Thursday, 11 August 2022

Subnautica: Below Zero

Scientist Robin Ayou is dissatisfied with the official reports about the death of her sister, Samantha. Samantha died on the remote planet 4546B due to "employee negligence," according to Alterra Corporation. With Alterra withdrawing all personnel from the planet for unknown reasons, Robin smuggles herself onto 4546B and finds an arctic zone teeming with life and unexplained mysteries, some alluding to the disappearance of the starship Aurora in the vicinity. Robin's investigations into her sister's fate leads her to meet survivors of other expeditions...some from a very long time ago, and not even human.


Below Zero started life as an expansion or DLC for the original Subnautica but, as is so often the case, developed over time into an original title. This leaves it as that sometimes confusing beast, the "stand-alone expansion," a game that is smaller and more focused than the original but is newer, so has somewhat shinier graphics and improved quality-of-life features, like a better user interface and expanded base-building options.

As with most expansions (standalone or not), it would be very easy to say, "if you like Subnautica, you'll like this," and leave it at that. That is, as far is goes, true. However, Below Zero is something of a different beast to its forebear, being both slightly more difficult and somewhat more focused on its narrative.


The original Subnautica had you (playing Ryley Robinson) as the sole survivor of a starship crash, left initially fending for survival in tropical waters and later having to find your way off the planet whilst also battling an alien infection. The narrative elements were light, mostly appearing only in PDA entries and voice logs. Still, these elements drew players deeper and deeper below the planet's surface, eventually finding a way of curing their disease and fabricating the parts needed to build an escape shuttle.

Below Zero has you arriving on the planet deliberately, in search of your missing sister, although your only way of getting there is to hitch a lift with a passing ship and bailing out when nearby, with no ultimate exit strategy. This time you land in an arctic region, which introduces a major new problem that Ryley didn't have to worry about: freezing to death. Sticking your head above water long enough to breathe is fine, but staying out of the water for a few minutes is an invitation to turn into a popsicle. Building a base and vehicles are therefore more urgent tasks than in the original game, since these provide a respite from both suffocation and hypothermia during your explorations of the planet. However, building materials have been changed slightly since the original game, making building up a base slightly more difficult. Titanium, in particular, is thinner on the ground since you have not got a thousand-metre long wrecked starship leaving a miles-long trail of titanium parts across the biome this time around. A Subnautica veteran will overcome these issues in short order, but newcomers may find a game with a tricky difficulty curve.


As with Subnautica, the early part of the game is spent building up resources and building your initial tools, starting with a knife and expanding to torches, a base-building nano-device and small vehicles, like a "Seatruck," which can be expanded later on with additional modules (thus combining the functionality of the both the Seamoth submersible and the giant Cyclops submarine from the original game). Acquiring more tools and more equipment allows you to dive for longer and travel further across the map, eventually discovering the various Alterra facilities your sister was working at. Finding clues in each base leads you to the next location of note. Below Zero's selling point is that at several points your mission will lead you onto land, onto the massive frozen landmasses that envelop the map around its northern edge. Avoiding freezing is even harder than avoiding suffocating, requiring you to use vehicles (like the trusty Prawn Suit, returning from the OG game, or the new Snowfox hover-bike) or make judicious use of spicy food or standing next to hot springs.

All of this is mostly fun. Things are enhanced by a larger array of base-building options, with large, multi-purpose rooms and control rooms (allowing you to control power distribution and the visual theme of the base better) now available. The developers have also dramatically upgraded the game's engine, with slightly better graphics, far less crashes and clipping and some nice new options, like the ability to pin ingredients to your screen to stay on top of the things you are looking for. A new handheld scanner also makes locating minerals easier, though its range is extremely limited.


The traditional Subnautica gameplay loop - find, build, explore, repeat - remains compelling, but Below Zero does have a few limitations which means it's not quite as exciting this time around. The first is that Below Zero is a smaller game. The area of explorable ocean and seabed is much smaller and it's not as deep a game. Literally. In Subnautica you could drop down about two kilometres below the planet's surface, but Below Zero barely reaches half that, and there's not much in the deepest areas that require you to stay down there. This combination means that there's no Cyclops super-submarine - it literally couldn't fit down the crevasses leading to the deeper biomes - commanding which was possibly the single greatest thing about the original game.

In addition, exploring the surface arctic biomes is initially a refreshing change, but rapidly becomes more tedious. It's too easy to get turned around and end up walking in circles, and the various hostile creatures you encounter (the Snow Stalkers and Ice Worm Leviathans) are more inconvenient than actually dangerous. It's also a shorter game, easily completable in under 30 hours, whilst the original game took at least 40 hours to polish off and there was greater encouragement to do optional tasks like building bases in every biome or exploring more for the sake of exploration. You can still do stuff like that in Below Zero, but the much smaller map means you'll exhaust the game's opportunities pretty quickly.


I did enjoy Below Zero's more present story. The original Subnautica could be very obtuse in letting you know what your next goal actually was, whilst Below Zero makes it clearer through voice logs and even (gasp) actual cutscenes and conversations with other characters what your next goal is. The same dual mission structure as the original game is in play here as well, with you originally having to cure an alien plague to shut down a defence system before you could escape the planet. In Below Zero you have to find out what happened to your sister, complete her mission and then deal with a secondary objective related to various alien ruins on the planet. Those who enjoyed the sparseness of the original game (where your character never spoke, unlike here) might feel the story more intrusive here, but in reality the game is still 95% you doing your own thing to 5% story, as opposed to the original game's 99% to 1%. I also enjoyed the fact that there's more friendly flora and fauna, like the Sea Monkeys who are an initial annoyance but later help you find resources.

Subnautica: Below Zero (****) is not Subnautica 2, but it is a fun, enjoyable game that takes the original game's appeal, sands off some of the rough edges and introduces some quality of life improvements that make the game flow better, as well as featuring a better story. However, it does also struggle with a slightly steeper learning curve than the original game, the absence of some fan-favourite creatures and vehicles, and a significantly smaller map. I would certainly recommend that newcomers start with the original Subnautica before moving onto this game. Below Zero is available now for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and X/S, and Nintendo Switch.

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Sunday, 7 August 2022

The Sandman: Season 1

1916. English sorcerer Roderick Burgess, distraught over the death of his son at Gallipoli, seeks to bind and imprison Death itself. His plan misfires and instead he captures Dream. Dream is unable to give Burgess what he wants, and eventually Burgess leaves him to rot in a glass prison in his cellar. During Dream's absence, his realm, the Dreaming, falls into disrepair and many dreams and nightmares escape into the world of the living. Some people also fall into a permanent sleep, a sleeping sickness that lasts decades and claims thousands. Eventually Dream escapes, and finds he must return his realm to order and reclaim the dreams and nightmares...even those who are prepared to do anything to retain their liberty.

Adapting The Sandman for the screen is a Herculean task. Neil Gaiman's 76-issue comic series ran from 1988 to 1996 and was collected as ten dense graphic novels, telling stories spanning thousands of years and involving a cast running into the hundreds. At the centre of it all is Dream or Morpheus, a non-human anthropomorphic personification of the concept of dreams. In many issues Dream doesn't even show up, or only has a brief cameo. The series alternates between epic story arcs and self-contained fables, and the tone can spin on a dime from comedy to tragedy to outright horror to fantasy to historical drama. Very minor moments in earlier issues can have massive ramifications fifty issues later.

There is also the legacy that Sandman has accrued. The series occupies a space in comics similar to what The Lord of the Rings does in fantasy novels, a dominant force whose sheer name value and beloved following makes tackling an adaptation a humbling and challenging task. Fortunately, at least in this case the original creator was on hand to help tackle the adaptation and guide it to the screen.

Netflix's The Sandman is an unabashed triumph, something that is a relief to say after so many recent streaming adaptations of beloved fantasy works were underwhelming, if not outright terrible. The one-two punch in recent weeks of Sandman and Amazon's splendid tackling of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls may make one wonder if streaming services are turning a corner and are now producing better adaptations, but I suspect we will continue to see variable results moving forwards.

The Sandman works because it combines a talented cast of actors, directors, vfx personnel and behind the scenes crew with excellent judgement over how to develop the source material. Some episodes are lifted from issues of the comic almost verbatim, with Gaiman's almost-thirty-five-year-old material still feeling as fresh and engrossing as when it was originally committed to paper. Other episodes see the source material reimagined or tackled in a different way due to practical concerns, or cost, or not having the rights to certain characters or ideas, and in every case the judgement is sound.

The first season of the TV series adapts the first two graphic novels in the series, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House, constituting the first sixteen issues of the comic. In the former story arc, Dream is imprisoned, escapes and sets about repairing the Dreaming and recovering three of the symbols of office (a ruby, a bag of sand and a helmet), which involves confronting a murderous killer, tracking down a demon-hunter in contemporary London and descending into Hell itself for a tense audience with Lucifer. In the latter, Dream sets out to recover three missing inhabitants of the Dreaming who escaped during his imprisonment, as well as investigating the appearance of a "dream vortex" which threatens the fabric of reality.

The adaptation collapses these two stories into ten episodes (some of them surprisingly short by modern standards) and overlaps them a little bit more than in the comics, positing the Corinthian (a brilliant Boyd Holbrook) as more of an antagonist for the entire season. The result is a compelling pace, with excellently-crafted cliffhangers demanding you watch just one more episode. This is enhanced by brilliant casting: Tom Sturridge has a hard job playing the taciturn, oft-emotionless Dream, but he manages the impossible by nailing Dream's implacability but also giving him brief bursts of humour and charisma. Vivienne Acheampong is outstanding as the fussy librarian Lucienne, who keeps the Dreaming ticking over in Dream's absence, and Kyo Ra is superb as Rose Walker, the closest thing we have a to a "regular human" lead in the story.

Other actors appear just for one episode or so, but are fantastic: David Thewliss is chilling as John Dee, Jenna Coleman is suitably bedrazzled as walking human dumpster fire Johanna Constantine (a rights-enforced gender flip of John "Hellblazer" Constantine) and Gwendoline Christie is fire and ice personified as Lucifer Morningstar. Ferdinand Kingsley is also outstanding as Hob Gadling, an ordinary human whom is gifted immortality by the Endless on a whim to see how he handles it, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste imbues Death with the whimsy, humour, wisdom and depth of her comics counterpart.

Contained within the first season was the tricky mandate to adapt three of the greatest individual issues of comics ever published into live-action: "Twenty-Four Hours" (here realised as episode five, 24/7), "The Sound of Her Wings" and "Men of Good Fortune" (here combined into episode six, The Sound of Her Wings). "Twenty-Four Hours" had to be changed a fair bit, due to the absence of a narrating figure and limits on the amount of horror even Netflix can put on screen, but the end result is still fascinating (and horrific). But The Sound of Her Wings is flawless, taking the two vaguely related stories from the comic (the first in which Dream spends a day watching his sister, Death, at work, and the second in which Dream spends one day every 100 years meeting Hob Gadling, who may or may not be a friend) and combining them into a beautiful hour of drama.

Flaws are almost non-existent: Mervyn Pumpkinead's CGI feels a bit stiff compared to the flawless vfx elsewhere, and the utterly brilliant end credits (which vary from episode to episode) barely have a chance to start before Netflix forces them off the screen for the next episode. And that's really about it.

The first season (*****) builds to a suitably epic conclusion, with quiet moments that readers of the comics know will have a seismic impact further down the road, but ultimately leaves the viewer shocked that the team have managed the impossible: they have taken The Sandman and made a superb television series out of it. The hope now is that they can continue.

The first season of The Sandman is available to watch on Netflix worldwide right now and I recommend you avail yourself of the opportunity to catch up on it as soon as possible.

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Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest

Menhir Forest is in danger. The Archdruid has gone missing and a horrible growth, known as "the Cancer," is spreading through the forest, consuming everything in its path. Corrupted, dangerous creatures are appearing. The druids call upon three allies to help investigate and solve the crisis: Aava, the Archdruid's daughter and a keen archer; Leonhard, the Warden, a mighty warrior with a mysterious past that he cannot remember; and Oiko, a renegade Red Priest who has rejected the evil ways of his former colleagues.


Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest is an intriguing game which mixes several influences: tactics games, like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Final Fantasy Tactics; JRPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy series; and old-school games which rewarded tactical thinking and creative combinations of abilities, perhaps unsurprising given the same creative team worked on the throwback Legend of Grimrock series. It is more accessible than Legend of Grimrock, and can easily be summed up as "fantasy XCOM" (even if it's not quite as accomplished in that field as the Banner Saga trilogy).

The game proceeds from quest to quest with your fellowship assigned a primary objective, achieving which immediately ends the mission, and secondary objectives. Secondary objectives are not essential to complete the mission, but they are essential to acquire gemstones, which boost your abilities. You will very quickly learn that these gemstones are not optional and are urgently needed to make some of the later missions achievable in any fashion.

Each mission plays out in a familiar XCOM style, with a grid across which your characters can move and take actions. You can move up to an allowance and attack, but attacking does not end your movement, so can pop out of cover to get line-of-sight on an enemy, fire off an arrow or magical attack, and then nip back into cover, which creates lots of intriguing tactical options. One limitation is that if you are adjacent to an enemy, you cannot move away from them without triggering an opportunity attack (the same is also true for you), although several items and abilities do allow you to accomplish this.

You have a baseline of abilities and levelling up your character allows you to add new abilities. More important are the gemstones, which enhance the abilities you already have. These may allow you to add more damage or a status effect to an attack, or simply use the ability more often. Using abilities usually replaces an attack action, but some are free-to-use and can combine with attacks or movements to impressive effect. Your magic-users can utilised "Focus" to enhance their magical abilities, such as taking Fire from a single-target ability to an area-of-effect ability that can hit up to nine enemies if they are standing closely together (or if you manipulate or trick the enemy into bunching together). Oiko has an underrated ability to swap places with any unit in his line of sight (friend or foe) which allows you to increase the range of your melee characters' movement (Oiko moves up to his maximum, swap-teleports with a melee character who can then move to the maximum of their movement, allowing them to get into combat a round earlier than just waiting for the enemy to approach).

Progress is mostly linear, although at key points you have a choice of several missions to proceed with. You can also revisit previously-completed missions to gain more experience and gold, although the amount you gain each time you replay a mission dwindles with each playthrough. You can also only get bonus gems from any given mission once. This does allow you to sometimes complete a mission without getting the bonus objectives and then coming back later on once your overall strength has improved.

Graphically, the game is solid but not amazing and the music is pleasant, even if more than one tune only narrowly avoids have Square Enix's lawyers frowning and reaching for the telephone. The user interface is great and an "undo move" button is a welcome sight given how easy it is to accidentally move somewhere you didn't want to go. More annoying is the way that Oiko's "teleport" and "forcebolt" icons are very similar, meaning you sometimes end up swapping places with an enemy you meant to attack and vice versa.

In terms of story, the game is okay but the lack of any voiceovers at all feels a bit outdated (as much as it kept the game's budget down). There's also sometimes far too much dialogue before a mission starts, little of it interesting. The story is also a bit odd, one subplot where a character is possessed by a another being and stays that way for the rest of the game being weirdly under-explored. There's also a strange thing where you really (eventually) have five party-members, but to bring the fifth party member into the battle requires summoning them at the start of every mission. It feels like they should really have just been in the party all along.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest (****) is not going to be winning any prizes for originality, but it is a tightly-designed fantasy tactics game with a nice story, interesting characters and some fiendishly designed missions. These make up for a sometimes confusing UI and a lack of voice acting in the game. The title is available now on PC.

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Monday, 1 August 2022

Blogging Roundup: 1 June to 31 July 2022


The Wertzone

News

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Articles

Atlas of Ice and Fire

Dragonmount

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Disney+ delays STAR WARS TV show ANDOR

Disney+ has delayed the launch of its next Star Wars TV series, Andor, by three weeks. The show will now launch on 21 September.

Andor is a prequel to the movie Rogue One and follows a young Cassian Andor as he takes up arms against the Empire for the first time. However, the film also has a more epic scope and follows Mon Mothma and other dignitaries on Coruscant as they take their first faltering steps in opposing the tyrannical government that the Galactic Empire has become. Other storylines span the Star Wars galaxy instead of the very tight focus on single characters from The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The reason for moving Andor is unclear, but there is speculation that it was to move it out of a crowded launch window which would have seen it going head-to-head with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (17 August), House of the Dragon (21 August) and The Rings of Power (2 September).

Andor sees Diego Luna reprise his role as Cassian Andor from Rogue One. Forest Whitaker also returns as Saw Gerrera, a role he played in Rogue One and also in Star Wars: Rebels. Genevieve O'Reilly returns as Mon Mothma, a role she played in Rogue One and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Stellan Skarsgård also stars as Luthen. Adria Arjona, Kyle Soller, Fiona Shaw, Anton Lesser, Ben Miles, Robert Emms and David Hayman have unconfirmed roles.