Thursday 28 December 2017

STAR CITIZEN: SQUADRON 42 gameplay video released

The creators of infamously long-in-development space sim Star Citizen have released an hour-long video demonstrating the game's single-player campaign, Squadron 42. Although some CG videos have been released of the game previously, this is the first attempt to stitch the game's numerous components together to demonstrate a single mission.

As I detailed last year, Star Citizen is the biggest crowdfunding project in history, fans and backers having raised over $173 million to fund the game. This almost certainly means that Star Citizen is the highest-budgeted video game of all time in terms of the actual development funds: Grand Theft Auto V and the last few Call of Duty games all broke $200 million, but that was split roughly 60/40 in favour of marketing. Star Citizen crowdfunding campaign was its marketing, along with the numerous free column inches given to the game every month (like, er, here). Fundraising is continuing, of course, and the game is expected to comfortably break $200 million before all is said and done.

The main game of Star Citizen will feature a persistent online, open-world universe with people flying through it engaging in bounty hunting, trading, space combat, mining and other activities, like EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous. Star Citizen is promising a great deal more depth, however, sacrificing the accurately-rendered Milky Way galaxy of Elite (complete for 400 billion stars) for a more handcrafted universe of several hundred systems packed with missions, activities and seamless transitions from space to planet, with your character being able to jump out of your ship and engage in personal ground combat like a first-person shooter, or even jump in a ground attack vehicle.

Squadron 42 is the more focused part of the game which will replicate the single-player, story-driven drama of games like Wing Commander (Star Citizen's guiding developer, Chris Roberts, created the Wing Commander franchise back in 1990). Although personal combat, zero-gravity spacewalks and ground battles will feature, the focus will be on a military conflict which pitches your character as a fighter pilot on a large carrier vessel belonging to the United Empire of Earth. This story will be related by a large cast of characters, played by actors including Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Gillian Anderson, Mark Hamill, John Rhys Davies and Andy Serkis. Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones' Ser Davos Seaworth) serves as your commanding officer in the released demo. You will be able to port your character over from Squadron 42 to the full Star Citizen game.

Squadron 42 was meant for release this year but has been delayed, with no firm release date set. However, the above video shows what the full game experience should be like (hopefully with less performance issues, but that's pre-release games for you). There's another version of the video here with developer commentary.

Meanwhile, the makers of Star Citizen and Squadron 42 are being sued by CryTek over their use of the CryEngine in the game. It is unclear how serious this is and how it may affect the game's release.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

The Witcher Franchise Familiariser

In the last ten years, the Witcher series has grown from a relatively obscure (to English-speaking audiences) Polish fantasy series to a major franchise, driven by three highly successful video games and an English translation of the original books. A Netflix TV series is now in development. But what if you haven’t yet sampled the series and want to find out what’s going on? Time for a franchise familiariser course.

Five of the primary characters of The Witcher saga, from left to right: Yennefer, Ciri, Geralt, Vesemir and Triss.

The Basics

The Witcher is a series of short stories, novels and videos games set in a land known only as “The Continent”. The Continent is divided between the Northern Kingdoms, which are the primary setting for both the books and games, and the massive Empire of Nilfgaard to the south. Nilfgaard invades the Northern Kingdoms three times in an attempt to annex them, and these wars form the backdrop for many of the stories in the series.

The titular “Witcher” is a reference to Geralt of Rivia, the primary protagonist and viewpoint character of the series. However, the books move away from Geralt as the only major character and introduce other characters of equal or arguably greater importance, such as the sorceress Yennefer and Geralt’s sort-of apprentice, Ciri.

The books were written by Andrzej Sapkowski (1948-present). These comprise two collections of short stories, a five-novel series (often known The Witcher Saga) and a stand-alone prequel novel. Sapkowski has mooted returning to the world for additional books and stories.

The video games were created by Polish developer CD Projekt Red. To date, three games have been developed and released, along with some additional spin-offs. A fourth game (which will be set in the same world but not carry on the previous storyline from the game) is tentatively planned. Sapkowski advised on the games, but did not write the storyline, which was instead written by a team of writers (Marcin Blacha is the only writer credited with working on all three games).

Netflix are developing a Witcher television series, with West Wing, Daredevil and Defenders writer Lauren Smith Hissrich serving as showrunner. Jarek Sawko and Tomek Baginski, who both worked on the video games, are attached as producers.

The Canon

The Witcher canon is a slightly complicated beast due to the fact that the franchise originated as a book series written by one author, but it was the video game trilogy which boosted it into a world-famous series. The video games take the books as canon, and frequently refer to events in the novels, but Sapkowski does not accept the video games as canon himself (although he has written nothing – so far – to contradict the games). For the purposes of this guide, we will assume that the novels and video games form one canon for now. It is unknown if the upcoming TV series will adapt the books, the video games, both or do something completely different.

The Witcher Short Stories by Andrzej Sapkowski (in chronological order)

The Last Wish (1993)
  • The Voice of Reason
  • The Witcher
  • A Grain of Truth
  • The Lesser Evil
  • A Question of Price
  • The Edge of the World
  • The Last Wish

Sword of Destiny (1992)
  • The Bounds of Reason
  • A Shard of Ice
  • Eternal Flame
  • A Little Sacrifice
  • The Sword of Destiny
  • Something More

Note: The Last Wish was a reprint of an earlier short story collection called The Witcher (1990), which included all of the stories in that collection plus several new ones. However, although The Last Wish supersedes The Witcher in the canon, it omits the short story “The Road With No Return” (featuring Geralt’s mother and set before his birth).

The Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski
  1. Blood of Elves (1994)
  2. Time of Contempt (1995)
  3. Baptism of Fire (1996)
  4. The Tower of Swallows (1997)
  5. Lady of the Lake (1999)

The Witcher Stand-Alone Novels by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Season of Storms (2013)

The Witcher video game series by CD Projekt Red
  1. The Witcher (2007)
  2. The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings (2011)
  3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015)
    • The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone (2015)
    • The Witcher III: Blood and Wine (2016)

A simplified map of the Northern Kingdoms from the first Witcher video game.


The backstory of the Witcher saga is straightforward. According to myth, over two and a half thousand years ago, the world was the domain of the elder races, elves and dwarves. An event known as the “Conjunction of the Spheres” took place, during which time the world intersected with one and possibly two other worlds through an astral alignment. Portals opened which allowed the inhabitants of these worlds to cross over, including (allegedly) humans and various creatures and monsters. This event also introduced magic to the world, and the creation of the first mages (among the various races) as being who cold harness magic.

In the year 760 after the Resurrection (what exactly the Resurrection is remains unclear), humans crossed the Yaruga and Pontar rivers into what are now called the Northern Kingdoms in force. They initially settled along the coastlands before moving inland, displacing some of the native elven tribes. Other humans, particularly magic-users, aligned with the elves to learn their ways of magic. 

However, as the human settlements expanded from villages to towns to small cities, so the elves found themselves rapidly outnumbered by the rapidly-growing human nations. The elves found themselves forced to assimilate – where they often faced racial prejudice and suspicion – or flee. Some elves later banded together with renegade dwarves and other nonhumans (most notably halflings) to found the Scoia’tael or “Squirrels”, a guerrilla force that resists human encroachment on their lands with violence.

Two centuries later, the mages Alzur and Cosimo Malaspina founded the witchers. Witchers are trained in the art of monster-slaying, which requires them to gain superhuman and supernatural abilities. These are bestowed upon them through the consumption of potions and alchemical substances known as mutagens. Witchers are formidable warriors, far outstripping most human, elven or dwarven opponents due to superior reactions, faster healing abilities and uncanny reflexes. As well as physical combat, they are trained in the art of identifying supernatural monsters and how to kill, neutralise or banish them. They also gain a significantly expanded lifespan, but are rendered infertile in the process. The witchers were founded due to the large number of monsters still living in the Northern Kingdoms, and soon found themselves in regular employment as they made the lands safe for human settlement.

In 1239 the southern kingdom of Nilfgaard annexed Ebbing, a nation to the north. Although still far to the south of the Northern Kingdoms, this event alerted the north to the growing threat of Nilfgaard. Over the next several decades, as the small kingdoms and cities to the north of Ebbing fell, the threat of Nilfgaard became clearer.

Shortly after this time, the witcher Geralt of Rivia became known to the world at large. Geralt was noted for his skill, intelligence and combat abilities, all of which outclassed that of the witchers in general. In particular, Geralt was noted for his skills in avoiding unnecessary bloodshed: he made his name in particular by saving the daughter of King Foltest of Temaria, who had been transformed by a curse into a striga. Geralt defeated the striga and restored the princess to normal. The Witcher short stories relate various adventures which see Geralt’s rise to fame (or infamy).

Some years later, Geralt became involved in the events precipitated by Nilfgaard’s invasion of the Northern Kingdoms. Geralt’s acquaintance with a young girl named Ciri, whom he had trained in witcher combat techniques, proved instrumental in halting the stopping the war and bringing about peace (as related in the five Witcher Saga novels). During this period Geralt met and fell in love with the sorceress Yennefer, befriended the dwarf Zoltan and the bard Dandelion and became involved in the affairs of kings. Two years after the end of the war, Geralt (who had gone missing in the meantime) reappeared at the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen suffering from amnesia, unable to recall what had happened after his “death” (this marks the beginning of the Witcher video games).

The setting for the Witcher saga is a single, large landmass known only as “The Continent”. The Continent is divided into several regions by the vast Korath Desert in the middle of the landmass. The Northern Kingdoms lie to the north-west of the desert, the Nilfgaard Empire to the south-west, Hakland to the north-east and Zerrikania to the south-east.

The Northern Kingdoms are the primary setting for the action in the story. The kingdoms are (at the outset of the saga):
  • Temeria, ruled by King Foltest from Vizima.
  • Redania, ruled by King Radovid V from Trelogor.
  • Cintra, ruled by Queen Calanthe and King Eist Tuirseach from Cintra City.
  • Kaedwen, ruled by King Henselt from Ard Carraigh.
  • Aedirn, ruled by King Demavend III from Vengerberg.
  • Kovir, more properly Kovir and Poviss, ruled by King Tankred Thyssen from Pont Vanis and Lan Exeter.
  • Lyria and Rivia, ruled by Queen Meve from Rivia and Lyria.
  • Skellige, or the Skellige Isles, ruled by Jarl Eist Tuirseach from An Skellig (and Cintra City).

Other significant locations include Kaer Morhen, the witcher stronghold, located in north-eastern Kaedwen; and the free city of Novigrad, located close to Redania and Temaria.

The Nilfgaard Empire plays a major role in the story, although its capital of Nilfgaard, the City of the Golden Tower, is located a good thousand miles or so to the south of the Northern Kingdoms. Provinces of the Nilfgaardian Empire include Etolia, Gemmera¸ Geso, Metinna, Ebbing, Vicovaro, Ymlac, Mag Turga, Nazair and Toussaint. Only Toussaint is visited in the saga, in the Blood and Wine expansion for The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

A spectacular fan map of the entire explored Continent from DwarfChieftain on DeviantArt.

Magic is used liberally in the Witcher saga, by both mages and sorceresses (or, less kindly, “witches”), as well as Geralt himself who has access to minor magical powers. However, the attitudes to magic radically shift from kingdom to kingdom. Temeria employs mages as advisors but is distrustful of unsponsored magic-users wandering the countryside. Redania is fiercely anti-mage and burns sorcerers at the stake. Nilfgaard strictly regulates them and forces them to the serve the Emperor’s will.


Geralt’s day job – when he isn’t getting involved in high-level politics and deciding the fate of nations – is hunting down monsters roaming the countryside. Monsters, for the most part, are animalistic and cannot be reasoned with, but in some cases they can be banished rather than killed. Some monsters are actually humans transmogrified by a curse: in some cases they can be cured, in others not. Monsters include alghouls, basilisks, bruxa, cockatrices, drowners, echinops, ghoul, kikimores, noonwraiths, strigas and wyverns.

Other entities of interest include godlings, intelligent and mischievous (but not evil) child-like spirits, and creatures such as the Crones, three powerful creatures inhabiting the swamps of Velen. These beings are intelligent and capable of speech and bargaining, but they are also capricious. These kinds of entities are ones that even Geralt would hesitate to engage in battle, but in many cases it is unnecessary as they bound by strict rules governing their interaction with mortals.

More troublesome are spectres, ghosts and otherworldly beings who are unnatural to this world but still intelligent and reasonable beings. Geralt can dispel or banish such entities. The most troublesome and dangerous of these creatures is the army known as the Wild Hunt, who are constantly on the lookout for beings of true power to recruit into their ranks.

Conception and Development

Andrzej Sapkowski was born in Łódź, Poland, in 1948 when it was still under Soviet occupation. He studied economics and worked as a senior sales representative for a foreign trade company. He was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, particularly the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny. He later became a translator of science fiction. He wrote his first short story, “The Witcher”, which introduced the character Geralt of Rivia, for Fantastyka magazine in 1986. The story was popular and led to a number of sequels, which were assembled as a short story collection, The Witcher, in 1990. This was followed by a second collection, which also worked as a prelude to the longer novel series Sapkowski was planning, called Sword of Destiny (1992). In 1993 Sapkowski reworked The Witcher with some new stories and re-released it under its definitive title, The Last Wish. The first Witcher novel proper, Blood of Elves, was published in 1994 and was followed by four sequels.

After writing a series of historical novels, Sapkowski returned to the Witcher universe for a prequel novel, Season of Storms, in 2013. He has since confirmed that he has plans to write more books in the setting.

By 2007 the Witcher books had sold over 2 million copies and was extremely popular in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, with additional sales in France and Spain (among others). Although these sales were very modest compared to the big British and American fantasy authors, they were unprecedented for a European author writing in a language that was not English.

In 2001 a 13-part Witcher television series aired in Poland. It was a critical and commercial failure.

In 2007 CD Projekt released The Witcher, a PC video game based on the books (the opening cinematic adapts the short story “The Witcher”). Based on the Aurora Engine developed by BioWare for their 2002 game Neverwinter Nights, The Witcher was a surprise success: the game launched with severe bugs (including one that resulted in cripplingly long load times) and a mixed critical reception. CD Projekt quickly fixed these problems and issued an upgraded version of the game, known as The Witcher: Enhanced Edition a few months later. The company was forced to cancel a planned, ambitious console version of the game due to problems with the company handling the port.

In 2008 CD Projekt also launched (originally Good Old Games), a service dedicated to resurrecting old games and releasing them in new editions compatible with modern game systems. 

This earned them a lot of goodwill from gamers. In 2011 CD Projekt released The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings, a much more successful game than its forebear due to its great technical achievements and console editions. In early 2015 they released The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, a massive open-world roleplaying game which attracted immediate and widespread critical acclaim. In the nearly-three-years since release, The Witcher III has been acclaimed as one of the greatest video games of all time. As of 2017, the Witcher video games have sold over 25 million copies, considerably more than the Dragon Age series, and rapidly closing in on The Elder Scrolls games (which have sold approximately 40 million).

In 2017 it was announced that Netflix had optioned the television rights for a new Witcher series. The new series, which will likely be between 10 and 13 episodes in length, will be made for an English-speaking audience and will involve both Sapkowski and several of the creative minds behind the video games as advisors. It is likely that this series will debut in early-to-mid 2019.

Further Reading

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Saturday 23 December 2017

Star Wars: Rebellion

The Galactic Civil War is in full force. The Galactic Empire is searching for the secret base of the Rebel Alliance, planning to destroy it with their newly-constructed Death Star to secure complete control of the galaxy. The Alliance is on the offensive, however, sending agents behind Imperial lines to sabotage factories and win neutral systems to their side. It is a race against time, as the Empire's brutal tactics risk fermenting a galaxy-wide uprising, whilst the Alliance has to secure a victory before the Empire finishes them off once and for all.

Star Wars: Rebellion is a two-player board game from Fantasy Flight Games, depicting the Galactic Civil War of the original Star Wars movie trilogy. One player assumes command of the Empire and the other takes control of the Rebels. The Rebels must survive long enough for the Empire to collapse under its own weight, a process they can accelerate by achieving strategic goals such as destroying the Death Star, shooting down Star Destroyers or liberating subjugated planets. The Empire must win by destroying the Rebel base, but with over thirty possible planets where the Rebels can be hiding, this is easier said than done.

Rebellion is asymmetrical game, meaning that the two sides aren't simple reskins of one another. The Empire commands a far larger and superior military force including Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters and AT-AT walkers. Whilst the Rebels have superior fighters, their capital ship fleet (of just three potential Mon Calamari Star Cruisers and a few Corellian Corvettes) is far smaller. In a head-on military confrontation, the Rebels will always lose. Fortunately, the Rebels are a lot sneakier than the Empire and can do a lot of things they can't.

The Rebels command a wide variety of agents. These start off with only a few diplomatic heavy hitters like Mon Mothma and Leia Organa but later on expand to incorporate smugglers, fighters and military commanders like Admiral Ackbar, Lando Calrissian and Luke Skywalker. The Empire also has agents, including Darth Vader, the Emperor and Boba Fett, but these are less versatile than their Rebel counterparts. Rebel agents can use diplomacy to win over systems to the Alliance, gaining access to their resources, or even launch uprisings on conquered worlds deep behind enemy lines. They can also bomb factories, destroying Imperial units awaiting construction, and shutting down production lines altogether. Rebels can also mount guerrilla raids on larger Imperial fleets, locking them down to allow the main Rebel fleet to retreat or mount attacks elsewhere.

However, every turn the Empire launches probe droids to scour planets in search of the Rebel base. Some Imperial tactics also allow them to radically expand that search (from scanning two to potentially eight planets per turn), and the Empire can also land troops on the ground to conduct manual searches. If the Rebel base is destroyed, the Rebellion dies, so the Rebels must engage in subterfuge, misdirection and espionage to prevent that from happening.

The game features an impressive array of counters, dice, cards (so many cards) and miniatures. There are tiny stormtroopers and Rebel troopers, snowspeeders, AT-ATs, AT-STs, TIE fighter squadrons, X-wings, Y-wings, Corellian Corvettes, Star Destroyers, Super Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari Star Cruisers and even three Death Stars (the Empire's ability to have multiple Death Stars flying around is the most notable callback to Star Wars: Supremacy, the 1998 grand strategy video game that inspired Rebellion). The miniatures are small but being able to assemble a fleet of six Star Destroyers led by Darth Vader's Super Star Destroyer and send it to crush a Rebel planet is still an awesome feeling.

Key to the game are the aforementioned characters, or agents. Each side has a plethora of characters to send on missions. As well as assigning characters to missions you can also use unassigned characters to disrupt the missions of other agents. The Empire also has the ability to try to capture Rebel leaders and interrogate them (and, in rare cases, turn them to the Dark Side), whilst the Rebels then have the ability to rescue them. You also use characters to take command of fleets and guide them from system to system, but they can't both command a fleet and disrupt enemy operations, leading to interesting strategic missions. If the Empire has a massive fleet waiting to move on a Rebel system, the Rebels can send multiple agents to commit sabotage or espionage operations in that system. The Empire can choose to disrupt those operations with their leaders in that system, but won't then be able to move their fleet. If they choose not to disrupt those operations, the Rebels might win significant advantages.

The result is an intricate game based on outright military action, covert operations and diplomatic games of bluff and double-bluff, all drenched in authentic Star Wars flavouring. This is a game that does what modern board games do best: generate stories from your actions, stories that shift and change each time.

Rebellion does have several issues, although these may be features to some players rather than bugs. It's a Fantasy Flight game, so that means that the rules are not always tremendously clear. The "quick start" manual omits about half the game rules whilst the main rulebook is not tremendously detailed. Expect to spend a lot of time studying errata, forum posts and YouTube videos to explain more obscure rules. There's also the fact that the game is not a quick play. In our first game, it took four hours to run through about five turns (out of a possible fourteen). By our sixth game we'd gotten that down to about four hours for twelve turns, which was much better. Some hold that the Rebels are actually slightly easier to play in the game and the Empire has a harder task to win, although I'm not sure about that, since theoretically the Empire could win the game in a couple of turns, depending on where the Rebel base is, and the Empire has much more flexibility in terms of military options, but it's true that the Rebels have more gaming options overall.

Rebellion is also strictly a two-player game. There is a team option, with two players on each team, but it's pretty thin stuff. Those who want a grand space strategy game with multiple players is directed to Fantasy Flight's Forbidden Stars (if you can find it before the final copies disappear), which scratches some of the same itch. Of course, if you regularly have entire weekends freed to dedicate to one space strategy game, there's always Twilight Imperium (cue readers screaming and running for the hills).

In the final analysis, Star Wars: Rebellion (****½) is a fine and engaging strategy boardgame that makes excellent use of the Star Wars mythos and is unrelenting fun. It is available now in the UK and USA. There is also an expansion, Rise of the Empire, which I haven't tried yet.

Wertzone Classics: Homeworld Remastered

Over sixty years ago, the Kushan people of the desert planet Kharak made a remarkable discovery: a vast, wrecked starship in the desert, and around it the ruins of a four thousand-year-old city. The Kushan confirmed what their scientists and geneticists had long suspected: they were not native to Kharak. They had come from somewhere else in the galaxy. Using technology reverse-engineered from the wreck, a hyperspace core located in its ruins and a Guidestone emblazoned with a curious map, the Kushan have built a vast starship. Their mission is simple: to find their true homeworld.

Originally released in 1999 as the debut title from Relic Entertainment, Homeworld was a video game way ahead of its time. Featuring a remarkable 3D, real-time graphics engine and a gripping storyline, the game told the story of an entire people racing to find their way home, hounded by enemies they don't understand and accused of crimes their ancestors committed millennia earlier. It was followed by two successors, Homeworld: Cataclysm (2000) and Homeworld 2 (2003), but Relic was bought out by Sega and switched to making Warhammer 40,000 games (namely the popular Dawn of War series) and, later, the WWII Company of Heroes series. The Homeworld IP, left behind with dying publisher THQ, was forgotten about.

Or so it seemed. By 2015 THQ had gone bust and the Homeworld IP had been bought by FPS titans Gearbox, several members of whom were massive fans of the original game. Helpfully, many of the team who made Homeworld and Homeworld 2 had left Relic to set up their own studio, Blackbird Interactive, and had begun making their own strategy game which was basically as close to Homeworld as they could get without violating copyright. Gearbox teamed up with Blackbird to retool that game as an official Homeworld game - the excellent Deserts of Kharak - and also fully remaster the original games into a new package, fit for modern gamers.

Homeworld Remastered is the result. This re-release combines Homeworld and Homeworld 2 into one package and significantly updates both titles. Homeworld has been moved into the superior Homeworld 2 engine, given a massive graphical face-lift and had its user interface revamped. The result is nothing short of a revelation: a game that plays identically to how it did in 1999 but with cutting-edge graphics. Pushed to the maximum and played on a 4K monitor and graphics card, it's possible that Homeworld Remastered is the most graphically jaw-dropping game currently in existence. Not bad for a franchise not far off from entering its third decade.

If you haven't played any of the Homeworld games before, an in-depth tutorial explains the basics. Your Mothership is your headquarters and base (stationary in the first game, mobile in the second one), from where you build fighters, capital ships, probes and asteroid-mining craft. Your resource gatherers mine asteroids and gas clouds for resources allowing you to build ships and research new technologies.

The game is controlled from a 3D perspective, with you giving ships orders on where to move and how to engage the enemy. Your ships can move in all directions, including attacking from above or below to surprise the enemy, and several story missions in fact depend on you attacking from outside the usual plane. You can amass your fleet in strike groups of mixed types of craft: the AI is good enough that when you click on an enemy fleet, your ships will engage the appropriate enemy craft (so fighters will target bombers, bombers will target heavy capital ships, battlecruisers will target everyone etc). You can also pause the game and issue orders whilst paused if the action gets too hectic (as it invariably does).

The fleet you build is persistent through the game, so all the units that survive one mission will automatically show up at the beginning of the next one. Your resources are also persistent, so you start each mission with the resources collected from the last one. Slightly controversially, the remaster also automatically harvests up remaining resources from the last mission, allowing you to move on rather than having to sit around and wait for your miners to do their thing (which on some missions took an hour or more after the objectives were met) but also meaning that mining becomes a bit pointless as the game continues, since you automatically just hoover up everything and start each successive missions with more money than you can ever spend.

The real meat of the game, though, is space combat. Your fleets consist of several ship types: fighters, bombers, corvettes, frigates and heavy capital ships. As the game continues the enemy improve their ships so you have to as well, gradually building more versatile and fiercer fleets.

The single-player storyline is excellent, unfolding with unmatched atmosphere. The Homeworld games have some of the best music ever created for video games and the game's use of Adagio for Strings is particularly fantastic. The voice acting is also exceptional, with a special word of appreciation for the late Campbell Lane, whose role as both the main narrator and the Bentusi is superb. RIP, sir. Some people will find the game's lack of any recognisable characters - the cut scenes take place either using the in-game engine so only showing the ships, or in 2D black-and-white cut scenes - a bit weird, but it also allows your imagination to run riot.

The game's art design and direction remain unparalleled. Heavily influenced by 1970s SF artist titans Chris Foss and Peter Elson, Homeworld's ship designs are among the best ever conceived for video games, with clunky, retro designs and excellent use of colours. Watching space light up with a furious fusillade of ion beams remains as awe-inspiring now as it was eighteen years ago.

The package contains two games, and it should be noted that Homeworld and Homeworld 2 are somewhat different games in tone: the first game is more rooted in survival and the nitty-gritty of building alliances with the races you encounter, destroying enemy forces in a pragmatic manner and pressing on to the homeworld. The second game is a bit more mystical, diving into the Kushan religion and revealing it has a basis in an actual mysterious alien race who left strange artefacts around the galaxy, artefacts which may hold the key to defeating an invading alien force. The second game is still very good, but the number of missions revolving around finding the Sacred Key of Maguffin to unlock the Portal of Exposition is a bit on the high side and doesn't entirely feel in keeping with the tone of the first game. Weirdly, since Homeworld 2 came out before the rebooted series even started, the games mirror the two halves of the Battlestar Galactica remake (although Homeworld 2's ending is excellent, unlike Battlestar Galactica's).

There aren't too many other downsides: Homeworld is perhaps a little too easy and Homeworld 2 isn't going to put too many veterans of the first game off, although it does have some notable difficulty spikes (the most infamous have been nerfed through patches over the years, thankfully). There were also some teething problems with Homeworld being moved into the HW2 engine, particularly the fact that formations didn't work properly. This was fixed some time ago, fortunately. The biggest problem is one not really in the developers' control: since the original source code was lost years ago, it wasn't possible to remake Homeworld: Cataclysm in the same manner, so it isn't in the package. Fortunately, GoG have been able to resurrect the game and re-release it in a compatible format for modern PCs. Due to World of WarCraft copyright-related reasons, however, they've had to rename it Homeworld: Emergence. This is slightly frustrating as, although it has a far cheesier plot, Cataclysm/Emergence arguably has the best gameplay of the series.

What you get with Homeworld Remastered are two of the very finest space-set real-time strategy games of all time, spruced up to the maximum with their classic gameplay and unmatched atmosphere left completely unchanged. Frequently available very cheaply in Steam sales, I would argue it's a required purchase for any lover of science fiction or strategy gaming.

Homeworld Remastered (*****) is available via Steam now. Gearbox and Blackbird have mooted making Homeworld 3, but this will depend on the sales of Homeworld Remastered and Deserts of Kharak.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Guy Gavriel Kay's FIONAVAR TAPESTRY optioned by ORPHAN BLACK production company

Canadian production company Temple Street have optioned Guy Gavriel Kay's debut fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry for the screen.

The Fionavar Tapestry consists of three novels: The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1985) and The Darkest Road (1985), plus a self-contained sequel, Ysabel (2007). The full press release follows:
Boat Rocker Studio’s Temple Street secures television rights to international bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry 
Toronto, Canada – December 18, 2017 - Temple Street, a division of Boat Rocker Studios, has secured the television rights to international bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. Published as three volumes in the mid-1980s (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road), the trilogy has sold more than a million copies around the world, and has been dubbed by The Guardian one of the classics of modern fantasy. New York Times bestselling writer Brandon Sanderson has called Kay “the greatest living author of fantasy literature.” 
The Tapestry tells the tale of five young men and women who are brought to Fionavar – the first of all worlds. Told they are simply to be guests for the 50th anniversary celebration of a king's ascension to the throne, each of the five discovers they have a greater, dangerous role to play as they're thrust into a war between the forces of good and evil, whose outcome will affect all worlds, including our own.
Kay draws upon a variety of creatures and mythologies, predominantly Celtic and Norse, to create the world of Fionavar, and the saga also features the legendary story of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, heroes of medieval literature. 
“Guy’s work is exhilarating and cathartic, and we can’t wait to share this epic story with audiences around the world,” say Boat Rocker’s co-executive chairmen David Fortier and Ivan Schneeberg. “Given the current appetite for big budget, high-fantasy adaptations, the timing for Fionavar couldn’t be better. We’re excited to start assembling the creative team to help realize our vision.” 
"I'm truly happy that David and Ivan and the impressive team at Temple Street are the ones bringing my trilogy to television. I know The Tapestry has had a powerful impact on readers – and on other writers – and that's part of why I've been careful with the rights. I'm excited and anticipate this adaptation will bring new people to Fionavar, while rewarding longstanding fans," says Guy Gavriel Kay.
Fortier and Schneeberg will executive produce for Temple Street (Orphan Black, Killjoys), along with Kris Holden-Ried (Vikings, Tudors, Lost Girl). “The magic of Fionavar transcends the page. It’s a clarion call to that which is best in all of us, and it’s an honour to be bringing the emotional poetry of Guy’s books to the screen,” says Kris Holden-Ried.
Temple Street’s Senior Vice President Kerry Appleyard and Senior Development Producer Lesley Grant will oversee series adaptation for the studio, and Boat Rocker Rights will control worldwide rights.
The news is exciting but slightly unexpected: The Fionavar Tapestry is Kay's first work and as such is not quite as well-regarded as his later, more self-contained novels such as Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan and Under Heaven. However, it's big story (still the biggest thing Kay's ever written) and could fuel several seasons of a television series. Adapting his other books, which are mostly set in the same world but at wildly varying geographic and historical points, would be more problematic (although I have a suggestion for how you'd do that here).

This is great news, well-deserved for what may be our greatest living author of fantasy, and hopefully we'll see this project greenlit quickly.

Monday 18 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: The Novels

When J. Michael Straczynski was planning Babylon 5 in the late 1980s it occurred to him that, should the show get to the screen, it would probably generate spin-off media like books and comics. Straczynski was a huge fan of science fiction literature and comic books – he’d later become one of Marvel’s best-known writers, penning an acclaimed seven-year run on Spider-Man – and didn’t want any B5 tie-ins to be disposable, non-canonical (and thus unimportant, in the eyes of fans) material. He wanted these stories to matter as much as the TV show.

Shortly after the pilot aired, Straczynski was approached by Dell Books. Editor Jeanne Cavelos had taken a liking to the series and was keen to publish a line of books tying into the story. Straczynski was enthusiastic, suggesting they create a prequel to the series, a multi-volume series exploring the characters and what they got up to during the Earth-Minbari War. He likened the structure to the TV series The Winds of War. Dell were intrigued but ultimately rejected the notion, feeling that if readers weren’t picking up the books and getting more stuff like the TV show, they’d be disappointed.

Dell’s initial plan had been for a big line with lots of promoting and marketing, with big-name SFF authors involved. Cavelos had profile in the SFF community, since she’d written some short stories, was a former NASA astrophysicist and was preparing to launch the high-profile Odyssey Writer’s Workshop. As the plans came together, Cavelos cannily asked Kevin J. Anderson to launch the book series. Although his critical reception was “mixed”, Anderson had a high profile thanks to his work on both the Star Wars novel line for Bantam and the X-Files book series and would bring in a lot of other readers. Anderson agreed in principle, but Dell and Warner Brothers got bogged down in legal discussions. Eventually, by the time a deal had been sorted out Dell’s upper management had soured on the project and dramatically reduced the resources available. Anderson found that the money on the table was half of what he’d been originally offered, so decided to abandon the project to focus on his Star Wars work (although given that the Star Wars novel he wrote next – Darksaber – is one of the worst Star Wars novels ever written, this might have been Babylon 5’s lucky escape).

John Vornholt instead picked up the ball and delivered the first novel, Voices, in just twenty-five days.

Later, after the first six books had been published, none of them particularly distinguished (Clark’s Law and Voices are probably the best, but both are still flawed) J. Michael Straczynski put his foot down and decided that the next three books would tie into the story arc in more detail and get more information out than he could in the TV show. Jeanne Cavelos herself, who’d left Dell as an editor and was now available as a freelance novelist, came aboard to write one of the new books, along with Al Sarrantonio and Kathryn Drennan, the latter of whom had also written a TV episode (episode A12, By Any Means Necessary) and was married to Straczynski at the time, meaning she could tap him for more information.

Sarrantonio’s book, Personal Agendas, was also awful but Cavelos’s book, The Shadow Within, and Drennan’s To Dream in the City of Sorrows were both very well-received. Straczynski made them both canonical, dismissing the other seven of the first nine books.

Later, Del Rey took over the Babylon 5 licence and employed two well-known authors – J. Gregory Keyes and Peter David – as well as retaining Cavelos to write three trilogies. These were also very well-received and Straczynski accepted them as canonical as well. We’ll cover those in due time, but here will focus on the two books which tie into the events of Season 3 of the TV series.


First trailer for the MORTAL ENGINES movie

The first trailer has been released for Mortal Engines, a movie based on Philip Reeve's YA steampunk novels.

In the Mortal Engines series, entire cities have been converted into vast mobile machines which roam the landscape, gobbling up resources. There are four books in the series, comprising Mortal Engines (2001), Predator's Gold (2003), Infernal Devices (2005) and A Darkling Plain (2006), as well as the side-novella Traction City (2011).

The movie has been produced and co-written by the Lord of the Rings team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The movie has been directed by Christian Rivers, a long-term collaborator of Jackson's from Weta Workshop. It will be released on 14 December 2018.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 21-22

C21: Shadow Dancing
Airdates: 21 October 1996 (US), 15 September 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Kim Friedman
Cast: Barbara (Shirley Prestia), Anna (Melissa Gilbert), Drazi Ambassador (Mark Hendrickson), Brakiri Ambassador (Jonathan Chapman), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox), Husband (Doug Cox), Thug #1 (Nicholas Ross Oleson), Thug #2 (John Grantham), Man (J. Gordon Noice)

Date: 15-19 December 2260, Z-minus 6 days to Z-minus 2 days.

Plot:    Delenn calls a meeting of the War Council and tells them that they have discovered a possible location the Shadows are planning to attack. However, they have no way of knowing when the Shadows will strike or how many ships they will bring. She asks that all the races send considerable numbers of ships to the engagement, but the League races are unwilling to risk weakening their defences around their homeworlds. Delenn and Lennier eventually manage to convince them by committing a sizeable Minbari fleet to the trap as well. Meanwhile, Sheridan orders Ivanova and Marcus to take the White Star to Sector 83 and keep an eye out in case the Shadows turn up early. The refugee traffic into the system has died off in the last few weeks so the Shadows may attack at any time, before the refugees feel it is safe to leave the sanctuary of the area and return home. They depart for the system.

Dr. Franklin is still on ‘walkabout’ in Downbelow and sees a man being attacked by two thugs. When he tries to intervene, he is stabbed and left for dead.

Sheridan and Delenn leave Babylon 5 on the Minbari warcruiser Dogato and rendezvous with the League ships and the Narn rebel cruisers. Sheridan feels they don’t have enough ships, but the League worlds sent all they could spare.

The White Star arrives at Sector 83 and takes up a surveillance position behind a moon. After a few hours a Shadow scout vessel appears and the White Star engages it. Crippled, the Shadow scout tries to ram the White Star. The White Star destroys it, but it is damaged in the explosion. It is left dead in the water whilst the automatic systems try to repair the engines, but the main Shadow fleet of more than a dozen vessels appears and begins moving towards the refugee staging ground. With little choice, Ivanova and Marcus send the signal to the main fleet.

Franklin, hallucinating from blood loss, sees another image of himself appear and urge him to fight on and live, instead of just giving up as he always does. He manages to stagger into the local market and he gets taken to Medlab.

One of the Shadow warships breaks off to investigate the crippled White Star, but then a series of jump points opens and the War Council’s fleet emerges. The telepaths start jamming the Shadow vessels, although they can’t stop all of them, and a massive, pitched battle erupts. The new White Stars prove their worth, as do the Minbari, Drazi, Narn and Vree warships, but even so a large portion of the fleet is destroyed and almost all of the ships that survive are heavily damaged. The Shadows retreat after taking substantial losses.

Back on the station the outlook is grim. The Shadow attack was repulsed, but the allies lost twice as many ships as the Shadows. Sheridan now fears a retaliation against B5 itself and has the station put on full defence alert. Franklin recovers from his wounds and starts helping out with the injuries from the battle. Sheridan offers him his job back and he accepts.

In hyperspace a Shadow vessel drops off a smaller craft, which heads towards Babylon 5’s jump gate...

Delenn tells Sheridan that when Minbari couples become close they spend three nights together. The female watches the male as he relaxes during sleep and sees if she approves of his ‘true face’ which is so revealed. Sheridan falls asleep in his quarters whilst Delenn watches. The door opens and a human woman walks in, telling Delenn that she is Anna Sheridan, John’s wife...


Sunday 17 December 2017

To Dream in the City of Sorrows by Kathryn M. Drennan

Jeffrey Sinclair is a soldier, a decorated fighter pilot and station commander. To his surprise, he has been reassigned to the Minbari homeworld as the Earth Alliance's first ambassador afforded permanent residence there. But his post is treated as a joke back home and the Minbari are unwilling to explain to him what is going on. Eventually he learns the truth, which will completely transform his life.

Meanwhile, Sinclair's fiancee Catherine Sakai is on a five-month surveying mission to the rim of known space, unaware of Sinclair's change in circumstance. Out on the rim she finds evidence that something very disturbing is happening, entire planets destroyed and strange shapes moving through hyperspace. One planet to fall victim to this force is a remote Earth mining colony, Arisia III. Its sole survivor, Marcus Cole, finds his way to Minbar, planning to avenge his brother's death and find out what is going on.

To Dream in the City of Sorrows is the second Babylon 5 novel (after Jeanne Cavelos's The Shadow Within) to be accepted as fully canon by franchise creator J. Michael Straczynski. He came up with the basic story arc and assigned it to the writer, who was also his then-wife, Kathryn Drennan (who also wrote the decent episode By Any Means Necessary).

Work-for-hire novels are often awful, written to tight deadlines and with little opportunity for rewrites or thorough editing. Not in this case, though. Like The Shadow Within, To Dream in the City of Sorrows fleshes out a vitally import part of the overall Babylon 5 story arc that the TV show couldn't get around to because real life interfered, in this case actor Michael O'Hare (Commander Sinclair) leaving the show due to mental health issues. In the TV show, Sinclair was sent to the Minbari homeworld to set up the Rangers whilst Captain Sheridan took command of Babylon 5 and the focus remained squarely on the station.

A novel, however, can continue this storyline and this one does with aplomb. The book works well with a tight focus on three characters: Sinclair, his lover Catherine Sakai and Marcus Cole. Fans of the TV series were mystified when Catherine Sakai was just dropped from the series, feeling that her character needed a better plot resolution. The introduction of Marcus Cole in the first episode of Season 3 also felt a bit abrupt, with a major new character introduced at a moment when there was a lot going on in the storyline. This book gives us a better understanding of his backstory and the events that led to him joining the Rangers.

Unlike The Shadow Within, To Dream in the City of Sorrows doesn't work as well as a stand-alone book. It intertwines with the second season of Babylon 5 (and flashes forwards to the end of the third) and references events from the comic books as well as the TV show, featuring cameos and mentions of characters which will be meaningless to those who haven't seen the series. This is very much a companion to the TV series rather than a self-contained prequel (like The Shadow Within), and should be read as such. Drennan is a very good writer, having worked extensively in animation as well as writing for B5, and she nails the "voices" of the characters superbly. You can imagine the actors saying this dialogue, which isn't always the case in spin-offs.

The story is pretty good and is fleshed out by a ton of new background details on Minbari culture, history and religion. The Minbari are one of the more interesting Babylon 5 races but their focus on honour did occasionally make them a bit Klingon-like. This novel gives them much more depth, especially to the very-underserved worker caste, and makes their attitudes to life, death and war a bit more understandable.

By its nature, though, the book is a little episodic. Sometimes months pass between chapters and this isn't always spelled out very well. The ending is also a little unsatisfying, lacking the resolution that is still to come in the TV story War Without End and the comic book series In Valen's Name. But the book is well-written, ties up a lot of character arcs and answers a whole host of unanswered questions from the TV show.

To Dream in the City of Sorrows (****) is a good read for established Babylon 5 fans but isn't as welcoming a place for new readers. For those invested in the story of the series, it's good stuff which expands on the background as well as tying up some niggling plot threads the series itself couldn't address. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The Shadow Within by Jeanne Cavelos

November, 2256. Anna Sheridan, an archaeologist working for Interplanetary Expeditions, is investigating an ancient alien artefact recovered from a remote planet. When the artefact scrambles the brain of a telepath, Psi Corps becomes very interested in where the device came from and what it means. Improbably, Interplanetary Expeditions rapidly discovers a candidate for the machine's homeworld - "Alpha Omega III", on the rim of known space - and dispatches a ship, the Icarus, to investigate. Anna joins the crew and discovers a seething mess of corporate espionage, competing interests and hidden secrets hinting at how this planet was discovered so quickly. Anna feels the only person she can trust is an archaeo-linguist suffering a profound grief and trauma: Dr. Morden.

When J. Michael Straczynski started planning his Babylon 5 television series in the late 1980s, he had the idea of creating the first-ever genuinely multimedia franchise. His idea was for the tie-in novels and comic books to be just as important and canonical to the setting as any episode of the television series (Star Wars later tried to do something similar with its Expanded Universe, which ended in failure). In the event this proved challenging: the publishers did not want to spend a lot of money on quality writers and their production schedules for the books was ridiculous. John Vornholt had a month apiece to write his two books in the series and found that so tough he refused to write any more.

After the first six novels came out and, with the honourable exceptions of Vornholt's Voices and Jim Mortimore's Clark's Law, turned out to be terrible, there was a reset of the line. Straczynski assigned the next three book outlines and premises personally and tried to find better writers. The result gave us another awful novel - Personal Agendas by Al Sarrantonio - but it did finally provide two books which finally fulfilled the potential of the idea by giving us novels that told stories the TV series was unable to. These two books - The Shadow Within and To Dream in the City of Sorrows - are both considered fully canon for the TV show and are pretty decent SF novels in their own right.

The Shadow Within is the more self-contained of the two and can be read without any pre-knowledge of the Babylon 5 setting, especially since the titular station and the regular TV characters barely appear. Instead, the focus is on Anna Sheridan and the mission to Alpha Omega III. This storyline is well-played, although modern readers may draw parallels with the 2012 movie Prometheus. Fortunately, The Shadow Within is far better-written and more plausible in how it depicts the behaviour of the team of scientists and engineers. Jeanne Cavelos is an actual former NASA astrophysicist, which helps with the description and outfitting of a scientific mission.

The book also has a significant subplot, with Captain John Sheridan assuming command of the Omega-class destroyer Agamemnon. To his horror, the crew is lackadaisical and insubordinate, the result of the corruption of the previous captain. This subplot sees Sheridan having to uncover what happened with the previous captain that corrupted so many of the officers and trying to bring the crew up to Earthforce standards, just as the ship is dispatched on an urgent mission. This subplot is pretty decent but feels a little incongruous when contrasted to the Anna story, which is much more interesting.

This storyline also begins to cross-bleed into the horror genre, especially when the Icarus reaches the alien planet to find it is not as dead as was previously indicated. Strange things start happening, crewpeople start going missing, people start behaving weirdly and a growing feeling of doom envelops the story. But there's some big surprises here even for seasoned Babylon 5 fans. The ending in particular transforms Mr. Morden from an evil snake-oil salesman into a much more tragic figure, destroyed by circumstance and grief, which makes you re-examine the character from the TV series.

The Shadow Within (****) is a decent and solid - if rather short - SF novel which works well as a Babylon 5 tie-in and as an introduction to the entire franchise for newcomers. It also serves a prequel to Cavelos's later Passing of the Techno-Mages Trilogy, which picks up on some of the story threads left dangling from this novel and the TV series. The book is available in the UK and USA.

Saturday 16 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 19-20

C19: Grey 17 is Missing
Airdates: 7 October 1996 (US), 1 September 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Jeremiah (Robert Englund), Neroon (John Vickey), Rathenn (Time Winters), Supervisor (Katherine Moffat), First Man (Eamonn Roche), Maintenance Worker (Thom Barry)

Date: October or November 2260.

Plot:    Telepaths from many races are arriving at Babylon 5 in response to Sheridan’s plea for help from humans and aliens with psi-abilities. He is trying to put telepaths willing to fight the Shadows on as many League, Minbari and Narn rebel ships as possible to slow down the Shadow advance. However, many telepaths are simply unwilling to go up against the Shadows. Ivanova goes Downbelow and finds Franklin, now deep in the grip of stim withdrawal. Despite this, she gets him to hand over his database containing information on the whereabouts of the rogue telepaths he helped to escape Psi Corps (B7). They should be more willing to repay the debt they owe to Babylon 5.

A maintenance worker goes missing in Grey Sector and Garibaldi investigates. He discovers that a religious sect has taken over level Grey 17 and is using it as a hiding place. The sect believes that they spiritually one with the universe and should return to the universe through one act of purity, namely getting killed by the Zarg they have hidden down here. Garibaldi manages to kill the Zarg and (presumably) has the nutters thrown off the station.

Rathenn, Sinclair’s former aide on Minbar, arrives on Babylon 5 with Sinclair’s belongings, which Delenn arranges to be sent on to his family on Earth and Mars. There is another purpose to Rathenn’s visit as well: Delenn has been almost unanimously elected as the new leader of the Rangers. She is startled but agrees to accept the honour. The Rangers begin gathering at Babylon 5, but another familiar face arrives as well: Neroon of the warrior caste, formerly of the Grey Council. He tells her that the religious caste is treading too much on the toes of the warriors by building ships and arming the Rangers. He suggests she surrender control of the Rangers to the warrior caste - him in particular - and when she refuses he indicates he might take the role of Entil’zha by force. Lennier, concerned for Delenn’s safety, goes to Marcus and tells him of Neroon’s presence. Marcus confronts Neroon and they battle one another, Neroon puzzled as to why the human is intervening in Minbari affairs. After the battle is over - with Marcus almost dead - Neroon realises that the Rangers respect Delenn in a way they would could for him and agrees to accept Delenn as Entil’zha.