Wednesday 30 May 2018


Slitherine Games have released Broken Alliance, an expansion for last year's excellent Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock space strategy game.

Broken Alliance adds 8 new missions to the campaign, telling a side-story about a civil war between the Colonies as the war rages on. The expansion also adds several new fighter and capital classes to ship roster.

Deadlock was one of the most welcome surprises of last year, a fun and interesting space strategy game with great gameplay and a fun replay feature.

Bethesda announce FALLOUT 76, an online survival RPG

After yesterday's speculation, Bethesda have confirmed that their next game will be Fallout 76, but provided no further information. However, Kotaku's sources (who previously leaked information about Fallout 4 that proved 100% accurate) have confirmed that the game will be an online survival RPG.

Fallout 76 is named for Vault 76,  speculated to be located in West Virgina. Mentioned in both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 (which makes you wonder how long Bethesda have been planning this), Vault 76 is one of the "control vaults", the normal vaults which were designed to help people survive a nuclear war rather one of the whacky experimental vaults. Vault 76 was programmed to keep its inhabitants safe for twenty-five years and then open in the aftermath of the war.

The game opens on 27 October 2102, twenty-five years and four days after the Great War ended human civilisation. This makes Fallout 76 the earliest-set Fallout game to date, taking place fifty-nine years before the events of even the original Fallout and 185 years before the events of Fallout 4. The inhabitants of Vault 76 are preparing to celebrate "Reclamation Day", when they can go back out into the world and help re-settle it. Of course, when the doors open they find the world still a blasted nuclear ruin, ghouls and radscorpions everywhere and the other humans engaged in a desperate battle for survival. The game is set long before groups like the Brotherhood of Steel and the New California Republic form, so it'll be interesting to see how the game fares with many of the most iconic Fallout factions missing.

Gameplay will reportedly be at least superficially similar to Fallout 3, New Vegas and Fallout 4, with a central storyline and side-missions, but brand-new for the series will be a strong coop element. The base-building from Fallout 4 will be retained, with what sounds like an emphasis now on building up Vault 76 as a bastion against the chaos of the post-apocalyptic world. This is different from other Fallout games, where you tend to leave your starting vault at the start of the game and don't see it again until the end, if ever.

The game has been heavily influenced by survival horror RPGs like DayZ and Rust, with a focus on your character scavenging for survival in a hostile world, although it sounds like you can retreat to the Vault regularly to resupply. The game has a multiplayer mode, although it's unclear if it will be a full-one multiplayer game with faction vs. faction or player vs. player combat using the Vault as a hub (like, say, Destiny), or more of a single-player game with a coop element (like, say Far Cry 5). Kotaku caution that those expecting a full-on big Fallout RPG like Fallout 4 or New Vegas may be disappointed, which backs up the relatively short development period of the game (less than three years) and the fact that the game seems to have largely been developed by BattleCry Studios, who had formerly been working on a multiplayer shooter before the game was cancelled and they were absorbed into Bethesda proper.

Bethesda itself has been overseeing development of Fallout 76 at the same time they've been working on a brand-new, big RPG, code-named Starfield, which sounds like it will be released in 2019 or 2020, with an Elder Scrolls VI and a Fallout 5 to follow.

More on Fallout 76 will be revealed at the E3 Games Conference in a fortnight, and the game will - most likely - be released for X-Box One, PC and PlayStation 4 on 27 October this year, the tenth anniversary of the release of Fallout 3.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

THE WALKING DEAD to lose its star this year

In a surprising move, it's been confirmed that Andrew Lincoln, who plays main protagonist Rick Grimes, will depart The Walking Dead halfway through the upcoming ninth season. This comes shortly after the news that Lauren Cohen (Maggie) will drop down to a recurring character next year after she was cast in ABC's new show, Whiskey Cavalier.

The Walking Dead is of course known for its frequent shifts in cast, but Lincoln has played a major role on the show since the very first episode of the series aired in 2010. Cohen has also been a relatively major player since she joined in Season 2. The move leaves Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier as the sole two surviving regular characters from the first two seasons on the show. Reportedly AMC has offered Reedus a substantial salary hike to take over as the surviving character. Chandler Riggs, who played Rick's son Carl, was abruptly killed off in Season 8 for no immediately discernible reason, leading to a negative backlash by the fans and the actor (and his family).

Of course, it's not a given that the character of Rick Grimes will be killed off, although given the circumstances of the zombie apocalypse it's hard to see him just walking off into the sunset.

The casting changes have been a bit bemusing, as it was generally assumed that Rick would either make it through the whole show or would die at some point, handing off to either his son Carl or Maggie, who has gained impressive leadership skills over the course of the series whilst becoming a mother and losing her entire family to the zombie apocalypse.

The long-term future of The Walking Dead remains open to question, with some rumours suggesting it will end after Season 10 in 2019-20. AMC have been bullish, claiming that the show could last effectively forever with regular shake-ups in cast, but this has never been taken entirely seriously by critics. In particular, the show remains the target of multiple lawsuits from original producer Frank Darabont and comic creator Robert Kirkman. If these lawsuits are successful, AMC could potentially lose every single dollar of profit they've made on the show in eight years, which might sour their enthusiasm for it. Another possibility is that spin-off show Fear the Walking Dead, which has seen improvements its critical reception recently, might step up to take over the parent show's timeslot, possibly with a further spin-off put into development.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Former action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is enjoying his retirement, but boredom and a chance encounter with an old girlfriend, Vanessa, leads him to re-enrol with "the agency." It turns out that, back in the 1990s, Van Damme was actually a secret black ops agent who travelled the world taking down drug cartels and human trafficking rings, using his movie star persona as a cover. Van Damme re-enters service, only to find that it's not the 1990s any more...

Future decades will probably characterise this period as one of high-concept, metatextual and self-referential ideas which are quite funny in the moment but may be of limited shelf-life. In the case of this TV show, the pitch writes itself: Jean-Claude Van Damme is a real secret agent who defeats bad guys whilst posing as an actor. It's silly, it's camp and it's meta. Deadpool would approve. Riffing off some of the same ideas as the 2008 movie JCVD (which featured Van Damme as another fictionalised, searingly self-deprecating version of himself), this is an amusing series which works much better if you remember Van Damme's inexplicable period of superstardom in the 1990s. If you don't, it may come across as a bit more random.

Rounding out the rest of the well-performing cast is Kat Foster as Van Damme's sort-of love interest, Vanessa, and Moises Arias as Luis, a fellow operative and retired member of a Mexican drug cartel. The season-long arc seems them investigating a criminal enterprise in Bulgaria whilst Van Damme poses as the lead actor of an elaborate sci-fi remake of Huckleberry Finn. Taking down the criminal gang leads Van Damme to blow up a an entire oil refinery, meet a hunchbacked doppelganger of himself, kill a lot of bad guys and (after adjusting for age a bit) doing his trademarked splits several times. Also, somewhat oddly, the question of whether Timecop or Looper is the better time travel movie pops up several times. It's all rather breathless - at six half-hour episodes this is hardly a series that outstays its welcome - and when it works, it's quite good fun.

The main problem with the series is one of tone. The show can never quite work out what tone it's going for. Quite gory scenes sit uneasily alongside psychological deep-delves into the fictional Van Damme's childhood in an orphanage, his only refuge being a fantasy world in which he's raised by a kindly grandpa on an emu farm. A few minutes later Van Damme is driving a car round a racetrack blindfolded, causing a bad guy to crash and set fire to himself and another bad guy to commit suicide (it's not completely clear why). Slapstick scenes where Van Damme falls over in an amusing fashion sit alongside Luis having an intense (and not-at-all funny) to a murder spree on behalf of his cartel. One second it's dramatic, the next intensely dramatic and the next extremely camp. The on-set comedy antics of Van Damme starring in a film revolving around a magic paintbrush directed by an arrogant lunatic are much more promising, and this is where some of the best jokes emerge, but it takes up a relatively small part of the show.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson (***) is an odd show which is, in the main and especially for those thirty and forty-somethings who remember Van Damme's heyday, amusing and entertaining but non-essential. By the time the six episodes are over, the jokes have worn a little thin and Van Damme's limited range has been fully explored and extended. Worth watching? Sure. It's only six episodes, there won't be any more and it may raise a few chuckles. Otherwise, it ultimately skippable.

Bethesda tease new FALLOUT announcement

Bethesda have started teasing a new announcement related to the Fallout video game series. A "PLEASE STAND BY" holding image was uploaded to their Twitter and Twitch streams, suggesting that an announcement will be made at Bethesda's E3 showcase on 10 June at the latest.

What could this announcement be teasing? I'd say the following, in order of probability:

Fallout 3 Remaster

This makes the most sense. October 2018 marks the tenth anniversary of Fallout 3's release and the game has not aged as well as might be desired. A fresh spruce of paint to get the game looking good for modern systems and the integration of the five (mostly) excellent expansions into the core game would be good moves. Bethesda have also shut down some recent fan attempts to upgrade Fallout 3, suggesting that they may conflict with Bethesda's own plans.

Fallout: New Vegas Remaster

I mark this as a bit less likely. Although it was a great game, New Vegas suffered from bugs on release and a few remain in the game to this day. A modern remake which revamps the graphics and eliminates those issues would be good. However, Obsidian Entertainment (who made the game) have confirmed they are not involved and are unaware of the project, which suggests it isn't them. In addition, remastering New Vegas makes more sense if they've already remastered Fallout 3, which is in more urgent need of it.

Fallout: The TV Series or Movie

We know Bethesda has flirted with TV and movie interest in their works, but they've always been wary of the idea, despite it being better-suited to their games than a lot of others (since an Elder Scrolls or Fallout video game would likely be a whole new story in one of the established settings). Given the amount of talent out there who'd jump at a Fallout game and the number of outlets that would be interested, this is more likely than it may first appear.

Fallout 4 on a new platform

This is possible, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Bethesda start milking Fallout 4 remakes and remasters for the next ten years as they have with Skyrim, but it seems unlikely they'd make this amount of fuss about it. If they spent two weeks working people up for the announcement and it's Fallout 4 Switch Edition, fans would get very annoyed.

Fallout Online

There have been several previous attempts to make a Fallout MMORPG and Bethesda's parent company, ZeniMax, seem to be happy with the success of The Elder Scrolls Online, so Fallout Online is a distinct possibility.

Fallout 5/Brand new Fallout game

This seems rather unlikely for multiple reasons. For starters, Bethesda like to alternate game series and, given it's been seven years since the last Elder Scrolls main game and only two-and-a-half since the last Fallout game, I'd imagine we'd see Elder Scrolls VI long before Fallout 5 (and both only after the alleged new IP they're developing, code-named Starfield). The only exception to this may be if they outsource the game development as they did with New Vegas. Obsidian are not involved if so, but there's some ex-Fallout talent at both inXile and Larian Games. They could also simply bring in a second inhouse team, or one of their fellow Zenimax companies like Arkane. Another possibility is a spin-off game in a different genre in the same universe, like more of a straight FPS game (although given id's recent announcement of Rage 2 that seems unlikely, as they'd be very similar) or maybe some kind of strategy game.

Hopefully, we'll find out soon.

Disney and Star Wars: An Empire in Peril?

For several entire generations of film-makers, the original Star Wars movie remains a cultural touchstone that is unmatched by anything that came before or after. George Lucas’s 1977 space opera created an entire new paradigm of epic, fun family movies featuring impressive special effects and action sequences that, arguably, we remain firmly immersed in forty years later. The Hollywood that now exists is the one that George Lucas helped build with the Star Wars brand.

Up until 2015, that brand was very carefully rationed. George Lucas produced three movies between 1977 and 1983 before resting the franchise for sixteen years. Some other material – a couple of cartoon series, some books, a couple of TV specials about the Ewoks and a few video games – did creep out but Lucas devoted most of this time to other projects, such as fantasy movie Willow (directed by Ron Howard) and an Indiana Jones TV series. In 1991 Lucas okayed the creation of an “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars stories set after the original movies, citing his decision to produce three prequel movies but abandon the series at that point and move on to other things.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005, was financially successful but was a critical disaster, coming in for a serious drubbing for poor dialogue and an overreliance on CGI. George Lucas felt hurt by the criticism, to the point where he first junked plans for a live-action TV series and then – in 2012, after toying with ideas for a sequel trilogy of his own – sold not just the franchise but his entire Lucasfilm operation to Disney for $4 billion.

Disney’s interest in Star Wars was understandable: the franchise and company were a good match, and Disney felt that they’d found a fantastic way of dealing with the problems related to Hollywood “sequelitis”. This was the idea that exploiting a movie franchise through an endless number of direct sequels with the same cast and crew was difficult because making a special effects and action-heavy movie was impossible in much less than three years: a year each for pre-production and post-production, and a year for shooting, edits and reshoots. Attempt to try to rush out sequels in shorter periods of time had either ended in horrible, low-budget and clearly exploitative sequels or in back-to-back production schedules that sometimes critically paid off (as with Lord of the Rings) but more often didn’t (as with the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels).

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which had debuted in 2008 with Iron Man – Disney had discovered a new paradigm instead. Rather than churning out direct sequels with the same cast, they had instead established a whole universe in which multiple movies featuring multiple characters could be written, shot and edited simultaneously by different teams. The individual movies would be stand-alone stories with familiar two-to-three year waits for direct sequels, but characters could recur in different films and, most impressively, a rousing big team-up movie with all the characters could be produced every three years or so. After a rough start, the first phase of the MCU had culminated in 2012 with The Avengers, which had become one of the three highest-grossing movies of all time.

Disney believed that they could apply the same plan to Star Wars and quickly announced a new Star Wars sequel trilogy featuring the cast of the original movies handing over the baton to a new generation. They also confirmed that stand-alone movies would fall between the trilogy movies, films that could be set in widely disparate parts of the Star Wars universe in both space and time.

Disney were going to “Marvelize” Star Wars, with the possible eventual objective of producing two or three Star Wars movies a year. Nicely spaced out with Disney’s Marvel movies, this would give Disney an apparently guaranteed major hit movie every two months, every year for the foreseeable future. To help shepherd in this era, Disney and Lucasfilm called in J.J. Abrams, the very definition of a safe pair of hands, to direct the first movie in the new era.

The early results were encouraging: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a massive hit upon its release in 2015, becoming only the third movie in history to gross $2 billion. It was also critically well-received, despite some concerns about how derivative it was of the original 1977 movie, with special praise reserved for the casting.

The second movie of the new era would be a prequel, Rogue One, about how the original Death Star plans were stolen. Lucasfilm were keen to emulate the Marvel model of bringing in hungry new, young directors to prove themselves with great material, so hired Gareth Edwards to direct. Edwards had helmed the cult indie hit Monsters and the bigger epic Godzilla, so seemed well-suited to handling the movie. However, late during shooting it became clear that Edwards’ vision of a darker and bleaker movie wasn’t quite in line with Disney’s, and also that the final battle had ended up too confusing. Tony Gilroy was drafted in to help with reshoots and in the editing bay and was widely credited (even by Edwards) with helping save the film. It went on to gross $1 billion at the box office, half of The Force Awakens’ take, but Disney had deliberately lowballed the marketing, apparently concerned about over-exposure of the franchise at this stage. Despite this, it was the highest-grossing movie of the year (in the USA) and its take was in line with expectations (and actually slightly higher).

Much more problematic was what happened next.

Rian Johnson, acclaimed for his indie movies Brick and Looper and his TV work on Breaking Bad, was called in to direct the sequel to The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi’s script was rapturously received at Lucasfilm, Johnson’s directorial style was praised by the actors (at least eventually, with a returning Mark Hamill having some issues with the initial direction his character Luke was going in) and the dailies were thoroughly enjoyed by Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm. Even before work on the film was completed, she had drafted Johnson to produce, write and possibly a direct no less than three further Star Wars films. It was an astonishing vote of confidence given his movie had not even been released. Early pre-release reviews were also rapturous to the point of glowing, with many declaring it the greatest Star Wars movie of them all.

Some fans disagreed.

The Last Jedi had a massively divisive reception, with some praising it for going in new directions and making unexpected story choices, but others criticising it for inconsistent characterisation, worldbuilding and story development with both the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. Further disagreement was voiced by a small but vocal subset of the audience who criticised both of the new movies for their female protagonists and a perceived focus on non-white characters. The disagreements between fans was harsh, even by the standards of the 2010s Internet, but word of mouth amongst more casual movie goers also proved mixed. Ultimately, The Last Jedi made $1.3 billion, a still highly impressive amount of money (and it was still the biggest movie of the year), but a significant shortfall on The Force Awakens. Although a drop from such a movie to its sequel is not unusual, the discrepancy seemed to alarm Disney: the drop from The Avengers to its also-critically-divisive sequel, Age of Ultron, was extremely modest in comparison (from $1.5 to $1.4 billion). Various business factors were offered to explain the discrepancy, including a muted interest in Star Wars in China, compared to their hunger for Marvel, but these seemed dubious.

Last week, Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The movie has reviewed positively, after a difficult production process which saw directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller fired and replaced by Ron Howard almost two-thirds of the way through shooting, but the early box office was not great. The weekend opening came in a colossal $55 million below expectations. The movie is now expected to make significantly less than Rogue One and current tracking has the film on course to make around half of The Last Jedi’s take, still enough to make a profit but uncomfortably close to the break-even line.

The question that has to be asked is why Star Wars seems to have faltered at the box office? The franchise is as close to a guaranteed hit as you can imagine, with an enthusiastic and loyal fanbase with a proven forty-year track record of loyalty to the series. But the underperformance of the last two movies in the series (although no-one’s lost money on the franchise and Disney’s $4 billion investment has already been repaid with significant profits) is concerning and it’s worth asking why, and how it may resolved going forwards.


Monday 28 May 2018

First thoughts: Fallout - The Board Game

I find board games difficult to review until I've had a chance to really get into them and play them a few times over with a few different people, so as I did with Star Wars: Rebellion, this is more of an early impression of the game after two games, with a full review to follow at a later date.

Fallout is a one of the most popular video game franchises in existence, starting as a trio of cult roleplaying and tactical combat games in the 1990s and then, under the care of Bethesda Studios, transforming into a massive sales juggernaut. The most recent game in the series, 2015's Fallout 4, sold 15 million copies on its first day of release (as a comparison, that's about the lifetime sales of BioWare's entire Mass Effect trilogy) and almost the same amount again since then, making it one of the biggest-selling video games of all time. As with many such video games, the urge to turn it into a board game was clearly strong and it follows in the footsteps of StarCraft and Doom in heading to the tabletop.

The Fallout Board Game is certainly impressively-designed. The game comes with a number of map tiles which can be arranged to represent one of four distinct locations: Washington, DC (as depicted in Fallout 3), Pittsburgh (from The Pitt), Boston (Fallout 4) and Bar Harbour, Maine (from Far Harbour). Each map is made up of settlements, raider camps and points of interest (usually ruins you can explore for loot). The game can be played for up to 4 players and there are 5 different characters you can choose from to play: a Supermutant, a Ghoul, a Vault Dweller, a Wastelander and a member of the Brotherhood of Steel. Just this little fact - that even the last-arriving player has at least a choice of two characters to pick from - shows some thought has gone into making the game welcoming.

The primary role of the game is to gain influence points. The first player to hit the target number of influence points wins. This varies by number of players; 11 points are required to win the 1-player game and 8 in the 4-player game. However, if the game ends before the target is reached, no-one wins. Influence is gained by doing missions for a faction. Each different map location has two factions which are fighting one another: for example, the Institute and the Railroad are the two primary factions in the Boston/Fallout 4 campaign. The balance of power between the two factions, which is also tracked, shifts due to player actions. Should a faction achieve dominance, it wins and thus ends the game; if this increases a player's influence points beyond the target, they also win; if not, the game ends with no winner.

This mechanic immediately makes it clear that players must be careful in how they proceed: blindly supporting one faction, perhaps because they agree with their philosophy, may help that faction but work against the player's interests. Players may instead choose to play both parties against one another and profit from the resulting chaos, which is great if you're that kind of player but if not, it can be a bit odd. The game feels like it forces you to be a Machiavellian, selfish mastermind regardless if that's how you want to play or not.

Missions and objectives are undertaken via a ridiculously massive deck of cards. These cards act like quests in the video games: you usually blunder into a situation, get an objective and then follow it through which leads to successive quests. In the game's oddest quirk, individual players pick up quests, but all players can follow the quest and resolve it. To put it mildly, this doesn't many sense and it can get extremely frustrating for a player to pick up a good storyline, try to follow it through only for another player to not only complete the line, but do it for the rival faction and screw over the narrative. In some quests - where it might make sense for another player to blunder into a situation and upset the apple cart - this makes sense, but in most it doesn't. The game also never reveals how other players even know what quest another player has picked up on the other side of the map.

This goes to the biggest flaw of Fallout: The Board Game: it never really resolves if it's a cooperative game, a competitive one or an outright antagonistic one. Players can't attack or kill one another directly in combat, but they're also not friends, as only one player can win. Players can swap or barter equipment with one another when they're in the same spot but their interactions are otherwise indirect: one player might be supporting the Institute and pushing things along and another player comes along and interferes with the quest and helps the other side out. If the game was more overt about the player relationship with one another this might work, but since it isn't, it doesn't. The game feels like it's four players each playing their own game where the only way they can interact is screw one another over, often illogically.

The game does work quite well when it focuses on the survival/scavenging element. Exploring ruins, getting into combat and "levelling up" your character are all very satisfying. However, the exploration element and the quest element feel a little bit in conflict: spend too much time scavenging and levelling up and other players focusing on the story quests will pull ahead; spend too much time focusing on the story and you may find yourself lagging behind in strength and capability. Given that the game can end very abruptly - the number of influence points you win for completing objectives can vary rather unexpectedly - it's possible for players to get into the game, not achieve very much and then the game ends. The length of the game is also an issue: for the first time playing a Fantasy Flight game, I felt that it was a little short. There's not enough time to get into a really meaty, absorbing game mixing story and combat and scavenging. FF clearly wanted a two-hour game to attract more casual players familiar with the video game universe. Games can go longer than two hours, but it requires people to deliberately work towards that by avoiding completing objectives, which feels artificial.

Fallout: The Board Game ultimately feels like a game where the theme has been allowed to overwhelm gameplay. Too many systems in the game are there to make the board game feel like the video game, which begs the question as to why the player shouldn't just go off and play the video game, especially as the biggest difference - the multiple players - feels like it's been tossed in with no forethought. This is a shame because the game does atmosphere quite well, the exploration and combat mechanics are fun and the actual choose-your-own-adventure story part of the game is solid. It's just that, right now (and Fantasy Flight will likely be throwing us an expansion or three sooner or later), the game's systems don't feel like they've integrated together very well into a cohesive whole.

I'll play a few more games and see if greater familiarity with the game and playing different scenarios improves my impression of the title.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams

In 2002 HBO debuted a cop show with a difference. Rather than wrapping up an investigation in an hour, The Wire's first season followed one complex, sprawling drug case in Baltimore across an entire season. For the second year the show abruptly pivoted to a new investigation in the city docks. Season 3 introduced a strong political storyline, whilst in the show's final two seasons it focused on education and the media. In the process the show built up a portrait of the modern American city and its underclass, the people left behind by industrialisation and automation, and exploited by criminals, governments and corporations alike. It was only after the show ended in 2008 that it became acclaimed as the "greatest TV show ever made," a position it is still quoted in to this very day.

All the Pieces Matter is an oral history of the production of The Wire. Jonathan Abrams tapped an enormous number of people involved in production, from David Simon and Ed Burns, the show's creators, to Idris Elba and Dominic West (its breakout stars) to Michael B. Jordan (who became a star much later). Politicians from Baltimore, studio executives at HBO and pretty much everyone he could find with a connection to the show offer up their thoughts as well.

The book has a number of advantages over previous books about the show. Over a decade has now passed since the show has ended, which allows for much greater reflection. Actors and crew also feel a lot freer to talk about the things on the show that didn't go well: finding out that Lance Reddick really didn't like Dominic West is a surprise (but explains how that dynamic on TV worked so well), as is that Idris Elba reacted the mostly badly to his character being killed off, or that almost the entire writing team utterly loathed the pivot to the political storyline in Season 3 and refused to write any of it, leaving it to just two writers to handle that entire element of the show. It's also a surprise to see that HBO renewed The Wire for two seasons after Season 3, and then tried to renege on that deal after Season 4 (despite its massive critical acclaim and it being the first season to really start generating lots of positive coverage about the show).

It's also interesting to see how the actors were affected by their roles: Andre Royo found playing Bubbles so all-consuming that he barely made it through the five seasons and struggled to adjust to other roles afterwards. Dominic West never felt comfortable with the accent and had an accent coach on hand through the entire show, right up to the series finale. Sonja Sohn was so moved by her time on the show she eschewed a potential Hollywood career to move to Baltimore and set up charities and workshops to help local gets get into acting as a way of getting off the streets. The Wire was an interesting mix of drama, documentary, historical piece and socio-economic analysis, and this book reinforces all of those elements and delves into them in greater detail.

The author's editorial contributions are minor, as he is far more interested in letting his subjects have their say. This works really well, as the cast and crew of The Wire are erudite, witty and intelligent. It's also fascinating to hear from Ed Burns, a taciturn and essential contributor to the show (he was a soldier turned cop turned school teacher) who's rarely talked about his role on the series.

All the Pieces Matter (****½) is very well-named because it collects together the thoughts of everyone involved in the show, no matter how minor, and shows how those contributions came together to create the Greatest TV Show Ever™. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 27 May 2018

RIP Gardner Dozois

Today the sad news has broken that Gardner Dozois, one of the greatest science fiction editors, has passed away at the age of 70 from a systemic infection.

Gardner Dozois was born in 1947 in Salem, Massachusetts. He served in the US Army in the 1960s before switching to writing science fiction. His first story, The Empty Man, was published in Frederick Pohl's collection If in 1966. He wrote widely in the short form, publishing short fiction as recently as this year ("Neanderthals" and "Unstoppable", both in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). He won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story twice, for "The Peacemaker" in 1983 and "Morning Child" the following year.

His work at greater length was rare but notable, consisting of the single novel Strangers (1978) and the collaboration Nightmare Blue (1975, with George Effinger). His most recent novel-length project was a long-bubbling collaboration with George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham, which resulted in first the novella Shadow Twin (2004) and the novel-length version, Hunter's Run (2007).

However, Dozois' most significant contribution to the field will be his formidable work as an editor of short fiction and his relentless hunt for new, fresh talent. He worked for the magazine Asimov's Science Fiction in the 1970s, serving as editor from 1986 to 2004. He also founded the anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction, which was published annually from 1984 to 2017, totalling thirty-four standard volumes and two "best of the best" editions. According to critic John Clute, Dozois' primary strength as an editor was being able to "select (and to edit) work that is both exciting to read and adult on reflection."

Dozois was a firm friend and frequent collaborator of George R.R. Martin. In 1971 he was the first reader who fished Martin's first published story, "The Hero," out of the slush pile at Galaxy and recommended it for publication, leading Martin to dub Dozois as the editor who discovered him. They met at the Disclave Convention in Washington D.C. the same year. As well as their long-gestating work on Shadow Twin/Hunter's Run, they co-edited eight short story collections together: Songs of the Dying Earth (2009), Warriors (2010), Songs of Love and Death (2010), Down These Strange Streets (2011), Old Mars (2013), Dangerous Women (2013), Rogues (2014) and Old Venus (2015). Dozois also contributed the intro and blurb to Martin's Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective (2003).

Dozois' most recent editorial work was on The Book of Silverberg (2016), Mash-Up (2017) and The Book of Swords (2017). A follow-up, The Book of Magic, is scheduled for publication this October, and The Book of Legends in 2019, whilst The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection will be published in July this year.

Gardner Dozois won the Hugo Award for Best Editor no less than fifteen times and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2011. A giant of the genre, with many modern authors owing him for their first big break, he will be missed.

Saturday 26 May 2018

Warner Brothers to adapt George R.R. Martin's THE ICE DRAGON for cinema

Warner Brothers' animation studio is adapting George R.R. Martin's short story The Ice Dragon for the cinema.

Artwork from the 2014 edition of the story, illustrated by Luis Royo. 

The Ice Dragon was originally published in 1980. One of GRRM's most popular short stories, it was re-released as a stand-alone children's book in 2007 (and in a new edition in 2014). The story follows a young girl named Adara who befriends an ice dragon after the death of her mother.

Contrary to some confused plot synopses, The Ice Dragon is not set in the same world as A Song of Ice and Fire (or its TV adaptation, Game of Thrones), but Martin has referenced it in the books by naming an important constellation in the skies of Westeros after it.

Due to his exclusivity contract with HBO, Martin will not be working on the film beyond a producer's credit. A writer and director for the film has not yet been announced.

Amazon formally commissions Season 4 of THE EXPANSE

Amazon has reached a deal with Alcon Entertainment to produce a fourth season of The Expanse for its Amazon Prime TV streaming wing.

The Expanse was dropped a fortnight ago by SyFy, not over ratings but over their difficulties in monetising the show; their deal with Alcon meant that SyFy didn't get a cut from their streaming deal (with Amazon in the US and Netflix in the rest of the world), nor the DVD and Blu-Ray sales, making them unusually reliant on first-night viewing figures.

Jeff Bezos personally announced the pickup at the National Space Society, during a talk an hour after the Expanse cast and crew held a panel of their own.

The news came after two weeks of hard campaigning by fans, the cast and crew, which resulted in an aircraft flying over Amazon's HQ trailing a "SAVE THE EXPANSE" banner for four hours and even resulted in a model of the Rocinante spacecraft being sent into space.

With the sets still standing and preliminary work on a fourth season apparently already underway, we can expect to see The Expanse join Amazon Prime's line-up in 2019.


AD 3022. The Inner Sphere of human space is embroiled in the closing stages of the Third Succession War, a series of conflicts between the Great Houses for power and territory. Largely unaffected by the conflict is the Aurigan Coalition, a minor power among the Periphery States which has flourished under the rule of House Arano. Lady Kamea Arano is about to take her place as the head of the house when her uncle launches a brutal coup. Kamea disappears and one of her guardians, a MechWarrior of impressive skill, is rescued by a band of mercenaries. Three years later Kamea re-emerges with an offer to her former allies to help her reclaim her throne.

BattleTech is a turn-based strategy game, set in the shared BattleTech and MechWarrior universe which has been home to a tabletop miniatures game, a roleplaying game and multiple video games for thirty-five years, as well as over a hundred novels and even a short-lived animated series in the 1990s. Produced by Harebrained Schemes, who previously created the three acclaimed Shadowrun Returns RPGs (Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall and Hong Kong), and designed by Jordan Weisman, the original co-creator of the entire franchise, the game has arrived with a fair bit of hype and a (mostly) positive reception.

The game plays in a manner similar to the recent Firaxis XCOM games, with a strategic section between missions where you can re-arm and repair your forces, recruit new troops and upgrade your base; and the turn-based, tactical combat section of the game. The strategic section is set on board a spacecraft, initially the very cramped and awkward Leopard and later on the more impressive and spacious Argo. You can upgrade the Argo so it can hold more BattleMechs (building-sized humanoid death vehicles) and repair them more quickly, but you can also add what appear to be more frivolous additions such as as a zero-G swimming pool and a 3D entertainment system. These appear pointless but give your pilots additional Morale Points which they can spend in battle to pull off special moves; whether you agreed to host Burger Night might determine later on if your pilot can core-shot an Assault 'Mech that's just about to wipe out your team. You can also wander around the ship and talk to the crew, which is initially entertaining until you realise the crew's dialogue choices very, very rarely update with new information.

The game has a storyline which you can follow, but crucially you can go off-course at any time to pursue side-missions. The game procedurally generates missions which you can undertake for money, salvage and to gain experience for your MechWarriors. The game doesn't make it entirely clear that pursuing side-missions is not optional: if you just try to pursue the story missions one after another, you'll rapidly find the enemies escalating beyond your ability to handle. Taking time between story missions to do other jobs and improve your team is essential. Thanks to a handy starmap, you can visit several dozen systems spread between half a dozen or so factions, with jobs running from simple search-and-destroy missions to base defence to escort.

Once you've picked a mission, you can choose which 'Mechs to use and how to outfit them. The game's tutorials are extremely basic and don't do a great job of explaining 'Mech customisability. Each 'Mech design (there are 36 in the game, with a further 22  model variations) has different hardpoints for weapons, ammo and equipment, such as jump jets and heat sinks. Your weapon choice is key in the game, with Auto Cannons doing tremendous damage but also being incredibly large and heavy, and requiring a separate ammo feed. Long-range missiles can inflict small amounts of damage on enemies at extreme range, but of course hit them enough times with enough missiles and you can take them out before they even enter close-weapons range. Short-range missiles are far more powerful, but are only effective at short range. Laser and plasma weapons have impressive range and don't require ammo, but generate a lot of heat and aren't great at taking out armour. If you find you can't carry all the guns you want, you can make room by stripping off armour...which is great until you realise you've stripped off too much armour and now have a colossal walking arsenal of death which will drop dead if a fly sneezes at it.

This juggling of load-out options is tremendous fun, especially once you have a handle on what decisions will have the most noticeable impact on the battlefield and you can access to special weapons with bonus damage factors (identified by a "+" scene after their name), but again the game leaves a lot of this information unstated and you have to pick it up as you go along.

Once these decisions have been made the game switches to a 3D battlemap. Initially you can send your 'Mechs scurrying around simultaneously, but that ends when the enemy enters sensor range. At that point you can order your 'Mechs to take up new positions, seek cover in forests or behind hills, jump-jet up onto a handy mountain, use a sensor lock to identify the target (allowing you to rain long-range fire on them) or race into visual range and start the slugfest. Combat is turn-based, but is oddly based on mobility: how far your 'Mech moved before firing determines its Evasive skill, which the enemy must overcome before they can hit you. Taking down an enemy 'Mech can be accomplished by slugging away, or (if you have enough Morale Points) making called shots on particular parts of the enemy machine. Destroy the hard-to-hit cockpit and you can capture the enemy 'Mech intact, blow off its legs and you can take the torso off (and if you pick up more salvage from the same model later on, you can patch it back into service) and so on. Particularly entertaining is taking on an enemy 'Mech laden with cannons and missiles, as if you hit the part of the body where the ammo is stored you can set off a chain reaction and blow the whole 'Mech up.

As well as dealing with positioning, facing (if you take a lot of damage on one side of your 'Mech, you can spin around in the next round and present a different armour facing to the enemy) and weapons, you also have to manage heat. Relying on lasers and plasma weapons a lot generates a lot of heat. If you go over the heat threshold, the 'Mech will start heat damage; go too far over it and your 'Mech will shut down for a round, or (much more rarely) explode. As a result, judicious choices have to be made each round on what weapons to use on what targets (an optional ability allows your pilots to target multiple enemy 'Mechs in the same round of fire) and when running into a river to cool off is a good idea. Your 'Mechs' heat management is also impacted by the environment: polar missions will allow you to fire a lot more often before overheating, whilst for a desert mission you may want to ditch the energy weapons altogether in favour of cooler ballistics.

On top of that you also have stability to worry about: BattleMechs are top heavy and can be knocked over by ballistic and missile fire, or smacked over in melee combat (ah yes, 'Mechs can literally punch one another as well). Falling 'Mechs injure their pilots and become much more vulnerable to called shots.

The result is a constantly shifting, extremely fascinating game of rock-paper-scissors-plasma beam, one that you have to re-evaluate as the game continues. There's a lot to keep track of, but also a lot of fun ways of exploiting the rules to find the optimal set-up. On top of this there are your individual pilots or MechWarriors to look after. They gain experience between missions and this unlocks special abilities, as well as giving them better aim and defence. Sometimes you can win a mission, but you may have lost a favourite pilot and a hard-earned rare weapon in the process, and will have to choose between reloading or accepting the loss and carrying on.

Once you get to grips with this information - it sounds more daunting than it actually proves in-game - BattleTech sings. The customisability and character advancement becomes a compelling game in its own right, and the combat missions become great exercises in tactical skill. Like the XCOM games, BattleTech's systems are so well-designed that apparently insurmountable odds and unwinnable missions can often be overcome by stepping back and coming at the situation from a different angle. It's surprising how much of a difference a single weapon change, a single morale-boosted ability or a single change of 'Mech can make to a tricky battle.

The game could be a bit better in how all of this information is presented. The tutorials are exceptionally basic and the finer points of how the game works only emerge through playing. There are also a few minor technical issues: the time it takes to move between screens and menus is somewhat longer than it should be, and occasional visual bugs (such as the camera choosing to sit behind a mountain or tree rather when it should be showing an enemy 'Mech blowing up) irritate. Some reviewers have complained of the animations being a bit slower than they'd like. I didn't notice this myself, but there are menu options to fix this and even a few mods to speed things up if it becomes a major issue.

The game's biggest problem, ultimately, may also be seen as its greatest strength. Harebrained Schemes' previous project, the Shadowrun Returns trilogy, was excellent but criticised for the short length of each game, lack of optional side-content and lack of replayability. BattleTech certainly doesn't suffer from that, with an infinite number of procedurally-generated missions (soon to be expanded through DLC) and a truly vast number of options making each run through the game's story potentially very different. However, the game's reliance on these side-missions and the need to play them to get better equipment and skills - "grinding", to use the common parlance - threatens to make the game very repetitive. My initial run through the game lasted 54 hours, which is a huge amount of time to spend watching robots shoot other robots, and monotony occasionally threatened to set in during a mid-game period when I had to grind to get enough money and heavy 'Mechs to proceed to the next story mission.

But looking past that, the game is certainly rewarding, with a number of interesting systems to delve into and tweak. The graphics are decent (but not exceptional, belying the game's low budget), the sound is punchy and the music is excellent. The story is fairly standard but well-told with some great characters. Some of the story missions are exceptionally well-designed and fiendishly challenging as well. Best of all, the tactical combat and mercenary-management sides of the game come together to create something compelling, fresh and interesting, once you understand how it all works.

BattleTech (****) is available now for PC. Console versions may follow depending on the game's initial sales, and both free DLC and paid expansions on the way.

Friday 25 May 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Star Wars Movies Ranked (updated)

The philosophy of the Gratuitous Lists feature was to have lists of stuff that are unranked, because frankly if you're talking about the 12th best thing of all time or the 9th best thing of all time, the differences are going to be pretty minor. In the case of a Star Wars movie list, however, that's kind of pointless because there's too few things to put on the list. So for these ones I'm ranking them and people can argue away to their heart's content. So let us proceed.

For the record, Lucasfilm have seemingly ruled both Caravan of Courage (1984) and The Battle for Endor (1985) - which were both released in cinemas in Europe - as non-canon, so I'm going with the eleven Star Wars movies theatrically released since 1977.

11. The Clone Wars

Released 15 August 2008 • Directed by Dave Filoni • Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy

Over the course of five-and-a-half seasons, The Clone Wars evolved into a fantastic, gripping and fun pulp SF adventure show. However, it took a while to get there. The first few episodes were made on a limited budget with very few CG assets, whilst producer Dave Filoni and his team were still finding their feet with pacing and characterisation. George Lucas was a little bit too impressed by what the guys at Lucasfilm Animation had achieved when he decided it was good enough quality to go on the big screen. Coming in the same year as Wall-E and with a juvenile tone that turned off adult Star Wars fans, The Clone Wars just couldn't cut it.

If some of the later, much better arcs and episodes had been made into an animated film, the results may have been different.

10. Attack of the Clones

Released 16 May 2002 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas & Jonathan Hales

Well, where to start? The worst live-action Star Wars movie has the most risible performances, dialogue (including the epic "hatred of sand" speech), execrable plotting and confused structural tics out of all of them. It's embarrassing to see actors of the calibre of Natalie Portman and Christopher Lee working with scripts this awful and the hyper-polished CGI sheen over the effects is sterile and uninvolving. Hayden Christensen isn't quite as bad as is often said (given that even Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor are struggling with this material, Christensen doesn't really disgrace himself) but is still an uninteresting protagonist. Even John Williams is feeling uninspired, only rising to the occasion in his score when he revisits themes from previous movies.

9. Revenge of the Sith

Released 19 May 2005 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas

Revenge of the Sith and The Phantom Menace are at a very similar level of quality and you could swap their positions quite easily. Sith, for me, falls short for several reasons. The first is that the utterly pointless CG overload of Attack of the Clones is pursued and doubled down on in Revenge of the Sith, making the film feel even more artificial and sterile. The next is that the dialogue has somehow even gotten worse, along with the performances. Natalie Portman's cringe-inducing "You're breaking my heart!" and Ewan McGregor's completely flummoxed reaction to Anakin murdering children are both awful pieces of acting.

There are some good moments in Sith - the dialogue-less moment where Anakin decides to betray the Republic and the execution of Order 66 - and John Williams remembers to show up with a couple of excellent scoring moments, but the long-awaited Obi-Wan/Anakin lightsabre showdown is awful and the conclusion of the Clone Wars is bitty and unsatisfying. Revenge of the Sith had the potential for greatness and wastes it thanks to George Lucas's ego. On that level Revenge of the Sith isn't the worst Star Wars movie but it is, easily, the most disappointing.

8. The Phantom Menace

Released 19 May 1999 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas

Enjoying The Phantom Menace is possible, especially if you cheat and watch The Phantom Edit (which cuts out the majority of Jar-Jar scenes and dramatically reduces the "endearing" antics of little Anakin). But even the original edit is fine if you can simply ignore Jar-Jar. The Phantom Menace emerges as (marginally) the best film of the prequel trilogy thanks to its absolutely stellar soundtrack (a never-better John Williams), the grounded, inspiring presence of Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn and the use of real sets and models for many of the effects. It also helps that our main villain Darth Maul almost never speaks, so retains some menace rather than losing it by uttering inanely awful dialogue. Some CG overload is still present, but it's nothing as bad as the latter two prequel movies. There's also a pacier feel to events, with the shifts in location and plot meaning that weaker scenes don't drag on as long as they do in the two other prequels, and the movie may feature the prequel trilogy's best set-piece with the pod racing sequence, as well as its best (if occasionally showiest) lightsabre duel.

It's still an enormously flawed film with plot holes you can drive a Star Destroyer through, of course, but not quite as awful as its reputation suggests.

7. The Last Jedi

Released 15 December 2017 • Directed by Rian Johnson • Written by Rian Johnson

The Last Jedi is certainly not the worst Star Wars movie but it's clearly the most divisive. The film does so much so well - Luke Skywalker's return does not go the way you expect, the disturbing Rey/Kylo relationship is something Star Wars hasn't really done before and the signature lightsabre battle is outstanding - but also squanders a lot of goodwill through an utterly pointless filler storyline on a casino planet and some very strange character choices, along with a musical score phoned in by John Williams on an off day.

There's a huge amount of unrealised potential in the movie, which a few more rewrites and judicious editing could have fixed. But the biggest problem is that The Last Jedi does not follow through on its promise: Rey should have joined Kylo Ren at the end and either become the big villain for Episode IX, or perhaps tried to work to redeem him from within. By instead snapping back to the status quo at the end of the movie, it betrays its own promise to be an edgier and different kind of Star Wars movie. Instead, it returns things to normal and I can't see J.J. Abrams doing anything too unpredictable in the next movie to keep things fresh.

6. Rogue One

Released 16 December 2016 • Directed by Gareth Edwards • Written by John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy

Rogue One is a fine movie with some fantastic performances, action sequences and individually powerful scenes. CG overload is mostly avoided and the film feels punchy, almost nailing The Dirty Dozen in Space vibe it is shooting for. The movie also, and rather surprisingly, justifies its existence by mostly avoiding continuity problems and fixing a couple of niggling problems in the original Star Wars.

On the negative side of things, characterisation can be a little variable (Jyn's motivations seem to have gotten lost in the edit) and the way the film ends is structurally messy, whilst the score is forgettable. But congratulations to Lucasfilm for having the resolve to end the film in the only manner that makes sense. It's all good from hereon up.

5. Solo

Released 25 December 2018 • Directed by Ron Howard (with Phil Lord & Christopher Miller) • Written by Lawrence Kasdan & Jonathan Kasdan

This is a story that didn't really need to be told and there were audible groans when it was announced, but ultimately it ends up being a worthwhile ride. This is Star Wars in its purest form, a pulp space adventure with fun characters getting into hijinks against the backdrop of entertaining set pieces. There's some great quips, some fine performances (the best from Donald Glover as the young Lando Calrissian) and some rousing action.

Most impressive is Solo's ability to surprise, albeit in the form of opening up the ending to allow for a sequel. Completely unexpected characters show up, one character whose storyline you thought you could write from the first scene goes in an unexpected direction and the movie overall rises above its troubled production (including the firing of the original directors halfway through production)

4. The Force Awakens

Released 18 December 2015 • Directed by J.J. Abrams • Written by Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams

The Force Awakens is two movies sitting on top of one another. The first is the struggle of the Resistance to avoid the destruction of their hidden base by the First Order's planet-destroying superweapon, which is ludicrously powerful but has a rather-easily-exposed weakness. This plot is less than satisfying, since it's a retread of Star Wars (A New Hope). However, the second is the family drama of Han Solo and Princess Leia having a son strong in the Force who brutally betrays them, murders his way into a position of power in the First Order and embraces the Dark Side, but is constantly tempted by the lure of good. New character Rey has the chance to take his place as the new champion of the Force, but only if she can overcome her own limitations in the process.

This latter story is far more interesting and provides The Force Awakens with its real dramatic meat. Excellent performances by newcomers and old hands alike (Carrie Fisher may have considered a couple of remedial catch-up acting lessons, but she doesn't have too much to do so that's not too much of a problem), excellent effects and John Williams dropping an awesome musical score combine to make a movie that couldn't feel any more Star Wars if it tried. Far from a perfect movie, the main problem with The Force Awakens is that it sometimes tries a little too hard to be Star Wars rather than going with the flow. But as franchise-resurrecting reboots go, this is impressive. Some may even say...most impressive.

3. Return of the Jedi

Released 25 May 1983 • Directed by Richard Marquand • Written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan

Return of the Jedi always comes last from the original trilogy when these lists are written, which feels a little unfair. It's got the best space battle of the entire saga, it has a fantastic three-way showdown between Luke, Vader and the Emperor, it has awesome music and also some very fine dramatic moments (Luke and Vader's conversation at the docking platform may be the most underrated scene of the saga). Mark Hamill also gives arguably his best performance in this movie (although it's close between this one and Empire).

It's also a bit of a structurally weak film. Spending so much time at Jabba's palace doesn't quite work, since Jabba is a secondary villain not really worth the screentime he eats up. Also, and this is far more prevalent on marathons when you don't have three years between films, Han Solo's entire kidnap storyline feels like a waste of time given how easily it is resolved. Han and Lando's morally dubious sides have also been eroded away with both now straight-up good guys and white hats, which makes them a bit less interesting. And of course, Ewoks (although I've never had that big a problem with them).

But it's still a fine capstone to the first six films in the saga which earns its (mostly) happy ending.

2. Star Wars

Released 25 May 1977 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz (uncredited) and Willard Huyck (uncredited)

This is where the fun begins. Released in 1977 and made on a modest budget, Star Wars (reluctantly aka A New Hope) utterly transformed cinema in a way not seen before or since. Watching it today, it's clearly the cheapest Star Wars movie but this also means it has to focus more on story, character and dialogue. It's also pacy and energetic, steered by a never-better George Lucas clearly realising he has the chance to reinvent the wheel here. A brilliant space battle, a tremendous musical score and some very effective Tunisian location filming all give the film a sense of scale and scope that goes beyond its meagre resources. Thrown in tremendous performances from Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness and a star-making turn by Harrison Ford, and the original Star Wars is still a brilliantly-conceived piece of entertainment.

1. The Empire Strikes Back

Released 21 May 1980 • Directed by Irvin Kershner • Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan

The Empire Strikes Back being the best Star Wars movie has been clear for years, but it's still remarkable just how good it is. It goes dark compared to the original movie, but its power comes more from how invested the audience is in the relationships from the first movie and how effectively this sequel messes around with those relationships (Han and Leia hooking up wrong-foots the audience expecting her to get together with Luke). The film also feels more naturalistic, with director Irvin Kershner letting his actors breathe, discussing character motivation and improvise dialogue in manner that George Lucas was incapable of doing. Most importantly, new characters such as Yoda and Lando grab hold of the imagination and are just as strong as the returning characters, which is quite a feat for a sequel.

The film also has arguably the Star Wars saga's greatest effects set piece as the Millennium Falcon swoops balletically through an asteroid field with John Williams' soundtrack framing events perfectly, with the Battle of Hoth not far behind it in quality.

But of course the real reason the film emerges as the best in the saga is down to that climactic confrontation between Luke and Vader which turns what was supposed to be a disposable popcorn series into an epic, generation-spanning family tragedy. This remains the Star Wars bar of quality that needs to be beaten.