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.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie wraps

Co-director John Francis Daley has confirmed that shooting has wrapped on the new Dungeons & Dragons feature film.

Shooting began on or around 29 April, with shooting based at the Titanic Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland (previously home to Game of Thrones). Location shooting has taken place in Northern Ireland, Iceland and at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

Daley co-directed the film with his long-term collaborator Jonathan Goldstein. Their previous projects include the comedy films Horrible Bosses and Game Night, and writing the MCU movie Spider-Man: Homecoming.

This is, technically, the fifth Dungeons & Dragons feature, following on from three increasingly low-budget movies in the 2000s (only one of which was theatrically released) and an animated Dragonlance movie. However, this project has a vastly greater budget.

The film is set in the Forgotten Realms world and the city of Neverwinter will feature. Beyond that, little is known of the plot. The cast includes Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith and Regé-Jean Page, who are believed to be members of an adventuring band who run afoul of a villainous plot orchestrated by Forge Fletcher, played by Hugh Grant.

The film is currently set for release by Paramount Pictures on 3 March 2023. A D&D TV series is also in development with John Wick writer Derek Kolstad developing a concept. Wizards of the Coast have teased this project may involve Forgotten Realms signature character Drizzt Do'Urden in some capacity.

Sunday 22 August 2021

Who could replace Chris Chibnall as the next DOCTOR WHO showrunner?

Doctor Who's current showrunner, and the third since its return to the air in 2005, Chris Chibnall, has announced he is leaving the series after the next season (expected to air this autumn) and a series of four TV movies to follow, airing up to the end of 2022. A new showrunner is expected to take over in 2023. This would ordinarily be daunting, but might be even moreso in this case, as 2023 is also Doctor Who's 60th anniversary.

The field of potential replacement showrunners is much more open than it was in 2014, the last time this question arose, with more chance of a wildcard selection creeping in. Still, let's take a look at the options.

Mark Gatiss

If you want a slam-dunk, "that was easy," choice, Mark Gatiss is arguably the most obvious selection. He has more than twenty years of experience as a television writer and showrunner, having co-showrun the League of Gentlemen franchise (along with his co-creators) since its TV inception (and on radio before that). Since 2010 he has also written and co-produced Sherlock, alongside ex-Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat. He also co-created Dracula. He is also an experienced actor, having recently starred in Taboo, Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones (as Tycho Nestoris, of the Iron Bank of Braavos).

His Doctor Who experience is significant: he has written five Doctor Who novels and four audio plays since 1992, written multiple short stories and penned no less than nine episodes of the series itself, ranging from 2005's The Unquiet Dead to 2017's Empress of Mars. He also wrote the 2013 drama about the creation of the show itself, An Adventure in Space and Time, which was a highlight of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Bearing in mind that the new showrunner is taking over in the show's 60th anniversary year, Gatiss is probably the strongest candidate to do something interesting that draws on the show's history.

A few things may count against Gatiss: the BBC has been showing signs of preferring a clean slate from the Russell T. Davies/Steven Moffat era, and might prefer someone with a fresh attitude to the show. In that sense, Gatiss might be over-experienced from his previous Doctor Who work. His episode form is arguably variable (though his novel form was much stronger). However, his recent break from the show (he did not pen any episodes during the Chibnall era) and pursuing other projects might have helped develop his experience (just as Chibnall arguably had to earn his chance to work on the show via Broadchurch).

Sally Wainwright

Sally Wainwright is a formidably-experienced British television producer and writer, noted for creating the offbeat drama At Home with the Braithwaites (starring former Doctor Who Peter Davison), followed by Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and the critically-acclaimed Gentleman Jack.

She has no Doctor Who experience and limited SFF genre form, but is otherwise one of the most critically-regarded TV producers and writers working in British television; several papers and commentators have ranked Wainwright as the leading choice for the role. The BBC might also consider it a bonus to have a woman as showrunner, something that has not happened since 1965 (when Verity Lambert, Doctor Who's first effective showrunner, stepped down), especially if the next Doctor is also to be played by a woman (which remains unconfirmed).

The main negative against Wainwright is the success of Gentleman Jack in the United States, where it airs as a co-production with HBO, potentially opening up the US film and TV market to Wainwright, which she might choose to pursue over several years attached to a difficult-to-make and under-funded Doctor Who. Wainwright may also prefer to focus on Gentleman Jack, which is shooting a second season and may continue beyond that, rather than hand the project over to someone else.

Toby Whithouse

Whithouse was easily the favourite choice to take over from Moffat when he announced his departure, and some fans remain baffled why he wasn't selected over the arguably less-experienced Chibnall (though Chibnall had scored a bigger one-off hit with Broadchurch).

Whithouse is best-known for creating and showrunning No Angels, Being HumanThe Game and Nought and Crosses, which have attracted reasonable degrees of critical acclaim over the years. His Doctor Who experience has also been reasonable, consisting of six episodes of the show proper (from School Reunion in 2006 to The Lie of the Land in 2017) and one of spin-off show Torchwood. His Doctor Who work has been relatively well-received by the (notoriously fickle) fanbase.

The points against Whithouse are not particularly strong. He is less of a known "superfan" than Gatiss, which the BBC may prefer (although that might count against Whithouse in the anniversary period). More significant is the fact that he has signed on to executive produce and showrun a new TV adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels alongside Neil Gaiman. However, the project has not moved forwards in three years and Gaiman's recent development of multiple new projects with Netflix and Amazon may have put it on the backburner, potentially freeing up Whithouse for Who.

J. Michael Straczynski

A writer-producer with arguably more showrunning experience than everyone else on this list combined. Straczynski is most famous as the showrunner and executive producer of the cult space opera classic Babylon 5, whose unusually-for-the-time heavily-serialised story arc was strongly inspired by both Doctor Who and fellow BBC SF series Blake's 7.

Straczynski's other work is extremely formidable: he co-wrote and co-showrun (with the Wachowskis) the Netflix drama series Sense8, and was the lead writer-showrunner on Jeremiah and Babylon 5 spinoff projects Crusade, Legend of the Rangers and The Lost Tales. He also wrote and produced for Murder, She Wrote, Jake and the Fatman and Walker, Texas Ranger. He was also a key writer in animation, and got a lot of acclaim for his work on The Real Ghostbusters.

In film, he co-wrote the 2011 Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Thor (and had a cameo in the film), and also has script credits for Underworld: Awakening and World War Z. He wrote, and was nominated for an Oscar, for his screenplay for the 2008 movie Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie.

In comics, Straczynski has had popular runs on The Amazing Spider-Man (including the acclaimed 9/11 issue), Silver Surfer, Thor and Superman: Earth One, as well as creating the properties Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. He recently created or co-created and wrote, The Resistance, Moths and Telepaths

He has also penned three novels, an autobiography and two guidebooks on scriptwriting and writing in general. He has also posthumously prepared for publication The Last Dangerous Visions, a fifty-year project undertaken by his friend and mentor Harlan Ellison before his passing in 2018.

Straczynski has not written in the Doctor Who franchise before, but has noted his fandom of the series since watching the original series on PBS, starting in the 1970s. He has cast multiple Doctor Who actors in his shows (including Sylvester McCoy and Freema Agyeman on Sense8), has frequently mentioned it on his Twitter account and certainly has the writing chops to tackle the project and the showrunning experience to make it work.

He does have one potential strike against him: he is American. Although there is no formal rule against an American working on Doctor Who, especially as a producer-writer (American actors have appeared on the show before), the BBC seems lukewarm on the idea. They rejected a script idea by acclaimed American SFF novelist Joe Hill a few years ago, despite the endorsement of Neil Gaiman, apparently solely because he was American. Doctor Who is seen as the jewel in the crown of UK TV productions with worldwide appeal, and putting an American in charge seems politically iffy at the BBC. However, as many have pointed out, Doctor Who was created in 1963 by a Canadian (Sydney Newman) and its second showrunner, John Wiles, was South African.

There is also the possibility that, despite Straczynski's enthusiasm on Twitter for the idea, that when presented with the reality of the pay (low by US standards), the time commitment (all-consuming) and the need to move to the UK for the duration, he might reconsider the idea, especially given the other projects he is involved with. However, Straczynski is, easily, the most popular current choice with the fans, has a wide-ranging knowledge of the show and its history, and would bring back the sense of SF adventure whilst continuing the apparent BBC wish for social awareness in its storytelling (as a cursory look at Sense8 would confirm). Straczynski is arguably the strongest choice on the list, but I suspect not the most realistically likely.

Kate Herron

Herron is a nuclear-hot writer-producer-director at the moment after directing the extremely well-received first season of Loki for Marvel. Herron has already ruled herself out of returning for a second season and is looking at other projects. Her other credentials are reasonable and varied.

However, Herron may be ruled out due to inexperience: she directed Loki but was not the showrunner. She also does not have a ton of recent writing experience, her sole writing credit since 2014 being the short film Smear. Still, Herron is a favourite for those looking for a fresh creative with a lot of talent, especially those who have been advocating a return to Doctor Who's "classic" setup of splitting the showrunner role between a business-focused executive producer and a creative-focused script editor.

Pete McTighe

If the BBC decides to promote from within, arguably the most likely choice from Chibnall's existing roster of writers is Pete McTighe. McTighe wrote Kerblam! and Praxeus.

A British writer with strong experience in both the UK and Australia, where he served as a leading writer on the critically-acclaimed Wentworth (a more serious and contemporary reboot of Prisoner: Cell Block H), McTighe ticks most of the boxes as a good "compromise candidate." He has solid experience on The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Tatau, Cara Fi, Nowhere Boys and Glitch. He also became a writer and executive producer on A Discovery of Witches (produced by Bad Wolf Productions, a company founded by ex-Doctor Who vets) and earlier this year produced the well-received BBC mini-series, The Pact.

McTighe mixes recent Doctor Who experience with freshness and a lot of experience from other TV projects.

Vinay Patel

If the BBC wants continuity from the current era and McTighe is not chosen, then the next logical choice would be Vinay Patel.

He showed range with Demons of the Punjab, a serious (and Hugo-nominated) historical drama about postcolonial India, and Fugitive of the Judoon, probably the best-regarded story of the Chibnall era that mixed humour with an unexpectedly epic left turn into Doctor Who's history and future.

Patel's other work includes the critically-acclaimed television film Murdered by my Father and the first season of The Good Karma Hospital. However, Patel is seen as an outside choice due to a relative lack of experience.

Paul Cornell

Another established Doctor Who writer whose experience in the franchise ranges all the way back to the 1991 novel Timewyrm: Revelation (which inspired multiple storylines in both the Davies and Moffat eras). Cornell is widely-acclaimed as the greatest living Doctor Who writer, having penned many of the best novels in the franchise (including Love and War and Human Nature), some of the best comic stories and penning three of the best-regarded episodes of the TV series: Father's Day, Human Nature (loosely based on his novel of the same name) and The Family of Blood. All three episodes were nominated for Hugo Awards.

He has also written three Doctor Who audio dramas and the animated Doctor Who short Scream of the Shalka in 2003. He also created Bernice Summerfield, by far the most popular Doctor Who companion to never appear on screen. Cornell's other TV work includes episodes of Casualty, Holby CityRobin Hood, Primeval and Elementary.

Despite his formidable Doctor Who writing experience, Cornell has limited recent TV experience and no showrunning/producing experience, which makes him a very outside choice for the role. However, he could be formidable as script editor if the BBC decided to resurrect the split producer-script editor approach instead of a single showrunner.

Other, more unlikely-to-impossible choices:

  • Neil Cross: a highly-regarded writer and producer for his work on Luther, and a leading candidate to succeed Moffat. He has written two episodes of Doctor Who. However, he is currently committed to a multi-season project for Apple TV+, The Mosquito Coast.
  • Sarah Dollard: A popular choice due to her mixture of Doctor Who experience (as the writer of Face the Raven and Thin Ice) and work on other properties, including Merlin, Primeval, Being Human, A Discovery of Witches and Cuckoo Song. However, she is unlikely to be available given her commitments as a writer-producer on the hit Netflix show Bridgerton.
  • Neil Gaiman: one of the most popular SFF writers in the world, with two Doctor Who writing credits to his name and a huge amount of TV experience. However, Gaiman has already ruled himself out, citing both a lack of interest in a full-time role and his existing commitments to The Sandman on Netflix and Good Omens and Anansi Boys at Amazon.
  • Howard Overman: The creator of Misfits and Atlantis, and at one point a favourite to replace Moffat if the BBC wanted a fresh face with no Doctor Who experience. He recently produced the War of the Worlds mini-series and The One for Netflix, which is not expected to return for a second season. He feels like an outside chance at the moment, but not impossible.

The BBC has reportedly not yet made its choice for the role of the new Doctor Who showrunner, and I'm sure we'll hear the choice (which might very well be none of these!) in due course.

Saturday 21 August 2021

FALLOUT TV showrunner gives update on the project

It's been over a year since Amazon confirmed it was developing a Fallout TV show with Westworld creator-producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, with little news appearing since then. Joy has now given an update via an interview with Collider.

It turns out that the project is very much alive and remains in the planning stages. Forward movement was stalled whilst Nolan and Joy were prepping work on the fourth season of Westworld for HBO (now shooting) and whilst Joy was putting the finishing touches on her debut feature film as a writer-director, Reminiscence, which hit cinemas and HBO Max this week.

According to Joy, the Fallout TV series will be "a gonzo, crazy, funny, adventure and mindf**k like none you've never seen before."

The TV show will be based on the popular video game series which has sold over 50 million copies since the release of the original game, Fallout, in 1997. Subsequent games in the series are: Fallout 2 (1998), Fallout Tactics (2001), Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004), Fallout 3 (2008), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018), along with various expansions and DLC. Set two centuries after a brutal nuclear war wiped out most of the human race, the games chart the rebuilding of new society amidst the ruins of the old. The series has also spun off a tabletop miniatures game, Wasteland Warfare, and a tabletop RPG, both from Modiphius Entertainment.

The Fallout video game series is currently on extended hiatus, as the current developers, Bethesda (now owned by Microsoft), are working on Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI. A potential Fallout 5 is unlikely to be released this decade, unless it is given to another studio to develop.

It's currently unknown if the TV show will directly adapt the stories in one of the games, or will be an original story set in the same universe.

Baking Bad by Kim M. Watt

The quiet little village of Toot Hansell is a place where the rest of the world doesn't intrude. The locals are mainly concerned with bake sales, the summer fete and debating what to do about the garish new gastropub that's opened a few miles away. However, the murder of the local vicar results in the arrival of Detective Inspector Adams and her formidable analytical powers, which seem stymied by the local activities of the Women's Institute, formidably led by RAF Wing Commander Alice Martin (Ret.), who has her own ideas on how to handle the investigation. Oh, and there's also dragons hanging around.

I must confess to a weakness for a good pun and a high concept, and Baking Bad certainly employs both features; the sequel titles splendidly continue the theme through Yule Be Sorry, A Manor of Life and Death and Game of Scones. The concept here is that a quaint little English village is about to become Murder Central (hopefully taking the pressure off Midsomer), with all the clever bits of misdirection, multiple suspects and conflicting motives that you'd expect, with the added complication that the last extant dragons in England are living in caves nearby.

These aren't exactly Smaug and Balerion the Black Dread, though. It turns out that dragons are the size of very large dogs - maybe small ponies - and are somewhat less able to breathe torrents of fire than advertised. As the dragons note, Saint George exaggerated their size and formidability a tad after being embarrassed about killing the equivalent of a flying donkey. They are, however, sentient creatures capable of reason and speech, and also capable of projecting an illusion that - imperfectly - masks their presence. Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, and his assistant/squire Mortimer are known to the Women's Institute and are keen to help investigate the murder, despite their lack of knowledge about modern human life. Thus, much of the tension in the book arises from both the knowledge that the murderer might strike again and that mythical flying creatures are helping track them down, at the risk of discovery at any moment.

The book adopts a rotating POV structure between DI Adams, Wing Commander Martin (Ret.), Women's Institute member and walking human mess Miriam, and the young dragon (and almost as hot a mess) Mortimer. Adams and Martin are hyper-capable, rational women with formidable analytical skills who can keep their head in a crisis, whilst Miriam has a tendency to fly to pieces if someone looks at her funny and Mortimer's useful features (like aerial recon and stealth) are curtailed by his inability to use phones or computers, a tendency to leave rather obvious signs of his passage (like claw-marks on pavements and carpets) and him being very easily distracted by food.

Ah, food. Once you have read Baking Bad, you will never, ever complain about one of George R.R. Martin's feast descriptions again. The book is positively awash in scones, biscuits and flapjacks. Tense moments of putting clues together happen as the character exerts equal attention on their banana bread. Moments of existential terror as the dragons risk discovery and possible destruction whilst also pondering the greatness of the Victoria sponge. Moments of high drama take place over the distribution of lemon drizzle. The food descriptions in the book are accomplished and, frankly, obscene. I heavily advise against reading this book within temporal proximity of a trip to the supermarket or an English cafe because there is a nontrivial chance of putting on ten pounds per chapter.

The book is relatively short (at 280 pages in paperback, though with a lengthy appendix featuring baking recipes) and a fast read. The characterisation is fine, and the author canny enough to leave room for more development on the table (Alice Martin gets a background mystery that I'm assuming will be developed in later books in the series, although this is very much a stand-alone volume). The worldbuilding about the dragons is a bit lacking - considering they're a key selling point of the book, the dragons are lower-key than you'd expect - and the prose can get a bit other enthusiastic, especially at the start of the novel where scenes and moments are exactingly over-described. After about fifty pages, though the prose calms down and the rest of the novel is more accomplished. As a short, focused novel it's a fast read, albeit one littered with baked good descriptions like cholesterol landmines, which some readers might find annoying and others find actively dangerous.

If you've ever wanted to read a mash-up of Hot Fuzz, The Great British Bake-Off, Midsomer Murders, and freaking dragons, this will hit that weirdly specific spot. The literary equivalent of cotton candy - or, more appropriately, chocolate sponge cake - the book is a fun, disposable read, but one that poses a definitive threat to your waistline. Tread carefully. Baking Bad: A Beaufort Scales Mystery (***½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Amazon unveil images from the WHEEL OF TIME TV series

Via Entertainment Weekly, Amazon have revealed some new publicity images from their upcoming TV show based on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels.

The regular cast of the first season of The Wheel of Time, from left to right: Nynaeve al'Meara (Zoe Robins), Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris), al'Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), Egwene al'Vere (Madeleine Madden), Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) and Rand al'Thor (Josha Stradowski).

The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly has more pictures, including images of Moiraine and Lan in the forbidding city of Shadar Logoth and the false Dragon Logain as a prisoner of Aes Sedai sisters led by Alanna and Kerene. In the accompanying interview Rafe Judkins notes the scale of the production, such as the decision to spend immense amounts of time and money on the ruined city of Shadar Logoth despite it having only limited screen time.

Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series is expected to debut in November, with a final date yet to be revealed. A trailer is expected in the next few weeks.

Sunday 15 August 2021

RUMOUR: Netflix developing a DISHONORED TV series

File this under "fairly tenuous" at the moment, but a report is floating around that Netflix has put a TV show based on the Dishonored video game series into development.

The news comes from the geek site Giant Freakin Robot, who have a patchy record when it comes to rumours. However, it also comes eighteen months after writer Gennifer Hutchison tweeted that she was a huge fan of the video game series and wanted to write a TV show based on the books.

Hutchison has serious credibility, having been a writer on Breaking Bad (for which she won an Emmy, with the rest of the writing staff) and Better Call Saul as well as Amazon's Lord of the Rings prequel series (she also started her career as an assistant on The X-Files). Rumour has it that she's been courted for a showrunner position on several projects in the past but has stayed loyal to Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul team, but with that franchise wrapping its last season (at least until it was delayed by a medical complaint for star Bob Odenkirk), she appears to be free to take on bigger commitments.

Whether Hutchison is involved in this Netflix project - which may or may not even exist - is unknown, but it'd be a bit odd for a writer of her calibre to not be involved after expressing interest. Also, whilst Dishonored is well-regarded critically, it was not a top-tier, mega-selling video game franchise, and wouldn't be at #1 (or even in the top ten) on the list of video game properties to be turned into a TV show unless a major creative talent wanted to do it.

The Dishonored video game series consists of two mainline entries and three expansions: Dishonored (2012), The Knife of Dunwall (2013), The Brigmore Witches (2013), Dishonored 2 (2016) and Death of the Outsider (2017). Set in a fictional world reminiscent of 18th/19th Century Europe, fusing sorcery and steampunk, the story in the games beings with the assassination of the ruler of the Empire of the Isles. Her bodyguard Corvo is framed for the murder by the new Lord Regent, who embarks on a reign of terror whilst keeping the Empress's daughter, Emily, and heir out of sight. Aided by a group of government and military insiders who want to restore Emily to the throne, Corvo breaks out of Coldwine Prison and embarks on a series of daring raids and infiltration missions in the city of Dunwall designed to expose the Lord Regent's conspiracy and track down the man who murdered the Empress. However, Corvo is also marked by the Outsider, a strange being who lives in the Void beyond the material world. This grants Corvo amazing powers, but at a dubious cost to his soul and sanity. Later games in the series, spanning a period of more than fifteen years, feature other characters such as the assassins Daud and Billie Lurk, and a grown-up Emily.

As well as the video games, the series has also spawned a trilogy of novels, a comic book series and a tabletop roleplaying game. The creators of the game, Arkane, a subsidiary of Bethesda, have indicated they would like to return to the world in the future, but in the meantime are focusing on two other games in new universes, Deathloop and Redfall.

Whether this is a real project or not remains to be seen, but I have to say it's one of the few game series that absolutely would make a great TV show, with a cast of excellent characters and a solid story set in a fascinating and very different kind of fantasy world with some great worldbuilding.

Saturday 14 August 2021

Commodore Amiga Mini game console announced for 2022

Retrogamers of the world, rejoice! Retro Games Ltd. have announced a new mini-console for the home market. The A500 Mini is based on the Commodore Amiga home computer and will come with 25 built-in games.

Previously, Retro Games Ltd. released the Commodore 64 Mini. This was part of a trend of releasing mini-consoles, based on classic machines from the 1980s and 1990s with a whole ton of games from those classic eras included. Nintendo had released the NES and SNES Minis, whilst Sega had shipped the Genesis Mini (aka the MegaDrive in the UK and other overseas countries) and Sony the PlayStation Classic. Even more obscure machines got involved, such as a mini version of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16 and the NeoGeo.

The Commodore Amiga was a range of 16-bit (late 32-bit) computers released between 1985 and 1994. The computers were initially aimed at the business, music and graphics industries but, thanks to the pushing of the European arm of the company, also became very powerful (for the time) games machines. This was consolidated by the release of the Commodore 500 model in 1987, with a lower price and various bundles which were aimed at the home market. The timing of the release of the Amiga was perfect, with it being substantially more powerful than the NES and Sega Master System consoles and existing 8-bit computers such as the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro, and gaining a huge amount of market share in Europe before the release of the SNES and Sega MegaDrive. The Amiga proved surprisingly resilient even in the face of those consoles and remained hugely competitive with them (helped by the release of the upgraded Amiga 1200 model in 1992), only really starting to lose ground with the advent of more powerful gaming PCs in the early 1990s. Still, the machine remained popular even after its parent company's demise, with the last major game release, Worms, coming out as late as 1996.

The Amiga was hugely popular in the UK and Germany, and did respectfully well in most other European countries. In the USA it became predominantly known for its powerful graphics capabilities, augmented by the Video Toaster plug-in card. This technology was used for cheap vfx and 3D rendering, and was most famously used to create the CGI for the pilot movie and first season of Babylon 5.

A full list of classic Amiga games would be too huge to contemplate, but among its greatest titles were: Alien Breed '92, Alien Breed: Tower Assault, Another WorldBatman, Cannon FodderCarrier Command, The Chaos Engine, Cruise for a CorpseDamocles: Mercenary II, Dune II: The Battle for ArrakisDungeon Master, Eye of the BeholderFlashback, Frontier: Elite II, Future WarsGeoff Crammond's Formula One Grand Prix, Gunship 2000Hunter, International Karate +It Came From the DesertJimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker, LemmingsMagic Pockets, Mega-Lo-Mania, Micro MachinesNebulous, The New Zealand Story, North and SouthPopulousPrince of Persia, PuttyRainbow Islands, Robocod, The Secret of Monkey IslandSensible Soccer, Shadow of the BeastSpeedball II: Brutal Deluxe, Starglider II, Stunt Car Racer, SuperfrogSWIV, Syndicate, Theme HospitalTheme Park, Tower of BabelTurrican II, WingsXenon II: Megablast, and Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders.

The A500 Mini comes with twenty-five games built in (more can be side-loaded via USB stick). The twelve announced titles so far are Alien Breed 3D, Another World, ATR: All Terrain Racing, Battle Chess, Cadaver, Kick Off 2, Pinball Dreams, Simon the Sorcerer, Speedball II: Brutal Deluxe, The Chaos Engine, Worms: The Director's Cut and Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension. It comes with a controller and a genuinely horrible A500 box-mouse (the first computer mouse I ever used, and still the most unergonomic), though sadly the keyboard is non-functional. However, the C64 Mini did later get an expanded version with working keyboard, which hopefully is an option here.

I got a Commodore Amiga 500 in 1989 and it remained my primary gaming and word processing machine for a full nine years, until I got my first PC in 1998. The computer's legacy is surprisingly enduring, with Carrier Command 2, a sequel to one of the Amiga's most popular games, being released on PC just last week. Elite: Dangerous, a sequel to Frontier: Elite II, remains a popular space game, whilst Two Point Hospital, a remake of Theme Hospital, was also a huge hit when it was released a couple of years ago.

The A500 Mini will launch in early 2022. Thirteen more games will be announced soon.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

The remote and mysterious Agatean Empire has sent a request to Ankh-Morpork, demanding that the "Great Wizzard" be sent to them. After thorough research and exacting study (or about five minutes of asking around), the faculty at Unseen University determine this to be a request for Rincewind, nominal wizard and adventurer-at-large who once had dealings with a representative of the Empire. Rincewind is, reluctantly, rescued from his new home (a tropical paradise which doesn't seem to want to kill him for once) and transported to the Empire, where he finds the politest revolution in history is underway and the capital city is about to be assaulted by a horde of (seven) formidable barbarian warriors. Unfortunately, he finds his exploits and power have been "marginally" exaggerated by his old friend Twoflower...

Interesting Times, our seventeenth visit to the Discworld, marks the return of Rincewind and the Luggage for the first time since the mini-novel Eric, and the first appearance of Twoflower since The Light Fantastic, fifteen books earlier. Pratchett probably chose to revisit the OG Discworld characters due to a sense of occasion: the novel was largely written during the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Colour of Magic, at a point when the series' profile and success were booming. There was also a feeling that recent Discworld novels had become fairly complex in terms of story and character depth, and Pratchett wanted to get "back to basics," as it were, with another Rincewind travelogue adventure.

The problem is that by this point in the conception of the series, Discworld had really moved far beyond being a series of knockabout comedy novels and a return to that format does it little favours. Pratchett does try to make this first visit to the Disc's equivalent of China more interesting, with a full-scale revolution in progress, but he shies away from using the setting to make the similar kind of points he did about religion and politics in the classic Small Gods. He does, laudably, mostly avoid any kind of lazy stereotyping of Chinese culture, though a few clunky lines slip through. Twoflower is fairly underwhelming and low-key on his return, and the Horde feels like the same joke that was already every effectively made in The Light Fantastic being regurgitated for the sake of it. Pratchett also seems a bit uncertain in tackling the Empire storyline, to the point that the book is almost a third done before we even get there, leaving events there also feeling quite rushed and its villain not really developed.

The book does have a few good points. There's some good humour from the meeting of minds that is Ridcully encountering Rincewind, and the Unseen University metastory gets a bit more development as we encounter Hex, the Discworld's first computer. The more sophisticated Pratchett of the mid-1990s does do a good job of making Rincewind a bit more fleshed-out as a character, although this does seem mostly achieved by making him a bit more unlikeable than he was previously. There's also some entertaining gags which do work quite well, like the literal terracotta army that's controlled by the exact same icon scheme as the classic 1991 video game Lemmings.

Interesting Times (***) is not quite the weakest Discworld novel, but it may rank among the most disappointing. Pratchett doesn't use the setting or story to illuminate wider themes, at least very well, and if it ultimately avoids being Carry On Up the Yangtze, it doesn't exactly use its setting to great effect either. Still, Rincewind gets some much-needed development, it is fun to see Twoflower and the Luggage again (if only briefly) and the novel passes the time before Pratchett gets his mojo back again. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 13 August 2021

Seminal space opera BLAKE'S 7 joins BritBox US

Seminal British space opera TV series Blake's 7 has landed in the US via the BritBox streaming service.

The classic space opera originally aired on the BBC (and, in the US, on PBS) between 1978 and 1981. Despite a tiny budget and low production values, the show was noted for its excellent cast and unusually morally murky scripts for the time, which often had the "heroes" doing questionable things in their pursuit of destroying the "evil" Terran Federation (many of whose citizens and even soldiers seemed less evil and more bureaucratically amoral). The show was noted for its dark streak, its tendency to kill departing characters off with almost no warning, and its relentlessly bleak conclusion. The show was also an early example of a series with a heavily serialised storyline, with ongoing character and story arcs that expanded across multiple episodes and seasons.

J. Michael Straczynski has cited Blake's 7 as a major influence on his own space opera Babylon 5, whilst echoes of the show can be found in series such as Firefly.

All four seasons and 52 episodes are streaming now on BritBox US.

FROSTPUNK 2 announced

11 Bit Studios have announced that their next game will be Frostpunk 2, a sequel to their fiendishly-addictive, post-apocalyptic city-building game Frostpunk.

One of the most outstanding games of the last five years, Frostpunk (2018) was a tautly-tensioned game taxing the players with difficult moral choices over managing workforces, researching technology and enforcing order through a police force or manipulating religious faith. The original game was outstanding, but increasingly ingenious expansions gave the game a lot of variety and replayability.

The sequel picks up thirty years after the original, with explorers from the city of New London uncovering oil reserves in the frozen wasteland. The race to exploit oil technology generates new challenges and conflicts, which the player has to navigate carefully.

Frostpunk 2 does not have a release date as yet, with the smart money suggesting a late 2022 or 2023 release.

Amazon moves production of its LORD OF THE RINGS prequel series from New Zealand to the UK

In a surprise move, Amazon have confirmed that the second season of its Lord of the Rings prequel spin-off series will shoot in the UK rather than New Zealand.

The as-yet-officially-untitled series - which I've been referring to as The Second Age - completed shooting on its first season last week, celebrating with the first official picture from the series and revealing a planned launch date of 2 September 2022. Filming for the first season was based in Auckland, New Zealand, but shooting ranged all over the country, making full use of the same spectacular scenery that was used to good effect in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson's later Hobbit trilogy also made use of some location filming in the country, but substituted a lot of outdoor shots with pure CGI environments, of varying degrees of effectiveness.

The decision to move production to the UK seems to have been influenced by several factors. First, the UK bid hard for production of the show, and were apparently almost successful in securing Scotland as the filming base for the first season before New Zealand made a more attractive offer (probably based around tax breaks). Secondly, most of the cast and several of the directors and other key crewmembers are based in the UK. New Zealand's restrictive quarantine requirements during the COVID pandemic meant that some cast and crewmembers went over eighteen months without being able to return home, which caused some complaints. The requirements also meant that Amazon producers and other staff were not able to visit the production as much as they wanted. Finally, Amazon seems to be consolidating its TV production around two hubs, one based in Prague in the Czech Republic (where Wheel of Time and Carnival Row are shooting) and the other in Scotland in the UK, where the second season of Good Omens and the adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys are gearing up. Basing production in common hubs where there are large numbers of talented writers, actors and directors already based is a great cost benefit which the much more remote and more sparsely-populated New Zealand cannot compete with. Basing production in the UK also gives the film-makers greater versatility in picking up filming locations across Europe and northern Africa, including ice-cold landscapes in Scandinavia and Iceland, mountains in France and Spain, and deserts in Morocco, a model used to great effect by Game of Thrones and more recently by The Witcher.

Despite these advantages, it is true that New Zealand made itself synonymous with Middle-earth through the course of the Peter Jackson movies. New Zealand's tourist industry continues to make great use of its association with Middle-earth, even twenty years after the release of the first movie, and the world-leading Weta computer effects company grew out of the film trilogy. New Zealand relinquishing its status as Middle-earth is a sad moment, but, of course, it is possible that it may one day return.

The second season of the new Lord of the Rings series will start production in the UK in January 2022.

Thursday 12 August 2021

Netflix announces cast of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER live-action adaptation

Netflix has unveiled the core cast of its live-action reboot of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The series stars Gordon Cormier (Lost in Space, The Stand) as Aang, Kiawentio (Rutherford Falls) as Katara, Ian Ousley (13 Reasons Why) as Sokka and Dallas Liu (Bones, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Five Rings) as Zuko.

The show will be written and showrun by Albert Kim (Sleepy Hollow). Michael Goi, Roseanne Liang and Jabbar Raisani will be the directors for the first series.

Netflix have confirmed that they plan to make a "faithful and authentic" adaptation of the original Nickelodeon series, which has a large international fanbase and rocked to the top of Netflix's charts when it started airing the animated series last year. The project has been in development for years, with the original animated creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino in charge. However, they quit in 2020, citing differences of opinion with Netflix, whose representatives they claimed were interfering with development. They have since returned to Nickelodeon to launch Avatar Studios and are developing animated projects set in the world of the original series, starting with a new animated feature film.

This news, and leaked casting sides suggesting wide-ranging changes to the plot and characterisation, had raised concerns among fans. However, the casting and Netflix's character descriptions are relatively faithful to the original show (the leaked casting sides had swapped Katara and Sokka's ages, whilst the actual press release restores them). Showrunner Albert Kim has promised a series that will use its greater running time to expand character and story arcs whilst keeping the original story intact.

More casting announcements are expected, particularly for the fan-favourite character of Uncle Iroh.

Monday 9 August 2021

Wertzone Classics: Dishonored 2

Fifteen years have passed since the assassination of Empress Jessamine, the tyrannical six-month rule of the Lord Ruler and the restoration of Princess Emily Kaldwin to the throne. Under the guidance of her rescuer, bodyguard and (eventually-admitted, scandalously) father, Corvo Attano, Emily has tried to guide the Empire of the Isles as best she can. When a coup takes place led by the witch Delilah and her father is neutralised, Emily is imprisoned, but her captors are unaware that her father has been teaching her his infamous skills of stealth and deception. Emily flees to the southern city of Karnaca and prepares to retake her throne, no matter the cost.

Dishonored, released back in 2012, was a breath of fresh air. Building on the groundwork established by the earlier Thief, Deus Ex and System Shock series in offering the player tremendous freedom in how they approached their objective, with a more modern user interface and better AI, it was a solid success both critically and commercially. It spawned two excellent expansions, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, and, four years later, a full sequel (which yes, I've been extremely tardy in getting to).

Dishonored 2 is very much an evolution rather than a revolution. The same structure as the earlier game applies, with the game again using a recurring hub - in this case a ship - as a base of operations for Emily and her slowly growing number of allies to plot their next move. Once the next objective has been set, Emily travels to a new part of the city of Karnaca and is left to it. You can choose which option to take, whether to to engage in an all-out, frontal assault with a high casualty rate or a stealthier approach, using a combination of magical powers and the intricacies of the outstanding level design to find a way of sneaking up on your objective. You can also choose to exactingly explore every level for the optional objectives of stealing every single penny, object d'art and magical rune and bone charm, or simply proceed straight to your goal. You can choose to kill the primary target of the mission or find a way of removing them nonlethally from play, or in a few cases finding a way of converting them to your cause.

These decisions have a dramatic effect on the game's length, which can range from under ten hours for a confrontational, all-out violent approach to more than double that for a more exacting, stealth-based run-through, and also its tone. A violent approach which leaves the streets littered with corpses impacts on the game's "chaos" rating, with the city becoming more violent and unstable with later levels seeing more guards deployed and Emily's allies becoming less optimistic and even starting to fear her. A peaceful, stealth-based option sees Emily learning to become a better ruler, engaging more with the plight of the poor people on the streets and finding ways of turning her destructive enemies into more positive forces for later reconstruction. Even choosing a more positive approach can be more complicated than it first appears, with sometimes what appears to be a good choice having negative consequences and vice versa, which only becomes clear through exacting research of the various documents and audio files littering each level. The game has a large number of different endings based on your moral choices through the game, greatly rewarding replayability. The game also gives you the chance to replay it as Corvo (the protagonist of the first game), with a different skill set, though it has to be said this narratively doesn't make anywhere near as much sense as playing as Emily. The game also gives you the choice to play through it without using any magical powers at all, which is a formidable challenge should you also try to go for a stealth run on a higher difficulty level.

The game's story unfolds intriguingly, with Emily learning more about her enemy Delilah through written records, other characters' accounts and, in one dramatic moment, a temporally-warped ability to view her rise to power. The game takes into account that not everyone played the original game's expansions (which introduced Delilah and saw her go up against the arch-assassin Daud), so uses Emily's ignorance of those events as a way to get everyone up to speed on the plot.

Dishonored 2 takes advantage of sister studio id's formidable graphics tech (used to develop the Doom reboot) to deliver a stunning visual experience. The original Dishonored had impressive lighting and environments for its time, but its character models were underwhelming. The sequel has no such trouble, with fantastic, detailed visuals throughout. If anything, the graphics might be too good, with it sometimes hard to distinguish between collectables and background bits of scenery. In particular, it's sometimes impossible to work out when a piece of paper stuck to a wall is a bit of flavour or an actual letter with in-game information critical to the mission, which does mean a fair bit more random clicking on everything in sight than should really be the case. The atmosphere of the game is also a nice contrast with the original game, with the foggy, London-influenced metropolis of Dunwall giving way (mostly) to the tropical, sun-drenched, Mediterranean-ish city of Karnaca.

The level design is also gorgeous. It's not exaggeration to say that Dishonored 2 has some of the best level design in recent gaming history, with logically-constructed areas which pack secrets, hidden rooms, black market shops and alternate routes into often constrained spaces. Although Dishonored 2 was developed with the more powerful PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in mind, meaning the memory-mandated small levels of the original game are no longer an issue, the designers admirably resist going for the easy option of making each level as huge as possible, preferring to retain the tightly-curated design of the first game. They do let some missions sprawl a bit more though, with sometimes an entire elaborate urban level (most of it purely optional) surrounding the mansion or palace which is the primary objective of the mission at hand.

Particular mention, redundant at this point though it is, must be made of the game's two stand-out pieces of level design. The Clockwork Mansion is the ultimate express of Dishonored's steampunk ethos, an entire building whose internal walls, rooms and furniture can move around, rotate and switch places based on levers the player pulls. The first time you see the entire level around you transform into something else is quite something, and the fact that Arkane play fair and don't use magic to explain this, with instead each part of the transformation worked out in exacting and realistic detail, is all the more stunning. Even more remarkable is that you can skip the entire transforming aspect of the mission if you want to do a stealth run, instead finding your way "backstage" behind the walls and making your way to the mission objective without alerting anyone. You can also do both, doing a stealth run at first and then backtracking through the mansion, triggering its transformations, to find all its secrets and hidden objectives.

A later mission, "Crack in the Slab", takes the player to a mansion which has become unstuck in time. By using a special device, the player can "see" what is going on inside the mansion on the other side of the temporal barrier and then transport themselves back to that period. So for example, you find a destroyed room in the present day, position yourself correctly, and use the temporal device to check for guards in the previous timeline. Once sure they are not present, you can warp back to the previous time period, clear the obstacle and then return to the present again. The attention to detail here is jaw-dropping: some characters are present in both timelines and by killing their past selves, their present-day incarnations abruptly vanish. Similarly, you can change events in the past which also change the present-day version of the mansion, which can abruptly shift from ruin to fully-functioning home to a boarded-up-but-intact version. The ripples in time extend outwards: leave the mansion and you might find previously-maimed allies are now fully intact, and the feuding warzone you previously passed through is now a peaceful, well-ordered district under just rule. It's easily the most brain-meltingly impressive implementation of time travel in a video game to date.

Even the "ordinary" missions are a delight. The spooky Addemire Institute you visit early on is a masterclass in packing a lot of detail and player options into a small space, whilst the Grand Palace is a terrific, expectation-defying piece of design, more like a 1970s Bond villain's headquarters then yet another medieval edifice.

It's hard to find fault with Dishonored 2. The thematic idea of Emily learning how to become a better ruler or a tyrant based on player choices is well-implemented, the level design is among the very best in class and, even five years after release, it's a gorgeous game with an even better soundtrack than its predecessor. Perhaps the story premise - oh no, Emily's been deposed again! - could have been a bit more original. The original release was a bit buggy, but those issues have long since been fixed. The new ship base of operations is a bit less interesting than the pub in the original game, maybe. Beyond that there's no complaints to be had here.

Dishonored 2 (*****) is a fantastic game that takes everything good about its predecessor and improves on it, sometimes dramatically so. The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A self-contained expansion, Death of the Outsider, was later released to middling reviews (and I'll be getting to that shortly).