Thursday, 30 June 2022
Tuesday, 28 June 2022
Sunday, 26 June 2022
Noted video game critic, modder and webcomic creator Shamus Young has sadly passed away.
Young was born in 1971 and first came to notice in the video game field in the 1990s, designing fan-made maps for Doom. During this period he created the 1995 map "Doom City," which attempted to create an urban environment in the Doom engine, and the 1996 campaign Phobos: Relive the Nightmare, a full nine-level game.
He began blogging and writing about video games and pop culture in the early 2000s, in particular calling attention to writing and how many modern games and movies ignore basic tents of good writing in service to spectacle, often disregarding logic along the way. He also focused on the development of new technology in video games, producing both blog entries and videos on things like raytracing, megatextures and the issues of developing for the famously fastidious PlayStation 3 architecture.
In 2006 he arguably achieved his biggest impact when he launched DM of the Rings, a comedy webcomic that re-imagined Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He used this format to provide alternate explanations for plot choices in the movies, such as Elrond teleporting to Theoden's camp to give Aragorn his sword because he forgot to do so before they left Rivendell. He used the format to comment on Tolkien's original story, Jackson's adaptation choices and the foibles of roleplaying. The format inspired several imitators, such as Darths & Droids which does the same thing (although far less concisely) with the Star Wars movie series.
Young later created the webcomics Chainmail Bikini and Stolen Pixels, and co-hosted the video game commentary series Spoiler Warning. He wrote two novels, The Witch Watch (2012) and The Other Kind of Life (2018), and a memoir, How I Learned (2011), focusing on how he was declared "learning disabled" as a child but overcame adversity to work in the video game field.
Young was also infamous for his lengthy, erudite and witty essays critiquing video game storylines in unusual depth. His analysis of all four Mass Effect games became so huge and renowned that he assembled it into a book, Mess Effect: A Nitpicker's Guide to the Universe That Fell Apart, in 2021.
Young passed away on 15 June from cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife Heather and three children, and will sadly be missed.
Friday, 24 June 2022
2183. Twenty-five years have passed since humanity discovered it was not alone in the universe. The Milky Way is dominated by the Citadel Council, a multi-species authority that seeks to limit conflict and war and promote peace and trade. One soldier now stands ready to become the first human Spectre, an elite agent with the authority to destroy threats to galactic peace. But their first mission uncovers evidence of a rogue element in the Spectre ranks, and evidence that a powerful, ancient threat is returning to the galaxy after fifty thousand years. With the Council not ready to face this truth, it falls to Commander Shepard to recruit a crew of like-minded allies and expose this new threat.
If video games are about fulfilling fantasies, BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy offers one of the most compelling in the history of the medium: you are Commander Shepard, Space Adventurer. Your surname is set in stone but otherwise you can determine your Shepard's gender, appearance, abilities, sexuality and personality. You then guide your Shepard through a lengthy quest to save the galaxy, but it's up to you how you do it. You can be the ultimate hero, a paragon of honour and justice, or you can be a brutal, sarcastic antihero. Or maybe you just wing it as the fancy takes you. Depending on your deeds and words, entire civilisations will be destroyed, trusted friends may be betrayed or left for dead, and the fate of trillions of lives hang in the balance.
Most RPGs released since the trilogy have been open-world games, offering freedom in allowing you to travel across a vast landscape and mix and match quests and activities, but none have offered narrative freedom and control in this manner. You can see why, as well. It's very hard to pull off, and even BioWare themselves have shied away from trying to do it again. Their Dragon Age series has offered some of the same ideas of narrative control, but constantly changing protagonists and drastically changing locations between games has minimised the same kind of impact.
The Mass Effect trilogy is really one immense game split into three for length and pacing reasons, and the Legendary Edition of the trilogy combines them for the first time into one cohesive package. Every bit of DLC is also included (one optional expansion for the first game excepted, which almost everyone ignored first time around anyway) and all three games have been given graphical spruce-ups and had their load times drastically improved. The first game has also had its combat revamped to better match the latter two games in the series. The result is now the best way to experience the trilogy, certainly for newcomers, and seasoned hands will find a more streamlined experience as well.
The trilogy's most vital feature is that you get to create your character and take them through all three games, carrying all their decisions with them to make for one epic story. The trilogy is ostensibly made up of roleplaying games, although it ends up being more of an RPG-shooter hybrid. All three games are separated into non-combat areas, where you can pick up missions, engage in dialogue and diplomacy and usually some shopping, and mission levels, which are linear maps where you usually make your way to an objective and shoot very large numbers of people along the way. The most important stuff usually happens in the non-combat zones, where you can guide Shepard through conversations using a radial dial and picking your responses. You can also gain "Paragon" and "Renegade" responses by picking kind or aggressive replies respectively. Increase your Paragon and/or Renegade scores and you can unlock special replies, which can sometimes allow you to avoid combat by defusing situations or intimidating an opponent into backing down. This is usually where you'll decide what kind of Shepard you can be, either a hero or an antihero (you can't really be a villain) or some kind of middle ground, although those trying to have their cake and eat it may find they're locked out of the special replies on both ends of the spectrum.
Combat sees you deploy Shepard and two companions and fight in third-person. Combat is inspired by the Gears of War series, with lots of conveniently-placed, chest-high walls to hide behind and fire off shots at the enemy. Combat in the first game is fairly forgettable, improves sharply in the second game and reaches its best in the final title. You can focus on your own fight and let AI handle your companions, or you can pause and give them orders mid-combat. The three games do handle difficulty differently, so I found that Mass Effect 2 could sometimes be challenging on Normal whilst Mass Effect 3 could occasionally feel a bit too easy even on Nightmare, so tweaking difficulty levels to find the right balance is key. However, given the important stuff happens in the dialogue scenes, combat can occasionally feel like a chore. Dropping the difficulty all the way to the easiest level makes combat trivial and allows you to get on with the story.
And it's the worldbuilding, story and characters where Mass Effect shines. Mass Effect is nothing too original - imagine 1990s SF TV classic Babylon 5 mashed up with the 2003 Battlestar Galactica and you're about 90% of the way there - but it almost gleefully mixes and matches its inspirations to create something very enjoyable, if occasionally familiar. The alien races are all memorable and have their interesting foibles and cultural tics, like the third-person-referring Hanar or grumpy space dwarf Voluses, or the Elcor, whose lack of facial expressions and monotonous voices means they have to patiently explain their current emotional state at the start of every sentence. The backstory, painting humanity as newcomers on the galactic stage who are still a bit paranoid about aliens but who are also rising fast in power and influence, angering older galactic civilisations, is also rich and interesting.
The in-game story is also excellent, with you initially chasing down a rogue Spectre who has allied to a renegade race of mechanoids. The stakes get bigger and busier, and you eventually have to sacrifice a trusted friend and pull a gun on another when your relationship goes south. Eventually you discover the real threat, a Cthulhu-esque nightmare of techno-horrors from beyond the dawn of time, and have to fend off their first incursion into the galaxy with a massive space battle and a desperate battle up a burning skyscraper...and that's all in just the first game!
The story ranges far and wide across the galaxy, although players are often baffled by the turn it takes in Mass Effect 2. Trying to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that there is a two-year gap between the events of the first two games and Shepard's warnings of the return of the Reapers have been disregarded by the Council, forcing them to join forces with a human separatist organisation with a dubious moral past but who have the massive resources needed to take the fight to a new enemy, the Collectors. The game feels like a huge side-quest from the main story arc, but it's also immaculately structured, with Shepard having to assemble a (more or less literal) Dirty Dozen of specialists in various fields, win their trust and then mount an all-out assault on the Collector home base. The brilliance of Mass Effect 2 is how closely it focuses on your relationship with the various characters: mess up your recruitment jobs and you may find some candidates will not help you, or may stab you in the back, or are so disillusioned with you that they will be killed in the final battle. Mass Effect 2 is distinctly odd when looked at in the grand context of the trilogy but it's a brilliant game in its own right.
Mass Effect 3 then becomes an all-out war story, with you right in the middle of a desperate battle for survival with entire planets falling and burning, and a desperate resistance being organised against ridiculous odds. This may sound familiar, but really, Mass Effect 3 does an almost unmatched job of putting you in a ludicrously overwhelming situation and forcing you to make very tough decisions on which the fate of the galaxy will depend. It's enough to almost make you forgive the infamously divisive ending, which tries to bring the preceding ~95 hours of great storytelling to a satisfying close and can't quite manage it. It works and more or less fits the themes of the trilogy, but it also does feel like some of the unknowable mystery set up by the first game has been dissipated by lengthy exposition scenes in the third.
The Mass Effect's trilogy's ace card is its cast of characters. BioWare had superb casts of fun characters in earlier games, all the way back to Minsc and Boo in the venerable Baldur's Gate, but it was in Mass Effect where they really nailed it. Almost every character is excellently-written, superbly-acted (Mass Effect may have cumulatively the greatest voice cast and vocal performances of any video game series, ever) and given motivations and backstory that allow you to understand where they're coming from. A few characters are a bit on the bland side - Ashley, Kaidan, Vega, Jacob - and a couple don't feel like they really fit into a Paragon-based crew (Zaeed) or a Renegade-based one (about half the rest), but overall they're a great bunch. And of course Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Liara and Javik are among the best, most entertaining AI companions you could wish for in any game. There's also a few who might annoy at first or don't appear to do much, but gradually reveals themselves to be great picks (Jack, Samara, EDI, Grunt). Forging friendships or even romances with these characters, or encouraging hook-ups between their ranks, is amusing.
So far, so good. But there are some issues. The first is that having all three games and their DLC in the same package creates some weird pacing problems, particularly in how you access the expansion missions. Arrival should really only be done after the final mission in Mass Effect 2 (it acts as a bridge to Mass Effect 3), but it's possible to trigger the mission a lot earlier and it fits very awkwardly into the timeline if you do that. Similarly, the Citadel expansion to Mass Effect 3 should be done as late in the game as possible to ensure you get to recruit the largest possible cast of characters from all three games for a reunion, but the lighthearted, comedic tone of the expansion fits awkwardly alongside the increasingly grimdark-AF atmosphere as the trilogy moves towards it conclusion.
There's also a lot of stuff that the games don't tell you that a newcomer should really know, like how regularly touring the ship between missions can unlock new conversations with your companion characters and open up opportunities to gain Renegade or Paragon points, or unlock new missions or "war assets" for use later on in Mass Effect 3 (Legendary Edition carries forwards more decisions from the first two games to help you in the third).
There's also the fact that although BioWare tinkered with how the OG Mass Effect works, they don't bring it fully in line with the other two games. Mass Effect is an RPG with a shooter combat mode, whilst Mass Effect 2 and 3 are much more shooters with RPG conversations. The difference is that Mass Effect has non-combat skills and more areas where combat and conversations mix, whilst the other two games only have very modest skill trees and much more clearly delineate their non-combat and combat areas. Mass Effect feels a bit out of keeping with the other two games and not fully integrated into how most of the series works, so the unified experience of playing all three games remains uneven (although less on this time around).
There's also the issue with minigames. Mass Effect 1 and 2 have laborious minigames for lockpicking and hacking, which are both tedious and should be dumped. Mass Effect 3 swaps them out for it simply taking a while and having to make sure nobody's shooting at you at the time. All three games also have an exploration mechanic which they handle differently. Mass Effect 1 has you driving around planets in the Mako, an inexplicably bouncy tank, looking for minerals and (very rarely) shooting bad guys. There's also identikit buildings - seriously, it's worse than Dragon Age II - you can sometimes clear out of enemies and loot. Exploring all these optional planets takes forever (literally 50% or more of Mass Effect 1's total playtime if you're going for an exhaustive run) and isn't much fun.
Mass Effect 2 ups the ante with mineral scanning, which means you sit in orbit around planets and move the mouse around looking for minerals. It sounds and plays very dull, but is important to build up minerals for the final battle in the last game. Again, if you go for an exhaustive, 100% playthrough you will probably spend at least five hours accruing far more resources then you will ever need.
Mass Effect 3 has a much faster and more modest scanning game where you go looking for war assets to use against the Reapers. It's a bit more hit and miss, but it's fun to track down missing fighter squadrons or a damaged cruiser which can they rejoin the fleet for the final battle.
Another issue is that some storylines have not aged gracefully. Various cliches like genius autistic characters (who are then subjected to abuse and torture), wish-fulfilment hot alien space babes (some of the costume choices in the game were corny when the games came out, let alone now) and villains who are villains because villains rear their head from time to time and will make you roll your eyes as often. The games do improve immensely over this, sometimes fast enough for the third game to mock some of the decisions from the first.
The biggest weakness of the trilogy is probably how it is divided into distinct "roleplaying" and "shooting" modes. The meat of the game is in the roleplaying sections and the shooting can sometimes feel rote and phoned in, a simple way of adding "more gameplay" to the series. The more hardcore RPG fan, especially those familiar with BioWare's earlier Knights of the Old Republic SF RPG, will bemoan the way tactical, squad-based combat has transformed into real-time twitch shooting. The games sometimes awkwardly move between the two modes and it can be odd seeing a Paragon Shepard extolling the value of all life and then five seconds later is gunning down forty enemies in rapid succession, gaining achievements for the number of people they massacre and set on fire. At its weakest, the trilogy can feel like a very-well written and characterised adventure game that is broken up by an shooting gallery minigame. Combat does improve across the three games, although the ability to split "run," "cover" and "use" into three different commands would make things even better.
If you've never played the Mass Effect trilogy before, then Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (****½) is an easy sell. One of the greatest video game stories ever told with one of the single finest casts of characters in video game history, with some genuine weight and consequence to your decisions. The workmanlike combat and tedious minigames can be borne for the sake of just spending time in this excellent world, and the negatives do generally clear up as the trilogy continues. If you're already a hardened Mass Effect fan, than Legendary Edition clears up some inconsistencies, puts all three games in a handy launcher, smooths out the process of carrying your character and decisions through all three titles and adds graphical and control improvements that make the experience just more enjoyable. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is available now on PC, PlayStation and Xbox.
At the end, Bryan shares some thoughts on Scott's radio silence for the last couple of years and the prospect of future books in the series. Famously, Scott was debating on whether leaving The Unholy Consult as the last word on the series, as he'd originally planned, or proceeding with a concluding duology/trilogy. That debate still seems unresolved.
For those interested in the now, some have commented on the fact that Scott has been quiet online in recent years. Suffice it to say he has gone through a lot. His singular focus right now is raising his daughter and building his family's future.
As for the future of the series, I've heard him say two things, over the years, about how the Second Apocalypse should end:
One was that there would be a third trilogy outlining the blow by blow of 'you know who's' rise. I know outlines exist for such a story, but just outlines.
The other is that the story is finished. That 'The Unholy Consult', is a fitting way to end a sprawling epic about the death of meaning.
For my part, I can't help but to think that this massive story was where Scott's creative life began and, it would not surprise me if, after his real life trials are complete, he doesn't return to it, before the end.
Like a favourite old coat - warm and comfortable - and smelling of sulfur (:
Sometimes, life does come full circle.
Thursday, 23 June 2022
Wednesday, 22 June 2022
It's taken a remarkable amount of time, but the Shadowrun RPG trilogy has finally arrived on console. Shadowrun Trilogy: Console Edition launches today on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox S/X and Nintendo Switch, as well as Xbox Game Pass.
Despite being called a trilogy, these three game are actually independent, self-contained titles. In each game you create a new character in the Shadowrun setting - think of a mash-up of Dungeons & Dragons and cyberpunk, with fantasy races and magic existing in a technologically-advanced near-future - and then embark on a story packed with puzzles, companion characters, dialogue and turn-based tactical combat.
The three games are Shadowrun Returns (aka Dead Man's Switch), Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Each game takes around 15-20 hours to complete, rather more if you go for a completionist playthrough, and they are all well worth your time.
A new Middle-earth book is on its way. The Fall of Númenor will be published on 10 November 2022 and will recount the events of the Second Age of Middle-earth, accompanied by new artwork by popular Tolkien artist Alan Lee.
The book will be published an impressive forty-nine years after the death of J.R.R. Tolkien and almost three years after the death of his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien, who had been entrusted with the maintenance of his father's legacy after his death. Christopher published almost every single word his father ever wrote on Middle-earth, from the semi-complete story of The Silmarillion through numerous early drafts, incomplete short stories and esoteric worldbuilding essays on the most minor facets of live in Middle-earth. Much of this material was assembled in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series and books like Unfinished Tales. A further volume, The Nature of Middle-earth, was published in 2021 with Carl F. Hostetter as editor. This book included more previously unpublished material by J.R.R. Tolkien and was produced with Christopher Tolkien's permission and approval.
This volume appears to contain no "new" information in the form of previously-unpublished material by Tolkien. Instead, it appears to contain all the narratives that Tolkien wrote about the Second Age, assembled into one handy volume. This will likely include The Akallabêth, the closing part of The Silmarillion dealing with the fate of the island kingdom of Númenor; the "Second Age" section of Unfinished Tales which contains an incomplete short story, "Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife," as well as a detailed genealogy of the kings and queens of Númenor and a map of the island; and the "Second Age" material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. There is also some material in the History of Middle-earth series which may be included.
The book is clearly intended as a tie-in with Amazon Prime's The Rings of Power television series, which is set in the Second Age and is concerned with elements including the forging of the One Ring and the rise and fall of Numenor. That TV show hits screens on 2 September.
The Fall of Numenor is not the first "greatest hits" repackaging of material from less-accessible, scholarly works into an easier-to-read format. Christopher Tolkien himself re-edited material from those books into three narrative tomes aimed at the layman: The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018). The Fall of Númenor follows in that tradition.
The book is edited by Tolkien scholar and expert Brian Sibley, who previously wrote the early 1980s BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and served as a consultant on the Peter Jackson movie trilogy, penning several of the tie-in "making of" books, returning in that capacity for the later Hobbit trilogy. He also wrote the booklets accompanying John Howe's "maps of Middle-earth" series in the 1990s.
This book does mark a minor bit of history in Tolkien publishing, being apparently the first Middle-earth book to have been assembled and published without the permission or approval of either J.R.R. or Christopher Tolkien (although I suspect the latter would not have been entirely opposed, given his previous work). Tolkien fans will now be wondering what the future may hold in terms of similar "fixup" works being put together from other sources.
Ten years after the fall of the Old Republic, former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi lives in self-imposed exile on the desert planet Tatooine, keeping a watchful eye over the son of Anakin Skywalker. However, when Anakin's daughter is kidnapped from her home planet of Alderaan by mercenaries, Obi-Wan is reluctantly called back into action. The Emperor's Inquisitors are tracking down and destroying the last survivors of the Jedi Order, and some are obsessed with finding the last members of the Jedi Council...no matter the cost.
If there was an actor who was particularly ill-served by the Star Wars prequel trilogy, it was Ewan McGregor. One of Britain's hottest actors at the time, he was also a major Star Wars fan (partially due to his uncle Denis Lawson playing Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy) and leapt at the chance to appear in the films as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Unfortunately, his performance was hamstrung by some truly awful dialogue. It's a tribute to McGregor's acting skills that he was sometimes able to rise above the material with some great performances and moments (I'd argue he is the very thin line keeping Attack of the Clones on just about the right side of mostly bearable).
In view of this unfulfilled potential, McGregor and Lucasfilm have been working on ways of bringing him back to the galaxy far, far away for some years. A movie was in development at one point, but the underperformance of Solo seemed to shut down that idea. So now we have a six-part mini-series instead.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is certainly a stronger show than the inconsistent Book of Boba Fett but doesn't rise to the heights of The Mandalorian. McGregor is, once again, the best thing in it and he gives a stately, emotional performance filled with pain and regret for the horrors he has experienced. The script serves him much better than the prequel movies and it's genuinely fun to see the middle-aged Obi-Wan going on another adventure. Most of the supporting cast is great, and it's enjoyable to see Hayden Christensen reprise the role of Anakin/Darth Vader (even if the flashback scenes to the Clone Wars with a forty-year-old Christensen playing a teenager without much effort to de-age him are a bit odd). There's moments of satisfying fanservice along the way which will have long-term Star Wars grinning, from the minor (seeing Vader's personal Star Destroyer again) to the major (which would be major spoilers).
The show is inconsistent, though. Like a lot of other Disney+ shows (both Star Wars and Marvel), it feels like the low episode count is preventing it from being too ambitious, meaning a small and often claustrophobic scale which is not very Star Wars. On paper there's a lot to unpack here, with the politicking among the Inquisitors, Vader's hunt for Obi-Wan, the threat from new villain Third Sister Reva, an Imperial defector trying to make amends for the Empire's crimes, an underground railroad for Force-sensitives, Bail Organa walking a political tightrope, flashbacks to the day of Order 66 and the lives of the Skywalker family on Tatooine. However, the tight runtime prevents any of these ideas from really being explored in-depth. Instead we ping-pong between them as needed, meaning there's a lot of people doing a lot of things, but we are not necessarily given a good reason to invest in any of them.
It's a shame because we see some interesting new Star Wars planets for what feels like the first time in ages and there's a lot of ideas here that could be explored in an interesting manner if there was more time, but these ideas never have a chance to breathe.
There's also the curse of the larger canon surrounding the series: Obi-Wan Kenobi ties in to the video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows, and walks a very awkward line between expanding on those entries to the mythos and keeping things accessible to the newcomer.
On the plus side, the lightsabre battles are very impressive, the musical score is great and the cast elevate the material. But there is the feeling that Obi-Wan Kenobi (***½) is relying too much on familiar ideas (another cute kid to protect!) and doesn't have enough time to flesh out its best ideas. The series is available now worldwide on Disney+.
Tuesday, 21 June 2022
A band of travellers from Ankh-Morpork have arrived in the town of Bad Blintz. The band consists of a boy with a flute named Keith, a tomcat called Maurice and a lot of rats. A lot of very smart rats. However, as the town suffers from a curiously well-timed rat infestation and Keith and Maurice prepare to enact 'the scam', it becomes clear that something else is at work in the sewers and tunnels under the town. Something that takes an interest in the curiously smart rodents...
Discworld occupies such a huge part of Sir Terry Pratchett's output that it's sometimes easy to forget his other career, that of a bestselling children's author. Thanks to the animated TV show, Pratchett was as well-known for his Truckers trilogy of children's fantasy as he was his adult Discworld series for a while, and his other books aimed at children were also huge successes. His Johnny Maxwell trilogy was the first of his works adapted for live-action television.
It's therefore interesting that it took twenty-eight novels for Pratchett to write a Discworld book for children, and it's also quite remarkable the impact it had on his career. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was published in 2001 and won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction. Although a British award, it seems to have had a strong impact in the American market, with Maurice being the book that apparently finally broke through and established Pratchett as a solid-seller in the US after years of very patchy performances for the earlier books. Pratchett's performance in the UK also seemed to pick up, and indeed his already-incredible sales performance in the UK (1% of all books sold in Britain in the 1990s were apparently Pratchetts, which was remarkable at the time) would have likely broken even more records had he not also been overtaken around the same time by a certain other fantasy series about wizards and magic. Pratchett no doubt cried about this into his handkerchiefs made of £100 bills.
The Amazing Maurice is an an interesting novel, most notably because Pratchett makes almost exactly zero concessions to his apparently intended audience (his other books are not exactly awash in nudity and swearing). The novel is written in the same manner as his adult books and in fact is actually among the most disturbing Discworld novels, with the revelation of the antagonist in the book being one of Pratchett's more revolting moments. It may have talking rats in it, but the tone is closer to Watership Down (complete with some pretty savage fights and deaths) than to Beatrix Potter. Pratchett seems to do this deliberately, with the rats' belief in a utopian future of animal cooperation stemming from reading a children's book called Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure, which becomes a totem of their tribe. Pratchett paints the internal divisions of the rat gang and each character in some detail, with his traditional economical-but-effective storytelling. The book has a darker tone than most of his novels, and whilst there are still a few laughs here, it's a more intense book than many of the Discworld series.
The novel also has some great riffs on folklore, on the allure of storytelling and the inhumanity of humans to both other humans and the natural world. Pratchett is at his best when he's angry about some injustice, and he fires up his anger quite nicely here, particularly on how people treat animals.It's also quite snappy, coming in at a breezy 270 pages, avoiding the bloat some of the later Discworld books intermittently suffered from. Pratchett sets up his plot and characters, tell his story with impressive depth and characterisation and gets out all in the time that some more traditional fantasy authors are still using to clear their throats and get the protagonist out of his starting village.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (****½) is Pratchett at his most impressive, telling a darker story than normal but with his trademark wit and skills at character-building. It's also a complete stand-alone, with no connections at all to the rest of the Discworld series and can be read completely independently. It is available now in the UK and USA.
Friday, 17 June 2022
Cohen the Barbarian is one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Disc. He has defeated many enemies, found much treasure and conquered several empires. But his well-earned retirement of riches and power is a bit on the boring side, so he's now come up with a new idea: to return fire to the gods and confront them on their home ground of Dunmanifestin, atop the ten-mile spire of Cori Celesti at the very heart of the world. Unfortunately, this will destroy the Disc and everything on it. Fortunately, the wizards of Unseen University are ready to join forces with Leonardo da Quirm and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch to save the day. Or at least try to.
The twenty-seventh Discworld book is another departure from the standard format of the series. Like the earlier Eric, The Last Hero was written and designed as an illustrated project. Unlike Eric, The Last Hero was never designed to be reissued without its illustrations, and they are more dynamically and essentially integrated into the book.
The Last Hero could be best-described as Discworld: Avengers. Pratchett takes advantage of the enormous cast of characters he's built up over twenty-six previous novels to come up with a story and cast of characters to form a team to save the world. Unfortunately, given the competence rating of the average Pratchettian protagonist is usually in minus figures (especially given the absence of Granny Weatherwax and Susan Sto Helit, and Commander Vimes only gets a cameo), this is not quite the slam-dunk solution it should be. Leonardo da Quirm, Captain Carrot and Rincewind join forces at the not-so-subtle behest of the Patrician and the Unseen University Faculty to stop Cohen's plan, and in the process have to build the Disc's first rocket ship and be the first people to set foot on the Disc's very small moon.
Compared to the form of thematic depth and rich characterisation Pratchett had hit in the mainline novels by this time, The Last Hero is lightweight and, even by Discworld standards, a bit implausible. The buildup and backstory of most Discworld novels is largely missing, and events unfold at very high speed given the epic scope of the story. But the book also works very well in its first aim, which is being a bit of disposable, knockabout fun of the kind we haven't seen since the early days of the series, and even better in its second, which is to act as a showcase for the artwork of Paul Kidby.
The original Discworld artist, Josh Kirby, passed away around the time this book was published. Kidby, who'd been working on art projects related to the setting for a few years already, had already been set up as his successor-in-waiting and this project was already underway at the time. Kidby would go on to illustrate the covers from Night Watch (the twenty-ninth book) onward, so The Last Hero can be read as a statement of confidence and intent here. And it works very well. Kirby's madcap art had a wit and charm of its own, but fans had long complained of a lack of fidelity to the text. Kirby's Rincewind was decades older than the thirtysomething character in the novels, and his constant depiction of Twoflower with literally four eyes rather than wearing glasses was quite odd. But Kidby's artwork is much truer to Pratchett's text and also much clearer and easier to parse, whilst still retaining its own, unique stylised energy.
The artwork throughout the book is excellent, often eliciting a giggle by itself. Many of the pieces in the book have become familiar art pieces for the setting individually, and these range from epic depictions of the view of the Disc and its supporting elephants and turtle from its moon to more intimate portraits of the characters and creatures. Kidby does a particularly great job at capturing Carrot's charismatic heroism and Rincewind's world-weary fatalism.
The story is thin and a little disposable, but fun. Pratchett layers in some melancholy thoughts about aging and feeling obsolete in your work as you get older, but also some traditional comic references to history and science.
The Last Hero (****) won't rank as many people's favourite Discworld book due to the lack of depth in its story, but the exceptional artwork elevates the work beyond being a mere curiosity or Christmas stocking-filler. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
Thursday, 16 June 2022
Lucasfilm have sneakily debuted the live-action appearance of a beloved Star Wars literary character. The second episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi sees the first appearance of Corran Horn as a young refugee boy, and he reprised that role in the fifth episode. In the old "Star Wars Expanded Universe" (now called "Legends) line of books, Horn was a hotshot X-wing pilot and Rogue Squadron member who became a powerful Jedi.
Corran Horn was created by Michael A. Stackpole for his X-Wing series of space opera novels. The novels were notable as the first Star Wars book series to focus on original characters, with Star Wars stalwarts like Luke and Leia reduced to cameo appearances. Corran was a hotshot pilot who joined the elite Rogue Squadron two years after the events of Return of the Jedi and rose to become one of its best pilots. He was instrumental in the New Republic's capture of Coruscant and its restoration as the Republic capital world. During these battles Horn was recognised as being Force-sensitive. Eventually he joined Luke Skywalker's New Jedi Academy on Yavin IV, rising to become a Jedi Knight and playing a key role in the war against the Yuuzhan Vong. Horn is notable as one of the few Legends-original characters who got an entire novel (I, Jedi) dedicated to him.
He was a very popular character, despite surface similarities to Luke (a hotshot pilot who becomes a Jedi Knight). He was generally more torn between his different outlooks and options than Luke ever was. In 2012 Disney bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars IP and later ruled all the spin-off novels and comics non-canon, leading to the assumption that Horn would never be seen again.
In Obi-Wan Kenobi we meet Corran as a young boy on the planet Daiyu, a refugee from the Empire. A man named Haja Estree (Kumail Nanjiana) helps a sort-of underground railroad movement, helping would-be Force-sensitive people especially escape from the Inquisitors. We see Horn and his mother being helped in escaping the planet.. The role of Horn - listed in the credits just as "Corran" - is played by Indie Desroches. His mother, Nyche, is played by Marisé Alvarez. Nyche Horn was also the name of Corran's mother in the books. Horn and his mother briefly reappear on Jabiim in the fifth and latest episode of the series.
Stackpole noted the character's appearance on Twitter and confirmed he had been told about the appearance but he hadn't been consulted on it.
Fans have speculated whether Horn's appearance in Obi-Wan Kenobi is just an Easter Egg or might be setup work for Horn to appear in the upcoming Rogue Squadron movie.
Wednesday, 15 June 2022
Nickelodeon and Team Avatar have confirmed that they are now working on three new Avatar: The Last Airbender-related animated films and a TV series. One of these projects will be CG-animated, the others using the more traditional techniques of the original series.
It was announced in February 2021 that Nickelodeon had set up a new dedicated studio to exclusively focus on new animated projects in the Avatar: The Last Airbender world. Original creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino are heading up the studio which will involve a number of different projects in total. Eric Coleman, who also worked on the original animated series, is on board as well.
Lauren Montgomery, who worked on Voltron: Legendary Defender and The Legend of Korra, will direct the first of the three movies. At the moment the plan is for the three movies to be unrelated, not part of a trilogy. The time period and characters involved are unknown.
Avatar: The Last Airbender ran for three seasons from 2005 to 2008, achieving immense critical acclaim and commercial success. Sequel series The Legend of Korra ran for four seasons from 2012 to 2014. There have also been a number of spin-off novels, graphic novels and video games.
Netflix are currently shooting the first season of a live-action remake of the animated series. Konietzko and DiMartino were involved but parted ways with the project in August 2020 over creative differences. Albert Kim has subsequently taking over as showrunner and production is underway, with a cast including Gordon Cormier, Kiawentio, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu, Daniel Dae Kim, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Lim Kay Siu, Ken Leung, Elizabeth Yu, Maria Zhang, Tamlyn Tomita, Yvonne Chapman and Casey Camp-Horinek.
Lord of the Rings veteran Miranda Otto is returning to the franchise and will reprise her role as Eowyn in the upcoming animated film, The War of the Rohirrim. Eowyn will serve as the film's narrator.
Otto played the role of Eowyn in Peter Jackson's original movie trilogy, gaining considerable acclaim for her performance. The new film is set over 180 years before the events of the Lord of the Rings story.
Brian Cox (Succession, Deadwood, Troy) and Gaia Wise (A Walk in the Woods, Silent Witness) are also starring in the film, Cox playing Helm Hammerhand and Wise his daughter, Hera. Luke Pasqualino (Shadow and Bone, Our Girl, The Musketeers) is playing Wulf. The cast also includes Jude Akuwudike, Lorraine Ashbourne, Shaun Dooley, Janine Duvitski, Bilal Hasna, Yazdan Qafouri, Benjamin Wainwright, Michael Wildman and Laurence Ubong Williams.
The film is executive produced by Philippa Boyens, who co-wrote both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Artists Alan Lee and John Howe and Weta effects guru Richard Taylor are also attached to the project. Peter Jackson is not officially involved, but has acted as an unofficial consultant on the project. Kenji Kamiyama is directing.
The project is the source of some controversy, having been put into production to allow Warner Brothers to retain their movie rights to the Lord of the Rings franchise. However, that is disputed by the Saul Zaentz Company, who inherited the rights that J.R.R. Tolkien sold in 1969 and licensed them to New Line in 1997 (Warner Brothers later acquired New Line). According to the Saul Zaentz Company, the deal required production of a live-action film to start within a certain amount of time once the previous movie (2014's The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies) had been released. An animated film did not fit the bill. Warner Brothers dispute that requirement, and the two companies have been in arbitration on the issue for some months.
The new project is not related to the upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel television series, The Rings of Power, which is being produced under a separate deal between Amazon Television, the Tolkien Estate and Warner Brothers. It is understood, though, that if Warner Brothers is unsuccessful in keeping the film rights, Amazon would be very interested in acquiring them.
Sunday, 12 June 2022
Bethesda Game Studios have unveiled a major deep dive into their upcoming science fiction RPG, Starfield.
Starfield is set in the year 2330, after humanity has expanded into space and colonised numerous worlds, but has halted large-scale exploration efforts into unknown space. You are initially a solo operator with your own spacecraft, the Frontier, which you use to do odd jobs. Early on in the game you get an offer to work for Constellation, the last organisation trying to carry out exploration efforts. Constellation has uncovered artefacts of possibly alien origin and want you to help out in finding more. As normal for a Bethesda game, however, you can choose to join other factions (the United Colonies, Freestar Collective or Crimson Fleet) or ignore the factions altogether and strike out on your own path. As usual there is a central storyline you can follow or ignore, and a vast number of side-quests and AI-generated missions to undertake.
You also have your very own spacecraft, the Frontier, which you use to move between star systems and planets. You can customise the Frontier, or ditch it and get a new spacecraft, or even design your own starship completely from scratch. You can recruit crewmembers for your ship to improve its effectiveness and abilities. And yes, you can manually pilot your ship from planet to planet and engage in space combat when provoked.
Base-building from Fallout 4 returns. You can now set up outposts on different planets with different focuses, including gathering resources or defending important areas. You can also recruit crewmembers for bases and build defences for them. There's also a swish new interface for building bases (a top-down design system rather than having to walk around and manually place everything yourself). During gameplay you can walk around and gather resources, including using a mining laser to acquire minerals.
The biggest surprise is the scale of the game. There are more than 100 star systems with multiple planets in each system, for more than 1,000 visitable planets in total. You can land anywhere on a planet and set up bases, explore or gather resources. There are set locations on planets where stories and quests unfold, and presumably you can only land at proper starport facilities there, but otherwise the worlds are your oyster. A key question is what there will be to do on these (presumably) procedurally-generated planets or if too many of them will be empty.
Something the game does improve on versus Skyrim and Fallout 4 (Bethesda's last two single-player RPGs) is the actual RPG system. Character creation is more in-depth than ever before (you can even choose between different walking gaits) and you can select backgrounds which grant you disadvantages or advantages (including Traveller-inspired background careers you had before becoming a freelance space person). As well selecting new skills, you can improve skills through use in-game. It sounds like you will also gain in-game advantages from unlocking achievements, which is an interesting idea.
The game is an interesting mix of standard Bethesda gameplay - complete with familiar, slightly janky combat, weapon customisation and lockpicking - and new ideas which have been inspired by other games, such as The Outer Worlds and especially No Man's Sky. It'll be interesting to see how it plays.
Starfield launches on Xbox and PC in "early 2023."