Friday, 30 January 2015

GAME OF THRONES Season 5 trailer


This is a rough version, taken from an IMAX screening of the last two episodes of Season 4. Hopefully HBO should release the full, proper version soon.

ETA: As they have. Video updated.

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Agents of SHIELD: Season 2.0

The world is reeling from the revelation that the Nazi terror group Hydra has survived, operating in the shadows, for seventy years. Many SHIELD agents have defected to it and the two groups, both outlawed, are now at each other's throats. As the rest of the world struggles to deal with this conflict, the agents of SHIELD are on the back foot. Deprived of their normal resources and funds, Phil Coulson and his team are barely keeping their heads above water. But they have some aces in the hole, including an agent placed inside Hydra and a very unusual source of intelligence about the enemy.

Agents of SHIELD's first season can be summed up as "Pretty poor up until Episode 15, then it got good." This was a show running with its training wheels still on until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out and allowed the show to take some risks and go in some very interesting directions. The season ended on a high, but the question remained if it could continue on that path.

The answer is yes, more or less. The opening half of Season 2 has the series in a state of barely-controlled chaos. There are new agents on the team, but thanks to a between-seasons time gap we barely get any introduction to them. They're just there and we have to deal with it.

The first season left a lot of balls in the air which the show does a good job of catching and running we. We have the fall-out from Fitz's severe injury in the Season 1 finale which has reduced him to a shell of his former self (a superb performance from Iain De Caestecker). We have Ward's brutal betrayal of his former team which has left him their prisoner, being pumped for information by his old friends. There's the ongoing mystery of the alien symbols in Coulson's head, not to mention Skye's ongoing search for her father and her own origins. There's also the ongoing main storyline about Hydra's rise to power and the various world governments struggling to tell Hydra from SHIELD. It makes for a busy season with no time for interminable stand-alones, which is good.

On the negative side, there is still some repetition, with a few episodes showing Daniel Whitehall embarking on some plot only to be thwarted by Coulson's team. There's also the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe reliance on magical maguffins. Hydra and SHIELD spend this half-season battling for control of the "Diviner", a mystical key thingy to some secret city which could something bad, potentially. It's all a bit vague and the stakes aren't really spelt out. The show is better when it's pitting SHIELD and Hydra against one another (with Kyle MacLachlan's character as an effective wild card), fighting over clearer objectives and with the consequences made clearer. The decision to introduce the new characters in media res also backfires a little by not providing the audience with any reason to care about them: Lance is such an underwritten character that the decision to make him the focus of a couple of episodes is baffling.

It isn't plain sailing then, but Agents of SHIELD's second season (***½) is off to a reasonable start and has a powerful mid-season cliffhanger that raises the stakes again. It'll be very interesting to see where the show goes in the back half of the season.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

A new family moves to South Park, Colorado, a town noted for its odd inhabitants, idyllic scenery and occasional tendency to become involved in the fate of the country/world/universe. The family's son becomes embroiled in a complex live-action roleplaying game being fought for control of the "Stick of Truth", but this soon escalates with alien spaceships crashing into the mall, government agents showing up and gnomes invading homes to steal underpants. Also, Al Gore arrives in search of a mythical creature. Basically, it's just another day in South Park.

South Park is no stranger to video game adaptations. The earliest appeared shortly after the show's debut in 1997 and were soulless cash-ins revolving around racing or first-person action games in a horrible 3D version of the game's distinctive art style. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, unimpressed, approached Obsidian Entertainment with the idea of making a new game that employed the show's signature 2D art style and was also faithful to its satirical, biting (and occasionally very sick) humour. Obsidian rose to the occasion, putting together an RPG design which would involve Parker and Stone as the main writers and voice artists.

The result is a game that is so faithful to the source material that, unless someone spots you controlling it or you get into a battle, it can easily be mistaken for an episode of the actual TV show. For a studio whose often amazing artistic vision is too often compromised by budget or time, Obsidian finally managed to hit it out of the park on their first attempt, rather than after a lengthy patching cycle. If you are a South Park fan, there is simply no further need for further discussion: get ahold of this pronto. If you find South Park crass or offensive, however, then there's nothing here that will change your mind so steer well clear.

For those still on the fence, The Stick of Truth is a heavily narrative-based game set in and around South Park. You control "The New Kid" (later dubbed Sir Douchebag by the reliably foul-mouthed Cartman), a new arrival in town soon recruited by Cartman into joining a roleplaying game. You can navigate around the town and surrounding countryside, all faithfully animated in the same style as the TV show, and undertake missions for other characters whilst getting involved in combat with animals or with the elves, the rival faction in the game. This being South Park, things soon escalate and then you're fighting aliens, giant rats and gnomes armed with magic that can miniaturise you for no particular reason. Combat takes place in a turn-based, Japanese RPG style environment, with you being able to use both magic (based around flatulence) and special attacks associated with your character class (Fighter, Mage or Jew). It's straightforward but the interaction between different weapons, armour, magic, items and the ability to switch between ranged and melee attacks delivers a satisfying number of options to you. In short, the gameplay is superb.

In terms of length, you can polish off the main storyline in 10-12 hours with ease. What is slightly disappointing is that there are relatively few side-quests. The main activity outside of following the story is based around collectibles, going around the town looking for Chinpokomon toys (I got very excited when I finally found Shoe) or little kids playing hide and seek. This is mildly diverting and can extend the playing time out by a few hours, but overall this is not a very long game. It's still a lot of fun, but you may want to pick it up in a sale rather than pay full price.

In story terms, it's basically South Park's Greatest Hits, with Parker and Stone revisiting almost every concept they've come up with in the past two decades. So Mr. Hanky and his martial problems form a subplot, Al Gore shows up to continue his search for ManBearPig and the player can meet Terrance and Phillip in a quest that takes them to Canada (rendered as a primitive NES-style top-down RPG). This could risk being derivative, but Parker and Stone instead seem to relish re-using previous ideas and fleshing them out beyond the confines of a 20-minute TV episode. It's a pretty funny game, but Parker and Stone also don't hold back on using jokes that they wouldn't be able to get into even on the TV show. An anal probing sequence on the alien mothership is particularly gross, as is a later section set inside another character's colon, and a sequence inside an abortion clinic complete with foetal zombies goes through the roof of offensiveness to some other plane of WTFery. Some of the more offensive sequences can be skipped (or are cut out entirely in international versions of the game) but others can't.

The Stick of Truth is, on the one hand, a superb game. It's a pitch-perfect translation of a TV show into a game (maybe the best one ever done), with some excellent gameplay and mechanics. The characters and story are appropriate to the source material and it's genuinely hilarious in places. On the other hand, it's rather short for its genre and the game is mind-bogglingly offensive at some parts. For those who like seeing the boundaries of good humour and taste being stretched to their limits, this won't be a problem. For others, it will be. In that sense, this is a game more for established fans than newcomers.

The Stick of Truth (****) is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).

The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton

AD 3326. Nigel Sheldon, the originator of wormhole technology and the person responsible for the creation of the Intersolar Commonwealth, is semi-retired and planning to leave this galaxy for a new one. However, his plans are interrupted by the enigmatic Raiel, the powerful aliens who guard the Milky Way from the expansion of the Void, the mysteriously growing mini-universe hidden in the galactic core. The Raiel need Sheldon to go into the Void and help recover one of their ancient warships. Sheldon agrees...but soon finds himself on the wrong planet in the wrong time and the only way out is to support a full-scale revolution.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the first novel in a duology, to be followed by Night Without Stars. This series, The Chronicle of the Fallers, is the latest work in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth universe. Familiarity with the previous works in this universe (the Commonwealth Saga duology and the Void Trilogy) is recommended as this book contains spoilers for the earlier ones, but is not strictly essential.

As with the preceding Void Trilogy, this novel is divided into two sections and almost two distinct genres. In the opening sequence we have far-future SF, set thirteen centuries hence when humanity is immortal, can cross the galaxy in a matter of weeks and live any kind of life imaginable. The bulk of the book is set within the Void itself, where high technology does not work but the inhabitants gain the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Whilst the Void sequence was set on Querencia, which was more of a fantasy setting, the Fallers books are set on Bienvenido. Unlike Querencia, where a lot of history was lost after the human refugees settled on it, Bienvenido has maintained more of a history and identify, as well as a slightly higher level of technology. This gives the novel more of a steampunk feel, allowing Hamilton to mix up some more genres.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off by feeling a little bit too much like The Dreaming Void. One of our primary POVs is Svlasta, a soldier wounded in battle with the mysterious Fallers (hostile aliens who can assume human appearance) who soon becomes the architect of social change. The similarities with Edeard's story in the earlier books are uncanny. However, Hamilton is clever enough to subvert the reader's expectations and soon moves off in another direction. It's not long before we're meeting some clever (and very conscious) Russian Revolution parallels and seeing how all revolutions carry within them their own capacity for self-destruction.

As usual, Hamilton's prose is unornamented but highly readable. His characters are well-delineated, although they're all a little too prone to using British swear words and idioms. The book is structurally similar to the Void novels but this is deliberate and soon used to set up and then undercut expectations in an interesting way. There are a few complaints, however. One of these is how quickly the ending unfolds (bordering on the abrupt) and how rapidly one of our main characters descends into outright madness. Whilst foreshadowed earlier on, the actual transition feels a little too rapid.

Another is only an issue for long-standing fans. The Commonwealth universe is undeniably a fascinating place, but we've now spent four (out of a planned five) big novels on the subject of the Void. Given the size and variety of the Commonwealth, it would be nice to see more of it than this same bit of it. I can see the fascination, as it allows the author to experiment with different genres without having to fully abandon his SF roots to do it, but there is the feeling that it would be nice to wrap up the Void and move on. The next book in the series will hopefully do just that.

Otherwise, The Abyss Beyond Dreams (****) is a very solid Hamilton SF novel: big ideas, fun characters and affecting moments of gut-wrenching horror. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Breaking Bad: Season 4

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are continuing to work as meth-cooks for ruthless criminal Gus Fring, but they are now at loggerheads. As both sides try to find a way to get on top so they no longer need the other and can eliminate them, Walter also continues to draw his ex-wife Skyler deeper into his schemes.

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is arguably the one where it goes from being consistently excellent to staking a claim to the "Best Show on TV" title. Up until now the show has painted Walter White in - at least somewhat - sympathetic terms. White wants what is best for his family and has made occasionally ruthless decisions to back that up in self-defence, or when the alternative is the death of his family or Jesse. White has certainly been on moral slide (especially given his inaction in the Season 2 finale that led to a death) but he hasn't wholly moved past redemption. This changes dramatically in the fourth season, with White now pitted against a man far more ruthless and cunning than himself. This forces White to up his game, to close off his emotions and do whatever it takes to survive and to win.

By this point, it has become redundant to say that the actors are all spectacular, that the writing is tight, the dialogue quotable and the music choices all very strong. The show does have some near-vanishing weaknesses that continue: the tendency to completely drop story elements until they are needed and then bring them back abruptly later on is mildly grating. Remember Walter Jr.'s crowdfunding scheme which Saul co-opts as a money laundering operation? The writers don't, then do, then don't again. The writers also continue to be forever on the verge of giving Marie something to do and then pull back, so for most of the season (and indeed the show) she's just hanging around. Her interaction with Hank in the opening part of the season seems to be setting up a more interesting relationship between them and then goes nowhere.

To find even these criticisms some serious reaching is required. What the show does do brilliantly in its fourth year is finding ways of putting Gus and Walter at loggerheads and showing Walter 'level up' in villainy as he attempts to take on Gus at his own game. The establishing of Gus's own backstory in the episodes Hermanos and Salud (showing that Gus went through a similar process with his own nemesis, Don Eladio) cleverly adds depth to the character as well. The season then culminates in a three-episode run that is wall-to-wall tension, action and drama and ends on a note-perfect moment.

What is also well done is how Jesse becomes a pawn between Gus and Walter, with Gus discovering how to build up Jesse's confidence as a watch of stealing away his loyalty. Walter is forced into some pretty breathtaking and ruthless actions to get that loyalty back, and it's this relationship (sold by the actors with total conviction) that forms the backbone of the season.

The fourth season of Breaking Bad (*****) is the best to date and is the show at the very top of its game. It is available now as part of the Breaking Bad Complete Collection in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Sunday, 25 January 2015

HOMEWORLD REMASTERED launches on 25 February

Gearbox have finally announced the release date for Homeworld Remastered, their updated version of the classic space strategy games Homeworld and Homeworld 2.

Originally released by Relic Entertainment in 1999, Homeworld was lauded for its highly atmospheric soundtrack, cool visuals, the first fully successful depiction of 3D space in a strategy game and its compelling storyline. Its sequel, Homeworld 2, was released in 2003 and added some vastly more advanced graphics and a more comprehensive user interface. Released between the two was Homeworld: Cataclysm, a stand-alone expansion which is sometimes regarded, in at least gameplay terms, as the high point of the series.

Unfortunately, Cataclysm is not included in this release due the source files being missing and the rights to the game being in question.

Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were made by Relic Entertainment, by a team led by Rob Cunningham. Cunningham left Relic in 2007 to set up his own studio, Blackbird Interactive. He was joined by many veterans of the two Homeworld games. Blackbird have been assisting Gearbox in their remastering of the two games, by tracking source files and original audio and graphical assets. More excitingly, Blackbird are also working on a full prequel to the games. Homeworld: Shipbreakers will be based around ground combat and strategy as competing factions on the planet Kharak fight for resources. More news about Shipbreakers is expected to be released after the remastered games are out.

The remastered collection will feature both the original or 'classic' versions of the games as well as the new versions. The new versions will feature a remastered version of the original audio (including, where necessary, new voice recordings by the original actors), hugely updated graphics and a new multiplayer mode combining the maps and ships from both games into one competitive game. It's looking pretty great at the moment.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

GoG unleash more STAR WARS games

GoG have added yet more Star Wars titles to their store, just a few days after the last batch.

Up today is the incredibly slow and ponderous mega-strategy game Supremacy (titled Rebellion in the USA), which I found so boring that just looking at the box put me to sleep. However, other gamers swear by it due to its slow-boiling, long-term planning. Also the fact that you can have multiple Death Stars running around blowing up planets.

Considerably less dull, although still not great, is Empire at War. This RTS was released in 2006 and enables the player to pit the Empire and Rebels, Separatists and Republic against one another. It wasn't a great game, mainly down to some very stilted ground combat, but some of the space battles were passable. This version includes the Forces of Corruption expansion, and there are many mods out there to improve the game experience.

More well-known is action game Rogue Squadron. Whilst not a patch on the X-Wing series, Rogue Squadron is a much more accessible arcade blaster.

GoG will release four more Star Wars games on the 27th. These are the brilliant Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (presumably with the Mysteries of the Sith expansion included), the so-so Starfighter and the superb tactical FPS Republic Commando.


Rock Paper Shotgun have some more info on the upcoming Battlefleet Gothic: Armada game.

Briefly, the game will depict the struggle for the Gothic system. The game starts with the Imperium controlling the entire system and struggling against invading Eldar, Ork and Chaos forces. The game is dynamic, with fleets and ships being built and moved on a turn-based battle map before the game turns into a real-time tactical mode. The single-player campaign will only feature the Imperium as a controllable faction, but there will be skirmish and multiplayer mods featuring the other races. The game will also feature the ability to level entire planets from orbit (the dreaded "Exterminatus" order) and the AI of ship captains will develop, possibly leading them to rebel if you don't handle them right.

More info here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Joe Straczynski to pen adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS TRILOGY

J. Michael Straczynski, the acclaimed creator-writer of Babylon 5 amongst many other projects, has been tapped to write Spike TV's adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.

This is an interesting match. The Mars novels came out at the same time Babylon 5 was starting, and it feels like Straczynski may have tapped them for some inspiration, particularly with the subplot about terrorists on Mars fighting for independence. B5 showed that JMS 'got' Mars, even in the brief parts of the series set there, so if he can bring that same touch to this project that should be great for the atmosphere and visuals.

How much of Robinson's incredibly slow-burning narrative will remain intact or be sacrificed at the altar of action and more compressed character development remains to be seen, but Straczynski is a reasonably confident pair of hands to put the project in.