Thursday, 26 March 2020

RIP Stuart Gordon

Maverick theatre director and cult SF/F director Stuart Gordon has sadly passed away from multiple organ failure at the age of 72. He is best-known as the co-creator of the Re-Animator and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchises.


Gordon was born in Chicago and rose to fame on the city's theatre scene in the late 1960s, working in "shock performances." The Game Show (1968) featured audience members (actually plants) being attacked by performers and a political allegory version of Peter Pan (1968) saw him arrested for obscenity. The following year he created the Chicago Organic Theatre Company and performed numerous plays, including works by David Mamet. He created and wrote the play E/R Emergency Room which ran for many years and in 1985 was adapted as a TV series which lasted for just one season, but cast George Clooney and Mary McDonnell, who later appeared in the considerably more successful but very similar drama series ER.

In 1985 Gordon directed his first feature film, the cult science fiction/horror B-movie tribute Re-Animator, starring Jeffrey Combs. The movie was a surprise hit and later had two sequels, Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), although Gordon was not involved. Gordon returned to the franchise for Re-Animator: The Musical (2011), which had a successful run in Los Angeles and New York.

Gordon then directed the horror movies From Beyond (1986) and Dolls (1987) before writing the script for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). He was due to direct the film, but had a bout of illness and Joe Johnston was drafted in to replace him. He later produced the sequel, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

Gordon also wrote and directed the cult movie Robot Jox (1990) and the less well-received Space Truckers (1996). His other film directorial credits include The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), Fortress (1992), Castle Freak (1995), The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit  (1998) and King of the Ants (2003).

For television he also directed episodes of Bleacher Bums, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show, Masters of Horror and Fear Itself.

Gordon's work is noted for its dark sense of humour and move to provoke a strong audience reaction, whilst also retaining a solid emotional motivation for the characters. His work will live on, with a new Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movie in development with Rick Moranis slated to return to his starring role.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

THE MANDALORIAN adds Michael Biehn and Rosario Dawson for Season 2

The Mandalorian is adding some geek starpower to its second season.


Perennial 1980s legend Michael Biehn is joining the show as a bounty hunter. Biehn is best-known for playing the roles of Kyle Reese in The Terminator (1984) and Corporal Hicks in Aliens (1983), both directed by James Cameron. He has also appeared in films including Nave SEALS (1990), Tombstone (1993) and The Rock (1996).


In an also-exciting bit of casting news, Rosario Dawson (Kids, Sin City, the Netflix Marvelverse) is joining the show as former Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka was a regular character in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and a recurring one in Star Wars: Rebels, in both cases voiced by Ashley Eckstein. Dawson, a huge Star Wars fan, has expressed a long-standing interest in playing the character.

Season 2 of The Mandalorian completed principle photography several weeks ago, before the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown of filming projects worldwide. Work on the series has been continuing with the visual effects teams working remotely, although given the show's immense effects requirements it is unclear if it will be possible to complete the show in the same timeframe working just from home. Both The Walking Dead and Supernatural recently confirmed that it was impossible to complete the post-production requirements for their already-filmed episodes through remote working alone, putting both series on indefinite hiatus. Officially, Season 2 of The Mandalorian is set to air in October, but given the current situation delays may be possible.

Jim Butcher surprise-announces that two DRESDEN FILES novels will be published this year

In a swanky new trailer for the much-delayed sixteenth Dresden Files novel, Peace Talks, it was surprisingly confirmed that the seventeenth book in the series has also been completed and will be released this year as well. Jim Butcher's Battle Ground will be released in September, just two months after the release of Peace Talks.


The previous book in the series, Skin Game, was published in 2014. The six-year wait has been down to a variety of causes, including Butcher building a new house, a project was went horribly off-schedule. It does appear that Butcher is trying to make good on the delay though, releasing new books at an impressive clip and raising hopes that we'll see another book in 2021 as well.


Peace Talks will be released on 14 July 2020, with Battle Ground to follow on 29 September.

Monday, 23 March 2020

HALF-LIFE 3 (probably) confirmed

Well, it only took thirteen years, but it now appears likely that a proper sequel to Half-Life 2 and its expansions is finally on the way.


MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS FOR HALF-LIFE: ALYX FOLLOW

The news came in the closing moments of the latest game in the Half-Life series, Half-Life: Alyx. An "interquel" set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, the game was expected to be a VR showcase and a stand-alone story that would not impact on the future of the series. However, the game's ending is a huge surprise and ties directly into the cliffhanger ending that we were left on thirteen years ago in Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

The game follows Alyx as she gets wind of an artifact that the Combine has hidden in City 17's Quarantine Zone, an area where the flora and fauna of the alien border world of Xen has manifested on Earth. Early in the game it appears to be a weapon of mass destruction, but as the story progresses Alyx's supporting team, including her father Eli and "guy in the van" Russell, discover that it is in fact a prison constraining an individual in temporal stasis. Combine data files confirm that the individual escaped from the Black Mesa Research Facility and raised hell along the way. Eli concludes that the prisoner is none other than Gordon Freeman (the playable character in Half-LifeHalf-Life 2, and the latter's two expansions).

After numerous challenges, Alyx breaks into the prison and opens it, only to find it isn't Gordon at all but instead the mysterious G-Man, a familiar figure from previous games in the series. The G-Man tells Alyx that he is grateful for her intervention and offers her a reward, a "nudge" in time. She asks him to make it so the Combine never invaded Earth, but he refuses, saying that would be far more than a nudge. Instead he offers to change the future for her. He shows her the moment five years in the future that her father, Eli, is murdered by a Combine advisor in the closing seconds of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and offers her a chance to intervene. She does so, killing the advisor before it can kill her father. The G-Man then cautions Alyx that she is now his new operative, to replace Gordon Freeman whose performance is becoming "unsatisfactory." Like Gordon and Adrian Shephard (from Half-Life: Opposing Force) before her, Alyx is recruited into the G-Man's private group of operatives and seemingly removed from space/time.

There is then a flash of light and, post-credits sequence, the player resumes control of Gordon Freeman at the very end of Episode Two. A confused Gordon sees a now-alive Eli in front of him, the Combine Advisor dead in the background, and Alyx nowhere to be seen as Eli rants about this being the "unforeseen consequences" they were warned about previously. Eli vows to kill the G-Man - who can briefly be seen walking off in the distance - and throws Gordon's crowbar to him, telling him he has work to do.

The ending retcons that of Episode Two, in which Eli is killed and we end with Alyx weeping over her father's body. Writer Marc Laidlaw later revealed how he planned to resolve the cliffhanger in Episode Three, with Alyx and Gordon journeying to the Aperture Science vessel Borealis which was caught in multiple time frames and using it as a bomb to sever the link between the Combine homeworld (revealed to be an enormous Dyson Sphere) and Earth. At the last minute the G-Man would appear and rescue Alyx, but leave Gordon to his fate. Gordon would be saved and returned to Earth by the vortigaunts, with Alyx now missing and Gordon planning to find and rescue her, possibly going up against the G-Man directly.

It appears that Half-Life: Alyx has fulfilled some of the same story criteria whilst changing things around, so that Alyx's recruitment takes place at the end of Episode Two (presumably her memory of the intervening period was suppressed or eliminated) instead and Gordon's search for Alyx and a way of defeating the Combine once and for all will now simultaneously play out in a prospective Half-Life 3.

And does this mean Half-Life 3 is on the way? It appears so. Valve know their customers and wouldn't have an ending like this unless it was setup work for a future game in the series. It's also clear that Alyx was partially a way of updating their tech, engine and assets in preparation for an even more ambitious project, with the pre-release interviews for the game leaning heavily on the idea that more Half-Life content will be coming down the pipe (global pandemic notwithstanding, of course).

When Half-Life 3 might appear is another question, but fans may take heart from Alyx's unusually fast development time (the game was developed in about three years, surprisingly efficient for a modern AAA shooter). The real question is in which format it will appear. Half-Life: Alyx got away with being a VR game because of its status as a side-project. Making Half-Life 3 itself VR-only would be vastly more contentious and controversial, but if the sales for Alyx are good enough maybe Valve will be tempted to go down that route.

In the meantime, fans and theorists are going to have a field day working out what this all means for the slow-gestating franchise.

Black Mesa 1.0

For Gordon Freeman, it's just another day at work at the Black Mesa Research Facility. At least, until portals to another dimension open up, depositing hostile creatures into the facility and overloading its power systems. Equipped only with his Hazardous Environment Suit and a number of mundane and experimental weapons, Gordon must fight his way to the Lambda Complex, overcoming aliens and a secret US marine force sent in to restore order...and eliminate witnesses.


Black Mesa is a fan-made recreation of classic first-person shooter Half-Life (1998), made with the approval of original developers Valve Software. The game was previously released in 2012 (my review here) after eight years of development, but was missing the final chapters set in the mysterious alien world of Xen. After a further eight years of development, the Xen chapters have been added and the rest of the game overhauled and given a shine. It's now possible for players old and new to enjoy the full Half-Life experience from beginning to end.

The question is how the game holds up, and the answer is remarkably well. The Source Engine is getting on a bit and early chapters of the game do feel a lot more dated than they did eight years ago, especially character models. The outdoor areas also feel like they could do with a bit more of an overhaul, with lighting effects and distance views feeling distinctly under-par, although not too bad.


Luckily, for the most of the game you're fighting alien monsters in relatively tight confines, and then enemy soldiers in larger and more elaborate areas and for this the graphics are more than adequate. Half-Life's prize assets, in its sense of pacing, location and level design, remain intact and improved upon. Enemy AI also remains formidable, especially for the soldiers, and combat is still ferocious and fun without getting bogged down with modern frippery like cover systems and regenerating health. If you enjoyed Black Mesa's original release in 2012, you'll still enjoy the Black Mesa parts of this game and possibly even moreso. Some changes for the 1.0 release include slimming down several levels and making them shorter and leaner to improve the game's ferocious pacing, simplifying a few puzzles and generally making the experience tighter.

And then we get to Xen.


Xen has always been a millstone around Half-Life's neck. After fighting alien monsters in familiar surroundings (ordinary office rooms, industrial locations, warehouses), we take the fight to the alien homeworld, a collection of floating asteroids and moons linked by teleporters or long-range jumps. It worked okay in 1998 but some of the platforming jump puzzles were tedious and the unfamiliar visuals made finding the path forward a chore. The main thing in its favour was that it was short: from beginning to end Xen took maybe an hour to an hour and a half to get through, considerably less than the 10+ hours spent in Black Mesa itself.

Black Mesa's Xen has been radically overhauled. It looks graphically gorgeous, with constant, amazing vistas that look like they've jumped off a 1970s prog rock album cover. The soundtrack in this part of the game is also fantastic, with ethereal, haunting tunes. It's all very moody.


It's also now very long. Xen is more than twice as long as its 1998 incarnation and maybe closer to three times. The first half of Xen has been improved a lot with pacing and more focus on traversing larger environments through logical puzzles and ferocious combat, with a lot of the detailed platforming from the original release thrown out. There's even some new enemies, such as underwater barnacles that pull you down rather than up, and infant houndeyes which now explode rather than erupting sonic blasts at you. This part of the game is great fun, with a lot of thought that's clearly gone into how to make Xen better from a gameplay perspective whilst retaining its alien landscape and atmosphere. There's a few too many power cable puzzles in this part of the game, but nothing too outrageous.

Unfortunately, things get less impressive when the player encounters the Gonarch. The infamous pendulous mobile testicle monster was a horrific revelation in the original game, but a bit of a chore to fight. For some reason, the Gonarch boss fight has now been increased in length several times over, with Freeman playing cat-and-mouse with the creature through an underground cave network full of flaming gas traps and not-always-clear paths forward. Even worse, the Gonarch is completely indestructible until you finally corner it in its lair, but no information is relayed to the player to confirm this, meaning a lot of ammo is wasted before you can finally kill the damn thing.


The section after the Gonarch is then mind-numbingly tedious. The sumptuous vistas disappear and Freeman instead spends what feels like ages clambering through narrow pipes connecting power cables together and trying to find the path forward, which becomes progressively more laborious (especially when the path forward is sometimes just blindly hurling yourself onto a conveyor belt or standing on the edge of a bit of scenery that looks more like a bug than a clear path forward). The only good point in this section is a sequence where Freeman apparently (it's a bit unclear) frees the vortigaunts from slavery, which much better sets up the events of Half-Life 2.

Things rally at the last hurdle: the battle against the Nihilanth is much more involved, with Freeman ascending on a huge lift through different environments home to various aliens that he must fend off before proceeding. The ferocious combat in this section makes up for the final boss fight, which was perfunctory in the first game and, though better in Black Mesa, still a bit too straightforward.


The addition of Xen makes Black Mesa functionally complete, but it also feels like it could have done with a lot more polishing and cutting. The sequence is far too overlong and doesn't add much to the game. In fact, condensing the time between the Gonarch and the Nihilanth (which in the original game were much less than half an hour apart) back to the original and streamlining out some of the more tedious forcefield and power supply puzzles is all that's needed to bring the game to perfection. Crowbar Collective have promised a Black Mesa 1.5 at some point which will bring all the graphics up to a much higher quality and iron out the problems, and I hope they considering making big changes to Xen to make it more worthwhile. I do wonder if they rushed Black Mesa 1.0 out of the door to tie in with the release of Half-Life: Alyx (a VR interquel set between Half-Life 1 and 2), which is due in a few days.

As it stands, Black Mesa 1.0 (****½, falling to *** for the final section after the Gonarch fight) is the best modern way of experiencing Half-Life, with most of the game now a crisp, fast-paced, action-packed shooter which still stands head and toes above the competition. I played Halo: Reach, reportedly the best game in that series, a few weeks ago and Black Mesa is superior on every front, from enemy AI and weapons loadout to level design and pacing. The first part of the Xen section is also breathtakingly impressive and enjoyable to play. The second half is much more of a chore, and drags down the game's overall quality. This is something that hopefully will be fixed in forthcoming revisions. The game is available now via Steam.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

The TV shows that are still (hopefully) coming out in 2020-21

We've been focusing a lot on the TV shows that have been shut down and temporarily cancelled recently because of the coronavirus pandemic. The good news - albeit very relatively at this time - is that quite a few shows finished shooting before the pandemic took place and are still on track to come out later this year or early next, so we won't be completely bereft of new content during this time.


Red Dwarf
TV special, 9 April, Dave (UK)

Red Dwarf, the world's longest-running SF sitcom, is back with a special 90-minute TV movie on 9 April to air on Dave in the UK. The Promised Land pays off a storyline from Season 1 of the show (which aired way back in 1988), where it's revealed that the rest of the humanoid Cats who descended and evolved from Lister's pet feline have fled into space. The Promised Land reveals their fate, which unsurprisingly means more mayhem and craziness for the crew to overcome.


The Last Kingdom
Season 4, 26 April, Netflix (worldwide)

Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his motley crew of warriors and followers are back to help secure the young King Edward on his throne, as he seeks to carry on the work of his late father, Alfred the Great, in unifying the kingdoms of England. Based on Bernard Cornwell's novels The Pagan Lord (2013) and The Empty Throne (2014), this season carries Uhtred's saga into the 10th Century.


His Dark Materials
Season 2, October, BBC (UK), HBO (USA)

His Dark Materials started shooting its second season before the first even began airing on the BBC last year, and principle photography was completed in the New Year. That's great news with the bulk of the show in the can and ready to roll.

However, it has been reported that several pick-up scenes for the show were not yet in the bag with a view of getting them done later this year. How important these scenes are and how practical it would be to proceed without them is open to question. So whilst it's possible we'll see more His Dark Materials before the year is out, whether it will be complete is another question (and, of course, if the pick-up scenes are really vital and from early in the season, this may not be so doable).


The Expanse
Season 5, late 2020, Amazon Prime Video (worldwide)

Filming on Season 5 of The Expanse was well underway before Season 4 aired and wrapped on 21 February. The Expanse has fairly extensive post-production requirements - likely far more for Season 5 (which adapts the very busy novel Nemesis Games) than ever before - so it hitting its late 2020 date will be dependent on how much post can be done working remotely.


The Mandalorian
Season 2, October, Disney+ (worldwide)

Filming for the second season of The Mandalorian was completed on 8 March, just before projects started being shut down, so the tentative release date of October remains on the cards. However, The Mandalorian requires extensive post-production visual effects, so it hitting this date is based on the ability of the team at Lucasfilm to work effectively from home on post-production. In theory this date should be doable, but we'll see as the situation progresses. The Season 1 vfx requirements were extremely elaborate, requiring the use of state-of-the-art mocap facilities, and if these shots were not completed as part of the main shoot, we might potentially see delays.

Of course, it is vitally important that cast and crews of our favourite shows and everyone else stay safe at this time rather than worrying about entertainment, but at least a few of these series will be back on air in the coming months.

The Letter for the King

Tiuri is a young man training to be a knight to make his adopted father proud, but has little aptitude for the task. His holy vigil is interrupted by a messenger who has a vital letter that has to be delivered across the forbidding Great Mountains to the king of a neighbouring land. Framed for murder by those who are seeking to stop the letter, Tiuri has to amass a band of companions and undertake the most hazardous journey of his life.


The Letter for the King is a Netflix TV mini-series based loosely on the classic 1962 Dutch fantasy novel De brief voor de Koning by Tonke Dragt. Unlike a lot of recent TV fantasy fare - Game of Thrones, Netflix's own The Witcher - it is a relatively light series aimed at a family audience with a refreshing lack of decapitations, gore or other graphic content.

In terms of narrative, the story is nothing new but it is well-executed. The series has a pretty good cast of seasoned hands supporting the central cast of mostly newcomers, with David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings trilogy's Faramir) as Tiuri's adopted father, Omid Djalili as a minor villain and Andy Serkis as the mayor of a disreputable town.

The young cast is more of a mixed bag: Amir Wilson was excellent as Will in His Dark Materials but is a bit more of a mixed bag here. This isn't his issue as more one with the script: Tiuri is very passive and reactive to events, and becomes more interesting when he comes up with and executes a plan himself, which is quite rare. Most of the time the script calls on him to stand around and gawp at what's going on (including the infuriating "exchanging long looks with people in moments of danger instead of running away like a lunatic" trope), which doesn't stretch him much as an actor. Ruby Serkis (daughter of Andy) is more dynamic and has a stronger character arc as Lavinia, the headstrong daughter of the corrupt mayor who decides to hijack Tiuri's quest for her own purposes (a nice idea I'd like to see more of in fantasy). The rest of the central, proto-D&D band of heroes is fun, although they tend towards being more a collection of walking archetypes than fully-fleshed out characters.

The villains are more interesting because they are surprisingly well-fleshed-out, with some notable depth such as when the main bad guy's henchmen realise their boss wants to do something that might destroy the world and abruptly realising that they might not be down for that. There's also an interesting and offbeat mentor-student relationship between semi-villain Jaro (Peter Ferdinando) and Iona (Thaddea Graham), a member of the heroe's band, which develops intriguingly despite them being on opposite sides of the struggle (and could probably set-up a spin-off series if they wanted).

The real star of the show is Ardanwen, the massive black horse which Tiuri inherits along with his mission. A total ham and scene-stealer, Ardanwen is one of the best horse actors I've seen on TV, even if his tendency to save the day is slightly over-used as the series progresses.

The filming locations in New Zealand and the Czech Republic are stunning, the visual effects are restrained and effective and the soundtrack solid (if not revolutionary). The acting is sometimes more enthusiastic than nuanced and the script is kind of all over the place, but overall the show is fun and watchable. It scratches the itch left behind by family fantasy shows like Merlin whilst being a bit more watchable.

The first and presumably only season of The Letter for the King (***½) is available to watch on Netflix now.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Frostpunk

1888. The Earth is cooling. Some blame a natural dimming of the Sun, others massive volcanic eruptions at Tambora and Krakatoa. The British Empire has made an emergency fallback plan: building huge heat generators in remote locations where small bands of survivors can entrench themselves and wait out the winter. One band of refugees sets out from London and reaches a generator in the nick of time, with a bold captain elected to impose the measures required for survival...no matter the cost.


Frostpunk is a survival city-builder game from the Polish 11-Bit Studios. Their previous game, This War of Mine, was a critically-lauded survival game with the player controlling a band of civilians trying to survive in a city in the middle of an active warzone. Although hugely acclaimed, the game was also noted for being quite depressing.

Frostpunk is - relatively - a lighter game about survival, this time for an entire city full of people. Unlike most city builders, where resources accumulate and you can build more stuff, more quickly, Frostpunk constantly keeps the player on their toes with a constant stream of challenges and tasks to manage.

The main issue is keeping the generator running. If it shuts down, the city will be plunged into freezing cold and, even if you can get it back online, morale might take a terminal nosedive. You have to also balance resource-generation and gathering with keeping your citizens safe in their homes (which start as near-useless tents but can be upgraded to bunkhouses and then stand-alone cosy houses), whilst sending out exploration teams to secure resources in the surrounding region, rescuing more refugees and developing urgently-needed new technology, as well as providing medicine, employment and even entertainment.

You also have to make moral choices as the game progresses. Do you keep children safe at home or employ them as extra labourers? Do you turn away refugees who might be more of a burden than a help to your settlement? Should you employ a police force to keep order through discipline or set up a religious order to give the people hope...at the expense of being punished for heresy? Each dilemma has multiple outcomes and sometimes the most moral choice may also be the costliest in terms of lives and time. All the while, a clock is ticking in the background as a devastating ice storm approaches, which can only be survived if you have made all the right decisions and accumulated enough resources.

The game is, surprisingly for a city-builder, fast-paced and frantic. A single campaign of Frostpunk can be played out in four hours, although in practice you'll usually fail two or three times before finding a way to victory. This is a city-builder built on the same "learn from failing" ethos as games like FTL, Dark Souls and Into the Breach, a risky decision since some gamers will despise the idea and be put off. But the gameplay loop is so compelling, each decision and consequence laid out so clearly, that this never becomes a problem. When you fail, you'll almost immediately know why you failed and what you can do differently next time to succeed.

The game has a fair bit of content. The game ships with five different scenarios and two additional ones are available as DLC. Each scenario is more challenging than the one before, with The Arks focusing on building and developing automatons (steampunk robots, more than a bit reminiscent of HG Wells' Martian Tripods) and The Refugees telling a story of literal class warfare. The Fall of Winterhome puts you in charge of a city whose reactor has failed, plunging the city into chaos, with you as a newly-elected ruler having to restore order. The Last Autumn is a prequel, with you having to build a reactor from scratch before refugees arrive. Also present is "Endless Mode," a pure sandbox which removes some of the more punishing scenario limitations and lets you build cities as you see fit, with (wildly) varying difficulty levels.

The presentation of the game is top-notch, with clear graphics and extraordinarily good audio and music. The UI is stripped back and gives you the information you need without overburdening you. The tutorial could be better, as many concepts only really become explicable through trial and error, but early replays of the game are quite enjoyable so this is not really a major problem.

Frostpunk (****½) is fiendishly addictive, extraordinarily clever in design and slickly presented. It can get quite dark and sometimes overwhelming, and I'm not sure if it's the best choice of game to play right now (this review was written during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic), but for those who want a robust challenge, the game is highly recommended. It is available on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4 now.

Netflix launches new fantasy TV series tomorrow

Netflix launches its next epic fantasy project, The Letter for the King, tomorrow.


Based on the popular 1962 Dutch novel De brief voor de koning, by Tonke Dragt, the story follows a young man, Tiuri (Amir Wilson) aspiring to be a knight who breaks his vows to help a man in trouble. The mission, to deliver a letter to another knight, rapidly spirals out of control and soon the fate of the land lies in Tiuri's hands.

As well as Wilson (His Dark Materials), the series stars Gijs Blom, Ruby Ashbourne, Andy Serkis, David Wenham and Omid Djalili.

The six-episode series is aimed at a family audience, which should be refreshing after adult-oriented shows like Game of Thrones and The Witcher.

Netflix has a number of other fantasy projects in development, including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, a fresh take on The Chronicles of Narnia and a live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Development on these projects is expected to continue, although filming will probably not be able to start until the coronavirus pandemic has run its course.

Halt and Catch Fire: Season 4

1993. The Internet is just starting to take off. Gordon Clark and Joe MacMillan have formed an early Internet Service Provider, CalNect, to help people access the web but decide to sell it when much bigger companies muscle into the scene. Inspired by Gordon's daughter, Haley, they set up a new web directory service, Comet, which rapidly takes off to the chagrin of Gordon's now ex-wife Donna, whose competing service Rover struggles to compete. Cameron returns to the USA to work on a video game, but soon finds herself drawn back to Joe as all the characters get mixed up in the birth of the Internet Age.


Over the course of three previous seasons, Halt and Catch Fire explored the explosion of personal computing in the USA, the creation of the earliest online networks and the realisation of what a digital future could hold. In the fourth season the characters are, for once, ahead of the curve and predict the rise of the Internet, enjoying considerable success in the process before they are beaten back by the arrival of mega-players like AOL.

As with previous seasons, the show works because it doesn't posit that the characters made all the key discoveries of the period. Instead they are shown as being part of a wider tech movement, with success coming to those who navigate the rocks and shoals of the nascent worldwide web or, more frequently, are luckily in the right place at the right time.

The arc of the season - and arguably the whole series - is about connections, the literal computer connections that drive the businesses and also about the relationships the characters have forged with one another and how those relationships will proceed. Donna is cut off from the rest of the characters for most of the season and it's interesting to see how differently she behaves when removed from the company of those who really know her. Joe has gotten over his "monumental arsehole" schtick from Season 3 and is firmly on Gordon's side throughout the season, which is good to see. The time jump - Season 4 spans most of 1993 and 1994, picking up more than three years after the previous season ended - also allows Gordon and Donna's children to become more important characters, particularly Haley (a superb performance by Susanna Skaggs), and contribute much more to events whilst also discovering their own identities.

The season unfolds much as the first three have, with problems arising, the characters facing them down and then a late-season twist putting them on a different path. This time the twist is much more powerful and profound, and resets the board, allowing them to face the next challenge.

What that challenge is, we don't know because the fourth season of Halt and Catch Fire was deliberately designed as its last. It's not important what happens to the character next, only that we know they go on and keep succeeding and keep thriving whilst leading inextricably to the modern age. Halt and Catch Fire's position as the most underrated drama of the 2010s feel secured because it is a show that knows when to focus on the technical and business sides of the story and when to engage in the emotional side of the characters. It is gripping and rewarding.

The fourth and final season of Halt and Catch Fire (*****) may be the finest season of the entire series (although it's a close tie with Season 2) and is compelling, addictive television. The series is available to watch now on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA.

BrainDead: Season 1

America, 2016. Laurel Healy is a documentary film-maker whose latest project is on hold, forcing her to reluctantly take a job in Washington, DC, working for her senator brother, Luke. Laurel hates politics, despite being good at it, but soon discovers an unsettling truth: alien bugs from outer space have burrowed into the brains of senior politicians and are controlling them for their own sinister ends. Laurel has to help stop the bugs, save her brother's political career and negotiate her feelings for a guy from the other side of the aisle.


BrainDead - no relation to the Peter Jackson movie - was a one-season wonder which aired on CBS in the USA back in 2016. The series postulates that the reason American politics has become so politicised and insane in recent years is down to an invasion of alien parasites, which to be frank is as good an explanation as any. Combining black comedy, body horror and political intrigue, the series comes across as a mash-up of The West Wing (particularly the prevalence of walk-and-talk scenes), VEEP (except the bugs are more convincing political animals than just about anyone in that show) and Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.

The series stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel, who gives a game and just right performance which combines revulsion at what is going on with steely determination and a sense of humour. The supporting cast is capable, especially Tony Shalhoub (Monk) as "Red" Wheatus, who rapidly becomes Laurel's nemesis, and Johnny Ray Gill as Gustav, a paranoid conspiracy-theorist who has to cope with one of his theories turning out to be true.

Although Brain Dead was cancelled after its first season, the show fortunately wraps up all of its storylines so it can be enjoyed as a one-off, 13-episode show and on that basis it works quite well. The tonal variations from horror to comedy to more emotional scenes are fun and the show's signature innovations - comedy musical recaps of each episode (apart from one episode which was so traumatic the narrator gives up and recaps a 1960s Western instead) - are brilliantly enjoyable. This is one show where you'll happily watch the recap for the episode you just finished.

Negatives are that the show plays fast and loose with credibility. It's not always entirely clear why the bugs aren't proceeding more aggressively and, especially when they become aware of Laurel and her friends' opposition to them, they simply don't overwhelm them with weight of numbers. Then again, this is not a show begging to be analysed on a deep level. The other problem is that some may have issues with the show looking for excuses as to why American politics has become so crazed when the real explanations are more nuanced and much more debatable, but again this is a shlock horror comedy about exploding heads and space bugs and not really anything more.

It's also clear why the show was cancelled: this feels like an Amazon or Netflix original rather than a mainstream CBS show. Quirky, offbeat, weird and entertaining, it's certainly enjoyable but you can see why the show did not find a mass audience.

BrainDead (****) is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the USA and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

DUNE tabletop roleplaying game gets a name and release window

A new Dune tabletop roleplaying game is on its way from Modiphius Entertainment for release at the tail end of 2020 (although all bets are off because of the pandemic, but hopefully etc). Announced a year or so back, the game now has a logo and a title: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium.


The game will use Modiphius's 2d20 rule set (used in its Conan the Barbarian and Star Trek RPGs, among many others), and, as the title suggests, that the game will be predominantly set before the events of the original novel Dune, in the "classic" version of the setting with the feuding houses of the Landsraad pitted against one another in intrigue with the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Tleilaxu and Spacing Guild pulling the strings in the background.

The original plan seems to have been to coordinate the game's release with the Dune movie from director Denis Villeneuve, which is currently due out on 18 December (pending developments in the pandemic).

Red Dead Redemption 2

1899. The Van der Linde Gang are a group of thieves and outlaws bound together by a loose code of honour and loyalty to the gang's founder, the charismatic Dutch van der Linde. The Gang are forced to flee the town of Blackwater, West Elizabeth when a job goes badly wrong. Regrouping east of the Grizzly Mountains, they resolve to lay low, make some money and find a way to escaping to a better life. But Arthur Morgan, Dutch's most trusted lieutenant, worries that the age of the wild west is ending and there may be no way back to the life they once knew.


For twenty years, Rockstar Games have pursued their vision of creating the perfect game. To them, that game would take place in an open but reactive world affording the player immense freedom to go wherever they want and do whatever they want, with other characters reacting realistically, whilst there also being a rich, in-depth and gripping narrative to follow. The perfect Rockstar game would be a title that combines the freedom and responsiveness of the best roleplaying games with the best cinematic action that Hollywood has to offer and everything tied together with incredible production values.

Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't the perfect Rockstar game but that's not for want of trying. It's a game that is jaw-dropping in looks, ambition and its narrative and thematic goals, which looks at the weaknesses of previous Rockstar titles and tries to solve them whilst building on the areas where they have always been strong. Most tellingly, for a company that was always previously proud to set the agenda, the game has cleverly sampled the strong DNA of other open-world, epic titles like Skyrim and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, borrowing ideas and mechanics to strengthen its own identity.

As with almost every Rockstar game since Grand Theft Auto III (2001), Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in an expansive open world where you can travel at will (apart from a few locked-off areas which open up later on) and do what you want. Playing Arthur Morgan, a trusted lieutenant in the Van der Linde Gang, you can follow the game's main storyline, a sprawling and labyrinthine story of betrayal, murder, mayhem and camaraderie, or a titanic number of optional activities. These range from hunting and fishing to roaming the landscape looking for people in trouble to help (or rob), to truly oddball tasks like helping a palaeontologist find dinosaur bones and helping an odd stranger find mystical rock carvings.


Along the way, you meet a colossal number of characters and earn the enmity of dozens of enemies. The main story is - easily - Rockstar's best to date, severely restricting the satirical humour of the Grand Theft Auto series in favour of a more authentic tone. That's not to say that Red Dead Redemption 2 lacks humour, but a few outliers aside (like a storyline following a Nikolai Tesla lookalike's quest to harness lightning for a scientific project), it's a more grounded and genuine sense of humour rather than wacky hijinks. The story is rooted in characters, with Arthur able to interact with all of the other members of the twenty-strong Van der Linde Gang (including women and children). All of the characters are painted in at least something approaching depth, and its interesting to see how minor, almost background character features (like Mary-Beth's love of writing) come back later and develop over the course of the game. The game also features some of Rockstar's best female characters to date, such as the gunslinger and eventual bounty hunter Sadie Adler, an area where they have traditionally struggled in the past. Arthur himself is probably the most three-dimensional protagonist the studio have ever developed, with more richness and depth to him than all three of Grand Theft Auto V's playable characters combined.

The story muses on the theme of the dying West and the impact that has on the nascent American Dream. Dutch himself is a proto-libertarian, decrying government interference in the affairs of the little man, although he's also something of a hypocrite, ruling his gang with kindness and charisma until someone disagrees with him, when an uglier side emerges. Arthur is loyal to Dutch beyond a fault for looking out for him for twenty years, but as the game continues and the gang's fortunes vary, he begins to question his own path. In terms of theme and tone none of this is new to Rockstar, but they've never executed it with this much richness and panache before. You may be able to see almost every story beat coming before it does, but that doesn't stop it being immensely enjoyable to unfold.

The more serious tone helps, but also so does the tonal variation. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like it's trying to be every kind of Western ever made, from the gritty realism of Unforgiven to the sprawling, literary observations of Deadwood to the pulp fun of the spaghetti Western era, as well as (in an intriguing, mostly self-contained storyline) a possibly Waltons-influenced home-building story, and to its credit it pulls off most of these shifts in narrative quite well.


The world the game unfolds in is also astonishing. It's huge, incorporating five fictional American states based on Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and Mississippi, and its biomes range from midge-infested bayous to snow-capped mountains to verdant woodlands and dry, open deserts. The game walls off a full third or more of its extent until you've pretty much completed the entire main story and half of the "epilogue" section, which is by itself longer than most games in their entirety. You can explore this world on foot, on horseback or by steam train. Boats are available although, in a surprisingly cheap move from Rockstar, they tend to sink the second you think about heading beyond the map's borders, to the point where they're a liability to use. It feels like Rockstar could have taken a less artificial approach here in keeping players within the game world (especially since sinking more than a few yards from shore is a death sentence).

The world is also packed with detail, to a degree that borders on the insane. The game generates wild animals, from birds to rabbits to mongoose and crocodiles, around you based on the terrain and then has them emit their correct noises. Fire your gun and the forest goes silent because the game has told every animal in the vicinity to go silent or run away. The level of detail extends to the human characters, every single one of whom you can talk to (although most have little to say).

The favoured way of getting anywhere is by horse, and to Rockstar's credit they have gone to some lengths to make these more than just 19th Century motorbikes. You can bond with your horse by treating it well and looking after it, which leads to bonuses like being able to summon your horse to your side over great distances and use it to store your increasingly massive arsenal of weapons and equipment. As your bond increases, your horse becomes tougher and less likely to die, which is good because this is a major hassle.


Combat is one of the game's cornerstones, although it is perhaps somewhat less prevalent than in other Rockstar games. Combat is largely unchanged from Grand Theft Auto V, in that it is serviceable and more than a little easy, especially given the addition of a "Dead Eye" mode which slows down time in fights. Rockstar's commitment to realism means that headshots will kill everyone with one hit, even with the weakest weapons in the game, which makes fighting (especially on the PC version, with its mouse-driven precision aiming) distinctly unchallenging.

The game's biggest weaknesses are threefold. The first is technical. Whilst playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC, I had more than a dozen crashes to desktop. These were spread over a period of some 70 hours (about 62 hours completing the main story and most side-missions, and another eight or so of optional activities) but it was still rather annoying. The second is that the UI is so cumbersome and unwieldy as to be aggravating. Selecting absolutely anything through the radial menu system is awkward and the inability to bind commands straight to keys (so you just hit a single shortcut key to set up camp rather than going through two separate menus first) is frustrating. The game's commitment to realism also strays too far into pedantry. More than once I jumped off my horse to run into battle to find I only had a weak pistol on me because I hadn't pre-selected two other weapons whilst still on my horse. More annoying was when I did pre-select these weapons but the pre-mission cut scene somehow made the game forget this, leaving me under-armed for the task at hand.


The biggest problem remains Rockstar's key weakness, which has impacted on all of their games going back to the 1990s: an inability to allow players to play missions how they see fit. Rockstar have created this immense, beautiful world and given the player the freedom to do what they want in it, but the second a mission starts the player's choices are removed and they are forced, on pain of insta-fail, to do the mission exactly how Rockstar want them to do it. The game has a nice stealth system which you almost never get to use, because most missions devolve into full-on gunfights in a cut scene beforehand. In some missions you are even given a specific weapon to use, sometimes causing you to lose the one you pre-selected (most annoying when my top-line sniper rifle was lost because another character forced me to use an inferior sniper rifle for the exact same mission). Ludonarrative dissonance - the gap between the game's story and the player's actions - has always been a bit of an issue in Rockstar games but the jokey tone of the GTA series has always overcome it. Here, in this grimmer and grittier world, it's more jarring than ever before.

Ultimately the lack of player agency in missions or in how they can affect the story makes Red Dead Redemption 2 less of an enjoyable sandbox than its peers. RDR2 gives it much more of a run for a money than I expected, but ultimately The Witcher 3 emerges victorious as the superior open-world game for its greater embracing of player freedom. The clunky interface, constant cut scene interference in the story and technical problems also contribute to occasionally make RDR2 more of a chore than it should be. But its unsurpassed graphical beauty, rich soundtrack, compelling and memorable characters and its remarkable sense of place and atmosphere cannot be faulted.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (****½) isn't the perfect game that Rockstar have been striving to make for twenty years, but it's far closer than they've ever reached before and, despite a myriad number of aggravating faults, it's an impressive and compelling game experience. It is available now on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4.

Monday, 16 March 2020

CD Projekt Red decentralises operations to continue work on CYBERPUNK 2077

With TV and film projects being suspended globally at a rate of knots in reaction to coronavirus, it's interesting to see the response from the video game industry. Poland's CD Projekt Red, who's forthcoming science fiction RPG Cyberpunk 2077 is the most eagerly-awaited game of the year, have revealed how they are tackling the issue via a public announcement on Twitter.


CDPR have switched to a fully decentralised, work-from-home ethos where developers will remotely log into servers to access the latest build of the game and provide updates, bug-checking and polish.

It should be noted that Cyberpunk 2077 is functionally complete: it was originally due for release in April and CDPR have noted they could still hit that date if they didn't mind releasing a buggy game, which they do. The bulk of the work left on the game at this stage is bug-testing, polish and a last round of work to make sure that the game releases in as perfect a condition as possible. Whether it is possible for a company like, say, Bethesda or Rockstar (who are hip-deep in developing multiple games, including Starfield, The Elder Scrolls VI and the rumoured Grand Theft Auto VI) to do the same thing much earlier in their games' development remains unclear.


That said, CDPR also confirmed recently that they are working on a new Witcher game which is much earlier in production, and presumably work on that game will also continue in this remote fashion.

The video game industry has flirted with remote working and decentralised production for years, with many small mods and indie projects being developed in such a way. However, forcing new employees to relocate to the company studio's physical location and attend in person has been the norm in larger studios for decades. It will be interesting to see if this adaptation becomes a permanent trend.

Production of THE WITCHER shut down

The second season of The Witcher has shut down production due to the coronavirus pandemic.


The Witcher was shooting its second season just outside London when the shutdown order came through. It is the first UK-based streaming drama to suspend production due to the outbreak, but scores of others are expected in the coming days as the outbreak in the UK worsens. Native UK TV shows including Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders have also suspended production. It is likely that other shows which were due to start shooting in the coming weeks and months, such as the next season of Doctor Who, will also be delayed.

Officially the suspension is for two weeks, but it is highly unlikely that the situation will be better by then, so effectively the suspension is indefinite until the global situation becomes clearer.

Worldwide, hundreds of TV shows and films have shut down filming or delayed their release, with the understanding that cinemas are unlikely to attract large numbers of viewers at this time.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Production of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE and THE WHEEL OF TIME shut down

Production of Amazon Prime Television's Lord of the Rings: The Second Age (likely not the final title) has been suspended for two weeks due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.



More than eight hundred cast and crew are involving in the production of the series, which is shooting on sound stages in West Auckland, New Zealand. Filming of the series had been underway for only a few weeks when the shutdown order came.

The series was due to suspend filming from late April for two months to give the writers time to prepare scripts for the second season, which is expected to be filmed back-to-back with the first. With the show not likely to air until late 2021 at the earliest (and some rumours had even mooted a 2022 release), it can endure a moderate shutdown but a lengthy one will likely negatively impact on the release window.

New Zealand only has ten cases of coronavirus, two of which have already recovered, and no deaths so far, but the country has instituted significant measures to protect itself, including restrictions on entry and exit from the country and strict controls for anyone showing symptoms or having been in contact with them. There is some hope that New Zealand will be able avoid a major outbreak. However, if its control measures remain in place it's possible that returning actors and crew from overseas may find it difficult to re-enter the country speedily.

Officially the suspension is for a fortnight, so it's likely that cast and crew will remain in the country, and the practicalities of resuming production can be reassessed at that point depending on if more cases emerge. If they do not, it may be deemed possible to resume production.

Meanwhile, following signs of a shutdown on Thursday, Sony Television formally suspended production of The Wheel of Time's first season on Friday. The series had been filming in the Czech Republic, whose government instituted very heavy restrictions on Friday morning. It's unclear if production can resume or will have to be delayed until after the outbreak. The Wheel of Time was able to complete production of several episodes, but it is also unclear if these will air early or be held back until production on the rest of the season is finished.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Ricardo Pinto begins re-release of his STONE DANCE OF THE CHAMELEON series

Ricardo Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy was one of the more interesting fantasy series of the 2000s, set in an unusual fantasy world with vivid characters. The series attracted a lot of praise for its opening volumes, The Chosen (1999) and The Standing Dead (2002), but a long delay for the third volume (caused by a fire which destroyed an in-progress manuscript, among other setbacks) seemed to dissipate anticipation and the response for The Third God (2009) was muted.


Pinto has now gone back and re-edited and even rewritten the series. Acknowledging the criticism that the series was too long, the edits have reduced the total size of the sequence by around a quarter. He has also re-edited the series into seven much slimmer, more focused volumes. The first two, The Masters and The Chosen, are now available (UK, USA), with the third, The Standing Dead, due for release in April. The seventh and final book should be released in November.

This isn't the first such re-releasing plan for an earlier series, with David Wingrove doing something similar for his enormous Chung Kuo SF series (although that was complicated by disappointing sales and a mid-series shift to self-publishing), but Pinto is doing it in a much more focused and controlled way. It should be interesting to see how it is received in its new format.

The blurb for Book 1:
A black ship defies winter gales, bringing to young Carnelian’s remote island of exile three masked Lords of the Chosen—a cruel ruling caste. These Masters beg his father to return with them to oversee the election of a new God Emperor. To repair their ship, they pillage and destroy Carnelian’s home—the only world he’s ever known—condemning his people to starve. He and his father embark with the visitors on a long and perilous journey—against deadly opposition—to Osrakum, the heart and wonder of the world and seat of absolute power.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Coronavirus pandemic impacts on SFF projects worldwide

The filming of the Disney+ series Falcon and the Winter Soldier in Prague has been shut down in response to government restrictions on public gatherings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the first major project to be impacted by the growing infection.


Falcon and the Winter Soldier's main production base is in Atlanta, Georgia, where the show has already been filming for several months. The Prague leg of the shooting was only expected to last for a week, with the expectation that the shoot will be moved elsewhere (possibly back to the United States). In this case, the cancellation of filming in the Czech capital is unlikely to be disastrous for the project, which has an August launch date.

A bigger question mark hangs over those productions based in the area which are currently ongoing: Amazon Prime Television is currently filming the first season of The Wheel of Time and the second season of Carnival Row in and around the city. The Wheel of Time is on its last leg of filming, with production currently scheduled to last until early to mid-May. Carnival Row started shooting on 11 November, with production based in the Barrandov Studio in Prague.

The Czech Republic currently has a relatively low rate of coronavirus infection, with 94 infections and 0 deaths as of yesterday, but the country borders several European nations experiencing more severe outbreaks (most notably Germany) and is battening down the hatches in preparation for more cases.

With the infection reaching pandemic status and spreading across the world, it is likely that more productions and projects will be impacted on a global level. The release of the latest James Bond film, Fast and the Furious 9 and A Quiet Place Part 2 have been delayed (FF9 by a full year) in response to the crisis and Disney are considering whether to do the same with their next MCU movie Black Widow, which opens on 1 May. Numerous genre films and TV shows are currently filming which could be impacted in the coming weeks, including Season 2 of The Witcher in the UK and Season 1 of The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age in New Zealand.

Major SFF events and gatherings worldwide are also under threat: Eastercon in the UK is still due to go ahead next week, but may be impacted if the UK government imposes tougher restrictions in this country. WorldCon in New Zealand in August is also still scheduled. Relatively remote New Zealand has only 5 confirmed cases of the virus and has locked them down pretty tight and may stand a reasonable chance of riding out the situation, but may also impose tougher travelling restrictions as the worldwide situation changes.

The annual E3 video game conference in June has also been cancelled, but for the moment the San Diego Comic-Con in July and next month's WonderCon in Anaheim, California are still planned to go ahead.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

WHEEL OF TIME TV series to launch in early 2021

In a new interview between Balance Media and Wheel of Time TV actress and producer Rosamund Pike, it has been confirmed that the show is currently targeting a 2021 release date for its first season.


There had previously been debate on this point, with Wheel of Time's first season wrapping filming in May meaning it had a theoretical chance of hitting the screen towards the end of this year, echoing the pattern set by Netflix's The Witcher (which finished filming at the end of May 2019 and was on screens in December). However, Wheel of Time's post-production schedule is expected to be more elaborate than that for The Witcher, making a late 2020 launch more doubtful.

The interview comments (likely from Pike herself or Amazon's interview press packet) seem to suggest that Amazon are now more committed to an early 2021 launch. Previously it had been assumed that Amazon might pull out all the stops to get the show out in 2020 as 2021 will be dominated by the launch of their Tolkien series, The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age, but with that series now looking like a late 2021 release (if not an early 2022 one), The Wheel of Time has more clear air in which to operate.

The Wheel of Time's first season is expected to be eight episodes long and will adapt the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, as well as possibly parts of the second book, The Great Hunt.

TRON TV series cancelled at Disney+

It was surprisingly revealed yesterday that Disney had been working on a TRON TV series for their Disney+ streaming service. Unfortunately, it has been cancelled without being greenlit.


Little is known about the project, save that it was being developed with John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) as head writer and showrunner. It's unclear if the project was a reboot of the TRON franchise or a sequel to the original movie and its 2010 successor TRON Legacy.

The TRON franchise is something that Disney have long been interested in continuing. The original 1982 movie was a cult hit and its long-delayed sequel was surprisingly successful for a relatively niche property, making a modest profit (helped by being the first post-Avatar film to be specifically filmed for the 3D format). A third TRON film was in development in 2015 before Disney passed on it, apparently spooked by the poor performance of Tomorrowland in the cinema (why, given it was an unrelated property, is unclear).

It is unknown if Disney has retired the property permanently, but the proven success of the Light Cycle roller coaster ride at Shanghai Disneyland (and its forthcoming addition to Disney World Orlando) suggests that Disney may be looking to continue exploiting the premise if a new idea comes up.

COMMAND & CONQUER REMASTERED arrives on PC in June

Electronic Arts have confirmed that their remastered collection of the venerable Command & Conquer video games will arrive on 5 June this year.


The collection consists of:

  • Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn (1995)
  • Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn - The Covert Operations (1996)
  • Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
  • Command and Conquer: Red Alert - Counterstrike (1997)
  • Command and Conquer: Red Alert - The Aftermath (1997)
The collection also features the bonus content from the PlayStation edition, Command and Conquer: Red Alert - Retaliation, including exclusive FMV sequences which have never before been integrated into the PC version of the game.

The collection also marks the formal renaming of Command and Conquer as Tiberian Dawn (its long-standing, unofficial subtitle) and features a total overhaul of the soundtrack by the original composer, along with exclusive new music and restored tracks cut from the original release and bonus tracks brought in from the first-person shooter spin-off, Command and Conquer: Renegade.


The remaster is a re-vamping of the original games in higher resolution but otherwise untouched, so they are still 2D, sprite-based games. It will be possible to switch between the original, low-res sprites and the revamped graphics at will (in single-player mode). The iconic, cheesy FMV sequences have also been upscaled using the original recordings where possible or with AI algorithms where not.

If successful, the initial remaster collection could be followed by additional ones for the later games in the series: Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999), Red Alert 2 (2001), Command and Conquer: Generals (2002), Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007), Red Alert 3 (2008) and Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010), and their assorted expansions.

Those hoping for a remastered collection of the same studio's Dune series of strategy games may be disappointed, as the Dune licence now lies with another studio, Funcom, making a re-release unlikely in the near future.

HORIZON: ZERO DAWN confirmed for PC release in summer 2020

As previously rumoured, Sony have formally confirmed that their 2017 PlayStation 4 exclusive video game Horizon: Zero Dawn will be released on PC this year. This marks the first time a Sony-owned-and-developed video game has been released on the PC platform, and may mark a long-term strategic shift in Sony's thinking.


Hermen Hulst, the former head at Guerrilla Games and now head of PlayStation's Worldwide Studios, confirmed the news in an interview on the official PlayStation blog. Hulst cautioned that fans should not expect a flood of other PlayStation exclusives to suddenly hit PC, but that they decided that Horizon: Zero Dawn was a good initial fit to test the waters.

Sony's strategy in the past has been to lock down games that are exclusive to their platform to encourage people to buy PlayStation consoles. In the past Sony has worked on a three tier basis: external developers can make games for multiple platforms simultaneously; external developers operating under licence to Sony and are paid for exclusivity, either permanent or temporary; and wholly-owned subsidiaries which develop exclusively for the PlayStation.

We've seen more and more games in the second tier, games which were previously exclusive to PlayStation which made their way to PC years later, such as Journey, Dark Souls, Final Fantasy and the Quantic Dreams games, but never a game in the third tier. Despite Hulst cautioning against more exclusives making their way to PC, gamers will now be looking to see if other exclusive titles such as The Last of Us, Spider-Man, God of War or the Uncharted series make the transition.

The game arguably most in-demand after Horizon: Zero Dawn is Bloodborne, From Software's hit 2015 action game. Developed externally by From under an exclusive licence from Sony, Bloodborne is actually more likely to hit PC once that exclusivity period ends.

It's unknown if Horizon will be available via standard PC portals such as Steam, GoG and Epic Games, or if it will only be available via Sony's PlayStation Now service.

The news follows Microsoft's decision to release all X-Box exclusives on PC going forwards, and indicates that both Microsoft and Sony view the future as being more platform-agnostic with services and games available on a variety of devices.

Final LAST KINGDOM novel series to be released this October

HarperCollins have confirmed that the thirteenth and final Last Kingdom (aka The Saxon Stories) novel by Bernard Cornwell will be released this October.


The book will be entitled War Lord and will, assuming Cornwell's previous statements about how the series ends hold true, depict the Battle of Brunanburh, effectively the last major conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes on the island of Britain for a century. Uhtred will be an old man by this time (in his seventies at least), so the series will presumably deal with Uhtred's ultimate fate and those of his friends and family.

Season 4 of The Last Kingdom, the Netflix series adapting the books, will arrive in the late spring or summer of this year. It will adapt the seventh and eighth books in the series, The Pagan Lord and The Empty Throne.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Gratuitous Hugo Reminder Post

Just a signal boost as Hugo nominations are finishing up on 13 March (four days from now).

I left this way too late last year, so this year I'll mention it a bit earlier. Dragonmount has very generously nominated me for a Hugo Award this year, after George R.R. Martin did the same last year (GRRM, as toastmaster for WorldCon this year, has declined to offer any recommendations this year).


It turned out last year that I didn't make the shortlist by just 15 votes and I've been asked to make a bit more noise about it last year, which is a bit painful for me but okay.

So I'm eligible for Best Fan Writer and I believe that both The Wertzone and Atlas of Ice and Fire are eligible for Best Fanzine (which includes blogs). However, Atlas of Ice and Fire is fairly niche in its appeal and The Wertzone is what gets the bulk of the attention, so it makes the most sense to nominate that, if you feel my work last year was worthy!

To nominate, you must have been an attending or supporting member of Dublin WorldCon last year, and either a supporting or attending member at this year's WorldCon in New Zealand. The nomination form can be found here. If you wish to sign up as a supporting member of the New Zealand WorldCon for nomination purposes, you can do so here. This of course also allows you to nominate for all of the Hugo Awards, including Best Novel, Best Editor, Best Dramatic Presentation and so on.

My own nominations in the Best Fan Writer field would include Aidan Moher for his work principally at the Barnes and Nobel webpage (before it stopped freelance submissions last year) and Foz Meadows for her always on-point coverage of the field.

RIP Max von Sydow

Max von Sydow, one of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen, has sadly passed away at the age of 90.

Max von Sydow was born in Sweden in 1929 and began acting in school and then in the theatre. He made his screen debut in Alf Sjöberg's film Only a Mother in 1949. He met Ingmar Bergman in Malmö in 1955 and they became friends and close collaborators. Sydow described Bergman as his mentor. Their most famous collaboration came in 1957 with The Seventh Seal, where Bergman plays a knight who tries to avoid dying by playing a chess game against a personification of Death.

The Seventh Seal was an international hit and a major breakthrough for Bergman and von Sydow, as well as Swedish cinema in general. Von Sydow found himself in demand in the United States and UK, even being asked to play the title villain in the very first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). He resisted such calls until 1965, when he was cast as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. From 1965 onwards von Sydow maintained a foot in both American and European cinema, frequently moving between them as projects came up that attracted his interest.

Max von Sydow soon became a favourite of genre producers and directors for his gravitas, memorable voice and his consummate professionalism: no matter how hokey the script or premise, von Sydow could be relied upon to always bring his A-game. Noted as an intense, dramatic actor von Sydow also had a wickedly funny side that the right roles could bring out, as his superb, scene-chewing performances in Flash Gordon (1980) and Conan the Barbarian (1982) can attest. Von Sydow was also happy to play both large and small roles, to be the leading man or part of an ensemble.

Von Sydow's genre credentials of interest are almost too numerous to list, but include the following:

  • The Seventh Seal (1957), as Antonius Block.
  • The Magician (1958), as Albert Vogler.
  • The Exorcist (1973), as Father Lankester Merrin.
  • Steppenwolf (1974), as Harry Haller.
  • The Ultimate Warrior (1975), as Baron.
  • Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), as Father Lankester Merrin.
  • Death Watch (1980), as Gerald Mortenhoe.
  • Flash Gordon (1980), as Ming the Merciless.
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982), as King Osric of Zamora.
  • Never Say Never Again (1983), as Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
  • Dreamscape (1984), as Dr. Paul Novotny.
  • Dune (1984), as Dr. Liet Kynes.
  • Ghostbusters II (1989), as the voice of Vigo the Carpathian.
  • Until the End of the World (1991), as Henry Farber.
  • Needful Things (1993), as Leland Gaunt.
  • The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Vienna, November 1908 (1993), as Sigmund Freud.
  • Judge Dredd (1995), as Chief Justice Fargo.
  • Hercules (1997), as the voice of Zeus (Swedish dub only).
  • What Dreams May Come (1998), as the Tracker and Albert Lewis.
  • Druids (2001), as Guttuart.
  • Minority Report (2002), as Director Lamar Burgess.
  • Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (2004), as Eyvind.
  • Solomon Kane (2009), as Josiah Kane.
  • The Tudors: Season 3 (2009), as Cardinal Otto Truchsess von Waldburg.
  • Ghostbusters: The Video Game (2009), as the voice of Vigo the Carpathian.
  • Shutter Island (2010), as Dr. Jeremiah Naehring.
  • Robin Hood (2010), as Sir Walter Loxley.
  • Moomins and the Comet Chase (2010), as the Narrator.
  • The Wolfman (2010), as the elderly man.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011, video game) as Esbern.
  • Branded (2012), as Joseph Pascal.
  • Dragons 3D (2013), as Dr. Alistair Conis.
  • The Simpsons: The Art of War (2014), as Claus Sigler.
  • Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), as Lor San Tekka.
  • Lego Star Wars: The Force Awkens (2016, video game) as Lor San Tekka.
  • Game of Thrones: Season 6 (2016), as the Three-Eyed Raven.

His final appearance was as Admiral Petrenko in Kursk (2018), which came sixty-nine years after his very first on-screen role. Along the way he appeared in (possibly) the biggest TV show of all time, Game of Thrones, and in one of the most popular video games ever made, Skyrim. He helped relaunch the Star Wars franchise in 2015 by appearing in the opening moments of The Force Awakens, and was one of the best things in disappointing movies such as Judge Dredd (1995) and Needful Things (1993). He worked with some of the greatest direcotrs of all time, including Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese.

It is a surprise that he never won a major award, although he was nominated twice each for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and an Emmy. He did win prizes at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, and also awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and three times at the Swedish Guldbagge Awards.

Max von Sydow was a giant of cinema and perhaps somewhat under-appreciated, for his relatively restrained, elegant performances and reliable worth ethic, something I suspect will now be reassessed. He will be sorely missed.