Sunday, 14 December 2014

A superb map of Earwa from Scott Bakker's PRINCE OF NOTHING

Noted Prince of Nothing/Aspect-Emperor fan artist Spiral Horizon has created a highly impressive map of Earwa, the continent that serves as the setting for Scott Bakker's novels.

The map is based closely on the novels and also digital maps that Bakker has published on his website. The map depicts Earwa just as the novels are beginning, at the start of the Holy War. The maps use confirmed locations and details from all five published novels, although the scale is speculative. The novels and Bakker's comments have been mildly contradictory on matters of distance and size, and the scale represents a compromised 'best guess' of things until Bakker himself comments on the issue.

Meanwhile, Bakker has published his original rough working map of Earwa (drawn c. 1984) on his website. Curiously this map includes the 'mountain rings' shown on the digital maps which some fans had dismissed as graphical artifacts. However, these are now confirmed as deliberate. Whilst the rings around Golgotterath - presumably formed by the crash of the Ark of the Heavens, the bad guys' organic starship - have an easy explanation, the others do not. Curious.

Bakker has also clarified confused reports that the Second Apocalypse mega-series will conclude with the publication of the final Aspect-Emperor book, The Unholy Consult. These were brought about by Bakker's claims that The Unholy Consult can conclude the entire series, despite previous claims that a further duology or trilogy would follow. Bakker has confirmed that his intention will always be to finish the final books, but without greater commercial success he will not be able to continue writing full-time and the final books will thus take a considerably longer time to come out. However, they will be done.

The Unholy Consult has been completed and is currently being edited. The novel's length - well over 300,000 words - has apparently led to the possibility of the book being split in half for publication. If this happens, the two new volumes would be called The Great Ordeal and The Unholy Consult. The series remains in the hands of Orbit (in the UK) and Overlook (in the USA), with Overlook also taking over Canadian publication after Penguin elected not to continue with the series. Publication plans for the new book, in whatever format, have not yet been revealed.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Spoiler warning: This review is being posted on the film's day of release and some spoilers are discussed.

The company of Thorin Oakenshield has reclaimed the Lonely Mountain, but in the process has unleashed the dragon Smaug on the surrounding lands. With armies gathering to storm the mountain, refugees flooding out of Laketown and Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur, it once again falls to a single hobbit to try to save the day.

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, a piece of avant-garde experimental cinema determined to find out if you can extract three movies totalling eight and a half hours from a single 288-page children's novel. If An Unexpected Journey told us "Probably not," and The Desolation of Smaug suggested "No, not at all", The Battle of the Five Armies concludes, "No, and seriously is this poorly-choreographed CGI fight scene going to go on much longer?"

This is not to say that Battle is an unmitigated disaster or is not, in parts, enjoyable, just that this trilogy pretty much ends as it started and continued: some very reasonably well-written scenes between skilled actors (Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage etc all on top form), a lot of special effects of varying quality and a lot of shots of orcs trying to stab people who are trying to stab them back, except for some reason the orcs are now almost all computer-generated and distinctly unconvincing.

Based on the end of Desolation, I was expecting an interminable sequence in Laketown as the dragon prepares to arrive and all the dwarves left in the city in the last film help save the day. Instead they all leg it within minutes of the film starting (completely negating the need to have them split up at all) and the entire Laketown episode is done within a quarter of an hour. This is quite cheering, and the film proceeds at a fairly brisk pace as armies gather, Thorin is consumed by the dragon-lust for gold and some tense negotiations unfold between Thranduil, Bard and Thorin. Even the newly-introduced subplot with Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur is resolved with commendable swiftness, complete with shots of Elrond kicking backside and Galadriel reprising her "Evil Crazy Enya" role from Fellowship which was weird enough the first time around.

This focus, a cheering welcome after dubious scenes of ill-judged comedy and the pointless dragon skirmish that seemed to last longer than the Thirty Years War in the previous film, then goes out the window once battle is joined. On the one hand, Jackson uses a bird's eye camera view to very cleverly establish the battlefield and the different fronts that the fight takes place on. With Tolkien's description of the battle taking up just a few lines in the novel, Jackson has to flesh it out to a multi-front battle taking place before the gates of Erebor, in the surrounding hills and then degenerating into messy urban warfare in the ruined streets of Dale. This is all great. On the other, the battle then goes on for well north of an hour of scenes of people whacking one another with swords. To mix this up, Jackson moves away from the big battle scenes after a bit to focus on a series of duels between key protagonists and antagonists, with Legolas, Tauriel and Kili squaring off against Bolg and Thorin taking on the menacing Azog. However, duels are best when they are focused affairs and the mixing of the two duels with one another and with occasional divergences to what Bilbo or Bard is up to drains them of a lot of dramatic tension. Those who hate the "Superelf Legolas" of the previous movie will also not be happy here, with way too many scenes of the CGI version of Orlando Bloom pulling off some crazy acrobatic move against all the odds. One scene of Legolas air-surfing across some falling rocks may actually make you want to drop an EMP bomb on Weta Digital's offices to make them stop.

Oh yes, and at one point four sandworms from Dune show up, do nothing apart from dig some tunnels that some of the orcs use (for no apparent reason, as then tons more arrive overland) and leave.

The trilogy's use of CGI at the expense of the natural beauty of the New Zealand countryside has been one of its biggest problems, and Battle initially seems to rally against that with some great scenes on the banks of the Long Lake filmed apparently entirely on location with nary a CGI vista in site. However, it's not too long before this is abandoned and once again we are in plastic backdrop city. The use of CGI becomes inexplicable here, especially when Dain Ironfoot shows up and everyone gets excited to hear Billy Connolly speak up, only to discover in close-ups that he's an unconvincing CG mannequin. What the actual hell?

The conciseness Jackson shows in the early going of the film is also frittered away as the battle scenes wear on wearily. Bard spends vast amounts of time looking for his children. Stephen Fry's minion character from the previous films get a quite unnecessary and time-consuming subplot of his own where he does precisely nothing. Legolas and Tauriel have to take a side-trip to Gundabad for no reason (a trip of several hundred miles which they accomplish in less than 24 hours with no explanation whatsoever). Jackson also goes a bit weird by pulling out one of the five armies from the books (no wargs here) and replacing them with flying bat-demon things, but then introduces a second army of different orcs. In fact, there's at least six armies fighting at the battle (seven if you count Team Thorin as a distinct faction) just to make things even odder.

Working against this are the actors, who as usual deliver even when faced with awkward exposition or having to act against tennis balls, and Howard Shore's soundtrack. After a fairly unmemorable second movie he comes back strong here with some nice new themes. And Jackson does stick the landing with this one: Battle's ending is fairly focused with a minimum of goodbyes and finding an excellent way of segueing into Fellowship of the Ring whilst staying true to the original novel.

The Battle of the Five Armies (***) starts off very well, gets bogged down in some overlong action scenes, and then recovers for a reasonable ending. But of the three it's the one that suffers the most from the decision to split the slim novel into three films. It's the shortest movie of the six Middle-earth flicks that Jackson has directed, but there are moments when it feels like by far the longest, and it's the one that is most obviously weakened by an over-reliance on computer graphics at the expensive of real actors and a dramatically satisfying script. It's an entertaining popcorn movie, but it cannot be anything other than disappointing to realise it's been released almost thirteen years to the day after The Fellowship of the Ring, which managed to be much more than that and still the greatest epic fantasy movie ever made. The film is on general release now.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Valkyria Chronicles

The small Republic of Gallia has been invaded by the forces of the East Europan Imperial Alliance, which is determined to conquer the entire continent of Europa. Welkin Gunther, the son of a former war hero, is pressed into service as the commanding officer of Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia. Gunther has to overcome prejudice from the regular army in order to guide his squad, and ultimately his nation, to victory.

Valkyria Chronicles has an interesting history. Originally released on the PS3 in 2008, the game sold modestly but not outstandingly. Sega commissioned two sequels for the handheld PSP, but only one of these was released in the West. Despite critical acclaim, the series would have likely faded away (save for the odd 'best game you've never played' feature) if Sega hadn't been presented with a petition asking for a PC port of the game. With the PC an increasingly important format for Sega, they surprisingly agreed and the resulting release was a big hit, hugely exceeding Sega's sales expectations.

The game itself has been described as a turn-based strategy game similar to the XCOM series, although that's not entirely accurate. Each mission presents you with a series of command points which you can spend however you wish. You can move and attack with one unit as many times as you wish, although their range of movement decreases with every extra move you make with them. Some special weapons (such as sniper rifles, grenades and rockets) can also only be fired a couple of times per turn (though these can be replenished by using an Engineer). Units can use cover to better protect themselves, although bizarrely only behind sandbags; other forms of scenery (such as garden walls or crates) can't be used as cover.

Europa, which is basically Europe to the point of having some of the same names. Why they just didn't use Europe and call it an alt-history, I don't know.

Your military force consists of four basic unit types: Scouts have a tremendous range of movement but are fragile and easily killed by almost any other unit type. However, their rifles become incredibly powerful as they are upgraded and they gain the ability to use grenade launchers. If they can outflank an enemy and get behind them (where the enemy can't shoot them on crossfire, this game's version of overwatch) they can usually kill them before they can get a shot off in return. Shocktroopers have more limited movement but are armed with heavy machine guns and, later, flamethrowers. These are the bread-and-butter combat units but it's surprisingly how infrequently you use them for anything more than base defence. Lancers deploy extremely powerful anti-tank rockets, although they can also be used against soldiers. Whilst powerful, they lack any kind of defence (they can't use crossfire) and are vulnerable to enemy attack. Finally, Engineers are used to repair tanks and re-supply other troops with ammo in the field, although they also have a moderate attack and defence ability. All units have the ability to use medical equipment (on themselves or allies) and also use grenades. Units are not killed upon being downed and can be rescued by a medic if another unit is able to get to them; they can be killed if an enemy unit reaches them first though.

As well as the soldiers, you also have the ability to command tanks. Early missions see you using Gunther's vehicle, the Edelweiss, whilst later on you get a second, smaller vehicle, the Shamrock. Tanks have formidable anti-armour guns and anti-personnel mortars and machine guns, but use up a lot of command points and are vulnerable to enemy Lancers and tanks.

Scouts feel a bit pointless at the start of the game but rapidly turn into the most devastingly effective units, if upgraded and used right.

Unlike most turn-based strategy games, there is no grid for movement. Instead you have a certain number of movement points which are used up as you move around in a third-person view similar to action games. You can't tell how far you can go in a move (without actually moving), so the game encourages you to move cautiously and use cover where possible. When you attack, you use a more action game-like direct control mechanic. Your ability to hit a target depends on range, cover and how well you have upgraded your characters and equipment.

Between battles, you can retire to the capital city to rest. During this phase you can upgrade your equipment by spending money on R&D, hire and fire soldiers, visit your fallen comrades in a cemetary, train up at boot camp or pay a visit to a friendly journalist who is relaying your exploits to the nation. The non-battle parts of the game are depicted like a book, with you turning to different pages to visit different parts of the city, continue with the main story or play skirmishes. Skirmishes are optional (sort-of) smaller engagements between the big story battles, but still give you important EXP and money which you can use to prepare for the next battle.

The overhead tactical map, from where you select which unit to use next. Your remaining command points are shown at the top of the screen.
The biggest difference between Valkyria Chronicles and similar games, like the XCOM series, is the lack of any grand strategy layer. The course of the war is completely set and you roll from mission to mission through cut scenes. Aside from deciding when to do skirmishes and in what order, you have no real control over the bigger picture of the game. Whilst some may bemoan this, it does result in a much more detailed, hand-crafted approach to the game. Each battle is meticulously designed to be different to the one before whilst still building on what you have learned. This results in a - mostly - smooth difficulty curve and tremendous variety in the types of battlefield you encounter.

Tanks are formidable, but very vulnerable to Lancers if left exposed. Like here.

There a couple of issues here. First, the game does have two rather ridiculous difficulty spikes. The seventh mission is punishingly hard to the point of lunacy. This happens again later on on the seventeenth mission, although this is less of a problem because greater experience by that point should allow players to overcome it. Secondly, the game clearly states that the skirmish missions are optional, and indeed, you can get to the final battle straightforwardly (despite the two above tough missions) if you don't bother with them. However, the final mission becomes extremely difficult without the extra equipment, potentials (special abilities) and experience gained from doing the skirmish missions. The problem with the skirmish missions is that they often take place on the same maps from the main campaign and soon repetition sets in, which the main campaign avoids through either not re-using maps, or changing things up meticulously when they do.

Still, if you can accept that limitation the game emerges as a lot of fun. The different art style, which makes the game look like an animated painting, is highly effective and distinctive. The music is excellent, although some of the sound effects grate after a while. The characters are archetypal and don't stray far from cliche, but are still distinctive and memorable for that. Where the game does break down a little is the plot. Early on the game is a surprisingly realistic take on WWII, with tanks, blitzkriegs, rifles, machine guns and hardcore moral dilemmas. The appearance of concentration camps and firing squads takes the game in a grim direction which, whilst often at odds with the cartoony graphics and questionable uniform choices (that female soldiers can fight alongside the men with no limitations is great, but why are they all wearing miniskirts?), is highly effective.

When the weird people with crazy hair show up with the blue lances of death, the game definitely gets bit more boring.

However, towards the end of the game all of that goes out of the window as the story turns to embrace ancient alien superweapons, people flying around with glowing eyes and cartoonish villainy. It's all good pulp fun, but I think it would have been far more interesting to have stuck with the more realistic 'fantasy WWII' from the early part of the game, a great idea which is thus left chronically underdeveloped (at least in this first game in the series).

Valkyria Chronicles (****) is a very different type of strategy game, one which employs its own style of combat and a distinctive graphical style to make something unique and memorable. The combat is engrossing, the story reasonably interesting (if becoming more predictable towards the end) and, despite some tough difficulty spikes, it all flows together reasonably well. The game hits that design sweet spot of being built from some very straightforward building blocks, but then combining them into something compelling. The game is available now on PC and PS3 (UK, USA).

Teaser preview for the JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL TV series

The BBC have released a brief teaser for their forthcoming Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell TV series.

Set at the beginning of the 19th-century, England no longer believes in practical magic. The reclusive Mr Norrell (Marsan) of Hurtfew Abbey stuns the city of York when he causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. With a little persuasion and help from his man of business Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), he goes to London to help the government in the war against Napoleon. It is there Norrell summons a fairy (Warren) to bring Lady Pole (Englert) back from the dead, opening a whole can of worms…
The seven-part series is expected to air on the BBC (in the UK) and BBC America (in the States) in early 2015, possibly starting before the end of January.

THE BANNER SAGA 2 announced

Stoic Games have formally announced The Banner Saga 2, the logically-named sequel to The Banner Saga.

The original game was one of the most interesting released in 2014. It was visually striking and bleak in tone, depicting the flight to safety of two convoys of refugees from opposing sides of a Viking-esque fantasy continent. The game was notable for its near-total lack of exposition, dumping you into its world and letting you work out what's going on only gradually. There was also some fine turn-based combat and some brutally unexpected plot twists, not to mention a rather unforgiving difficulty curve and some rather bizarre game mechanics. Still, it was a very solid game, especially for a debut title from a new studio.

The game was always planned as the first in a series, so it is surprising that the sequel was not announced sooner. However, Stoic ran into legal problems earlier this year when King Software, the makers of Candy Crush Saga, sued Stoic on the grounds (of questionable sanity) that they owned the word 'saga'. Fortunately, logic (or a finely-tuned realisation that a PR backlash apocalypse was imminent) prevailed and King dropped their claim, allowing Stoic to proceed with the series.

The Banner Saga 2 will be released in 2015 on PC.

Monday, 8 December 2014


Double Fine have confirmed that their remastered edition of classic 1998 adventure game Grim Fandango will be released on 27 January, along with a new trailer.

The new version of the game has been optimised for modern PCs and will also include versions for Mac, Linux, PS4 and PS Vita.

Double Fine have also confirmed that they are bringing back Day of the Tentacle, the sequel to the original LucasArts adventure game Maniac Mansion. Originally released in 1993, Day of the Tentacle was hugely critically acclaimed on release and is sometimes described as the best adventure game ever made (an honour it sometimes exchanges with Monkey Island II and Sam and Max Hit the Road). This new version will likely be more akin to the Monkey Island re-masters from a couple of years ago, allowing gamers to play both the original and a graphically updated version of the game. In fact, it sounds like this new version is based on the already-in-progress remastering work that LucasArts was undertaking when it was shut down by new owners Disney back in 2012.

Meanwhile, Ron Gilbert, the original creator of Maniac Mansion (and The Secret of Monkey Island), is crowdfunding a new, classic-style adventure game called Thimbleweed Park. With more than a week to go, the game has raised more than $100,000 over its originally-requested target amount.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

HBO confirm plans for THE WIRE in HD

HBO have confirmed their plans for the HD re-release of The Wire. They had been planning to release the new version of the show in November, but those plans were put on hold when series creator David Simon and producer Nina Noble got in touch and offered to lend their help to ensuring that the re-mastering job was of the highest possible quality.

Rumours that Omar will be replaced by a CGI muppet and that Stringer will now 'fire first' cannot be confirmed at this time.

That work is now complete and HBO Signature will begin showing The Wire on Boxing Day. They will air show in five marathons, one season per day, before releasing the HD version of the series through iTunes and other digital sellers on 5 January 2015. A Blu-Ray release of the series will follow in the summer.

To create the new version, HBO re-scanned the entire original film stock and re-edited the series from scratch. Complications were found in that, whilst the original show was shot on film, it had not always been 'protected' for widescreen, with the result that light stands, equipment and sometimes extras could be found lurking in the edges of the widescreen image. Initially it appears that HBO was planning on using cropping to eliminate these issues (although this does result in the loss of image from the top and bottom of the screen) but after further consideration instead used CGI and digital painting to remove these elements. Although more expensive, this does result in a superior image.

David Simon has always been negative about the idea of displaying the show in widescreen, feeling that it loses something of the original documentary feel. However, he did change his mind when seeing how certain scenes (such as the longshoremen gathered around a fallen comrade at the end of Season 2) were much-improved in widescreen. Other scenes suffered, with Simon noting that the exchange between Wee-Bay and D'Angelo outside a diner in the very first episode became distracting with too many elements introduced into the edges of the shot. In these very rare cases, cropping appears to have been used to re-focus the attention of shots on the characters. On his blog, Simon has indicated that it would be "nice" to have the show in HD but in the original aspect ratio (a compromise achieved highly successfully by the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-Ray releases), but it is unclear if this option will be available on the forthcoming new box set.

Re-releasing The Wire in HD may not matter much to the show's existing legions of fans but it will ensure the show's long term survival, and should help it win over a new audience of modern box set bingers who've been put off by the original version's grainy visual quality (ignoring how much that adds to the effect).

Friday, 28 November 2014

GAME OF THRONES: IRON FROM ICE gets a release date

The first episode in Telltale's Game of Thrones adventure series, Iron From Ice, now has a release date.

The episode will drop on 2 December - that's next Tuesday - for PC, Mac and American PS4s. X-Box 360, XB1 and other PS4 markets will follow on 3 December. The iOS release will be on 4 December, whilst PS3 owners have to wait until 9 December for unknown reasons. Android will follow up later in the month.

The game series will consist of six episodes in total. The release dates for the remaining episodes is unknown, but it's been rumoured that the game series should wind up in time for Season 5 of Game of Thrones starting on TV, likely in the first week or so of April. That would make for a pretty tight turn-around for Telltale, who sometimes go 2-3 months between episodes on their other games, but possible if they've pre-planned this series a bit more thoroughly than some of their others.


Disney and Lucasfilm have unveiled the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars saga, due in cinemas in December 2015.

It would appear we're back on Tatooine - the busiest backwater nowhere in the galaxy, it appears - and there's also some stuff going on with the Millennium Falcon, TIE Fighters and X-Wings, which is sure to please everyone. There's a cute new robot for the little kids, but he looks more tolerable than Jar-Jar at this stage. There's also a villain with a lightsabre which has little lightsabre hilts, which is kind of adorable. It's hard to match the Darth Maul dual-lightsabre revelation from The Phantom Menace trailer, but it might be there's not much more to do with them. It's also unclear who the narrator is: it sounds a lot like Benedict Cumberbatch.

In other news, pre-production is close to starting up on the first Star Wars stand-alone film. Directed by Gareth Edwards, this film is due for release in December 2016 with production set to get underway next year (before Episode VII is even released). According to one source, this first movie will be a heist film and will see a bunch of bounty hunters being employed by the Rebel Alliance to undertake a daring raid on the Empire. The rumour is that amongst the information they seize are the plans to the first Death Star, and this will dovetail the film into the start of Episode IV. The rumours are also that Max von Sydow's character from Episode VII will appear as a young man in this film.

Disney/Lucasfilm's masterplan is for five Star Wars movies to be released annually from 2015 to 2019, consisting of Episodes VII-IX (to be directed by Abrams, Rian Johnson and as-yet undisclosed director) and at least two spin-off films, one focusing on bounty hunters and the other possibly on Yoda's backstory.

True Detective: Season 1

Louisiana, 1995. A young girl's body is found tied to a tree, the victim of what appears to be a ritualistic murder. Two officers are assigned to the case: Martin Hart, a dyed-in-the-wool traditional detective who enjoys drinking and is having an affair, and Rust Cohle, a ferociously intelligent man who ponders philosophical and existentialist concepts whilst working. Over the course of seventeen years, the case is apparently solved but then re-opened again as Hart and Cohle, whose relationship suffers seismic shocks, face the possibility that they may have gotten things wrong.

True Detective is HBO's latest big-hitter series, an anthology show in which each season will be a different, self-contained story with its own locations and characters. This first season is set in Louisiana (after True Blood and Treme, HBO probably have a discount on filming there) and is focused on a very clever serial killer who knows how to make it look like he's disappeared whilst carrying on his work.

True Detective has won enormous plaudits for a number of its achievements, and I can only join the choir here. The cinematography is breathtaking, the sense of atmosphere and place vivid and the acting by everyone, but in particular Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, is outstanding. The show's artistic ambition, using the traditional detective story framework to express thoughts and ideas about science, religion, nihilism, existentialism and corruption, is commendable. The structure of setting the story in three distinct timeframes and moving between them is also very successful, with the 1995 segment foreshadowing and the 2012 segment obliquely referencing things that happened in the 2002 segment which we then get to see unfold.

The show does have a number of problems, however. For a story that only lasts for eight hour-long episodes, the pacing often feels off. Some episodes are rammed full of incident, character development and thematic musings and are highly compelling. Others are almost bereft of substantial content until the obligatory end-of-episode cliffhanger. Or to put it another way, a show this short really shouldn't have such long periods which nothing much is going on. There is also the confusion of the show making frequent references to Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow (itself an inspiration for Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos) but then not making it clear that the book itself does not exist in the show's universe.

The series also hints that it may represent the end-point of what television as an art form can do, particularly on a short timescale. Rust Cohle returns to the ideas of the point of our existence in an empty universe, the struggling with the idea of an afterlife and the inescapable loneliness of being stuck inside our own skulls several times, but each time doesn't really develop them or have more to say on them. We get some great quotes out of these ruminations, but little more. This is because a TV show focused on a more traditional narrative drive simply hasn't got the time or space to delve into these ideas as well as a novel can. If this is the Golden Age of Television, True Detective hints at what might become its limiting factor.

Other complaints may be made, particularly over the thinness of the female characters and some rather completely out-of-place sex scenes (this is HBO, after all), but these complaints are to some degree born out of the premise, of the dwelling on the relationship between these two very different men (one of them old-school with misogynistic tendencies).

The first season of True Detective (****) is a rich, visually rewarding and structurally inventive story driven by outstanding performances and clever - if not developed fully - thematic ideas. There are also too many longueurs and moments of narrative stasis in a story that should really be unfolding with more verve and drive, but overall this is an impressive story. Whether Nic Pizzolatto can strike gold again with the forthcoming second season remains to be seen. The series is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).