Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

AD 2552. The Pillar of Autumn, a United Nations Space Command capital ship, is fleeing the fall of the human colony world of Reach to the Covenant, a hostile alliance of alien races. The Pillar has tracked Covenant intelligence leading to a remote star system. Upon arrival they find a massive ring, ten thousand kilometres across, with a habitable biosphere. Crippled in combat, the Pillar sets down on the object and it's up to the only specially-trained Spartan soldier on board, the Master Chief, to discern the origins of Halo and why the Covenant hold it in such reverence.

Halo: Combat Evolved was originally released in 2001 as the signature game of the original Microsoft X-Box game console, as well as the first game in the expansive Halo franchise, which has expanded to seven main-series games, three major spin-offs and numerous novels and comic books, as well as an upcoming TV series. It's always been an interesting anomaly that such an enormously popular franchise has expanded from such mixed beginnings.

This Anniversary Edition of Halo was released in 2011 to celebrate the franchise's tenth anniversary and was re-released in 2020 as part of the Halo Master Chief Collection on PC. Remasters of this kind are always controversial, since they sometimes alter and adjust the original game's level design and aesthetic. To be frank, in the case of Halo, I was looking forwards to some changes to the game's design, which have not only aged well, but were pretty poor going even in 2001. Alas, the remaster has stuck extremely close to the original game design, replicating its flaws as well as its strengths.

On the plus side of things, Halo has some very nice environments. The first third or so of the ten-hour game features entertaining outdoors combat on islands, in valleys and on grasslands, sometimes featuring vehicles with multiple crewing points and some pretty solid friendly AI. This is easily the best part of the game and, combined with the game's robustly entertaining multiplayer mode and some very strong multiplayer maps, is where the game's reputation mostly comes from. The graphics for this part of the game have been updated nicely, particularly the vast vistas showing Halo's interior structure rising up in the distance and then up overhead. Combat is reasonably solid and the Covenant enemies are reasonably intelligent and challenging (even if the monkey-like, comedic Grunts are far more irritating than genuinely threatening, but the Elites and Jackals make up for them).

In terms of the campaign mode, this enjoyable part of the game is sadly brief. After the opening levels you have to descend into the bowels of Halo and the game never really recovers after this point. The subterranean levels are mind-bogglingly repetitive on a scale that, over the years, I'd come to believe I had exaggerated in my mind. Replaying the game I discovered that no only had I not exaggerated them, I'd undersold them. You spend hour after hour making your way through identical rooms to flip a switch, then backtrack through these identical open rooms to the area you just unlocked, which consists of another series of rooms identical to the ones you just passed through. When this Groundhog Day section ends you find yourself in a large, temple-like structure having to do the same thing again, this time through much bigger rooms and with approximately four trillion, considerably less intelligent and interesting enemies chasing you: the Flood. The Flood are a not-very-well-disguised (and very much less entertaining) version of the Xen aliens from Half-Life, using small creatures to "zombify" enemies and turn them against one another, and are simply tedious to fight, since they just run at you and never use the more advanced tactics and AI of the Covenant enemies.

It's always been a mystery as to why Bungie made almost two-thirds of the game so repetitive and tedious as to at times feel almost miserable. The original X-Box had severe memory limitations, but that didn't stop them making the opening third or so of the game much more varied and entertaining. I suspect time was to blame and faced with critical deadlines, they just designed two areas and copy-pasted them to make larger areas. This is not unusual in gaming, but it's interesting that Dragon Age II - a later game that had the same problem but made up for it with a reasonable well-executed main storyline with a larger cast of more interesting characters - was criticised for it when Halo seems to have been given a pass for it.

A counter-argument is, of course, that Halo's campaign is really there as practice and warm-up for the multiplayer mode, which remains robustly entertaining (although perhaps a bit pointless; Halo 3, 4 and Reach have stronger multiplayer combat). Halo's story is pretty barebones in this first game and it was really only with Halo 2 that the storyline and characters started being fleshed out in much greater detail, giving rise to the popularity of the franchise.

As it stands, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (**½) is best experienced as a historical curiosity. It's not completely unplayable and the remaster adds a nice sheen to the graphics and some cool new backdrops, but doesn't solve the original game's severe problems with level design. It's certainly not aged half as well as Half-Life, the recent Black Mesa remaster of which is much stronger.

The game is available now on X-Box One and PC as part of The Master Chief Collection, which also includes a remastered version of Halo 2 and graphically-updated versions of Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and Halo 4.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

THE EXPANSE renewed for sixth and final season

Amazon Studios has renewed The Expanse for a sixth and final season, in a highly surprising move.

The Expanse aired for three seasons on SyFy before being cancelled by the network. The show's production company, Alcon, struck a deal with Amazon to pick up the show. The fourth season, which aired in December 2019, was the seventh-most-popular streaming show of 2019 according to some reports, behind Stranger Things, The Boys, The Crown and The Mandalorian, among others.

The fifth and now-penultimate season will start airing on 16 December this year. Season 6 will start shooting in January for a late 2021 or early 2022 debut.

The news will come as a shock to fans of the series. The novel series the TV show is based on consists of nine volumes, with Book 5 adapting the fifth volume, Nemesis Games, and the sixth likely to adapt Babylon's Ashes. The final three books - Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath and Leviathan Falls - will presumably not be adapted at all.

Alcon and Amazon's statements make it sound like the cancellation is pretty final, with no chance of moving to another network or streamer (to be fair, it's unclear if anyone else would be interested).

What will happen with the un-adapted books is unclear. There is a significant time jump between Babylon's Ashes and Persepolis Rising, leading to the possibility of the story being rounded off in TV movies or maybe a sequel mini-series at a later date, perhaps giving some time for the actors to age up a bit. Another possibility - compressing events of Books 6-9 into the final season - seems extremely unlikely given how much story and how many characters they'd have to go through.

Some previews for Season 5 suggest that the protomolecule/gate-builders storyline, which is pretty much benched in the fifth and sixth books, will continue to be a major subplot in the TV show, suggesting that perhaps that storyline will be brought up and moved to a conclusion in Season 6, so as not to leave any loose ends dangling.

Amazon and Alcon have also confirmed that castmember Cas Anvar, who plays Alex Kamal, will not return for the final season. Over the summer, sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Anvar for his behaviour at a series of conventions several years before The Expanse began. The remaining cast and crew will return. It is not yet clear if the role of Alex will be recast or the character dropped between seasons.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Hugo Awards add a video game category for 2021

For the first time, a Hugo Award for Best Video Game will be awarded at WorldCon 2021 (DisCon III), to be held in Washington D.C.

Organising committees have the ability to authorise a discretionary category at the Hugo Awards without going through the normal, multi-year process for adding a new permanent category to the awards. A video game category has been debated several times before but has never gained enough groundswell of support to be added full-time. It looks like DisCon will be using this opportunity to trial the idea to see how many people vote for it and support the notion going forwards.

Many, if not most, video games fall into the science fiction or fantasy. Seven years ago, I made a post about video games that engage with their SFF themes in a bit more detail (it's probably about time I did a follow-up). With video games having been commercially available for forty-five years, and having been more popular than either the film or music mediums for more than twenty years, it is probably past time this move was made. I suspect far more people voting in the Hugos have played an eligible video game in any given year than have read a semiprozine or read a novelette, for example.

Assuming normal rules of eligibility, the following video games would be among those eligible for the award in 2021:
  • Cyberpunk 2077 (assuming it hits its 10 December release date)
  • The Last of Us, Part II
  • Hades
  • Final Fantasy VII Remake
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • Half-Life: Alyx
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  • Kentucky Route Zero (both the final part of the game and the game as a whole)
  • Doom Eternal
  • Cloudpunk
  • XCOM: Chimera Squad
  • Gears Tactics
  • A Total War Saga: Troy
  • Wasteland 3
  • Iron Harvest
  • Marvel's Avengers
  • Genshin Impact
  • Star Wars: Squadrons
  • Watch_Dogs: Legion
  • Assassin's Creed: Valhalla
  • Destiny 2: Beyond Light
  • World of WarCraft: Shadowlands
  • Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
  • Immortals Fenyx Rising
  • Spider-Man: Miles Morales
It is unclear if a game would count if it was re-released or remastered. For example, Final Fantasy VII Remake would count under the award's own rule of being a "significant modification" of the original game, not to mention the fact that it is also an alternate-universe retelling of the original game (i.e. the events of the original game and the remake actually coexist within the storytelling universe as different entities). However, it is unclear if FFVII Remake would be eligible for just 2021 or 2022 as well, since the PC version and possibly X-Box and PlayStation 5 versions of the game will not be released until next year. In addition, it is unclear if, say, Horizon Zero Dawn would be eligible: the game was originally released on PlayStation 4 in 2017, but on PC in 2020 and a potential PlayStation 5-specific version in 2021. It's also unclear if this year's relatively mild graphical remaster of Spider-Man (originally released in 2018) would make it eligible again.

These rules I suspect will be clarified relatively shortly.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

HBO greenlights LAST OF US TV series

HBO has greenlit a live-action TV series based on the Last of Us video game series.

HBO announced they had put the project into development back in March, with Chernobyl writer-showrunner Craig Mazin developing the series alongside Neil Druckmann, the senior writer on the game series. Mazin will run the new show whilst Druckmann will advise, produce and write, his duties at Naughty Dog Studios permitting.

The game and TV series are both set in a post-apocalyptic world where a toxic fungus has infected millions of people and turned them into violent monsters. The storyline follows Joel, a middle-aged survivor, who finds himself protecting a young girl named Ellie.

The original Last of Us (2013) was a huge hit. Developed by Naughty Dog Studios, who also developed the Uncharted series (a film version of which is currently shooting), the game sold over 13 million copies. The Last of Us, Part II was released in June this year and has already sold over 4 million copies to date. The sequel seemed to end the storyline fairly definitively, but Naughty Dog are reportedly considering a third game (which maybe a prequel or spin-off rather than a straight sequel) due to the success of the first two games.

Video game adaptations were once seen as a fool's errand in both television and film circles, but a growing number of successful transitions have made HBO - never shy to take on a challenge - keener to try out the idea. Showtime are also deep in production on a TV series based on the Halo series of video games.

The Last of Us will likely enter production in 2021 for a 2022 premiere.


Rania has moved from the countryside to the sprawling city of Nivalis and has taken a job working for Cloudpunk, a not-quite-legal delivery company. As her first night begins, she is directed to deliver packages and goods. She meets some unusual people and gradually discovers the secret of the ancient city's failing computer systems, and is put in the uncomfortable position of having to make choices that will impact on people all over the city. It's going to be a long night.

Cloudpunk is an indie game created by the Berlin-based studio Ion Lands. It's a highly impressive piece of work with a distinct visual style that is constantly engaging and attractive, although the depth of the gameplay is perhaps not quite as compelling.

The game is set in an open world city, which is the true star of the game. Nivalis sprawls for many kilometres, divided into discrete zones, and flying your hovercar around the city never gets old. You can loop through immense streams of traffic like Coruscant in the Star Wars movies, or abandon the sky roads and make your own way along, over and under the city. The city is divided into roads and neighbourhoods which you can visit and explore on foot. Setting down at a car park (you can't just land anywhere), you disembark and can explore in either a first-person or third-person perspective.

The game's aesthetic is somewhat blocky - the game is built using voxels rather than standard polygons - and up-close in the foot sections it looks a bit like someone's fused Blade Runner with Minecraft. This highly stylised aesthetic is not something I'm usually a fan of, but Cloudpunk makes it work well and I came to enjoy exploring the low-fi back alleys of the city. The streets are packed with people, although there's only a few you can interact with (represented by faces on your map). These random people met by chance can open up new storylines or even missions, so it's worthwhile talking to everyone you can. There's also loot and collectibles lying around, such as used batteries, punchcards and old magazines. These can be sold for cash, used to repair broken equipment (such as elevators, opening up new areas) or can be given to specific collectors in return for story advancement or achievements.

There are a few things to spend money on, such as repairs (you'll spend your first few minutes likely flying into walls, a lot, before you get a handle on the game's somewhat stiff flight controls) and fuel, as well as a small number of upgrades for your hovercar and your apartment.

These side-activities are fine, but for the most part ignorable. The game's main storyline is its key appeal and this is quite compelling. Over the course of one arduous night - played out in approximate realtime, since even a completionist run of the game will only take you around ten hours - Rania learns something of the history of the city, gets embroiled in a film noir story involving a hardbitten private detective searching for a missing girl, inadvertently attracts the attention of the cops, indulges in some light corporate espionage and fraud and helps an android recover her missing memory files, which have been scattered all over town. Along the way, Rania makes some friends: a snobbish married android couple, a robot detective who only speaks in third-person gumshoe narration and a deranged butler are only a few of the characters she picks up in her cab. Her main points of contact are her call handler at work, who directs her from behind the scenes, and her sentient AI companion, Camus, who used to be in a synthetic dog body but is now plugged into her car, resulting in an existential crisis.

This is all good fun, though perhaps a little grating (Camus's schtick - a car-dog! - is fun for about an hour and then starts getting repetitive) in the long run. The writing is fine, but the voice acting is highly variable. Rania and Control, who fortunately have the bulk of the dialogue, are decent, as is the detective, but a lot of the rest are forgettable to amateurish.

The core gameplay loop is reasonably enjoyable. Control contacts you with a mission, which usually involves picking something up and taking it somewhere else. This involves exploring a new area on foot and the game's natural pace of advancement means you can do several things simultaneously, such as tracking down loot and collectables in the same neighbourhood where a mission is unfolding. This approach avoids repetition by both giving you better upgrades, so driving between locations becomes easier and faster as the game unfolds, and also varying events in the story, such as some later missions being timed, or taking you off the grid to old or sealed-off parts of the city. Some missions also have multiple outcomes, with Rania being able to make a choice that will determine what happens later on. For example, I befriended an ageing speed racer who wanted to keep racing, despite it becoming dangerous. Rania has the ability to sabotage his next race and encourage him to retire, or help him keep driving. The former saves his life but makes him angry and resentful; the latter sees him die, but doing something he loved and this encourages his friends to later help Rania out of a tight jam. There's probably not enough of these choices to make a full replay of the game worthwhile to see the other outcomes, but maybe enough to make you check out a YouTube playthrough.

After about nine hours the game does start to wear a little thin, but it's around that time the main story starts wrapping up. After a reasonably good ending, you're still able to explore the open world and pick up any remaining loot and track down a last few people with interesting things to say, but the game wraps up well. I do think any sequel will require more gameplay ideas to keep things fresh, though. In the meantime the developers are promising adding new stories, missions, characters and features (such as street racing) which should make revisiting the game a few months down the line interesting.

As it stands, Cloudpunk (****) is a fun, tight and focused adventure game in a beautifully-realised cyberpunk city with some fun characters. The gameplay perhaps doesn't vary too much, but it doesn't outstay it's welcome and it's refreshing to play a game which doesn't rely on violence or action set pieces to get the player's attention. The game is available now on PC, X-Box One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Character Chronicle: Ahsoka Tano

Ahsoka Tano is – arguably – the most popular Star Wars character to have never appeared in a live action iteration of the franchise, with only a few possible rivals (chiefly Grand Admiral Thrawn). With rumours of her impending arrival in The Mandalorian, though, I thought it might be instructive to revisit the history of the character for those unfamiliar with the various animated series.

Self-evidently, spoilers for Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels follow.

Ahsoka Tano is a member of the Togruta species, a humanoid race hailing from the planet Shili. They are mostly humanoid with varying skin shades, and a highly distinguishable head crest known as a lekku, similar to those of Twi’leks. The lekku aids in communication. Ahsoka is the second Togruta to appear in the franchise, after Jedi Master Shaak Ti appeared briefly in Attack of the Clones and was killed in Revenge of the Sith

Born in 36 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin), Ahsoka displayed Force proficiency almost from birth and was identified at the age of three by Jedi Master Plo Koon, who took her to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where she underwent vigorous training. In 22 BBY, at the age of 14, she was assigned as padawan to Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, shortly after the Battle of Geonosis marked the beginning of the Clone Wars between the Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems (the Separatists). Grand Master Yoda assigned Ahsoka to Anakin in the belief that it would temper his recklessness and encourage maturity, whilst Ahsoka would do well to learn from one of the most skilled Jedi warriors in the order.

Ahsoka would serve alongside Anakin and, often, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi throughout the three years of the Clone Wars. Anakin was initially resentful of her presence, having expressed to Yoda a desire not to have a padawan, believing they would distract him and hold him back. However, Ahsoka soon proved her worth during the Battle of Christophsis, saving Anakin’s life and helping ensure victory over the Separatist forces.

As well as fighting alongside fellow Jedi, Ahsoka served alongside and sometimes commanded the 501st Legion of the Grand Army of the Republic, a unit of Clone Troopers under the command of CT-7567, colloquially known as “Rex.” Rex and Ahsoka struck up an easy friendship and alliance, respecting one another’s skills in battle and saving one another’s lives many times.

Ahsoka served in many battles and on many fronts during the war, but developed a rapport with the planet Mandalore. She first visited the planet to support Duchess Satine’s rule from an internal coup led by another member of the government. She also acted as a mentor and inspiration to the Duchess’s heir, her nephew Korkie Kryze. Ahsoka had several more engagements with the Mandalorians, first fighting the militant group known as Death Watch which wished to return Mandalore to a culture of violence but later alongside them when they became the only hope of defeating the Separatist hold on the planet. During these battles Ahsoka became an ally of Bo-Katan Kryze, Duchess Satine’s sister, after an initially hostile relationship. With Ahsoka’s help, Bo-Katan rallied the Mandalorians and defeated both Separatist plots and an attempt by former Sith Darth Maul to conquer the planet, although Satine was killed in the process. Maul was defeated and Bo-Katan became Regent of Mandalore for her nephew, Korkie. Bo-Katan also became the wielder of the famed Darksaber, a weapon of impressive power.

After her first mission to Mandalore, Ahsoka visited the planet Mortis alongside Obi-Wan and Anakin, a world which would have a profound affect on her destiny. On this planet, which was strongly touched by the Force, Ahsoka had a vision of her future self, who warned her that Anakin was touched by the Dark Side and his corruption would destroy her if she remained at his side. Ahsoka was dubious of this warning, believing it might be a hallucination or itself a manifestation of the Dark Side, and resolved to remain Anakin’s true and loyal friend. During these events Ahsoka was infected with the Dark Side and apparently killed, but she was saved by Anakin at great cost.

The war continued to rage and Ahsoka continued to serve on the front lines. In the battle for Onderon, she worked alongside Steela and Saw Gerrera in establishing a viable resistance force and helping guide it to victory. However, Ahsoka was unable to save Steela’s life during a battle and she was killed. Saw blamed Ahsoka for his sister’s death and this was one of several incidents that made Saw bitter and increasingly ruthless in his war against the Separatists and, later, the Empire.

In 20 BBY, as the end of the war approached, Ahsoka’s position in the Jedi Order was endangered when she was framed for a bombing in the Jedi Temple that killed six Jedi. The attack had been orchestrated by Ahsoka’s erstwhile friend, Barriss Offee, who believed the Jedi had become militant and authoritarian during the conflict. Offee then planted evidence framing Ahsoka. Ahsoka was imprisoned by the Jedi Order, despite her longstanding record of service. Shocked at her treatment, Ahsoka freed herself and attempted to clear her name, working alongside her former nemesis Asajj Ventress to this end. Ahsoka was captured again and put on trial, but Anakin was successful in identifying and exposing Offee as the real culprit.

Despite her exoneration, Ahsoka was badly shaken by how easily everyone had believed that she could be a traitor. The Council suggested that this had been a final trial to prove her worthiness to become a Jedi and offered her the title of Jedi Knight and a formal place in the order. To their shock, Ahsoka rejected the offer. Their lack of faith in her had led to her faith in the Jedi Order being similarly eroded. She quit the Order and departed Coruscant. Yoda may have intervened to ask her to stay, but during one confused vision of a possible future he had seen Ahsoka dying in the halls of the Jedi Temple, possibly a reason why he let her go so easily. Ahsoka’s absence increased Anakin’s feelings of isolation and resentment during the closing months of the war.

Ahsoka became embroiled in various escapades during the closing part of the war before being recruited by Bo-Katan to help free Mandalore from Darth Maul. This operation was completed successfully and Maul taken into custody. Ahsoka escorted Maul back to Coruscant on a Star Destroyer with a detachment of Clone Troopers commanded by her old friend Rex. However, she was struck by a powerful vision of Chancellor Palpatine battling Jedi Master Mace Windu, and witnessing Windu’s death at Anakin’s hands moments later. Ahsoka tried to confide in Rex about her vision, but at that moment Palpatine activated his famed “Order 66,” a command driven by a biological inhibitor chip in the brain of every clone. This forced the Clone Troopers to turn on and kill the Jedi. Ahsoka, forewarned by Rex as he managed to briefly fight the command, was able to evade the initial attack. She freed Darth Maul as a diversion and was able to take Rex prisoner in combat. Through a combination of the Force and surgery, she identified and removed Rex’s inhibitor chip. Unfortunately, Rex was able to confirm that almost every single Clone in the entire Republic had such a chip and had turned against the Jedi in their millions.

Working together, Rex and Ahsoka crashed the Star Destroyer into a remote moon. They survived by escaping in a Y-wing, but most of the crew were killed. Horrified at the death and destruction that had been unleashed, Ahsoka abandoned her lightsabres at the crash site. Some months later, they were discovered by Darth Vader, as Anakin Skywalker was now known, and he assumed she had perished as a result.

Ahsoka spent the next eight years in hiding on the Outer Rim, moving from world to world. However, witnessing the brutality of the newly-proclaimed Galactic Empire led her into contact with various resistance cells and eventually Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, who was planning (alongside Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila) to fight against the Empire. Ahsoka was reluctant to return to front-line combat, so Senator Organa decided to employ her as his chief intelligence agent. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of groups had sprung up across the galaxy in opposition to the Empire, fighting isolated, secluded campaigns on backwater planets with little hope of victory. Ahsoka decided to contact these groups and start spreading resources between them, using the code-name “Fulcrum.” Although it was Organa and Mothma’s diplomacy that sowed the seeds of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, it was Ahsoka Tano’s hard work that made it a reality.

Another seven years passed and Ahsoka became particularly intrigued by the hard work of the crew of the starship Ghost, who were fighting the Imperial occupation on the planet Lothal. Ahsoka provided intelligence and support to the Ghost crew for more than a year before meeting them in person. Ahsoka believed that Hera Syndulla, the group’s leader, had the potential to be a much greater leader and her recommendations saw Hera rise high in the Rebel Alliance’s ranks, eventually (much later) gaining the rank of General. Ahsoka also helped former padawan Kanan Jarrus and his own protégé Ezra Bridger learn more in the ways of the Force.

Ahsoka’s work with Kanan and Ezra led them to an ancient temple the planet Malachor, but also attracted the attention of Darth Vader. Vader and Ahsoka engaged in combat. Ahsoka had come to believe that Vader might really be Anakin, but Vader claimed that he had killed Anakin. During a ferocious duel, Ahsoka destroyed part of Vader’s helmet, exposing enough of his face to make her realise he really was Anakin. The two continued to fight as the temple collapsed. Later, only Vader emerged alive, leading the Rebels to believe that Ahsoka had perished. However, Vader himself was not sure what had happened. Ahsoka had badly damaged the floor of the temple and when he struck a killing blow, the floor collapsed. He could find absolutely no trace of Ahsoka afterwards, and had no choice but to believe she had perished, but could not be sure.

In reality, Ahsoka had been rescued through a most bizarre manner. Two years further down the line, Ezra had located a mysterious dimension accessible through the Force, the World Between Worlds, which stood outside of time and space. At great risk, Ezra had opened a portal to the moment of Ahsoka and Vader’s duel and rescued her, pulling her into this place between dimensions. Ahsoka realised the tremendous danger this realm represented, with the ability to undo events and upset the flow of time and destiny. Ahsoka helped Ezra return to his own time and convinced him not to try to undo the death of his mentor Kanan.

Ahsoka’s activities after this time are unclear; she may have remained within the World Between Worlds for a time or returned to her own time and laid low to avoid attracting the attention of Vader. It appears that Ahsoka initially believed she had cheated fate and death and was unwilling to do anything to change events. As a result, she did not take part in the Galactic Civil War and kept her head down during the events of that conflict. However, five years after the Battle of Yavin, two after the Battle of Endor, she returned to Lothal and made contact with Sabine Wren, one of the other Ghost crewmembers. Ezra Bridger had disappeared in battle with Grand Admiral Thrawn, his command Star Destroyer vanishing into the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy. She and Sabine agreed to join forces to travel into the Unknown Regions in search of them. 

  • 36 BBY: Born on Shili.
  • 33 BBY: Found by Jedi Master Plo Kloon and taken to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Begins training.
  • 22 BBY: Assigned as padawan to Anakin Skywalker at the outbreak of the Clone Wars. Also serves as a commanding officer over the 501st Legion of the Grand Army of the Republic, meeting CT-7567 “Rex” and becoming his close friend and ally (The Clone Wars).
  • 20 BBY: Framed for murder and treason, banished from the Jedi Order and forced to go on the run. She clears her name and is exonerated, but feels betrayed by the Jedi Order and refuses to return. As a private citizen, she fights alongside Bo-Katan Kryze in the liberation of Mandalore. Shortly after the battle, she is betrayed by Rex during the execution of Order 66. She saves Rex from his inhibitor trip and they escape. Anakin, now Darth Vader, believes her dead in a Star Destroyer crash (The Clone Wars).
  • 12 BBY: After eight years in hiding on the Outer Rim, Ahsoka joins Senator Bail Organa’s nascent Alliance to Restore the Republic. She becomes an intelligence specialist coordinating the activities of dozens of autonomous cells, codenamed “Fulcrum.”
  • 5 BBY: Ahsoka begins working with the Lothal rebels, principally the crew of the Ghost (Rebels).
  • 3 BBY: Ahsoka battles Darth Vader on Malachor, confirming he is her former master, Anakin Skywalker. Ahsoka vanishes during the battle, Vader believing her dead. In reality, she is rescued by Ezra Bridger from two years in the future, using the time-warping power of the “World Between Worlds.” Fearing her survival has changed history, Ahsoka lies low for a long time (Rebels).
  • 3 ABY: Destruction of the Second Death Star at the Battle of Endor and death of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi).
  • 5 ABY: Ahsoka and Sabine Wren join forces to search for the missing Ezra Bridger in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy (Rebels).
  • 9 ABY: Adopted Mandalorian Child of the Watch Din Djarin encounters Bo-Katan Kryze during his search for the Jedi. Bo-Katan directs him to find Ahsoka Tano, whom she believes is currently located on the planet Corvus (The Mandalorian).

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Why Alan Dean Foster is important to STAR WARS

Earlier this week, it emerged that Disney has been withholding payments to Alan Dean Foster for his work on the Star Wars and Alien franchises. Foster has written multiple, well-received novels and novelizations for both franchises over a period of more than forty years. Payments for Star Wars were suspected in 2015 (three years after Disney took over Lucasfilm) and for Alien in 2019 (when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox). The SFWA took up Foster's case and publicised it.

Foster had an influential role in helping market the original Star Wars movie. The film was in pre-production and building up a head of steam, with rumours spreading of elaborate and experimental special effects work and an ambitious shoot planned for the US, UK and the Tunisian desert. Judy-Lynn del Rey, working at Ballantine Books, heard about the project and believed Ballantine would do well to pick up the novelisation rights. Having published Alan Dean Foster's novel Icerigger a couple of years earlier, she believed he'd be a good fit. By coincidence, Charles Lippincott, the marketing manager for the film, was looking for a deal for the novelisation and the two plans converged.

This resulted in Foster being invited to a meeting with Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic's headquarters. For his part, Foster was familiar with Lucas's previous films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti. He and Lucas hit it off and Foster agreed to the writing gig. He was sent the latest version of the film's script and some of Ralph McQuarrie's concept art (some of which later appeared in the novel and on the cover) and set to work.

When it came time to release the novel, it was decided to credit the book to Lucas: the novel was heavily based on the script, using some dialogue verbatim and Foster believed his job was more like a building contractor working on a Frank Lloyd Wright house than an original creator. Despite this, it was widely known that Foster was the writer and George Lucas acknowledged this in his introduction to a later edition of the book.

The book was published as a paperback original in December 1976 by Ballantine. This was a full six months before the film was released. By the time the film was released in May 1977, the novelisation had sold a startling 3.5 million copies.

As a result, the book had done a lot of heavy lifting in getting people excited for the film. Readers scoffed at the idea that the elaborate battle sequences in the book could be realised for the film, but were keen to see for themselves. Helped by Charles Lippincott's other marketing ideas, such as the memorable poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt and a Marvel Comics adaptation (beginning three months before the release of the movie), the novel helped drive the hype for the film to huge levels. This was rewarded when the film was released and quickly became the biggest and most successful movie in history to that time.

Foster's involvement continued when he wrote the first original Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye. One idea originated by Lucas is that if the original film was successful but not a huge hit, they could use the novel as a the basis for a cheap sequel. As a result, Foster was asked to reduce elements in the book such as space battles, new creatures and even the role of Han Solo and Chewbacca, since Harrison Ford had not yet signed on for a sequel, but otherwise Foster was allowed to create his own world, characters and story. Published in March 1978 by Del Rey Books (Judy-Lynn del Rey and her husband Lester having set up a new imprint, still going strong today), the book was another huge seller. It has since been retconned as the first work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe and was reissued in the 1990s with some minor revisions to remove elements that clashed with later-established canon. It was also later adapted as a comic.

The success of these projects saw Foster contracted by 20th Century Fox to similarly adapt their big, upcoming SF movie. This became the novelisation of Alien, published in 1979. Whilst other writers handled the novelisations of the Star Wars sequels, Fox asked Foster back for more projects, resulting in the novelisations of Aliens in 1986 and Alien³ in 1992.

The role of novelisations has become - arguably - somewhat more redundant over the decades, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, they played a key role. Before films were widely available to buy or rent on video, a novelisation was often the only way for a fan to experience the story again. Novelisations were also frequently published months ahead of the film, helping build up hype and awareness of the film in a pre-Internet era. Novelisations were also able to get across information from the script that may not have been mentioned in the film. Infamous scenes cut from the films, such as Han Solo meeting Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley; Ripley discovering Captain Dallas being turned into a xenomorph egg; and the smartgun scene from Aliens, all first appeared in the novels decades before they turned up in the "special editions" and director's cuts of the films themselves.

In this manner, Alan Dean Foster played a key role in spreading awareness of two of the biggest SF movie franchises of all time. His novels also gave people a way of enjoying the story again and again, and gave vital background information on the story and world that was not available in the films themselves. He has more than earned his pay from the big mouse corporation.

As well as his work on the big franchises, Foster has a large number of novels in his own worlds, particularly the epic fantasy Spellsinger sequence and the SF Humanx Commonwealth series. He has also published many stand-alone novels, most recently Relic (2018).

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

SFWA takes aim at Disney for non-payment of book royalties to Alan Dean Foster and other writers

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the closest thing the US SFF field has to a union, has put Disney on notice for failing to maintain royalty payments to authors such as Alan Dean Foster.

"Famed science fiction and fantasy writer Alan Dean Foster, writer of multiple book series, numerous novelizations of film scripts and more than 20 novels, will hold a joint press conference with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America on Wednesday, November 18 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern/1:00 p.m. Central/ 11:00 a.m. Pacific. Foster and SFWA will discuss the non-payment by Disney of several contracts for works including multiple Star Wars and Aliens novelizations.

Foster was originally contracted to write the Alien novelizations by Titan Books, and the Star Wars novelizations by Lucasfilm. Both companies regularly paid his royalties. When The Walt Disney Company acquired the rights to these novelizations in 2015, the payments stopped although the books continue to be sold. Disney continues to get money for the books. Alan Dean Foster, and possibly other authors with similar contracts, have not been paid.

Foster and SFWA will discuss the fact the contracts are contracts and that Disney must pay this author and any author to whom they owe royalty checks."
Foster, infamously, ghost-wrote the novelization of the original Star Wars movie in 1976 (coming out several months ahead of the film) and then wrote the first original novel in the franchise, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, in 1978. He later wrote the novel The Approaching Storm and the novelization of The Force Awakens. Foster also wrote the novelisations of the first three Alien movies and the more recent Alien: Covenant, as well as the novelisation of Alien Nation, all for Lucasfilm or Fox, both since acquired by Disney.

It sounds like the SFWA will be making it clear that they expect Disney to fulfil their contractual requirements going forwards.


The press conference has been held via Facebook and can be seen in full here.

Mary Robinette Kowal, president of the SFWA, introduces the grievance. Alan Dean Foster then outlines in full the situation: Disney halted royalty payments on his earlier Star Wars books in 2015 and on his Alien books after Disney took over Fox in March 2019. They ignored all attempts at communication, including legal representation, until the SFWA got involved. Disney then advanced an extraordinary argument: that they had purchased the rights but not the obligations of the contract. In other words, they were entitled to continue to sell books by Alan Dean Foster for their own profit but not pay him royalties on those books.

This argument is extraordinary gibberish, and on first glance would not survive more than a passing glance by any legal entity in the United States or elsewhere. However, of course, Disney are able to afford some extremely good lawyers to try to argue this point, perhaps believing they can simply out-spend any individual in court. Whilst that may be true, the SFWA is quite a large and well-supported body, which puts the situation in a rather different light.

There have also been reports that other bodies, such as NBC-Universal, have been trying to push similar ideas about transferring the rights of a contract but not the obligations. So far such claims have not withstood scrutiny in court, and it's unlikely this will either. However, the attempt is disturbing. If Disney's argument was to stand, then writers would be subject to the termination of contract without warning, simply by publishers moving the books to another subsidiary and then back again.

Foster and his wife are both facing significant medical expenses and the non-payment of royalties has adversely affected them.

Other Star Wars novelists and their estates (such as the family of A.C. Crispin, a Star Wars novelist who also wrote the novelisation of Alien Resurrection) are also now querying their royalty payments to make sure that the problem is not more widespread.

Warner Brothers releases a somewhat-exaggerated BABYLON 5 "remaster"

Warner Brothers has begun releasing what they are - with some exaggeration - calling "Babylon 5 Remastered" via streaming services Amazon Prime and iTunes.

In truth, this is not really the original show remastered but more "reverted," that is, returned to its original format in which it was broadcast in the 1990s and subsequently released on VHS. The show was subsequently re-edited in widescreen in 2004 for release on DVD and later streaming services, but this involved digitally cropping and zooming the various CG and composite effects shots, resulting in noticeable and frequent drops in visual quality as the show moved between live-action-only and effects material. This "remaster" does nothing more than revert to the original, non-widescreen broadcast version of the show, run through a colour filter. The result is nothing like a remaster, but is superior to the widescreen version of the show at the cost of losing the widescreen image.

The problem was originally caused by a mismatch in the original production of the show. The series was shot on 32mm film in 16:9 widescreen, but was mastered on 4:3 video for home release. The plan was to create a widescreen version of the show to future-proof it for later generations, and a non-widescreen version for contemporary viewers. Unfortunately, a miscommunication and Warner Brothers' refusal to buy the effects team a $5,000 widescreen reference monitor meant that the CGI and other vfx footage was only rendered and shot in 4:3 in the first place. When Warner Brothers wanted to create a widescreen version, they found that the live-action footage existed in widescreen but the CG and composites did not. Their only solution was to zoom into the effects images until it filled the widescreen image, at the expense of losing material from the top and bottom of the screen. This created various problems, most notably increased pixilation and "fuzziness" of the effects images and details being lost from the CG footage.

There were two solutions to this problem: either revert to the original 4:3 masters or re-render all of the CG and effects footage in native widescreen and HD. This latter approach would be mind-bogglingly expensive. A similar project in 2012-15 for Star Trek: The Next Generation cost well over $20 million and that was for a show where most of the effects were created in-camera, so were easier to recreate. The ST:TNG remaster project also bombed on home media release and never turned a profit. Babylon 5 had much, much more CGI and far more vfx shots than ST:TNG (even considering that TNG was 68 episodes longer than B5). Warner Brothers have shown little to no appetite for a project of this scale and complexity for a show that, with the best will in the world, is far more obscure than ST:TNG. One fan recently re-rendered some shots using the original CG models and scene files in widescreen and HD, but it took over 100 hours with home equipment to do just a few minutes of footage, demonstrating how expensive and time-consuming it would be to do the entire series.

As a result Warner Brothers have gone for the low-hanging fruit of reverting to the 4:3 original footage and applying some colour saturation filters. To be fair this has resulted in an image that is noticeably sharper and warmer than the widescreen DVD conversion, and of course it means the CG is now back to its original format and all the better for it. Calling it a "remaster" is definitely an exaggeration, though.

"Babylon 5 Remastered" is currently being released piecemeal on streaming services. Warner Brothers have not yet announced any kind of home media release, but considering this isn't a proper HD remaster, I'd be surprised to see one.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Season 1

2369. The Cardassian Union has withdrawn from its forty-year occupation of the planet Bajor, leaving behind a world with shattered infrastructure and riven with factions and religious strife. The United Federation of Planets offers to help in the reconstruction, taking over orbital station Terok Nor (now renamed Deep Space Nine) and installing a Starfleet administration staff. When a stable wormhole is discovered linking the Bajoran system to the distant Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy, Bajor's future is secured...if they can stop the Cardassians retaking the planet. Deep Space Nine is moved to the mouth of the phenomenon and Commander Benjamin Sisko and his crew have to work to secure the alliance between the Federation and Bajor whilst dealing with the mysteries that lie beyond the wormhole.

It is common - after the original - for Star Trek shows to have decidedly ropey first seasons. The Next Generation's first season was pretty weak, with badly-written episodes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes abounding, with only hints of the greatness that the show would later achieve. Voyager's first season was almost somnambulant, Enterprise's was full of potential that it never came close to realising and modern shows Picard and Discovery both had shaky opening seasons, with excellent casts struggling with wildly inconsistent writing.

Deep Space Nine emerges, almost by default, as having the best opening season of any Star Trek show since the original and also the best pilot. That doesn't mean that either are flawlessly great, but they are batting above average for this franchise.

DS9 was launched as the somewhat "darker," "grittier", and "edgier" spin-off of The Next Generation. Incoming head of Paramount television Brandon Tartikoff had mandated a spin-off show be made and, when the Next Generation team were struggling for ideas, suggested that they base the spin-off on 1950s Western The Rifleman, just as the original series and TNG had been based on the Western Wagon Train. The Rifleman was about a veteran, widowed soldier and his young son making a home for themselves in a dangerous town on the very frontier of the American West. Michael Piller and Rick Berman developed the spin-off with this idea perhaps a bit too literally in mind: hence Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks), a widowed veteran of the war against the Borg that ended The Next Generation's third season, relocating to the dangerous frontier station of DS9 with his young son Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Originally the inspiration would have been even more directly obvious, with the series being set on a starbase on the surface of Bajor, but budgetary considerations (location shooting for every episode would have been ruinous) and plot limitations (the setting would have made Bajor too much the focus of the show) encouraged the producers to move the story to a space station setting, with the wormhole introduced as a means of allowing the show to still explore unknown space.

The most unusual feature of the show - still - is that it blends Starfleet crewmembers with non-Starfleet personnel, with Sisko and his team having to work alongside alien shapeshifter Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Bajoran first officer Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) and Ferengi barkeeper Quark (Armin Shimerman). This means that not all the characters in the show are under Sisko's authority and there is much butting of heads between different cultures and ways of doing things. This generated conflict, and thus drama and stories, circumventing Gene Roddenberry's The Next Generation proscription against drama and conflict between Starfleet characters (something he himself had violated lots of times with various "dodgy admiral" stories, but still). It also added texture to the setting. Previous shows had focused on Starfleet and the Federation perspective near-exclusively, but The Next Generation had modified its focus over time to use Worf to explore the Klingon culture and Deanna Troi the Betazeds. DS9 makes use of its alien characters to explore those cultures in tremendous depth and use them as a way to reflect back on the Federation.

This tremendous depth is impressive, but in the first season, still fairly nascent. Odo's history is a total blank page and only vague hints of his origins are provided this early on. Quark is a petty criminal but also one that doesn't take too many risks and also isn't too keen on mayhem and murder. He has a line he won't step over, not believing in risking his own skin. It's Kira who emerges as the most fleshed-out character in the first season, starting off as a staunch Bajoran nationalist who doesn't believe the Federation should be involved in Bajor's reconstruction, but later becoming more of a believer in cooperation and the need for the Federation to be involved to stop the Cardassians returning. This development gives the first season a reasonably strong character arc, something rather unusual at the time in episodic television, let alone Star Trek.

This early nod towards serialisation is still fairly underdeveloped. There are secondary and tertiary characters introduced this season who only show up once but have much bigger roles in later seasons: rival Bajoran vedeks Winn (Louise Fletcher) and Bareil (Philip Anglim), and "simple tailor" Garak (Andrew Robinson) all make the most of their solitary appearances this season but set themselves up well for later developments. Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) appears a few more times and is set up tremendously well at this point as a foil and opponent for Sisko.

The cast is superb, with Brooks being a more idiosyncratic figure than William Shatner or Patrick Stewart but also a commanding, military figure with a nice line in confrontational diplomacy (and a temper, the sort of weakness Roddenberry would have blanched at). Visitor is outstanding as Kira, Auberjonois is flawlessly gruff as Odo but with an excellent line in subtlety and Shimerman is clearly having tremendous fun as Quark. Terry Farrell as Lt. Jadzia Dax is a bit more lost in the mix in the first season and often doesn't have much to do, but is great when she does, playing the mixture of a young Starfleet officer and world-weary Trill symbiont with 300 years of experience in her head very well. Colm Meaney's Chief O'Brien transfers over from The Next Generation with a much bigger role as the station's chief engineer and nails it perfectly, becoming the most human and relatable character in the cast. An unfortunate weak link at this stage is Siddig El Fadil (later re-credited as Alexander Siddig) as Dr. Julian Bashir: the original plan had been to cast a young hothead as the doctor and the writers weren't able to adjust their scripting to Siddig's strengths until the second season. This leaves him as an underwritten character in the first season with little characterisation outside his arrogance and somewhat tedious pursuit of Lt. Dax. Given his extraordinary later performances, it's a shame to see Siddig being ill-served by the material at this stage.

The season starts out strong with arguably Star Trek's best pilot, Emissary, which introduces the fairly complicated set-up and plot but manages to get through it quite well. It's still a fairly inelegant pilot, rooted in exposition, but it does its job of introducing the characters and setting up the premise. The first season goes on to have a run of quite strong episodes: Captive Pursuit sees O'Brien introduce the first alien visitor from the Gamma Quadrant; Dax is a thorny, class Trek ethical conundrum as Lt. Dax is accused of a crime carried out by a previous host; The Nagus has a great guest turn by Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) as the Ferengi Grand Nagus, Zek; Battle Lines is an unusually violent episode about a culture trapped in a perpetual war (with a great turn by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks as the main guest star); and Progress is a great early Kira episode.

Inbetween you have episodes with great elements but which are let down by some writing decisions: Past Prologue is a fascinating look at Bajor's mixed attitudes to the Federation and the wormhole, but is undermined by a pointless cameo by The Next Generation villains Lursa and B'Etor; Q-Less is terrific fun with John de Lancie on fine form as Q in his sole appearance on DS9, but it does feel more like a TNG episode than a DS9 one; Vortex is a promising Odo episode undermined by a weak guest star; If Wishes Were Horses is a typical "weird things happen on the station; strange aliens involved" Star Trek cliché that was getting old in the original show; and Babel is an "alien virus infects the crew but the doctor saves the day in under fifty minutes" piece, although the solution is a little more creative than normal.

In terms of real howlers, the season is remarkable in only having one: The Passenger, in which Dr. Bashir gets taken over by a murderous psychopath. Even by Star Trek's elastic standards, the science is laughably unconvincing and Siddig El Fadil's attempts to depict the possessed Bashir by making him speak...reallly....slowly are just painful.

Other episodes have weak premises but are livened up by the execution: The Storyteller doesn't make much sense (everyone seems really chill with this one Bajoran village being constantly terrorised by a random cloud monster) but wonderfully sets up the Bashir/O'Brien bromance that will extend across the series; Dramatis Personae has a potentially tedious "the crew acting out of character due to alien influence" storyline but by exaggerating pre-existing tensions rather than creating them out of thin air, it forces the characters to confront genuine issues; and the controversial Move Along Home is so deranged that fans think it's either one of the worst episodes of Star Trek ever made or an unsung work of genius (especially the fantastic ending, which subverts the typical Star Trek ending in a hilarious manner).

The season also has two stand-out classics. Duet is simply one of the best Star Trek episodes ever made, a powerful two-hander between Nana Visitor and guest star Harris Yulin (a perennial great of American television and film who's never quite gotten the profile he deserved, who should have gotten an Emmy for his performance here) that dives deep into the Cardassian/Bajoran relationship, war crimes and survivor guilt. The ending, where Kira discovers that even her hatred for the Cardassians has limits, is one of Star Trek's all-time best moments of characterisation.

The season finale, In the Hands of the Prophets isn't quite in that league, but it is a wonderful piece of drama and worldbuilding, putting Starfleet's morality and ethics squarely in the firing line. The Federation believes in respecting other cultures and their religion without indulging or propagating their beliefs, but on a station the Federation doesn't own this becomes extremely difficult, with Keiko O'Brien's school in the firing line when she starts teaching the scientific truth of the wormhole rather than the Bajoran religious belief that it is the Celestial Temple of their religion, the home of their gods (and not mere "wormhole aliens"). This set up a decidedly timely debate on science versus religion and how respectful teachers should be of beliefs that are not supported, if not flatly contradicted, by science (evolution versus creationism was becoming a big issue at the time in American schools). As well a reasonably strong season finale, it also sets up the rest of the series and acts as a prologue to the three-part arc that opens the second season.

The first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (***½) is the weakest of the show's seven seasons, but still lands quite well, certainly much better than the first season of almost any other Trek show (bar the original and maybe Lower Decks, depending on your sense of humour). It establishes a number of interesting characters, and by Star Trek standards has a low number of forgettable or poor episodes and, for a rookie outing, a nicely large number of good to excellent episodes. Whilst it could be stronger, it sets up the show well. The series is available on DVD in the USA and UK, as well as on CBS All Access in the States and Netflix in the UK.

Note: I previously reviewed DS9's first season as part of a wider review of the first two seasons twelve years ago. That review can be read here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Watch_Dogs 2

More than two years have passed since Aidan Pearce and the hacker group DedSec exposed the flaws in the ctOS computer network that had been given oversight over Chicago, creating the world's first "smart city." Unfortunately, the supercorporation that owns ctOS, Blume, was able to spin the defeat as a test run and has since gone global, with more cities joining the network. The San Francisco branch of DedSec uncovers unusual activity in Blume's local office and recruits a new member to help them expose the company's latest malfeasance.

The original Watch_Dogs (2014) was an interesting but heavily flawed game, taking the Grand Theft Auto model - an open world city which you can run around in, completing missions and side-activities to your heart's content - and adding elements to it derived from the Deus Ex series of cyberpunk video games, such hacking, stealth and multiple solutions to any given problem. It had a few distinguishing features of its own - such as using a real city rather than a fictional one and the idea of manipulating the open world itself to help you - but ended up feeling a bit over-familiar and under-ambitious, weighed down by a cliched, grim main story and unsympathetic characters.

Watch_Dogs 2 is very similar to the first game, but it feels like Ubisoft have carefully made note of the criticisms of the first game and carefully thought them through in developing this sequel. The game is Watch_Dogs with most of the rough edges smoothed off, new and interesting ideas added and an altogether lighter air adopted that makes the moment-to-moment gameplay far more enjoyable than the preceding game. The game is still flawed but it is a much slicker, more compelling package this time around.

The first good thing is that the game just drops you straight into the action. No introductory cutscenes laboriously establishing your character and his motivations, instead you find yourself standing outside a data centre belonging to Blume as unseen allies talk you through the process of infiltrating. You quickly discover that your name is Marcus and you're a hacker trying to join DedSec. Within a few minutes you're trying out your abilities, learning how to deal with guards and completing your first mission before being thrust out into the world, ready to proceed with the story or just cruise around doing side-activities. The game refreshingly puts few barriers between you and actually playing it, which feels joyously rare for a AAA open-world game these days.

The game also improves on the original by giving Marcus a discernible personality. He's a hacker and a geek but also a chilled out dude. Aidan Pearce's moany whinings are nowhere to be seen and it's fun to roam around the virtual San Francisco with Marcus. He also has a fellow bunch of DedSec members helping him out and they're also enjoyable to work with (DedSec is more front-and-centre in the game, unlike the previous one where Aidan was more an ally of theirs rather than working for them directly): confident street-artist Sitara, deranged punk Wrench, tech worker Horatio and the gifted, on-the-spectrum Josh. They're a great bunch of characters with discernible personalities and some reasonably solid writing backing them up which manages to overcome the "hacktivist" clichés. A couple of Watch_Dogs characters do transition over later on to provide a bit more connective tissue to the first game, but foreknowledge of the original game is not required.

The game's real star is San Francisco and the (somewhat condensed) version of the city in the game is a triumph. Roaring around the Bay Area by car, bike or boat is a genuine pleasure, much moreso than the somewhat morose Chicago of the original game, and Ubisoft have been unexpectedly generous in how much stuff there is to do in the game. You can race eKarts, bikes and drones; you can act as a non-copyright-infringing Uber driver, with some of your random passengers unexpectedly sparking off side-quests of their own; you can meet up with supporters of DedSec with intel on what's going on, which can also transform into elaborate sequences of missions; you can also go hunting for an enormous number of collectables, ranging from the trivial (new car paintjobs and outfits) to the extremely useful (cash drops, new abilities and upgrade points). You could happily spend a couple of dozen hours just doing this stuff rather than following the main story.

The main story, though, is surprisingly fun. Blume has joined forces with a bunch of Valley tech companies (and not quite as on-the-nose 1:1 versions of Facebook and Twitter as you might expect) to use the information from ctOS as a way of making money from the government, military and law-enforcement agencies by essentially breaching international law and the US Constitution. The primary antagonist is Dusan Nemec, a Blume executive with a truly offensive man-bun hairstyle. Dusan is initially a tough opponent, constantly one step ahead of DedSec, but as the hackers expose and halt his plans and build up a picture of his allies and resources, it becomes a more evenly-matched battle. Watch_Dogs 2 improves over its predecessor by established the stakes and the abilities of everyone involved and (mostly) plays fair in how it advances the story. Refreshingly, at no point are you taken prisoner, inexplicably allowed to live and have to escape, which is a Ubisoft cliché by this point.

Missions usually involve Marcus being sent to a location, which he has to hack into or gain information. Some missions do require Marcus to be physically present, but a surprising number are wide open and you can approach them by several means: direct combat which is usually the hardest option (Marcus is nowhere near as tough as Aidan was in the first game and can die from a couple of bullets), stealth or remote hacking using radio-controlled vehicles. Marcus gets an RC car early on which can pick things up and hack things through a hardline, as well as later one a quadcopter drone which can only hack things remotely but can fly and reach high places much more easily. Missions get tougher as the game proceeds, but Marcus also unlocks powerful new abilities. Particularly enjoyable is the ability to frame enemies for crimes on the spot or put out a contract on them, effectively calling in police (for the former) or gang members (for the latter) to attack your opponents on your behalf. An impregnable fortress becomes rather more pregnable if you send in police and SWAT forces first to apprehend half the security force on trumped-up murder charges (or, more disturbingly, real crimes that you expose).

This kind of ability raises some ethical questions about DedSec's power: you can also get the police to arrest any random passer-by on trumped-up charges, for example. You assume that they'll be released once the police realise they've been hacked but it raises some questions about the group's honesty that the story itself also touches on, but never really answers. Your group's fury at discovering the extent of Blume's violation of privacy feels a bit rich when you've just had the living statue in the park arrested purely for being annoying.

The darker side of this is something the game doesn't even attempt to address in the story. Nothing is stopping you, as Marcus, from strapping up with some heavy machine guns and wading into each mission and massacring everyone in sight: security guards, police, even civilian workers and passers-by. You can remote-detonate gas mains in roads, blowing up cars and killing innocent people. You can drop explosives from your drone into crowded shopping areas, arrange drive-by shootings of random office workers and trigger a full-scale gang war which can escalate into total mayhem with dozens killed in the crossfire. But the story will never, ever acknowledge that you've done these things. DedSec remain the plucky underdog searching for the truth and protecting the public and Marcus is the chipper fighter for freedom, no matter how many people he's killed that day. This disconnect between potential gameplay and story (especially given Blume's desperation to discredit DedSec) is fairly nonsensical and the only way I could resolve it was by adopting a non-lethal playthrough using a stun gun (and, later, stun shotgun) and using takedowns to knock enemies out rather than kill them. Unfortunately, the game doesn't really acknowledge this approach either. Even worse, the game seems to reach to stun shots the same way it does to machine guns, with SWAT teams responding with excessive force in trying to murder you despite you not having actually hurt anyone.

This is where the game's weaker elements kick in. Combat is generally poor. Cover is far too sticky, resulting in more deaths from fighting the cumbersome interface than from actual enemy tactics (trying to get the game to detach Marcus from cover when a grenade lands at his feet is a challenge in itself). Stealth is also poor: enemies can spot you hiding from very unlikely positions and enemies are telepathic, so if one spots you, all of the bad guys in the area know where you are with laser-like precision instantly. With combat and stealth being underwhelming, the game seems to be pushing you to using hacking for almost every mission and it's by far the most rewarding (not to mention amusing) option, but it does feel like Ubisoft missed a trick by not removing the head-on combat option altogether and forcing you to rely on your wits instead.

There are other gameplay elements which are odd. The ubiquitous Ubisoft Tower of Knowledge, which you have to unlock to detect all the available activities in a given area (a common element in their Assassin's Creed, Far Cry and Watch_Dogs franchises), is oddly missing, but feels like it should be present. Not only are radio towers and satellite dishes frequently present in the game (now occasionally serving as download points for collectible information), but there is no way of flagging this information on the map. You have to physically drive or walk around and hope you pass close enough to an icon for it to appear on your map. I get why they did this - they wanted to avoid the maps covered in points of interest you then tick off like a robot in their previous games - but with no alternative method in place of finding this information, it just makes the task of locating all these items more laborious. I finished the game with numerous collectibles left incomplete just because there is no way of identifying them, which is weird.

These negatives are annoying, but certainly not a deal-breaker. The story is solid, the characters likeable, the actual game world is overwhelmingly impressive (and will bring back pleasant memories of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, something that Watch_Dogs 2 seems to lean into on occasion), the side-activities are hugely fun and the power the game gives you to impact on the game world and manipulate the factions and infrastructure to your advantage is genuinely original and interesting. Open-world games are becoming a bit of a tired genre these days, but Watch_Dogs 2 avoids most of the negatives and delivers a very enjoyable experience.

Watch_Dogs 2 (****) is a sequel which takes the original game and improves on it in every single way, as well as bringing more humour and fun to the franchise. Stodgy combat and weak stealth let down the choices somewhat, but the remarkably fun and engaging hacking mechanics do make up for this. The game is available now on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4. A sequel, Watch_Dogs: Legion, was recently released.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Revisiting the Wasteland: Fallout 4 and the Post-Post Apocalypse

The Fallout video game series is set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, depicting survivors striving to survive in the ruins of the old world and trying to build new societies. Yet Fallout 4 opens with a scene of domestic tranquillity. A loving couple and their baby son live in a beautiful home with all mod-cons in Sanctuary Hills, a picturesque suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. They have the latest gadgets, some good food and even a robot manservant ready to attend their every whim. The only note of disquiet arises when a door-to-door salesman arrives, a representative of Vault-Tec who confirms that your family has a place reserved in nearby Vault 111, should the worst happen. Of course, this being a video game made by a company not known for their narrative subtlety, the worst happens about ninety seconds later as the newscaster alerts you to nuclear bombs dropping on New York and Pennsylvania, and it’s time for you to run up to the vault as mushroom clouds fill the sky. Once in the vault you discover another surprise: this vault isn’t a huge underground facility for multiple people to see out the war but a cryogenic storage facility. With very little warning, you’re put in a freezer and sent on a one-way trip into the future, in which your partner is killed and your son is kidnapped in front of you. 

Fallout 4 was released on 10 November 2015. It was actually the fifth game in the Fallout series, arriving five years after Fallout: New Vegas and seven after Bethesda revamped and rebooted the franchise with Fallout 3 (which I covered in a retrospective here). It was also Bethesda’s first game since their massive, all-conquering fantasy RPG Skyrim, one of the biggest and most meme-generating video games of all time. A lot was riding on Fallout 4 and, broadly speaking, it paid off. With more than 20 million sales, twice that of New Vegas or Fallout 3, it became the biggest-selling game in the Fallout series by far, introduced the series to millions of new fans and won generally positive reviews.

Five years later, the game’s long-term legacy is definitely a bit more mixed. Time has been less kind to it than Skyrim. Retrospectives on the game are few and far between, and most critical reviews these days cite it as a disappointment. Part of this is certainly down to choice: as recently as Skyrim’s release, there was a relative paucity of open-world roleplaying games, but in 2020 that is no longer the case. In the last decade, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series have effectively become open-world RPGs, Grand Theft Auto V has become the biggest-selling open world game in history and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has matched Skyrim’s sales and outdone it in terms of critical acclaim. The Witcher 3 was released six months ahead of Fallout 4 and was a point of comparison in many reviews. The Witcher 3’s much more advanced engine and graphics, superior quest design, deeply gripping narrative, side-quests which were frequently more compelling and surprising than most games’ main storylines and rich atmosphere all knocked Fallout 4 into a cocked hat, and couldn’t help but make Bethesda’s design paradigm and creaking engine feel a little tired in comparison. Railing on Fallout 4 has become ubiquitous ever since, and combined with the underwhelming performance of multiplayer spin-off Fallout 76, has made people wonder if Bethesda have lost their mojo, a question that remains resolutely unanswered because their proper follow-up, Starfield, hasn’t been released yet (and virtually nothing is known about it, save it is a far-future space opera and Bethesda’s first new IP in the better part of thirty years). 

But it’s also the case that Fallout 4 may have been knocked a bit too hard. In some respects, it’s the most interesting CRPG that Bethesda has ever created, offering the player unparalleled freedom and power to effect and change the game world. It never quite delivers on that promise, but it hints at a much bolder and more inventive way forwards for open-world games that absolutely no-one else has followed up on, at least so far.

Fallout 4 is a game of several parts. As with every Bethesda RPG since 1994’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena, it is an open-world game where you can go anywhere you want, explore almost every building you see, fight hostile monsters and raiders, join forces with friendly travellers and trade with passing merchants. That freedom and openness has been a hallmark of Bethesda’s design paradigm and Fallout 4 delivers on that with success, with the large map more densely packed with “points of interest” than any of their previous games. 

The second part is a central storyline, a hook that leads you through the main narrative with numerous twists and turns and, for the first time since 1997’s The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, numerous branching endpoints. At several key points you have to make choices about which characters and factions you are supporting, which can lead to radically varying endings. This hadn’t really been done before by Bethesda, and seems to have been very heavily influenced by Fallout: New Vegas, the 2010 game developed by Obsidian Entertainment using Bethesda’s engine. The storyline in Fallout 4 is generally considered to be “okay,” with a central hook (you have to find your kidnapped child) which is slightly in conflict with the traditional “chill out and do what you want in your own time” ethos of a Bethesda RPG. This wasn’t new, as Fallout 3 did the same thing with your supposedly urgent mission to find your missing father which you could put on hold to help defeat an army of giant fire ants or help out a guy who was turning into a tree, but the ludonarrative dissonance of Fallout 4 (the gap between the story and the actual player actions) was far more striking. 

Oh, I bet you will.

The third part is a battery of side-quests. These are missions that have nothing to do with the main story but consist of self-contained narrative subplots, occasionally several, as well as faction side-quests, where one or more of the game’s factions asks you to help them out in some fashion. Side-quests give you something to do with consequences without tying you into advancing the main story towards an ending. For the most part Fallout 4’s side-quests – which include investigating a Chinese submarine in Boston Harbor to helping the robot crew of the ancient ironclad USS Constitution get the vessel, er, seaworthy again – are amusing and entertaining, and a source of much of the game’s muted humour.

Fallout 4’s quests are numerous, which is good for giving you something to do, but they do make for an at-times over-busy game. There are three times as many quests as Fallout 3, not to mention a much greater density of buildings, locations and points of interest on the map. This means that one of the strengths of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the sometimes uncanny loneliness and sparseness of the landscape, contributing to the eerie atmosphere, is missing, which is a shame. But, as often has been used as a criticism of the series, it's been two centuries since the nuclear war and maybe it's way past time to see more concrete signs of civilisation rebuilding.

The fourth part is companion characters. Previous Bethesda games have had companions who could join you on your mission but, from Oblivion through Fallout 3 and Skyrim, they’ve been mostly pointless. They had some initial dialogue when you first join forces with them, and there might be a single quest associated with them, but otherwise they tagged along and were only really useful for serving as an extra inventory space. New Vegas took them to the next level, giving them unique dialogue for various quests and giving them more to do, including possibly turning on you if you do something that conflicts with their ethos. Fallout 4 builds further on this, with many more unique companion characters who have not just quests associated with them but entire quest lines. Taking a leaf out of BioWare’s book, you can romance several of the companions and they are much more present in the storyline, sometimes interrupting conversations with important NPCs if they have a perspective or knowledge that adds to the story. Eventually this material runs out – the game even tells you when you’ve “maxed out” your relationship with a character as a subtle way of hinting that they are no longer necessary and you can start again with a new character without missing anything important – but it’s fun whilst it lasts. You can also assign your myriad companion characters to a town or settlement of your choosing, where they can help defend the place.

The fifth and final part is the game’s unique feature, something that was sold as something of a killer app and which some players ignored completely and others got heavily into using: settlement building. For the first time in a Fallout or Bethesda game, you could construct new settlements, assembling multi-storey buildings, defences, food-growing gardens, water pumps and even entire underground vaults. As you built up these bases, you could attract people to live there, providing them with somewhere to sleep, eat and work. Settlements generate resources such as food and water. You can then recruit caravans, linking your villages, towns and vaults together through supply lines and trade routes. You can align these settlements with various in-game factions, resulting in their soldiers helping defend them. This can change the make-up of the map as you proceed through the game, with hostile, raider-filled wilderness being tamed by constant patrols of your allies moving between heavily-armed and protected strongpoints. 

Your authority, it is not recognised here.

It is, and it’s hard to undersell this, a brilliant idea. The Fallout franchise has been called post-apocalyptic but that’s not quite accurate. Traditionally, Fallout has been a post-post-apocalyptic series. It’s not really about surviving the war – the war was 210 years ago – but rebuilding in the aftermath, constructing new societies which will hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past. Fallout 3 had lowballed this a bit – using the logic that Washington D.C. had suffered huge damage in the war and fallout levels had taken a lot longer to fall away than in other parts of the country, so it was still early in the stages of rebuilding – but it was at the heart of New Vegas’s storyline, with the ultimate thematic choice being between siding with the well-intentioned but backwards-looking New California Republic, the chaotic and totalitarian Caesar’s Legion or taking control of the Wasteland yourself and forging your own path free from the restrictions of the past.

Fallout 4’s worldbuilding doesn’t quite stack up: Boston took only one nuclear hit during the war, some way to the south-west of the city itself, and most of the buildings and even some of the infrastructure is still intact two centuries later, so why hasn’t anyone got around to rebuilding before this? We do hear about the Commonwealth Minutemen trying to rebuild the region before you but failing due to poor equipment and opposition from Raiders and the isolationist Institute, but it does feel a little convenient that no-one was able to succeed before your character comes along. One possible explanation is that you’re the first person in Boston in decades to have a fully functional suit of power armour, allowing you to wipe out entire enemy encampments single-handed, which would be more convincing if it wasn’t possible to ditch the power armour early on and do everything without it.

As an idea, the settlement building is superb. For the first time in an open-world game, you can add to the landscape and tailor it to your design. You can found and build towns and bases, you can recruit allies and use them to defend people, and you can effectively start building up a new society. But, because Bethesda had cold feet about how popular the mechanic would be (especially the need to find and carry out vast quantities of junk to be recycled into buildings and decorations) and were considering removing it from the game altogether just months before release, they never fully committed to it. Settlement building is optional and, because of that, the game is reluctant to integrate it into the core narrative. Raiders and Super Mutants continue to hurl themselves recklessly against outposts even if you have surrounded them with thick concrete walls with a battery of laser cannons and missile launchers covering every feasible line of approach. No-one really mentions your rebuilding efforts save in the most generic way possible. In some cases, the presence of heavily-armed settlements unexpected by the AI can disrupt the logic flow in quests and break them.

In addition, you end up with beautifully elaborate, cool settlements which you can…not do much with. You can take screenshots and post them on social media to impress people, or stream videos showing how cool they are, but you can’t share them with other people for gameplay purposes. The interaction of the settlement building with a multiplayer element would have been cool, but the multiplayer-only successor game, Fallout 76, doesn’t allow you to build settlements or outposts on anything like the scale of Fallout 4. In addition, by the time you finally accumulate the skills, perks and resources needed to really build elaborate bases, you’ve probably finished the main narrative and side-quests and there isn’t much left to do in the game world. With a slightly smaller map than Skyrim’s and fewer locations to visit, there’s simply nothing to keep you hanging around as in the older game, even with this new feature.

Fallout 4 can’t help but feel disappointing in some respects. The game attempts to give you a personal stake in the story, but this ends up feeling contrived and unrealistic: why am I pretending to be a mock-1930s comic book character when my baby son is being held prisoner by forces unknown? The writing is better than any previous Bethesda game, but still often feels stiff and unconvincing, especially compared to Obsidian’s work on New Vegas. It has a busier, denser map with way more things to do, which is fun but takes away from the post-apocalyptic bleakness that was arguably the best thing Fallout 3 accomplished. Graphically it’s a huge improvement over its predecessors, but definitely is looking older and more dated than any of its contemporaries. It has far more interesting companion characters with more motivations and backstories (although none of them can hold a candle to noir throwback synth detective Nick Valentine), but they very quickly peter out and encourage you to switch to a new companion instead.

But the game does good things as well. Combat is vastly improved from Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Power armour feels chunky, empowering and genuinely impressive for the first time. Inon Zur’s soundtrack is easily the best musical score ever created for a Fallout game. The four-way faction interaction is complex (perhaps a bit too complex at times, but a huge improvement on Fallout 3’s near-lack of faction interaction at all), leading to more interesting divided loyalties and a murkier morality than Fallout 3’s much more obvious story of black and white hats.

For the game’s most interesting feature, the settlement building mechanic is excellent, well-implemented and a lot of fun. But Bethesda’s refusal to fully commit to even having it in the game until way too late for the rest of the game to reflect it means it feels undersold, more of an optional add-on than an integral part of the game. It leaves a huge amount of possibilities on the table. The idea of changing the game map and world to suit your character and chosen faction is a fantastic one, with huge potential for changing the whole approach to open-world gaming, something Bethesda have needed to do for some time. But as a feature it’s left underdeveloped and feeling cosmetic. Hopefully in Starfield, The Elder Scrolls VI and the inevitable Fallout 5, Bethesda find a way of developing the concept further and fulfilling more of that promise.

As it stands Fallout 4 feels a little hard done-by. In many respects it’s a more fun and enjoyable game than Skyrim, and certainly a game that gives even more freedom and power to the player. It’s true that it doesn’t really live up to its potential, but for a few dozen hours it can be fun to wander through the Boston Commonwealth, set the world to rights and build your own vision of the post-post apocalypse. Maybe Fallout 4 would feel stronger if it didn’t have the greater narrative complexity and weirder atmosphere of the Mojave Wasteland looming over its shoulder, but that’s a tale for another time.

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