Wednesday, 29 July 2015

New BATTLETECH game announced

Harebrained Schemes have announced the development of a new BattleTech game, which they will be funding through Kickstarter this autumn.

Harebrained founder Jordan Weisman is noted for creating the Shadowrun roleplaying game in 1989 and being behind the recent Shadowrun Returns franchise of Kickstarted RPGs (consisting of Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall and the imminent Hong Kong, slated for release on 28 August). However, he is arguably even more famous for co-creating the BattleTech miniatures game in 1984 and its spin-off RPG line, MechWarrior. The MechWarrior RPG spawned a successful four-title videogame series in the 1990s and early 2000s, with MechWarrior 2 and 4 being particularly acclaimed.

The new BattleTech game takes things back to the beginning. This will be a strategy game featuring turn-based combat as well as RPG elements and the ability to create new mech designs. The game will also be open-ended and will draw inspiration from Mercenaries, the name of the expansions to both MechWarrior 2 and 4. This sub-series features player choice and a branching storyline with multiple endings, as opposed to the more linear storytelling of other games in the series.

BattleTech still has a large, dedicated fan following and following the impressive success of Shadowrun Returns, I suspect this will be one of those Kickstarters which is funded almost instantly.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

MAFIA III pre-announced

Apparently, announcing that something is going to be announced is now a thing. 2K Games have confirmed that they will be announcing the existence of Mafia III with a trailer on 5 August. Which is weird, but okay (and at least it's not a trailer for a trailer, which is even more annoying).

Mafia III is, shockingly, the sequel to Mafia (2002) and Mafia II (2010), both developed by Illusion Softworks (now 2K Czech). Mafia was praised for its graphics - a massive step up from the then-contemporary Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City - and its highly memorable characters and storyline, as well as its measured pacing the clever way the city evolved between missions if long periods of time passed. Mafia II took place in a bigger city and of course was graphically more impressive, but its story was less compelling and its cast of characters altogether less memorable.

Mafia III has been developed primarily by Hanger 13, a new studio formed by veterans of LucasArts along with a couple of ex-Illusion staffmembers. 2K Czech is providing support, although a lot of the talent behind the first two games in the series have now left to form a new studio, Warhorse Studios, which is working on the medieval roleplaying game Deliverance: Kingdom Come.

Not much can be discerned about the game, but the cars and hairstyles in the only image released so far suggests that it will be set in the 1960s or 1970s. That makes sense given that the original game spanned much of the 1930s and the second was set in the early 1950s. It'll be interesting to see what Hanger 13 can come up with.


1852. Denmark achieves an unlikely military and political victory against the forces of the German Confederation and consolidates its formal control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Twelve years later, Danish nationalism, reinforced by its victory and by the fervent ardour of the state council leader Bishop Monrad, results in a formal annexation of Schleswig and its large German population. The formerly disunited German states are now being unified by the Prussian statesmanship of the formidable Otto von Bismarck into an empire, the potential powerhouse of Europe. A considerably more powerful, larger and more skilled Prussian-Austrian army invades Denmark, changing the lives of millions of people forever.

1864 is an eight-part TV mini-series, filmed in Denmark and is the most expensive television series ever made in the country. Many of the actors and crew are veterans of contemporary Danish noir series such as Borgen and The Killing, but 1864 stands in contrast to them as a sweeping, epic war story spanning generations and taking in the lives of soldiers, politicians and civilians during the Second Schleswig War of 1864. This war, obscure today outside of Denmark, marked a vital moment in the transformation of Germany from a loosely-allied collection of small states into a powerful empire, setting it on a course that would lead, six years later, to the Franco-Prussian War and eventually the First World War itself.

The so-called Schleswig-Holstein Question was a bewildering political/ethnic controversy of the time which reduced even ardent European politicians (well-versed in the most tedious minutiae of bizarre border disputes) to bemusement. Very wisely, 1864 avoids getting too entangled in this mess. Instead, it presents the story of the war in the impact it has on the population of a small Danish village. The local baron is incompetent and his son Didrich was a coward during the 1852 war, avoiding conflict and traumatised by the brushes with death he did experience. Returning home, Didrich wastes no time in taking his frustration and bullying tendencies out on the local population. Among those is a war veteran, Thøger Larsen. When he dies, his two sons, Peter and Laust, are forced to grow up and work hard to help their family survive.

Peter and Laust soon befriend Inge, the beautiful daughter of the baron's new estate manager. Their innocent childhood friendship is complicated when, as adults, Laust and Inge fall in love and Didrich's violent temper gets more out of control. When the war starts, the brothers join the army and find themselves under Didrich's command, whilst Inge discovers that she is pregnant with Laust's child. However, the brothers are soon separated as the Prussian and Austrian armies sweep north, smashing everything in their path. The Danish forces fall back on Dybbøl Hill, where the most decisive battle of the war will be fought against overwhelming odds.

The structure of the series is interesting. First of all, there is a framing device set in the present day where unemployed delinquent Claudia gets a job caring for Severin, an old man who lives in the same manor house as Didrich and his father, now fallen into disrepair. An initially hostile relationship is overcome when Claudia finds Inge's journal and begins reading it to Severin. The series then uses the first three episodes to establish life in the Danish village and set up the key characters (Peter, Laust, Didrich, Inge and Sofia, the mute daughter of a travelling band of gypsies) as well as establishing the political situation through a series of subplots involving Monrad (the equivalent of a Prime Minister) and German historical figures such as General Moltke and Bismarck. The series does a good job of setting the scene for the war, establishing Denmark's nationalism and parallelling Monrad's own personal life (he loses confidence in his skills of oration and has to be coaxed back to competence by an actress) with that of Denmark's growing confidence and then disastrous overconfidence.

These opening three episodes are a bit weird, it has to be said. The first episode, which has child actors playing Laust, Peter and Inge, is a bit on the weak side and the actress playing the young Inge is painfully wooden. Monrad's crisis of confidence and regaining it by having an actress walk on him is also a bit strange. The idea here is to overcome the cliches of costume drama by showing the full range of human behaviour, including some eccentricities, and this is sometimes effective (Didrich is portrayed with more nuance than his one-note villain character summary may suggest). It's also sometimes just random, such as during a brief scene where a nobleman attempts copulation with a cow for no readily apparent reason. There's some brilliantly human moments in these opening episodes and they do set up the rest of the story superbly, but they're quite uneven.

Things take a massive upturn in the fourth episode. When the war finally erupts and the brothers reach the front, the series unexpectedly turns into Band of Brothers: Denmark. A host of supporting characters appear as other soldiers in both Peter and Laust's platoons, all very well written and acted. There's some very deft characterisation, so that when characters with only a few minutes of screen-time are killed the audience cannot help but feel sympathy. There's also Wilhem Dinesen, Peter's commanding office and a one-man killing machine (and a real historical figure, the father of Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa) whose workmanlike, stoic heroism stands in contrast to the cowardice and blustering of Didrich. The series also touches base with some recurring characters in the Prussian ranks, such as the Marx-quoting soldier who is dismayed at having to wage war on fellow working men.

The fourth through seventh episodes are all-out war stories, focusing on planning, sieges and visceral scenes of bloody combat that match anything ever done by HBO. Some of the cinematography and scenery in these sequences are breathtaking, as are the visual effects (with some very effective mergings of CGI and practical stunts). However, the series always brings things down to the human level and humanises everyone involved, even the generals (many of whom are horrified when they witness what modern artillery and rifles can do on the battlefield and start looking for a peaceful way out). The final episode catches everyone up on what's happened, explains the relevance of the framing story and generally wraps things up well, while still leaving room for tragedy and regrets.

1864 is certainly an unconventional historical series, but it's also a gripping, memorable one. The direction is uniformly excellent and the writing is effective, although sometimes the symbolism can be heavy-handed. The series sometimes meshes together spiritual and symbolic scenes (such as the prescient Sergeant Johan Larsen drawing ice out of the heart of a dying comrade) with much more literal scenes of combat in a way that is really confusing. The framing story also veers a little into cliche, especially the depiction of Claudia as a teenage rebel because she's mildly nihilistic and has piercings. These bumps in the road are overcome thanks to uniformly brilliant acting and strong, measured pacing that knows when to throw in a horrific battle scene and when to focus on the character drama. A special word must be reserved for the music, which is particularly excellent.

As a work of history it's a bit more of a mixed bag. The writer-director has taken a view of history rather different to the traditional Danish one, trying to show the conflict as a pointless one brought about by overconfident politicians in the face of reason. The German characters are depicted fairly sympathetically throughout (apart from the hard-headed and ruthless Bismarck), as are the generals on both sides. Monrad, a more complicated historical character, is reduced to a religious fanatic and buffoon in the series. This is more of a shame as the opening episode suggests he will be a more important and complex protagonist, but as the emphasis switches to the battlefield and he appears less, he becomes more of a one-note figure. For a series that attempts to engage more in the real complexities of politics and war (it does so far better than almost any other recent war series of note), these failings are shame.

They're also fairly minor. 1864 (****½) is at times off-beat, weird and clumsy, and at others is funny, heart-warming and painfully human. But during its four-episode depiction of the actual war itself, it easily matches anything produced by bigger American or British studios and becomes unmissable. The series is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Friday, 24 July 2015

Audience pressure pays off: Update on Scott Bakker's THE UNHOLY CONSULT

A month ago I reported that Scott Bakker's sixth Second Apocalypse novel (and the concluding volume of The Aspect-Emperor sub-trilogy), The Unholy Consult, had been delayed for absolutely no reason at all.

Fortunately, the resulting noise (from here, other blogs and, most notably, the Second Apocalypse Forum and resulted in Overlook being contacted by fans eager to find out what was going on with the book. As a result Overlook have kicked the publication process into gear and we should soon have an idea of when the book will be released.
"I’ve finally spoken to my Overlook editor: apparently they’ve been deluged with emails and even phone calls! It has him excited about the book at least. We still have a couple more details to hammer out, and things need to be squared away with Orbit, but hopefully I should be able to make an announcement soon."
Good job everyone. Just goes to show that the Internet can be a force for positive pressure and change as well as unnecessarily cute animal pictures.

The White-Luck Woofter. The Canine Who Comes Before. The No-Walkies.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Wertzone Classics: Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance

The Rebel Alliance has been dealt a severe blow with the destruction of its base on Hoth. In the aftermath of the disaster, numerous factions sympathetic to the Alliance have been exposed and the Empire has taken vengeance. Caught up in the chaos are the Azzameens, a trading family supplying the Rebels. With the Empire closing in, the youngest pilot in the family elects to the join the Rebels and help in the fight. However, his loyalties to his familes remain strong...

X-Wing Alliance was originally released in 1999 and is the fourth and final game in the X-Wing series, following on from X-Wing (1993), TIE Fighter (1994) and the multiplayer-focused X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (1997). The game opens during the events of The Empire Strikes Back and concludes with the epic Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi, with the player helping flesh out events in the background of both movies.

X-Wing Alliance is, technically, the most accomplished game in the series. The graphics are far superior to the earlier games and the fighter cockpits are now all fully-modelled 3D environments which you can look around in. The game has the widest variety of ships and stations in the series and bumps things up a notch by allowing you play small freighters, such as the YT-1300 and 2000-series Corellien freighters and, in the final mission, the Millennium Falcon itself. The game also unfolds over a larger scale, with many missions requiring multiples jumps through hyperspace to other star systems. The engine can handle far vaster battles than the previous game, with the concluding Battle of Endor involving over a dozen capital ships and hundreds of fighters. The game also makes excellent use of the movie soundtracks and sound effects to form the perfect backdrop to the game.

It remains controversial over if this is the best game in the series, however. For my money it is. It has the best pacing, the best difficulty curve (one or two insanely hard spikes aside) and a growing sense of menace and scale as the assault on the second Death Star approaches. There are 50 missions, which is a lot for this kind of game (the others only reached this size with their expansions included), especially since many of these missions are longer than the very longest missions in the previous titles. It's certainly a big, satisfying game which takes the previous mixture of spectacular space combat, in-battle tactics and larger strategy (through the ability to give wingmen orders, which they handle better than ever before thanks to much stronger AI) and tightens everything up a notch.

The biggest weakness - and it is not a major one - is the storyline involving the Azzameen family. Ignoring their silly name (and you even sillier designation as "Ace"), this storyline does get you involved in the game a bit more than in its forebears, which gave your character no backstory at all. However, the game forces you to sit through several fairly tiresome family-oriented missions before you get to the join the Rebellion and hop in an X-wing. The addition of freighters to the game is a good one, but these end up being a bit overpowered due to their auto-tracking turrets. This is especially notable in the YT-2000 Otana, which has two gun batteries and requires you to merely be pointed in the enemy's vague direction to scythe through entire squadrons - even of TIE Avengers and Defenders - with impunity. These missions can be a bit more fun as they involve characters not associated with the Rebels, such as your crazy sister Amon and even crazier brother Emon (not the most exciting names), and your psychotic droid co-pilot MK-09 (a slightly less homicidal forerunner of HK-47). They bring a bit more personality to a game series that was, until this title, rather lacking in personality.

One slight problem with this story is that it's not entirely concluded at the end of the game. The Azzameen storyline ends on a cliffhanger with a traitor being exposed in the family and doing a runner. Clearly, his pursuit would have factored into any expansion to the game. However, X-Wing Alliance suffered badly in the Great Space Combat Crash of 1999, selling disappointingly, and no expansion or sequel was made. Fortunately the game's core storyline finishes fairly decisively with the Battle of Endor, which provides more than enough closure for the whole game.

X-Wing Alliance's other big problem was one of timing. The X-Wing series had comfortably usurped the Wing Commander franchise's crown as Best Space Combat Series and worn it well through the 1990s, but just a few months before X-Wing Alliance came out another game was released. Conflict Freespace: The Great War was, despite a dodgy name, an altogether hardier and better game, with superior, more visceral combat, better visuals and far weightier handling. It left the X-Wing series looking a bit tired. Even worse was to come when Freespace 2 was released about six months after X-Wing Alliance. Freespace 2 was space combat perfected and pretty much killed the entire genre stone dead by not giving it anywhere to develop.

Freed from contemporary issues, X-Wing Alliance (****½) emerges as a still impressive, top-notch game. It is available now from GoG. Unlike the earlier X-Wing games, which were made before the modding scene took off, X-Wing Alliance allowed modding and the results include the impressive X-Wing Upgrade project, which improves the visuals massively of the whole game. I strongly recommend it as it both upgrades the in-game models to something far palatable for modern gamers, and also adds widescreen support for current monitors.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC II gets a new update...ten years after release

Knights of the Old Republic II has, somewhat bizarrely, gotten a major Steam update today. Given that the game was originally released for Windows XP back in February 2005, this feels a bit late in the day. However, given the game's legendarily broken status on release, it is a bit of a special case.

The original Knights of the Old Republic, created by BioWare and released in 2003 for the original X-Box, is one of the greatest CRPGs ever made and one of the greatest instalments of Star Wars - in any medium - ever released. It's a character-focused adventure which channels the pulp sci-fi feel of the original Star Wars movie and nails it absolutely right. It's downright brilliant and you should certainly play it if you haven't already. It's also a bit of a prototype for BioWare's later Mass Effect games, although for my money Knights of the Old Republic is comfortably superior. It's been recently updated to run on modern PCs from GoG and is well worth a look.

Knights of the Old Republic II, developed by the then-newly-formed Obsidian Entertainment, is every bit the Empire Strikes Back to the original game. It's darker, more brooding, more morally dubious and has a bit of a massive downer ending (although not a cliffhanger). It presents a far more cynical view of the Star Wars universe, one of shades of grey where the very simplistic notion of a "Light" and "Dark" side of the Force seems laughable. It's far more conceptually original and interesting than the original game. It should have been even better, but for LucasArts rushing the game out before it was ready, in a buggy and not-entirely-complete state.

A couple of post-release patches did help correct the more general and grievous technical problems the game was suffering from, but the missing content could not be fixed without a massive update which LucasArts were curiously unwilling to let Obsidian undertake.

Fortunately, Obsidian were canny enough to include some of the assets and code for the missing content on the actual game CD, allowing modders to extract them and start looking at ways of filling in the gaps themselves. And after a decade they've done what is by all accounts a bang-up job, via the Restored Content Mod. This completes a couple of incomplete storylines in the original game, puts some more closure in the ending (previously a rushed voiceover explained the fate of many of the characters) and, most critically, adds an entire new location to the game: a droid production facility which comes complete with attendant quests and characters and much focus on the beloved, homicidal assassin droid HK-47.

The new update officially incorporates the Restored Content Mod and also adds native controller support as well as blasting the resolution up to 5K for absolutely no good reason other than they can. It's great to see this older, underrated game being updated and brought to a new audience as a result.

Trailer for the second season of FARGO

A trailer has been released for the second season of Fargo.

The first season was a surprise critical smash last year, winning plaudits in both the USA and UK for its offbeat, black humour and outstanding performances by Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and newcomer Allison Tolman.

The second season is set in 1979 and focuses on Lou Solverson, the father of Molly Solverson (Tollman) in the original series. Keith Carradine played Lou in the first season, but the younger and fresher-faced version in the new season will be played by Patrick Wilson. Ted Danson (Cheers) and Kirsten Dunst (the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films) will also have major roles. The second season will revolve around a disturbing and important case mentioned several times in the original series.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

A mysterious alien artifact - a gateway - has been constructed beyond Uranus's orbit. Its purpose is unknown. Representatives from Earth, Mars and the Belt are rushing to investigate, among them, reluctantly, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. The artifact holds the key to the future of the human race, an opportunity to spread mankind to the stars...but it is also a weapon that could incinerate the entire Solar system if it falls unto the wrong hands.

Abaddon's Gate is the third novel in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), which is expected to run to nine novels (and "Will soon be a major television series"). This book picks up after the events of Caliban's War, although unfortunately some of the more notable characters from that book are missing. Instead, we have a number of new POV characters joining the returning figures of Holden and the Rocinante crew.

The book initially opens with the different factions racing to the gate with their own agendas and goals in mind. There's a murderous character plotting vengeance on Holden in a (not very convincing) way of getting him involved in the plot. There's tensions on the Belter command ship between the psychotic captain and his more reasonable executive officer and security chief. There's a religious-but-non-fanatical leader who couples pious morality with hard-headed practicality. And so on. It's all reasonable enough, until the crew arrive at the gate and pass through it into a strange sub-pocket of space where physical rules can be rewritten and an ancient intelligence uses the form of Detective Miller to speak to Holden.

At this point things take a turn for the bizarre and it feels like The Expanse is about to break out into a fully-blown hard SF novel. The "slow zone" of the gateway space feels like a nod to Vernor Vinge, and the limitations of slower-than-light travel when the laws of physics keep changing is the sort of thing that would earn an Alastair Reynolds nod of approval. It's all nicely set up for The Expanse to move away from its MOR space opera roots and turn into something more than explosions and gunfights.

Except that doesn't happen. The novel soon falls back into its comfort zone of explosions and gunfights, with the major characters all forced into choosing sides between the psychotic captain of the Belter command ship and his other senior crew. This would have more resonance if we'd had the mad captain set up a bit better, but he isn't. It just feels like he's there and mad and antagonistic because, well, the book wouldn't have any conflict without him.

The action set-pieces are generally well-handled, there's some very nice zero-gee combat scenes and Abraham and Franck don't let up on the pace until the last page. There is no denying that there's fun to be had here. But it also feels a bit shallow, and it reinforces the feeling that The Expanse is SF with the training wheels left on. Abaddon's Gate feels like it should have been allowed to make a turn into crazy hard SF weirdness, but instead it's shoehorned back into being an action story. A very nicely-done action story, but there is military SF around that does this stuff a lot better.

As it stands, Abaddon's Gate (***½) ends up being just another readable, fast-paced and entertaining instalment of a readable, fast-paced and entertaining series. Which is fine, but there is definitely the prospect here, between the authors' excellent worldbuilding and solid prose skills, of elevating things onto another level. Hopefully later instalments will deliver on the promise of the series, which is so far tantalising but unfulfilled. Abaddon's Gate is available now in the UK and USA.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

England, the early 19th Century. The Napoleonic Wars are raging and the country is in danger from its great enemy across the Channel. But another man, Mr. Gilbert Norrell, has another goal in mind: he desires the return of English magic and the creation of a new form of "respectable" magic, rooted in experimentation and study. Magic has been dead for over three centuries, and Norrell wishes to bring it the form he chooses.

Another would-be magician is Jonathan Strange, a former layabout and sop who takes up magic when his father and fiancee both demands that he finds something to do. Strange and Norrell's paths cross and they agree to join forces for the good of England. But it isn't long before their opposing philosophies and viewpoints come into conflict.

Published in 2004, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was an unusual debut. Almost a thousand pages of faux-Victorian prose, the book was littered with footnotes and festooned with footnotes explaining about the world and characters. Championed by fans like Neil Gaiman, the book became a massive, international publishing sensation and Hollywood soon came calling. However, adapting the book for the screen and retaining its storyline whilst also honouring its length and commercial sensibilities (the book is not well-suited to be turned into an action blockbuster trilogy) proved too challenging and the film rights were allowed to lapse.

Enter the BBC. Unburdened by commercial considerations and with growing confidence following a string of recent hit series, the BBC took on the challenge of adapting this weird, strange and brilliant book and did so by turning it into a weird, strange and brilliant series. They have form here, having taken Mervyn Peake's supposedly unfilmably weird novels Titus Alone and Gormenghast and turning them into a compelling (if perhaps a bit too ahead-of-its-time) mini-series in 1999.

The TV series, of course, can't match the complexity and depth of the novel, even with seven hours to play with. Instead, it takes avoiding action by streamlining some of the action, removing much of the interminable second half of the novel (there's a lot less faffing around in Italy and Venice in the TV version), and refocusing the narrative on Strange and Norrell's relationship, on the situation with Lady Pole and the menacing activities of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Some of the losses from the novel are grievous - the loss in the particular of the witty footnotes is a shame - but in the event are survivable.

The TV show succeeds through the strength of its casting, particularly the genius casting of Eddie Marsan as Norell and Bertie Carvel as Strange. The two actors spark off each other brilliantly and Carvel embodies Strange perfectly as he moves from fop to gentleman to soldier to tragic hero. The rest of the cast is superb: newcomer Alice Englert is superb as Lady Pole and feels like a future Doctor Who companion in waiting. Charlotte Riley is likewise compelling as Arabella Strange, aided by a script that gives the female characters a bit more to do than they do in the novel. Another absolute stand-out is Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, whose world-weary cynicism conceals a genuine sense of humanity that gradually comes to the fore (culminating in him giving excellent last line of the series). Marc Warren also imbues the Gentleman with requisite menace, although arguably he is less whimsical and changeable than the character in the book.

The series also has mind-boggling production values. It is, simply put, the best-looking drama series ever put out by the BBC. It has a confidence and swagger to its use of effects that outclasses the likes of Doctor Who, not to mention wit and imagination. A sequence involving a ghostly fleet, the famous scene where the statues in York Cathedral come to life and another scene where horses are summoned out of sand are all fantastically realised. The Battle of Waterloo is convincingly brutal and ugly, even on what was reportedly a fairly small budget. Another scene where Strange has to summon Italian soldiers back to life, only to find them speaking the language of Hell and having to find a way to get them back to speaking Italian, is both a stunning technical achievement and also a profoundly weird one. The book has a feeling of offbeat strangeness which I assumed the TV show would drop, but if anything it doubles down on it.

There are minor weaknesses: the key subplot revolving around the Gentleman's relationship with the manservant Stephen Black is not given a huge amount of development, and in particular lacks Black's interior characterisation. On TV, Stephen comes across as being far too acquiescent in the Gentleman's schemes rather than fighting against them more, and this makes some of his later character development feel a bit unconvincing. Norrell also gets a little lost in the mix as the emphasis moves to Strange for much of the middle and latter part of the series, although this is also the case in the book.

The BBC's version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (****½) is superbly-cast, well-written and faithful to the book even as it has to streamline elements from it and improve other elements. It is an elegant, bizarre and compelling adaptation of the novel, and is well worth watching. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Saturday, 18 July 2015


Creative Assembly and Sega have released a new trailer for Total War: Warhammer (sadly, still not Total Warhammer or Warhammer: Total Waaagh!), this time featuring actual in-engine battle footage.

The trailer depicts Emperor Karl Franz leading the forces of the Empire of Man into battle against various enemies. The trailer shows both magic and flying units in action, both new additions for the Total War engine.

News of a new game set in the Warhammer Fantasy world came as a surprise. Earlier this year, Games Workshop officially retired the setting after thirty-three years of supporting it. Sales of the game and models had fallen to an all-time low, so the Old World of the Warhammer setting was obliterated in a game and novel crossover event known as End Times. A new fantasy game called Warhammer: Age of Sigmar has been introduced to replace it, although its reception has been lukewarm so far. Retiring the fantasy setting before the video game's release may have been a premature decision; the Dawn of War video games (starting in 2004) are credited with helping build the brand, success and sales of the Warhammer 40,000 SF sister-game, especially aiding the growth in the franchise's success in the United States. The Total War game could have done something similar for the fantasy setting, but clearly not if it no longer exists.

Total War: Warhammer will be released in 2016.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Tatiana Maslany finally gets an Emmy nod for ORPHAN BLACK

Showing that there is some justice in the world, Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany has finally gotten a Best Actress Emmy Nomination for her SF series, Orphan Black.

Maslany plays a group of clones on the show, portraying no less than five "regular" clone characters (Sarah Manning, Cosima Niehaus, Alison Hendrix, Rachel Duncan and Helena) and numerous smaller roles. Maslany's ability to completely inhabit each role to the point where you forget you're watching the same actress has been heavily praised by critics. Maslany's failure to be nominated for either of the previous seasons was seen as a misjudgement by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Maslany features some stiff competitions for the statue, with two-times winner Claire Danes getting another nod for Homeland, Viola Davis getting one for How to Get Away With a Murder, Taraji P. Henson being nominated for Empire, Elisabeth Moss picking up a nomination for Mad Men and Robin Wright getting some love for House of Cards. However, all of those actresses are only playing one role each, possibly giving Maslany a leading edge over the rest.

The stand-out show in the nomination stakes is Game of Thrones, which picked up 24 nominations including Best Drama and acting nominations for Peter Dinklage (who has already received one win for the first season), Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke. Thrones's showing may surprise critics who seem to have largely found it the weakest season to date (episodes like Hardhome notwithstanding), but may show that the Academy is listening to the zeitgeist.

The winners will be announced on 20 September.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cover art and blurb for Guy Gavriel Kay's CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY

After a false alarm last week, here's the real deal: the cover art and blurb for Guy Gavriel Kay's thirteenth novel, Children of Earth and Sky.

"The bestselling author of the groundbreaking novels UNDER HEAVEN and RIVER OF STARS, Guy Gavriel Kay is back with a new novel, CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY, set in a world inspired by the conflicts and dramas of Renaissance Europe. Against this tumultuous backdrop the lives of men and women unfold on the borderlands—where empires and faiths collide.

From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world…"

The book will be released in May 2016 in the UK and USA. The book marks a change in Kay's UK publisher, with Hodder & Stoughton picking up the rights (HarperCollins has been his UK publisher for some considerable time). Hodder & Stoughton's press release was as follows:
"We are delighted to announce the acquisition of the latest novel by the legendary Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay for publication on May 12th 2016. The deal was negotiated by Jonny Geller of agents Curtis Brown UK.

In The Children of Earth and Sky Kay returns to the familiar territory established in several earlier works, a reimagining of the melting pot of the medieval Mediterranean. In his hands well-known places and events are transformed into the wonderful and strange through the lens of fantasy, and brought to life with brilliantly drawn characters and the most graceful of styles, which will seduce his many fans and new readers alike.

Acquiring Editor Oliver Johnson says: ‘To bring a celebrated, legendary author like Guy Gavriel Kay to our list is a truly wonderful moment; an editor’s dream is to publish a writer he has long admired, and this couldn’t be more true for me than with Guy. Though we have no specific genre list we are very proud of our work at Hodder with books that cross the divides of genre as Guy does with his brilliantly written, erudite and deliciously imagined works of historical fantasy. Our hallmark is great writing without bounds and we know we have acquired exactly that in Guy’s new work.’

Guy Gavriel Kay famously assisted Christopher Tolkien in the editing of The Silmarilion. His debut novels in the Fionavar Tapestry established him as one of the most exciting fantasy writers of the last half century. Several of his books (including Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Under Heaven) have been named as among the greatest fantasy masterpieces of the last twenty-five years. His work has been shortlisted for the Best Novel in the World Fantasy Awards several times and he won that award with Ysabel in 2008.  In 2014 he was appointed to the Order of Canada for his services to literature, the country’s highest civilian honour."

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

SYNDICATE successor SATELLITE REIGN gets a release date

Satellite Reign, the eagerly-anticipated "successor" to the classic 1990s cyberpunk games Syndicate and Syndicate Wars, will be released on 28 August.

Designed by several of the same team-members as the original Bullfrog games, Satellite Reign is a violent cyberpunk strategy game with you controlling four agents on the streets of a massive, futuristic city. You control the action from overhead and can determine if your agents (each of whom has a specialty class) are to resolve a situation by stealth, frontal assault or hacking.

There are some differences to the original games, with the specialty classes meaning that grouping your agents together for full-scale warfare may not always be the best idea. The game is also continuous in the worldspace, with research and upgrades carried out in the city rather than through a separate option screen. There is also only one (albiet gargantuan) city rather than lots of different cities all over the world.

Sunday, 12 July 2015


Amazon have released a new trailer for their TV series based on Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man in the High Castle.

Amazon released the pilot episode this year to blanket critical acclaim, encouraging them to pick the series up. The remainder of the first season will be released later in the year via Amazon's streaming service.

First review for SyFy's adaptation of THE EXPANSE

io9 has published a review of the pilot episode of The Expanse, which was exclusively aired at the San Diego Comic-Con yesterday. The review is pretty positive, but we'll have to wait until December to see for ourselves.

The Rocinante.

More behind-the-scenes footage and interviews can be seen here.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Trailer for ASH VS EVIL DEAD

The first trailer has been released for Ash vs. Evil Dead, the TV sequel to Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead trilogy of horror-comedy movies.

The new series, produced for Starz, will consist of ten episodes and will pick up some twenty-odd years after the events of Army of Darkness (from the setting, I'd guess that the non-apocalyptic one of Army's two endings is now canon). Bruce Campbell will repise the role of Ash, who has been living low and continuing to work in a hardware store. When the Deadites return Ash is forced to go back into battle against them, although age means he also needs to recruit some sidekicks to help out. Still, as the trailer indicates Ash is more than capable of fighting the undead hordes and both his trusty chainsaw and "boomstick" will return.

The series has also cast Lucy Lawless in it, immediately making it more awesome before it even airs.

Ash vs. Evil Dead will debut (of course) on 31 October. It looks extremely gory.

Studios clash for Patrick Rothfuss book rights

Several major studios are engaged in an epic battle to win the film rights to Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles series of epic fantasy novels. Rothfuss invited the studios to pitch to him at Comic-Con in an unusually public display of bidding ferocity.

Rothfuss welcomed the opening bid for the film rights to his books, even if it was less than what he'd originally hoped.

The first two novels in the series, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, were released in 2007 and 2011 respectively. The concluding volume, The Doors of Stone, is expected in 2016. The imminent conclusion to the trilogy is probably what sparked interest from movie companies after several previous attempts to bring the project to the screen failed.

Warner Brothers, MGM and Lionsgate are believed to be leading the charge for the rights, with Fox and Universal also believed to be interested.


MTV have released a trailer for The Shannara Chronicles, their ten-episode adaptation of the Terry Brooks epic fantasy novel The Elfstones of Shannara.

The new series will debut in early 2016. If successful, adaptations of some of the other Brooks novels will follow (although, presumably, not all thirty of them).

The trailer looks promising, more promising than the so-so source material (the Shannara books are strictly entry-grade fantasy, although Elfstones is probably the best of them) may have indicated. The books are fairly straightforward epic fantasy, but Brooks does introduce some distinctly weird moments in them and occasionally brings the setting's post-apocalyptic backdrop into use in unexpected ways. The books do evolve as they go along, however, with airships and the hints of advancing technology along the way. The trailer plays up the post-apocalyptic elements more strongly than may have been expected, whilst the visual effects are extraordinarily good. There's also some nice moments of genre self-referencing, particularly the casting of John-Rhys Davis (best known as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movies) as the King of the Elves.

As a more family-oriented take on fantasy, this should prove an interesting contrast with Game of Thrones and other upcoming fantasy projects.

STAR WARS Comic-Con Featurette

Whilst Lucasfilm and Disney have not released a new trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, they have released a new featurette/behind-the-scenes reel from the movie. It contains more glimpses of the actors, sets and props and emphasises how much is being down practically on the film as opposed to using greenscreen for everything.

The movie is released on 18 December this year. Meanwhile, Disney recently released details for the second Star Wars Anthologies movie, confirming that it will focus on a young Han Solo.

The release dates for the upcoming slate of Star Wars films are as follows:

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens - 18 December 2015
Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One - 16 December 2016
Star Wars Episode VIII - 26 May 2017
Star Wars Anthology II (Han Solo movie) - 25 May 2018
Star Wars Episode IX - 2019

Friday, 10 July 2015

SyFy releases new trailer for THE EXPANSE

SyFy has unveiled a new trailer for The Expanse, its forthcoming adaptation of James S.A. Corey's SF novel series of the same name. You can only see it for now over at EW.

Based on Leviathan Wakes, the first of an estimated nine books in the series (although elements and characters from the second novel, Caliban's War, also seem to be present), the 10-episode first season will begin airing in December on SyFy in the USA. No UK broadcaster has been announced yet.

New BALDUR'S GATE game announced

Fourteen years after the release of the last game in the Baldur's Gate saga, Throne of Bhaal, it's been officially announced that we're getting a new one. Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear will be released "soon" by Beamdog Games for PC and tablet devices.

Siege of Dragonspear is an "interquel", taking place between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. The new game will take approximately 25 hours to complete and will use the same Infinity Engine as the old games. It is officially an expansion to Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (despite being almost as large as the entire original game), so you will require that to play it.

This isn't Baldur's Gate III but more of an extra episode in the saga, filling in the blanks on what happened between the first two games. There wasn't much of a narrative gap between the two games, beyond murky mentions that something happened that encouraged you to leave Baldur's Gate after you'd saved it in the first game.

The new game has some interesting pedigree: the developers have avoided the "evil for evil's sake" villains of the original game and even got the much-in-demand Chris Avellone on board to review the script. There's also been updates to the graphics, UI and inventory systems which will roll out across all of the other Infinity Engine Enhanced Editions as well.

Apparently Beamdog want to ultimately combine Baldur's Gate, Tales of the Sword Coast, Siege of Dragonspear, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal into one humungous mega-game that will take hundreds of hours to complete and take players from Level 1 to (at least) 27. But that project is apparently still a way off in the future.

XCOM: Enemy Within

Earth is under alien attack and it is up to the multinational defence organisation XCOM to defeat the invaders. But the aliens are now employing more advanced technology, including genetically-engineered creatures and mecha-suits. It falls to XCOM to adapt these weapons against the alien threat, even as it finds itself under attack by a fifth column of humans sympathetic to the alien cause.

XCOM: Enemy Within is a major expansion to the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It isn't a sequel to the original game, but instead completely expands and reworks it. The meat of the game remains the same: you command XCOM, researching new technologies, launching satellites to scan for alien ships and launching interceptors to shoot them down, and then deploying combat troops to fight the invaders through a turn-based battle system. The difference is that as well as fighting the aliens, you are also battling EXALT, a group of humans who have sided with the aliens. In addition to this, you can now develop G-Mods (genetic enhancements to your troops) and MECs (massive robot battle-suits) to expand the fray. Rounding things off are more advanced options to make the game harder or easier, or expand its length dramatically.

At its core, this is still the same XCOM experience as the original and if you didn't like that, Enemy Within doesn't do anything that will win you over. This is for players who enjoyed the original game and want more of it. Sadly, there aren't any new weapons (although there now more varieties of grenade) or armour, or new alien types beyond the Seeker, a flying squid-thing which can cloak and strangle soldiers without warning. The Sectoids can also now use MECs themselves, which makes this fairly nonthreatening species dangerous again at an advanced stage of the game, but still fairly easy to defeat.

A big difference is the introduction of EXALT, a sort-of anti-XCOM who use similar weapons and tactics to your own troops. They seem a bit more threatening as well, more likely to use Overwatch and their troop types includes heavy missile and sniper classes that the aliens lack. EXALT are a worthy new addition to the game, but also one that can be disposed of without too much trouble: in the course of the new 30-hour campaign I played for this review, EXALT were around for maybe 8 hours of it before I defeated them for good.

The G-Mods and MECs are interesting new additions to the game, but are of limited utility. MECs look awesome, but their weapons are frequently less capable than the ones your own troops sport and their inability to use cover means they tend to draw the fire of almost every alien on the map on every turn. This makes them, weirdly, more useful as last-minute reinforcements to use only when everyone else is committed rather than the front-line shock troops they seem designed to be. G-Mods give your troops formidable bonuses, but these tend to be more useful only on the more punishing difficulty levels.

Enemy Within does bring a huge amount of variety to the base game. There are many more map types and variety of maps, and the various optional DLC has now all been folded into the game. This results in more narrative-based Council missions and more stuff to research and build. There is also a rather nasty new surprise in the form of a punishing base invasion mission, where the aliens will actually assault your base at an inconvenient moment and you have to fend them off in one of the more tense encounters in the game.

All of that said, the basic game is still the same and some may find these new additions do complicate what was a perfectly-balanced game. Others, and such is my view, will find that the additions inject new life to a classic title and elevate it just that little more. Enemy Within (*****) is available now on console in the UK (X-Box 360, PS3) and USA (X-Box 360, PS3), and on PC via Steam.

Wertzone Classics: Star Wars: TIE Fighter

The Galactic Empire is at the height of its power, its reach and control extending across most of the known galaxy. Even the destruction of the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin has not proven a fatal blow. But with the Rebel Alliance gaining new allies and followers, the need for the Imperial military to recruit new pilots for its TIE fighter squadrons has never been greater.

TIE Fighter was originally released in 1994 as the sequel to the previous year's X-Wing. X-Wing had been a big hit and a success, so a sequel was inevitable. However, the decision to have the player join the "bad guys" and fight against the heroes of the Rebel Alliance was somewhat unexpected. It was an idea that LucasArts took and ran with to great effect.

Technically, TIE Fighter is a big improvement over X-Wing. The flight model is a bit better, the wingman controls and AI are superior and the game's missions are more varied, with more in-mission events and unexpected events making things less predictable. There are far more ships and models (including proper space station models, thankfully) and you can now target sub-systems on big ships, allowing you to take out shield generators or turrets. Graphically the game looked a lot better on release, although for this re-release you are limited to the original graphics or the 1998 Collector's Edition, featuring the far more detailed and impressive X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter engine. The latter is certainly still reasonable enough to play today.

As you would hope, your CO (and most of the Imperials) has an English accent.

The game has a much more prominent and focused narrative. You play an Imperial fighter pilot who also has a secret agenda as an agent for Emperor. In some missions you have secret orders which go against your main mission but which will benefit the Emperor, standing you in his good graces and opening up further promotions. Part of the game revolves around an internal threat to the Empire, resulting in a mass defection of part of the Imperial Fleet to the Rebels, and you play a pivotal role in exposing the conspiracy. The narrative is pretty decent even today, featuring as it does bad people doing bad things to even worse people, making for a morally murky tale.

The game also does a great job of placing you as a cog in the Empire's military machine. X-Wing's wonky AI often required you to rush around doing everything yourself, but TIE Fighter's is much stronger and requires you to more often fulfil your mission objectives and stick to your role rather than being a stand-out hero. Without intending to, this allowed LucasArts to nail the difference between the Rebels and the Empire between the two games, and adds a lot to the atmosphere. TIE Fighter's early missions can also be tough, with you in a fragile, unshielded TIE fighter, interceptor or bomber going up against much tougher Rebel fighters.

If TIE Fighter has a problem, it's that it doesn't stick to its guns for very long. Within a few missions you are regularly flying the Assault Gunboat, a powerful ship with shields and heavy weapons that can easily go toe-to-toe with an X-wing (and with some judicious power management, can match A-wings). As the game continues you gain access to the TIE Advanced, which is more powerful than any ship in the Rebel arsenal. You then get the TIE Defender, which dials this up to eleven. At this point you may as well switch on a god mode cheat. Then, just to make sure it hasn't made you overpowered enough, you get access to a "Missile Boat" which has gatling gun missile launchers and allows you to lay waste to entire enemy squadrons before they can get anywhere near you.

"Get out of the frigging way!"

This is all enormous fun and does address the problem of why, in the films, the Empire seems to be technologically inferior to the Rebels despite having much vaster resources, but it's also a bit silly and undermines the tension of early missions where a single mistake can mean a horrible, flaming death. It could also be argued that by making you a "bad guy" and then making you fight even worse people for most of the time rather than having to do anything really awful (like shooting down civilians), the game pulls its punches when it could have opened up into a more interesting study of morality in warfare.

But for a large chunk of its length, TIE Fighter (****) is superb. Combat is fast and furious, there is a much greater sense of tactics and strategy at work, the story (complete with cameos by the likes of Vader and Admiral Thrawn) is solid and the game does a great job of making you feel like a pawn of the Empire. It is a huge amount of fun, hasn't aged too badly at all and is now available from GoG.

Info on Guy Gavriel Kay's new novel

Guy Gavriel Kay is releasing a new novel next year, called The Children of Earth and Sky. Not much is known about it so far but someone leaked a plot synopsis...

...which turned out to be completely inaccurate, so has been pulled at the author's request. However, more news about the book should be released shortly.

The book has a current publication date of 12 May 2016 and will be, as usual for me, a day one purchase.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

A Song of Facts and Figures: A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons
Writing Period: Late 2000-May 2011
Originally Published: 12 July 2011

Word Count: 422,000
Manuscript Page Count: 1,510
Hardcover Page Count: 1017
Paperback Page Count: 1152 (US one-volume), 1184 (UK two-volume)

Chapters: 73
POV Characters: 16 + Prologue + Epilogue

"The last one was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard."

As his afterword to A Dance with Dragons indicates, George R.R. Martin did not hugely enjoy writing this novel. Originally envisaged "merely" as the flipside of A Feast for Crows and coming out a year or so later, the novel eventually grew much larger (half again the length of Crows) and came out a lot later (five years and nine months), to the annoyance of both the author and many readers.

The writing process for Dragons was torturous. Whilst Martin had 500 manuscript pages left over from A Feast for Crows (and indeed, in a different format, the "post-gap" version of Crows/Dragons), the process of structuring the sequel so it made sense and covered all the ground it needed to proved vastly more complex than first thought. The "promotion" of the mini-POV characters from Crows meant that Martin had a much larger cast of central characters to manage. His decision to bring the novel past the timeframe of Crows and revisit some of those characters later in the novel also introduced difficulties. But most damaging of all was the so-called "Meereenese Knot", a problem caused by different characters arriving in the city of Meereen and impacting on the story of Daenerys Tagaryen in different ways. Martin tilted at this problem numerous times across many months before finally resolving it through the introduction of Ser Barristan Selmy as a POV character. At another stage a conceptual rethink meant rewriting all of Jon Snow's chapters.

The book also had other issues stemming from where it fell in the storyline of the overall series. Originally, A Dance with Dragons was planned to be the middle volume of A Song of Ice and Fire when it was a trilogy and it would have focused heavily on Daenerys and her eventual invasion of the Seven Kingdoms. When the series was expanded to six volumes, Dragons became the fourth book, happening after the infamous "five year gap", and would have also covered political intrigue in Meereen. However, the introduction and expansion of numerous other storylines and characters meant that Dragons would cover less ground than originally envisaged: at the end of the novel, Daenerys's invasion of Westeros still seems a way off, with numerous plot stands in and around Slaver's Bay requiring resolution before she can move on.

A Dance with Dragons was also a book written in the full glare of public interest. Every word that Martin uttered for six years was analysed for hidden meanings or conspiracies. Every holiday or trip that Martin took away from the keyboard was carefully monitored. Each update provided by the author was used to second-guess what he was doing and how. Controversy surrounded the writing of the book to such a degree that when it was done and the author had commenced work on the sequel, The Winds of Winter, he went into lockdown and refused to even talk about its progress. A Dance with Dragons and the subsequent success of the book and TV series marked a notable change in the author's willingness to engage with his readers and provide hard updates on progress on the series.

A Surge of Sales
A Song of Ice and Fire took a while to be a success. A Game of Thrones performed disappointingly in hardcover in the States, with sales not picking up until its paperback publication a year later. The UK edition, featuring cover quotes by the likes of Robert Jordan and trailed by a preview novella released several months earlier, apparently did better. The US paperback, which also included the cover quotes, saw a marked upturn in success. Strong word-of-mouth and positive reviews helped.

A Clash of Kings did well enough to hit the lower reaches of the New York Times bestseller list on release, but it was A Storm of Swords that really stood out for the first time. It hit #11 on the NYT list and sold well enough that it took two years for the paperback to come out in the States (a phenomenon repeated with the two subsequent books). The five-year wait for A Feast for Crows did not hurt the success of the series at all and the book hit #1 on the bestseller list on the day of release.

Between the release of Crows and Dragons it was announced (in 2007) that HBO was developing a TV series based on the books. Some TV critics picked up the books and began talking about them years before the TV series hit the screens. The result of this was a minor uptick in sales. Total sales for A Song of Ice and Fire prior to the TV series airing were never revealed, but guesstimates placed them in the region of approximately 5 million.

The success of Game of Thrones has changed that. An astonishing nine million copies of the books were sold in 2012 alone. Worldwide sales of the series have now passed 60 million. This puts Martin close to the sales of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (estimated at 80-90 million sales) and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (estimated at 85 million), both series with a much larger number of volumes. How much bigger the series can get remains to be seen, but with the HBO series likely to last at least another two years, it is likely that the books will continue to benefit.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

GROUND CONTROL released on Steam

Steam have added the classic Ground Control real-time strategy game series to their store.

The Ground Control games have the best artillery units in any games, ever.

Ground Control and its expansion, Dark Conspiracy, are available under the title Ground Control Anthology. Ground Control II: Operation Exodus is available separately or as part of a bundle deal with the anthology. The anthology and GCII are also available DRM-free on GoG.

Ground Control was originally released in 2000 and was groundbreaking in its day. It had a full 3D map and camera, had no base-building or mid-mission reinforcing and - controversially - no mid-mission saving. It was a challenging game that rewarded tactically ingenious play, but was also furiously action-packed and has some visuals that were jaw-dropping at the time and remain pretty impressive today. Its minimalist UI also puts most modern strategy games to shame. It's absolutely brilliant, the equal of the likes of Homeworld and far superior to the likes of Dawn of War, and is highly recommended.

The sequel has better visuals and allows mid-mission saving and reinforcing, so is a bit less hardcore. It also has a better story and more unit variety with asymmetrical factions (the original game is more balanced between the two sides, although the mercenaries in the expansion bring a bit more variety to the table). Both are among the very best RTS games ever made, and are very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Song of Facts and Figures: A Feast for Crows

The original cover art for A Feast for Crows, by Stephen Youll. A few copies of the novel were actually printed with this artwork in place, and can command steep prices.

A Feast for Crows
Writing Period: Summer 2001-May 2005
Originally Published: 17 October 2005 (UK), 8 November 2005 (USA)

Word Count: 300,000
Manuscript Page Count: 1,063
Hardcover Page Count: 755
Paperback Page Count: 864 (US), 852 (current UK)

Chapters: 46
POV Characters: 12 + Prologue

When George R.R. Martin sat down to start writing A Dance with Dragons, then planned to be the fourth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, he imagined it was going to be fairly straightforward. It had taken him nine years to write the first three books in the series, but having just penned the massive A Storm of Swords in record time and seen it have a rapturous critical reception, he was highly motivated to finish the series off at a fast pace. When fans asked him when he thought the book would be on the shelves, he confidently said "Late 2002".

This didn't happen.

A Dance with Dragons was supposed to start five years after the events of A Storm of Swords. The young children characters would all be older, some of the chaotic events from the previous novels would have had time to have died away and some of the more (arguably) humdrum aspects of the story - characters travelling and learning - would happen off-page. It was a nice idea and worked well for some characters (Jon, Daenerys, Arya, Bran) but for others (Cersei, Brienne, Jaime) it didn't work at all. Martin found himself having to refer to events that had happened in the interim, sometimes filling out entire chapters with flashbacks to that interim period. For over a year he struggled with making this structure work and eventually gave up.

At Worldcon in August 2001, Martin announced that he had effectively scrapped 500 pages of manuscript he had written for A Dance with Dragons. Instead, he had started writing a new fourth book that would instead start immediately after the events of Swords. This book was entitled A Feast for Crows. In the event it would take a further three and a half years to finish the book (sort of) and more than four to bring it to the shelves.

The primary problem with Crows was that Martin was now "filling in the blanks" of the previous five-year gap for some characters, but other characters were now ready to move into the next phase of the storyline. In some cases it appears new material was created for them, in others it appears Martin simply got them going to where they'd have been after the abandoned gap. He also widened the cast, bringing in new characters in Dorne and expanding the POV roster to include previously-seen characters in the Iron Islands, but now raised to much greater prominence. At one point he planned an enormous (Robert Jordan-style) mega-prologue divided between all the Dornish and ironborn characters, but then changed his mind and split this up into more traditional chapters.

The original and unused UK cover art for Crows, by Jim Burns. Note that this was prepared a long time before the split, hence the presence of Jon Snow.

Martin wrote and wrote during this period, occasionally publishing sample chapters on his website or reading them at conventions. Three Daenerys Targaryen chapters were combined into a chapbook and given away at a fantasy convention. He also started using the web more, particularly the "Update" section on his website, to talk about progress on the book. Updates were given, the book was getting larger and larger, but still with no end in site. For some fans, the fact that they'd gotten three large books within four years of one another but had now had to wait for four and more for one was incomprehensible.

In early 2005, Martin reassessed his status. The book was huge, having topped 1,600 manuscript pages and heading northwards at a rate of knots. Some characters in the book had pretty much complete story arcs, such as Jaime, Cersei and Brienne. Others were incomplete, such as Arya. Others still (including the important central trio of Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion) only had a few chapters written for them. Martin and his publishers began discussing splitting the book into two volumes, with the second volume to follow on a year or so from the first. At first they debated doing this chronologically, but Martin found this unsatisfying as there were few good places where he could end the first half of the narrative.

Martin's friend and sometimes-collaborator Daniel Abraham (more recently famous for his role as one half of James S.A. Corey, the writing machine behind The Expanse SF series, as well as his own, excellent fantasy series The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin) suggested an alternative scheme: splitting the book by geography, as the completed characters were mostly located in the south of Westeros and the incomplete ones were either in the distant North or on the eastern continent. Martin preferred this plan, noting he'd done something similar in his Wild Cards books (where one oversized volume had been split in two, between characters in New York City and others outside the city). In May 2005 he announced that the book was done, if somewhat faster and more abruptly than expected.

George R.R. Martin also made an announcement he later ruefully regretted: he had 500 manuscript pages now complete for the fifth volume (still to be called A Dance with Dragons) and this book would follow "a year later".

 The final US cover art for A Feast for Crows.

Cover Art
The explosive burst of sales between A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows - despite the gap, George R.R. Martin had overtaken Robin Hobb to become HarperCollins Voyager's most popular living author by the end of 2005 - had made both the UK and US publishers decide to rejacket the entire book series. This meant that early covers prepared for Crows in the same style as the first three books were now abandoned and new covers were prepared. These were more minimalist, with icons rather than characters. Long-term fans preferred the earlier style of cover, but the new covers did seem to attract more buyers during the long drought between Crows and Dragons, even before news of the TV series broke.

Randyll Tarly, Wielder of Heartsbane, Defeater of Robert Baratheon, Driver of the Van of Victory.

What Would Randyll Tarly Do?
During the writing of the Wild Cards shard-world anthology series, a very minor character showed up at a party, said "Where is the cheese?" and then died. Years later, George R.R. Martin would get still get fans asking about the character. He called this the "Boba Fett Effect", where a small, minor character with barely any lines shows up and somehow ends up being considered a cool badass. Early volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire featured this to some extent: Bronze Yohn Royce had (bewilderingly) a few fans from the second he was mentioned, as his name sounded cool. Almost disposable characters like Bronn turned out to be far more popular than first envisaged.

For A Feast for Crows, Martin felt confident he had repeated the trick by introducing a new, lethal and enigmatically cool character who was bad, mad and dangerous to know. He may even had been right, if the character hadn't been Darkstar ("For I Am of the Night"). Darkstar turned out to be an underwhelming damp squib, represented in fan art as an edgy wannabe teenager trying to hang out with the cool crowd and not cutting it.

Instead, being contrary bastards at the best of times, Martin's fans in the Brotherhood Without Banners decided that the true hero of A Song of Ice and Fire was Randyll Tarly, "The Best Father in Westeros." It was argued that by forcing his son Samwell to go to the Wall, he had made him man up and eventually get into a position to save Westeros entirely from the Others. He was "Tough, but fair". He was described as the best general in Westeros and, commanding the "Tyrell van" had defeated Robert Baratheon at the Battle of Ashford. Cue fan art showing a Ford transit van trundling onto the battlefield and Randyll Tarly defeating Robert's entire army single-handedly. And so forth.

The Randyll Tarly meme eventually died down (to the bemused relief of George) but with news that he may appear in Season 6 of Game of Thrones spurring increasingly badass casting suggestions (James Purefoy and Ray Stevenson leading the charge), it may yet return.