Friday 28 February 2020

Ghostbusters: The Video Game

Thanksgiving, 1991. Two years have passed since the reformed Ghostbusters defeated Vigo the Carpathian. Now licensed contractors under the authority of the city of New York's environmental agency, the Ghostbusters are continuing their job of defeating supernatural dangers to the city. When their propensity for collateral damage resurfaces, they are put under the watchful eye of their old enemy, Walter Peck, at the same time a major new threat to the city arises.

The Ghostbusters franchise always feels like it's been a little under-exposed given the promise of the premise. Two live-action movies in the 1980s have been backed up by comics, but a lot of the more intelligent exploration of the franchise fell on the Real Ghostbusters animated series. One area that has definitely been unexplored is the potential for video games in this setting.

Released in 2009 and remastered and re-released in 2019, Ghostbusters: The Video Game tries to redress this. Set two years after Ghostbusters II and featuring almost the entire movie cast returning on vocal duties (yes, even the reluctant Bill Murray, albeit clearly phoning it in), with Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd on writing duties, this game is as close to a Ghostbusters III that is ever likely to exist.

This is a shame, then, because the game is not really great. It's not terrible and it's certainly always playable, but it feels like a pale shadow of what it should have been. The first problem is that the game feels cheap, even for a 2009 game designed for the X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3. The graphics are stodgy and the character designs and animation are stiff and unconvincing. The remastered version doesn't really help, adding more definition but not actually redesigning the character models so they still look pretty basic.

This doesn't matter too much as 90% of the game is spent exploring levels and in combat with ghosts and not looking at people's faces. These parts of the game are acceptable, although again a little basic. There is one route through each level and not much variety in approaches (apart from a couple of more arena-ish areas, usually reserved for boss battles). The combat itself is quite good, matching the setup of the film where you have to first weaken ghosts with the proton pack before sucking them into a trap. Tougher ghosts require new tactics or equipment to deal with them, with Egon doling out new weapons as the game progresses. You can also upgrade equipment using a skill tree system, but this is a fairly basic system and it's easy to max out the tree long before the game ends.

The game is also let down by the writing: the script feels weirdly off-kilter, probably a result of Aykroyd and Ramis writing it as a movie script and not as a video game script. The pacing is all over the place and there's long gaps between exposition where it's unclear what's going on until a character finally brings the player up to speed. It doesn't help that your protagonist - a rookie who's just joined the team - is silent and never gets involved in the story itself.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game (***) whiles away five or six hours well enough and is certainly not unplayable, but it's also lacking in dynamic action or laughs. Acceptable combat, adequate level design and one or two good set-pieces (like an early-game confrontation with Mr. Stay Puft) are let down by indifferent writing and disappointing graphics (even for the time it was released). One for Ghostbusters completionists only.

CBS All Access developing CAPTAIN PIKE TV series

In the least surprising news since it was revealed that water is wet, CBS is reportedly working on a Captain Pike TV series as its latest Star Trek project.

The report is unconfirmed, but is highly probable given the overwhelmingly positive reception to the portrayal of Captain Pike by actor Anson Mount on the second season of Star Trek: Discovery. Fans have asked for a Pike-focused TV series, even signing an online petition, but CBS are apparently still mulling the prospect over.

Widespread criticism of the decision to make Discovery a prequel to the other Star Trek series (despite being clearly far more advanced technically) has led to a soft reboot of the series for its upcoming third season, which sees the USS Discovery catapulted into the 32nd Century. A Captain Pike TV series would reinstate the whole prequel problem this move was designed to overcome. If they decide that issue can be written around, it's likely that they would proceed with at least a limited series featuring Captain Pike's further adventures as commanding officer of the USS Enterprise in the years before James T. Kirk took command.

CBS's preference would be to retain not just Anson Mount as Pike but also Ethan Peck as Spock and Rebecca Romijn Stamos as Number One, but are willing to entertain recasting those roles. They consider Mount as Pike to be non-negotiable at this stage.

More news as we get it.

Thursday 27 February 2020

Amazon releases first trailer for TALES FROM THE LOOP TV series, based on a roleplaying game

Amazon has released the first trailer for its Tales from the Loop TV series. Unusually, the TV series is based on a roleplaying game and concept art rather than a novel or comic series.

Tales from the Loop began life as a series of paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, published in 2015. This was fleshed out by Free League Entertainment into the Tales from the Loop roleplaying game, released in 2017. Tales from the Loop has attracted widespread acclaim for its focus, which sees the players creating very young and inexperienced characters (referred to as "Kids") who then deal with a mystery, which can be supernatural, alien or mundane in origin.

Although Tales from the Loop predates the release of the first season of Stranger Things, the similar atmosphere and set-up was seen as fortunate from a marketing perspective.

In the canonical Tales from the Loop universe, the source of the strange events is "The Loop," a particle accelerator-like device designed to unlock the secrets of the universe, with most of the kids coming from a town built above the device. The Amazon series looks like it will be using this setup for its storylines. The series stars Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Game of Thrones), Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation) and Rebecca Hall (Frost/Nixon, Iron Man 3) and will debut on 3 April on Amazon Prime Video worldwide.

Larian Studios unveils BALDUR'S GATE III

Larian Studios have lifted the lid on Baldur's Gate III, their sequel to the venerable RPG series by BioWare.

Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) are two of the most highly-regarded CRPG video games of all time. Set in the Dungeons and Dragons world of the Forgotten Realms, they told the epic story of a young hero (you, with you choosing your character's race, profession and gender) who discovers they have a hidden past and a terrible destiny awaiting them, unless they can overcome it. The two games and assorted expansions and spin-offs (such as the console-focused Dark Alliance action series) sold very well and are held in high critical regard to this day. Beamdog Studios recently released remastered versions of the two games, complete with their add-ons, and even created a new interquel linking the two games, Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (2016).

Larian Studio's official sequel has almost nothing to do with the original games in terms of plot or immediate consequences, being set some 120 years later. Instead, it shares a location, the great city of Baldur's Gate near the Sword Coast of Faerun. A new threat has risen, in the form of mind flayers, and a new band of heroes must join forces to disrupt the threat. Along the way they get involved in a huge number of side-missions and objectives.

Borrowing heavily from Larian's previous, original CRPGs, Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin II, Baldur's Gate III retains the top-down, isometric view of the original games but is now in full 3D and with a fully operational physics engine (allowing you to use your environment to destroy enemies or even just pushing opponents off ledges). As with the prior games, you can choose your character's race, gender and appearance but are also accompanied by a large number of companion characters, three of whom can join you at any one time (everyone else "waits at camp" as is traditional). The game will be notable as the first video game to implement the 5th Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules set, which considering those rules are almost five years old is quite surprising.

The biggest change from the original games, apart from the vastly superior graphics of course, is that the game now features turn-based combat rather than in real-time (but with the ability to pause the game and issue new orders). Exploration and dialogue takes place in real-time with dialogue choices to be made, but when combat begins the game switches to an XCOM-esque interface with players and enemies taking turns. It is also possible to manually initiate turn-based mode for using stealth to sneak past enemies without engaging in combat at all.

The changes to combat will likely prove controversial - although turn-based combat has seen a surge in popularity recently, it's still seen as less commercially successful than real-time - but otherwise Larian seem to be on the right track here with a game that honours the spirit of the originals whilst also doing some new and interesting things.

At the moment, Baldur's Gate III is planned for release on PC and Google Stadia before the end of 2020, with an Early Access testing period beginning in the summer. Console versions have not been announced, but I would put strong money on them following later (as with Larian's previous games).

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Bob Iger steps down as Disney CEO

The CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger, has stepped down after fifteen years in the role. He will continue in the role of executive chairman until the end of 2021 as part of a transition period.

Bob Iger (right) with Star Wars creator George Lucas.

Iger, often described as the "most powerful man in Hollywood," became Disney CEO in 2005 and spearheaded the most startling expansion of the company in its history. Iger led the way in the acquisition of Pixar in 2006; Marvel in 2009; Lucasfilm in 2012; and 21st Century Fox in 2019. He also encouraged a renaissance in both Disney's parks division (which expanded significantly under his tenure) and also in Disney's own animation studio, the original core of the business.

These deals combined many of the most popular franchises in film and television history under the Disney banner. Iger was also instrumental in the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, granting MCU head producer Kevin Feige the power he needed to execute his vision as he saw fit with a minimum of interference from above.

Iger's period in charge of Disney has seen unprecedented financial and critical success, with very few stumbling blocks (apart from the somewhat variable performance of the Star Wars franchise in recent years, although it has remained broadly profitable). In particular, his leadership has been praised for steering the company through massive transitions in the home media market, the introduction of streaming and an increasingly uncertain future for film. He's also shown shrewd judgement in what brands and franchises fit the Disney banner and which do not; he famously turned down an opportunity to buy Twitter when he realised the platform's more negative aspects would be had to reconcile with the Disney brand. He recently led the way in launching Disney+, the company's new streaming service, which has already racked up 30 million subscribers (roughly a quarter of Netflix's numbers) in less than three months and with the service still to roll out in many overseas markets.

Iger will be succeeded by Bob Chapek, who currently runs the company's parks and products division.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

New MALAZAN novel confirmed for this year

Transworld have confirmed that the next Malazan book to be published will be Ian Cameron Esslemont's The Jhistal, which is due in November 2020.

Artwork by Marc Simonetti

The Jhistal will be the fourth volume in the Path to Ascendancy series (despite early speculation it would be a continuation of the six-volume Malazan Empire series) and is presumed to focus on the Malazan Empire's expansion to the islands of Falar.

Steven Erikson's next Malazan novel, The God is Not Willing, the first book in the Witness Trilogy, is almost complete, with Erikson noting this week he'd reached the final chapter in the book. The book is currently scheduled for release in November 2021, but it is unclear if Tor and Transworld would be willing to bring forward the release date if it is indeed completed imminently.

Lucasfilm announce new STAR WARS multimedia project, THE HIGH REPUBLIC

After months of speculation, Lucasfilm have announced their new multimedia Star Wars project, The High Republic. Set in a period of time concluding some 200 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, this project is set in the "Golden Age" of the Old Republic and the Jedi Order, which is once again threatened by an unknown enemy.

This period is meant to emphasis exploration and feature a somewhat more frontier feel, with stories beginning on Coruscant but extending into the Outer Rim, at this point a relatively new area of space to explore and settle.

The project will incorporate a series of novels and comic books beginning later in 2020. According to rumour, the 2022 movie that was in development with Dan Weiss and David Benioff was also supposed to take place in this period, but following their departure and a mixed reception to The Rise of Skywalker, Lucasfilm has put all the films on hold. Whether the project will remounted with a new director, delayed, abandoned altogether or moved to television remains unclear at present.

Fan reaction to the news seems somewhat mixed, with more than a few asking the obvious question of why Lucasfilm are not rebooting the classic Old Republic setting of many previous video games and comics, since the descriptions of the setting and what they want to do with it are almost identical.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Netflix release first trailer for TRANSFORMERS: WAR FOR CYBERTRON

Netflix have released the first trailer for their collaboration with Hasbro on the Transformers franchise. War for Cybertron is a fresh take on the venerable property (which turns 36 this year), although it draws on the 2010 video game of the same name for inspiration.

War for Cybertron will consist of three arcs, united by the quest for a mcguffin known as the Allspark. It is unclear if these will be distinct seasons, or several seasons will be grouped to form one arc. The first arc, Siege, takes place on Cybertron and chronicles the beginning of the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. The storyline seems to follow the initial Decepticon attack and the determination of Autobot leader Optimus Prime to win the war, despite the advice of his own lieutenants to consider abandoning the conflict once it becomes clear that Cybertron itself is in danger.

The second arc, Earthrise, is in the planning stages and will see the war move from Cybertron to Earth.

The series is being produced by Rooster Teeth for Netflix and the first season will air later in 2020.

Friday 21 February 2020

Yet another STAR WARS video game cancelled

The Star Wars franchise is in a really weird place right now. The movies are on hiatus (again), but the franchise is taking off on television. The pen-and-paper roleplaying game from Fantasy Flight has been canned despite good sales, but the current books and comics seem to be doing okay. Most puzzling has been the way that Electronic Arts has mishandled the video games licence since acquiring it seven years ago, with the news that an open-world spin-off from the Star Wars: Battlefront series has now been cancelled as well.

In May 2013, Electronic Arts announced that it had joined forces with Lucasfilm to develop a new generation of Star Wars video games. Previous games had been developed either by LucasArts (Lucasfilm's video games division) or in partnership between LucasArts and a host of talented third-party studios, including Totally Games, BioWare, Obsidian Entertainment, Pandemic Studios and Raven Software. These had included well-received titles including TIE Fighter, Knights of the Old Republic, Dark Forces, Jedi Academy and Republic Commando.

EA had worked closely with Lucasfilm and LucasArts on The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer game developed by EA's subsidiary BioWare and released in 2011. EA confidently believed their roster of talented subsidiary studios could release a plethora of high-quality Star Wars video games over the succeeding years. At first EA considered continuing the two Star Wars games in development at Lucasfilm, namely First Assault and 1313. The former was an online multiplayer shooter, whilst the latter was a story-focused action game set in Coruscant's criminal underworld. The former was feature-complete and beta-ready, whilst 1313 was starting to come together in a satisfying manner after several years of false starts.

Ultimately EA decided to bin both games and set their own studios to work. BioWare would continue to work on developing The Old Republic, with an eye to developing a new single-player game further down the line, possibly Knights of the Old Republic III. However, that idea never made it very far as BioWare's next several projects (Dragon Age: InquisitionMass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem) all hit hugely troubled development periods themselves.

Next up was Visceral Games, where a story-focused Star Wars heist game entered development under Uncharted producer Amy Hennig. Simultaneously, Respawn Entertainment was set to work on a story-focused Star Wars shooter/action game and DICE was to work on resurrecting the classic Star Wars Battlefront multiplayer series.

Visceral and Respawn developed their projects in tandem until late 2017, when Visceral was shut down and its Star Wars game abruptly cancelled. The assets from the game were moved to EA Vancouver to develop a brand new "open world" Star Wars game, possibly a reaction to the success of open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher III and Grand Theft Auto V. What exactly a Star Wars "open world" game would look like was rather unclear, but it sounds like it would have involved bounty hunters and space travel between several regions on several different planets. This new game was cancelled in turn in late 2018.

Respawn's project pivoted away from being a straight shooter to being a more general action game, which may have been the reason for Visceral's game being dropped (the two projects sounded more distinct at the start but then became more similar). Respawn's buy-out deal with EA was apparently very generous towards Respawn and granted the company a degree of self-autonomy which EA's other subsidiaries do not enjoy, explaining why the company got priority in this race. Respawn eventually released their game, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order last autumn to reasonably strong reviews.

EA Vancouver meanwhile set to work on a derivation of the Star Wars Battlefront series, potentially an open-world title which would have used the engine and systems of Battlefront but with a different focus, potentially similar to the relationship between the multiplayer Battlefield games and the single-player/coop-focused Bad Company and Hardline side-games. However, EA wanted the project for the release of the next-gen consoles in late 2020. When it became clear the game would miss that window, they cancelled it last year.

The result is that after seven years, five studios and untold hundreds of millions of dollars, precisely three games have actually been released: Battlefront (2015), Battlefront II (2017) and Fallen Order (2019). Avoiding total embarrassment, these games have sold very well: the Battlefront games have totalled over 24 million sales and Fallen Order has sold over 8 million copies in just two months on sale. But questions need to be asked about why so many promising games from talented developers have been canned and wrecked along the way.

Particularly interesting is the news that a Knights of the Old Republic reboot is in development at EA (but not with BioWare), along with a Fallen Order sequel at Respawn. The future roster of video games beyond that is doubtful at the moment, especially given that the EA deal reportedly expires in 2023, meaning that any game that started development right now is unlikely to be released before it expires.

Eli Roth and CHERNOBYL writer team up on BORDERLANDS film

Eli Roth, the director of films including Hostel, Cabin Fever and The House with a Clock in its Walls, is developing a film based on the Borderlands video game franchise from Gearbox Studios. Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin has written the latest draft of the script.

Borderlands is a science fiction first-person shooter series, noted for its offbeat humour and focus on co-operative team gameplay. The series so far consists of Borderlands (2009), Borderlands 2 (2012), Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014), Tales from the Borderlands (2014-15) and Borderlands 3 (2019). The series has sold 58 million copies to date, making it one of the biggest-selling video game series of the last decade.

The news has come in the wake of a change of fortunes for video game adaptations. Previously seen as a doomed endeavour, several recent video game-to-movie adaptations have enjoyed greater success than any previous attempts, including Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, whilst the Castlevania TV series on Netflix has enjoyed significant success.

The current plan is to fast-track Borderlands to start shooting later this year for a possible late 2021/early 2022 release date.

STAR TREK: PICARD proves a big hit for CBS All-Access

ViacomCBS - the newly-assimilated parent company of CBS - has confirmed that Star Trek: Picard has been a major hit for their streaming service, CBS All Access.

Building on the success of Star Trek: Discovery, which drove several million sign-ups to the service when it launched in 2017, Picard increased the sign-up rate even further.

CBS also confirmed it is continuing to develop the two new Star Trek series it has in pre-production - Section 31 and Lower Decks - and is developing two further projects. It is believed these projects include another animated series aimed at a more adult audience as well as a potential live-action TV series centred on Anson Mount's popular version of Captain Pike.

ViacomCBS is also developing a new Star Trek movie via its subsidiary Paramount Pictures. This film is believed to be the project headed by Noah Hawley and may involve an all-new cast of characters.

Star Trek: Picard runs until 27 March on CBS All Access in the United States and Amazon Prime in most overseas territories. Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery, with a major format shift propelling it into the far future, is expected to start airing in the summer. Section 31 and a second season of Picard are expected to start shooting in the coming weeks.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

London in the late 1970s. Punk rock has taken the UK by storm and Enn and his friends are fully immersed in the scene. They attend an arty party in the hope of picking up girls, only to find themselves in the middle of an alien incursion on Earth, and out of their depth.

What if aliens invaded Earth in the 1970s but were resisted by a group of punk rockers? This is the amusing premise which drives John Cameron Mitchell's 2018 musical comedy-drama, adapted from Neil Gaiman's very short story of the same name (published in 2006). Gaiman's story is only 18 pages long so the film takes the premise and expands it out over a much longer running time.

The film is centred on two characters, would-be punk musician Enn (Alex Sharp) and alien Zann (Elle Fanning), who finds the aliens' strict culture to be suffocating and runs off to explore human culture via a romance with Enn. The aliens are unimpressed and, led by Wain (Matt Lucas) and Stella (Ruth Wilson), they attempt to reintegrate their wayward child, leading to a fierce showdown between the two factions.

The movie is fun, playing on the bizarre culture of the aliens and the interspecies for romance for laughs, but it is not an outright comedy. It also plays into the idea of doomed teenage romance, parental expectations and the merits of freedom of the individual versus the good of the larger society. In this senses the film does fall into traditional punk cliches - the anarchic freedom of punk versus the stifling conformity of the aliens - but it handles them with enough wit and charm to be enjoyable.

The cast is excellent, including a superb turn by Nicole Kidman as punk mentor Boadicea, and His Dark Materials fans can have some fun by seeing two incarnations of Ms. Coulter (Kidman from the 2007 movie and Ruth Wilson from the current TV show) interact. The young castmembers have clearly done their 1970s homework and nail the period and its attitude quite believably. There's some good musical trivia and at least one stand-out musical number ("Eat Me Alive").

On the negative side, the film feels like it's only superficially covering the themes and it does suffer from occasional tonal whiplash, moving from comedy to romance to darker horror moments in a rather inelegant fashion, and the ending is perhaps a little too neat. But ultimately How to Talk to Girls at Parties (***½) is fun, doesn't outstay its welcome and diverting.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Blackbird Interactive announce HARDSPACE: SHIPBREAKER

Blackbird Interactive have announced the second game they have in development, alongside Homeworld 3. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a game where you salvage old spaceships, cutting them into pieces to gain resources.

If the game sounds vaguely familiar, it appears to be because Blackbird have recycled the idea from their first-developed game, Hardware: Shipbreakers. That game was a real-time strategy where the player salvaged crashed starships strewn over the surface of a desert planet. The game eventually transformed into Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, which retained the shipbreaking idea as a minor side-plot.

Shipbreaker will pick up on the idea but from a first-person perspective, in an original universe. The game appears to be a survival sim not dissimilar to titles like Subnautica, but with a somewhat more cynical edge.

The game will be published by Focus Home Interactive and will be developed on Steam Easy Access before final release.

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 at will 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.