Tuesday 28 November 2023

Plot details and pictures from the FALLOUT TV series

Via Vanity Fair, Amazon have shared a first look at their upcoming Fallout TV show, based on the popular video game series from Black Isle, Obsidian and Bethesda Studios.

Lucy (Ella Purnell), a Vault-dweller from Vault 33 who has to embark on a dangerous journey into post-apocalyptic California.

The Fallout TV series is set in the year 2296, 219 years after the Great War almost obliterated humanity overnight. Some people survived on the surface, but were dramatically impacted by radiation and a desperate fight for survival. Others survived below, in Vaults created before the war by the Vault-Tec corporation.

Lucy (Ella Purnell) and her father Hank (Kyle MacLachlan), the Overseer of Vault 33.

The TV show starts in Vault 33, where twenty-something Lucy (Ella Purnell of Yellowjackets and Arcane) is living a sheltered but comfortable existence. There is no problem with food or water, the vault is apparently safe and secure, and she is being schooled and trained by her father, the Vault Overseer Hank (Kyle MacLachlan, of Twin Peaks and Dune fame). Needless to say - players of the games are probably way ahead of the curve here - something goes wrong and Lucy has to leave her secure home behind to go in search of a technological artifact that holds the key to her vault's survival. She knows absolutely nothing about the world outside the doors, and has to learn. Fast.

The Caswennan, a Brotherhood of Steel airship. This is a sister-ship to the Prydwen, which plays a major role in the video game Fallout 4.

Another faction on the trail of the artifact is the Brotherhood of Steel. Famed in the Fallout universe for trying to seize control of all high technology that might pose a risk to humanity, a Brotherhood chapter based on the airship Caswennan despatch some of their best troops to hunt for it. Amongst them is Maximus (Aaron Moten, from The Night Of), a squire for a knight of the Brotherhood. Although believing in the Brotherhood's mission and in the leadership of his knight, Maximus has more cynicism and grit than Lucy.

Walton Goggins as The Ghoul (aka Cooper Howard), a gunslinger rendered immortal (but noseless) from radiation.

The third lead is The Ghoul (Walton Goggins, Justified), a ~250-year-old gunslinger. The Ghoul was originally an ordinary human named Cooper Howard, who lost his family in the Great War. But Howard himself survived, transformed by radiation into a type of human who thrives on radiation rather than being harmed by it. The Ghoul is clever, cunning and ruthless, but he has a rough code of honour.

Squire Maximus (Aaron Moten) and his knight, members of the Brotherhood of Steel.

How the three characters interact with one another remains to be seen. Other castmembers include Xelia Mendes-Jones, Mike Doyle, Moises Arias, Johnny Pemberton, Cherien Dabis, Dale Dickey, Matty Caradrople, Sarita Chodhury, Michael Emerson, Leslie Uggams, Frances Turner, Dave Register, Zach Cherry, Rodrigo Luzzi and Annabel O'Hagan.

Lucy (Ella Purnell) arrives at Philly, a small town on the outskirts of the ruins of Los Angeles, a vast area known as the "Boneyard" in the games. The New California Republic is also based in this region.

The Fallout franchise was created by Tim Cain for Interplay in 1996, as a spiritual successor to an earlier game called Wasteland (1988). The first game in the series, released in 1997, was developed by Interplay's internal development studio. This studio was renamed Black Isle Studios and created Fallout 2 (1998) and Fallout Tactics (2001). Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004) was a much-maligned, console-only release rushed out ahead of the company going bust. A third mainline Fallout game was in development at the time under the codename Van Buren. Black Isle Studios personnel were split between several new studios, including inXile, Troika and Obsidian Entertainment.

Brotherhood of Steel knights clad in power armour.

The IP was bought by Bethesda Game Studios, who subsequently developed Fallout 3 (2008). They licenced the rights to Obsidian to make Fallout: New Vegas (2010), partially based on the old Van Buren prototype. Bethesda subsequently released Fallout 4 (2015) and the multiplayer-focused prequel, Fallout 76 (2018). Modiphius Entertainment have recently released an official Fallout wargame/miniatures line, called Wasteland Warfare, and a tabletop roleplaying game. Bethesda has confirmed that Fallout 5 is very early in the planning stages.

The Ghoul (Walton Goggins).

The Fallout TV series launches on 12 April 2024 on Amazon Prime.

Friday 24 November 2023

DOCTOR WHO celebrates its 60th anniversary

Doctor Who has turned sixty years old. The BBC's longest-running drama series aired for the first time on 23 November 1963. Sixty years, forty seasons, exactly 300 stories, 871 episodes, fourteen Doctors and 57 (ish) companions later, the show is still going strong, with a trio of anniversary specials due to start airing on Saturday, seeing David Tennant return to the role of the Doctor.

Doctor Who was created by a team at the BBC, consisting of Sydney Newman, Donald Wilson, Alice Frick, Donald Bull, Anthony Coburn, C.E. Webber, David Whittaker, Mervyn Pinfield and Verity Lambert, who became the show's first executive producer and effective showrunner. The show was designed to fill a Saturday evening gap that had opened between the sports and a music show, with the BBC reasoning they needed a show that could hold the attention of sports fans and ease younger viewers into the pop show.

After incoming Head of Drama Sydney Newman expressed a wish to develop a science fiction idea, the BBC realised it could draw upon a pre-existing stockpile of sets, props and costumes developed for various historical shows over the years, to be used in a time travel series. The production team realised they could also alternate historical and educational stories with science fiction "fun" episodes. Although the development team came up with various aspects of the show, Newman is usually credited as the show's creator for coming up with the name, the premise and the idea of a time-travelling machine larger inside than out.

Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire developed the show's distinct music, whilst Bernard Lodge and Norman Taylor created the show's distinctive title sequence, echoes of which can be found in more modern versions.

The original cast. From left to right: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), the First Doctor (William Hartnell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Susan (Carole Ann Ford).

For the cast, veteran British film actor William Hartnell was cast as the role of the Doctor, a mysterious alien from another world in possession of a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), a machine capable of travelling anywhere and anywhen. He was accompanied on his travels his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford). In the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, Susan's schoolteachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), become mystified by Susan's incredible brilliance in certain areas but shocking ignorance at others, and decide to travel to her address to talk to her grandfather. However, the address is for a junkyard. They find the TARDIS disguised as a police telephone box, but soon stumble inside and are stunned at its far larger interior dimensions. The Doctor, panicking at the unexpected discovery, launches the TARDIS but loses control of its navigation systems, which are apparently malfunctioning. Over the course of many adventures, the Doctor attempts to return Ian and Barbara to their home time safely. On their travels, they journey to ancient Rome and the court of Marco Polo, are shrunk to the size of insects and encounter their most persistent foe, the Daleks of Skaro.

The show's gruelling production schedule (producing over 40 episodes a year back in those days) took a toll on both cast and crew. Within just three years, the last person left standing from the show's launch was Hartnell, and he was suffering from increasing ill health. When he decided to quit the show early in its fourth season, it was assumed that would be it: you can't have a show called Doctor Who without the Doctor, can you?

Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor (1966-69).

However, the production team hit on the idea that, since the Doctor was an alien, he could perhaps "die" but then be reborn in a new, younger body. Hartnell was consulted on the idea and he gave it his approval, even suggesting his own replacement: Patrick Troughton. Troughton was duly cast and the Doctor changed his appearance for the first time at the end of the classic serial The Tenth Planet, which was also notable for introducing the Cybermen.

The reign of the Second Doctor was more consistent - he was joined by Highlander Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) for almost its entire length as his companion - but saw some changes in the format. The historical stories, which had never been hugely popular, were quietly dropped. The Doctor would still continue to visit historical periods but now would encounter science fiction threats there. There was a renewed focus on monsters, and the Second Doctor's reign saw the introduction of the Ice Warriors, Macra and the Great Intelligence, all of whom would return in the modern era of the show. Towards the end of the Second Doctor's run, he visited Earth in the near future and encountered a military organisation known as UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), ironically inspired by the various times the Doctor had defeated alien incursions with the help of local military or government forces.

Troughton decided that three years was the optimal time to remain on Doctor Who without being typecast; the so-called "Troughton Rule" of each Doctor staying for three years or three seasons would be followed by seven succeeding Doctors, with three staying for an even shorter period and only two for a longer period. With his departure at the end of the sixth season, airing in 1969, the BBC decided to revamp the show by making it in full colour, which came at the cost of reducing the episode count to a more modest 26 episodes a year.

Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor (1970-74).

Inspired by faster-moving US SF productions like Star Trek, not to mention the gadgets and action of the James Bond movies, there was a shift to more action. To save on costs, the TARDIS was grounded, with the Third Doctor, now played by Jon Pertwee, exiled to Earth by his own race, the Time Lords, for breaking their rules on non-interference. The Doctor joined UNIT as its scientific advisor and gained not just new companions but also a whole set of new allies, led by the formidable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). The Doctor also gained a nemesis, in the form of the evil Time Lord known as the Master (Roger Delgado). Their Holmes-and-Moriarty-like banter and bickering became a hallmark of the Third Doctor's reign. This era also saw the first multi-Doctor celebration in The Three Doctors (1973), where Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell's Doctors are united by time travel to face the threat of the insane Time Lord known as Omega. Pertwee stayed in the role for five years (1970-74), electing to leave after Roger Delgado's death in a tragic car crash.

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor (1974-81).

For the Fourth Doctor (1974-81), the BBC decided to cast the relatively unknown Tom Baker in the role. Baker's eccentric mannerisms, deep booming voice and idiosyncratic humour soon won him legions of fans, and his run on the show would generate many of the best-regarded Doctor Who stories of all time: The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Deadly Assassin, The Robots of Death, City of Death and more. Under Baker's reign, the show hits its highest-ever audience figures of over 16 million, and achieved its first breakthrough in the United States, with Baker stories airing on PBS creating a small but devoted following (including future Simpsons creator Matt Groening).

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (1981-84).

Baker stayed in the role for seven years, still a record, and may have stayed for longer, but incoming new producer John Nathan-Turner was keen for a revamp, feeling the show needed to be revitalised for the 1980s. For Baker's last season a new, more electronic theme tune and title sequence was developed, younger companions were introduced and Baker's tendency to adlib dialogue and improvise on set was heavily reigned in. Baker quit at the end of the eighteenth season and was replaced by the younger Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (1981-84). During Davison's tenure it became clearer that the show's low budget was becoming extremely problematic in keeping the show relevant, and viewers interested, especially in the face of increasingly stiff competition from big-budget, glossy American shows. However, generally strong scripts ensured that Davison's reign was remembered fondly.

Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor (1984-86).

Davison was succeeded by Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor (1984-86), with the plan being that Baker's Doctor would be unpredictable and unstable, even dangerous, before evolving into a more civilised version of the Doctor. Unfortunately, this simply made him unlikeable out of the gate. Incoming, new BBC executives disliked the show and tried to kill it, but viewing figures remained reasonable. After an eighteen-month hiatus after Baker's first season, the show was brought back with a drastically cut episode count (to just 14 half-hour episodes) and a shift to a midweek timeslot opposite Britain's most popular show, Coronation Street, carefully designed to make the show unviable.

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor (1987-89, 96).

Baker was also fired and replaced by Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor (1987-89), a comedian best known for an act involving putting ferrets in his trousers. Against the odds, McCoy played his Doctor as a master-manipulator and cunning instigator of plots, developing a formidable bond with his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), a teenager from a rough London estate who thrives when taken on adventures in time and space. McCoy's era generated several classic stories and was on a creative and critical high when the BBC decided to "rest" show after its 26th season in 1989.

Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor (1996).

Doctor Who spent sixteen years in the wilderness, with only a single TV special in 1996 starring Paul McGann as the short-lived Eighth Doctor. The show continued to generate considerable income for the BBC through VHS and, later, DVD sales, toys, models, video games, comic books and a vast range of novels and short story collections (including stories by Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell and Mark Gatiss, amongst many others). The BBC kept trying to relaunch the show as a big-budget movie, but could not attract significant Hollywood interest.

Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor (2005).

Finally, the BBC resurrected Doctor Who in 2005. Russell T. Davies, one of the hottest British TV writers in the business and a lifelong Doctor Who fan, picked up the reigns after the success of his dramas Queer as Folk, The Second Coming and Casanova. He returned the show to Saturday night primetime and recruited Christopher Eccleston to the play role of the Ninth Doctor, with former pop star Billie Piper playing his companion Rose. The new show shared continuity with the old, but was softly rebooted, with a new premise which saw the Doctor as the last survivor of his race after they were annihilated in the Great Time War against the Daleks.

David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor (2005-10).

The show saw impressive viewing figures on its return, with young children particularly swept up in its charm. The show started shifting vast amounts of merchandise, and picked up steam on BBC America in the US. There was an early hiccup when Eccleston quit after just one season due to creative differences with one of the directors, but he was quickly replaced by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor (2005-10). Tennant's performance came to be regarded as iconic, on a par with that of Tom Baker for the classic show, and his popularity was impressive. He did three full seasons as the Doctor and a series of specials. During Davies' run he also extended the franchise's reach to other shows, with the adult-focused Torchwood (2006-11) and the kid-friendly Sarah-Jane Adventures (2007-11) both launching on his watch.

Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor (2010-13).

Tennant's departure coincided with that of Davies, and the immensely popular writer Steven Moffat picked to succeed Davies. He brought in Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor (2010-13), who brought a younger energy to proceedings. Under Smith's sure hand, the show experienced arguably the zenith of its appeal and fame, achieving a major, breakthrough success in profile in the United States. The 50th anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, aired in cinemas worldwide and saw huge viewing figures achieved.

Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor (2013-17).

The reign of the Twelfth Doctor (2013-17), played by Peter Capaldi, was critically acclaimed, particular for the episode Heaven Sent, but saw complaints about convoluted plotting. The show also experienced budget problems during this time, airing increasingly intermittently and dropping its episode count. There was also speculation that Moffat had stayed too long (eight years, only one less than John Nathan-Turner in the 1980s); he departed alongside Capaldi.

Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor (2017-22).

Capaldi was succeeded by Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor (2017-22), the first actress to play the role. Chris Chibnall, who had been writing for the show since the Russell T. Davies era, became showrunner off the back of his hot detective show Broadchurch (2013-17). The show became more filmic during this period, with most sophisticated effects and expansive location filming in South Africa. However, the budget continued to be squeezed, with the show dropping to just ten episodes per season and extremely long gaps between seasons (not helped by the COVID pandemic). The show also moved from Saturday to Sunday nights, and the Christmas Special was dropped in favour of a New Year's Special that attracted far less attention. The show's critical acclaim dropped to its lowest level since its return in 2005, with criticism of the overlarge cast (which sometimes left the Doctor with little screen time), leaden pacing and a curious decision to retcon the Doctor's origins. Viewing figures also fell significantly during this period.

David Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor (2022-23).

Despite early discussions about a five-season run and story arc, Whittaker and Chibnall decided to leave after three seasons and a series of special episodes; ironically, their very last episode as also their best, and best-regarded. In a shock move, the BBC was able to recruit Russell T. Davies to return to the show. Davies had gained international stature after leaving Who in 2010 through a series of prestige dramas, including Years and Years and It's a Sin. Davies used his return to leverage impressive results: Doctor Who would return to Saturday nights, the Christmas Special would return, the entire Doctor Who archive would be made available via the BBC iPlayer, the show would move to an independent production company (Bad Wolf, founded by Davies' former friends and coworkers from during his original tenure on the show) and Disney+ would co-fund the series and distribute it internationally on its streaming platform. For the show's 60th Anniversary, Davies would also bring back Tennant, albeit playing the distinctive Fourteenth Doctor rather than the return of the Tenth.

Ncuti Gatwa as the Fifteenth Doctor (2023-??).

It would be confirmed that Tennant's return would be limited, with Scottish-Rwandan actor Ncuti Gatwa cast as the Fifteenth Doctor, to debut in the 2023 Christmas Special. Gatwa is already filming his second season as the Doctor months before his first is due to air.

The appeal of Doctor Who is fairly obvious: the show can go anywhere in space or time. Despite a gradual accumulation of lore, backstory and story arcs over six decades, the show is mostly focused on standalone stories than anyone can enjoy. The show has always been aimed at family audiences, as Davies once said, to appeal to everyone from eight to eighty. The show features action, but the Doctor is reluctant to kill or use violence, preferring thinking and negotiation. The concept of regeneration, as well as the revolving door of companions, constantly allows the show to refresh itself every few years, with constant media interest in the next actor to take on the role.

That Doctor Who is still being made after sixty years is incredible. Hopefully it will go on at least sixty years more.

Monday 20 November 2023

Alan Wake II

2023, Bright Falls, Washington State. A spate of unexplained murders bring FBI agents Saga Anderson and Alex Casey to the remote, sleepy town. They find a town still uneasy over the memories of thirteen years before, when there was another spate of murders and the disappearance and presumed death of infamous author Alan Wake. Anderson and Casey's investigations confirm that the supernatural forces that Wake had to deal with have indeed returned, possibly thanks to a mysterious cult. Meanwhile, Wake himself remains trapped in the Dark Place, a dimension beyond our own, where he strives to find a way back to reality.

Alan Wake, originally released in 2010 and remastered in 2021, was an interesting but flawed game. It had a great story, characters and premise, but struggled to find the gameplay thread in its morass of noir and horror influences. The game degenerated into being a repetitive action-shooter, Wake throwing flashbang grenades and fending off enemies with shotguns and handguns. This wasn't awful, but it was something of a tonal mismatch. Alan Wake also ended on a cliffhanger (and, after two more DLCs, another cliffhanger) which people have been left pondering ever since.

Thanks to the surprise success of their 2019 supernatural action game, Control, Remedy have had the resources to finally deliver a sequel to Alan Wake. Even more remarkable is how they've accomplished this: a game with AAA production values delivered on a modest budget (reportedly only $50 million) in just three years. Much more remarkable than that is how incredibly good the game is. I'm not sure I've seen such a gulf in quality between one game in a series and its direct sequel, even given such a large gap in release dates.

Alan Wake II, on the surface, resembles its forebear. You're still trudging through the forests of the Pacific North-West, defending yourself with various guns and a flashlight. You're still fighting off "Taken," effectively zombies, dead humans motivated by the evil Dark Presence. You're still mixing combat, puzzle-solving and narrative beats. Your adventure is still being narrated over-earnestly by Alan Wake himself. But the sequel simply nails every single one of these facets far better than its forebear.

The first big change is the addition of a new viewpoint character, Saga Anderson. Saga stands in for new players, who've perhaps heard of Alan Wake but haven't played it ahead of this sequel. Saga's story takes her to the town of Bright Falls and the nearby Cauldron Lake, both key locations from the original game, as well as further afield to new areas, such as the town of Watery and a nearby amusement park (Coffee World!) and lighthouse. Saga's story is anchored in the "real world" and it's interesting to see her gradually bump into characters and locations that tie in with Wake's story from the original game. Saga has two major assets: her friend and FBI partner Alex Casey, who shares the same name as Wake's signature detective hero; and her "Mind Place," a mental technique which allows her to analyse clues and keep abreast of the game's sprawling narrative. At almost any point in the game, Saga can slip into her Mind Place and digest her latest discoveries.

The second big change is in structure. Alan Wake was a very linear game where Wake travelled from the start of one level to the next, occasionally facing larger arena areas which were more open (usually for combat or even a boss fight). Famously, the game was developed as an open-world title but that was changed late in the day to improve pacing. The sequel isn't a full open-world game but instead is more similar to a Metroidvania, being divided into several areas, with each being explorable at will but having various areas sealed off by environmental elements or by literal gates. As the game progresses you gain access to tools to allow you to access these areas later on.

There's also a change here in terms of collectibles. Alan Wake had thermoses lying around which you could collect and then do absolutely nothing with. Alan Wake II has three types of collectible: lunchboxes tying in with Wake's books; mysterious nursery rhymes attached to puzzles; and sealed containers belonging to the mysterious Cult of the Tree. These collectibles are each attached to their own storyline chain and unlock additional weapons, abilities and equipment for Saga. They are not essential, but they make her journey easier, and fill in additional backstory and worldbuilding details. Tracking down these things also allows you to explore more of each map, sometimes finding other equipment caches along the way.

Another big change is combat. It's now been under-emphasised compared to the first game. Combat is somewhat rarer, more lethal and more of a resource-managing challenge, more in line with the recent Resident Evil remakes. This is better than the original Alan Wake, where Wake was only somewhat less of a competent death-dealing gunsmith than Max Payne, with much more tension. Unfortunately, this makes the decision to base one key setpiece moment near the game's conclusion around waves of combat fairly inexplicable, resulting in the game's steepest difficulty spike.

All of this applies to Saga. It's not a major spoiler to say at a key moment in the game, we rejoin Alan in the Dark Place and have to help him try to escape. The Dark Place in this game resembles a twisted, shadowy version of New York City, complete with subways, theatres, a creepy hotel and Alan's apartment. Traversing the Dark Place is more complex than the real world. Alan doesn't have Saga's Mind Place, but he does have his Writer's Room. At any point Alan can switch to this room and use it to analyse the plot, like Saga, but unlike her he can also change the plot. In a mechanic that recalls the superb Dishonored 2 mission "A Crack in the Slab," Alan can flash back to earlier points in the story and thus in time, when an area may look completely different. Alan can take advantage of this to get past sealed-off areas or discover fresh clues about what's going on and how he can escape.

You can soon choose to switch between the two characters at will, choosing whether to mainline all of Saga's story first and then all of Alan's, or maybe alternate at the end of every chapter. Despite being trapped in different universes, Alan and Saga develop a link that allows them to work together to help defeat the Dark Presence. This works all rather splendidly. Alan and Saga's stories have different feels and tones, so the ability to switch between them whenever Alan's over-earnest monologues or Saga's family concerns get a bit too much is appreciated.

Alan Wake II is also surprisingly funny. The first game had some laughs, but the sequel takes things up a notch with comedic zero-budget adverts from a pair of Finnish brothers and, as is now well-known, a full-blown musical number that makes up an entire chapter of the game. Quite a few characters are also now pretty over the whole "shocked by supernatural stuff" thing and whose only reaction to some fresh eruption of inexplicable weirdness is a world-weary sigh. This is especially noticeable when characters from the Federal Bureau of Control show up and are utterly unphased by the Dark Presence doing its thing; they've seen this stuff before in Control.

Ah yes, the Remedy Connected Universe. As is well-know now, Alan Wake and its sequel both take place in the same universe as Control, which the game is quite upfront about (you'll meet an FBC agent probably around an hour into the game, maybe less). Some Control characters show up, and Saga gets to read a bunch of reports from the FBC on the Cauldron Lake phenomenon. Alan Wake II could have maybe been a bit more low-key on this, as a few times I felt almost penalised for not having finished Control (I started it when it came out, but got sidetracked by other games), but it's not too bad. More amusing are the very deep cuts to Remedy's other games, Quantum Break and the first two Max Payne titles; Remedy doesn't own those IPs any more, so they have to rename characters (Martin Hatch becomes Warlin Door; Max Payne becomes the fictional Alex Casey) but the general ideas come across well. Players less well-versed in Remedy lore might miss out on the meaning of some Easter Eggs, but the game mostly tells you what you need to know within the game itself.

Alan Wake II also looks utterly stupendous, easily the best-looking video game in the world right now. Character animations are impressive (though some characters - like Casey - seem a lot stiffer than others), but it's the lighting effects and environmental graphics in the forests or on the not-New York subway which are completely mindblowing. This does come at the cost of hefty systems requirements on PC, with even my new 4090 graphics card occasionally chugging unless DLSS was switched on. Consoles are broadly fine, but it's going to be a good few years before most PC players will be able to experience this game at maximum settings.

Alan Wake II (****½) comes very close to being an outright masterpiece. It is very well-paced, it has a ton of content - Wake and Saga's stories are each individually as long as Alan Wake in its entirety, meaning this game is twice the size and length of its forebear - the horror elements are far more effective, the atmosphere is superb and the writing is easily Remedy's best to date. There are very nice links to all of Remedy's previous games (bar possibly Death Rally), but playing those titles is not strictly necessary to enjoy this game (the Control references do push the limit on that, though), and for a horror game, it has a brilliant sense of humour. It has some fantastic gameplay mechanics and several setpiece events which are clear challengers for the best gaming moments of the year (especially the horrific murder investigation in the hotel, the ludicrous rock opera and a 15-minute Finnish arthouse film completely contained within the game). It is a fantastic-looking game, and the soundtrack is outrageously good. It has earned its Game of the Year nominations, being a worth competitor to the likes of Baldur's Gate III and Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.

Complaints are few. The game is let down a little by its combat, especially the decision to base an entire key moment around an absolute ton of combat despite it not being the game's forte. The story and lore is pretty dense at times, requiring you to pay close attention or miss out on key plot points. The game's ending is great, with some excellent twists, but also somewhat ambiguous, left afloat for the two forthcoming DLC episodes which will continue the storyline. The game's steep system requirements and Epic-exclusive status (to be fair, Epic also paid for the game's development and are its publishers, so the game wouldn't even exist without them) will also put off many PC gamers.

Overall these complaints are slight. Alan Wake II is Remedy's best game to date, a rich horror narrative with compelling gameplay which improves over its predecessor on every single front.

Alan Wake II is available now on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.

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Wednesday 8 November 2023

BioWare unveil teaser for fifth MASS EFFECT game

BioWare have unveiled a brief teaser for the upcoming fifth game in the Mass Effect franchise.

As part of N7 Day - an annual celebration of the franchise derived from the N7 special forces group in the video games - BioWare released a series of text and video bursts teasing a new clip. Once fans had done some detective work, the full clip was posted as above.

The accompanying text (in the original files) suggests that the next game in the series takes place in or after the year 2819, the year that Mass Effect: Andromeda took place in, and a distress call from the Andromeda Galaxy has been detected. The text also suggests that the Systems Alliance, the Earth-led human faction in the Mass Effect universe, is still extant. The original Mass Effect trilogy concluded in the year 2186, for reference.

BioWare and parent company Electronic Arts confirmed some years ago that a new Mass Effect game was in development. However, it is still likely some years off; the company is currently working hard to get Dragon Age: Dreadwolf finished for its likely 2024 launch and will only turn its full firepower towards Mass Effect 5 (or, more likely, Mass Effect Colon Dramatic Subtitle) after that game comes out.

The Mass Effect franchise was launched in 2007 with the titular original game; it was followed by Mass Effect 2 (2010) and Mass Effect 3 (2012). The three games are notable for combining into one very large mega-game where players can guide their characters through almost 100 hours of an epic space opera war story, in which humanity and the other races of the Milky Way are plunged into war against an ancient alien threat, the Reapers. In 2017 BioWare released Mass Effect: Andromeda, a spin-off story set more than six centuries later in the Andromeda Galaxy. However, the game garnered a lukewarm reaction from fans and middling sales. BioWare decided not to proceed with a direct sequel, despite the game setting one up. In 2021 they released Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, a packaging of all three original games into one title with some upgrades to the graphics and controls.

It sounds like the new game will take place in the Milky Way again and will have to decide which one of Mass Effect 3's endings is canon. However, by taking place after Andromeda, it may also be able to resolve some of the unresolved story threads from that game.

Although teasing a new Mass Effect game is welcome, fans have also taken advantage of N7 Day to criticise the lay-offs of numerous developers from the company in the last few weeks, including some of the last original team-members from the Baldur's Gate franchise (an interesting look after Baldur's Gate III launched back in August from Larian Studios and was a massive critical and commercial success of the kind that BioWare has not enjoyed in over fifteen years), as well as QA staff after they voted to unionise (although BioWare have pointed out that was a decision by their contracted company rather than BioWare themselves).

It's fair to say that an enormous amount is riding on the success of both Dragon Age: Dreadwolf and Mass Effect Next: BioWare have not had a really big hit since the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition nine years ago, and the company has since been haemorrhaging fans, critical acclaim and its creative firepower.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Alan Wake Remastered

Alan Wake is a successful novelist suffering from writer's block. He and his wife, Alice, take a holiday to Bright Falls, Washington, and rent a cabin on an island in the middle of a volcanic lake. When Alice surprises Alan with a typewriter, hoping he'll feel inspired to start writing again, Alan becomes angry and storms out. He hears his wife screaming, only to find the cabin and the island have disappeared. Apparently the island was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1970. Wake discovers he has somehow lost a week, and keeps finding pages from a new novel he's been writing called Departure in which he himself is the protagonist. As shadowy creatures attack him and TV shows seem to reflect his state of mind, Wake must discover whether he has gone insane and attempt to track down his missing wife.

Alan Wake was originally released in 2010 by Finnish developers Remedy. At the time they were best-known for their Max Payne series of shooters with interesting time-slowing capabilities. Since Alan Wake's release they have worked on Quantum Break and Control, and more recently Alan Wake II. Alan Wake Remastered was released in 2021 as a way of improving the original game and also releasing it on PlayStation consoles (the original was only available on Xbox 360 and, after a significant delay, PC), and getting people into the story ahead of the release of the sequel.

Alan Wake Remastered is a surprisingly restrained revision of the original game. The main focus is on the graphics, with revised and updated textures, a new and more impressive lighting system and it now being possible to boost the resolution up to 4K. This is all splendid and results in very impressive visuals, although unfortunately the process has not been optimised well; the game occasionally chugged even with an nVidia 4090 under the hood. More annoying were visual glitches and problems, which could be briefly fixed with a reload but soon returned. Oddly, these problems are mostly focused in the fourth and fifth episodes of the game and were not present before or after. However, the problem is widespread (going by the game's forums and subreddit) and has not been fixed after two years, which is disconcerting.

Otherwise the game runs exactly the same as it did back in 2010, complete with somewhat clunky movement and occasionally iffy dodging mechanics. This is an action thriller where you control the titular Alan Wake, a novelist suffering from writers' block after killing off his most iconic character. He takes a holiday with his wife, but gets angry when he realises that she has tricked him into a retreat to focus on his writing, with a hospital nearby specialising in the mental health problems of artists. When Alan storms out, his wife abruptly vanishes. Alan loses a week of his life, waking up to experience strange visions. However, when he receives at telephone call from a man claiming to have his wife hostage, it appears that the situation is understandable, if frightening. But Alan then encounters the "Taken," possessed individuals clad in shadows who seem to be obsessed with destroying him, and it becomes clear something much more supernatural is at work.

The game is divided into daytime sequences where Alan wanders around and interacts with characters, maybe solves the odd puzzle, and uncovers more about the story, and night sequences where Alan has to achieve some objective whilst fighting off the Taken. The Taken have to be illuminated with a flashlight and, once their "darkness" has been burned off, can be dispatched with conventional weapons. As the game unfolds across its relatively well-paced 12-13 hours or so, both the types and tactics of Taken evolve, as does Alan's arsenal and his skills for dealing with them in combat.

The sheer volume of combat remains quite surprising: those who've heard that Alan Wake is the closest thing to Twin Peaks in videogame form may be taken aback by the amount of time Wake spends blowing people away with shotguns.  The game also feels like it sometimes doesn't like doing this (combat within a section of the game can get quite repetitive), but has to fall back on shooting things as the default game style rather than run the risk of the dialogue and cutscenes putting off too many people. The game does have missed opportunities though: as is well-known, the game was originally an open world game, which can still be discerned in some areas (areas from one mission are clearly visible bordering another later on, with some artificial barrier preventing you from free-travelling over there) but was taken out due to pacing issues. The game allows you to drive vehicles in some limited sequences, and there's some interesting puzzles to solve, which could have been expanded on to make for more interesting and varied gameplay outside of combat. It's notable that the two bonus DLC episodes (included here, weirdly, as optional extras buried in the level select screen, but definitely don't miss them) have better pacing, puzzle-solving, traversal mechanics and combat than the main game itself, suggesting that Remedy only figured out how to get the best out of the game quite late in the day.

The story is interesting and well-thought out, with writer Sam Lake's trademark humour, enjoyably overwrought (and sometimes deliberately purple) prose and an internal logic that hangs together even as things get quite surreal and out there. Dividing the game into six TV-like episodes (complete with a recap and their own credit sequence and theme song), each about an hour and a half to two hours long, is also a masterstroke of pacing, ensuring the game's combat and story beats don't get too repetitive and it never feels like you're too far from a natural break point in the flow of events. The game also does do a good job of changing things up whenever it feels like you're maybe spending a bit too much time in the woods aiming flashlights at trees, with some mid and late-game setpieces being genuinely impressive. Again, some of the best stuff is actually in the two DLC episodes.

In the thirteen years since release, gaming has moved on a fair bit and Alan Wake can't help but feel clunky, with sometimes-sluggish controls and occasionally iffy animations, with an overreliance on combat. This remaster also feels like it may not be entirely necessary, given that the gameplay has not been overhauled to the same standards as the graphics. But there's a very solid story at work here, the mixture of CG and live-action cut scenes is a nice foreshadowing of Remedy's subsequent work, and the game is well-paced and doesn't outstay its welcome. The game's biggest weakness it is technical issues which make the middle third or so of the game a bit of a game of Russian Roulette as you wait for it to work out if it's going to crash or not. This should really have been fixed years ago. Also, and a fairly big annoyance on PC, is that it's only available on the Epic Game Store. As the PC version is actually published by Epic, there's little likelihood of it appearing on Steam in the future.

Another minor complaint: the stand-alone expansion Alan Wake's American Nightmare is not included in this package. American Nightmare is a bit of a weird game (being almost entirely combat-focused) and tonally didn't entirely gel with the original game, so I can understand why Remedy decided to ignore it this time around, but completionists may feel short-changed at its absence.

Alan Wake Remastered (***½) is an enjoyably solid game, especially at the very reasonable price it can be had for these days. It hasn't aged entirely well and some might be surprised at its overreliance on combat, which is a little at odds with its supernatural mystery genre. It's also very much The Hobbit to Alan Wake II's considerably bigger, more ambitious Lord of the Rings, and like that isn't strictly necessary to understand the sequel, but it certainly helps. The game is available now on PC (via the Epic Game Store), Xbox and PlayStation.

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Saturday 4 November 2023

DOCTOR WHO's first Dalek story gets major revamp for 60th anniversary

The BBC has confirmed that the very first Doctor Who story to feature the Daleks is to get a makeover and revamp for the imminent 60th Anniversary of the franchise.

Originally airing across seven episodes in late 1963 and early 1964, The Daleks was the first story to feature the titular tinpot menace, and the second-ever Doctor Who serial. The first serial, An Unearthly Child, which introduced the Doctor, the TARDIS and the first-ever companions (Susan, Ian and Barbara), had aired to fairly poor ratings, suggesting the new show would be cancelled before it ever really got off the ground. However, The Daleks was a smash-hit, almost tripling ratings over the course of its run and encouraging thousands of British schoolchildren to run around their playgrounds yelling "Exterminate!"

For the 60th anniversary, the serial has been re-edited from its original near three-hour runtime down to a breezier 75 minutes. Mark Ayres has contributed a re-edited musical score, building on the work of original composer Tristram Cary. Most impressively, the 75-minute cut has been completely colourised, with more than a year's work going into the process (the original six seasons of Doctor Who were recorded in black-and-white).

The original version of the serial will remain available on BBC iPlayer.

In the serial, the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and their reluctant new companions Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) arrive on the planet Skaro, where an energy drain prevents the TARDIS from leaving. Outside they find a forest that has been completely petrified and evidence of a massive nuclear war in the recent past. They also discover an eerily empty, technologically-advanced city. Of course, the city is not as abandoned as first appears, and the Doctor is soon introduced to his most infamous foes.

The Daleks was originally written by Terry Nation and directed by Christopher Barry (episodes 1-2, 4-5) and Richard Martin (3, 6-7). The executive producer - today's equivalent of a showrunner - was Verity Lambert, and the script editor was David Whitaker. The serial aired from 21 December 1963 to 1 February 1964. The Daleks were designed by Raymond Cusick.

In 1965 the serial was adapted as the first Doctor Who feature film, Dr. Who and the Daleks, starring Peter Cushing as the Doctor.

The revamped version of The Daleks will be released on the BBC iPlayer on 23 November, the actual 60th Anniversary of the franchise.