Thursday 30 April 2020

A rough-and-ready LAST KINGDOM chronology

With the fourth season of The Last Kingdom recently released on Netflix, I thought it might be interesting to create a chronology of events in both the TV series and the books the series is based on.

Both the Last Kingom novels (by Bernard Cornwell) and the TV series are set in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, when the island of Britain is contested between seven feuding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Essex, East Anglia, Kent and Sussex) and the invading Danes. The Danes had originally come as raiders from across the North Sea, but by the time of the series they have established colonies throughout eastern Britain, using them as springboards to further invasions. The British kingdoms are fighting back piecemeal, but are vulnerable to being attacked and destroyed in isolation.

The one man who may be able to stem the tide is the newly-crowned King of Wessex, Alfred. Alfred has a vision of the seven kingdoms united as one, under one ruler and the One True God. He has a name for this vision, "England," but needs warriors to bring it to fruition. It seems that God is smiling on Alfred when he delivers to him a ferocious soldier and canny warleader named Uhtred, a Saxon child raised by the Danes and familiar with both cultures and their ways of war. But, whilst Uhtred fights for Alfred in return for a home and silver, he does not share his vision or his God, and the tensions between them unfold even as the wars to determine the fate of England rage.


  • 858 AD: Uhtred is born in Bebbanburg, Northumbria.
  • 867: Battle of Eoferwic. Defeat of the Northumbrians. Uhtred is captured by Ragnar of the Danes. Uhtred is 9.
  • 871: Alfred becomes King of Wessex after the death of his brother. Uhtred is 13.
  • 874-876: Death of Ragnar. Uhtred and his adopted sister Brida escape to Wessex. Book 1 and the first half of Season 1 take place. Uhtred is 16-18.
  • 878: The Battle of Ethandun. Book 2 and the second half of Season 1 take place. Uhtred is 20.
  • 881: Book 3 and the first half of Season 2 take place. Uhtred is 23.
  • 886: Lundune is recaptured. Book 4 and the second half of Season 2 take place. Uhtred is 28.
  • 892-893: Book 5 and the first half of Season 3 take place. Uhtred is 34-35.
  • 899: Alfred dies. Aethelwold's bid for power begins. Book 6 and the second half of Season 3 begin. Uhtred is 41.
  • 902: Aethelwold is defeated. Edward crowned. Book 6 and the second half of Season 3 conclude. Uhtred is 44.
  • 910: The Battle of Tettenhall. Book 7 and the first half of Season 4 take place. Uhtred is 52.
  • 911: Aethelred dies, succession crisis in Mercia. Book 8 and the second half of Season 4 take place. Uhtred is 53.
  • 917: Book 9 takes place. Uhtred is 59
  • 918: Book 10 takes place. Uhtred is 60.
  • 923-924: Book 11 takes place. Uhtred is 65-66.
  • 924: Book 12 takes place. Uhtred is 66.
  • 937: Battle of Brunanburh. It is assumed that Book 13 (the final book) takes place at this time. Uhtred is 79.

If you're thinking that Uhtred is looking good for a 53-year-old in the latest season of The Last Kingdom, you're not wrong! It'll be interesting to see if future seasons age him up more noticeably.

The Saxon Stories (aka The Last Kingdom)

  1. The Last Kingdom (2004)
  2. The Pale Horsemen (2005)
  3. The Lords of the North (2006)
  4. Sword Song (2007)
  5. The Burning Land (2009)
  6. Death of Kings (2011)
  7. The Pagan Lord (2013)
  8. The Empty Throne (2014)
  9. Warriors of the Storm (2015)
  10. The Flame Bearer (2016)
  11. War of the Wolf (2018)
  12. Sword of Kings (2019)
  13. War Lord (2020)

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Amblin Entertainment developing film version of THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST

Amblin Entertainment have picked up the film rights to the critically-acclaimed 2014 SF novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

The novel, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was an Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee, sees a man living the same life over and over again, gaining new knowledge with each lifetime which he can use to then change the course of history. Things are complicated when he meets a rival with the same power, resulting in a desperate struggle as they each try to stop the other being born.

The novel was a big mainstream crossover hit in the UK after it was featured on Richard and Judy's Book Club, our biggest TV book show. The author, whose real name is Catherine Webb, has since published a string of stand-alone books which ask similar questions about life, existence and identity: Touch (2015), The Gameshouse (2015), The Sudden Appearance of Hope (2016), The End of the Day (2017), 84K (2018) and The Pursuit of William Abbey (2019). As Kate Griffin she has also published the Matthew Swift/Magicals Anonymous urban fantasy series (2009-13) and under her own name she has published numerous YA novels, most notably the Horatio Lyle series (2006-10).

The film is apparently being (relatively) fast-tracked, with Wes Ball (the Maze Runner trilogy) already tapped to direct. Melissa Iqbal (Origin, The Nevers, Humans) is writing the script. Production starting, of course, depends on the duration of the current coronavirus pandemic.

Chris Wooding confirmed to be a writer on ASSASSIN'S CREED: VALHALLA

British science fiction and fantasy author Chris Wooding today confirmed that he's been working on the latest Assassin's Creed video game, Valhalla, as a writer.

Ubisoft lifted the veil on the game, the 23rd in the series, today with a cinematic trailer. The game is set in both Norway and England and sees you playing a Viking raider who settles down to colonise the new land. The game features settlement-building mechanics as well as the familiar combat and stealth gameplay from previous titles in the series.

Chris Wooding is the author of numerous acclaimed works, including The FadeThe Braided Path trilogy, the four-volume Tales of the Ketty Jay diseselpunk series and his latest novel, The Ember Blade. Wooding is also working on a sequel to The Ember Blade, expected for publication in late 2021.

Assassin's Creed: Valhalla will be released in late 2020 on PlayStation 4, X-Box, Stadia and PC.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

New DISCWORLD TV adaptations announced, unrelated to THE WATCH

Narrativia, the production company set up by the late Sir Terry Pratchett and now led by his daughter and former business partner, has announced a new partnership with Motive Pictures to bring some more of Pratchett's Discworld novels to the screen.

Discworld has already enjoyed multiple television adaptations, with Cosgrove Hall adapting Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music as animated series in the late 1990s and Sky Television adapting Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Going Postal as live-action serials between 2007 and 2010.

BBC America was shooting a new series called The Watch, "inspired" by Pratchett's novels Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Night Watch, although it's unclear if shooting was completed before the coronavirus pandemic shut down productions worldwide. The adaptation was extremely controversial with fans for adopting a completely different aesthetic compared to the books and recasting a rotund, middle-aged female character with a younger, "sexier" equivalent. Narrativia, although retaining a producer's credit, had significantly distanced itself from the project and even thrown mild shade at it in later statements, clarifying that they were deeply involved with the project when it began at the BBC in the UK but it had changed tone and feel when it was moved to BBC America.

The Jim Henson Company is deep in pre-production on a film version of The Wee Free Men, the first in the Tiffany Aching sub-series aimed at younger viewers. Rhianna Pratchett is involved in this project as a writer, and it seems to be skewing much more closely to the books.

The new collaboration also seems rooted in faithfulness to Pratchett's text, as both Narrativia and Motive bring up a desire to make a more "resolutely faithful" version of the stories in what feels like even more shade being cast at BBC America's project.

What books are being discussed for adaptation is unclear. It's assumed that the City Watch sub-series is firmly optioned by BBC America, whilst the Jim Henson Company has the rights to The Wee Free Men and possibly the rest of the Tiffany Aching arc. That still leaves a large number of books available, including the iconic Witches sub-series, the widely-adored stand-alone novel Small Gods, and other stand-alones including Pyramids and Moving Pictures. Assuming that Sky One's option has now expired, the Rincewind and Moist von Lipwig sub-series are also presumably now available once again.

The television and film rights situation with Terry Pratchett's books is interesting, because normally a production company would option the rights to the entire setting even if they were only planning to adapt one book. For example, HBO owns the TV and film rights to the Westeros setting, so only they can make TV shows or films in that setting even if George R.R. Martin wanted, say, Netflix to make a Dunk & Egg show. In the case of Pratchett this was not possible due to the sheer volume of books (41 in total) and how they were split into sub-arcs. The result is a complex situation where some companies are adapting some books and others are adapting others, in some cases sharing characters with different actors (not dissimilar to the Fox/Paramount/Sony split of Marvel Comics characters).

More news as it comes in.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Wertzone Classics: Aliens

Gateway Station, 2179. Rescued after spending fifty-seven years frozen in deep sleep, Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, is horrified when her reports of the lethal xenomorph that wiped out her crew are dismissed as mental delusions. She is even more horrified to learn that the planet where they found the alien is now home to a bustling colony. When all contact with the colony is lost, the Colonial Marines are called in to investigate with a huge amount of state-of-the-art firepower and Ripley is offered the chance to put the horror to rest...or unleash a new one.

Even in 1986, Alien was an acknowledged masterpiece of science fiction and horror cinema. The idea of creating a sequel to it felt like a risk, especially when the job fell to a relatively young Canadian film-maker with only a single proper movie to his name. Fortunately, the film-maker was James Cameron and the previous film on his CV was The Terminator, marking him as a promising director to watch.

Aliens more than fulfilled that promise. Arguably the strongest film in the franchise and much less-arguably one of the greatest action SF movies ever made, Aliens is that rare film which is near-flawlessly executed. The cast is fantastic, the writing is tight and the effects are impressive whilst informing and reinforcing the story and its themes of PTSD, cultural alienation, motherhood and family.

It's this attention to the film's psychological angle as well as the more superficial elements of action and explosions which makes it tick, and is something that Cameron exploits well in most of his films. Ripley was just one crewmember on the Nostromo, her late emergence as the main protagonist meaning we didn't get to know her very well. The sequel rectifies that in spades, revealing that she had a daughter (now deceased) and a home life which the xenomorph took away from her forever, as well as preventing her from ever getting a good's night's sleep again. Cameron also layers the film with a surprisingly robust layer of realism: Ripley for very obvious reasons doesn't want to go anywhere near the alien ever again, but just knowing that the ship and its thousands of eggs are still on LV-426 is enough to cause her to experience terror, justifying her decision to go back.

There is a robust intelligence to Aliens which is, quite simply, largely missing from most modern films and TV shows. The marines react fairly realistically to the situations they find themselves in, the characters react with logic to the tactical disadvantage they are in and the aliens' reluctance to attack the facility en masse is explained by their own limited numbers (there are only about a hundred aliens, as there were only a hundred colonists on the planet to be impregnated) and the steps taken to keep them in check, such as the sentry guns and the humans' weapons which can kill them with relative ease. Aliens delivers both a cathartic power fantasy - Ripley and her comrades blow away dozens of xenomorphs when just one wiped out her entire crew in the first film - but also a fragile one, as when the marines are picked off (mostly through logic than them acting like idiots) and the main characters suffer serious reversals. There is an integrity to Aliens' script and its respect for the intelligence of the audience that should be included in every basic scriptwriting class in Hollywood.

Which isn't to say that Aliens is all logic and themes. It brings a huge amount of action carnage to the table, with jaw-dropping set pieces following in at times dizzying succession. The marines trade quips and insults with lived-in believability. The cast, from Sigourney Weaver's multi-faceted Ripley to Bill Paxton's blustering Hudson to Michael Biehn's stoic Hicks and Lance Henriksen's earnest Bishop - is uniformly brilliant, from the bit-part marines who might as well be wearing red shirts up to the main stars. The production design, mixing Alien's industrial aesthetic with a sleeker, slightly more futuristic office chic, is impressive. James Horner's soundtrack starts off minimalist and restrained but later goes into speaker-straining bombast, but always in a way that reinforces the action. Even the film's sound effects are iconic, from the dread-inducing beeping of the motion trackers to the distinctive fire of the pulse rifles to the organic terror of an egg opening.

Trying to identify a weak point in Aliens (*****) is difficult. Arguably the Director's Cut addition of scenes set in the pre-carnage colony undercuts the later tension by showing the colonists finding the crashed ship, but seeing the fully-lit and inhabited colony in "normal" mode and Newt before she becomes a catatonic mess does add more pathos to events later on. Perhaps the idea that no human crewmembers would remain on the Sulaco when the operation starts is a little too convenient. These are really minor issues, though, and should not detract from the film's place in the canon of SF classics. Aliens is a masterpiece of both horror and SF action.

A note on edition: there are numerous editions of the Aliens movies available. Probably the best is the Alien Anthology Blu-Ray box set, which features both the original cinematic editions and extended versions of all four main-series Aliens movies, complete with tons of special features. This is available now in the UK and USA.

Wertzone Classics: Alien

In the year 2122, the deep space freighter Nostromo is diverted to Zeta Reticuli to investigate a beacon of unknown, possibly extraterrestrial, origin. The crew find an enormous derelict spacecraft, its cargo hold filled with eggs. A strange parasite attaches itself to one of the crew, beginning a nightmarish journey for the rest.

Reviewing Alien at this point is akin to reviewing the Bible, or Harry Potter: you've probably already digested it and can recite it line for line, or you've already decided it's not for you and you're probably not going to get round to checking it out.

For the minuscule number of people still on the fence, Alien more than deserves its reputation as a slow-burning masterclass in tension and pacing. Whether it's Ridley Scott's greatest masterpiece or not can remain the subject of hot debate (with at least Blade Runner making a convincing case not), but it's certainly up there in importance.

The film has numerous strengths: the industrial, low-fi sets and aesthetic were revolutionary for its day and remain impressive today. The characters are somewhat lightly sketched but the actors inhabiting them are so good that it doesn't matter, and they bring them to life with, in some cases, just a few lines of dialogue in the whole film. One of the film's more underrated aspects is that Scott doesn't let the camera linger on any one character too long, meaning that even identifying the film's protagonist and most likely survivor is extremely difficult (at least not without pre-knowledge about the franchise, which is almost impossible to avoid today), greatly increasing the film's tension.

The design of the xenomorph (courtesy of macabre artist extraordinaire H.R. Giger) remains nightmarish and striking, although it has to be said that the suit doesn't quite survive scrutiny in the high-definition era (particularly the chase sequence in the ventilation ducts). Fortunately, this was a concern of Scott's even in 1979 and the creature is wisely kept in the shadows and on the edges of the frame in most cases, so the "man in a suit" issue doesn't really come up.

The film is also very well-paced, with the tension building over the opening section of the movie and the alien kept firmly off-screen until the second half. The idea of the creature stalking the air ducts and hiding in the ceiling fills scenes with a near-visceral sense of dread, so powerful that Creative Assembly achieved tremendous success in copying the format for their 2014 video game Alien Isolation. Scott's use of lighting and camera angles is masterful.

The film does have a few minor blemishes. The model work is pretty ropy, which a few years earlier it could have gotten away with. But filmed a year after the release of Star Wars and having a comparable budget, there really isn't any excuse for the often-underwhelming establishing shots of the Nostromo (even more disappointing given how fantastic the design is), which at their weakest have a little bit of the feel of Blake's 7 to them. However, Alien is not supposed to be a special effects extravaganza and the low-fi feel to the effects does help with the old-school horror vibe of the film. I've also never been a fan of Alien's soundtrack: the main, stripped-back theme is fine but the incidental music throughout the film often feels incongruous (and well below-par for Jerry Goldsmith) and at times disrupts the film's atmosphere.

Minor criticisms aside, tremendous tension, expert pacing and finely-judged performances combine to make Alien (****½) one of the greatest science fiction horror hybrids of all time. There are a few cracks where it's starting to show it age, but overall this is a very strong movie.

A note on edition: there are numerous editions of the Aliens movies available. Probably the best is the Alien Anthology Blu-Ray box set, which features both the original cinematic editions and extended versions of all four main-series Aliens movies, complete with tons of special features. This is available now in the UK and USA.

The Day Shall Come

The Miami branch of the FBI is working hard to shut down terrorists. The only problem is that they can't find any. Hitting on the idea of manufacturing a threat, the FBI decide to encourage a fringe religious group led by Moses Al Shabazz to purchase automatic rifles and nuclear material so they can arrest them. Agent Kendra Glack takes the leader on the operation, but as she gets to know the Black Santa-worshipping, dinosaur-summoning Shabazz, it becomes clear that he is suffering serious mental delusions and the FBI is in danger of humiliating itself...or far worse.

The Day Shall Come is the latest film from British comedian and film-maker Chris Morris. Coming from the same school of laughs that gave us Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, VEEP, The Death of Stalin) and Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge), Morris writes intelligent, character-based comedy. However, he favours a much darker, more politically-inspired vein of satire than his contemporaries. His last film, Four Lions, was a comedy about British suicide bombers, an idea that sounds like an oxymoron but somehow he managed to pull off.

The Day Shall Come taps into the same vein of politically-aware, midnight black humour. It does feel a little less topical - the War on Terror has receded in the public consciousness as an everyday issue since Four Lions - although this does not make the subject matter any less startling. The revelation that law enforcement agencies around the world have "helped along" terror groups purely to arrest them later is not new, but the idea they may have created such groups purely to fire up their stats feels a lot more controversial. Morris may have made an error in making this a funny story inspired by "hundreds of true stories" rather than actually dramatising one real story, which may have had more impact.

The film focuses on two main characters, Shabazz, played with masterful comic timing and total conviction by Marchánt Davis, and Kendra, played with wide-eyed disbelief by an on-top-form Anna Kendrick. A sort-of game of cat and mouse emerges between the two, but it takes a turn for the strange when Kendra realises that Shabazz has gone nuts and her bosses are trying to set up a mentally ill man as a terrorist just to make themselves look good, and becomes lost in a moral quandary as she tries to help Shabazz without getting herself fired. There's some interesting questions here about moral responsibility and the film never offers pat answers, but it does lowball the seriousness of the issues by leaning hard into the comedy.

Three Lions worked because it started off as a comedy and retained its dark humour through to the end, but it gradually shifted away from the early knockabout jokes to make its dark ending really work. The Day Shall Come never really makes that transition and also doesn't deliver as bleakly cynical an ending (although it's still an uncomfortable one), which means it can't quite match its predecessor's power. Three Lions was powerfully memorable enough to remain memorable, quotable and re-watchable a full decade after release, whilst The Day Shall Come is altogether slighter.

The Day Shall Come (***½) is still worth watching. It is funny, clever, relentless in its assault on the senses in terms of bureaucratic absurdity (most of it down to Denis O'Hare's absurd FBI boss) and has a lot of witty dialogue and amusing sight gags. It just feels like its punches have been pulled compared to its forebear. The film is available now via streaming services and physical media in the UK and USA.

Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation

In the distant future mankind has started the process of migrating into a posthuman species, incorporating elements of biological life and AI. A series of attacks on human worlds shows that some are opposed to this goal, triggering a brutal war for dominance and survival.

Ashes of the Singularity is a real-time strategy game, a rare sight in the modern age where new entries in the genre are few and far between. It is a conscious spiritual successor to the classic 1997 RTS Total Annihilation and its own 2007 semi-sequel Supreme Commander, games which emphasise the the creation of utterly enormous armies over the micro-management and hotkey obsessions of the likes of StarCraft II.

Resource management is therefore stripped back, with you having to occasionally task workers to build new mineral and gas extractors on resource nodes but otherwise having the freedom to build absolutely huge formations consisting of tons of disposable tanks and light mechs, sprinkled with somewhat hardier and more capable frigates and dreadnoughts, enormous war machines capable of dealing impressive amounts of destruction across the battlefield. As the game progresses you can also unlock aircraft, artillery and other units.

Ashes of the Singularity is initially refreshing, nailing as it does a form of RTS gameplay that we haven't seen in a good decade or so. Spewing out vast armies to attack the enemy and not have to worry about hotkeys and formations feels good and the scale of the game makes watching the battles a lot of fun. As the game continues, however, increasingly serious problems emerge.

The first is that the game is so nostalgic that it even goes as far as flawlessly resurrecting that age-old problem from 1990s RTS games: poor pathfinding. Ordering your vast army into the enemy base only to watch it split into four groups, each trying to take a laboriously out-of-the-way route rather than just waiting for the unit in front of them to move, and then be wiped out piecemeal is deeply frustrating. Almost as annoying is the game's tendency to hide your heavy-hitters behind lesser units, which sounds clever but is actually counter to the game's setup. Your weak units are very weak, dying in their droves with ease, so using dreadnoughts and frigates to soak up enemy fire so your weak units can bring their massed firepower to bear is quite an important tactic. The game is really not keen on this, however, and will often have your supposedly-static dreadnoughts float backwards behind screens of lesser units (a formation which is totally useless, since the lesser units will die within seconds of battle being joined anyway). The "disposable glass cannon" issue has always been a problem in Total Annihilation-style RTS games, but it seems to be far worse here than in any of its forebears.

The game also has a few other RTS issues from yesteryear that should really have been forgotten. The single-player campaign sees the AI "cheating" quite blatantly, most notably when you take 90% of the resource nodes on the map but the enemy base can still churn out a vast army consisting of multiple dreadnoughts somehow faster than you can. The singleplayer campaign also has some of the worst dialogue and most indifferent voice acting you will ever see in a video game. This title probably didn't have a twentieth of the budget of, say, StarCraft II, so no-one is expecting that level of polish, but the game often feels far too amateurish.

It's a shame because Ashes of the Singularity (***) has occasional flashes when it is fun to play, and with several lengthy campaigns (some courtesy of the old expansion Escalation, now integrated into the base game), a skirmish mode and multiplayer it certainly has a reasonable amount of content, but ultimately it is a tribute to games which are, frankly, still far more fun to play. The game is available now via Steam.

Friday 17 April 2020

Sniper Elite 4

Italy, 1943. The Allies, having captured the island of Sicily, are preparing the invasion of the Italian mainland. SOE agent Karl Fairburne is sent undercover into Italy to work with local partisans to eliminate key German forces ahead of the invasion. In the process, he learns of a new German missile programme which could spell disaster for the invasion, and races to sabotage it.

Sniper Elite 4 is, as subtly indicated by the title, the fourth game in Rebellion Studios' Sniper Elite series, although chronologically the second (Sniper Elite V2, a remake of the first game in the series, is set in Berlin in 1945; Sniper Elite III is set in North Africa in 1942). The game stands completely alone with its own storyline, so prior familiarity with the series is not required.

As the title also hints, the game casts the player as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) sniper, tasked with completing various mission objectives. Calling Fairburne a sniper is somewhat limited, as he is also adept in close-quarters combat with knife or pistol and can fend off larger numbers of enemies with a submachine gun. He is more of an all-purpose commando whose first weapon of preference may be the sniper rifle but is also capable of using any means necessary to get the job done.

The game unfolds over eight missions, each one of which takes place on a separate, quite large map. Fairburne can usually spend some time studying mission objectives and talking to special planners before the operation begins, unlocking secondary objectives at the same time. Once the mission begins Fairburne is usually alone against a very large number of enemy soldiers, although on a couple of missions he does have support and help from partisans, and can call in air strikes to help with some objectives.

Sniper Elite 4 is an action game that borrows elements from much more realistic tactical games, and its difficulty levels can be set to provide wildly varying experiences. On the most difficult settings, weapons are affected by realistic physics with all player aids (like the special target showing the drop-off of sniper bullets over long distancse) turned off. On the easiest settings, the game is much more forgiving and gives you a lot more health and dumbs down the enemy AI.

The game is a solid, enjoyable tactical shooter and it's refreshing to play a game that borrows liberally from open-world game whilst retaining a core focus on what you're supposed to be doing, which is combat. It reminded me very much of the first two (and arguably still the best) Far Cry games, which had open-ish worlds but made sure you stayed on track with your objectives, unlike the later ones which threw increasingly absurd distractions at you.

That said, Sniper Elite 4 does have a slightly odd feel to it. The game feels like a stealth title: Fairburne is not indestructible and is often alone far behind enemy lines, so in many cases it feels like you should be ghosting into enemy bases, achieving objectives, assassinating enemy generals etc and then leaving without a trace. With some of the missions you can get quite far pursuing a stealth option, with knife takedowns and silenced pistols helping ease your way to the target. However, you also learn early on that this is unnecessary. The AI divides each map into several discrete zones, with the enemies in each zone operating separately to the next. This sometimes sees you loudly sniping, machine-gunning and grenading your way through one zone whilst the enemies a few hundred feet away in the next are seemingly oblivious to your presence. Even if you do cause enough chaos to alert the entire map, the enemy don't think to destroy documents or evacuate the high-value general. Causing mayhem is often more fun and far faster than stealthily creeping around the map.

Sniping is the most fun part of the game, with you having to find the best locations to shoot from, identifying key enemies using binoculars to mark enemy targets before trying to take them down, and then firing. If you spend too long in one firing spot the enemy can triangulate your position and even call in air strikes on your head, forcing you to relocate regularly. Sniper duels with enemy snipers can be quite a lot of fun. You can also cheese the AI: if the enemy triangulate your position they'll send everyone in the zone after you, which allows you to set up traps and kills zones where you pick off the enemy piecemeal, often clearing vast sectors of the map of enemies in one go.

More formidable enemies like tanks and APCs can complicate matters, although there's some nice options for taking them down: you can snipe the gunner and driver of a tank via their view ports and then use explosives to destroy the immobilised vehicle. It's a high-risk strategy though, and where possible avoiding them is a better idea.

The shooting and action in Sniper Elite 4 (****) is great, the AI is generally impressive although easy to hoodwink and the level design is pretty robust. The story is completely forgettable and the characters - including chisel-jawed, wood-headed Fairburne - are cliches, but the setting is graphically attractive with some superb sound design. At 12 hours or so in length, the game is slight enough to warrant holding out for a sale, but generally speaking this is an entertaining slice of WWII shooting which requires a bit more thought than your average action game. It is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and X-Box One.

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Three years have passed since a sorcerous curse was lifted from the royal family of Chalion. Chalion and the western kingdom of Ibra have allied and now prepare for a military campaign against the Roknari principalities to the north. Ista, the Dowager Royina, is far removed from such concerns. The lifting of the curse has returned to her a sense of self and intelligence, but her family is still treating her as a pariah. The removal of her children to the capital and the death of her mother have left her without purpose, so she plans to make a pilgrimage in honour of her memory. But it appears that destiny still has plans in mind for her.

Paladin of Souls is a loose sequel to The Curse of Chalion, although you could probably get away with not reading the previous novel. This book is primarily a stand-alone story revolving around Ista, the mother of the new Royina of Chalion, who finds herself at a loose end as her family moves on with their lives without her. Ista was a minor character in The Curse of Chalion, where she was often confused and frightened. Here, in her own story, we meet a much more capable and intelligent woman, but one who is frustrated at being treated as a near-invalid by her family.

This is an unusual epic fantasy in some senses. The protagonist being a middle-aged woman is a relative rarity in the genre and its primary thematic concern being with establishing or re-establishing a purpose in later life is a universally relatable one. There is also a lot of more familiar fantasy tropes, including romance, epic battles and formidable sorcery. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most talented authors working in either science fiction or fantasy, with excellent prose skills and great characters, and she blends these elements together again her to create a novel which is vivid and engrossing.

It's not quite as successful as The Curse of Chalion, although it's close. Paladin of Souls has a somewhat slighter story than its forebear but unfolds over around a hundred extra pages, making it feel at least a little flabbier and less-focused than the previous novel. The book also spends a lot of time establishing the secondary cast in the opening chapters, but surprisingly only a couple of them played major roles in the denouement, the rest either just hang around or disappear for large stretches of time. They're a fun bunch of characters but ultimately don't feel like they have a clear purpose in the book.

That said, Bujold's world of the Five Gods remains an intriguing creation, effectively a magic-heavy version of Iberia in the 15th Century (fans of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan will particularly enjoy this novel and its forebear, I believe). The characters are sharp and some of the plot twists are quite clever.

Paladin of Souls (****½) is a strong fantasy novel revolving around themes of love, war, family and honour. It's one of Lois McMaster Bujold's most critically feted novels, having won Best Novel in three of the genre's biggest awards, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday 16 April 2020

UK cover art for Brandon Sanderson's RHYTHM OF WAR revealed

Brandon Sanderson has revealed the UK cover art for Rhythm of War, the fourth volume in The Stormlight Archive.

The art is by Sam Green, who also created the artwork for the preceding volumes in the series.

Rhythm of War will be published on 17 November this year.

Rockstar only "early in development" on GRAND THEFT AUTO VI

During a report on changes in corporate culture at Rockstar Games, Kotaku let slip that the company is early in development on their next game in the Grand Theft Auto series. Obviously, the Internet (or at least Twitter) has responded with dismay at the news, as it has been almost seven years since the previous game in the series was released.

DMA Design released the first game in the series, Grand Theft Auto, in 1997 as a 2D, top-down shooter and racing game. They were taken over by Take Two Interactive and rebranded as Rockstar Games under the leadership of the Houser brohers, Dan and Sam. They hit the big time in 2001 with the release of Grand Theft Auto III, which marked the move of the series into full 3D, with an enormous open-world city to explore and various storylines to get involved in. It was followed by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), San Andreas (2004), Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) and Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto Online (both 2013), along with a large number of spin-offs and expansions.

Rockstar have made numerous other games, including Red Dead Redemption (2010), LA Noire (2011), Max Payne 3 (2012) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018). However, as an enormous company with multiple studios in multiple countries, it was assumed that work had already been underway for some time on what is presumed to be Grand Theft Auto VI and the game might be ready for release in the next couple of years. This appears not to be the case, due to the workload for Red Dead Redemption 2 being immense and requiring all studios to be all hands on deck for several years, with more than two thousand people having worked on the game.

Grand Theft Auto V is by some metrics the most popular single video game and also the single most popular entertainment media product ever released (barring books), with sales of over 120 million. The game's enormous popularity has been bolstered by the release of remastered editions and a constant stream of new content for Grand Theft Auto Online (which is included with all copies of GTAV). Rockstar's apparently reluctance to work on a sequel in that light is surprising, although fans have noted that their steady monetisation of expansions and new material for GTA Online makes getting a sequel less of a priority.

GTA fans have been joined in solidarity by fans of the Elder Scrolls fantasy roleplaying series from Bethesda Studios. The last single-player game in the series was Skyrim, released in 2011 and selling over 40 million copies since then. An online spin-off was published in 2014 but Bethesda have otherwise focused on other games, shipping Fallout 4 in 2015 and multiplayer shooter Fallout 76 in 2018. They are currently working on a new IP, Starfield, which is expected for release in 2021 or 2022. Some early development work and prototyping has been done on Elder Scrolls VI, but full-time production will not begin until Starfield ships. For that reason, it is unlikely that it will be published this side of 2025.

Work on Grand Theft Auto VI (or whatever it ends up being called) is at least underway, with the game likely targeting a 2024-25 release window at this point.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

New Daniel Abraham epic fantasy novel confirmed for 2021

Daniel Abraham is releasing a new fantasy novel next year.

The book, as yet unnamed, is the first in a trilogy set during a tumultous year in a single city. Each book in the trilogy will explore these events from a different perspective.

Abraham is the author of two previous fantasy series, the absolutely superb Long Price Quartet and the Dagger and the Coin mercantile fantasy. He is also part of the James S.A. Corey writing team, responsible for The Expanse, working on both the novels and the television series.

The new novel will be published in February 2021 by Orbit.

A brand new XCOM game is coming out this month

2K Games have surprise-announced a brand new game in the XCOM franchise which will be released in just ten days. XCOM: Chimera Squad is a new, stand-alone game that will act as an interlude between XCOM 2: War of the Chosen and...whatever comes next (XCOM 3, one hazards).

Chimera Squad is set in City 31, apparently after the XCOM-led human resistance defeated the alien occupiers in War of the Chosen and drove them off-planet. With the alien Ethereals gone, many of the other aliens they were controlling have broken free and joined forces with humanity. Chimera Squad is so-called because it is the first XCOM squad with alien recruits among its number. Whilst XCOM is rebuilding to face a renewed threat from the Ethereals (or the mysterious enemy they themselves were fleeing), it is also dealing with more hostile aliens who have gone to ground and also with human groups unwilling to work with their former enemies.

Chimera Squad isn't quite a full-blown entry in the XCOM series, instead consisting of a 20-hour campaign of preset missions with pre-generated characters with their own personalities, custom dialogue and in-mission character development. In that sense it is more reminiscent of the XCOM 2 Tactical Legacy Pack from a couple of years ago, which added linear, story-driven campaigns to the more familiar strategic gameplay. The game also adds a new Breach mechanic to the game and expands on the idea of teamwork from War of the Chosen, which allowed you to develop relationships between characters which yielded in-mission rewards and special abilities.

XCOM: Chimera Squad will be released in 24 April and is currently available for pre-order at the price of £8.50, or $10 in colonial currency.

More images released from the new DUNE movie

More pictures have been released from the new film version of Dune, due to hit cinemas in December.

This first image sees Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar, Lady Bird) as Paul Atreides on the surface of Arrakis, the planet popularly known as Dune. Also pictured is his mother, the Lady Jessica Atreides, concubine to Duke Leto, played be Rebecca Ferguson. Both are wearing stillsuits, garments which completely recycle all body moisture, a necessity for survival in Dune's harsh climate.

The desert scenes were filmed in Jordan in the spring and summer of 2019, which the cast noted as being brutally hot and not helped by their bulky costumes. The role of Paul was previously played by Kyle McLachlan in the 1984 film version of Dune, directed by David Lynch.

This image confirms the casting of Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Years and Years) as Dr. Liet-Kynes, the Imperial Ecologist on Arrakis, a functionary of the Imperium assigned to investigate the ecology and geology of the planet but has "gone native," allying with the native Fremen and taking a Fremen spouse.

In the original Dune novel Liet was male, and was played by Max von Sydow in the 1984 film. The role was gender-swapped after director Denis Villeneuve noted that changes in the script had otherwise reduced the number of major female characters (particularly the splitting of the story into two movies, which presumably pushes Alia Atreides and Princess Irulan Corrino into the second film).

This is our first look at Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as Chani, Dr. Kynes's daughter, raised in the ways of the Fremen. Sean Young played the role in the 1984 film.

House Atreides and its servants: Chalamet as Paul third from left, with Stephen McKinley Henderson (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) as Thufir Hawat, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho.

In the 1984 film, Thufir Hawat was played by Freddie Jones.

Josh Brolin (The Avengers: Endgame, Sicario) plays Gurney Halleck, an Atreides military commander who holds a fierce hatred of the rival Harkonnen family. He is one of Paul's military tutors and mentors. Pictured behind him appears to be an Atreides ornithopter.

In the 1984 film version of Dune, he was played by Patrick Stewart.

Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen, The Girl on the Train) as Lady Jessica. Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a secretive order who have been working to a breeding programme ten thousand years in the planning, conspiring to bring about the birth of a super-being known as Kwisatz Haderach. Jessica's love for her duke has upset the Sisterhood's plans and led to her near disgrace in the order.

Jessica was previously played by Francesca Annis in the 1984 movie.

Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Show Me a Hero) plays Duke Leto Atreides, the head of House Atreides and a canny warrior, skilled general and accomplished diplomat. Immensely popular the Landsraad Council for his charisma and good judgement, Leto's popularity arguably eclipses that of Emperor Shaddam IV's, to the latter's disquiet.

In the 1984 film version of Dune, Duke Leto was played by Jurgen Prochnow.

Jason Momoa (StarGate: Atlantis, Game of Thrones, Aquaman) as Duncan Idaho, a skilled Swordmaster of the Ginaz School. He is Paul's tutor in swordplay and personal combat. Duncan has been a reluctant hero and, although he doesn't know it, will go to be one for a long time to come. He is the only character to appear in all six canonical Dune novels, so if the film is a hit, Momoa might be playing this role for some years to come.

Richard Jordan played the role of Duncan in the 1984 film, with a significantly smaller role than in the book.

Director Denis Villeneuve with Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), who plays Stilgar. Stilgar is a respected leader among the Fremen, the commander of Liet and Chani's tribe. He becomes an ally of the Atreides in the struggle against the Harkonnens, although he is keen not to let his people become pawns.

Dune is due for release on 18 December 2020, global pandemic permitting.

Monday 13 April 2020

Valkyria Chronicles 4

The Atlantic Federation has launched a massive counter-offensive against the East Europan Imperial Alliance, driving its armies back as it makes a determined push against the enemy capital of Schwartzgrad. Squad E of the Ranger Corps is part of the attack, known as Operation Northern Cross. Early successes are followed by difficult reversals, and the revelation of a second, even more dangerous Federation offensive. Squad E is pushed to the limit as the Federation seeks to end the Second Europan War before it can become a global, bloodier conflict.

Valkyria Chronicles was released in 2008 and was a modest success on the PlayStation 3 console. The publishers, Sega, decided to continue the franchise on handheld, with Valkyria Chronicles 2 and 3 being exclusive to the PSP (and Valkyria Chronicles 3 never being released outside of Japan). The franchise remained a low-seller, and may have faded into obscurity if a PC port of the original Valkyria Chronicles had not been a surprise massive success in 2014. This led to the release of a spin-off game set in a completely different universe, the ill-conceived Valkyria Revolution and, finally last year, Valkyria Chronicles 4.

Set alongside and after the original game and before the events of Valkyria Chronicles 2 and 3, VC4 is effectively the second game in the series, as well as being the closest in tone, style, interface and controls to the original Valkyria Chronicles, so it can be played safely without any knowledge of the other games in the franchise.

The dog is the best character in the game. Alas, he is not a controllable character.

As with the original, the game is set during the Second Europan War and sees the player control a squad of soldiers in the fight against the Empire. You have a large roster of soldiers to choose your main squad from, consisting of important story-critical characters (who can't die, but sometimes losing them mid-battle can result in an instant fail) and other recruits who can be killed permanently. In Valkyria Chronicles 4 these side-characters are much more important, with many of them having their own solo or group missions which will not trigger if any of them fall or aren't levelled up, so both preserving your troops and using a wider variety of them is encouraged.

As before your troops fall into several classes: Scouts can move huge distances but do relatively little damage, although once you upgrade them they can be formidable; Engineers can move almost as far but are less effective in battle, and are better-used for resupplying troops with ammo, repairing tanks and healing; Lancers are hardy anti-tank troops; Snipers can take out enemies at extreme range; and Tanks are, well, tanks, formidable machines with great anti-personnel and anti-armour capabilities but tend to attract the fire of every enemy on the map. To this roster this game adds an Armoured Personnel Carrier (which can pick up troops and deposit them elsewhere on the map) and the Grenadier, a formidable class which can target enemies at range with indirect fire, and can specialise in anti-personnel or anti-armour tech trees.

The game does continue the original's veritable obsession with quality baked goods.

On each turn you have a number of ability points. You can move each character a set distance and then either fire their weapon, throw a grenade, heal or use a special ability. Classes vary wildly in their capabilities: Snipers can't move far but make up for this with lethal range, whilst Scouts can move halfway across most maps in one go, but are less capable in combat until they've upgraded their weapons and skills. Characters can move more than once per turn, but on their second turn they have half the ability points of their first turn, then half again and so on. You can trigger reaction fire from enemies if you get too close, so you have to be wary of where you're moving troops to, what enemies they may encounter and if there is cover they can use (which dramatically reduces damage).

Valkyria Chronicles 4 improves on the first game by re-balancing the classes, so units like Shocktroopers whose low movement points made them relatively unappealing are now much more versatile, whilst upgraded Scouts can no longer win entire missions by themselves in the late game stage, which was an issue in the first title. Otherwise, Valkyria Chronicles 4 plays exactly like the first game, down to even using mostly the same music, sound effects, UI and controls. I must admit it's a bit odd playing a game released in 2019 to find it being a virtual clone of one released in 2008. Even the usual difference you'd expect - much better graphics - isn't really the case because the Valkyria Chronicles series uses a highly stylised, painting-like style for its art which means the two games do look very similar.

As with the original game, missions become vastly less interesting when the super-powered glowing women from beyond the dawn of time who can one-shot your entire army show up.

The game also plays the same off the battlefield. You have a headquarters where you can research new technology, unlock new characters, train up classes using experience points gained in battle and read the news about how the war is going on the larger scale. Before each mission there are also numerous, numerous cut scenes expanding on the plot and story. I'd have more time for these if they didn't use somewhat stilted and repetitive animations for the characters and you didn't have to manually hit enter after every line of dialogue. This wasn't too bad in the original game, which lasted for a breezy 35 hours with only a moderate amount of dialogue before each battle. In Valkyria Chronicles 4 the game lasts for around 60 hours and there is vastly more dialogue before each battle and sometimes after. There's also far more side-missions in VC4 (optional missions which are not part of the main storyline), more character stories and more skirmishes of differing difficulty tiers. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a much longer game than the original, which is good in some respects, but it also massively expands the amount of tedious cut scenes you have to sit through.

It doesn't help that the writing and characterisation in Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a big step back from the original. The new characters are mostly walking archetypes with little or no actual character (lead hero Claude is an absolute blank slate with no discernible character traits other than "good leader"), or are horrendous cliches (Raz is appallingly badly-written throughout the game, and his character's eventual fate seems based on the mistaken idea that he is likeable at that moment). The secondary cast of optional recruits is a lot better fleshed-out than in the original game, which is good, but when the main cast is so bland and they're the people that 90% of the game and it's stories revolve around, it's a big problem.

A cameo appearance by the cast of the original Valkyria Chronicles doesn't exactly help this game stand out from its shadow.

It also doesn't help that VC4 leans into the worst excesses of anime tropes, which the original definitely didn't do. Apart from some questionable uniform choices, the original game was pretty good in depicting a mixed-gender unit fighting in a decidedly grim conflict which raised questions about bigotry and xenophobia (through the uncomfortable but relatively sensitively-handled parallels between the Holocaust and the treatment of the in-game Darcsen race, a storyline that the fourth game barely even acknowledges). VC4, on the other hand, is outright sexist, treating its female characters pretty poorly throughout. Early on it appears that the game is actually trying to address sexism as a key theme of the game in a similar manner as racism was in the first title, with Raz's uncomfortably sexist harassment of Kai clearly being condemned and Raz eventually cleaning up his act. However, later side-missions and optional, fanservice-oriented DLC depicting the female characters in various stages of undress rapidly see this excuse dissipating.

If it was possible to ignore the ham-fisted writing and the cliched storytelling and just enjoy the actual gameplay, Valkyria Chronicles 4 (***) would be an easy recommend, especially to people who already enjoyed the first game. The combat missions are pretty solid, the new Grenadier class is pretty cool, the side-characters are much more interesting and the individual missions are a bit more forgiving than the first game. But as it stands, you can't, with the story, cliches and more obnoxious characters rammed down your throat at every opportunity and a good quarter of the game spent clicking through story episodes before you can actually play the missions. Combined with an absolute overload of content which makes the game seriously outstay its welcome, and a decidedly ridiculous price tag (at this time of writing), these make the game less attractive than simply firing up Valkyria Chronicles for another run-through, which is a huge shame. The game is available now via Steam on PC, and also on PlayStation 4 and X-Box One.

Our first glimpse of Denis Villeneuve's DUNE

Thanks to Vanity Fair, we have our first official look at the new film version of Dune, due for release in December this year (global emergency notwithstanding).

A First Look at Timothe Chalamet in Dune

The image shows Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides at the start of the film when he is still on the water world of Caladan. Various spacecraft can be see in the image, presumably preparing to help the Atreides family move to the desert planet of Arrakis, more popularly called Dune.

Vanity Fair will be releasing more information and possibly more photographs in the coming days.

Dune is currently scheduled for release on 18 December 2020. As well as Chalamet, it stars Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as the Lady Jessica, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Zendaya as Chani, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, David Bautista as Glossu Rabban, Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam, Chang Cheng as Dr. Wellington Yueh, David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho. The film actually only adapts the first half of the novel, with the rest to be covered in a sequel.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Blogging Roundup: 3 February to 12 April 2020

The Wertzone

TALES FROM THE LOOP board game launches on Kickstarter 
TALES FROM THE LOOP arrives on Amazon Prime 
The Last of Us II delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic 
LIFE ON MARS revival mini-series in the planning stages 
THE MANDALORIAN adds Michael Biehn and Rosario Dawson for Season 2 
Jim Butcher surprise-announces that two DRESDEN FILES novels will be published this year 
Half-Life 3 (probably) confirmed 
The TV shows that are still (hopefully) coming out in 2020-21 
Netflix launches new fantasy TV series tomorrow 
DUNE tabletop roleplaying game gets a name and release window 
CD Projekt Red decentralises operations to continue work on Cyberpunk 2077 
Production of THE WITCHER shut down 
Ricardo Pinto begins re-release of his STONE DANCE OF THE CHAMELEON series 
Coronavirus pandemic impacts on SFF projects worldwide 
WHEEL OF TIME TV series to launch in early 2021 
TRON TV series cancelled at Disney+ 
Command & Conquer Remastered arrives on PC in June 
Horizon: Zero Dawn confirmed for PC release in summer 2020 
Final LAST KINGDOM novel to be released this October 
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy turns 42 today. 
Matthew Hughes to write sequel to Jack Vance's DEMON PRINCES series 
GAME OF THRONES prequel series will not be filmed in Northern Ireland 
LAST OF US TV series in development at HBO with CHERNOBYL writer 
CBS All Access developing CAPTAIN PIKE TV series 
Amazon releases first trailer for TALES FROM THE LOOP TV series 
Larian Studios unveils Baldur's Gate III 
Bob Iger steps down as Disney CEO 
New MALAZAN novel confirmed for this year 
Lucasfilm announce new STAR WARS multimedia project, THE HIGH REPUBLIC 
Netflix release first trailer for TRANSFORMERS: WAR FOR CYBERTRON 
Yet another STAR WARS video game cancelled 
Eli Roth and CHERNOBYL writer team up on BORDERLANDS film 
STAR TREK: PICARD proves a big hit for CBS All Access 
Blackbird Interactive announce Hardspace: Shipbreaker 
Baldur's Gate III to be released in 2020? 
Wizards of the Coast hires ex-BioWare alums to found new video game studio 
STAR WARS movies on hold (again) 
Sam Raimi in talks to join the MCU to helm Doctor Strange 2 
Dan Houser quits Rockstar Games 
Disney releases trailers for new Marvel TV shows
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