Sunday, 16 February 2020

BALDUR'S GATE III to be released in 2020?

Larian Studios are currently developing Baldur's Gate III, a follow-up to the classic CRPG, Dungeons & Dragons duology from BioWare and Black Isle Studios. Thank to a leak, it looks like the game is aiming for a (probably late) 2020 release date.

The leak came from Google's online gaming service Stadia, which listed the game as one of several titles due for release on the platform in 2020. Although Stadia have withdrawn the announcement, the Internet of course never forgets.

Larian Studios have previously confirmed that there will be a big announcement related to the game on 27 February, which many have taken as likely when a release date will be announced, possibly along with a new trailer and more information on gameplay.

Relatively little is known about the game so far, except that it is a follow-up to the previous games in the series: Baldur's Gate (1998), Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) and Throne of Bhaal (2001). The game will not directly follow up the storyline of those games, instead beginning a new story in the city of Baldur's Gate some 120 years after the events of the previous titles. The game will be party-based and will utilise the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules. It is presumed, but not confirmed, that the game will use the same engine which drove Larian's own original RPGs, Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin II, and will be viewed from overhead. Other details, such as whether it will have real-time combat like the original games or turn-based like the Divinity series, remain unknown as this time.

Halo: Reach

AD 2552. The Covenant - an alliance of alien races bound together under a fanatical religion - have launched an attack on Reach, one of the largest colonies in the United Nations Space Command. Noble Team, a special operations unit composed of specially-trained soldiers known as Spartans, are deployed to halt the Covenant gaining vital intel on alien ruins that predate both their species and humanity, and to try to prevent the fall of Reach until reinforcements arrive.

Halo: Reach was originally released in 2010 and serves as a prequel to the other games in the Halo series, taking place immediately prior to the events of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. For its PC debut, as part of the Master Chief Collection (which will eventually see the entire Halo series released on PC, mostly for the first time apart from old ports of the first two games), Reach has been spruced up with more modern graphics but in terms of mission design and plot it's been left alone.

Approaching Reach fresh, it feels like a curious halfway house between real old-skool FPS games (the 1990s era, arguably running from Wolfenstein through Half-Life 2) and later, crushingly linear console-driven FPS games like the later Call of Duty games. Each level is somewhat open, allowing you to determine how to approach each objective as you see fit, but as the game was built to fit into the hugely restrictive memory of the X-Box 360, so these areas are not particularly large. This means you have the freedom on how to advance and engage the enemy, but this freedom means generally moving across spaces generously twice the size of a football pitch at time linked by lots of corridor shooting designed to hide loading screens, all of which is pretty defunct on modern PCs which could hold the entire game in active memory if necessary. The restrictive weapons loadout of the series is still in place here, meaning you can only carry two weapons at a time and have to switch weapons frequently due to somewhat bafflingly limited ammo capacity.

This mixing-and-matching of weapons on the fly is fun, although somewhat half-hearted; several times per mission you are given a generous opportunity to stop and rearm yourself as you see fit, meaning the "desperate battle against the odds, surviving with whatever weapons you can scavenge" angle never really kicks in. Halo: Reach pulls its punches in delivering a more compelling FPS experience than the standard.

In terms of story, the game is pretty straightforward although not massively driven by exposition. The game seems to assume familiarity at all times with the previous Halo titles (and even the spin-off novels; the book Halo: The Fall of Reach sets up a lot of the events of this game), which was fine when it was launched as a prequel but more of an issue in its remixed form as the first game in the series for modern gamers new to the franchise via the Master Chief Collection. Exactly who the Covenant are, what their objectives are and the significance of both Reach and the alien tech on the planet are all left extremely vague. Mission objectives rarely vary from the FPS standard: go here, shoot this enemy, push this button, watch this cutscene. Regarding the latter point, at least Reach is not obnoxious: cutscenes are usually brief, reasonably well-acted (although always cheesy) and don't outstay their welcome.

Although restricted in size and boiling down to being variations on the standard arena-corridor-warehouse-corridor-arena structure, the level design is usually decent and the game changes things up by introducing vehicle-only levels, including a fun and diverting side-level when it turns into a space combat sim. A later mission changes the game into a helicopter combat game which is also fun, but both side-games and the main mission suffer a little from being too easy; FPS games designed for controllers have to be a little more forgiving of reaction times and responses. When ported to mouse and keyboard, they can become trivial unless redesigned to accommodate the much faster action and responses allowed. Halo: Reach hasn't, exposing the less accomplished enemy AI. Enemy units are well-designed, but "tougher" units are too bullet-spongey, soaking up ridiculous amounts of ammo to hide an inability to make them more of a threat through AI or strategy.

Despite all of these problems, I had fun with Halo: Reach (***½). It's a junk food game which is enjoyable, easy, short (the game barely cracks six hours and can be easily finished off in one sitting) and easy to digest without doing anything really memorable. Its soundtrack is distinctly above average, the graphics are solid for a ten-year-old game (even if the overreliance on static backgrounds is a bit more obvious than it was on release), the controls are responsive and there's a plethora of fun multiplayer modes. However, it is still only a slight and diverting game.

The game is available now as part of The Master Chief Collection, and over the coming months should be joined by revamped versions of Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST and Halo 4 (and probably Halo 5: Guardians, but that's likely a bit further off).

Saturday, 15 February 2020

RED DWARF celebrates its 32nd anniversary

Red Dwarf, the greatest SF sitcom of all time, today celebrates its 32nd anniversary.

The series launched on BBC2 in the UK on 15 February 1988 and has run - somewhat intermittently - ever since. It has chalked up 12 seasons and 73 episodes in that time, a rather modest amount given its longevity, but fans have cited the show's slow rate of release as being helpful to its quality, with the writers and actors only reconvening when they feel they have some new stories to tell.

The premise of Red Dwarf is that the crew of the five-mile-long mining vessel Red Dwarf are wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. The sole survivors are Dave Lister, who had been sentenced to temporal stasis for smuggling an unquarantined cat onto the ship; the aforementioned cat, safely hiding in the cargo hold; and Holly, the ship's computer with an IQ of 6,000. Holly steers the ship out of the Solar system to avoid contamination and waits until the radiation clears...which takes three million years. Lister awakens to find himself probably the last human being alive. His companions are Holly, who has been driven slightly loopy through loneliness; a humanoid creature who is the last known survivor of a race which evolved from his cat; and a holographic recreation of Lister's pedantic and officious superior, Arnold Rimmer.

Over the course of the series, the premise remains constant but also evolves. Kryten, a service mechanoid, is rescued from a wrecked ship in Season 2 and joins the crew full-time in Season 3. In Season 7 the crew are joined by Kristine Kochanski, Lister's ex-girlfriend whom they rescue from a parallel universe (she disappears again by Season 9); whilst in Season 8 they temporarily resurrect the entire crew of the ship. The crew become more knowledgeable and skilled in space travel, but also make a number of powerful enemies, including genetically-engineered mutants and a race of killer androids.

The main reason for the show's longevity, aside from the charisma of the central cast, is that the show is a comedy which just happens to be set in an SF setting, rather than a comedy which takes the mickey out of science fiction (as all too many failed SF sitcoms do). In fact, the show has featured often cutting-edge SF ideas like nanobots, genetic engineering and black/white hole theory, sometimes taken fairly seriously (although often with amusing outcomes for the crew and the plot). The spin-off novels were particularly notable for being written just after the writers had absorbed A Brief History of Time, hence becoming the first SF novels to mix jokes about class warfare, curries and football alongside discussions of spaghettification and quantum singularities. The author of the latter, Stephen Hawking, was a huge fan of Red Dwarf.

Red Dwarf is due back on screens later this year with a 90-minute special which finally addresses arguably the show's biggest dangling plot thread, the fate of the rest of the humanoid cat species.

Here's to 32 years of adventures with the smegheads, and hopefully many more to come.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden & Seed of Evil

Several decades in the future. The world has been destroyed in an apocalyptic war and survivors are eking out an existence in the Zone, a nuclear and biogenetically-devastated wasteland in Scandinavia. Dux and Bormin are mutants, genetic freaks with the characteristics of humans combined with ducks and boars respectively. An innocent-enough mission, to gather fresh resources for their town, the Ark, spirals into a more epic quest which will lead them across the Zone in search of a missing ally, opposed by a crazed religious sect. Their mission will have unforeseen consequences for everyone living in the wasteland...

Mutant Year Zero is the latest iteration of the popular Swedish pen-and-paper Mutant and Mutant Chronicles roleplaying games, and Road to Eden and its expansion Seed of Evil are video games based on the pen-and-paper system. The game mixes elements of CRPGs, real-time action and exploration, and turn-based combat akin to the XCOM series. In practice the game comes across as a curious hybrid of Wasteland 2, Fallout, Freedom Force and XCOM and succeeds in unifying disparate influences into a compelling whole.

You start the game with only two characters - Dux and Bormin - but eventually recruit an additional four characters for a party of six, three of whom can be active at any one time. You can swap characters in and out of the party at any time (apart from mid-combat). Each character has a different set of mutations, effectively a series of powerful special abilities which can equalise the odds in combat. Each mutation has a cool down after use, usually requiring another 2-3 kills, before it can be used again, encouraging players to swap characters between battles to keep their abilities fresh. Equipment assignment is also essential..

The game has many of the trappings of an RPG, such as skill points and levels, but it's not really one. Instead your abilities are all focused purely on combat. There are no dialogue choices and the only thing you can do outside of combat and travelling is picking up scrap (the game's currency), weapon parts (used to upgrade weapons) and rare artifacts (used to upgrade all of your character's abilities at once). At any time you can retire to the Ark to upgrade equipment and buy new equipment, although this is surprisingly limited: you can't sell excess weapons or armour that is no longer needed, although you can break it down for weapon parts. Items are also extremely expensive, even at the end of the game, with rare-as-gold medkits being particularly tricky to acquire.

Combat is the game's primary focus and it works extremely well. At first glance the game resembles XCOM with you being able to carry out 2 actions per character turn, such as moving, firing, reloading, using a mutation or throwing a grenade. The emphasis of the game is on stealth. Enemy units will call for backup and shout warnings, whilst particularly large explosions or heavy weapons fire may bring enemies from significant distances away running to help. Limited hit points mean that you can't stay in a stand-up fight for too long, however. The game's stealth mechanic allows you instead engage enemies quietly using "silent" weapons (such as crossbows or pistols with silencers). As long as you kill them in one round, they won't raise the alarm. In some cases enemies have more hit points than the damage you can output in one round, presenting an interesting puzzle to overcome with your mutations. Some mutations allow you to knock enemies unconscious for a round, giving you more time to kill them, but more effective is working out how to trigger critical damage, such as by taking to higher ground or using mutations or equipment which bolster your critical chances.

Once you've worked out how to optimise your ability to kill enemies in one round, the game becomes a compelling puzzle experience as you sneak around enemy flanks, isolate and take down scouts and enemy patrols once they've moved away from the main enemy group, and even use mind-control mutations to set enemies against one another. Some of you characters can even fly for short bursts, allowing them to erupt out of cover and hover above an enemy before unleashing critical damage.

There are multiple enemy types who can be taken down in a variety of ways. Robotic enemies and medbots are easier to handle as they are vulnerable to EMP grenades and electrical weapons, but organic characters can present more of a challenge. Sometimes avoiding a dangerous group of enemies and coming back later at a higher level is the best way of proceeding.

As your characters grow more powerful and get more options for how to handle the enemies, the game grows far more enjoyable. Those first few hours can be a bit tough, though, and some players may check out from the game's somewhat unforgiving difficulty curve before things even out a bit more.

The story is reasonably interesting, although not the most original, but the characters are entertaining (especially Dux, the wise-cracking, death-dealing human/duck hybrid). It'd be nice if they had a bit more dialogue and in-game chatter - the existing barks get old reasonably fast - but they are certainly a memorable bunch. The world feels a little more generic - STALKER mashed with Wasteland - and the lack of dialogue choices means that it can feel a bit threadbare at times. It is beautifully presented, with very nice use of the Unreal Engine to generate rich landscapes. At 25 hours (about 19 hours for the base game, 6 for the expansion) the game is also long enough to be worth the investment without outstaying its welcome.

There are a few issues. Sometimes the game's interface can be a little counter-intuitive and a bit confusing, such as the inability to enter combat mode as well that makes some passive enemies (who won't react until attacked) impossible to kill. This doesn't stop you finishing the game, but it does prevent you 100% eliminating every enemy in the game. The fact you can't heal naturally at any point (say by returning to the Ark) is also a bit bizarre, forcing you to rely on very expensive or rare-to-find medkits in the wild.

Ultimately, though, Mutant Year Zero (****½) is an outstanding game with some of the best combat yet seen in the stealth-XCOM genre. It certainly put the underwhelming previous game in this field - Phantom Doctrine - to shame with a far more compelling central gameplay loop. The game's difficulty curve is "challenging" at the start, to say the least, but if you can overcome that or if you relish a game which refreshingly doesn't hold your hand and pull its punches, it ends up being an addictive experience. The game is available now on Steam, as well on X-Box One and PS4.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Wizards of the Coast hires ex-BioWare alums to found new video game studio

Wizards of the Coast and their parent company Hasbro have established a new video games studio, Archetype Entertainment. The have gone all in on recruiting former BioWare stalwarts to work at the studio, which will focus on single-player computer roleplaying games.

In the initial setup phase they recruited James Ohlen, the creative director and lead designer on Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter NightsDragon Age: Origins and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, along with Chad Robertson, the former BioWare Austin studio director (where he worked on The Old Republic and Anthem) and technology engineer at Mythic Entertainment.

The latest recruit is the highest-profile: Drew Karpyshyn is one of the best-known writers in the video game business, having worked on Baldur's Gate II and its expansion, Neverwinter Nights and its expansions, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Controversially, despite taking the narrative lead on the first two games in the trilogy, Karpyshyn was pulled from working on Mass Effect 3 to work on online game The Old Republic instead, something some fans have criticised given the badly-regarded direction Mass Effect 3 took at the end. Karpyshyn also worked on Anthem, but left BioWare during the process, citing a dislike of how corporate the company had become and its shifting focus away from single-player, character-focused RPGs to open-world and multiplayer designs, which he felt did not fit BioWare's history or focus.

The team at Archetype are, surprisingly, not working on any of Hasbro/WotC's existing IPs like Transformers, Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering. Instead, they are developing an all-new science fiction CRPG with a focus on choices and consequences.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

STAR WARS movies on hiatus (again)

Disney CEO Bob Iger has confirmed that the Star Wars movie series is going on ice for the time being.

If this sounds familiar, that might be because last April Lucasfilm confirmed that there would be a "long hiatus," before announcing just a month later that the movie series would resume in 2022 with a film helmed by former Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. In a shock move, they jumped ship in October in favour of a $100 million Netflix deal. Lucasfilm have since been flailing to find a replacement director, but despite entering into talks with Taika Waititi (Waititi has since said that such talks were exaggerated) and bringing in Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige to produce a film (possibly the same film) they have not managed to lock in a new deal, at least not in time to hit the late 2022 date.

The situation has been complicated by Last Jedi director Rian Johnson finding a huge level of success with his film Knives Out and a sequel has been fast-tracked. Johnson has previously agreed to helm a full Star Wars trilogy for Lucasfilm, but seems to have since cooled on the idea. If Johnson is moving forward with his Knives Out sequel (which isn't even written yet), that would make it harder for him work on a new Star Wars movie for 2022.

The news comes as Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker heads out of cinemas. The film drew in $1.060 billion during its run, which is a healthy amount but only half of what The Force Awakens made in 2015 and a quarter of a billion dollars less than The Last Jedi in 2017. The film barely made more than spin-off movie Rogue One (which took $1.056 billion in 2016). With the immense cost of making and marketing the movies, Disney made a reasonable $200 million profit, but this was still far short of expectations. Following hot on the heels of the bombing of Solo in 2018, the situation has left Hollywood feeling - for the first time since 1977 - that Star Wars movies are no longer sure-fire hits.

However, Iger has also confirmed that there will be a lot of new Star Wars material arriving on television, with a second season of The Mandalorian due to launch in November this year and spin-off series focusing on Rogue One's Rebel agent Cassian Andor and another on Obi-Wan Kenobi (despite setbacks) are in the works for 2021.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Sam Raimi in talks to join the MCU to helm DOCTOR STRANGE 2

Sam Raimi is in talks with Disney about joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Specifically, Raimi is being lined up to take over Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which is due to start shooting in May. Scott Derrickson, who directed the first film and was lined up to helm the sequel, recently dropped out, citing creative conflicts with Marvel.

Raimi, of course, directed all three of the Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire, which helped consolidate the modern superhero movie phenomenon and paved the way for the MCU. Raimi joining the MCU directly has been mooted before, but the general feeling was always that Raimi was too independent and too protective of his own vision for a project to ever work in such a collaborative environment; Raimi left the WarCraft movie project (eventually directed by Duncan Jones) after realising how much creative control he'd have to cede to other people, for example. These reports suggest that this issue may have been overcome.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will see Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) join forces with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to tackle a new threat to the Marvel universe. It is currently scheduled for release on 7 May 2021.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Dan Houser quits Rockstar Games

In highly surprising news, Rockstar Games co-founder and vice-president Dan Houser has stepped down after spending a year on leave. The news leaked ahead of an investor's call involving Rockstar and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive.

Dan and his brother Sam joined BMG Interactive in 1996 and were instrumental in signing up a game developed by Scottish developers DMA Design called Race 'n' Chase. The game was published in 1997 as Grand Theft Auto and became an instant hit. In 1998 BMG was absorbed by Take Two and the Housers moved to New York, where they founded Rockstar Games as a subsidiary. Rockstar absorbed DMA Design and rebranded it as part of the Rockstar family.

Dan took personal charge of the Grand Theft Auto franchise in 1999 by working on Grand Theft Auto 1969 as a producer/writer and Grand Theft Auto II as a writer. He was instrumental in the decision to go 3D on the franchise and took the lead as head writer and producer on Grand Theft Auto III. Released in 2001 on the PlayStation 2, GTA3 became one of the biggest success stories in gaming history. He subsequently worked as lead writer and producer on Vice City (2002), San Andreas (2004), Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) and Grand Theft Auto V/Grand Theft Auto Online (2013), the last of which is - by some metrics - the single most successful piece of entertainment media ever produced.

Houser also worked on many of Rockstar's other games, including Bully (2006), Red Dead Redemption (2010), L.A. Noire (2011) and Max Payne 3 (2012). His last credit was for Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018).

Houser was seen as an integral and vital part of the Rockstar company and ethos, in particular its focus on dialogue, characterisation and taking an increasing movie-like approach to production values and structure. At the start of almost every Rockstar project, Houser would go off by himself and write a several-hundred-page-long script which nailed down most of the game's story and focus before pre-production had barely begun. Although many other writers would expand on the initial script, Houser's initial work was seen as instrumental in setting up the project.

Houser's departure comes at a time when Rockstar are continuing to bathe in critical acclaim and commercial success from both Grand Theft Auto V (which is continuing to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a month seven years after release) and Red Dead Redemption 2. However, there has also been growing fan discontent over the non-appearance of promised single-player expansions for GTAV, a lack of news about GTAVI and the heavy monetisation focus of the Grand Theft Auto Online experience, leading some to wonder if Take Two are planning an online-only future for the GTA series which would make Houser's position less relevant.

So far Rockstar have not announced a successor, nor is it known what Houser's future plans are. His brother Sam remains in place as President of Rockstar Games.

RIP John Grant

Word has arrived today that Scottish science fiction and fantasy author John Grant has sadly passed away at the age of 70.

John Grant was a pen name for Paul Barnett, under which name he only published a short SF duology in the 1990s. As Grant he became one of the best-known critics in the SFF field, particularly through his work on the second and third editions of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, 2011-present) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996), on the latter of which he was credited as co-editor alongside John Clute and won a Hugo Award. He was also an influential columnist in SFX Magazine for many years.

In fiction, Grant was arguably best-known for his unsettling fantasy duology of Albion (1991) and The World (1992), which mixes a standard secondary world fantasy narrative with contemporary SF elements and existentialism. Earthdoom (1987), with occasional collaborator Dave Langford, was an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink disaster spoof which sees Earth threatened by the simultaneous arrivals of an antimatter asteroid, an alien invasion fleet, a rampaging Loch Ness Monster and an army of time-travelling clones of Adolf Hitler. The Dragons of Manhattan (2008) and Leaving Fortusa (2008) were concerned with climate change and the rise of conspiracy theorists, something Grant had earlier tackled in his first non-fiction book, a conspiracy theorist-decrying work called Sex Secrets of Ancient Atlantis (1985).

His other work includes the Legends of Lone Wolf and Strider Chronicles series and a Judge Dredd tie-in novel called The Hundredfold Problem, set on a Dyson Sphere. As well as penning works of and about science fiction and fantasy, Grant was also hugely knowledgeable about the field of film animation and has written extensively about Walt Disney and its characters.

A noted expert on the field of SFF and a skilled writer, his contributions to the genre were numerous and he will be missed.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Disney release trailers for new Marvel TV shows

Disney have released a trailer featuring the first footage shot for their first three Disney+ TV shows: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision and Loki.

The Falcon and Winter Soldier sees Avengers Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) teaming up with disgraced former SHIELD and CIA agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) to confront a new threat presented by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), follow in his success in dividing the Avengers (as seen in Captain America: Civil War).

WandaVision sees Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) recovering from the events of Infinity War and Endgame, where she saw her lover Vision (Paul Bettany) slain. Wanda's exponentially growing powers apparently see her creating her own world where Vision still lives. An adult Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who previously appeared as a child in Captain Marvel, will play a major role alongside Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) from the Thor movies and FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) from the Ant-Man movies. The film is both a stand-alone and will also set up the events of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (expected for release in 2021). The film is also expected to see Wanda claim the mantle of the Scarlet Witch, a title so far unmentioned in the film series.

Loki sees the return of the Asgardian supervillain of the same name (Tom Hiddleston). This version of the character was created from a new timeline in Avengers: Endgame and thus has not gone through the redemption arc seen in films such as Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War. The footage suggests that Loki has been imprisoned by the TVA (Time Variance Authority), an organisation that protects the integrity of the timeline and tries to limit the damage done by reckless time travel.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision will both air in late 2020, Loki is expected to air in early 2021.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Blogging Roundup: 1 December 2019 to 31 January 2020

The Wertzone
Early DUNE footage gets a positive reception

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

Friday, 31 January 2020

Early DUNE footage gets a positive reception

The first footage from Denis Villeneuve's Dune has been screened at a film festival in Paris and the reception has been largely positive.

The film only wrapped shooting a couple of months ago and the crew are now deep in post-production on the film, with elaborate effects sequences needing to be added. The footage seen in Paris was mostly missing effects footage and only had a temp score, but viewers drew a comparison between the material and the early screenings of Lord of the Rings material back in 2001. Attendees also got their first glimpse of the new Dune logo (not shown here as it's being taken down at a rate of knots).

Villeneuve's movie only adapts the first half of the first book, with a sequel dependent on the success of the film.

Dune will be released on 18 December this year.

Friday, 24 January 2020

New DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie script completed

The latest writers for the Dungeons & Dragons movie have confirmed that their script for the film is complete. Jonathan Goldstein and John Daley have worked together on several comedies (including Horrible Bosses and Game Night) but also co-wrote the well-received Spider-Man: Homecoming for Disney.

The current D&D movie project has had a torturous development period. The project was bogged down in a legal action with the previous holders of the film rights (who developed the terrible 2000 movie and its two direct-to-DVD sequels) for several years, and since then has gone through a succession of writers and directors. At one point Hasbro and Paramount firmly committed to a release date of 23 July 2021, but it's unclear if that's still the plan. If so, the film will have to get before cameras pretty quickly.

A previous draft of the film was set in the Forgotten Realms world and would involve Waterdeep, the Yawning Portal Inn and the vast dungeon of Undermountain, but it's unclear if the new draft still shares that setting.

Rumour: new STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC game in development

Fansite Cinelinx, which broke the news about the Star Wars Obi-Wan TV show last year, has reported that a new Knights of the Old Republic title is in development at Electronic Arts.

The original Knights of the Old Republic was developed by BioWare and released by Lucasfilm in 2003 and is fondly remembered as one of the greatest Star Wars video games of all time. Its sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the first game from Obsidian Entertainment, is almost as acclaimed but was released in a notoriously buggy state. In 2011 BioWare and Electronic Arts released The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer RPG which also served as a sequel-of-sorts to the earlier two games.

BioWare has apparently been keen to make a proper Knights of the Old Republic III for some years and discussed the project several times with parent company EA after they acquired the Star Wars licence. Reportedly some prototyping work was done in 2015 but was then put on ice whilst the company focused on Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem.

Cinelinx's report is interesting, as it suggests that the game currently being developed is a reboot of the Knights of the Old Republic game, part-remake and part-sequel, that would bring it into the new canon of the Disney era. The approach is similar to that of the recent God of War reboot game.

This news comes as Lucasfilm is apparently working on "Project Luminous," a multimedia "event" which will apparently encompass video games and comic books launching in 2021, with a design to feeding into the next set of live-action films. These will reportedly be set 400 years before the events of The Phantom Menace in an era called the "High Republic." These reports baffled some fans, who wondered if they'd dropped a zero and were in fact referring to the Old Republic era of 4,000 years earlier, the same time period as Knights of the Old Republic. Another possibility is that the Old Republic era is being retconned to taking place much more recently. This is given credence by reports in 2019 that the showrunner of Altered Carbon was writing a move script inspired by Knights of the Old Republic.

What is interesting is that there is no mention of BioWare being involved in the new project. BioWare are still actively developing Anthem after a less-than-stellar launch, are also developing a fourth Dragon Age game and reportedly are now in pre-production on a fifth Mass Effect game. Electronic Arts developing a new Old Republic game but giving it to another of their studios would seem unlikely and rather disrespectful to BioWare, but given the limited bandwidth at BioWare it would seem the only conclusion if this game is indeed to be released in the next two years or so.

More news as it develops.

BABYLON 5 to leave Amazon Prime next week

Babylon 5, one of the greatest SF shows of all time, is leaving its current streaming home on Amazon next week.

Babylon 5 has not had a regular streaming home, being bounced from service to service for several years. It landed on Amazon Prime in June 2018, but after eighteen months it will leave the service on 31 January. Where it will land next is unclear, but it's long-term home will likely be Warner Media's new streaming platform, HBO Max, which is due to launch in May this year.

If you haven't checked out Babylon 5 yet, it may be too late to do so unless you can cram 110 episodes into seven days. The show remains available on DVD.

Fan-favourite cast in THE WHEEL OF TIME TV series

The latest Wheel of Time casting news has confirmed that a fan-favourite character has been cast in the series, but with a change in gender.

Bela, the Lil' Sebastian of Randland, will be played in the show by Archie, a notably non-female horse. This particular slice of casting news has already sent shockwaves through the Wheel of Time fandom, with literally ones of people remarking on it (albeit mainly with "So?" and "Can you tell?"). Bela is probably the only character that the entire fanbase can agree is awesome, so the casting news will likely engender further almost-controversy in the coming weeks.

Obi-Wan Kenobi TV series on hold at Disney+

In surprising news, Lucasfilm have delayed production on its second Star Wars TV series. This series would see Ewan McGregor return as Obi-Wan Kenobi in a series set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

The series started out as a movie, but after the failure of Solo it was retooled as a TV series. Hossein Amini was slated to write with Deborah Chow directing. The show was gearing up for pre-production, with set construction and location scouting expected to begin imminently. However, the crew have been put on indefinite hold after Lucasfilm decided to request complete rewrites.

According to Collider, two out of six scripts had been fully written, but Lucasfilm were not happy with them. Reportedly there were concerns that the main premise, which would have seen Obi-Wan watching over a young Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, may have been a bit over-familiar given The Mandalorian's recent storyline about a lone warrior watching over an infant whose life might be in danger. There may also have been concerns about treading on the toes of the CG series Star Wars: Rebels, which used Obi-Wan on Tatooine for several storylines in its last season.

Reportedly the scripts are now being refocused with a new writer (Amini is reportedly out), potentially with an idea about Obi-Wan having to leave Tatooine and go off-world on a solo mission. There is plenty of scope for this in the lore (as the idea that Obi-Wan just hung out in a hut on Tatooine for twenty years always felt a bit unlikely). What is clear is that Lucasfilm are very keen to give McGregor a solid outing as Obi-Wan and are hoping to reschedule production to begin in the summer. There is also some talk of the episode order being reduced to four.

The news follows reports that the Disney+ series focusing on Rogue One's Cassian Andor was also being reworked, with Rogue One co-writer Tony Gilroy (who is also credited with saving the film through reshoots) coming on board to lend writing support and direct several episodes.

The news adds to the general sense of chaos and a loss of direction at Lucasfilm. Rise of the Skywalker is approaching the end of its theatrical run having failed to match Rogue One at the box office and falling a billion dollars short of The Force Awakens' performance just four years ago. The next stage of the movie saga is also in doubt after David Benioff and D.B. Weiss quit.

Meanwhile, in good news shooting is already well underway on Season 2 of The Mandalorian, which is expected to air at the end of the year.