Tuesday, 21 September 2021

WHEEL OF TIME recasts lead actor for second season

Amazon's Wheel of Time television adaptation has recast one of the major roles for its second season. Barney Harris has left the role of Mat Cauthon and has been replaced by Irish actor Dónal Finn.

Harris had completed shooting of the eight-episode first season, which shot over an extended period of twenty months due to repeated delays during the COVID pandemic. Shooting began on Season 2 earlier this year after only a short break.

The reasons for the recasting are unknown at this time, although other shows have been adversely affected by COVID delays to shooting causing scheduling conflicts with other projects that otherwise would not have taken place.

Although unusual, the situation is not unprecedented: Aml Ameen shot the entire first season of Sense8 for Netflix, but had a falling-out with showrunner Lana Wachowski at the table-read for the second season and was replaced at short notice for Season 2 by Toby Onwumere. Game of Thrones recast the role of Daario Naharis from Ed Skrein, who played him in Season 3, to Michiel Huisman who played him in Seasons 4-6. The role of Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, was also repeatedly recast with three actors ultimately playing the role.

Like Harris, Finn is a newcomer who has only been active in the business for a couple of years, having graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 2018. He had a small role in the second episode of The Witcher as Nettly (the peasant who hires Geralt to deal with a devil), and has also appeared in the stage play Albion, the film How to Build a Girl, the short film Love Have I Known and the TV shows SAS: Rogue Heroes and Cursed.

The first season of The Wheel of Time will debut on Amazon Prime on 19 November. Season 2 is expected to air in late 2022.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Watch_Dogs: Legion

International hacker collectivist DedSec has been blamed for a series of terrorist bombings that have ripped through London, killing hundreds. The British government has called on private security company Albion to replace the Metropolitan Police and stop further attacks, but the capital is now a morass of security checkpoints, heavily-armed guards with no accountability and constant drone surveillance. DedSec is regrouping with a new mission: to clear its name and expose those responsible for the bombings. But it needs new recruits...

Watch_Dogs: Legion is the third game in the Watch Underscore Dogs series from Ubisoft. The series has, to date, made an entertaining fist of its premise, which is basically being a Tesco own-brand version of Grand Theft Auto with worse driving, combat and storytelling, but the entertaining ability to hack the world around you. This gives the player some control over the environment, allowing you to remotely open gates, take over turrets, seize control of drones and wrestle control over passing cars and send them flying into a river, if you want.

Legion is the third game in the series and introduces a potentially very interesting and powerful idea: the game does not have a set cast of major characters as such. Instead, it allows DedSec to recruit literally any passing character off the street. Using the traditional Watch_Dogs device of scanning each passer-by's mobile phone, you can quickly discover their political leanings, sports team affiliations and medical or criminal history, working out if they'd be a good recruit for DedSec or not. Sometimes the recruitment systems is as easy as asking, "Wanna join DedSec, bruv?" and sometimes it triggers a mission where you have to do them a favour, like rescuing a family member who's being intimidated by thugs or deleting evidence about their criminal behaviour from a server. The only constants are Sabine, the sole survivor of the original London DedSec cell from before the bombings, and Bagley, a powerful AI that has been subverted to DedSec's cause and serves as your omnipresent "man in a van" assistant.

This initially sounds amazing, and for the first hour or so of the game it was as I had to undertake a series of missions with an elderly pensioner, which lent things a rather different vibe to the usual well-trained, young protagonists who feature in video games. After a while I'd built up a small team of what felt like everyday people, but I found myself defaulting to Myrtle, a late-twenties Irish construction worker who could legitimately enter many of the city's no-go security areas thanks to her job ID, and was impressive in hand-to-hand combat thanks to an unfeasibly massive wrench that was her signature weapon. Most impressively, she could at any time summon a cargo drone which she could use to get around the city and reach the tops of buildings, which a non-drone-equipped operative might have to go through a laborious infiltration mission to achieve. Myrtle became my default protagonist as I set about liberating London's boroughs early on, a surprisingly easy task which you can knock out in a couple of hours and unlocks a whole set of new, more powerful recruits. I did find myself swapping in Rosalind, a spy with a silenced armour-piercing pistol and a mildly ridiculous car with a built-in missile launcher and cloaking device, for missions that required heavy combat. When she got arrested on a mission, I instead deployed Ayodele, a formidable ex-hitman with a varied weapons arsenal. However, even Myrtle remained a viable character through to the endgame.

This signature feature of the game therefore ended up being both impressive but then undercooked: you'll probably find yourself defaulting to a small pool of 3-4 hyper-capable characters and ignoring everyone else. The game does offer up an ironman mode, so if a character dies, they die for good (and Legion's save game system is pretty much limited to saving on shutdown, so there's no easy way to do over missions if things go south), but it's easy to replace even hardcore combat agents with 1:1 replacements even if they fall on a mission. The game is also rather straightforward even on the hardest difficulty, so that's not a major obstacle.

Combat and stealth are functional rather than attractive. As usual for the series, setting traps and luring bad guys into them is a great way of thinning out the ranks from afar before you engage personally; many missions actually allow you to complete them by just using your spiderbot, a remote access drone which can merrily scurry through tiny vents to reach areas humans can't reach. The spiderbot is ridiculously capable, and after you've upgraded it, it can switch on a short-burn cloaking device and knock out enemies with an electrical discharge. I'd estimate I completed around 50% of the missions in the game using the spiderbot alone whilst the operator sat well outside of the mission area, almost impervious to detection. The game does try to make things a bit more challenging than Watch_Dogs 2 by only giving you a spiderbot and not an aerial drone as well, but there's so many passing aerial drones you can take over at any second, this really ends up not being a limitation at all.

However, the lengthy time spent carefully infiltrating enemy locations or hacking your way steadily to victory with a low body count feels a bit redundant when you can often shoot your way to victory in a fifth of the time. The first two games in the series encouraged you not to murder every security guard and police offer in sight, pointing out these were often ordinary people doing their day job. However, in Legion almost all areas are defended by either Albion security guards - whom you see punching pensioners on the street and arresting innocent people for no reason on a regular basis - or by the enforcers of Clan Kelly, a criminal gang engaged in people trafficking, slavery, gun-running and drug-dealing. This removes a lot of the moral nuance of the earlier games and gives you the green light to wade into areas with all guns blazing, especially as your characters in this game are hardier than Marcus in Watch_Dogs 2.

Legion's portrayal of London is excellent. The city itself is well-depicted, with major landmarks all present and correct but also many individual buildings, pubs and even flower stands. There is some compression - where there are five parallel residential streets in a row in reality, there might be one here, and Liverpool Street Station is bizarrely missing when the surrounding tube stations are correctly present - but overall Legion effortlessly becomes the single finest realisation of London in a video game to date.

More of a mixed bag is voice acting and writing. Not having a central protagonist or even a cast of protagonists is a major handicap. Procedurally-generated missions where you have to save one of your recruits who's been kidnapped have your character awkwardly saying, "We have to save our friend!" rather than their name, which sounds okay once but not five or six times through a mission. It's hard to see how this could be overcome, with apparently tens of thousands of name combinations and around twenty different voice actors with several versions of the script for each mission and cut scene, but it does add an artificial air to proceedings. The acting is mostly fine from the actual named, recurring characters, but many of the protagonists feel off, with extremely generic lines delivered in ways that don't always make sense. It turns out having an effectively infinite pool of characters with potentially infinite personalities makes voicing and writing for them in a reasonable timeframe impossible.

The game is pretty solid, but it does feel a little wanting in content compared to Watch_Dogs 2. That game gave you an absolutely massive list of optional activities to take part in, including car, kart and drone racing, and Uber-driving. None of these are present in Legion. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a more interactable environment, allowing you to blow up gas mains under the street to deter pursuit, change traffic lights to create chaos and frame people, even police and security, so they get carted off by the law and thin out enemy ranks before you engage them. None of this is present in Legion, either. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a fairly well-developed mobile phone you could interact with, playing with apps and watching news channels. Mobiles are still in Legion but are extremely limited in their use.

Watch_Dogs: Legion (***½) is a mixed bag, but ultimately enjoyable and worth playing, especially for its excellent depiction of London. The significantly reduced amount of content compared to its immediate forebear is disappointing, and the "play anyone" idea is an absolutely brilliant one which falters somewhat in the execution, but this kind of experimentation in the AAA space is rare and should be applauded, even if ultimately it doesn't entirely deliver on its promise. The game is available now.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Howard Shore & Bear McCreary in talks to join LORD OF THE RINGS prequel series as composers

Deadline has broken a story that will have many people cheering: Howard Shore, who scored all six of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies, is in talks to join the Amazon Lord of the Rings prequel series set in the Second Age as composer.

Fellowship of Fans has backed up the story and gone further to say that Shore actually signed on several months ago and is already working on the project. They also claim that Bear McCreary will also work on the show's music. McCreary is best known for his work on the 2003 version of Battlestar Galactica, as well as The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Outlander and the God of War video game series. McCreary's involvement has so far not been backed up by any other sources.

Shore joining the project will be well-received news by fans. Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy remains outstanding, netting him four Oscar nominations and three wins: Best Original Score for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, and Best Song for "Into the West." He received a fifth nomination for his score to the movie Hugo. His other film work includes The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Philadelphia and Seven.

Amazon recently wrapped filming on the first season of the series, which will premiere on Amazon Prime on 2 September 2022. A second season is in pre-production and is due to start shooting in January.

Wertzone Classics: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork, which at first glance is not unusual. But the nature of the murder intrigues Commander Sam Vimes and Captain Carrot of the City Watch. Their investigation of the case, aided by new forensics expert Cheery Longbottom, exposes an ambition that could plunge the whole city into chaos. Once again, Sam Vimes and his officers are the thin blue line between order and chaos in a city where it's hard to see where the one ends and the other begins at the best of times.

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel and the third to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, following the excellent Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms. Once again, the City Watch must rally to solve crimes and stop a threat to the safety of the city, through a combination of Commander Vimes's cynicism, Carrot's good-natured optimism, Colon's stoic experience, Detritus's massively impractical siege weaponry, Angua's nasal intuition and, er, whatever it is Corporal Nobbs does. The Watch is here reinforced by new arrival Cheery Longbottom, a dwarf forensics expert with something approaching a secret.

You might expect the novel to be predictable - the City Watch sub-series is, at least in potential, Pratchett's most procedural sequence of books - but as usual Pratchett takes some delight in wrong-footing expectations. This is still a funny book, as Colon's close encounter with a psychotic lunatic of diminutive size and then a very angry bull can attest, but there's more of a serious side to it as well. Existential debates on the rights of sentient beings when no one can agree if they're sentient form a key part of the story as well, as Pratchett introduces the Discworld's golems, here used almost as robot slave labour until it turns out that they can think and feel, after a fashion, which raises thorny ethical questions.

The book is also marvellously, intricately constructed. Some other Discworld books feel like Pratchett has aimed an Idea Cannon at a wall, blasted out whatever came to mind and then assembled the resulting narrative morass into something resembling a coherent plot. That worked extremely well for some novels and not as well in others, but Feet of Clay definitely feels more pre-planned and structured. There are more distinct character arcs, not just for Vimes but for Carrot and Angua's relationship, new recruit Cheery whose quiet confidence over gender expression rapidly sparks a cultural revolution among the city's dwarfs, and even for series stalwarts and standbys Nobby and Colon. The former gets drawn into what feels like a Game of Thrones subplot, whilst Colon - distressingly several weeks from retirement - has a solo mini-adventure that he was not expecting.

There's even foreshadowing at work here, as Vimes visits his childhood neighbourhood and we get the feeling of unspoken secrets about his background. These will, eventually, give rise to one of Pratchett's great masterpieces in Night Watch, but that's still quite a few books off.

Feet of Clay (*****) is one of the best Discworld novels, if not quite at the absolute-best tier of Small Gods and Night Watch. It's well-constructed, naturally funny whilst supporting more serious ideas, and as marvellously characterised as Pratchett at his best. It deepens the worldbuilding of Ankh-Morpork, the Greatest Fantasy City of All Time™, and sets the stage for intriguing developments to come. The novel is Pratchett at his best: erudite, thoughtful and smart, creating a work where fantasy, satire and detective elements meet perfectly. The book is available in the UK and USA.

Friday, 17 September 2021

MECHWARRIOR 5 to get surprise second expansion next week

In a surprising move, Piranha Games have announced a second expansion to MechWarrior 5, their real-time mech simulator in the BattleTech universe.

There is supposed to be a video here. If you can't see it, go to the bottom of the screen and click "switch to web version."

The original game dropped in December 2019 as an Epic Store exclusive on PC. In May 2021 it launched on Steam, GoG and the Xbox console range, alongside a first expansion called Heroes of the Inner Sphere. This relaunch, helped by almost a year and a half of bug-crunching and revisions, seems to have given the game a new lease of life.

The second expansion, Legend of the Kestrel Lancers, is set during the Fourth Succession War, a major event in the history of the BattleTech universe. This war, lasting from 3028 to 3030, sees the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth join forces to launch a massive surprise attack on their mutual enemies, the Capellan Confederation, Draconis Combine and Free Worlds League, after an attempted assassination attempt of the Federated Suns' leader. In the fiction - explored in the Warrior Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole - this war becomes a major turning point in the history of the BattleTech universe, paving the way for the union of the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth into a superpower.

The expansion will allow your mercenary company to join forces with the Kestrel Lancers, a veteran unit in the Federated Suns military, in a new story campaign. The expansion also adds multiple new biomes, including jungles, deserts and a new megacity style of map, with completely destructible buildings. Melee combat has been added (yes, you can now punch other giant robots in the face, or nearest comparable feature), and in the single-player campaign you can now hot-switch between the four 'Mechs in your lance rather than just being stuck in one. There will also be UI improvements.

Legend of the Kestrel Lancers launches on 23 September, or less than a week from today.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Paramount releases details for STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS

In addition to a lot of other Star Trek news, Paramount have released more information on their upcoming new series, Strange New Worlds.

In addition to returning castmembers Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One and Ethan Peck as Spock, the series will star Celia Rose Gooding as Cadet Uhura, Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel and Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M'Benga, all of whom appeared previously on the original Star Trek series (with different actors, obviously). Additional actors include Bruce Horak as an Andorian named Hemmer, Melissa Navia as Lt. Erica Ortegas and Christina Chong as La'an Noonien-Singh.

Strange New Worlds is set on the USS Enterprise (OG Constitution-class, or at least the mildly-reimagined version which debuted in Discovery) some time after the events of Discovery's second season and some years before the events of the original Star Trek. According to both cast and crew, Strange New Worlds will be much more episodic than other modern Star Trek shows, focusing more on the original mission of exploring new worlds and getting into new adventures every week.

Strange New Worlds is expected to debut on Paramount+ in early-to-mid 2022.


Aspyr Media are working on a full remake of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, arguably the greatest and best-regarded Star Wars video game of all time*.

Knights of the Old Republic, developed by BioWare in association with LucasArts, was released in 2003. Set roughly 4,000 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, the game tells the story of a war being fought between the Galactic Republic and its Jedi defenders against a Sith army and fleet led by Darth Malak. The player takes on the role of a character of their own creation who is roped into helping rescue a Jedi Knight named Bastila Shan from the city-planet Taris. As the game continues, the player acquires a large array of allies, such as the murderous and meme-generating assassin droid HK-47, and learns a shocking secret about themselves. Events culminate in a final battle between the Republic and the Sith Empire.

The game was immensely successful on release, generating both critical acclaim and high sales. It was followed by two sequels: the more ambitious but more divisive sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004) from Obsidian Entertainment; and MMORPG The Old Republic (2011) by BioWare themselves. Although set in an original universe, the later Mass Effect trilogy (2007-12) draws on some structural ideas from Knights of the Old Republic.

It is unclear how thorough a remake this will be, since no gameplay footage has been shown. The "remake" title and the age of the game and engine suggest that it'd have to be a much more thorough reworking of the game from scratch, possibly in a new engine, rather than the "retexture-and-polish" style of remakes like the Mass Effect Legendary Edition.

Knights of the Old Republic Remake is "early" in development and no release date has yet been set. So far, it has only been announced for PlayStation 5.

* Arguments for TIE Fighter, Republic Commando and Jedi Outcast can be heard at a later date.

Warner Brothers drops enigmatic trailer for THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

As promised a couple of days back, Warner Brothers have dropped the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the Matrix franchises and the first new film entry to the series since 2003's The Matrix Revolutions.

The trailer opens with Neil Patrick Harris, apparently playing a psychiatrist, seeing his patient Thomas Anderson, played once again by Keanu Reeves. Reeves apparently has no memory of his life as Neo aka "The One." The setting is no longer The City, the ambiguous mega-metropolis of the original film trilogy, but a more realistic San Francisco, coated in warm, distinctly un-Matrixy colours. Thomas reports strange dreams, seeing the city in lines of code, and flashes of images (some new, some from the original movies), including one of himself blinded, being operated on by machines. Thomas meets a stranger in a cafe (Carrie Ann Moss), is seen quaffing blue pills like they are candy, is intrigued by flocks of birds in the sky and by a copy of Alice in Wonderland. He also sees images of himself as an old man. Eventually he flushes the blue pills down a sink, and accepts a red pill offered by a man strangely familiar yet completely different (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Anderson is approached by a young woman (Jessica Henwick) who offers to show him the truth and calls him "Neo." She guides him through a door that acts as a shortcut to another part of the world, where he meets Trinity, this time her body apparently riven by lines of green code. The strange man spars with Anderson in a familiar dojo, angering him until he unleashes a blast of power.  We then see the world outside the Matrix, with the Machines still harvesting humans in immense vertical battery piles and a hovership hiding in the ruins of an old city. Trinity and Anderson meet on a rooftop in San Francisco, whilst the young woman fights Agents. She guides several other characters through a portal from what appears to be a cinema onto a speeding train, chased by rocket launcher-wielding enemies. We see Trinity apparently awakening from the Matrix, the strange man finding reality becoming liquid, a lot more fighting scenes and Anderson stopping hundreds of bullets in mid-air. Anderson is then told by another stranger (Jonathan Groff) that it's very exciting to go back to the start, "back to the Matrix."

The Matrix Resurrections hits cinemas and, in the United States, HBO Max on 22 December.

Paramount announce launch dates for new seasons of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, PICARD and PRODIGY

Paramount have announced the launch dates for their next raft of Star Trek series.

In addition to Season 2 of Lower Decks, currently airing on Paramount+ in the USA and Amazon worldwide, the first season of Star Trek: Prodigy debuts on 28 October.

The new series, the first Star Trek show to be completely 3D CG-rendered, returns to the Delta Quadrant for the first time since the conclusion of Star Trek: Voyager in 2001. The series, set five years after the end of Voyager, features an all-alien, non-Starfleet cast of characters who stumble across the USS Protostar, an experimental Starfleet vessel despatched to the Delta Quadrant. The vessel is abandoned for reasons unknown, until it is found by a group of young aliens. The ship comes equipped with an Emergency Training Hologram, based on Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew reprising her role from Voyager), who helps them get to grips with piloting the vessel.

Prodigy is swiftly followed by Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery, which will debut on 18 November, marking the first time since 1999 that two Star Trek series will air new episodes simultaneously (when the seventh and final season of Deep Space Nine overlapped with the fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager). The new season of Discovery sees the crew adjusting to life in the 32nd Century as they help the Federation and the Milky Way galaxy rebuild after the cataclysmic event known as the Burn, only to encounter a new anomaly which could threaten everything.

Finally, the second season of Star Trek: Picard will debut in February 2022. In the new season, a returning Q (an also-returning John de Lancie) apparently changes time into a dystopian nightmare, as part of a test for Picard. Picard and his colleagues utilise knowledge from a captive Borg Queen (Anna Wersching) to time travel back to the 21st Century and repair the damage done by Q.

Picard has been renewed for a third season, alongside rumours this may be the final season since Sir Patrick Stewart turns 82 next year and Paramount+ is developing several more shows with a view to one of them replacing Picard once it runs its course.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Warner Brothers drop teasers for THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

Warner Brothers has started the marketing cycle for their upcoming fourth Matrix movie, The Matrix Resurrections.

They've revamped the OG 1999 Matrix website, What is the Matrix?, and it now offers you a choice of red and blue pills. The pills take you to different teaser clips where a voice creepily identifies what time it is for you.

The Matrix Resurrections seemingly picks up twenty-odd years after the events of The Matrix Revolutions, which ended in a truce between the human rebels and the machine AIs after they joined forces to defeat Agent Smith, but something strange has clearly happened in the interim. Old characters are back, but with new names and limited or no memory of what happened to them the first time around. Some characters also seem to be back in new bodies, or with new faces. Early previews have hinted at a much stranger (and probably even more divisive) film than the soulless cash-in many were expecting.

A full trailer is expected on Thursday. The film itself will be released on 22 December this year in cinemas and, in the United States, on HBO Max.

The film sees the return of Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Lambert Wilson, Daniel Bernhardt and Jada Pinkett Smith from the original trilogy, with new casting additions including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris, Jessica Yu Li Henwick, Toby Onwumere, Max Riemelt and Christina Ricci. The film is directed by Lana Wachowski (who co-directed the original trilogy) and co-written by Lana Wachowski with David Mitchell (yes, that one) and Aleksandar Hemon.

Monday, 6 September 2021

RIP Michael K. Williams

In shocking news, actor Michael K. Williams has passed away at the far too-young age of 54. The actor was found at his home earlier today. No cause of death has yet been ascertained.

Born in 1966 in New York City, Michael Kenneth Williams trained as a dancer and went on tour with artists such as Madonna and George Michael. His acting skill was recognised by no less than Tupac Shakur and he was cast in the 1996 film Bullet, which marked the start of his acting career. Williams found his casting somewhat stereotyped due to the recognisable scar he had on his forehead, the result of a barfight in his twenties. As a result he was often cast as villains or "heavies."

In 2002 Williams auditioned for a new HBO TV series called The Wire. He impressed showrunner David Simon with a single audition and was cast in the role of Omar Little, a Robin Hood-like figure who robs criminals and drug dealers and distributes money to his community. The role was loosely based on real Baltimore "stick up" figures such as Donnie Andrews. Omar was a "third side" in the show, someone who sometimes worked alongside the cops but sometimes pursued his own agenda that was at odds with them.

The character became a cult favourite in the first season, but exploded in profile in the second after a courtroom scene where Omar justifies his morality whilst serving as the witness in a criminal case. The character was applauded for both being a hardman with a moral code and also a gay man in a notoriously homophobic environment. Williams was nominated twice for an NAACP Image Award for his portrayal of Omar, and in 2008 a pre-election Barack Obama noted that Omar was his favourite character on the show, though not one whose every action he'd approve of. Williams continued to portray the character until the end of the final season in 2008.

The Wire gave Williams tremendous opportunities and he went on to appear in films such as Gone Baby Gone, Life During Wartime and a brief but high-profile appearance in The Road. He had another big role in 12 Years a Slave, and solid supporting turns in Assassin's Creed, Ghostbusters (2016) and The Gambler.

However, Williams became a much sought-after television actor. He had recurring roles on Alias and Six Degrees and a hilarious recurring role as Dr. Kane on Community, among a vast number of guest star roles. It was HBO where he continued to make his home, though, appearing as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire, Freddy Knight in The Night Of and Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft Country. Each one of these performances attracted critical acclaim and award nominations. From 2016 to 2018 he starred in the well-received Hap and Leonard alongside James Purefoy.

Williams recently completed work on several films, including 892 alongside James Boyega and Surrounded with Letitia Wright, which will now be posthumous releases. Williams is survived by one son.

An actor of impressive range, intensity and charisma, Michael K. Williams will be missed.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

HIS DARK MATERIALS composer Lorne Balfe to score THE WHEEL OF TIME

Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins has confirmed that Lorne Balfe will score The Wheel of Time. Balfe is best known for his excellent work on His Dark Materials, particularly the impressive main title theme:

Balfe's other credits include the Mission: Impossible franchise, Black Widow, The Tomorrow War, Pennyworth, Bad Boys For Life, Pacific Rim: Uprising, The Crown, and various video games including the Assassin's Creed and Skylanders franchises.

None of Balfe's work was used in today's trailer. However, a snipped of his score was used on the previous logo reveal teaser.

There's a good interview here with Balfe where he discusses his work on His Dark Materials.

Amazon reveals first WHEEL OF TIME trailer

Amazon have - at last! - revealed the first trailer for the Wheel of Time television series.

The trailer opens with Nynaeve al'Meara (Zoë Robins), the village Wisdom of Emond's Field, telling  Egwene al'Vere (Madeleine Madden) to "be strong" before pushing her into a river. This scene is not from the books, but may be linked to the idea that Nynaeve is considering training Egwene as her apprentice, although Egwene, as the Mayor's daughter, is also considering other options for her future.

The peaceful village of Emond's Field, the chief settlement of the Two Rivers.

Blacksmith Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) and farmer's son Rand al'Thor (Josha Stradowski) enjoying themselves in the Winespring Inn.

Egwene covered in the a pool of colours. This isn't from the books, but may be some kind of dream sequence.

The city of Tar Valon, the stronghold of the Aes Sedai. This image is looking south, past the White Tower towards the forbidding mountain of Dragonmount. Tar Valon and the White Tower have been significantly redesigned from the books, and either Tar Valon is a lot smaller or the White Tower is stupendously huger than it is in the novels.

Moiraine Damodred (Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Rosamund Pike), an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah, letting people know she's here to glare disapprovingly a lot and kick arse.

The Hall of the Tower, the governing body of the Aes Sedai, convenes. Front and centre are Liandrin Guirale of the Red Ajah (Kate Fleetwood), Moiraine and Alanna Mosvani of the Green Ajah (Priyanka Bose). The Keeper of the Chronicles, Leane Sharif (Jennifer Cheon Garcia) can be seen at right.

The Amyrlin Sea of the Aes Sedai, Siuan Sanche (Academy Award nominee Sophie Okonedo), the first among equals and effective leader of the Aes Sedai sisterhood.

Moiraine channels the One Power, the energy that drives the Wheel of Time, to destroy attacking enemies.

Liandrin commands a detachment of sisters of the Red Ajah. The Red sisters dedicate themselves to tracking down and gentling (neutralising) any man who can channel the One Power, for men who try to channel are doomed to go insane and die horribly, wreaking great destruction in the process.

Leane keeps order in the Hall of the Tower.

Alanna channels the One Power to stop an arrow attack on the Aes Sedai sisters sent to apprehend the false Dragon and male channeller, Logain Ablar.

Another aerial shot of Tar Valon. In the books, the island of Tar Valon is eight miles long, so if that's the case here, the White Tower is really freaking huge. In the books it is a relatively modest 600 feet high.

Rand and Mat gaze on the ruined city of Shadar Logoth in the distance.

Mat finds an abandoned dagger in Shadar Logoth.

Our heroes flee Shadar Logoth as a strange shadow consumes the city.

Perrin runs into some wolves in the forest.

Rand and Egwene share a moment. In a marked shift from the books, where Rand and Egwene assume they have been promised to one another in marriage by their parents but never actually have a relationship, they appear to be much more intimate here.

Tam al'Thor (Game of Thrones' Michael McElhatton), Rand's honourable father, gives his son some parting words of advice.

Villagers in Emond's Field celebrating the festival of Winternight.

The Aes Sedai count the cost of their victory over Logain.

In a repeat of the aerial wheel motif, the Hall of the Tower as seen from above.

Al'Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) - you can call him Lan - Moiraine's Warder and close ally.

A Myrddraal leads a pack of Trollocs on a raid.

The ragtag followers of the false Dragon mount an attack.

Logain Ablar (Álvaro Morte), a man who can channel the One Power. He has proclaimed himself the Dragon Reborn, the chosen hero of destiny who will stand against the Dark One. The Aes Sedai are disinclined to believe him.

Moiraine arrives in the White Tower. This is another marked change from the books, where Moiraine only visits the Tower on-page in the prequel novel, New Spring.

Lan and Moiraine fight off three Trollocs.

The companions assemble at a Waygate, a mysterious portal leading into a realm known as the Ways. They are joined on their adventure here by the Ogier Loial (Hammed Animashaun), whom I suspect is actually supposed to be in this shot but his CGI wasn't ready.

A Myrddraal, also known as an Eyeless or Fade, a servant of the Dark One who commands his Trolloc hordes in battle. Myrddraal are famed for their blade skill and their ability to make the unwary feel fear with a single "look."

Moiraine unleashes the One Power.

The Wheel of Time's eight-episode first season arrives on 19 November this year with the first three episodes, then one episode will air weekly from 26 November. Season 2 is already in production.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Amazon to release first WHEEL OF TIME trailer tomorrow

Amazon have confirmed - finally! - that they will release the first full-length trailer for its upcoming adaptation of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels tomorrow (2 September) at 8.30am PT (11.30am ET, 4.30pm BST).

They also released a new publicity image, seemingly of Moiraine Damodred standing atop the White Tower, the Aes Sedai stronghold overlooking the island-city of Tar Valon.

The first season of The Wheel of Time hits Amazon in November this year, hopefully with a date to be confirmed tomorrow. A second season is already in production.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

Agnes Nitt, formerly of the secondary Lancre witches' coven, has relocated to Ankh-Morpork to become a singer in the Opera House, assuming her phenomenal natural talent would be enough, and so it proves...enough to become the real voice behind a much more photogenic but less-talented, would-be starlet. But a spate of murders has the opera company on edge. Meanwhile, Nanny Ogg has had her cookbook published, but Granny Weatherwax's keen eye suggests she has not been getting the promised royalties. They head to Ankh-Morpork to find the missing money and, just coincidentally, look for a third witch to replace Queen Magrat.

When I embarked on this Discworld re-readathon, Maskerade was possibly the book I was most intrigued to reach. Not because it's the best Discworld book (which it isn't), but it's possibly the most low-key, least-discussed book in the entire series. It's actually quite impressive how constrained it is a novel: almost the entire book (bar a couple of early vignettes as Granny and Nanny travel to Ankh-Morpork via stagecoach) takes place in just one building, with a very focused cast of characters. In fact, given that Discworld stage plays were already a regular thing when Pratchett wrote the book, I wonder if he'd deliberately kept the book restrained and focused to better accommodate stage versions of the narrative.

The narrow scope helps Maskerade improve on its immediate predecessor, Interesting Times, which might be the least-cohesive Discworld novel of them all. Here, the tight focus and clearer stakes makes for a more enjoyable read, though an imperfect one.

Ostensibly this is a book in the "Witches" sub-series, picking up after the events of Lords and Ladies, in which Magrat departed the coven to become Queen of Lancre after they saved the kingdom from an invasion of transdimensional elves (as you do). It is, refreshingly, much more focused on Nanny Ogg than it is on Granny Weatherwax, and seeing Nanny use her natural charisma and charm to infiltrate the Opera House and ingratiate herself with everyone is quite entertaining. Granny Weatherwax is surprisingly low-key, with several notably powerful moments but spending a lot of the book in the background as Nanny and Agnes Nitt take on the lion's share of the action. This may actually be the start of a trend where Pratchett has to bench some of his most hyper-capable characters for parts of the story because if they were properly involved from the off, they'd have the problem licked in five minutes.

It's a funny book, riffing hard on The Phantom of the Opera but easily-missed lines lampoon everything from Shakespeare to Cats to "a play about a miserable guy called Les." It is, once again, "Pratchett does xxx but in Discworld," where xxx is the opera, having previously been rock music (Soul Music), religion (Small Gods), shopping malls (Reaper Man) and the cinema (Moving Pictures). This format has resulted in some of the best Discworld books but can also get formulaic, with Pratchett settling for making funny references rather than using the satire to inform more powerful points. Maskerade probably tilts more towards the more formulaic end of the spectrum, but formulaic Pratchett is so much better than a lot of authors on their very best days, that that's not much of a criticism.

The book rattles along until a very amusing, meta-fictional big curtain call, taking in (and riffing on) every famous musical and operatic tradition you can think of. There is a bit of a missed opportunity here, though, as the City Watch gets involved in the story but only through a new character and cameos for Nobby and Detritus; Sam Vimes does not show up in person, which could have been entertaining in a Javert kind of way. Of course, that could have led to an Avengers-style team-up between Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, arguably Pratchett's two most popular and competent protagonists, but alas that is not to be. A subplot about Greebo occasionally reverting to the humanoid form he last inhabited in Witches Abroad also feels somewhat underdeveloped.

Maskerade (****) is the Discworld series at its most relaxed, reliable and laidback. It's not challenging Night Watch or Small Gods' claim on being the best book in the series, but it is a fun read and a good time. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

First publicity images for RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY drop

Sony Pictures have released the first three publicity images from their upcoming Resident Evil reboot movie, Welcome to Raccoon City. The movie adapts the storylines from Resident Evil (1996) and Resident Evil 2 (1998) into a single story.

The first image recreates the iconic opening of the original Resident Evil video game from 1996. It depicts STARS Agents Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper), Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen) and Chris Redfield (Robbie Amell) arriving at the Spencer Mansion outside Raccoon City to investigate reports of strange goings-on.

The second image depicts Raccoon Police Department recruit Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia) and college student Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) investigating the Umbrella Corporation's machinations in Raccoon City itself.

The final and creepiest image depicts Marina Mazepa as Lisa Trevor, a young woman who's undergone strange experiments at the hands of the sinister Umbrella Corporation.

The film is written and directed by Johannes Roberts, with creative input from Capcom. Additional castmembers include Lily Gao, Neal McDonough and Donal Logue. The film is set for release on 24 November. It is not related to either the previous Resident Evil movie franchise or Netflix's upcoming TV version of the story.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

Fifteen years ago, the assassin Billie Lurk betrayed her friend and mentor, Daud. For all that time she has sought solace and redemption. Having aided Emily Kaldwin regain her throne, Billie now goes in search of the long-missing Daud, tracking him down to an unsavoury district of Karnaca. But the reunion does not go smoothly, and Billie is left with a daunting task: to eliminate the Outsider, the god-like being who dwells in the Void and whose influence has shifted the course of history for more than four thousand years.

Dishonored 2 is one of the greatest games of the 2010s, a triumph of atmosphere and outstanding game design that even goes beyond its excellent predecessor. Its brilliance was marred by a technically-compromised launch which took months to resolve, which put off buyers. The game sold, at best, mediocrely and well below Bethesda's expectations. Arkane Lyon started work on a new game, Deathloop (due out next month) but were able to sneak in an expansion to Dishonored 2, which became the stand-alone game Death of the Outsider.

Death of the Outsider is a mixed bag. For those who enjoy Dishonored rich, unusual atmosphere and its focus on stealth, the game continues to deliver those aspects in spades. However, it does feel cut-down. It is only half the length of Dishonored 2 itself and does re-use one level twice and repurposes another from Dishonored 2. Time and budget constraints feel apparent in the game as it bumps up against those limits constantly. Billie only has three Void powers and a limited set of equipment compared to the previous arsenals wielded by Corvo, Daud and Emily, which leaves her feeling underpowered compared to the other protagonists. However, she can use her powers much more often as her mana bar refills to maximum automatically (a great idea that should be backported to the older games, frankly) and there's no need to hunt for mana potions. Her powers are also extremely impressive, especially Semblance which allows her to take on another character's appearance (even a major NPC) to pass through secure areas, and a drone-like ability to astrally scout out levels for routes and hidden passages.

Level design is as formidably excellent as always, with the bank heist making up the central setpiece of the game being particularly brilliant, especially if you decide to put the entire bank to sleep by poisoning the airducts. Unlike other parts of the series where people are knocked out for the duration of the level, here they can be woken up by loud noises or you accidentally bumping them, adding a lot of complexity to how you traverse the area (you can knock people out properly, but there's an achievement for doing the level without resorting to that). It's not quite as good as the Clockwork Mansion or the time-travel manor house from Dishonored 2, or the Boyle Mansion from the first game, but it's pretty damn good.

Unfortunately, the area surrounding the level is less well-designed. The game has the absolute nadir quest moment of the franchise when either a bug or a poorly-thought-out bit of design prevents you from carrying unconscious bodies through a level transition zone, forcing you to fight your way through a building to the front door with almost no capacity for stealth. It's easily the most disappointing moment of the whole series in denying you a choice in how to proceed and forcing you to resort to violence.

The game's plot builds satisfyingly as it goes along and the ending is unexpectedly thoughtful and interesting, with the ultimate resolution of the story (and the entire series to date) resting on a meaningful decision you have to make. It wraps up the story that began in the first game quite well, and sees Arkane putting a line under the franchise for now. I hope they return to this world, but if they do it'll apparently be a completely different location and in a different time period.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (****) gives you more Dishonored to play, which is always a good thing, but time and budget pressures mean a somewhat less-polished experience than the previous games in the series, with a few cut corners. But the bank heist mission is up there with the best levels in the franchise and the story and character arcs develop and end well. Disappointing when compared to the greatness of what came before, but on its own terms still a very well-designed game. The game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

XCOM creators spill the beans (a bit) on upcoming Marvel XCOM-alike, MIDNIGHT SUNS

Following rumours from the start of the summer, Firaxis have confirmed they are making a Marvel tie-in game. Midnight Suns melds the turn-based, tactical gameplay of their enormously successful XCOM series with the Marvel superhero IP.

In the game, the player creates their own hero, The Hunter, who joins forces with a roster of Marvel heroes to battle Lilith, the Mother of Demons. Heroes to appear include Iron Man, Wolverine, Blade, Ghost Rider, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Magik, Nico Minoru and Dr. Strange. 

The game has been described as a "tactical RPG", suggesting there won't be a deep strategic metagame as in the XCOM series, with instead a more story and character-driven between-battles section. Aside, presumably from the turn-based combat, the game will not share any mechanics with the XCOM series.

XCOM franchise head Jake Solomon has led development, with Marvel Comics artists and writers lending support and assistance, including help in designing The Hunter (who will be customisable in terms of appearance, gender and powers) and The Abbey, a hub area which the team will retire to between missions.

It sounds like the game will be drawing on The Rise of the Midnight Sons comic arc in 1992, in which a group of Marvel heroes and antiheroes join forces to fight Lilith. 

This does beg the question of whether Firaxis is developing more XCOM games; both XCOM 2 (2016) and Chimera Squad (2020) had substantial cliffhanger endings that seemed to be setting up more games in the series. However, a second team at the company helmed both XCOM 2's expansion, War of the Chosen, and Chimera Squad, so certainly they have the scope to develop more than one game at a time.

Marvel's Midnight Suns is due for release on Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC, Xbox One and Xbox X in March 2022. Firaxis will unveil the first gameplay trailer on 1 September.

Bethesda posts three location guides for STARFIELD

Bethesda have unveiled three short videos looking at key locations for their next open-world RPG, Starfield.

The videos briefly explore New Atlantis, the capital city of the United Colonies; Neon, the pleasure city of the Xenofresh Corporation; and Akila, the capital of the Freestar Collective, a loose-knit alliance of three star systems.

Starfield is currently scheduled for release on Xbox and PC on 11 November 2022.

Monday, 23 August 2021

Live-action COWBOY BEBOP gets first pictures and airdate

Netflix's live-action take on classic anime Cowboy Bebop has a release date: 19 November this year. Netflix have also dropped the first publicity images for the show.

From left to white, John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black and Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine. An unnamed Welsh corgi actor is playing the dog Ein.

Cowboy Bebop is based on the critically-acclaimed anime which ran for one season of 26 episodes in 1998. The original series was noted for its noir-ish atmosphere, it's vividly-portrayed setting (a futuristic Solar system where Earth has been abandoned after a hyperspace accident destroyed the Moon), it ambiguous characterisation and its absolute killer soundtrack.

It's unknown how much of the anime series the live-action version will cover; however, the fact that the casting for the regular role of "Radical Ed" has not been announced suggests it may only cover the first half or so of the original series (Ed debuted in the ninth episode of the original run).

Cowboy Bebop shot on soundstages and location in New Zealand, but production was blighted by lead actor John Cho injuring his foot just a few weeks into filming. Production was shut down for several months and was due to restart just as the COVID pandemic struck and all filming projects were suspended in New Zealand. However, production was able to resume last summer.

Additional castmembers for the series include Alex Hassell as Vicious, Elena Satine as Julia, Geoff Stults as Chalmers, Tamara Tunie as Ana, Mason Alexander PArk as Gren, Rachel House as Mao, Ann Truong as Shin, Hoa Xuande as Lin, Blessing Mokgohloa as Santiago, Molly Moriarty as Kimmie Black and Lucy Currey as Judy.

Cowboy Bebop would be nothing without its infamous soundtrack, and the good news is that Yoko Kanno, who scored the original anime, is returning for the live-action project.

Writers for the show include Christopher Yost and Hajime Yatate, a collective pen-name for Sunrise Studios, who created the original anime.

Directors for the project comprise Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman, who each directed five episodes.

Netflix have a mixed record on their anime adaptations, but this one benefits from a much higher budget than most of their previous efforts, and getting Kanno and Yatate involved may assuage fears that the show has been compromised too much. It certainly looks the part.