Wednesday 30 September 2020

The Marvel Cinematic Universe casts Ms. Marvel

Marvel has announced that it has found the star of its Ms. Marvel TV series, planned to debut on Disney+ in 2022.

Newcomer Iman Vellani will play the role of Kamala Khan in the series. The character debuted in the Captain Marvel comic book in 2013 before getting her own series in 2014. The character was well-received and quickly became a mainstay in the Marvel Comics universe, appearing in numerous books as well as leading this year's The Avengers video game.

The plan is to debut the character in her own Disney+ series before graduating her to the MCU movie line. There have been discussions about including her in the story of Captain Marvel 2, which is currently expected to hit cinema screens in 2022. If that is the case, the Ms. Marvel TV series would presumably provide her origin story before having her meet up with Carol Danvers. 

Marvel and Disney are currently shooting the first line of TV shows set in the MCU: WandaVision is complete and expected to hit screens in December, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is wrapping shooting and expected to debut in early 2021 and Loki and What If...? should arrive later next year. The second wave consists of Hawkeye, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk, with Tatiana Maslany heading the latter.

Netflix developing a CONAN THE BARBARIAN project

Netflix are developing a fresh TV version of Conan the Barbarian. Amazon were developing a project two years ago with Ryan Condal, but dropped it after greenlighting both Lord of the Rings: The Second Age and The Wheel of Time.

Frank Frazette's artwork for The Frost-Giant's Daughter, chronologically the earliest Conan tale.

The new project is much more nebulous than the Condal idea, which was to directly adapt Robert E. Howard's stories in chronological order. The three previous movies based on the character - Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rebooted Conan the Barbarian (2011) starring Jason Momoa - and a short-lived 1997 live-action TV show used the character and took some inspiration from Howard's stories but created new situations and stories.

Netflix are developing a slate of science fiction and fantasy properties, including a live-action version of SF anime series Cowboy Bebop and a rebooted adaptation of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia books. They are also shooting a second season of The Witcher, based on Andrzej Sapkowski's books.

Conan the Barbarian has seen a renewed lease of life in the last few years, with successful board games, video games and new comic books based on the character being released to a mostly positive reception.

Ryan Condal and his team are no longer available to helm the series, as they are instead in charge of the greenlit Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon at HBO, which is currently deep in pre-production and casting.

Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is the first human girl from the Himba people to win a place at the prestigious Oomza University, where the best and brightest from hundreds of civilisations across the galaxy gather to learn. But Binti's journey to the university is interrupted by the hostile Medusae, who intercept her ship and wipe out the crew. Binti is trapped on a living ship with only hostile aliens for company and five days until she reaches her destination...

Binti: The Complete Trilogy is an omnibus of Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series of short stories and novellas: Binti (2015), Sacred Fire (2019), Home (2017) and The Night Masquerade (2019). Combined, these four works barely last 350 pages but tell a narrative that starts in Africa and spans the entire galaxy, with the fates of billions resting in the hands of the protagonist.

Much of the story is told from Binti's point of view and she's a fascinating protagonist. She's a brilliant mathematics student with the freedom to choose any career she wants, but she is constrained by a culture which wants her to marry and have children above all else. She defies that by running away to university, but this isn't a standard story of rejecting a culture to find something else; Binti continues to lionise and respect her traditions and heritage throughout the series, but also notes its flaws and the way it stops women achieving their full potential. Potential seems to be a key theme of the series, with not just individuals but also entire communities and cultures held back by prejudice, by anger and by the temptation to violence. The university in the story, as well as being a literal location and setting, is also a metaphor as place which helps people fulfil their potential; it helps Binti to allow her culture and several others (most notably the Medusae) fulfil theirs as well.

The first story, Binti, won the Hugo and Nebula Awards and it's easy to see why. In under 50 pages, Okorafor creatures an entire star-spanning new setting, lays out the Himba and their rival Khoush cultures, introduces the Medusae and the university and tells a gripping story rich in tension as Binti has to find a way to survive and get off her ship, which requires a lot of careful negotiations with an alien species with very good reasons to distrust humans. The story is perhaps a bit too fast-paced (the resolution could have been expanded on a bit) but otherwise this is a great, tight and focused story.

Sacred Fire, a new short story for this collection, expands on the aftermath of the massacre on Binti's ship, which is adversely affecting her work at university, and sees her (helped by her new student friends) trying to find a way to put the horrific events behind her. Home and The Night Masquerade are both individually much longer, but also form a continuous narrative that unfolds when Binti returns to Earth with her Medusae friend Okwu and has to negotiate the perils of relationships between cultures who were recently at war.

The Binti series of stories is mostly excellent, taking in ideas such as family, communication and the interrelationship of very different cultures who have to coexist and resist the urge to warfare, all revolving around a strongly-defined central protagonist. The writing is excellent. The collection suffers a little from the medium. As it is made up of four separated narratives, there's a somewhat start-stop affair to the pacing and occasional re-statings of things we already knew from the earlier stories. This is very much an omnibus of four separate narratives, not a fixup novel, and should be read as such.

The other problem, also stemming from the medium, is the lack of depth for some of the concepts and ideas being used. In the case of technology, not getting much of an explanation for the edan, the living ships and the relationship of the setting to our own time (the Himba seem to be descended from a real African ethnic group of the same name and the Khoush from Arabians, but other human ethnic groups are completely missing) is all fine as it adds to the atmosphere of the story, but not getting much of an explanation for the Medusae and why they seem to be living on Earth, or why the edan hurts them or the otjize heals them, or other elements more central to the narrative can leave some elements feel underdeveloped.

Once you get beyond the unusual and intriguing new setting, there are a lot of standard tropes at work here. Binti is a special character who becomes central to the crises at hand and quickly earns the respect and trust of multiple characters and entire cultures with what at times feels like unconvincing ease. Again, that's a problem of the medium, which does not allow for as much organic storytelling as might be wished. I'm also not certain that expanding the story over several novels and hundreds more pages would be the right move either; there's a tightness to the format and the storytelling that makes it a compelling read.

Binti: The Complete Trilogy (****) mixes in refreshing new concepts with more established SFF tropes and ends up being a rewarding experience. Strong writing and strong characterisation are undermined a little but the background not being as fleshed out as it could be and the narrative can feel a little choppy, but beyond that this is a very solid read from a skilled writer. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

CD Projekt Red enter home stretch of development on CYBERPUNK 2077

CD Projekt Red have entered the home stretch of development on their massive, eagerly-awaited video game Cyberpunk 2077. They have sent a complete build to Sony and Microsoft for release certification for their consoles and the game is effectively complete and working. The focus now for the final two months is bug-crunching and stress-testing for different PC configurations, which will entail forced overtime on the project, contradicting previous promises that such mandatory "crunch" would be avoided for this title.

The game was announced in 2012 and had its first proper trailer released in January 2013. The studio moved into full-time production on the game after the release of The Witcher 3 in May 2015. CDPR began spooling up to full release in June 2018, and since then have issued numerous trailers, previews and interviews. The incredibly lengthy gestation period of the game - only Star Citizen and Beyond Good and Evil 2 have officially been in development for longer and arguably Bethesda's Starfield - has led to its development becoming a meme and many people expressing doubt the game would ever come out. In reality the development process is, although long, not unprecedented; CDPR simply started talking about the game way earlier in the process than most companies normally would.

As covered (although not as in much detail as might be wished) in Jason Schreier's fine book Blood, Sweat and Pixels, CDPR suffered a huge amount of worker attrition during the development of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its expansions in the period 2011-16. Staff were forced to work mandatory six-day and sometimes seven-day weeks for many months on end, and talented, experienced staff ended the experience by quitting. This move was self-defeating, since it meant that CDPR had to train up new staff with their procedures, software and the engine rather than using the skills and talent that had been built up over years. Labour laws in the European Union (CDPR are based in Poland) means that such "crunch" is compensated, which is not always the case in the United States, but it still takes its toll on the workforce.

More and more software developers are taking action to avoid crunch, noting that the (often temporary) boost in productivity it grants is often outweighed by the loss of talented and experienced staff in the process. Bethesda Game Studios, for example, take pride in how long they retain staff for and for their last several titles have avoided announcing any kind of release date until 3-4 months before they are there, at a point when the game is functionally complete, thus avoiding the issue.

In the specific case of Cyberpunk 2077, the head of the company has noted that the crunch period will only be for the last seven weeks of development and will be fully financially compensated. It's also typical for companies to offer extended periods of leave for non-essential staff (i.e. those not needed to address post-release patches) once the product ships and before they have to start firing up their next project. CDPR also note that 10% of the game's profits will be shared by staff. With their last game, The Witcher 3, having sold almost 30 million copies to become one of the biggest-selling games of the decade, this bonus will not be inconsiderable.

This doesn't excuse the hardship and problems caused by crunch, but in this specific case CD Projekt Red have taken steps to mitigate it and do better next time.

Cyberpunk 2077 now looks pretty locked on for its release date on 19 November on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Xbox X and PlayStation 5 versions will follow in 2021.


Amazon Prime have commenced shooting the six-episode, second block of filming for their mega-budgeted Tolkien prequel series. They had almost completed shooting on the first block of two episodes back in March when the coronavirus pandemic shut things down a few days ahead of schedule. They'd planned to take a six-month break to work on scripts for Season 2 and see out the New Zealand winter anyway, so the show's overall schedule was not adversely impacted.

Shooting on Netflix's live-action Cowboy Bebop remake was suspended last October just eleven days into filming when star John Cho suffered an on-set knee injury. A 7-9 month delay was mooted, which of course increased due to the pandemic. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it gave Cho additional recovery time. Bebop, also shooting in New Zealand, resumes production today.

A lot of the shows impacted by the pandemic have resumed shooting in the last few weeks. Season 2 of Carnival Row, Season 2 of The Witcher and Season 1 of The Wheel of Time have all spun up again since the start of August, and two more have now joined the party. Lord of the Rings is expected to shoot deep into 2021 filming between sixteen and twenty episodes expected to span two seasons, whilst Cowboy Bebop is likely to film well into the spring and maybe early summer. Lord of the Rings is expected to start airing on Amazon Prime in 2022, whilst Cowboy Bebop might just scrape onto Netflix before the end of 2021.

Monday 28 September 2020

Shooting finishes on AVATAR 2

James Cameron has confirmed that filming is complete on Avatar 2 and is almost done on Avatar 3. The two films are wrapping up back-to-back production in New Zealand.

The middle chapters of a planned five-film series, the two films are follow-ups to Avatar, released in 2009 to become the highest-grossing movie of all time between that year and 2019, when Avengers: Endgame supplanted it. The two films have had a monumental shooting schedule, with production beginning in August 2017. Like the original Avatar, the films have incorporated motion capture, fully live-action setpieces shot on sets and location, and a massive post-production schedule incorporating cutting-edge CGI from multiple effects houses.

The production of Avatar 2 has been complicated by the film's setting, which incorporates a large amount of underwater shooting and underwater mocap.

The film sees the return of original cast members Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is playing a different character to her role in the original film, but Lang's role is less clear. New castmembers include Michelle Yeoh, Jemaine Clement, Vin Diesel, Game of Thrones actress Oona Chaplin and former Cameron collaborator Kate Winslet.

Avatar pioneered the use of 3D in cinemas and is still regarded as the best example of 3D film-making ever achieved, despite several later attempts. Cameron has occasionally suggested that the four Avatar sequels may be available in "glasses-free" 3D, although it seems unlikely the technology will be available in just two years.

Avatar 2 is currently scheduled for release on 16 December 2022, with Avatar 3 to follow on 20 December 2024. Apparently some scenes for Avatar 4 were also shot as part of the 2/3 filming block, with Avatar 4 and 5 currently pencilled in for release in 2026 and 2028.

Images from Bethesda's STARFIELD reportedly leak

Images purported to be from Bethesda's upcoming science fiction roleplaying game, Starfield, have leaked onto the Internet.

The images show a figure in a spacesuit outside some kind of modular space habitat (which may hint that settlement building from Fallout 4 and 76 may return in some fashion), and the second image shows a spacecraft. The images are reportedly from a 2018 build of the game and are not necessarily representative of the final look of the title.

The images include a look at the game's UI, which seems to have settings for gravity, oxygen and carbon dioxide, suggesting the game may implement different levels on gravity and different atmospheres on different worlds, something we haven't seen often in AAA space games.

Starfield has been in full-time development at Bethesda Maryland since 2016, although early prototyping began back as far as 2012. A second team at Bethesda Austin has been working on the multiplayer-focused Fallout 76, whilst additional teams have been helping the Maryland crew on Starfield, as well as spinning up early pre-production and prototyping for The Elder Scrolls VI (which reportedly has the working title Redfall).

Apart from a very brief teaser trailer released in 2018, Bethesda have kept quiet about the game. Vice-President Peter Hines has recently confirmed that Bethesda will not speak further about the game until 2021 at the earliest. Given Bethesda's preference to do a "big reveal" of a game only 3-4 months ahead of release, it's possible that this may indicate that the game itself could be released by the end of 2021.

Bethesda was recently acquired by Microsoft for $7.5 billion, leading to the possibility that Starfield and all future Bethesda projects will be exclusive to the PC and Xbox platforms, although they have agreed to honour promises that in-development games already announced for the PlayStation will be released on that console.

Bethesda have not yet commented on the leaks, although they have deleted the images from their own social media channels and forums.

Sunday 27 September 2020

Mafia: Definitive Edition

Lost Heaven, 1930. In the wake of the Wall Street Crash, the American economy is tanking and honest cab drivers like Tommy Angelo find themselves barely able to scrape by. Tommy finds himself helping two gangsters escape from a crime scene; when he gets them to safety, they ask him to work for them. From then on, Tom's life gets richer and a lot more interesting...but also a lot more dangerous.

Mafia, originally released in 2002, is one of my favourite video games of all time. It came out in the wake of Grand Theft Auto III but rather than replicate it's open-world design, mixing a central storyline with side-quests and optional activities, it instead focused on telling a linear, intense story of crime, redemption and loss. The game spans a period of eight years and chronicles how Tommy becomes a respected (and feared) member of the local community. He enjoys the camaraderie of fighting alongside his fellow mobsters and becoming a member of "the family," but he has a conscience. When civilians are killed in the crossfire, he starts to regret his choices, and when he becomes a husband and father he realises what the risks are. His bromantic view of life in the family becomes replaced by the cold, hard reality of the fact that they are criminals and murderers.

For 2002 this was advanced stuff; the same year, Vice City opted for letting its players live out their most insanely violent, gun-spitting, coke-drenched Scarface fantasies and felt like a cartoon by comparison. An entertaining cartoon, sure, but still a decidedly unrealistic game. Mafia was much more interested in realism: you can only take a few hits without dying, crashing your car too severely will also kill you and the police will get on your tail for running red lights and breaking the speed limit. You can even run out of petrol if you're not careful. The cars are all weighty and feel massive, taking ages to build up speed and with breaking distances measured in hundreds of feet. Mafia's not entirely devoted to realism - a few missions see frankly preposterous numbers of enemies rushing to take you on, because it's still a video game - but it was certainly the cold bucket of water compared to GTA's depiction of crime. It's interesting how influential Mafia was; later GTA games (particularly Grand Theft Auto IV, which borrows a ton of ideas from Mafia) definitely feel more like Mafia than GTA3 or Vice City.

Now the game has been remade by Hanger 13, the developer who took over the franchise from Bohemian Interactive (who also made the disappointing Mafia II). Hanger 13's own Mafia III was so-so, some good ideas compromised by all the tedious open-world jank the publisher had blatantly forced on the game to make it a Grand Theft Auto clone. The fear was they'd do the same to Mafia: Definitive Edition, having the missions trigger when you go to Salieri's restaurant but introducing a ton of new content to make exploring the city worthwhile at the expense of slowing the narrative down. I'm genuinely surprised they haven't done this, instead replicating the original structure of having you move directly from one mission to the next in a linear fashion. The separate "Free Ride" mode remains intact, allowing you to explore the city off your own back if you wish (although there isn't much to do).

The shooting has been upgraded a bit, with the introduction of Mafia III's cover system, but it feels a bit weightless compared to the original game. In particular the machine gun has become decidedly less effective than it used to be and the game's tracking of headshots is variable. The driving hasn't been upgraded at all: these cars are still massive, take ages to get up to speed and cornering becomes a major skill. This is a bold choice, although the developers have added motorbikes and some ahistorical later, nippier cars for optional use. Fortunately there's now a lot more granularity in the difficulty. You can set it so the police ignore you for breaking the speed limit or running red lights, and cars no longer need to be fuelled up.

The story and missions remain the same, although they've been tightened up in places. Tommy has a few more interactions with his girlfriend (and later wife) and the slightly embarrassing sex scene from the original (all comical bumping polygons and dead staring eyes) has been mercifully exorcised in favour of something more tasteful. The script has also been rewritten to be more concise and sharper, leading to one of the game's most disappointing aspects: the revoicing of all the game's dialogue.

This is fine in most cases, with the new actors turning in solid performances. The biggest problem is with Tommy himself. His original voice actor was outstanding, really selling the idea of Tommy as a completely ordinary guy who's wandered into this life and isn't sure about it at all, coming across as believably nervous and even frightened in his first few brushes with "the lifestyle" before he gets more used to it. Tommy in the revised edition has a much more generic voice actor and is a bruiser who is prepared to use his fists and guns right from the very off, with other characters even expressing their surprise at his willingness to use physical violence. This is an odd move, as it removes what differentiated Tommy from other video game antagonists (including Vito and Lincoln in the sequels) and makes him both far more predictable and much less sympathetic. It doesn't help that the new Tommy character model doesn't resemble the original at all (weirdly, as pretty much everyone else gets a brand new model that resembles the original quite closely, just much more detailed) and again looks much more generic.

Graphically, the game is fine, and certainly much better than it looked in 2002, but not as good as you'd expect a brand new game in 2020. The environments look decent and the main character models are solid (especially in cutscenes) but most of the random pedestrians on the street are distinctly plastic-looking and the city buildings have a really weird LOD issue, where they load up the more detailed textures far later than you'd expect, resulting in some distinctly low-res skyscrapers when you're not that far away from them. The game also has some of the same weird physics artefacts from the original (such as some street signs stopping your car in its tracks if you crash it them, but other, near-identical ones being knocked flying). Mafia III was rightfully criticised for being a 2016 game that looked like a 2010 game, but Mafia: Definitive Edition is a 2002 game remade in a 2016 engine that looks like a 2012 game on a good day. The game doesn't look hideous and it gets the job done, but it does feel a bit low-budget.

The original game's most controversial mission, the ludicrously tough motor race, is present and correct, and hysterically appears to be based on the original build version from 2002, not the patch released a few months later which added variable sub-difficulty levels, opened up a cheesy shortcut and even allowed you to skip the mission if you failed it a few times in a row. The 2020 version of the race is lacking any of these improvements and is utterly merciless on anything other than Easy difficulty. Respect to Hanger 13 for retaining the integrity of the original, a bold but (going by early social media reactions) controversial move.

Mafia: Definitive Edition (***½) spruces up an all-time classic into something more approachable and more playable in 2020. It isn't a flawless remake, however. Graphically, it's not where  you'd expect a modern game to be, and the shooting is a bit of a mixed bag. The game feels a bit like it's fallen between two stools: it's changed enough so as not to be a completely 100% accurate remake but it's not changed enough to create an entirely new game sitting on top of the original's structure. As it stands it feels like a compromise, one that's playable and interesting enough, but some of the original magic has been lost along the way. It's also questionable if even the half-price launch point is reasonable considering that a single playthrough of the game will likely not take much more than 12 hours or so. The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Rebooted HERO QUEST smashes crowdfunding target

Hasbro launched a crowdfunding programme for a new version of classic 1989 board game Hero Quest yesterday. They asked for $1 million to get a new version of the game funded and out to market in 2021. At just under the 24 hour mark, they sailed past the target. With the campaign expected to run until 6 November, it looks possible that the campaign might pull in several multiples of the target.

Additional stretch goals will be unlocked as more funding comes in. At $1.2 million, the game will gain a new Warlock character class courtesy of designer Shauna Nakasone. At $1.4, $1.6 and $1.8 million the game will add new models (dice, skeletons, goblins respectively). At $2 million the game will add an entire second, new campaign called Prophecy of Telor, designed by original Hero Quest creator Stephen Baker.

Additional stretch goals will be unveiled after that, with designer Nikki Dawes working on a Druid character class and Teos Abadia developing a further campaign called The Spirit Queen's Torment, which intriguingly will allow orc heroes to join the party.

Controversially, the crowdfunding campaign has only been open to contributors from the USA and Canada. Hero Quest was originally a British game, developed by British designer Baker and co-designed with British company Games Workshop. The game launched first in Britain (ahead of its American release) and was an immense smash hit here, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the UK by itself. The game was also immensely popular across Europe (particularly in Spain) and Australia as well.

With the game fully funded, it will be launched as retail project via Hasbro's wargaming and board gaming arm, Avalon Hill, in late 2021 and will presumably be available worldwide. The first two of the original game's expansion packs, Kellar's Keep and Return of the Witch-King, are also being rebooted, with a possible eye to the other expansions following.

More information on the game will be revealed at the virtual PulseCon 2020 this weekend.

BALDUR'S GATE II - the LORD OF THE RINGS of western RPGs - turns 20

BioWare's classic computer roleplaying game, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, turned 20 years old this week. The sequel to the 1998 original, Baldur's Gate II was bigger, more epic and exhausting to make, but more exhilarating to play. It was the last 2D game BioWare made, switching to a 3D engine for their next games Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and never looking back. They have acknowledged that they will likely never be able to match the scale and scope of the game again.

BioWare shipped Baldur's Gate in late 1998. A 2D CRPG launching in the initial age of 3D games - being released within weeks of Half-Life, in fact - Baldur's Gate proved to be a huge hit. Using the Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset and the Forgotten Realms world, Baldur's Gate and its excellent Infinity Engine caught the public imagination. BioWare's publisher, Interplay, even borrowed the engine so their in-house CRPG studio, Black Isle, could make their own variants, Planescape: Torment (1999) and Icewind Dale (2000).

Baldur's Gate allowed the player to create any character they wished and then guide them through a lengthy adventure. Starting with the murder of the player's adopted father by a mysterious stranger, the player would explore a semi-open world brimming with adventures, side-quests, monsters and treasure. They'd join forces with a band of bickering companions, some of whom would hate and fight one another. The player would even be able to romance some of these companions. All the while a compelling central storyline would unfold, culminating in the reveal that the lead character is one of the "Bhaalspawn," descendants of the slain God of Murder, Bhaal, and poised to inherit his murderous power. The original game ended with the party defeated another of the Bhaalspawn, Sarevok, and defeating a conspiracy to destabilise the Sword Coast and the great city of Baldur's Gate. An expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), expanded the original game with a series of new quests and a "super dungeon" adding many hours of new content.

With Baldur's Gate a huge hit, the team at BioWare started work on a sequel. With the engine already mature and ready to go, the designers were able to focus almost exclusively on creating content. In less than eighteen months, they had created a game almost four times the scale and scope of the original Baldur's Gate. The new storyline would expand on the "Bhaalspawn" elements from the original, with a new villain called Jon Irenicus trying to capture the main character to gain access to his or her power. In a deviation from the original game, where Sarevok appeared fleetingly, Irenicus makes more frequent appearances in the game throughout its length and is ruthless and threatening, killing several major characters from the first game and kidnapping another. Actor David Warner (Time Bandits, Titanic, Star Trek) was praised for his memorable performance as Irenicus, often cited as one of the greatest video game antagonists of all time for his conviction and menace.

Although the new storyline was memorable and well-handled, praise was also lavished on the game's immense number of side-quests, some developing into significant sub-plots lasting hours in themselves. These appeared in the game's second act which, as is traditional with BioWare games, is wide open and allows players to travel around, meet people at random and achieve different goals. Although not an open world game as such (even arguably as much as the original), Baldur's Gate II was still huge in scope with more than 350 locations to visit, dozens of dungeons to explore and thousands of enemies to fight. The game also gave more power and choice to the player, including greater character customisation options and bringing in rules from the just-released 3rd Edition of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game.

One of the game's most popular features was a home base. Depending on the main character's class, they would receive one of several potential strongholds. Over the course of the game the stronghold could be built up and improved on, and would provide a valuable location for players to retreat to between quests.

The game expanded the combat from the original game, offering a ton of elements to give players granular control over how they handled it. They could transform the game into a turn-based affair, pausing the game after every six-second action to issue new orders, or play completely in real time, able to pause with a tap of the spacebar to issue new orders. This freedom is, curiously, missing from in-development Baldur's Gate III, which has mandated turn-based combat only to the frustration of some long-term fans.

Baldur's Gate II was released in September 2000 and sold immensely well, garnering critical acclaim for its huge scope and length, as well as its refined game engine. The game such a success that Interplay wanted a sequel in development ASAP, but BioWare felt burned out on the Infinity Engine and had plans for an ambitious 3D engine that would allow gamers to replicate the tabletop D&D experience, including having one player serve as an online Dungeon Master in creating their own adventure. BioWare decided not to proceed with a full sequel but to "super-size" the planned expansion for the game into a proper ending to the saga. Released in September 2001, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal brought the Bhaalspawn story to a conclusion and was well-received, with its scope and size considered surprisingly huge for an expansion. BioWare would release their 3D, player-driven game, Neverwinter Nights, in June 2002 as their last (to date) D&D video game.

The size and scope of Baldur's Gate II could not be replicated in a 3D engine and BioWare decided not to even try, instead focusing on much shorter but much more "cinematic" game experiences, blending action and roleplaying. They also began developing games with a view to releasing console versions. Although the CRPGs developed during this period were highly successful and critically acclaimed for their stories and characters - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), Jade Empire (2005) and Mass Effect (2007) - they faced some criticism for being short and "dumbing down" RPG elements in favour of action. BioWare tried to reverse this course with Dragon Age: Origins (2009), a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate II set in their own original world, but matching the older game's epic story and focus on strong characters. Even this game couldn't match Baldur's Gate II's scale (coming in at around a third the size), but it was critical and commercial success, generating two sequels: Dragon Age II (2011) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014).

Those wanting a genuine successor to Baldur's Gate II had to wait a long time to get it. Obsidian Entertainment's Neverwinter Nights II (2007) and its two expansions focused more on single-player adventuring than BioWare's original, and scratched an itch for D&D CRPG fun in the Forgotten Realms setting. Obsidian went on to develop several "spiritual successors" of their own in a modern take on the Infinity Engine, resulting in Pillars of Eternity (2015), Tyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018). Their forthcoming new game Avowed is set in the same world as Pillars of Eternity, but draws more on Skyrim for inspiration than Baldur's Gate. Pathfinder: Kingmaker (2018) likewise channelled the spirit and energy of Baldur's Gate II, and made a rare attempt to try and match its size and scope. Arguably it was Larian Studios who delivered the first significant improvement to the isometric formula with Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and Divinity: Original Sin II (2017), which added environmental physics puzzles to the mix.

Although it's very different in moment-to-moment gameplay, which is more action-based, CD Projekt Red's The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015) might be the closest game to Baldur's Gate II in terms of the sheer epic nature of the storyline, the memorable cast of characters and the compelling plot which twists and turns over dozens of hours, whilst also giving the freedom to pursue a vast array of side-quests.

In 2019 it was confirmed that Divinity studio Larian would be helming the proper, official Baldur's Gate III. Taking place about 130 years after events of Baldur's Gate II, the epic new game sees the player creating a character who gets caught up in a battle between mind-flayers, dragons and demons, extending from the Forgotten Realms into the layers of Hell itself. Although the story is new and largely separate from the original games, some characters and dangling plot threads are expected to be addressed in the new game.

Baldur's Gate II set new standards for fantasy roleplaying games in terms of scope, storytelling, characterisation and adventure. Despite many brave attempts, it's never been quite matched and its influence looms large over the entire Western canon of digital roleplaying games. Whether Larian can match that legacy with Baldur's Gate III remains to be seen, but they certainly have an uphill task on their hands.

Baldur's Gate III will enter Early Access in October 2020 and will be released fully in 2021. Baldur's Gate II is available to play now in its updated "Enhanced Edition."

Ex-Blizzard personnel, disheartened by life under Activision, set up a new company and two new studios

A group of former staffers from Blizzard Entertainment have founded a new company in apparent protest over the treatment of their former home by parent company Activision, which acquired Blizzard in 2008.

The new company is called Dreamhaven and has been founded by former Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime. Morhaime ran Blizzard until 2018, stepping into an advisory role for a year before leaving altogether. Dreamhaven will run two development studios: Moonshot Games and Secret Door. No games have yet been announced, but presumably both studios will be anxious to get projects underway ASAP.

Blizzard Entertainment was founded in 1991 under the name Silicon & Synapse. They released their first two games, Rock n' Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings, in 1993 before before switching their name to Chaos Studios, Inc. They became known as Blizzard in 1994.

Blizzard had their first big hits with WarCraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) and its sequel WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), fantasy real-time strategy games inspired by Warhammer and Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis. They achieved even greater success with a science fiction variant on the franchise, StarCraft, which was released in 1998 to universal acclaim and enormous sales, becoming the biggest-selling real-time strategy game of all time with over 20 million copies sold.

They also began development of a dark fantasy action roleplaying game, Diablo (1997), and achieved success with more sequels: Diablo II (2000) and WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002). In 2004 they shifted gears again and released World of WarCraft, the most successful and popular online roleplaying game of all time with more than 100 million player accounts and over $10 billion in generated revenue.

The game's immense success saw them acquired by Activision in 2008. However, as part of the deal Blizzard continued to operate autonomously and they continued to release sequels: the much-delayed StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was released in 2010 and Diablo III in 2012. Both games were criticised, StarCraft II for the immense wait for the second and third parts of the campaign (the final part was not released until 2015) and Diablo III for technical problems and an "auction house" approach which was believed to be nickel-and-diming loyal fans. Diablo III's problems were fixed by the release of the critically acclaimed Reaper of Souls expansion in 2014. StarCraft II's sales topped out at under 20 million, with the game losing online momentum and long-term fans preferring the original game's unit balance and online play. In recognition of this, Blizzard abandoned plans for a StarCraft III in favour of StarCraft Remastered, released in 2017 to critical acclaim. Diablo III and Reaper of Souls went on to achieve tremendous success with over 30 million sales, but "cold feet" by Activision executives saw a second expansion cancelled and developers transferred over to a fast-tracked Diablo IV.

Blizzard experienced further controversies when a second MMORPG they put into development in 2007, Titan, was cancelled in 2014 after an immense amount of money had been spent on it. Blizzard salvaged the game's plot and art assets to create an online action game called Overwatch (2016), which proved an unexpected huge hit with almost 50 million sales to date.

Despite delivering massive sales successes - by some metrics Blizzard's games have sold over 250 million copies, making them one of the most successful development studios in history - rumours began to spread in 2018 that Activision was unhappy with Blizzard's development schedule, which saw games released only when "they were done" and not iterated on annually, like Activision's own Call of Duty franchise which has delivered a new game annually since 2005. Blizzard was forced to cut costs and downsize, angering executives and developers alike who were well aware of the continued massive revenue being generated by Overwatch, Diablo III and even the then-fourteen-year-old World of WarCraft. Morhaime stepped down around this time. Activision was also criticised for its handling of Diablo IV, cancelling an early version of the game which would have represented a more radical shift away from the classic gameplay (and would have perhaps been released as a spin-off rather than a continuation of the main series), losing key staffmembers and cancelling the formal announcement of the game in 2018 in favour of derided mobile spin-off Diablo Immortal, to the bafflement and then fury of fans.

This is familiar territory for Activision, who acquired original Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward in 2003. After initially giving Infinity Ward a lot of freedom and rewarding them for early successes, Activision took closer control of the company, forcing them to release games annually and bringing in other studios to help speed the production of spin-offs. They also refused to consider letting Infinity Ward work on new IPs or experiment more dramatically with the gameplay. As a result, the founders of Infinity Ward quit the company in 2010, triggering an epic series of suits and counter-suits that lasted several years. Many other Infinity Ward developers followed them out the door and they established an new company called Respawn, which collaborated with Electronic Arts on the Titanfall franchise (including the hugely successful multiplayer spin-off Apex Legends) and the recent Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, with EA guaranteeing them greater freedom to work on different projects.

It sounds like history has repeated itself, with reports of numerous Blizzard developers and staffmembers quitting the company to join forces with Dreamhaven.

Blizzard continues to work on Diablo IV, Diablo Immortal and Overwatch 2. Dreamhaven's new projects have yet to be announced, but I suspect that both Microsoft and Sony would be very happy to have their games on their new consoles and the PC platform.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Hasbro unveils new HERO QUEST project

 Hasbro has unveiled their fresh take on classic 1989 board game Hero Quest.

As related previously, Hero Quest was launched in 1989 as a collaboration between Milton Bradley Games (a subsidiary of Hasbro) and Games Workshop. The game saw a band of heroes braving a dungeon, depicted on a single board which would be adjusted with scenery into numerous different configurations. The game was a revelation at the time for its detailed miniatures and intricate scenery (particularly the impressive furniture). The game was a bestseller in both the USA and across Europe, although sales dropped off in 1992 and the game was cancelled after several expansions and a revised "advance" edition.

The new game is true to the original but has some updates to the gameplay to make it more streamlined and user-friendly. It has also removed any Games Workshop IP-derived creatures and characters to avoid potential legal issues, with "Chaos Magic" becoming "Dread Magic," Chaos Warriors becoming more generic "Dread Warriors" and Fimirs becoming a new race of aquatic monsters, the "Abominations".

The game has several improvements, such as using full plastic models for the doors (rather than card), plastic engraved dice and plastic bookshelves and fireplaces. The game will also allow players to play as either male or female versions of the four main characters.

The game is being crowdfunded via Hasbro's inhouse Hasbro Pulse Lab system. Players can preorder the base game for $99.99 or the "Mythic Tier" at $149.99, which includes additional miniatures based on the guy who gives the party its missions, Mentor, and the evil Witch Lord Zargon (who replaces Morcar, who is now a Chaos Lord in Warhammer). It will also include two full expansions based on the originals: Return of the Witch Lord and Kellar's Keep.

If the game exceeds its funding goal of $1 million, it will unlock additional bonuses like a new character class, the Warlock, and an entire new campaign book from original Hero Queste designer, Stephen Baker.

At this time of writing, the game had exceeded $200,000 in funding in less than 45 minutes, so it's quite likely the game will hit and then smash its goal.

Unfortunately, Hasbro Pulse does not ship directly to Europe, Asia or Australia, and only to Canada with hefty shipping fees. Given the absolutely titanic popularity of Hero Quest in many of those territories - and this is a British game in the first place! - that is disappointing.

Some fans have also expressed dismay at the price and the lack of any updated gameplay, noting that contemporary dungeon crawlers like Descent, Imperial Assault and, especially, Gloomhaven and Frosthaven have much more gameplay and many more ideas than Hero Quest at a cheaper price point.

More details should be released at Hasbro's virtual games event this weekend. They are currently targeting a late 2021 release date.

Actor Michael Hogan is seriously ill, costars and fans rallying around

Canadian actor Michael Hogan is seriously ill after suffering a fall which resulted in a brain injury, with his wife stepping up as a full-time carer. The accident happened back in February, but his family had kept the news secret until this week when they agreed to let it be made public and set up a Gofundme page to help make up for the family's loss of income.

Michael Hogan is best-known for playing the role of Colonel Saul Tigh on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, from the pilot mini-series in 2003 to the final episode in 2009. He was an initially divisive figure among fans, a drunkard and a has-been with a failed marriage who takes his inadequacies and rage out on subordinates, particularly Lt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) and is almost presented as the antagonist of the show in the opening episodes of Season 2, when he has to take command of Galactica when Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) is temporarily incapacitated. However, his characters underwent a major rehabilitation when he was among the colonists on New Caprica put under Cylon occupation at the end of Season 2. Tigh became an indefatigable resistance leader, ruthless in the pursuit of securing freedom and liberty for his people. Hogan's stellar performance - easily the equal of his much more famous co-stars Olmos and Mary McDonnell - sold the transformation and made him a firm fan favourite in later seasons, bolstered by a major character revelation in the final season of the show.

Hogan has also appeared in a veritable galaxy of other genre shows in a career spanning forty years: The Twilight Zone, War of the Worlds, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Millennium, The Outer Limits, Earth: Final Conflict, Andromeda, Warehouse 13, Dollhouse, Smallville, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, Fargo, 12 Monkeys, The Man in the High Castle and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

He also had a small but highly impactful number of voice-over appearances in video games, playing Captain Armando-Owen Bailey in Mass Effect 2 and 3, Doc Mitchell in Fallout: New Vegas and General Tullius in Skyrim.

Many of Michael Hogan's friends, colleagues and convention buddies have rallied around him and his family at this time, including Katee Sackhoff, Jewel Staite, Bear McCreary, Mary McDonnell, Amanda Tapping, Tricia Helfer, Rekha Sharma, Aaron Douglas, Sam Witwer, Jane Espenson, Mark Meer, Michael Trucco and Edward James Olmos.

Monday 21 September 2020

Microsoft acquires Bethesda for $7.5 billion

In seismic news, Microsoft have acquired Zenimax Media, their games division, Bethesda Softworks and no less than eight subsidiary development studios in a huge deal worth $7.5 billion or, for context, almost twice what Disney paid for Lucasfilm in 2012.

The deal is the second-largest video game acquisition in history (behind only Tencent's acquisition of Finnish mobile developer Supercell in 2016, for $8.6 billion) and sees Microsoft take over the operation of Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, Zenimax Online Studios, Arkane Studios, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog and Roundhouse Studios. Combined with Microsoft's recent acquisition of studios including Obsidian Entertainment and inXile, this means that Microsoft now owns 23 games development studios, a formidable concentration of creative firepower.

It also means that Microsoft now owns many of the biggest IPs in gaming, including The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, WolfensteinDishonored and Prey, among many others.

The immediate fallout (so to speak) is to place the release of the next games in those franchises on the PlayStation platform in some doubt. Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo, in development at Arkane and Tango Gameworks, respectively, are timed PlayStation 5 exclusives and presumably those contracts with Sony will have to be honoured, but the question is whether other games like Bethesda's next big CRPGs - Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI (the sequel to uber-hit Skyrim, rumoured to have the working title Redfall), not to mention the further-off Fallout 5 - will remain multiplatform or become X-Box and PC exclusives.

Another strength of the deal is that it allows Microsoft to share out the franchises with other studios. Obsidian, for example, developed the critically-acclaimed Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesda in 2010 and it's been speculated that they might collaborate again in the future. The acquisition of Obsidian by Microsoft meant that was unlikely, but the new deal now makes it entirely possible for Obsidian to work on, say, Fallout 5 at some point in the future (something that would please many fans).

The news comes ahead of the November launch of both the X-Box Series S and X consoles and also Sony's PlayStation 5. In the runup to launch, the X-Box had gained a narrow technological lead over the PlayStation, but the PlayStation's lineup of exclusives was more impressive. With Bethesda's catalogue potentially becoming X-Box exclusive, that may convince some waverers to support Microsoft over Sony. It'll be fascinating to see how this develops.

Update: Microsoft have confirmed that they will honour the PS5 exclusivity contract over Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo, and have not ruled out future games appearing on PlayStation as well.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Dune (1984)

The known universe is ruled by the Emperor of the Imperium, Shaddam IV, who serves with the support of the Great Houses of the Landsraad. The growing popularity of House Atreides and its charismatic duke, Leto, spurs Shaddam to ally with the sworn enemies of the Atreides, the Harkonnens, and lure them into a trap by offering them the planet Arrakis - Dune - as a new fiefdom. Arrakis is the source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance known to exist, essential for the Spacing Guild to undertake FTL travel and for the prescient powers of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. But when the trap is sprung, the young scion of House Atreides, Paul, escapes into the desert with his mother and allies with the native Fremen, whom they start forming into an army.

Dune is science fiction's biggest-selling novel, and one of its most acclaimed. Frank Herbert's book, published in 1965, has become a taproot text of modern SFF, influencing everything from the original Star Wars to A Game of Thrones to The Wheel of Time and more. Unsurprisingly, this has made it a ripe prospect for adaptation to the screen. The first attempt, by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, failed in the 1970s due to budget concerns. A mini-series, released in 2000, was never more than functional. Denis Villeneuve's promising new film version is, at this time of writing, unreleased and its quality remains to be seen.

David Lynch's 1984 film version is the best-known adaptation to date and the most divisive. It's a curious film, made by a hugely talented and respected artist but one that was also made in thrall to commercial concerns that inhibited his creative freedom. It feels very much like the same problem that, a decade later, beset David Fincher's Alien 3. Both films emerge as interesting curiosity pieces, but beset by problems.

On the positive side of things, Lynch's film has incredible atmosphere and tone. The industrial gothic set design is impressive and many of the visual effects stand up, including the model work and the imposing sandworms (plus the still-freaky-as-hell Guild Navigator in the opening scene). The costume design is also sumptuous. Lynch is a painter on film, and there are many fantastically-framed shots. This is a film that does not lack for epic imagery.

The cast is also fantastic. For 1984 its cast was as stacked as the 2020 film's is today. Francesca Annis as Jessica, Jürgen Prochnow as Duke Leto, Max von Sydow as Liet-Kynes, Sean Young as Chani, Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Freddie Jones as Thufir Hawat, Siân Phillips as Revered Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Brad Dourif as Piter De Vries, José Ferrer as the Emperor, Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, Linda Hunt as the Shadout Mapes and, of course, Sting as Feyd Rautha. It's a galaxy of stars, most of whom give their all. Particularly good is Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, who despite his relative inexperience at this point gives a solid performance and is able to nail both the lighter, more boyish qualities of Paul at the start of the film as well as his darker, more messianic tendencies which evolve as the story continues.

The film does have several key weaknesses. The most notable is pacing. Because the Dune universe is strange and dense, Lynch makes the key decision to spend the first half-hour of the film engaged in laborious exposition. This is completely at odds with his later films and TV shows, where any kind of exposition or context is often missing altogether, and one wonders if his experience with this film made him leery of making the same mistake again. It takes the film 25 minutes just to reach the first scene from the actual novel, all spent in setting up concepts like the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild and the mentats. On top of that we get an introductory speech by Princess Irulan (who otherwise has just one line of dialogue in the entire film) further expanding on the spice melange and the importance of Arrakis. I can't help but feel that maybe Frank Herbert had the right idea starting the action more in media res and explaining things as he went along.

This slow start to the film is something it never really recovers from. Lynch expands a lot of time on the Atreides arrival on Arrakis, the first meeting with Dr. Kynes, the first encounter with a sandworm and so on, so that it takes ninety minutes to get Paul and Jessica to their first meeting with the Fremen. From that point to the end of the movie is just forty-five minutes, so Dune backs in a colossal amount of exposition, characters and action into the same amount of time as a network TV procedural. It's mind-bogglingly rushed, and likely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read the book (and even book readers may find themselves bemused from time to time).

Later three-hour cuts of the film - done without David Lynch's approval, and he withdrew his name from them - tried to solve some of these problems by increasing the run time and introducing more exposition, voiceovers and title cards, as well as reinserting some cut scenes, but these don't really help overcome the fundamental pacing problems and may exacerbate them (viewers' mileage will vary, though).

This problem is annoying because there is much here to enjoy. Dune is visually powerful and weirdly interesting, with a stellar cast and excellent location filming in a real desert (a key weakness of the 2000 mini-series is that it had no location filming at all), as well as a great score. But the pacing makes the first half of the film too slow and the second half far too rushed, and too many key concepts from the book are explored only in a half-arsed kind of way. Lynch seems reluctant to remove extraneous book material that doesn't impact on the film, which is why we end up with a pointless Duncan Idaho (who, from a film-only perspective, feels redundant as a character) and the Shadout Mapes, who shows up to offer a warning that everyone already knows about and could have been cut with little loss.

The biggest problem - certainly the one Frank Herbert objected to the most - is the ending, which undercuts the thematic point of the novel and renders the story as an unironic run-through of the Hero's Journey, with Paul as the white saviour/chosen one figure who is going to right wrongs and deliver peace and justice. The novel, and much moreso its sequels, is about the danger of the myth of the "superman" and giving absolute power into the hands of a "hero," with no concern about how it might corrupt him. In this sense, the film fails to deliver the story from the novel, which is more of a warning than a celebration.

If you're already familiar with the Frank Herbert novel, David Lynch's Dune (***) is an interesting interpretation of the book and features much that's impressive. However, the film fails to honour the themes and ideas from the novel (and the ending undercuts them), it is paced poorly and is a little too scared to remove elements from the book that don't work on screen. The film in is an honourable, watchable and interesting failure, but a failure none the less. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 18 September 2020

Tatiana Maslany cast as She-Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Tatiana Maslany, the Canadian Emmy-award winning star of the excellent SF clone drama Orphan Black, has been cast in the role of Jennifer Walters, better-known as She-Hulk. She will play the role in a Disney+ live-action series alongside Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

Jennifer Walters debuted in The Savage She-Hulk #1, published in 1980. Walters, a lawyer by trade is the cousin of Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, and inherits his powers after being given an emergency blood transfusion by him after an accident. She-Hulk is notable for retaining much of her human levels of intelligence and control even after "hulking out". The character has been a member of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Defenders and SHIELD at different times and her legal expertise has proven useful when various fellow heroes have gotten in trouble with the law.

She-Hulk is the latest in a series of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV series which will air on Disney+. It will be part of the second batch of MCU TV shows, following on from the first batch consisting of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki and What If...? Other shows in the second wave will include Hawkeye. Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight. She-Hulk is expected to premiere in 2022.

RIP Terry Goodkind

According to his official Facebook page, the fantasy author Terry Goodkind passed away yesterday at the age of 72.

Born in Nebraska in 1948, Goodkind had little initial interest in writing due to dyslexia, with which he had little support through education. He instead worked as a woodworker, artist and house-builder. It was whilst building his own house on an island off the coast in Maine in 1993 that he conceived of an idea for a fantasy novel which became Wizards' First Rule, the first volume in The Sword of Truth series. The book was published in 1994 by Tor Books with a huge marketing push, as they believed it could replicate the success of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence.

The Sword of Truth never achieved either the critical or commercial success of The Wheel of Time, but it did become Tor's second-biggest-selling series of the late 1990s. The series concluded in 2007 after eleven volumes, having sold over 25 million copies. Goodkind attempted to shift gears to write a contemporary fantasy, The Law of Nines, for a different publisher but the novel did poorly and plans for further books in the series were shelved. Goodkind returned to the Sword of Truth world to pen a series of prequel and sequel novels. In total Goodkind published twenty-two novels in his lifetime.

The Sword of Truth was adapted for television by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. Renamed Legend of the Seeker, two seasons of the show were produced in 2008-10.

Goodkind was a controversial figure in the fantasy field, a form of notoriety he seems to have enjoyed. He was an avid follower of Objectivism and its creator Ayn Rand, whom he frequently named as his favourite author. He is the biggest-selling and most popular Objectivist author since Rand herself, and his novels frequently featured lengthy asides where the characters debated Objectivist philosophy. Goodkind also didn't hide his political preferences in his books, in one novel casting thinly-veiled caricatures of Hilary and Bill Clinton as the main villains and showing disdain for pacifists and peace protesters. Several of his novels also featured non-sequitur essay-length discussions of the evils of socialism and communism.

His books initially attracted praise for their action and focus, but this rapidly died away as the series took on a distinctly repetitive and lecturing tone. Goodkind was dismissive of reviewers and, oddly, the entire SFF genre, repeatedly stating that his books were not fantasy because they dealt with "important human themes" and he regarded them as philosophical works. Goodkind's conception of the novels as weighty thematic tomes and the more general reader conception of them as ultraviolent and decidedly kinky pulp fiction were at such variance that it became a source of considerable humour on some fantasy websites; something Goodkind seems to have, oddly, encouraged, perhaps believing there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Goodkind did also experience more negative forms of controversy: he posted a medical report of his own health widely interpreted as mocking a dying Robert Jordan at the time (Jordan profoundly disliked Goodkind and his books, considering them to be sailing a bit too close to the wind of his own work), and in 2018 publicly mocked the cover art produced for one of his novels (leading to a rare apology). He wasn't always combative in his dealings with other authors, and occasionally praised other works of fantasy, noting that he was fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Outside of his writing, Goodkind was an amateur racing driver and continued artistic pursuits outside of his work. No cause of death was given. He is survived by his wife, Jeri.

It's fair to say that Terry Goodkind was a controversial figure in the SFF field but one who did bring a different perspective to the genre and seemed to genuinely relish his notoriety.

Thursday 17 September 2020

Tad Williams breaks own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time (before editing)

Tad Williams has broken his own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time, at least before the editing process is completed.

Williams' 1993 novel To Green Angel Tower, the concluding volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is 520,000 words in length, or around 60,000 words longer than even the complete Lord of the Rings. In fact, the only even vaguely SFF novels longer than To Green Angel Tower are firmly in other subgenres: Varney the Vampire, Atlas Shrugged, Jerusalem and Infinite Jest. To Green Angel Tower is as long as the first two books in the trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell) combined and is often only available in two volumes.

Fittingly, Williams' new, record-breaking novel is the concluding volume to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn's sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard. The Navigator's Children currently clocks in at "bigger" than To Green Angel Tower.

The novel is being "prodigiously cut" and may end up coming in shorter than the published To Green Angel Tower, but whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

The Navigator's Children is currently tentatively scheduled for release in late 2021, and will be preceded by a short novel called Brothers of the Wind (previously known as The Shadow of Things to Come), which focuses on the backstory of the Storm King, Ineluki, and his brother Hakatri.

CORRECTION: It's been noted that Tad has completed the first draft of The Navigator's Children and is now revising, but has not delivered it to DAW as yet.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

FINAL FANTASY XVI surprised announced by Square for 2021

Square have surprise-announced Final Fantasy XVI, the latest game in the long-running Japanese RPG series.

Square released Final Fantasy XV in 2016 to a mostly positive reception, so the fact they are making a new game shouldn't be too surprising. However, in the interim this year they released the first part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project, leading some to believe that XVI wouldn't appear until after the entire release was complete. Instead, it appears that Square have leveraged their enormous manpower to get FFXVI in production at the same time.

Final Fantasy XVI looks like a back-to-basics approach, with a focus on magical crystals and a medieval world and setting rather than the blend of SF and fantasy, technology and magic that has informed the last several games in the series. The game is due for release in 2021 on PlayStation 5 and PC.

LEVIATHAN FALLS will be the final book of THE EXPANSE

Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham - the two halves of the gestalt author-entity known as James S.A. Corey - have confirmed that the ninth and final volume of The Expanse will hit bookshelves in 2021, ten years after the release of the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes. Fittingly, the last book will be called Leviathan Falls.

The other books in the series are Caliban's War (2012), Abaddon's Gate (2013), Cibola Burn (2014), Nemesis Games (2015), Babylon's Ashes (2016), Persepolis Rising (2017) and Tiamat's Wrath (2019). A series of short stories and novellas has also accompanied the main series. A further novella will be released alongside Leviathan Falls, with plans for a collection of all the novellas and short stories after the main series wraps. Their next project will be a trilogy, possibly a more distant-future, epic story in the vein of Dune.

In 2015 the books were adapted as a television series, The Expanse, initially on SyFy but now on Amazon Prime. The fifth season of the TV show, which wrapped production back in February, is expected to hit screens before the end of the year.

Warner Brothers turn down BABYLON 5 model starship collection

This broke in January, so isn't new news, but had flown under my radar until now. Back in January, the team at Eaglemoss who handle their starship model collections - Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens and others - confirmed that they had been in communications with Warner Brothers about starting a Babylon 5 collection, only to be rebuffed.

Apparently Warner Brothers' response was that Babylon 5 is currently an inactive franchise. However, this doesn't mean that they're not interested in generating licences, it's just that to do so Warners would have to assemble a licencing team for the property and those people would have to know about the show so as to be able to exert quality control over any tie-in products. This might not be worth it for one project which had no guarantee of long-term success (the head of Eaglemoss expands on this in the episode "Ship Shape" here at 1 hour and 1 minute).

The same excuse was used some years ago when Big Finish Audio, who make Doctor Who and Blake's 7 audio dramas, approached Warner Brothers to make full-cast audio plays with some of the original actors from Babylon 5 and were turned down. 

Understandable from a business perspective, but disappointing. Eaglemoss's models are pretty good value for money and reasonably good in quality; not as great as the best model kits, of course, but then you're paying triple the price and you have to assemble and paint them yourselves. The currently have 312 ships in their Star Trek collection, spanning all eras of the show (from The Original Series through Picard, with Lower Decks on the horizon and even catering for things like ships from Star Trek Online). They currently have 20 models in their Battlestar Galactica collection, spanning both the original 1978 show and the 2003-09 reboot (note that their BSG collection has a buy one, get one half-price currently going on for today only), with more planned, despite a relatively small number of ships being available in that franchise. They've even managed to put together ten ships to form an Aliens/Predator collection, with more figurines and statues available.

Babylon 5 has many dozens of ships that could make it into such a collection, including the titular Babylon 5 station, the Starfury fighter and capital ships such as the Omega-class destroyer, Sharlin-class warcruiser and Primus-class battlecruiser. Babylon 5 models have been available in the past, such as a Starfury fighter and a B5 station released by Revell in the late 1990s and a line of metal miniatures from the Babylon 5 Wars game from Agents of Gaming and Mongoose Publishing's A Call to Arms miniatures wargame in the early 2000s. There was also a line of small Micro Machines toys released in the late 1990s. However, based on the quality of their Star Trek and BSG lines, an Eaglemoss line would be superior in size and quality.

Warner Brothers have continued to treat Babylon 5 in a lukewarm fashion recently, resisting calls to release an upscaled version of the show for Blu-Ray, whilst sending mixed messages on the chances of a reboot or more comprehensive remaster. Babylon 5 is a relatively obscure property compared to Star Trek or Star Wars, but it has made WB over half a billion dollars in profit since its inception in 1993, which is nothing to sneeze at, and the show retains a loyal fanbase who'd snap up such a collection eagerly.

Monday 14 September 2020

New STAR WARS short film focuses on an X-wing vs. TIE interceptor duel

Lucasfilm and Electronic Arts have joined forces to release Hunted, a seven-minute short film focusing on a dogfight between an X-wing and TIE interceptor duel in the months after the Battle of Endor.

The short film, which incorporates CG assets developed for the film Rogue One, is part of the marketing build-up for the release of Star Wars: Squadrons, a new starfighter-focused video game for PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4. A spiritual successor to the classic X-Wing line of 1990s video games (X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance), Squadrons pitches two rival squadrons in the Galactic Civil War against one another. The game includes singleplayer campaigns for each faction (although EA remain coy about how long they are) and a number of multiplayer modes.

The film focuses on Varko Grey, one of the ace Imperial pilots who appears in the game. Presumably, we may seen another film about the New Republic side of the conflict, if not several more, in the lead-up to the game's release.

Lucasfilm's direct involvement in the short is interesting. X-wings and TIE fighters are iconic parts of the franchise, of course, and as well as the 1990s video games there was a best-selling novel line by Michael J. Stackpole and Aaron Allston focusing on the pilots. The X-Wing miniatures game from Fantasy Flight has also been hugely successful and recently entered a second edition. Lucasfilm could do worse than to consider a live-action show based around pilots on one or both sides of the conflict. 

Star Wars: Squadrons will be released on 2 October this year.