Sunday, 5 February 2023

The CW will not develop any pilots for 2023-24, likely ending BABYLON 5 reboot development

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the American channel CW has effectively abandoned the development of new, original drama programming. It will not pick up any new pilots for the 2023-24 season and may only renew three of its existing shows for next year (only one, All American, has been announced). For genre fans, this likely means the end of any chances for the Babylon 5 reboot project to move ahead at the channel.

The CW has spent many years as a relatively scrappy underdog, putting out a number of successful mid-budget shows like Supernatural and The 100 and a whole slate of DC Comics-adjacent shows like The Flash, Arrow, Superman & Lois and Legends of Tomorrow. These shows failed to turn a profit in first run, but did form a highly attractive package that was re-sold to streamers like Netflix for huge sums of money. Ill-advisedly, the CW terminated this deal to try to use its shows to push out its own streaming options as part of HBO Max. However, it was nowhere near as successful as the Netflix deal, putting the CW on the back foot. In early 2022, the CW was sold to Nexstar Media Group who immediately pivoted hard towards cheap reality programming and overseas imports. Ten CW scripted originals were cancelled immediately, with more following since.

The CW had previously picked up development rights to classic space opera series Babylon 5. The original series had run from 1993 to 1998, in first-run syndication and then on the TNT channel. 110 episodes were produced across five seasons, also generating six TV movies and a spin-off show, Crusade, that was cancelled after half a season. The show had not garnered a massive audience, but it had done solidly and turned an immense profit given its very low production costs (achieved through pioneering the use of CGI). The show had also picked up significant critical acclaim and multiple awards, as well as an enthusiastic cult audience. The show had pioneered serialised storytelling in dramas in an age of stand-alones and reset buttons, with writers including Damon Lindelof, the Wachowskis and George R.R. Martin citing it as an influential work. A partial HD remaster of Babylon 5 generated positive press coverage in early 2021 and introduced a new audience to the series.

Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski confirmed that a Babylon 5 reboot was in development at the CW in September 2021. Due to the changes at the CW, the show's development was unusually put on hiatus for a year after it was not picked up in the previous renewal window in February 2022. However, the latest news seems to make the reboot an even more unlikely project then it already was.

The project may not be entirely dead. The new CW is looking for more adult shows to appeal to older viewers, especially if they can be delivered for under $5 million per episode. A legacy show with name value aimed at adult viewers with a reasonable overseas resale potential might still interest the new regime, but it would now appear to be a slim shot indeed, and almost certainly not happening this year.

Additionally, it's possible another streamer or channel takes on the project, although it is unclear which ones would be interested.

Thursday, 2 February 2023

Death Stranding (Director's Cut)

A mysterious, apocalyptic event called the Death Stranding has ended the old world and ushered in the new. In this world the barrier between life and death has become vague and fluid. It is possible to breach the walls of death and visit the Beach, a purgatory-like stepping stone between this world and what comes after. But the Beach is feeding into our world, allowing dead souls, BTs or Beached Things, to manifest. Where BTs and living souls come into contact, there is annihilation, vast explosions called voidouts. These voidouts have obliterated much of America, leaving behind desperate islands of humanity, large numbers of survivors clustered in cities called Knots and singular preppers in remote shelters.

Sam Porter is recruited by Bridges, a company working closely with the nascent government called the United Cities of America. Their goal is to use the chiral energy of the Beach to reunite America, forming connections between cities and shelters until a single civilisation once again spans the continent. Sam is sent on a mission to complete the connections and find his missing adopted sister, reportedly held prisoner by extremists in a city on the remote west coast of the continent, cut off by a sea of tar. In this quest Sam is helped by a group of allies bearing oblique codenames and with varying motives. His closest ally is BB, a "Bridge Baby" (ghost-detecting quasi-foetus) wired into his suit's sensor systems, allowing him to sense and avoid BTs. But Sam and his BB are also being hunted by a mysterious figure, a soldier from the Beach who will stop at nothing to recover what he believes is his.

Death Stranding is a game that defies easy summary. It's a game which melds its decidedly familiar gameplay and format - an open world game you can traverse on foot or by vehicle, doing various missions for various people by means including stealth and combat - with the most obtusely deranged set of worldbuilding you've encountered this side of Steven Erikson's Malazan fantasy series, except even far more metaphysically weird. To play Death Stranding is to take an acid trip to a world where Darryl from The Walking Dead, Actual Guillermo Del Toro's Face and the baby from 2001 are FedEx couriers working to save America from Antimatter Ghosts you can shoot in the face with your own bodily excretions. To play Death Stranding is to play a game which asks, nay, demands that you pause it at least once per hour for the first five hours to ask, "what in the name of galloping fucknuts is going on?"

Of course, the obtuseness of the early game eventually gives way to understanding a bit more what's happening thanks to some of the longest infodumps in human history, in any medium. The game's characters are only too keen to tell you what is happening, using a battery of original Proper Nouns, holographic maps and charts. Essentially it's a narrative that has its weirdly obtuse cake and then also eats it from a plate of...frosty exposition? Death Stranding's worldbuilding and story eventually end up being nowhere near as inaccessible as some have made out, there's just a lot of it, and the story and worldbuilding are very front-loaded to the point that the game's opening few hours resemble wading through the treacle of lengthy cutscenes interspersed by tutorial-like bursts of gameplay before it gets out of its own way and lets you start playing the damn thing properly.

Once Death Stranding stops Lars von Triering out of your monitor, what emerges is a game almost disappointingly familiar: an open-world game where you walk around doing jobs for people. Jobs in this game consist almost exclusively of taking packages containing needed goods from one location to another. Early in the game you are limited to walking everywhere, and unlike almost literally every other video game in existence, the game has zero truck with you being able to carry three tons of inventory in an invisible container somewhere. Instead, every single item in the game has a physical presence and you have to account for it. This can end up with your character - Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus from that zombie show and also that motorcycle show - comically staggering around with four feet of containers looming above his head, a mixture of cargo and survival gear. The more cargo you have, the easier it is to trip over and drop and damage it, which is no good for your client. You have tools to help you, such as ladders to ascend difficult spots or bridge streams and minor chasms, and ropes to ascend or descend sheer cliffs, but these are fairly limited at the start of the game.

Managing your cargo is a big problem initially, but Death Stranding immediately, and subtly, starts giving you ways of adjusting to the problem. The early settlements are relatively close to one another and it becomes easy to work out where to drop stuff off, double back to pick up other cargo, and then deliver stuff more efficiently. The game gives you a powered trike early on, but, amusingly, no way to charge it, so a bunch more deliveries lead you to gaining the ability to build field generators. Then the trike allows you to get around faster and carry more stuff, but soon you bump into new limitations.

The game also amps up the threat level quickly. You find your first batch of BTs early only, ghostly entities who don't just kill you, but first force you into a mid-tier-annoying boss fight. Detecting BTs with the help of your eerie demibaby companion becomes second nature, and avoiding them is relatively easy, though of course it's also easy to become overconfident and blunder down a hillside into a pack of them at the worst possible moment. Later on BTs become a more trivial threat once you learn how to weaponise your excretions into explosive weapons, but of course, not long after that the games starts feeding in more capable variants of BTs which are more difficult to defeat.

You also have human enemies to face, starting off with bandits called MULES (there's a ton of acronyms in this game and also absolutely zero explanation of what any of them stand for, which I kind of respect) and then advancing up to terrorists known as Homo Demens, whom everyone calls demons. MULES are annoying, beating you up with electro-poles and nicking your stuff, whilst the demons are lethal, happy to blow you away with automatic weapons and grenades. With both enemy types, the normal videogame instinct is to get some heavy hardware and liquidate them, but in the world of Death Stranding, this is a Very Bad Idea. Killing someone turns them into a BT; when a BT eats a passing live human, such as a MULE or terrorist when the camp respawns, it basically triggers a matter/antimatter explosion which effectively vaporises the game world. Or, more succinctly, every corpse you create in the world turns into a ticking time bomb which will eventually result in a game over screen. You can avert this by dragging the bodies either to an incinerator or into the Tar Sea, but these are at opposite ends of the game map and are very inconvenient to reach without a vehicle and still quite time-consuming with one. Just not killing people is the easier option. Since this game comes from the creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, there are fortunately myriad options for knocking people unconscious instead.

Death Stranding occupies an interesting space between the open-world action-adventure game and a narrative-heavy story game (not dissimilar to the previous game from the same team, Metal Gear Solid V). The narrative is very dense and complex, and taking a 20-hour break from the story to focus on side-missions won't exactly make it any more straightforward. On the other hand, taking long breaks from Yet Another Guillermo Del Toro Metaphysical TED Talk to just chill out hiking over some hills to some laidback Iceland rock might be very appealing.

The open-world elements are refreshingly stripped back: there is no skill tree, no pseudo-RPG ability unlocks (just occasional boosts to your carry capacity or stamina bar as you complete missions) and a bare handful of usable vehicles. Everything that is in the game is hyper-focused on making your life easier or the gameplay more interesting. Side-quests are almost uniformly a variation of "deliver something from Point A to Point B," with occasional missions directing you to raiding MULE camps or into BT-infested ruins to retrieve some vital piece of equipment. Occasionally missions direct you to unlock more information about your crew of supporting characters, and there's even escort missions, although these oddly involve strapping another human being to your back and lugging them around rather than them just, y'know, walking around themselves.

There is light crafting in the game, but the main building exercise in the game involves constructing, or reconstructing, a massive road network that spans the world map. Building this road network involves a ton of resource-collecting, with metals and ceramic either gained from completing quests, gatherable from allied outposts at regular intervals or lootable from MULE or terrorist camps. It's wholly unnecessary: vehicles with solid battery packs and building occasional generators in remote areas or shelters with garages for repairs will get you across the whole map without a problem. But even spanning a small corner of the map with roads to allow you fast transit between certain shelters can eliminate a lot the slower-paced travel from the game. How far you decide to go with that kind of activity is up to you; if you focus on the story and the story alone, you can finish Death Stranding in well under 30 hours. But if you set out to rebuild the road network solo and do every side-mission and get every achievement, you can expand this out to around 80 hours or even more with ease.

The game also features an interesting multiplayer mode. You never encounter other players in the game world, but your game data can synch with everybody else's on the server, so that other player's structures appear in your game and yours can appear in others'. Resources will flow into road repairs between your game world and others', dramatically speeding up the construction process. You can post signs warning other players about avalanches or raiders up ahead. You can dump unneeded equipment or weapons at a shelter for another player to pick up when it appears in their game. It's all rather interesting and ties into the game's central message about connectivity. Although you can also completely turn if off if you wish.

Death Stranding is built around this thematic idea of connectivity. As you traverse the game world, you bring isolated communities back into touch with one another through the medium of your role as a parcel delivery guy. The presumably unintended parallels to the COVID pandemic - the game was originally released just a few months before lockdowns became commonplace in early 2020 - are eerie. The theme is explored in interesting ways, although also fairly on-the-nose ones. Main character Sam is a loner with no interest in making friends at the start of the game, but through his connection with uncanny baby-thing BB and a host of bewilderingly damaged other characters, he becomes part of an extended family. It's both so cliched as to become saccharine, but also oddly effective.

It helps that the cast is both ridiculously stacked and extremely well-played. Reedus brings his familiar had-it-with-this-crap everyman exasperation from The Walking Dead and is a sympathetic lead (especially the way his stoic demeanour with others gives way to a goofier side when he's alone...well, apart from the player and BB). The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley is excellent as your main "man in the van," Mama, and Lea Seydoux gives an offbeat performance as Fragile, a fellow deliverer with an intriguing approach to next-day deliveries from anywhere on the continent. The Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, makes for an excellent President of the United Cities, and Tommie Earl Jenkins and Troy Baker are having almost too much fun the ludicrously-named Die-Hardman (!) and Higgs, the antagonistic leader of the demons. Mads Mikkelsen lends the project fantastic gravitas as the enigmatic Cliff. Guillermo Del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn only lend their likenesses rather than their voices to the roles of Deadman and Heartman, with Jesse Corti and Darren Jacobs picking up the vocal slack.

More amusing is the battery of more random cameos among the preppers and shelter-keepers you encounter, with manga artist Junji Ito, film directors Edgar Wright and Jordan Vogt-Roberts, game designer Sam Lake (best-known for his work on Remedy games like Alan Wake and playing the original Max Payne) and Video Game Awards founder Geoff Keighley all cropping up in small roles. Conan O'Brien has a particularly random limited appearance as an aggressive cosplayer. These cameos should feel massively incongruous, given the melancholy, more serious attitude the game cultivates elsewhere, but they end up feeling effective.

The gameplay loop of delivering parcels, unlocking new tools and vehicles and travelling to a new area is very effective early on, and there's no denying that the story and world, although dense and complex, are also original and interesting. The heavy de-emphasising of lethal combat is interesting, as is the decision to let you still indulge in it despite the risk of just blowing up the entire game world. Action is rare but satisfying when it takes place. The graphics are mostly excellent (although the relatively limited draw distance by modern standards does feel weird), the music is absolutely outstanding, and the game handles its tonal variation from moments of intense action to outright horror to melancholy loneliness very well.

There are problems though. The game frontloads exposition and introducing its bewildering world into the first few hours, meaning it does not put its best foot forwards and can give a very misleading view of what the game itself is like. Vehicle handling is okay on roads but pretty awful off it, and the twentieth time your truck bounces over a boulder half its own size with no problem only you get stuck on a pebble the size of a hedgehog will make you start to wonder if any of the developers have even seen an off-road truck, let alone used one. It's also hard to argue that the mountain biome can be deeply frustrating to navigate, at least until you unlock the use of ziplines and figure out the hidden paths trucks can use.

But these negatives are, for the most part, manageable. Death Stranding (****½) may be obtuse and strange for the sake of being strange, but it's also uniquely its own thing. Its atmosphere is haunting, its ideas original and its utter rejection of most modern gaming conventions (and, indeed, its not-always-subtle satirising of them) refreshing. This is not a game for everybody, but if you lock into its headspace, Death Stranding will be a memorable, fascinating gaming experience. The game is available now on PlayStation 4 and 5, and on PC. A sequel, DS2, is currently in development.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

THE SIMPSONS renewed for two more seasons, to bring it over 800 episodes aired

Fox Television has renewed The Simpsons for two more seasons, bringing the total number of episodes to 801. The move extends The Simpsons' place as the longest-running, scripted non-soap in American television history.

The Simpsons began airing as its own series on 17 December 1989, having previously run as a series of animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show from April 1987. An almost immediate smash hit, The Simpsons rapidly became an American and then a global phenomenon, with "Bartmania" sweeping the world in 1991 and 1992. The show enjoyed remarkable critical and commercial success for approximately a decade, but was criticised for a critical decline beginning in the early 2000s. The franchise's success was reinvigorated with the release of The Simpsons Movie in 2007 (which saw the return of many classic writers), but since then the show has again been accused of a decline. However, the last two seasons (Seasons 33 and 34) have had significantly better reviews than those before them for many years.

The renewal will extend The Simpsons' run to 36 seasons and 801 episodes, confirming the show as the longest-running American animated series, the longest-running American sitcom and the longest-running American primetime scripted series (which excludes soap operas), both in number of episodes and seasons.

It should be noted that internationally The Simpsons isn't quite top of the tree. The British science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf began airing in February 1988 and continues to (intermittently) produce new episodes, although its number of seasons (12) and episodes (74) is vastly more modest. Still, it is (technically) a longer-running sitcom.

More notably, British SF drama series Doctor Who has aired 39 seasons across 60 years (1963-89, 1996, 2005-present), totalling 871 episodes. With only 4 episodes expected to air in 2023 and 9 in 2024, whilst The Simpsons will air at least 22 episodes per year, The Simpsons will require several more seasons beyond this renewal to overtake Doctor Who.

How long The Simpsons can continue is unclear. Castmember Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson) is now in her 70s and Dan Castellaneta (Homer) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart) are both in their mid-60s. Although the show has replaced several actors who have sadly passed away or left over the years, it has never tried to replace one of the "big five" in the cast, which also includes Yeardley Smith (Lisa) and Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum, Moe and many smaller roles), who are both 58.

The Simpsons has also seen a linear decline in ratings over the years, but this is not out of keeping with overall downward trends in first broadcast network shows. The show has also become a perennial strong performer on streaming service Disney+, although with so many episodes available, it does not require new episodes to be continuously produced to maintain that appeal.

Fox relies heavily on its relatively cheap animated sitcoms to maintain audiences at a time when it is finding it harder to invest in more expensive, live-action material. It has also renewed fellow animated sitcom powerhouses Family Guy and Bob's Burgers for two seasons apiece, taking the former to 23 seasons and the latter to 15 seasons.

Other networks are also extending their animated output: FXX is producing a 14th season of Archer, whilst Comedy Central has renewed South Park as far as a 30th season due to air in 2027.

Friday, 27 January 2023

THE LAST OF US renewed for a second season at HBO

HBO have renewed their TV series The Last of Us for a second season. The not-completely-surprising news came after the show aired its third episode and recorded impressive audience growth week-on-week, as well as enormous critical praise.

The Last of Us is an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed video game franchise of the same name, which spans two video games (released in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and assorted expansions. Both game and series see humanity devastated by the release of a fungal plague which transforms infected human hosts into aggressive monsters. Joel (Pedro Pascal in the TV series) is given a mission to help smuggle a young girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsay) to safety after it is discovered she is immune to the infection.

Showrunners Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (creator of the video game) have confirmed that they only plan to adapt the two games and their assorted DLC, but it may take two additional seasons to fully cover the events of the second game.

The remaining six episodes of the first season will air through 12 March.

Wizards of the Cost scraps plans to revamp the OGL and moves D&D to a Creative Commons licence

It's been a bruising few weeks for Wizards of the Coast and parent company Hasbro, whose plans to monetise the never-more-popular Dungeons & Dragons brand by removing the Open Game Licence 1.0 ran into fierce opposition from fans and fellow businesses alike.

Wizards initially offered a partial compromise, allowing existing OGL products to remain on sale and removing plans for licence charges for successful products using the D&D rules, but confirming they were pressing ahead with eliminating the OGL 1.0 for new products moving forwards. Creators would instead have to sign up to the OGL 2.0, which was still significantly more restrictive than the old 1.0 model that company had employed since 2000, and changes to the rules pertaining to the virtual tabletop (VTT) market would remain in place, effectively forcing online players to use Wizards' own D&D Beyond service with a subscription fee.

However, the creators of the OGL 1.0 voiced doubts that the original OGL could be legally revoked (they'd deliberately included language suggesting not), several companies mulled over legal challenges and multiple other RPG companies announced the creation of a rival open licence, which soon saw a large chunk of the tabletop RPG industry come on board.

Today Wizards of the Coast announced a comprehensive climbdown. They will no longer try to revoke the OGL 1.0, they will no longer try to impose their changes on the burgeoning virtual tabletop (VTT) market (with the 1.0 remaining in place, that's no longer possible) and they are in fact scrapping the entire OGL 2.0 initiative in favour of moving to a Creative Commons licence instead. They are releasing the rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition via a Systems Reference Document for use with either licence. Effectively, this is a return to the status quo, with a more comprehensive 5th Edition SRD as a result.

Wizards likely decided on the climbdown after seeing over 40,000 subscribers abandon their D&D Beyond platform in the space of three weeks, as well as a burgeoning campaign to boycott the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie, Honor Among Thieves, which launches on 31 March. The film is the opening salvo of a broad-spectrum D&D assault on the multimedia space, with Hasbro keen to bring the franchise to film and television, as well as reinforcing its presence in video games (the highly-anticipated Baldur's Gate III launches later this year).

Whilst likely to be welcomed by those whose livelihoods were threatened, the climbdown is unlikely to erase the memory of Wizards' behaviour. Other companies have benefitted, most notably Paizo who make the rival Pathfinder fantasy RPG which was previously the dominant tabletop RPG from 2009 to 2015 before D&D supplanted them. Paizo reports selling out of all of its physical stock of its core rulebook in the last fortnight and is rushing reprints to meet renewed demand. Some other RPG creators are also reporting increased sales. Work on the rival open gaming licence is likely to continue.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Halo: Season 1

In the year 2552, the planet Madrigal is in open rebellion against the United Nations Space Command, discounting reports that other human worlds are fighting again alien invaders. However, the aliens, the Covenant, attack the planet and butcher the inhabitants of a small town. An elite unit of Spartan super-soldiers, Silver Team, arrives but uncovers a bigger mystery related to alien obelisks and the single survivor of the colony, Kwan Ha. A battle of wits and wills begins between the Covenant and the UNSC, with the commander of Silver Team, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, proving to be unexpectedly important to what is to come.

It's been over twenty years since the Halo franchise first appeared and, even being charitable, it's fair to say that the series is long since past its peak. Naturally, this is the moment that a Halo TV show chooses to arrive, just as WarCraft and Assassin's Creed both received adaptations long after their moments of cultural dominance had passed, and as a result were met with indifferent shrugs.

The Halo TV show takes the route of being a prequel to the events of the video games, set even before the events of Halo: Reach, but it is also explicitly set in an alternate timeline to the games. Characters, ideas and factions are present who do not exist in the games, and most of the game characters, races and stories have been tweaked for their presentation on screen. Just about the only thing that hasn't been significantly redesigned is the hardware. Weapons, armour, aliens and spacecraft all arrive with very solid approximations of their appearances in the video games.

As with the games, the story focus on John-117 (The Wire's Pablo Schreiber), better known as Master Chief, a Spartan super-soldier who is one of Earth's best hopes in the war against the Covenant, an alliance of several alien races united by religion. Unlike the games, Master Chief is just one of an ensemble cast and we spend a lot of time with other characters: Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone), John's effective mentor and mother figure; Cortana (Jen Taylor), a newly-created artificial intelligence with loyalty issues; Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine), a former Spartan turned insurrectionist leader; Commander Keyes (Olive Gray), a UNSC officer and scientist; Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), a rebel on the planet Madrigal; and Makee (Charlie Murphy), a human captured by the Covenant as a child and indoctrinated in their religion. We also spend a fair amount of time with the other members of Master Chief's Silver Team, particularly Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy).

The first season divides its story into several strands. In one, we learn more about the creation of the Spartan programme, particularly the way it inhibits the emotional development of the soldiers, and how Master Chief (and, later, Kai) deal with that revelation. There is some redundancy here - having two characters undergoing the same emotional journey is odd - but the actors handle the story well. Master Chief also learns more about his childhood and how he joined the Spartan programme. Dr. Halsey's dubious morality and willingness to overstep certain bounds to achieve her goals is present and correct from the video games, although this version of the character is a bit more obviously a bad 'un from the start, and her arc lacks nuance.

In a second strand we follow Kwan Ha's story as the last survivor of a massacre into becoming a potential rebel leader under Soren's tutelage. This story is competently executed, and both Woodbine and Burn Gorman as the villainous Vinsher Grath are having more fun than anyone else in the cast, but it's connection to the rest of the story and the setting feels thin. It's almost worthwhile for the final showdown with Grath, where Burn Gorman chews scenery with delicious aplomb.

In a third strand we follow the journey of Makee from Covenant stooge to discovering life among other humans. This story feels fairly random: the Covenant of the early games would never recruit or use a human to work for them (it would go against their entire religious ethos) and the feeling emerges that they had to give the Covenant a human representative to save on the CGI budget (the Covenant CGI is both excellent and fleeting) more than because there was a good story purpose for her existence. This is frustrating as Charlie Murphy gives a good performance (a lot of it in an nonexistent alien language), and deserves better material.

The season's pacing is uneven, dedicating entire episodes to some stories so entire sub-casts of characters don't appear, with even Master Chief sitting an episode out. To be fair, the games have also shown the Halo universe can survive without the big MC (the two Halo Wars games, Halo: Reach and Halo: ODST do without Master Chief as well), but given the main story focus here is on Master Chief's activities prior to the war for Reach, him sitting out a fair bit of the story is a bit of an odd choice. Having him spend most of the time he does appear without a helmet, even in extended action sequences, is an even odder one.

The thing is, all these choices could be borne if the end result was great, but instead it has to settle for being...kinda okay, I guess? The actors are all very solid, many of the ideas are fine (apart from the human Covenant member) and the show does have an ace up its sleeve with its action sequences, which are extremely well-handled. The battle sequences in the first and last episode genuinely feel like movie setpieces, and smaller action scenes throughout the rest of the series are decent. A bone-crunching internal conflict between Spartans genuinely sells the idea of these guys being human+ and you don't want to get in their way. These moments give us glimpses of a considerably better show that could have been created from the same ideas.

The show could have also tightened up its pacing a bit. There isn't really enough story to fill nine episodes and six to seven would have probably been better. There's also a lot of faffing around with ideas and elements that aren't very well handled, and for every change to the backstory and premise to make things more practical and affordable, there's another two or three that feel like change for change's sake. Even for a casual appreciator of the video games like myself rather than a deeply-invested megafan, a lot of these changes feel pointless.

The first season of the Halo TV show (***) ends up being okay. It's watchable, with some good performances and some outstanding action sequences. But the show is a bit flabby, the changes to the source material are mostly unnecessary and the show has that sheen of base-level, dull competence that a lot of modern TV shows have acquired. A second season could be a lot better, assuming they focus on the war for Reach and the search for the Halo itself. Right now, the show is okay but could do a lot better. The show is available to watch on Paramount+ worldwide.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Thursday, 19 January 2023

New DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rules to use a Creative Commons to replace the Open Game Licence

In a remarkable turnabout, Wizards of the Coast have confirmed that the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons will move to a Creative Commons licence. This follows two weeks of turmoil following the leak of a more restrictive Open Game Licence 1.1 which threatened to revoke the previous OGL 1.0 (in operation since 2000) and had dramatic implications for the third-party D&D field, and could have put numerous companies out of business and forced others (even industry giants like Paizo) into costly legal action.

After initial non-apologies, Wizards of the Coast seemed to have been moved to swift face-saving action after a costly online campaign to boycott D&D products saw remarkable success, with reportedly over 40,000 subscriptions on online portal D&D Beyond cancelled, a number that continues to grow.

The new OGL 1.2 will be published under a Creative Commons licence, effectively moving the later ability to change or alter the OGL out of Wizards' hands. The new OGL will (apparently) be truly "irrevocable." Existing content published under 1.0a will not be impacted and can continue to be published. In addition, the new OGL 1.2 will remove the previously controversial clauses on royalty payments and financial reporting, and also will apply to the tabletop experience (real and virtual), suggesting that streamers and video games will no longer be impacted. 

However - and this remains a primary bone of contention - Wizards plan to continue "deauthorising" the OGL 1.0. No new content can be published under 1.0 once 1.2 is introduced. This will likely not mollify many of the critics, who will likely continue to push for attempts to deauthorise 1.0 to be abandoned. Wizards maintain that the 1.0 licence could theoretically allow third-party publishers to release "hateful content" that could damage the D&D brand and name.

In addition, Wizards note in their small print that they alone will be the sole arbiters of what is "hateful content" and by agreeing to use the OGL 1.2, licencees will lose the ability to contest that via any future legal action.

Although this is movement on Wizards' part, it does not seem to address some of the core concerns about the prior licence proposal, and the controversy will likely roll on.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Stephen Colbert to develop CHRONICLES OF AMBER TV series

American talk show host and fantasy uber-fan Stephen Colbert has agreed to produce an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber fantasy novel series for television.

Colbert will executive produce the show with his Spartina production company. Skybound Entertainment and Vincent Newman Entertainment have been developing the project since 2016. At one point, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) was in talks to join the project but those seemed to dry up.

There is no streamer or studio currently attached to the deal, although Colbert has a first-look deal with CBS, and Paramount+ is currently looking for new projects to help its aggressive growth plans.

The Amber sequence tells the story of the two "true worlds," Amber and Chaos, and the shadow worlds of parallel universes that lie between the two, including our Earth. The early books revolve around the adventures of Corwin, a Prince of Amber, whilst the later ones focus on his son Merlin, who is both a magician and a hacker.

The Chronicles of Amber has sold over 15 million copies since the first novel, Nine Princes in Amber, was published in 1970. Zelazny wrote ten novels in two five-book arcs for the series and was planning more at the time of his death in 1995. His estate later licensed another writer to publish a series of prequel novels, but these were received poorly by the fans.

The Amber saga is highly-rated by critics of science fiction and fantasy, and numbers George R.R. Martin amongst its fans. Martin saw Zelazny as a friend and something of a mentor after moving to the same town in the 1970s, but he will not be involved in this project due to his exclusivity contract with HBO (unless the show ends up at HBO, in which case I would assume GRRM would lend his expertise).

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

ELDER SCROLLS IV: OBLIVION remake targets a 2025 release date at the latest

Whilst The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been remastered for more platforms than you can shake a stick at, its 2006 forebear has gotten much less official love. However, Oblivion has been getting a major makeover thanks to a large collection of modders and fans who took it upon themselves to remake the entire game in Skyrim's engine, whilst also upgrading that engine considerably.

The result, the slightly-painfully-named Skyblivion (I would give Bethesda serious money if they give them permission to just call it "Oblivion Remade" or something), has been making serious progress for the last couple of years, with increasingly impressive dev diaries and YouTube videos exploring the rebuilt version of Tamriel's Imperial Province of Cyrodiil.

The team have now confirmed a 2025 release date. If that seems a bit far off given how much progress they've made recently, the team agrees and notes this is a worst-case scenario date and they don't get any more resources to help bring the game across the finish line. However, if they are able to recruit more people to help out, they might be able to shave some months off that and bring the game out in 2024 instead.

Skyblivion has ported the entirety of Oblivion into the upgraded engine, but the team have gone back and recreated almost all of the textures, models and effects in the game. Some of the geographic areas have been reworked and resized to make a bit more sense, and the city of Leyawiin has been almost completely redesigned in line with its original, more ambitious, concept art. The biggest change will be with the dungeons. Oblivion used very repetitive and simple dungeon designs, with even some dungeons being simple copy+pastes of others. Every dungeon in Skyblivion has been redesigned and many are now larger and more sprawling. The game will also use Skyrim's more balanced level-scaling system rather than Oblivion's deranged version, but will retain the original game's spellcrafting mechanics.

Skyblivion will launch by 2025 at the latest, and will require the player to have purchased copies of both Skyrim and Oblivion. Bethesda themselves are working on their brand new, space-based roleplaying game, Starfield, which should be out later this year. Bethesda are also in pre-production on The Elder Scrolls VI, but that is many years away.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

New MECHWARRIOR video game in development

Piranah Games are developing a new MechWarrior video game. The news, rumoured for some time, came out during an interview between Piranah Games President Russ Bullock and the NoGutsNoGalaxy podcast.

Piranah have worked on video game incarnations of the BattleTech franchise for the past decade, having released the multiplayer MechWarrior Online in 2012 and the singleplayer MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries in 2019. They also provided some support, including mech models, for the 2018 turn-based strategy game BattleTech from Harebrained Schemes.

The new game will be a single-player title with a co-op mode (similar to MechWarrior 5), and will not be an update or sequel to MechWarrior Online. Curiously, Bullock declined to refer to it as MechWarrior 6, and said the new game will be a stand-alone title aimed at PC, Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5.

Piranah also revealed that their current video game licence runs until 2025 and will require renewal after that point. If the licence is renewed, they want to make MechWarrior Online 2, using a superior engine and improved visuals.

The BattleTech tabletop miniatures game has enjoyed massive success in the last few years, becoming one of the biggest-selling SFF wargames. This has, in part, been propelled by strong (and long-lasting) sales of both BattleTech and MechWarrior 5. MechWarrior 5 has seen three expansions released: Heroes of the Inner Sphere (2021), Legend of the Kestrel Lancers (2021) and Call to Arms (2022). A fourth expansion, Rise of Rasalhague, will be released on 26 January.

More news on the new MechWarrior game will reportedly be released in the autumn.

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Scott Lynch releases excerpt from a new Locke Lamora story

Scott Lynch has posted a rare update on his writing, including an excerpt from his next Gentleman Bastard project, the first of three novellas set after the events of The Republic of Thieves.

A 2012 mockup cover for two of the novellas

As reported last June, Lynch has decided to deliver three novellas before releasing the next full novel in the series, The Thorn of Emberlain (which itself exists as a full draft). The first of the novellas is now called More Than Fools Fill Graves, and will be followed by The Mad Baron's Mechanical Attic and The Choir of Knives (the latter two titles have been known for well over a decade by this point, although might still be subject to change).

The three novellas form a continuous but optional narrative, starting the moment The Republic of Thieves ends and continuing through to the start of The Thorn of Emberlain. The combined length of the three novellas will be around three-quarters of a typical Gentleman Bastard novel.

We don't have any kind of release schedule for the novellas and the following novel yet, but hopefully news on that will follow soon now that the first novella is both complete and titled up.

Tabletop RPG industry in uproar over leaked changes to the Open Game Licence

The tabletop RPG industry has endured a tumultuous week after io9 secured a copy of the proposed 1.1 revision of the Open Game Licence. Version 1.0 of the OGL, popularised by Dungeons & Dragons, has allowed third parties to create and monetise content for the game for almost a quarter of a century. The proposed changes could drive many content creators out of business.

The OGL was introduced when the 3rd Edition of D&D was released by Wizards of the Coast in 2000. Dungeons & Dragons had been created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson via the company TSR in 1974 (although both were gone from the company barely a dozen years later), but significant financial mismanagement and poor investments had driven the company deep into debt by 1997, with the company threatened with bankruptcy. D&D had also dropped in popularity massively, with games like the World of Darkness family (most famously, Vampire: The Masquerade) supplanting its market share. Wizards of the Coast, a relatively young company which had skyrocketed to success with its card game, Magic: The Gathering, bought TSR and D&D in 1998 and set about revising the game for a new generation.

The 3rd Edition of D&D was hugely popular and successful, and was credited with revitalising the entire TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game) industry in the early 2000s. Many d20-branded games, using the OGL and rules compatible with D&D, were released to great success and entire companies were created to cash in on the phenomenon. Significant d20 games include the Babylon 5 and Judge Dredd licensed games and Wizards of the Coasts' own Star Wars line of RPGs. 

In 2008 the 4th Edition (4E) of D&D was released under a more restrictive licence, but a similar public outcry saw the OGL maintained. With the 4E rules proving very controversial, this allowed Paizo Publishing to release their own fantasy roleplaying game called Pathfinder, effectively using a fork of the 3E rules set. Vast numbers of Dungeons & Dragons players defected to playing Pathfinder instead. D&D lost significant market share, dropping behind first Pathfinder and then the Star Wars RPG to third place in the rankings.

In 2014, Wizards of the Coast released the 5th Edition of D&D, using a revamped and more popular rules set and returning to the OGL. The company was bolstered by the launch of Critical Role in 2015, a popular web series featuring a group of popular voice actors playing a D&D campaign on screen. In 2016, D&D featured heavily in the first season of the Netflix smash hit success Stranger Things. These factors drove D&D back to its traditional level of popularity and market dominance. Paizo released a 2nd Edition of Pathfinder in 2019 which has done well (and deviated further away from the D&D rules system), but not threatened to unseat D&D's position.

Wizards of the Coast has recently confirmed that the next iteration of D&D is in development. Code-named "One D&D," the new version of the game aims for backwards compatibility with 5E as well as having a less restrictive and more freeform rules system. However, the biggest change sounds like it will be to the Open Game Licence. Wizards and Hasbro will now take a cut of any RPG using the system that makes more than a certain amount of money per year, as well as automatically owning original ideas and creatures from products. More ominously, they are threatening to "deauthorise" anything published under the OGL 1.0 licence, theoretically impacting hundreds of products that are still on sale from dozens of companies.

These are not limited to just tabletop RPGs, but also products including video games such as Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Pathfinder: War of the Righteous by Owlcat Games and Solasta: Crown of the Magister from Tactical Adventures (although Tactical Adventures have indicated they have already been in conversation with Wizards of the Coast over the matter).

The blowback from the industry has been significant in the last few days, and it remains to be seen if Wizards will push forwards with their plans. Notably, they have already received legal pushback from lawyers pointing out that the OGL 1.0 was released as a non-revocable agreement, and Wizards' subsequent quarter-century of honouring that position makes it hard for them to backtrack on it now. However, the legal departments and resources of Wizards of the Coast and their owners Hasbro are formidable, to say the least.

This situation continues to unfold.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS TV series greenlit for Paramount+

Dungeons & Dragons is getting its first live-action television series. Streamer Paramount+ has greenlit an eight-episode show from Rawson Marshall Thurber. Thurber will produce the show and write and direct the opening episode.

Thurber is best-known for his work in comedy, directing and writing Dodgeball (2004), Central Intelligence (2016) and Red Notice (2021). Red Notice was Netflix's biggest original movie and Thurber is currently developing two sequels to that film. He is also attached to a live-action Voltron feature film for Amazon.

This TV project is not related to Honour Among Thieves, the feature film starring Chris Pine which is set for release on 31 March this year. Nor is it related to a separate TV project being helmed by John Wick writer Derek Kolstadt, potentially involving signature Forgotten Realms character Drizzt Do'Urden.

The details of Thurber's project remain under wraps. It is not known which of the numerous D&D settings will be used for the series, or if it will use an original world or location.

Thursday, 5 January 2023

BATTLETECH reclaims its place as one of the biggest SFF wargames in the world

Venerable SF miniatures title BattleTech has reasserted its position as one of the most popular tabletop wargames around. Catalyst Game Studios have confirmed they have shipped over 9 million miniatures since relaunching the line back in 2015, most of that since they revamped the two core game box sets in 2018.

BattleTech started life in 1984 as a tabletop wargame created by Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babock III for their company, FASA Corporation. The game was originally called BattleDroids and used mecha designs from various Japanese animated shows under licence, but legal brushes with George Lucas and the various American distributors of those shows (mainly Harmony Gold) saw them rename the game to BattleTech and redesign many of their mechs. The franchise was initially a cult success, but exploded in popularity at the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s thanks to a series of excellently-received video games, including MechWarrior 2 and MechCommander, and a millions-selling line of novels by authors including Michael Stackpole.

The franchise went through a lean period between 2001, when FASA effectively collapsed, and 2007 when Catalyst Games Labs picked up the licence. Since then, CGL has gradually guided the success to greater success. An influx of new fans came in with the superb 2018 turn-based strategy game BattleTech and its definitive Mercenary Collection repackaging. The 2019 real-time action game MechWarrior 5 was slower off the blocks due to bugs and a lack of early content, but has picked up steam tremendously thanks to a console release and no less than four major expansions, the latest of which is out this month, and increased rumours of a sequel. MechWarrior Online (2013), although showing its age, still has a healthy monthly player count.

BattleTech may also be benefitting from economics: the game revolves around the deployment of relatively small numbers of "lances," four-mech squads, which are far easier and far cheaper to collect and paint compared to, say, the equivalent Warhammer 40,000 armies. The BattleTech boxed sets are surprisingly cheap compared to competitors, and the sheer weight and backstory of the game's lore is impressive.

Catalyst confirm that they have sold over 160,000 copies of the BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat core set and the Beginner Box "quickie" set since 2018. They have further expanded the game via Kickstarter-led products, like the Clan Invasion and Alpha Strike boxed sets, and will launch a new Mercenaries boxed set later this year.

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Blogging Roundup: 1 October to 31 December 2022

The Wertzone




Atlas of Ice and Fire