Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The World of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia, Jr. and Linda Antonsson

The World of Ice and Fire is a companion volume to George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, primarily written by Elio M. Garcia, Jr. and Linda Antonsson, the founders and administrators of the Westeros.org website who have also worked as continuity guides and fact-checkers for the last couple of novels in the series. Martin himself provides has written several sections of the book and provided vast reams of notes on other matters. The book is both a handy compendium of existing information from the novels, novellas, comics and websites and also a way of shining a light on many areas of both the backstory and world that otherwise would not have come to light.



Let me get this out of the way to start with: I've been a moderator on Westeros.org since 2005 and been impatiently waiting for this book since it was announced seven years ago. I was pre-disposed to like it, and hope I can be fair in my appraisal of the book.

Companion guides to fantasy worlds have had a fairly mixed rep, with Terry Pratchett's various Discworld companions being excellent, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time one being reasonable (atrocious art aside), Raymond Feist's being terrible and the various Tolkien ones being all over the place in quality. The World of Ice and Fire is definitely one of the better ones. The artwork is superb, the amount of new information for dedicated fans is almost overwhelming and the attempt to give the text an in-universe origin (a young maester writing a brief primer on the world for the notoriously impatient King Robert Baratheon) makes for a less dry reading experience than it might have been. There are negatives, some of them significant, but this is certainly required reading for a dedicated ASoIaF fan. Fans of the TV series will also likely find much to enjoy here, but it is not a given that the information in the book will also be canon for the TV show.

The book is divided into several sections. The first deals with the history of Westeros and Essos, initially focusing on the ancient history and mythology of the series before the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror. There is a very lengthy section dealing with the reigns of the Targaryen kings and the various challenges and conflicts they faced, ranging from a religious uprising to the devastating dynastic conflict known as the Dance of Dragons to several ill-fated attempts to invade Dorne to Robert Baratheon's rebellion that forms the immediate backstory to the novels. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring the world itself, from the individual regions of Westeros to the Free Cities and very distant places like Sothoryos, Asshai and the Thousand Islands. The book's conceit is that the young Maester Yandel (Garcia and Antonsson) has written the book a sort of Rough Guide to Westeros and Essos, whilst drawing on material from Master Gyldayn (Martin). Gyldayn is regarded as more authoritative but excerpts from his work are rare, since they were destroyed in the fire at Summerhall. However, he does give us some of the more evocative moments in the book, such as his detailed account of Aegon's Conquest.

The general prose style is reasonable, although prone to repetition. It is not uncommon to see a phrase used and then re-used just a few paragraphs later. It is a common writing mistake, but it's unusual to see it happen quite so often in a book which had a much longer editing period than most. The other problem is that Yandel likes to cover almost every claim in the book with lengthy caveats. Things that happened long ago are unreliable because of the time that's passed and things that happened more recently are unreliable because different historians have different takes on the subject, informed by their biases and political leanings. Clearly Martin and his co-authors want to avoid nailing things down too decisively in case he changes his mind for future novels, and in the case of the ancient mythology and pre-history stuff that's understandable, but for more recent events it's a little more frustrating. We certainly still get a lot of new information - the Targaryen family tree alone swells to a huge size with the influx of new names and characters in this book - but how much of it is 100% reliable is left up in the air. However, the book does sometimes treat this with a nod and wink: by sometimes describing an event as mythological or untrue, but when combined with the reader's knowledge of the novels it becomes clearer what conclusions the reader is being directed to.



The artwork is of course superb, with Ted Nasmith's castle artwork being a highlight (particularly a depiction of the early, ramshackle King's Landing shortly after its founding and a later depiction of the capital in all its walled glory). The only weak part are the maps. Michael Gellatly's maps are pretty to look at, but are of limited utility. They have quite a few errors on them: Saltpans is shown as being part of both the Riverlands and the Vale, and the Riverlands is shown as extended past of Gods' Eye when the text indicated that their border is at the lake itself. The Inn at the Crossroads is also repeatedly shown as being south of the Trident in clear defiance of the text in the novels and every previous map of the setting printed to date. The errors mean that the primary new information shown on these maps - the borders of each region and their major exports - cannot be relied upon, which is a shame. It's also frustrating that the locations of many frequently-mentioned castles (like Raventree Hall) remain unconfirmed and major geographical features (like the Mander's massive tributary) remain unnamed. Minor quibbles? Certainly, but still irksome. More disappointing are the continued absences of maps for castles like Winterfell, Castle Black and Harrenhal, which feel years overdue at this point. There's also the fact that the in-book world map is almost bereft of any useful information and stops at Qarth, whilst many details are given on lands east of Qarth. A more cynical reviewer might suggest that the publishers want you to buy both this book and The Lands of Ice and Fire collection to complement one another.

There is also an issue with the disparity of information given on different regions. The North gets short shrift, which is quite surprising, whilst the longest region chapter is given to the ironborn. Whilst packed with new details and it certainly fleshes out one of the less-detailed regions of Westeros, the fact that we get more new information on the Greyjoys than the Starks or Lannisters seems a bit odd. Even this is then weirdly-presented: we get tons of new info on obscure internal ironborn conflicts from centuries ago, but only a couple of paragraphs on the Greyjoy Rebellion - a critical bit of backstory for the novels - itself. It is also very strange that various obscure parts of the world are fleshed out in sometimes remarkable detail (the new information on Yi Ti and its relationship with the island of Leng is surprisingly thorough) but Slaver's Bay and Qarth, major locations from the novels themselves, are completely glossed over.

Still, once you get used to the book's eccentricities, there is much to enjoy in The World of Ice and Fire (****). The detailed accounts of Maegor's cruel reign, the Dance of Dragons and Daeron's invasion of Dorne are engrossing and it's satisfying to finally get the chronology of Aegon's Conquest and the repeated invasions by the Blackfyre Pretenders all nailed down. Fan theories will receive a lot of new fuel from this book, from the claim that the seasons used to be normal before some event threw them out of balance (actually suggested by the original cover blurb to A Game of Thrones, but only finally presented in-world here) to the relationship between the Mad King and the Lannisters to the exact nature of the Long Night, the War for the Dawn and the Others. Yes, it's a book more for hardcore fans and in fact the exacting detail of it may be off-putting for casual fans more in the mood for a casual primer, but if you fall into that bracket this is essential reading. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Star Wars: X-Wing

The Galactic Civil War is at its height. The Sullustans are negotiating to join the Rebel Alliance, but the Empire is rumoured to be constructing a weapon of incredible power. Into this chaos steps Keyan Farlander, a fresh recruit for the Alliance. He is assigned to the cruiser Independence as an X-wing fighter pilot.




Way back in 1993 - improbable as it seems now - Star Wars merchandise was thin on the ground. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy of novels had just started a renaissance in the popularity of the franchise and West End Games had been producing a successful pen-and-paper roleplaying game for several years, but there was still a gap in the market for an iconic Star Wars video game.

X-Wing proved to be that game. Riffing off both the starfighter dogfights in the movies and the then-extremely popular Wing Commander series of games (which later upped the ante by recruiting Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, to appear in later titles in that series), X-Wing hit a sweet spot of game design. It didn't just put the player in the seat of a fighter and let them get on with it, it also gave them control over the various ships' weapons and power systems. This was a vital move as it moved the game from being an arcade shoot 'em up and instead more towards the realm of serious simulation, or at least as serious as it could be when it came to simulating fictional spaceships.

The game is played from the cockpit of one of the Rebel Alliance's iconic fighters: the X-wing superiority fighter, the A-wing fast interceptor and the Y-wing medium bomber. The B-Wing expansion (included in most editions of the game) adds the B-wing heavy bomber to the roster as well. Each ship has a different role. The A-wing is lightly-armed and armoured, is relatively fragile and has a small missile load-out but is also lightning fast and highly manoeuvrable. The Y-wing is slow and lumbering, but has hardier shields and armour, a large warhead magazine and has a secondary ion cannon which can disable enemy ships rather than destroying them. The X-wing falls between, being fairly fast and having a reasonable torpedo payload, but is also quite manoeuvrable and its four laser cannons make it an excellent dogfighter.

Each fighter has three energy systems that the player needs to manage: engines, weapons and shields. Keeping your weapons charged is necessary if you want to fire them, shields need to be kept up (or recharged after being hit) if you don't want to explode and the engines need to be charged to allow you to move fast. This sounds complicated but in practice all that is needed is two buttons which control how much power is diverted from the engines to the other systems (along with a third for rapidly dumping power from one system to another). This adds a more tactical element to the game, since you can retreat from nasty fights (by dumping all power to the engines and speeding clear), recharge your shields and weapons and then rejoin the fray. As the game continues and you gain additional ranks, you also gain the ability to give commands to wingmen in battle. Some later, complex engagements depend on your forces engaging several enemies at once. This is all handled through some pretty logical and instinctive keyboard commands.


The latest version of the game allows you to play in two flavours. The original 1993 version of the game has much more primitive graphics but better music which adapts to the changing fortunes of the battle. It also allows you to play with a mouse. The 1998 version has vastly superior graphics but a simple looping music track. It is also only playable with a joystick or gamepad. I prefer the latter for the stronger visuals, but some swear by the original.

Almost twenty-two years on from its original release, X-Wing holds up remarkably well. The gameplay is fast, enjoyable and surprisingly deep. The game's systems are relatively primitive - the energy balancing and wingman mechanics are handled through just a few button presses each - but in combination with one another provide a variety of different responses to dire situations. Dogfights are fast and furious, but the game does a good job of providing you the information you need to manage even complicated situation effectively. All in all, the game has withstood the test of time very well.

There are, however, several problems. One of these is that it's simply not as good as its sequels. X-Wing feels like a prototype for a style of game only perfected in the later TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance, particularly mission structure and in-mission story events. The storyline is fairly bare-bones (all of the character stuff is handled in the manual and strategy guide) and missions tend to become fairly predictable, especially towards the end of the game. Although there is a reasonable variety of craft on hand to both control and fight, X-Wing has the smallest roster of ships in any of the games and it won't be long before you have seen all the game has to offer on that front. The game also arguably fails to live up to its billing of allowing you to recreate the iconic X-wing vs TIE Fighter battles from the first film: all too often you are controlling a fragile A-wing or lumbering Y-wing and fighting Imperial Gunboats (which are more durable than TIEs due to their shields). Enemy AI is also not fantastic in this game, with the computer only having a small number of manoeuvres it can pull off which rapidly become predictable. Most irritatingly, whilst the game unleashes the main Star Wars fanfare when you've fulfilled your objectives, it doesn't provide any such notification for a mission failure. Concluding a half-hour mission only to find the ship you were escorting got blown up ten minutes ago and you need to start again is not fun.

That isn't to condemn the game fully. It's shorter and more focused than its sequels, and its opening tour of duty serves as a reasonable introduction to the series and its mechanics. It's also surprising how fully-formed the compelling gameplay of the series is in this first title

X-Wing (***½) is available now on PC from GoG. The GoG release includes both the 1993 and 1998 versions of the game, along with the game manual and strategy guide. Both expansions, Imperial Pursuit and B-Wing, are also included. Its immediate sequel, TIE Fighter, is also available now with the multiplayer-focused X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and the much more epic conclusion to the series, X-Wing Alliance, due to follow soon.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Paul Kearney and Scott Lynch updates

Solaris Books have revealed the latest version of the cover art for their upcoming new Paul Kearney novel, The Wolf in the Attic, as well as issuing a new blurb. It sounds like Solaris are very impressed with this book and are going to be pushing it out with some fanfare.


In 1920's Oxford a little girl called Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer's wine-dark sea. Anna remembers a time when Agamemnon came to tea, and Odysseus sat her upon his knee and told her stories of Troy.
But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to have it recalled.
She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, and creates worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half-forgotten memories.
And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A Romany boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.
In this way she meets the only real friend she will ever know.

Kearney also has a Warhammer 40,000 novel, Umbra Sumus, due for release from the Black Library on 7 May 2015.


The Space Marines of the Dark Hunters, descendants of the White Scars and their savage primarch Jaghatai Kahn, are called to battle on the world of Ras Hanem, a world they thought long since liberated from the grip of heresy and returned to Imperial rule. Many years ago, the Dark Hunters defeated the traitor warband known as the Punishers on that world, in a conflict that left deep wounds in the Chapter. But now the Punishers have returned, seeking vengeance upon their would-be destroyers. Captain Jonah Kerne of Mortai Company is set to annihilate the traitors once and for all, but the cost of victory may be too high for him to bear...

Meanwhile, Scott Lynch has confirmed that, despite a slip into 2015 for The Thorn of Emberlain, there will be no more six-year waits. The novel is on track for a mid-to-late 2015 release and Lynch is promising news about some other projects between now and then as well.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

HBO options Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION novels

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of SF novels has been optioned by HBO to develop into a TV series. Jonathan Nolan, the screenwriter of several big-budget movies alongside his director brother Christopher, is writing the project.



The Foundation series consists of seven novels: Foundation (1950), Foundation and Empire (1951), Second Foundation (1952), Foundation's Edge (1981), Foundation and Earth (1985), Prelude to Foundation (1989) and Forward the Foundation (1992). There is also a trilogy of sequel novels written by SF authors Greg Bear, Gregory Benford and David Brin after Asimov's death, although the canonicity of these works is debated by fans.

The novels are set roughly 22,000 years in the future and depict the end of the vast Galactic Empire, which is being torn apart by social and economic forces. Mathematician Hari Seldon has developed 'psychohistory', a statistical model which allows for the prediction of broad sweeps of future history based on underlying historical trends. Using this, he establishes the Foundation, a scientific think-tank and refuge located on the distant planet Terminus, which will guide humanity through the collapse of the Empire and the ensuring period of chaos and anarchy, shortening it from tens of millennia to maybe a thousand years. As the books continue, Asimov develops both the limitations of Seldon's model (the arising of a charismatic individual warlord is not accounted for by psychohistory, for example) and also ties in the mystery of the long-forgotten planet Earth. He also develops closer ties between the Foundation saga and his other major SF series, the Robots and Empire series.

Jonathan Nolan, the creator of the Person of Interest TV series and the co-writer of The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar (directed by his brother), is working on the project which will be a co-production between HBO and Warner Brothers. The project was previously in development by Roland Emmerich at Sony, but HBO spent a substantial sum to pick up the rights.

This will be difficult project to adapt. The first three Foundation novels - the original Foundation Trilogy and counted by hardcore fans as the only books that count (later books were, by Asimov's own cheerful admission, written for the money) - were actually collections of short stories written by Asimov in the 1940s, and feature wafer-thin characters (and very few female characters of note), outdated science and a complete absence of any kind of sex at all. We can only assume that HBO will be changing some aspects of the story to make it work better on television. More complex is the fact that the first three books by themselves span over 200 years of history, with the series as a whole taking place over 500 years and ending with the ultimate fate and success of the Foundation unresolved. Finding a coherent structure or a regular cast of characters in this broad canvas will be challenging.

Telltale detail their new GAME OF THRONES adventure game

Telltale Games have released the first hard info on their upcoming Game of Thrones adventure game series.



The first episode will be called Iron From Ice and will launch before the end of this year. There will be six episodes in total. Release dates have not been confirmed, but the game will take place simultaneously alongside the events of Season 4, beginning near the end of Season 3 and concluding around the time Season 5 starts. This may indicate a plan to have all six episodes out and done by the time Season 5 starts airing in late March or early April 2015.

The game will revolve around House Forrester, a relatively minor house based in the North. The Forresters are vassals of House Glover of Deepwood Motte, themselves vassals of the Starks. Their seat is Ironrath, located in the ironwood. This is a small part of the wolfswood, noted for its extremely tough trees which make for excellent houses and ships. The Forrester words are also "Iron From Ice".


The Forresters are briefly mentioned in A Dance with Dragons. However, as the Telltale game is based on the TV canon rather than the novels, none of this information should be taken as being official for the books.

In terms of gameplay, the game will use five different POV characters, either members of the Forrester family or their servants. These characters will be located in both Westeros and Essos, and the locations they visit will range from Ironrath to the Wall and King's Landing. The storyline would appear to revolve around both the Forresters' involvement in the War of the Five Kings (presumably in which they support Robb Stark) and their rivalry with House Whitehill.

The game series will be available on PC, X-Box 360, X-Box One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

ELITE: DANGEROUS will be released on 16 December

Frontier Developments' space sim Elite: Dangerous will be released on 16 December this year.


Set in the 34th Century, Elite: Dangerous casts the player as a lowly space trader who can work his or her way up the mercenary and trading ranks, buy more ships and explore deep space. The setting is a simulated Milky Way galaxy, complete with 400 billion stars (made possible by procedural generation). The game can be played solo, in co-op with friends or as part of an enormous virtual community encompassing thousands of players.

The game was funded two years ago through Kickstarter and much of the development has been in the public eye, thanks to a hugely popular beta testing period with hundreds of people testing the game and passing on feedback to the developers. Whilst many games have now been funded through Kickstarter, few have been quite so open in their development process.

The game's launch on 16 December will also not be the end of the road. Over the next several years the game will be expanded with the addition of modes allowing ships to enter planetary atmospheres and land, and the possible addition of modes allowing you to walk around your ship or in space stations. However, the game's primary focus will remain on space trading, exploration and combat.

The game is the fourth in the Elite series, following on from Elite (1984), Frontier (1993) and First Encounters (1995). Familiarity with the previous games in the series is not required.

Blizzard unveil trailers for STARCRAFT II: LEGACY OF THE VOID and new IP OVERWATCH

Blizzard have released a cinematic trailer for Legacy of the Void, the second and final expansion to StarCraft II.



Picking up after the events of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and the first expansion, Heart of the Swarm, Legacy of the Void is focused on the Protoss species as they launch a full-scale assault on their former homeworld of Aiur. The planet was lost to the Zerg in the original StarCraft and the Protoss have been planning to retake it every since. The game will focus on Executor Artanis, one of the heroes of the original StarCraft expansion, Brood War, and on his flagship, the Spear of Adun, which will form the hub area between game missions.

As is usual with Blizzard, no release date has been set. However, with the game set to enter beta shortly, a 2015 release is possible.


Meanwhile, Blizzard have also announced their new game Overwatch. This is the first new IP that Blizzard have created in seventeen years and focuses on super-powered heroes and villains fighting on a futuristic Earth. The game will be a team-based FPS and bears more than a slight resemblance to Valve's Team Fortress 2. It looks like the game is drawing on assets and lore created for Blizzard's cancelled MMO shooter, Titan.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Contract renegotiatons clear the way for a seventh season of GAME OF THRONES

HBO has negotiated new deals with the cast of Game of Thrones, opening up the possibility of a seventh (and probably final) season. The fifth season of Thrones is entering the last month of production, for airing in March or April of next year, and a sixth season has already been greenlit.

"HBO will have its due."

As is traditional for American TV shows, the original cast contract for Thrones was for six seasons, potentially with an option for a seventh. Hollywood contract law prevents actors from being signed up for longer periods without renegotiations. It was anticipated that such contract negotiations would take place a year or so further down the line, but HBO has clearly taken the line that it wants any possible conflicts resolved earlier, allowing them to greenlight (at least unofficially) a seventh season far ahead of writing and shooting. The move is likely expensive for HBO, as it means the raise takes effect from the fifth season rather than just the seventh, but also may reduce the salary demands that would have come with waiting longer. Several Thrones castmembers are on big movie projects and may have held up for much more substantial raises for the final season if those projects had taken off, such as Emilia Clarke's role as Sarah Connor on the new Terminator movie trilogy (although if it's half as horrible as the plot sounds, maybe HBO jumped the gun a bit here).

No mention is made of an eighth season, which may just mean that it was unofficially discussed but more likely means that Thrones will end after its seventh year. This decision was already made some time ago, although the producers later allowed that an eighth season might still be possible. However, this salary news combined with the news that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are already lining up post-GoT projects and the apparently ruthless disposing of major plot elements in the fifth season from the books (where it appears several entire major storylines and subplots from the novels have been jettisoned in their entirety) to allow a faster wrap-up, all heavily indicate that Game of Thrones will end with the conclusion of its seventh season, in just two and a half years.

Monday, 27 October 2014

X-WING and TIE FIGHTER re-released

GoG have teamed up with LucasArts to re-release the classic space combat sims X-Wing and TIE Fighter. The games will be available from GoG within the next day.



Released in 1993, X-Wing was a blatant attempt by LucasArts to cash in on the success of Chris Roberts's Wing Commander series by deploying the heavy firepower of the Star Wars universe. Employing then-cutting-edge 3D graphics and a finely-tuned power balancing mechanic, X-Wing managed to be better than its rival and was a superb - if extremely tough - game. Released a year later, TIE Fighter was even better, with a gripping storyline casting the player as an ordinary pilot unfortunately employed by the bad guys.

The series continued in 1997 with the multiplayer-focused X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, although it did feature an excellent, story-based expansion called Balance of Power. In 1999 the series concluded with the epic X-Wing Alliance.

At this stage, only the original X-Wing and TIE Fighter are being re-released from the series. Both games have been updated to work with modern PCs and the GoG editions include both the original versions and their 1998 re-releases, which are the same but use the much more advanced graphics engine from X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. X-Wing will include both its expansions (Imperial Pursuit and B-Wing) whilst TIE Fighter will include its Defender of the Empire expansion.

Both games are excellent and I can recommend getting them both. However, they require joysticks (or, at the very least, gamepads) to play properly.

In additional news, LucasArts classics Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Knights of the Old Republic are likewise being re-released tomorrow. Knights of the Old Republic is highly recommended, as the previous PC version required a little bit of tinkering to get working properly (its sequel generally works absolutely fine). This version should work with modern graphics cards and operating systems out of the box.

GoG have said that they will ultimately be releasing thirty LucasArts titles over the coming months, suggesting that the overwhelming bulk of the LucasArts archive will eventually be available.

Rumourville: PS3 turn-based classic Valkyria Chronicles is also, curiously, getting a PC release many years after the original release.

PILLARS OF ETERNITY delayed, ELITE: DANGEROUS on track

2014 will go down as the year of the big Kickstarter games starting to be released and turning out to be pretty good: The Banner Saga, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2 (amongst others) have all shown that this is a viable route for creating compelling video games on a smaller budget.



There are two more big crowdfunded games due for fairly imminent release: old-school RPG Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian and massive space sim Elite: Dangerous from Frontier Developments.

Pillars of Eternity has, regrettably, been delayed. Obsidian are keen to make sure they have time to integrate all of the suggestions from the beta phase the game is currently in and to work on bug-fixing (something they don't have the best reputation for, sometimes fairly and more often not). Currently 'early 2015' is the target date, although it's unclear if they are thinking a modest delay to January or February or a more substantial one to say April or May.

Elite: Dangerous, on the other hand, is much closer to release. A third stage of the game's beta has just been released, adding yet more star systems and game mechanics (such as mining), and Frontier Developments have announced a launch party for 22 November, at which time the game's release date will be confirmed. They are still saying that the game will launch before the end of 2014, making a December release likely.

Bad news for Pillars of Eternity, although hopefully this does mean that when it comes out I should have enough time to actually play it. I'm currently about halfway through Wasteland 2, which is quite unfeasibly massive (and pretty good) RPG.