Saturday 28 April 2018

Franchise Familiariser: BattleTech

This is the year of BattleTech. A brand-new strategy video game just came out (and is excellent), another video game is due at the end of the year and both the miniatures wargame and the roleplaying game are getting refreshed this year. There’s more interest in the franchise than there has been in maybe a decade, but what to do if you’re intrigued but have no idea what it’s all about? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course!

The second edition of BattleTech and the first to use that name, released in 1985.

The Basics

BattleTech (and its related brand, MechWarrior) – not be confused with Robotech – is a franchise that merges elements of space opera, military science fiction, fantasy and Japanese manga and anime. It was originally created as a tabletop wargame, followed by a pen-and-paper RPG, but gained its greatest exposure through video games, a lengthy series of novels and a short-run animated series which ran for half a season in 1994.

BattleTech was created by Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babock III for FASA Corporation in 1984 as a tabletop wargame. The original idea had been to create a wargame using large, human-piloted robots known as BattleMechs or ‘mechs. Originally called BattleDroids, the game had to change its name after a few months due to a copyright claim by Lucasfilm (who claimed that they had copyrighted “droids” as part of their Star Wars franchise). A companion tabletop roleplaying game, MechWarrior, was published in 1986. The first BattleTech video games, The Crescent Hawk’s Inception and The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge, were released in 1988 and 1990 respectively.

The franchise received a significant boost in popularity, however, through the MechWarrior video game series. The original MechWarrior (1989) was well-received but it was MechWarrior 2 (1995) that took the series to new heights. Released at exactly the right moment to capitalise on 3D graphics cards and more powerful PCs, the game was a huge success. It was followed by MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries (1996), MechWarrior 3 (1999), MechWarrior 4: Vengeance (2000) and MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries (2002).

In 2001 FASA almost went bust and sold the BattleTech and MechWarrior properties to WizKids. In 2003 WizKids was bought by Topps but continued to release new material under the WizKids name. They have also provided companies such as FanPro and Catalyst Games with licences. Since 2007, Catalyst Game Labs has been releasing new versions of the classic wargame and the roleplaying game, whilst Piranha Studios and Harebrained Schemes have released new video games.

2018-19 has been dubbed the “year of BattleTech”, with two new video games (BattleTech from Harebrained and MechWarrior 5 from Piranha) and a refreshed version of the wargame and roleplaying game on the way from Catalyst.


Friday 27 April 2018

BBC to release RED DWARF and DOCTOR WHO in HD

In an interesting move, the BBC has confirmed they are releasing Doctor Who and Red Dwarf on Blu-Ray in high definition...despite the original shows being shot natively on video, which should make such a process impossible.

Backing up and as previously discussed at length in our HD remastering discussions for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The WireThe X-Files and the proposed (and unlikely-to-happen) Babylon 5 remastering, it has been possible for various TV shows to be natively remastered in HD or even 4K because they were shot on film. Film retains a huge amount of information (as it's also what was used for movies, projected onto massive cinema screens) so getting a very high quality image from the original film source is a relatively straightforward process.

The complicating factor in most American TV shows is that, although shot on film, they were mastered (that is, having music, sound effects and visual effects added) on much lower-quality videotape, which is where the broadcast version of the episode exists. Videotape is impossible to remaster, because the extra visual information simply doesn't exist in the image. If you tried, the image would just come up very blurry with large and visible pixels. So, for shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, the remastering team had to go back and re-edit every single episode together from scratch, re-add the music and sound effects and redo all of the visual effects from scratch in HD. This was both time-consuming and very expensive.

In case of British television shows which were shot on video - i.e. they never existed on film at all - it was assumed that they would simply never be remastered and would have to remain in standard definition forever. There has been some talk of advanced extrapolation - scanning the original material, blowing it up to HD and then filling in the pixels dynamically with an advanced algorithm - but this appears to be many years away still.

These new Blu-Ray editions appear instead to be "upscales", an attempt to make the episodes appear to be HD through a more primitive process of adding more pixels to the screen. It can be a very variable process, sometimes surprisingly effective and other times disastrous. I'd wait for reviews before seeing how well the upscale has been done.

In the case of Doctor Who, it appears that so far only a "test run" is being done with Season 12, the first season to star Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Originally broadcast from 1974 to 1975, this season was chosen as it features the most popular Doctor and features arguably two of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time, The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks. The Blu-Ray will also have lots of new special features, including a brand-new retrospective by Tom Baker on his time as the Doctor. It will be released on 11 June 2018.

Red Dwarf's release is much more confident, with Seasons 1-8 being released in a single box set in one go. This will be released on 1 October 2018.

Paramount greenlight STAR TREK 4, put STAR TREK 5 into development

Paramount has doubled down on its commitment to the Star Trek universe. It has greenlit Star Trek 4, with S.J. Clarkson on board to direct the film. Star Trek 5, meanwhile, is being developed by a team of writers working with Quentin Tarantino.

Star Trek Beyond was released in 2016 to reasonable reviews but underperformed at the box office, leading to speculation that Paramount might rest the film franchise. Quentin Tarantino voiced his interest in potentially helming a Star Trek film last year, citing his great love of the original series and The Next Generation and saying he'd draw inspiration from classic episodes such as The City of the Edge of Forever and Yesterday's Enterprise.

Instead, it seems that Paramount has decided to press ahead with the original Star Trek 4 plan, given that Tarantino will be busy for the next year and a half or so with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Star Trek 4, based on an idea by J.J. Abrams, is a time travel adventure where Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) meet Kirk's father, played by Chris Hemsworth in the 2009 movie. Quinto has apparently already signed on and Pine and Hemsworth are in negotiations. Presumably the rest of the Star Trek reboot crew will also appear, apart from Anton Yelchin (Chekov) who sadly passed away after completing filming on Star Trek Beyond.

S.J. Clarkson cut her teeth in UK television, helming six episodes of the acclaimed 2006-07 drama Life on Mars as well as episodes of Hustle. She subsequently moved to the US and has directed episodes of Heroes, Dexter, Jessica Jones and The Defenders. Clarkson is the first woman to direct a Star Trek movie and only the eighth woman to direct Star Trek at all (following on from Gabrielle Beaumont, Gates McFadden, Nancy Malone, Roxanne Dawson, Kim Friedman, Allison Liddi and Hanelle Culpepper) in its 52-year history.

Quentin Tarantino's Star Trek movie, currently listed as Star Trek 5, is in development. It's unclear if Tarantino's movie will use the reboot cast, will be set in a new version of The Next Generation or will be some other kind of project, but according to the Hollywood Reporter the movie will be set "in a different timeline" to the rest of the franchise.

In related news, filming of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery is underway, with CBS confirming that the season - which will be partially set on the original, Constituion-class USS Enterprise - will introduce uniforms inspired by the original series' classic, colour-coded uniforms. The season is expected to debut on CBS All Access in early 2019.

The Avengers: Infinity War

The Titan Thanos has begun his plan to unite the Infinity Stones and wipe out half of the life the universe. His plan involves seizing the Stones from remote planets, the Collector of Knowhere and from Xandar, and the several Stones that have come to rest on Earth. In deep space the Guardians of the Galaxy join forces with Thor to defeat Thanos, whilst on Earth the fractured Avengers have to overcome their differences and unite again to fight his armies.

It's entirely possible that no movie in history has had a build-up like Infinity War. Almost every one of the eighteen preceding movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been laying pipe and groundwork for this film, from introducing the Infinity Stones one-by-one to brief appearances by Thanos to the introduction of both the extravagant space opera and mystical sides of the universe through Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange. Marvel and Disney have shown tremendous restraint and forbearance in not pulling the triggers on those stories too early and making sure they have their ducks lined up in just the right row before finally committing.

Infinity War is an insanely massive movie. Starting as it means to go on - with a massacre which leaves several established characters dead and one MIA (which weirdly goes unmentioned for the whole movie) - the film barely lets up. Characters big and small going right back to the start of the MCU ten years ago (including some you thought you'd never see again) show up, some with large roles to play, some for an extended cameo. Despite the weight of the massive cast, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely somehow create a very coherent film with four distinct acts and the kind of tension filled, multi-pronged final battle on two separate fronts that we haven't seen since Return of the Jedi.

It also helps that although the movie is filled to the brim with heroes and big personalities, the film keeps its focus firmly on a central quintet. Thanos himself dominates proceedings, Josh Brolin (somehow) investing this big purple dude with some real pathos in scenes where we learn more about his backstory, his family and his homeworld. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has a major role to play, her family issues with both Thanos and Nebula proving a key emotional motivation for the film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also has a lot of screentime, clearly having feeling annoyed after the events of Thor: Ragnarok and determined to kick someone's backside. Scenes pairing him and Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon (or "Rabbit" as Thor insists) are excellent, and then get better when they join forces with a giant space dwarf played by Peter Dinklage. Dinklage's screentime is limited but extraordinarily effective (he also gets arguably the best line of the movie, but it's a really tough choice). Rounding off the central focus is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), two extremely different people who prove to be an effective team.

Lots of other characters get their moments in the sun (although Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner seems to be reduced to a harbinger of doom whilst he's dealing with, er, "performance" problems as Hulk), although the role of Captain America (Chris Evans) in the movie is surprisingly small. The directors know how to deliver a great superhero arrival scene just as all hope seems lost and also how to frame an action sequence. There's a lot of explosions, CG people being flung around and strange creatures and it all flows mostly well, with only a couple of moments where CG fatigue threatens to set in. Infinity War is not a movie any sane person can call restrained, but it's a movie that knows when and where to deploy its monstrous resources (adjusted for inflation, Infinity War is the most expensive movie ever made) to maximum effect.

It's also a surprisingly emotional movie. The weakness of films - and the reason we've seen television explode in comparison recently - is that it's very hard to introduce characters, establish motivation, emotionally invest the audience and then deliver a payoff in under two hours. Infinity War is instead able to draw on almost forty hours of previous character development in the MCU, so even when a fairly minor character bites the dust it hurts a little. When more major characters bite it, things get real (and at least some of these characters aren't coming back).

When the movie runs aground is in its ending, which is impossible to talk about without major spoilers. Suffice to say that the Chekhov's Gun maxim is employed by full force in the film and when you walk out of the cinema - especially if you know the significance of the post-credit sequence and what movie will immediately precede Infinity War II next year - you'll probably be able to immediately pen a fairly close outline of what happens. I mean, if they completely wrong-foot us, fair enough, but some of the choices made in the ending are completely nonsensical if you have any knowledge of what's coming and what's not coming down the Marvel production pipe later on.

Another major weakness is that the film undersells its new team of villains, the Black Order (servants of Thanos). Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Ebony Maw and Carrie Coon as Proxima Midnight are particularly excellent, but both get limited screen time (especially Carrie Coon, one of the best actresses on TV, who is almost unrecognisable).

Finally, Marvel has gone to some lengths to say that Infinity War is a stand-alone movie and it's as-yet untitled sequel next year (which has already been shot) is a movie in its own right and not just the second half of one bigger story. That's quite frankly untrue, and a lot of the more dramatic and emotional moments from Infinity War will live or die depending on what happens in the sequel.

If you can step out of the meta-knowledge, The Avengers: Infinity War (****) is a very effective action movie with lots of solid action scenes, some real dramatic moments of power and a refreshingly ruthless attitude to its cast of massive stars. It lacks the pacing, focus and character interplay of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther (or even the first Avengers), but's in the upper tier of Marvel Cinematic Universe films and in balancing an unprecedentedly vast cast with solid storytelling, it's almost achieves the impossible.

The film is on general release worldwide from today.

Thursday 26 April 2018

New STAR WARS TV series RESISTANCE announced

Disney and Lucasfilm have confirmed that the next Star Wars animated series, the follow-up to Clone Wars and Rebels, will be called Star Wars: Resistance.

The new show will take place a few years prior to The Force Awakens and sees the discovery of the threat posed by the First Order, with the Resistance being founded to stand against them. The series will focus on the character of Kazuda Xiono, an ace pilot recruited by General Leia Organa and trained by Poe Dameron, along with several other pilots. It sounds like the show's recurring villain will be an earlier-in-her-career Captain Phasma, whilst BB-8 will also show up.

Resistance will be produced by Dave Filoni and many of the same crew who created both Clone Wars and Rebels. However, the new show will employ a different art style, which will mix the 3D animation of the older shows with a cel-shaded anime influence. It sounds like production has been underway on the new show for some months, with it already slated to debut on the Disney Channel this autumn.

Cast-wise, the most exciting news is that both Oscar Isaac and Gwendoline Christie will be reprising their roles from the new Star Wars movies.

This project is in addition to the new live-action Star Wars TV series being produced for Jon Favreau and expected to debut in late 2019.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Cover art for George R.R. Martin's FIRE AND BLOOD revealed

Bantam and HarperCollins Voyager have revealed their cover art for the US and UK editions of George R.R. Martin's Fire and Blood (although the UK cover is apparently not finalised yet and there may be some changes prior to publication).

The American cover art for Fire and Blood

Fire and Blood is the first part of a lengthy history of the Targaryen rule of Westeros, covering the period from the Doom up to the regency of King Aegon III, the Dragonbane. The book covers the Targaryen Conquest, the misrule of Maegor the Cruel, the Faith Militant Uprising, the long rule of Jaehaerys the Conciliator and the chaos and blood of the civil war known as the Dance of Dragons.

The book was originally written across three or four months back in 2012 as part of The World of Ice and Fire, but Martin ended up producing way too much material for that book, leaving his co-authors Linda Antonsson and Elio Garcia, Jr. to summarise this material. This is the full, unexpurgated text and incorporates the sections previously published separately as The Sons of the Dragon, The Rogue Prince and The Princess and the Queen.

Martin's plan originally had been to hold back the entire history (including the as-yet-unwritten second half, covering Aegon III's reign through Blackfyre Rebellion, the War of the Ninepenny Kings and the Mad King's downfall in the War of the Usurper, aka Robert's Rebellion) until after A Song of Ice and Fire was completed. However, the material he'd already completed for the first half runs almost as long as A Game of Thrones itself, 989 manuscript pages and roughly 270,000-odd words (compared to AGoT's 1,088 manuscript pages and 298,000 words), so the work would have been published in two volumes anyway. Martin has no plans to write the second book as yet since it would by definition include major spoilers for the Dunk & Egg stories and also for A Song of Ice and Fire itself.

The (working) UK cover art for Fire and Blood.

Martin also confirms that work remains ongoing on The Winds of Winter, but seemingly confirmed in the same blog post that the book will not be published in 2018.

Fire and Blood will be published on 20 November this year and will feature 75 black-and-white illustrations by Doug Wheately.

SENSE8 finale gets airdate

The series finale of Sense8 has been given an airdate. The movie-length grand finale to the story will air on Netflix on 8 June.

Netflix cancelled Sense8 last year after, curiously, airing the second season with almost no marketing, meaning that even big fans of the show were unaware it had returned. Netflix had chosen instead to keep marketing 13 Reasons Why, despite that show already being a big hit, and the need to get eyes on Sense8 being much greater because of its larger budget (Sense8's second season cost an eyewatering $9 million per episode). This was a bit of an own goal, to put it mildly, and after a fan campaign which involved mass rewatches of the first two seasons, Netflix agreed to fund a two-hour finale. This will wrap up the second season's cliffhanger ending and will provide a conclusion to the series overall, despite writers J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis previously saying that the show was meant to run for an additional three seasons.

Some fans are hoping that the finale is successful enough to warrant a third season being commissioned, although that seems unlikely.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Seven Great Albums

There's a thing going round asking people to list their seven favourite/most important albums of all time (to them). So here's mine:

Automatic for the People

Tracklisting: Drive • Try Not to Breathe • The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite • Everybody Hurts • New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 • Sweetness Follows • Monty Got a Raw Deal • Ignoreland • Star Me Kitten • Man on the Moon • Nightswimming • Find the River

Although they'd been knocking around since 1981, ceaselessly touring and releasing multiple critically-acclaimed albums, it was REM's seventh LP, Out of Time, that finally catapulted them to superstardom. Fronted by the monster hits "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People", the record propelled the band to ubiquitous status, to both the band's pleasure but discomfort. Although grateful for the financial security afforded by their success, the band were wary of becoming "radio-friendly unit-shifters" and low-key rebelled. They refused to tour Out of Time and went straight back into the studio to rush-record a follow up.

Drummer Bill Berry insisted that the record had to rock hard and the rest of the band initially agreed, but both music and lyrics instead went very stripped-back, bare and acoustic. After the expansive Out of Time, Automatic for the People (named after the motto of a local restaurant, Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods: "It's automatic, people!") was introverted, moody and - mostly - quiet. The band were confident that they'd made an album that would not repeat the monster success of its forebear, especially in a music industry now dominated by grunge (Michael Stipe gladly handing over the "spokesman of a generation" mantle to his friend Kurt Cobain).

Instead, the record utterly eclipsed it (to the tune of just under 20 million copies sold by itself). "Everybody Hurts" became the melancholic anthem of the year and the album generated a further five singles, although frankly every song on the album could be a single bar the instrumental. It's kind of cool now to disdain Automatic a little and instead opt for Murmur, Document or New Adventures in Hi-Fi as REM's top album, but that ignores the album's irrepressible atmosphere which mixes hope and melancholy, love and hate, and politics and emotion.


Monday 23 April 2018

Cowboy Bebop

2071. A hyperspace gateway accident has made Earth almost uninhabitable, scattering humanity across the Solar system, with huge centres of population to be found on Mars and Ganymede, whilst Venus is being terraformed. Ex-crime syndicate member Spike Spiegel and ex-cop Jet Black are "cowboys", bounty-hunters working from the Bebop, a spacecraft with aquatic capabilities. They're happy working alone, but soon find themselves reluctantly acquiring new recruits: a strangely intelligent dog called Ein, an amnesiac con artist named Faye Valentine and a brilliant young hacker, Ed. Together they get into strange adventures from one end of the Solar system to the other as they try to get a big score...and forget their pasts.

Cowboy Bebop originally aired in Japan in 1998 and received significant critical acclaim, which has only increased in the last two decades. It's an anime (animated Japanese series) that draws on large numbers of influences, including significant western ones such as film noir, Westerns and jazz. Its acclaim and place in the anime pantheon is down to its accessibility, the relatively straightforward storylines and the very fine characterisation.

At first glance Cowboy Bebop adheres to the "small dysfunctional group of people on a small ship" paradigm previously seen in TV shows like Blake's 7 and Red Dwarf and films like Star Wars, and later employed by the likes of Firefly, The Expanse and Farscape, not to mention novel series like Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay. Generally, each episode revolves around Jet and Spike picking up a bounty contract and trying to take the target down, usually through escalating and increasingly riotous complications. Several key episodes eschew this format in favour of exploring our heroes' backstories, with tinted flashbacks revealing how they got from where they were to hiding on a starship at the arse end of space. Cowboy Bebop has been called a coda or epilogue to a story that we never got to see, which is an interesting approach to a narrative but also one that works really well.

The show is rooted in its four characters: Spike is disinterested and apathetic until he is either annoyed or he is drawn back into his criminal past. Jet is more empathetic but, as the Bebop's owner, is often distracted by their always-precarious financial situation. Faye pretends to be too cool to be concerned about anyone else, but as the series continues we learn more about her insecurities and her missing memories. Ed is...thirteen and strange, and "data dog" Ein steals most of the scenes he's in. These initial characterisations are deepened as we explore more about their past episode by episode.

The show is unusual for eschewing anime's love of deep serialisation and increasingly convoluted long-running story arcs and focusing more on adventures of the week, with the occasional "arc episode" with longer-term ramifications. This allows for a lot of tonal variation. Some episodes are very bloody and action-focused, others are very comedic, others are romances or noir mysteries. At least two episodes are outright horror (Alien gets a homage), and the series as a whole can be seen as something of a tragedy, with the ambiguous finale approaching with gruelling inevitability. But there's also lots of good humour, some non sequitur moments (one episode seems to be one of the writers getting his obsession with the VHS/Betamax wars off his chest) and a commitment to character that is highly successful.

The animation is, mostly, excellent. There's some outstanding compositions and imagery throughout the show and the production design of the spaceships and future cities is top notch. More variable is the CGI, which was in its infancy at the time. There's not much of it, but it varies from the outstanding (the CG Mars the Bebop flies over several times is fantastic) to the patchy and risible (a background shot of Jupiter looks like a late-1990s screensaver).

One of Cowboy Bebop's greatest strengths is its music. The title theme and the outro song are both very good, but every episode is packed with songs from multiple genres including blues, jazz, rock, country, heavy metal and, in one Shaft-riffing episode, some R&B. Legendary composer Yoko Kanno is responsible for the show's soundtrack which must have a serious claim on being the best soundtrack for a single season of TV, animated or otherwise, ever made.

On the negative side of things, some episodes are a bit lacking in exposition, but usually if you wait long enough all of the major plot points are explained and the character arcs make sense. More of an issue - for some viewers - will be that the characters are mostly dressed sensibly for the dangers they are facing, but Faye is near-constantly portrayed in revealing outfits. It's odd because the show not only lampshades this a couple of times (showing they're aware of it), but even goes out of its way to present less-prominent female characters in a less exploitative manner. One episode, about a female space trucker with a love of heavy metal music, is particularly welcome for its exploration of a "non-standard" (at least from the perspective of the time it was made) female character. Faye is certainly a very strongly-characterised figure with an interesting backstory, but you have to put up with some silly outfits to get to that part of the story.

Nevertheless, Cowboy Bebop (****½) is a very strong show. It's tight and constrained (consisting of only 24 episodes) with some of the best and most memorable characters you'll ever seen in a TV show. The worldbuilding is excellent (excepting the fact it's unlikely we'll have colonised the entire Solar system in just seventy years), the stories are well-written and the thematic explorations of love, loss, redemption and family are highly successful. It also makes a great gateway show for those unfamiliar with anime's tropes and ideas. It is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and is available to watch on Netflix in the UK as well.

Sales of the MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN pass 3 million

According to Steven Erikson's new website, sales of the ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series have now passed 3 million.

Erikson started publishing the Malazan Book of the Fallen series in 1999 with Gardens of the Moon and completed it in 2011 with the publication of The Crippled God. He has also written six spin-off novellas (The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach), two prequel novels in the Kharkanas series and is now working on a sequel trilogy, called Witness. His co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont has also published eight novels in the same world (the six-volume Malazan Empire sequence and the first two books of a series called Path to Ascendancy) and is working on more. These figures apply to the original ten-book series alone.

Sales of the series passed 1 million in 2012, which was quite a long time, but the fact that the series has tripled its sales in just six years is very good going. Erikson's sales are of course better than 99% of authors will ever experience, but he's still a fair way off the likes of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (sales c. 90 million) or Terry Pratchett's Discworld (sales c. 85 million). Erikson's first novel, Gardens of the Moon, is infamously a novel that many readers find "difficult" to get into, so it's even more impressive that so many readers have stayed the course and gotten into the whole series.

The reasons for the booming sales in the last few years may be down to social media, such as strong recommendations for the series on Goodreads and Reddit, and also the fact that the original series is both long and complete, making it an appealing alternative for epic fantasy fans waiting for the next Song of Ice and Fire novel.

The next release in the Malazan series will be The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach: Volume II, which collects the fourth through sixth Malazan novellas. It will be published this autumn. Ian Cameron Esslemont's third Path to Ascendancy novel, Kellanved's Reach, is due in 2019. Erikson is now working on The God is Not Willing, the first Witness novel, with no publication date yet set.

Friday 20 April 2018

Netflix's THE WITCHER confirms number of episodes and shooting location

Netflix have confirmed a number of important details about it's upcoming adaptation of The Witcher, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's critically-acclaimed fantasy series and also the inspiration for the greatest video game of this century.

Witcher executive producer Lauren Hissrich with Andrzej Sapkowski, author of the eight Witcher books.

The first season of The Witcher will be eight episodes long. Some fans have complained about this, but it's notable that quite a few Netflix seasons have been criticised for spreading too little story out across thirteen episodes. Eight episodes to start with, with the possibility of more later on, is the model also used by the massively successful Stranger Things, so it's not exactly bad company to be in.

In addition, the series will be shot in Eastern Europe and predominantly Poland, which of course has massively pleased the original Polish fanbase.

More surprisingly, the series will not air until 2020, with Netflix determined to give the production team to "get it right." Lengthy gestation periods for shows these days are not unusual, but with the pilot episode already written and filming anticipated to begin this autumn, it was expected that the show would be ready to air at least in late 2019. However, it sounds like Netflix have cannily decided to position the series between Game of Thrones - which will probably air its last episode in May or June 2019 - and Amazon's Lord of the Rings show, which will likely not air before 2021.

It's also apparently been confirmed that the first season will adapt the first two Witcher books, the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. That's an interesting choice, as those two books between them feature thirteen stories between them, which suggests some episodes may adapt more than one story (which is possible, some of the stories are pretty short) or the some stories may be dropped in favour of the more serialised ones that focus on the character development of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri, arguably the three central characters of the saga. Presumably Season 2 onwards would adapt the five-book novel series starting with Blood of Elves.

Casting has yet to be announced (or even begin), although Black Sails and The 100's Zach McGowan has thrown his hat into the ring for the role of Geralt, and Mark Hamill got involved in a fan's Twitter casting suggestion that he play Vesemir by agreeing (later noting he was not familiar with the franchise, but Netflix should get in touch).

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD cancelled

Starz have cancelled Ash vs. Evil Dead after three seasons, citing low ratings.

The TV series began in 2015 as both a reboot of Sam Raimi's iconic horror-comedy movie trilogy starring Bruce Campbell and a sequel to it, picking up the action twenty-three years later with Campbell's character Ash having to battle the forces of evil. The first season resurrected the horror-comedy stylings of Army of Darkness very satisfyingly, whilst the second season remarkably upped its game and became as much about psychological horror (particularly the exceptional asylum story arc and the scenes directly referencing the original, less-humorous movie) and homage to other horror properties. The second season was outstanding...right up until the last episode when producer Robert Tapert rather abruptly ousted effective showrunner Craig DiGregorio in a behind-the-scenes power struggle and rewrote the finale so it no longer made sense.

I haven't seen Season 3 yet, but the season has picked up a much patchier critical reception so far than the first two seasons did, with accompanying plummeting ratings.

On the one hand, it is regrettable that we won't see Bruce Campbell chainsawing his way through hordes of deadites any more (at least in the short term; don't rule out future movies), but on the other hand it's hard to complain when just three years ago it looked like there'd be no more Evil Dead, ever, and now we have 30 episodes totalling some 15 hours of further hijinks for Bruce Campbell and his chin, at least two-thirds of which were pretty damn good.

I suspect that the low ratings were only partially to blame. The behind the scenes shenanigans were likely not helping the situation either, and Starz misstepped by not teaming with someone like Amazon or Netflix for international distribution. The show's presence in the UK only as a Virgin cable exclusive likely contributed to its poor viewership over here.

You can't keep a good chin down and I wouldn't be surprised to see Ash and the Evil Dead rise again at some point in the future. But for now, the Necronomicon has been closed.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Happy 80th Birthday to Superman

Today - or, more accurately, some time between today and early May - is the 80th birthday of Superman, the Man of Steel. He debuted in Action Comics #1 which hit newsstands in late April or early May 1938* and has regularly appeared in comics, on TV and in movies almost continuously since then.

The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school friends in Cleveland, Ohio. They had begun developing the character privately in 1933, going through many different iterations (including one with him as a dubious alien with mental powers and another where's he's an ordinary guy with no powers, just an incredible sense of heroism). By early 1938 they'd started working for DC Comics and sold the rights to the character to them in return for being published, a decision they would later bitterly rue, as they and their families would battle for control of the rights for decades.

The character debuted in Action Comics #1 and by mid-1939 had migrated to his own spin-off title, Superman. Both Action Comics and Superman remain ongoing today, with Action Comics #1000 also coming out this month (the publication rate of the comic was changed a few years ago to twice a month, apparently deliberately so the 1,000th issue would be published on the 80th anniversary of the character). Superman was an immediately hugely popular character, with the comics selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month.

Although some elements of the Superman mythos were present from the start - such as Lois Lane and the Clark Kent alter-ego - others took time to come together. In particular, Superman's powers and limitations varied wildly from writer to writer. Editor Mort Weisinger, who was in charge of the character and comics from 1941 to 1970, insisted on the development of a coherent world and backstory for the character. This led in turn to the creation of the shared DC Comics Universe, codified in Superman #76 in 1952 when Superman finally met and teamed up with Batman for the first time. After several other run-ins with fellow DC heroes, Superman led the creation of the Justice League in March 1960, alongside Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter.

In the 1960s DC Comics was blindsided by the abrupt rise to power of Marvel Comics. Under Stan Lee's stewardship, Marvel was seen as more colourful, more exciting, more current and less staid than the DC characters. Most importantly, the Marvel characters were allowed to have private lives, love lives and be flawed characters, unlike the "perfect" DC heroes. Marvel overtook DC in sales late in the decade and DC rarely challenged them for the title again. Superman was seen as old-hat, but the release of the highly successful Superman: The Movie in 1978 saw the character reassessed. New writers and editors came on board and the comic was taken in a more serious direction; this culminated in 1992 in the Death of Superman storyline, with the issue where Superman "dies" selling over 6 million copies, making it the biggest-selling single comic book issue of all time. Naturally, he returned a few months later.

Superman was first depicted in another medium in 1940 in The Adventures of Superman, a radio drama starring Bud Collyer as the Man of Steel. The radio drama ran for eleven years. Collyer also voiced the character of Superman in seventeen short animated cartoons, produced by Paramount Pictures in 1942 and 1943.

Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in live-action, in a 15-part Columbia film serial produced in 1948. The serial received mixed reviews, mainly due to the inability to show Superman flying, so these sequences were replaced with animation.

George Reeves became the first well-known actor to play Superman, starting in 1951 in the theatrically-released film Superman and the Mole Men, and then for six seasons and 104 episodes of a TV show called The Adventures of Superman (1952-58). This series was much more successful, mainly due to the use of back projection to show Superman in flight (if somewhat unconvincingly). The show was riding high when star George Reeves tragically died (under bizarre circumstances) in 1959, leading to the cancellation of the series.

In 1978 Warner Brothers released Superman (sometimes called Superman: The Movie), starring Christopher Reeve. The movie was a monster, worldwide hit and spawned three direct sequels: Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) and the woeful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), as well as a spin-off, Supergirl (1984). Beginning in the late 1980s a sequence of Superman TV series was put into production, mostly featuring Superman as a young man or at the very start of his days of superheroism: Superboy (1988-92), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97) and Smallville (2001-11).

After a surprisingly long hiatus (despite attempts by Kevin Smith and Tim Burton to resurrect the franchise), Superman returned to the movie screen in 2006 with the patchy Superman Returns, followed in 2013 by the terrible Man of Steel, which marked the beginning of the rocky (to put it mildly) DC Cinematic Universe. Superman returned in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). British actor Henry Cavill portrays Superman in the DC Cinematic Universe, and is notable as the first non-American to play the role.

It's easy to be cynical about Superman. He's an all-American hero who is indestructible, can see through walls and has super hearing, making stories involving him rather bereft of tension (unless the writer resorts to cliches such as robot doubles or kryptonite). Attempts to make the character "dark" or "gritty" misfire for missing the point of the character (most notably in Man of Steel). But at his best, when portrayed by actors like Christopher Reeve and written by good writers with a solid grasp of the mythos, he can be an intriguing and well-developed character. He's also a character who has withstood multiple reinterpretations, from John Cleese's British take on the character (where Superman's spaceship crashes outside Weston-super-Mare rather than Smallville) to Mark Millar's darker Red Son, where Superman was raised in the Soviet Union and becomes a Big Brother-like figure.

The Big S has many more stories left in him and it will be interesting to see where writers take him in the future.

* The confusion is caused by the fact that street dates for "funny books" weren't vigorously enforced in the 1930s. According to The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, the earliest copies of the comic were sent to distributors starting on 18 April 1938 and some bookstores and convenience stores would have put them on sale immediately, whilst others would have honoured the official release date in early May (confusingly, the actual comic's cover date is June 1938).

The Barbed Coil by J.V. Jones

The formidable warlord Izgard has crowned himself King of Garizon and donned the Barbed Coil, the symbol of Garizonian rule. As Garizon's armies muster and prepare to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Rhaize, Camron of Thorn takes it upon himself to raise a defending army. Figuring strongly in his plans is Lord Ravis, the mercenary who engineered Izgard's rise to power. No-one knows more about Izgard's plans then Ravis. But the recruitment is complicated by the arrival of a mysterious woman called Tess, who claims to be from a distant land called California...

One-volume epic fantasies are a rare beast. The building of an entire world, the development of not just multiple characters but entire cultures and empires is something that can eat up not just hundreds, but thousands of pages. Commercial factors also convince many fantasy authors to flesh out their worlds for sometimes dozens of books at a time, cashing in long after the magic of the setting has gone.

The Barbed Coil is a rarity, then. It builds up a major military conflict between several nation states, develops an original magic system (based on the idea of painting and illumination) and features an expansive cast of both "good" and "bad" guys, all of whom are painted in some depth. It's a story with quiet moments and also packed with fast-moving action and some impressive magic, all delivered with Jones's formidable skills.

The Barbed Coil was released in 1997, between her debut Book of Words trilogy and it's sort-of sequel series, The Sword of Shadows. Book of Words was decent, with a nice improvement between volumes, but a far cry from Sword of Shadows, which is one of the finest epic fantasy series of the last generation (bearing in mind it's still unfinished). The Barbed Coil is a complete standalone, set in its own world unrelated to the two big series, telling one complete story with a beginning, middle and end. And it's a good one.

The novel delves into the character of Tess, someone who finds herself drifting through life on Earth with no purpose until she is borne off to a fantastical world and discovers that she is a smaller part of a much bigger pattern that goes back before her birth. Tess's journey of discovery is traditional, but well-handled. It's a pleasant surprise that Tess is less traumatised or freaked out by her arrival on this world than relieved, as various illnesses she was suffering from on Earth have disappeared in transit (shades of Thomas Covenant here, to a much less wrought degree). Our two male protagonists, Ravis and Camron, are also well-drawn characters, neither traditional heroes but who are drawn into having to choose whether to stand against Izgard, join him or flee. We also spend significant time with Izgard, his young bride Angeline and his scribe Ederius, who form an exceptionally well-written, monstrously dysfunctional triumvirate.

One of Jones's skills is combining the best elements of high fantasy - good fellowship, a sense of humour and a genuine ability for heroism - with the darkest - war, savagery and betrayal. The Barbed Coil bears comparisons with K.J. Parker, particularly the exacting detail given to the painting and illuminating side of things and the disturbingly complex relationship between Ravis and his brother, although it's not quite as unrelentingly grim as Parker's work. Still, that's not bad company to be in.

The Barbed Coil (****) is J.V. Jones doing what she does best, building an interesting world populated by complicated people, fleshed out with an interesting take on magic. The book is available now in the US but, regrettably, is out of print in the UK (even on Kindle). Hopefully it will become available again at some point.

Sunday 15 April 2018

STAR TREK DISCOVERY USS Enterprise had to be redesigned for legal reasons

After a rocky start, Star Trek: Discovery eventually picked up some reasonable critical responses for its first season. The cast came in for a lot of praise, along with the season-spanning plot complete with some clever (if unfortunately over-foreshadowed) twists. The show had a rougher ride from other Star Trek fans, however, for its apparently random redesign of aspects including the Klingon makeup and the design of the original Constitution-class USS Enterprise, which appears in the closing moments of the first season.

Designer John Eaves has confirmed that the Enterprise had to be partially redesigned for "legal reasons". When CBS split from Paramount in 2005, it created a bit of a quagmire for the Star Trek franchise. CBS inherited the rights to make new TV series (such as Discovery) whilst Paramount inherited the right to make new movies (such as the Abrams movies and the threatened Tarantino movie).

This legal situation proved confusing as to what company owned the rights to which models and designs. As a result, it was decided that the Enterprise needed to look "25% different" to the original version of the ship to ensure there was no legal problem.

Whether this applies to the surreal decision to radically redesign the Klingons remains to be answered, although it should be noted that Discovery did get away with keeping the designs for the Andorians and Vulcans almost identical to their original incarnations, and the Tellarites pretty close.

This analysis from TrekCore shows that the Discovery Enterprise has many callbacks to previous versions of the ship, including the original series version, the version seen in the first six movies and the differing versions seen in the original two pilots.

Filming on Season 2 of Discovery is now underway and the show is expected to return either at the very end of this year or (more likely) in early 2019.

FOUNDATION TV series picked up by Apple TV

David Goyer's Foundation TV project, based on Isaac Asimov's dated-but-influential series of seven SF novels, has landed at Apple TV.

Goyer, who wrote Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and films such as Blade, Dark City and Man of Steel, picked up the project along with Skydance Entertainment when a HBO version helmed by Jonathan Nolan was shelved (in favour of their Westworld series, which has been a big hit). After several studios considered the series, Apple have picked it up as hopefully their first big tentpole original series.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga began with a series of short stories published in the 1940s. These became much better-known when they were collected into three "fixup" novels: Foundation (1950), Foundation and Empire (1951) and Second Foundation (1952), collectively known as the Foundation Trilogy. Thirty years later, after being showered with money from his publisher, Asimov returned to the setting in Foundation's Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986), the latter of which tied together the Foundation setting with his earlier Robots saga, the Empire trilogy and the stand-alone novels The End of Eternity and Nemesis. Indeed, some readers now believe that Asimov intended for all of his SF work to be part of this setting, where it is not explicitly contradicted (with shades of Stephen King's multiverse). Asimov ended his career with two prequels, Prelude to Foundation (1989) and Forward the Foundation (1992). After his death, the "Killer Bs" of science fiction (Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin) continued the series with three more prequels: Foundation's Fear (1997), Foundation and Chaos (1998) and Foundation's Triumph (1999).

The Foundation saga is set 22,000 years in the future. The Galactic Empire, which has existed for 12,000 years and brought stability to the human-colonised galaxy (there are no aliens in the setting), is starting to fragment and collapse. Statistician and mathematician Hari Seldon has created a science known as "psychohistory" which can predict the future based on previous historical events. Seldon's calculations suggest that the Empire is going to collapse, and in doing so will plunge the galaxy into chaos that will take humanity 30,000 years to recover from. Seldon proposes an alternative plan, the creation of a repository of knowledge and its scientific guardians who will guide humanity out of the darkness and reduce the interregnum to just a single millennium: the Foundation. The first three books span the first three centuries of the Foundation and explore the Empire's collapse, the emergency of a mutant warlord known as the Mule (whose existence could not be foretold by the Seldon Plan) and the conflict between the Foundation and the mysterious Second Foundation, which has been influencing it from behind the scenes. The later books explore what happens when a Foundation scientist and adventurer discovers both Earth and the existence of other forces manipulating events.

There have been multiple attempts to adapt Foundation over the years but these have foundered on the problems of the series' long chronology, its frequent multi-decade time jumps (which preclude the existence of a returning, regular cast) and the fact it is both extremely dated (earning its current genre fame more from nostalgia than quality) and has been hugely influential on later, superior works such as the Dune series and Star Wars, of which a Foundation adaptation may appear derivative.

It will be interesting to see what Goyer comes up with. I suspect a radically different story to what Asimov portrayed in his novels.

Saturday 14 April 2018

New BIOSHOCK game in development

2K Games is working on a new BioShock game, it has been confirmed.

Games website Kotaku unearthed the information as part of a wider investigation of the shrinking of Hanger 13 Studios, which owners 2K had downsized following the disappointing critical reception of Mafia III in late 2016. This was despite formidable sales for the game, which shifted 5 million copies in its first couple of months on sale. Hanger 13 spent some time developing both a Mafia IV concept and also an idea for a music-based superhero game named Rhapsody, which eventually collapsed.

As part of the investigation, it was revealed that some key Hanger 13 personnel had transferred to one of 2K's other studios to work on a project code-named Parkside. According to Kotaku's article, two interesting pieces of information came out of this. First is that the studio in question is 2K Marin, the much-troubled 2K subsidiary that was effectively shuttered in 2013 following the disappointing launch of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The studio appears to be have been reconstituted. The second piece of information was that Parkside is really the next game in the BioShock franchise.

The BioShock franchise is one of the most revered in modern gaming, a first-person shooter series with cutting-edge visuals and intelligent (if occasionally muddled) storytelling. Created by Ken Levine and Irrational Games, the franchise was seen as a spiritual successor to the Ultima Underworld, Deus Ex and System Shock games developed by Looking Glass Studios and Ion Storm. Levine and Irrational developed the first and third games in the series, BioShock (2007) and Bioshock Infinite (2013), whilst 2K Marin worked on BioShock 2 (2010).

After the release of BioShock Infinite, Levine felt burned out from making high-pressure games with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. He wanted to make smaller-scale, narrative-focused games. To this end Irrational was rebranded Ghost Story Games and downsized massively. Levine and Ghost Story have been working on their debut title ever since. Given that the first 3 games had sold over 25 million copies between them, 2K confirmed that the BioShock series would continue, but some commentators were dubious of the series moving forward without Levine's guidance.

Nothing is known of the next BioShock game save that it will have some big shoes to fill without Ken Levine's singular vision. However, given that BioShock 2 was also made without any involvement from Levine and was an extremely strong game, that's not perhaps as much of an issue as it could have been.

The game is likely a long way off still, given it's not even been officially announced yet.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Twenty Great Complete Fantasy Series

When writing articles about “the best fantasy series ever”, it’s inevitable that 1) the list will feature a lot of incomplete series, and 2) the list will feature a lot of complaints about “how can you call this series great when it’s incomplete, the next book might be rubbish?” This is a fair criticism. In fact, given that some of the biggest and most-namechecked modern fantasy series are incomplete (including A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Stormlight Archive and more), removing them from such a list immediately adds a lot of lesser-known series, which makes the list more interesting.

So here is a list of twenty great completed fantasy series. The criteria I used was as follows: the series can have sequels, but the core series itself must be done. You can read more books set in the world, but the story told has to be a complete entity with a beginning, middle and end. Hence the presence of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn even though Tad Williams has written an incomplete sequel trilogy, two short stories and two short novels set in the same world. The same thing for Steven Erikson’s Malazan sequence (although this was a little more dubious, given the presence of sequel and prequel series and complementary books written by his co-creator Ian Esslemont).

More arguable was a series which is ostensibly complete but more blatantly stands as part of an inter-connected whole. This immediately invalidated Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series, which comprises two complete sub-series but requires the upcoming third series to complete its narrative arc, and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, where the story finishes but key thematic and character stories continue into three stand-alone novels and the incoming sequel trilogy. Brandon Sanderson was particularly difficult to juggle with this, although ultimately the original Mistborn trilogy was omitted from the list more for comparative quality purposes (it’s just bubbling under) rather than being an incomplete narrative itself.

This is list is also not presented in any kind of numerical order, as doing so would simply invite arguments about the order rather than discussion of the books themselves, and when you’re talking about this quality level the differences are going to be somewhat slight. This is also not a list of the twenty "best series ever" (which is too big a claim), but merely twenty really good completed series. There are many others.

The Middle-earth Series by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit (1937) The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) • The Silmarillion (1977) • Unfinished Tales (1980)

Further reading: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962) • The Road Goes Ever On (1967) • The History of Middle-earth series (12 volumes, 1983-96) • The Children of Húrin (2007) • Beren and Lúthien (2017) • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

J.R.R. Tolkien created – or at least defined – the entire modern field of epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings, a vast tome chronicling the War of the Ring between the free peoples of Middle-earth and the Dark Lord Sauron, as seen through the eyes of four modest hobbits. The novel was written as a sequel to his much simpler earlier story, The Hobbit, but grew in the telling to a huge story about the meaning of simple heroism and the passing of an age. Together, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings form a complete story, but fans wanting more can read The Silmarillion, the vast history and mythology of the entire world that Tolkien spent most of his life writing (he started working on it in 1917 and it was published sixty years later, four years after his own death). The oft-overlooked Unfinished Tales collects his other extant canonical writings on the subject of Middle-earth, including short stories and worldbuilding essays, some of which (like Gandalf’s account of the Quest of Erebor and a more detailed history of Númenor) are essential reading.

Hardcore fans can also read every single surviving draft, memo and note Tolkien wrote on the subject of Middle-earth, collected in The History of Middle-earth, as well as curiosities such as a collection of sheet music and songs about Middle-earth (The Road Goes Ever On) and some poems about tertiary characters (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil). There’s also The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin, episodes from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion which have been edited into stand-alone novellas.

Tolkien wrote with poetry and skill, creating an entirely new type of literature on the fly. More to the point, he wrote epic and personal stories which continue to resonate today.


Far Cry 5

Reports of crimes being carried out in Hope County, Montana, by a religious group known as the Project at Eden's Gate has led to an investigation by the US Marshals. A group sets out to arrest the cult's leader, Joseph Seed, only to find themselves outgunned and forced to flee. The cult locks down Hope County, triggering a small-scale conflict between the religious fanatics and the local, well-armed populace. With the outside world curiously uninterested in the conflict, it falls to one of the US Marshals to organise the locals and take the fight to Joseph Seed and his followers.

The Far Cry series has, to date, delighted in taking players to far-flung corners of the globe. Far Cry and Far Cry 3 were set on remote islands, Far Cry 2 visited Africa and Far Cry 4 took place in the Himalayas. Far Cry: Primal was set in the Stone Age and Far Cry: Blood Dragon was a neon-drenched SF fantasy. Far Cry 5 differs from its forebears by bringing the game home (to many players), to the United States itself. This immediately adds an element of familiarity to the game: no longer are you an interloper, a visitor to strange lands (apart from the fourth game, where you played a native returning home after a long absence), but the people, the landscape and the culture are immediately more familiar.

Also familiar is the gameplay. The Far Cry apple has not fallen far from the tree at all. Once again, you have a large map which is covered in icons directing you to missions, side-quests, optional activities, enemy strongholds and various characters. There are multiple rebel factions - three in this case - and you can help them defeat the bad guys and eventually win the war. There are some changes to the formula, though. The increasingly silly towers you had to climb to open up each new region have disappeared and the game now tries to be more organic in how it presents you information: rebel soldiers will talk about a missing ally or rumours of another outpost which adds that information to the map; stealing maps from enemy strongholds will also open up more information about the world. Far Cry 5 tries to be a more dynamic game in how you find out information rather than following the same old Ubisoft formula yet again.

Still, these improvements are fairly minor and not entirely successful: it is far, far easier now than in previous games to simply miss stories, side-quests and characters, which is rather bizarre. More interesting is the decision to mix and match ideas from previous games. Unexpectedly, this game reaches back to tap the Far Cry 2 idea of "buddies", special characters you can recruit (usually by doing missions for them) at key moments in the game and then summon them to help you out later on. They can be injured in battle, but you can revive them and vice versa. The game can also be played co-op, with the two players taking on similar roles in helping each other out. It's a nice idea which is often hilarious - your potential buddy pool includes a dog, a diabetic bear and a puma - but is also overpowered. One of your buddies is a pilot and helps you out from the air, allowing you to simply ask him to bomb the living hell out of an enemy compound before waltzing in to claim it. The enemy AI is also often bewildered by attacks coming from different angles and can be divided and eliminated very easily even on the hardest difficulty settings. Helicopters are also monstrously powerful: you can take out and liberate an outpost in seconds using a chopper whilst going in on foot might result in a solid quarter of an hour of infiltration, combat, takedowns and dealing with reinforcements.

Gunplay and combat is pretty satisfying. The Far Cry series is the biggest-selling story-focused first-person shooter series of all time, with sales of well over 40 million. Shooting is solid, the new helicopter controls are excellent and combat is the usual mix of long-distance spying and recon followed by the rush of attacking outright, with perhaps the occasional stealthy infiltration thrown in to mix things up a bit.

Far Cry 5's trump card is its upgraded and severely enhanced graphics engine. The game is gorgeous, comfortably the best-looking game in existence right now. The forests are breathtakingly atmospheric, water and fire effects are incredible, and the game is often a joy to simply wander around on foot, on quad bike or by boat. Far Cry 5's map is not particularly large, but it does mix in a nice transition from the mountainous north to the flatter south, covered by vast farms, and the heavily forested east. The environments of this game are fantastic.

So good combat and nice environments to fight in, and this goes some way to making Far Cry 5 a very worthwhile purchase. But then the game not so much falters as falls over and bursts into flames.

Far Cry 5 is an open-world game, which means it's up to you where you go, what missions you tackle and what optional activities you partake in. If you want to get through the main story as fast as possible, you can do that in about 15 hours or so, but if you exhaustively want to do everything you can in the game you can comfortably triple that. But the problem is that the game seems to get antsy if you go more than five seconds without something happening. Enemies are spawned constantly, with cars and trucks materialising (sometimes quite literally a few feet away, which is disconcerting) on the road in front of you, cultists on quad bikes appearing on the dirt tracks and hostile wildlife such as bears roaming the woods. Far worse is when the game's story decide it's sat on the sidelines for too long and decides to railroad you into the next chapter of the game.

This is extraordinarily frustrating. Killing enemies, liberating outposts, and destroying cult shrines and vehicles all adds to a "freedom meter". At key points this meter will trigger the next part of the game's story. Unless you commit to not killing enemies when attacked and simply running away something interesting happens, there's no way to avoid filling up this meter and thus continue the story. Even worse, almost every major story event in the game requires you to be kidnapped, which is...ridiculous. You can be kidnapped at random, anywhere, any time, even from the cockpit of a helicopter 2,000 feet up with two buddies sitting right next to you. You wake up in an enemy base and have to escape. This happens nine times in the game. Why don't the cult just kill you outright? No idea. One of the game's three mini-bosses is kind of trying to use you for their own ends and it sort of makes sense they'd spare you, but the other two should have killed you without a nanosecond's hesitation. That Austin Powers scene with Scott offering to go get a gun comes to mind repeatedly.

It doesn't help that Far Cry 5 is badly written - the three mini-bosses and the main villain howl Biblical quotations and cliches at you in the most predictable manner possible, and your allies rarely say anything that sounds like a real human would remotely say - and largely lacking in memorable characters. Far Cry 3 and 4 had great villains in the form of Vaas and Pagan Min, but the Seed family are mind-numbingly tedious in comparison. The much-vaunted "topicality" of the game also never appears, and the game fails to say anything interesting or original about the US or the current political moment in history at all. This is probably for the best, but it does row back on some of the pre-release marketing.

A word must be reserved for Far Cry 5's ending, which is comfortably the most illogical, bizarre and incongruous conclusion* to a major game franchise since Mass Effect 3's. The ending relies on you listening to radio messages at key moments in the game, but if you aren't near a radio or if the radio is turned off, you won't hear the messages. Even worse, that excuse is undone by you having contact with a senior American intelligence agent who, you'd assume, would be in the know about what was going on but clearly isn't. Like Mass Effect 3 before it, the ending of Far Cry 5 makes you feel like everything you did in the preceding 15+ hours was utterly worthless and pointless, leaving a bad taste in the mouth and little urge to replay the game or even finish off the remaining side-quests (the game generates a save set before the ending so you can go back and address unfinished business if you want).

Another issue that Far Cry 5 has to deal with, and does so badly, is the increasing muddling of the series focus from game to game and the threat of the competition. The Far Cry franchise's "thing", the thing it does better than anything else, is first-person combat in a freeform setting far away from linear corridors, realised with cutting-edge graphics. However, feature creep has seen side-quests, animal-taming and hunting, buggy-racing and, in this game, helicopter gunships and even fighter planes added to the mix, to the point where the series feels like it wants, badly, to be Grand Theft Auto. This doesn't play to the series strengths and makes the game feel more generic. Another major problem, much moreso for Far Cry 5 than any previous game in the series, is the looming presence of the Just Cause series. Just Cause 3 does everything that Far Cry 5 does, including having aircraft, helicopters, rebel armies you lead into battle, chaos meters, base assaults, and does it better in a far larger and more varied world, with a much greater sense of fun and no story barging in and seizing control away from you once an hour or so. Far Cry 5 has better graphics and psychopathic bear companions, but that's about it. On every other front, you shouldn't even think about checking out Far Cry 5 without trying Avalanche's action-comedy epic first.

So, Far Cry 5 is a beautiful, stunning-looking game with very good and solid combat, and some great moments like rushing into battle with a friendly diabetic bear named Cheeseburger. It is also bizarrely at its best when it's at its quietest and most peaceful. But the story is garbage and doesn't make an iota of sense, which would be bearable if the plot doesn't continuously keep pushing itself in your face whilst you're playing whether you want it to or not. It's a game that plays bait and switch with you constantly and which takes control away from you and pushes you into doing things you don't want to. Never before have I played a game that's so good when it's good and so appallingly obnoxious when it's terrible, before rounding off things with an ending which is a giant, smirking middle finger to the player.

Far Cry 5 (***) is a deeply frustrating game which does so much right and then not so much shoots itself in the foot as blows both feet off with a rocket launcher. A very cautious try before you buy, or wait for the budget version (and hopefully a mod or patch that eventually mitigates the game's worst excesses).

The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 (UK, USA) and X-Box One (UK, USA). Three DLC expansions are due for release later this year, although like Blood Dragon they will be fantastical episodes set outside of series canon.

* Although a Far Cry 6 seems likely, based on Far Cry 5's early and impressive sales, the ending of 5 suggests it will be a very different kind of setting. I'll try to get a more thorough analysis of the game's bizarre ending in another post.