars universe. Employing then-cutting-edge 3D graphics and a finely-tuned power balancing mechanic, X-Wing managed to be better than its rival and was a superb - if extremely tough - game. Released a year later, TIE Fighter was even better, with a gripping storyline casting the player as an ordinary pilot unfortunately employed by the bad guys.

The series continued in 1997 with the multiplayer-focused X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, although it did feature an excellent, story-based expansion called Balance of Power. In 1999 the series concluded with the epic X-Wing Alliance.

At this stage, only the original X-Wing and TIE Fighter are being re-released from the series. Both games have been updated to work with modern PCs and the GoG editions include both the original versions and their 1998 re-releases, which are the same but use the much more advanced graphics engine from X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. X-Wing will include both its expansions (Imperial Pursuit and B-Wing) whilst TIE Fighter will include its Defender of the Empire expansion.

Both games are excellent and I can recommend getting them both. However, they require joysticks (or, at the very least, gamepads) to play properly.

In additional news, LucasArts classics Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Knights of the Old Republic are likewise being re-released tomorrow. Knights of the Old Republic is highly recommended, as the previous PC version required a little bit of tinkering to get working properly (its sequel generally works absolutely fine). This version should work with modern graphics cards and operating systems out of the box.

GoG have said that they will ultimately be releasing thirty LucasArts titles over the coming months, suggesting that the overwhelming bulk of the LucasArts archive will eventually be available.

Rumourville: PS3 turn-based classic Valkyria Chronicles is also, curiously, getting a PC release many years after the original release.


2014 will go down as the year of the big Kickstarter games starting to be released and turning out to be pretty good: The Banner Saga, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2 (amongst others) have all shown that this is a viable route for creating compelling video games on a smaller budget.

There are two more big crowdfunded games due for fairly imminent release: old-school RPG Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian and massive space sim Elite: Dangerous from Frontier Developments.

Pillars of Eternity has, regrettably, been delayed. Obsidian are keen to make sure they have time to integrate all of the suggestions from the beta phase the game is currently in and to work on bug-fixing (something they don't have the best reputation for, sometimes fairly and more often not). Currently 'early 2015' is the target date, although it's unclear if they are thinking a modest delay to January or February or a more substantial one to say April or May.

Elite: Dangerous, on the other hand, is much closer to release. A third stage of the game's beta has just been released, adding yet more star systems and game mechanics (such as mining), and Frontier Developments have announced a launch party for 22 November, at which time the game's release date will be confirmed. They are still saying that the game will launch before the end of 2014, making a December release likely.

Bad news for Pillars of Eternity, although hopefully this does mean that when it comes out I should have enough time to actually play it. I'm currently about halfway through Wasteland 2, which is quite unfeasibly massive (and pretty good) RPG.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Charles Dance cast on SyFy's CHILDHOOD'S END adaptation

SyFy has cast British actor Charles Dance in a major role on its upcoming six-hour mini-series Childhood's End, based on Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel of the same name.

Charles Dance is best-known for his recent four-season stint as Tywin Lannister on HBO's Game of Thrones, although his acting career is extensive, incorporating roles on the BBC's Bleak House mini-series and in films like The Golden Child and Last Action Hero, amongst many, many others. Dance will be playing the role of Karellen, the spokesperson for the alien Overlords who arrive on Earth and create a utopian world even over the objections of those humans who don't want it. In the book Karellen's appearance is kept secret but it's unclear if the same device will be used in the TV series. If so this may be more of a vocal performance than anything else.

The series is still in pre-production for airing in 2015 or 2016. Although SyFy's rep in adapting classic SF novels is poor (Earthsea, Riverworld) to middling (Dune), this is a little more promising thanks to the presence of Matthew Graham (the original UK Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes) as the main writer.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

New Peter F. Hamilton covers

Tor Books have spruced up the covers for Peter F. Hamilton's novels set in his Commonwealth universe. The five novels published in the setting so far (the Commonwealth Saga duology and The Void Trilogy) have had their covers updated to match the cover of the latest book in the series, The Abyss Beyond Dreams. They will be available in the UK next month.

There's also an unusual, slightly retro feel to the spine design (nabbed from here):

All in all, interesting stuff, even if it is just two years since the last big PFH cover redesign. I'll be interested to see if his other books are also given this treatment, or if this is something reserved for just the Commonwealth books for now.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the next book in the reading queue once I finish Kameron Hurley's excellent Infidel.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Sanderson's fantasy world was created through fractals

A while back, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson told his fans that there are 'hidden secrets' in the map of Roshar that accompanies his Stormlight Archive novels (so far, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance). In April this year, fans at the Seventeenth Shard forum cracked one of the secrets.

Roshar is not an arbitrary artistic doodle, but is based on a Julia set, a Mandelbrot-related fractal shape. In fact, the shape of Roshar appears in the demonstration video on the related Wikipedia page and has been there since 2006, suggesting Sanderson may have simply borrowed it from that location.

This isn't the first time that a fantasy author has taken inspiration for their fantasy maps from real-world sources. Many authors tweak real maps of Europe or North America, whilst others take inspiration from nature. One fantasy novel from the 1990s, whose title I now mercifully forget, even used male genitalia as the inspiration for its landmass. There are also various mapping programmes which also use fractals to generate terrain (such as the Campaign Cartographer software family). This is the first time I've encountered a well-known fantasy author using them to generate his world, however.

Arthur C. Clarke also used Mandelbrot sets as a major theme of his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks (arguably to the detriment of the core story, about the raising of the Titanic).

Friday 17 October 2014

Spike picks up Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS TRILOGY for TV

Spike TV are developing a TV series based on Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars Trilogy of novels. The proposed TV series will take the its name from the first novel in the series, Red Mars, with Kim Stanley Robinson serving as a creative consultant.

Consisting of Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996), the trilogy spans almost two hundred years (between 2027 and 2212) and depicts the colonisation of Mars by the initial First Hundred group and subsequent waves of immigration. As the years pass, socio-economic tensions rise between the original settlers and later arrives, and between Mars and an Earth increasingly desperate to offload its bloated population (threatened by viruses and climate change) on the new world. The rising threat of war, independence and the impact of a new medical science that retards the ageing process are all key storylines in a story that involves dozens of major characters.

James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd worked on a mini-series idea based on The Mars Trilogy for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This project was not tremendously faithful to the novels - rumours abounded of a 'sexy female android' character when no such entity exists in the books - but it did wind up being developed for several years at AMC. It was not greenlit, but it did introduce Hurd to the team at AMC that eventually ended up making The Walking Dead. Five years ago, AMC resurrected the project with writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh on board (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Welcome to the Jungle, The Punisher, Armageddon), but eventually passed.

Spike TV are best-known for their reality programming, and news that this project was in development with them came as a surprise.If Spike treat the subject seriously (i.e. don't turn it into a revolutionary shoot 'em up) and put some serious money behind it, this could be both a very good TV series and mark a change in direction for the channel. The potential for this going horribly wrong is very high, however.

Monday 13 October 2014

Sleeping Dogs

After many years in San Francisco, Wei Shen returns home to Hong Kong and is almost immediately embroiled in violence and crime. His reputation and some childhood friends see him recruited into the triad known as the Sun On Yee, but Wei is playing a dangerous game. He is also an undercover cop, striving to bring down the triad and also avoid the machinations of his own corrupt bosses. It is a difficult line to walk as the risk of discovery and being fired and arrested is constant.

Sleeping Dogs is a game that is almost cheerful in how easy it is to review. It asks the question, "Do like the Grand Theft Auto games?" If the answer is yes, than go get it. If not, than not. But the game also appeals to those who aren't so keen on the GTA games but like the basic idea and would prefer a non-American setting and more focus on melee combat. And also to those who are partial to scenes where an old grandmother tortures someone for information using her standard range of kitchen implements.

Sleeping Dogs is a violent and brutal game, sometimes in a genuine attempt to unnerve and shock, but perhaps a tad too often simply for the sake of it. It's a game that embraces the GTA structure of an open world with lots of optional stuff to do wedded to a narrative driven by cut scenes and criminal cliches. It's a game that tries awfully hard to do things differently with its invigorating and satisfying martial arts combat system, but then almost regretfully embraces tedious gunplay towards its conclusion.
The game has a curious definition of 'undercover cop'.

There is much to like here. The story is cliched and predictable (a groan-inducing wedding scene goes down near identically to a comparable scene in GTA4) but unfolds with enough swagger to make it worthwhile. The voice acting is excellent, with Will Yun Lee in particular giving Wei Shen a haunted voice that helps him stand out a little from the standard action game lead. The graphics are reasonably impressive (especially, as always, on PC), with the game's faux-Hong Kong standing out from other open world cities thanks to its bright lights and colourful backdrops. The city is also huge, with many hours of side-missions and activities (including some very enjoyable car races, although the bike handling is a little stiff) awaiting the intrepid gamer. As mentioned above, the melee combat is also tremendously enjoyable to use and spectacular to see in action. Even some of the dreaded minigames are genuinely fun, with the karaoke game being particularly bonkers.

On the downside, the gunplay is surprisingly poor. There is relatively little of it in the whole game, which is not so bad, but the endgame is completely dominated by it which is makes it a lot more annoying. The game also suffers from a really bad case of story dissonance: Wei can run civilians over, blow up cars and buses and cause quite a lot of mayhem, but the only penalty he gets is a reduction to the bonus XP available at the end of the mission. Given that Wei is a cop, this is both unconvincing and also just really weird. You can try to roleplay more as Wei the cop, avoiding the carnage, but this becomes more difficult on missions with tight time limits.

Sleeping Dogs (***½) isn't a classic of the genre, but it's solid enough. It's certainly a very large game and packs a lot of ideas and even a few fresh innovations into the GTA formula, but it's still pretty standard stuff for a game of its type. Well-executed and very solid, but rarely outstanding. The game is available now in the UK (PC, PS3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PS3, X-Box 360).

Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

The High King of the Shattered Sea is displeased with the new King of Gettland and his defiance. Forces religious and military gather to bring Gettland to heel, but the king's advisor is crafty and cunning beyond his years. Yarvi brings together a new fellowship to travel halfway across the known world to the First of All Cities and there make an audacious play for an alliance. Unfortunately, his crew consists of cutthroats, ex-criminals, disgraced boy warriors and violent murderers.

Half the World is the middle volume of The Shattered Sea and picks up several years after the end of Half a King. This novel features a structural shift from the previous one, with the narrative now divided between two new characters - Brand and Thorn - and Yarvi relegated to more of a supporting/mentor role. It's a nice structural twist that means that Yarvi's storyline continues from his previous book, but is now presented more in flashes and glimpses from the other characters. If you haven't read Half a King, you won't notice too much of this but those who have will find themselves able to follow Yarvi's story as it develops mostly off-stage.

Thorn is where much of the book's marketing has been directed and it's easy to see why. Less of a tomboy and more of a walking ball of anger, Thorn could be the milder, younger sister of Ferro (from The First Law Trilogy). Her character arc is - at least somewhat - traditional but she remains a vibrant and well-written protagonist. Brand, the young warrior disgraced for being too nice and who has to make good, is a much more standard character but Abercrombie gives him enough flair and memorable moments (including an eye-watering moment where he has to stop a ship being ported from rolling over).

There's some splendid action and some intriguing politicking, but it's the frigid atmosphere (turning more clement as our characters journey south and off the edge of the map) and the relentless pace that make this novel so successful, and more enjoyable than its forebear. Abercrombie is still working with a shorter word count than normal here and it helps maintain focus and drive. This is a 400-page novel where the pages fly by. Abercrombie is also upping his game with his prose, with some darkly delicious dialogue and more poetical moments peppering his more traditional style of black humour. Even the worldbuilding is taken up a notch, with the idea that the Shattered Sea might be a far future, post-apocalyptic part of our world developed further.

Half the World (****½) is a resounding success and an improvement on Half a King on almost every front. It will be released on 12 February 2015 in the UK and five days later in the USA. Highly recommended.

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

Temur has raised his standard at Dragon Lake, gathering forces together for a final showdown with Al-Sephehr before he can bring about his plan to resurrect the Carrion Prince. Unexpected allies join Temur, but his army is still dwarfed by that of the enemy.

Steles of the Sky concludes The Eternal Sky, Elizabeth Bear's thoughtful and intelligent epic. Inspired by the history and vistas of Central Asia, The Eternal Sky puts character and dialogue ahead of carnage and mayhem and, for those of a cliched bent, could be described as a thinking reader's fantasy. It's a restrained novel that dwells on the humanity of its characters as much as the magic and mystery, and far moreso than the action. Certainly fans of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay will find much to reward them here.

That is not to say that action is not present, and what there is well-presented, but Bear's focus lies elsewhere. The rich tapestry of varied characters that we have enjoyed in previous volumes is back, and as the storylines dovetail into one another it's interesting to see characters reacquainting themselves with one another or meeting for the first time. It's a more balanced book, with the Temur/Samarkar 'main' strolling having equal weight here with the likes of Edene, Tsering and Saadet. Bear's enviable ability to create cultures with distinct customs that are influenced by real history but are also original creations also reaches its apex here, with the differences between these groups strengthening rather than dividing them.

The characterisation is rich and nuanced (particularly of Edene, whose storyline takes a more humane turn than I was expecting) and Bear skirts the edges of 'dark' fiction without either pulling her punches or digressing into needless violence. What Bear does instead, especially with Al-Sephehr and Saadet, is hints at the darkness of the souls of her antagonists which is more difficult but ultimately more rewarding.

There are reservations: the climactic battle is over in a handful of pages and some storylines feel a little perfunctory in their resolutions. But perhaps I was expecting a more slavishly traditional fantasy novel than what we got instead, which is far more interesting, rewarding and poetical.

Steles of the Sky (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.