Monday, 18 May 2015

Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor

Talion is a ranger of Gondor, helping guard the Black Gate. When the orcs of Mordor retake the gate, they kill Talion's family...and Talion himself. Talion is then resurrected by a wrathful spirit, an elvish wraith who can remember nothing of his past but is determined to avenge himself on the Dark Lord of Mordor.




The history of Middle-earth video games has been patchy. Early text adventure The Hobbit was a classic of its genre and War in Middle-earth was a remarkable early example of a real-time strategy game. However, the Battle for Middle-earth series was highly inconsistent, and many of the tie-in action games with the movies were forgettable.

Monolith has produced something different with Shadows of Mordor. On the surface it's an action game borrowing a lot of ideas from other franchises. The game focuses on combat between Talion and a large number of opponents, relying on positioning, blocks, chains and special attacks to survive challenging fights. These mechanics are very similar to the Arkham series of Batman games. There's also an open world to explore with side-missions and towers you can rebuild to gain more intelligence on the surroundings, lifted pretty much straight from the Far Cry series. Although Talion is formidable in battle, he can be swamped easily in long fights so there is also a strong stealth focus similar to the Assassin's Creed games.

However, Shadows of Mordor rises above its influences to become more interesting than it first might appear. It helps that it was created by Monolith, a talented video game company responsible for some of the finest first-person shooters ever created: the FEAR and No-One Lives Forever series, the early and influential Blood games and the awesome (and sadly never resurrected) SHOGO: Mobile Armour Division, which mixed up the FPS and mecha-piloting genres fifteen years before Titanfall. Monolith handle the transition into third-person combat quite well and bring their formidable experience to the game in the form of visceral, solid and satisfying combat and a genuinely new and gamechanging mechanic: the Nemesis System.

Shadows of Mordor features a lot of orcs. An absolute ton of them, in fact. And they're not all mindless monsters. As the game progresses, the orcs gain experience and skill and climb up through their hierarchy of chiefs, captains and lieutenants, murdering and backstabbing one another as they try to gain personal power and influence. For the first third or so of the game, Talion's interaction with the orcs is limited to parting their heads from their shoulders. Later, thanks to his possessing elven wraith spirit, he gains the ability to magically take control of some of these orcs and swing them to his will. Apparently unwinnable fights can swing in Talion's favour by him reconnoitring enemy strongholds first and stealthily taking over multiple orcs. When the fight finally starts, he can unleash his own army of traitors. This becomes more complex when Talion starts taking control of lieutenants and captains, being able to arrange for them to turn on and betray their chiefs and putting Talion's own catspaws into positions of authority.

This system can be turned against Talion, however. An orc who "kills" Talion in combat (Talion is always resurrected thanks to the handy elvish wraith) gains experience and prestige, climbing the ranks and possibly displacing Talion's own minions. As the game progresses this interaction becomes quite elaborate, and Talion losing a single fight can push his entire web of alliances and betrayals out of synch. Adding a yet further layer of complication is that the orcs have different strengths and weaknesses: some are only vulnerable to fire or stealth and some are invulnerable to takedowns or finishing moves. You have to gain intelligence to find out an orc's weaknesses before either killing or enslaving him.

This results in a fascinating and - for a time - engrossing amd complex game of Orc Career Ladder Simulator, as you turn enemies against one another, sneakily arrange for massive Red Wedding-style orc betrayals and generally pull a lot of strings from behind the scenes. When your plans work you can't help but feel like a master manipulator. When they don't and you have to re-enslave half of Mordor's orcs just to bring down one annoying captain, massive frustration can result.

When Tinder goes badly wrong.

The Nemesis System is a genius idea, backed up by very solid combat, but after a while the game's other flaws come to the fore. The biggest problem is that this is an open-world game, but the world is tiny. There are two maps and both can be crossed from one side to the other in minutes. The spirit towers are so close you can almost jump between them and the massive number of orcs versus small number of locations results in multiple orc captains sharing the same strongholds. Ludonarrative dissonance (the clash between the game's narrative and actual gameplay) is a problem in most games, but, particularly in its second half, in Shadows of Mordor it becomes a near-constant problem. The maps should really have been four or five times their size to really sell the idea of Mordor as a vast, teeming network of competing orc clans.

The other problem is that the game prioritises planning, intrigue and betrayal but then relies way too much on luck. A simple stealth attack on an orc general might result in a fight against him and a dozen bodyguards, or three other captains might stumble on the fight halfway through resulting in what feels like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but with only one person fighting the orcs. This can also dramatically affect the game's length: I've seen people beating the main story in well under 20 hours but others constantly getting their plans thwarted and having to invest over 50. And the repetitiveness of the combat, the lack of variety in objectives and the tiny maps makes this a game that definitely needs to be shorter rather than longer.

There's also the storyline, which on the one hand embraces some of Tolkien's obscurer storylines (bringing in Celebrimbor, forger of the Rings of Power) and restraining the appearance of movie characters to basically one, lore-appropriate cameo (Gollum, although Sauron and Saruman have very brief appearances) but on the other embraces full-scale blood-letting and slaughter. Tolkien certainly wasn't above doing the gritty, dark stuff (more in The Silmarillion than the later books, it has to be said) but Shadows of Mordor wades through the grimness until it starts to get a little bit comical.

Shadows of Mordor (***½) is certainly one of the more interesting and smarter Middle-earth video games. The action is solid and the Nemesis System is engrossing (expect to see variations on it popping up everywhere soon). However, the maps are too small, the tone is far too grim and the game crosses the thin line between challenging and monitor-smashing frustration a few too many times. A sequel (which the game groan-inducingly teases in its final moments) with a bigger map and more variety could build on the systems here into something truly special, but for now Shadows of Mordor is a solid game with a genius central mechanic let down by some design problems elsewhere. Certainly worth a look. It is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, X-Box One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, X-Box One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4).

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Richard Morgan on Black Widow and his new novel

io9 has a great interview here with author Richard Morgan about his mid-2000s stint writing the Marvel character Black Widow, who, personified by Scarlett Johansson, has become one of the more notable characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some interesting stuff on the character and how Morgan perceives a Black Widow-dedicated movie could go.



Morgan also confirms that his next novel will be called Thin Air and will be set in the same universe as Black Man (aka Thirteen in the States), on Mars and some time after the events of that book.

Trailer for CHILDHOOD'S END

SyFy have released a proper trailer for Childhood's End, their three-part mini-series based on Arthur C. Clarke's 1954 novel. It looks like the series will follow the approximate storyline from the novels, but will feature more characters and storylines to pad out the book's modest length.




The series will air in December 2015.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Sword of the North by Luke Scull

The city-state of Dorminia has fallen to the forces of the Lady of Thelassa. Early celebrations at the fall of one tyrant become muted as it becomes clear that the people have merely swapped one yoke for another, to the fury of Eremul the Halfmage. Meanwhile, Davarus Cole labours in a prison camp and dreams of escape, whilst Brodar Kayne, the Sword of the North, must cross a thousand miles of wilderness to reach his homeland in the High Fangs.



The Sword of the North is the follow-up to The Grim Company, one of 2013's more interesting fantasy debuts. It's the middle volume of a trilogy in the Abercrombie mould, with hard and brutal events offset by occasional knowing nods and winks about the silliness of the genre (and the odd Skyrim reference).

On the negative side, it is definitely the middle book of a trilogy and falls prey to many of the classic problems of such a volume. The story doesn't really begin or end, instead just rotating the characters through a series of intermediary plot points, some of which feel vital to the overall story and others feel like they exist solely because they are expected to in a fantasy trilogy. Brodar Kayne's story involves a whole lot of walking, Eremul's involves a whole load of fairly unsatisfying politics and Davarus's involves a whole load of hanging out in a prison camp. As middle books of trilogies go, this is definitely one of the more standard.

The author, at least, recognises this and gives the book a more cohesive shape with the arrival of some new players, some substantial expansion of the backstory and a nice recurring flashback to Kayne's earlier life, which gives the novel a much-needed dramatic spine and sense of direction. There's nothing too excitingly original in these sections, but Scull's solid skills with action scenes and reasonable characterisation keep things ticking over nicely.

The Sword of the North (***½) is a reasonable successor to The Grim Company, although it lacks some of the more compelling storyline and character moments of the original novel. It sets things up nicely for the finale, but it suffers a bit too much from "middle book syndrome" to truly shine. But if you enjoyed The Grim Company, this follow-up should satisfy. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

SyFy greenlights THE MAGICIANS TV series, dates THE EXPANSE and CHILDHOOD'S END

SyFy has greenlit a TV series based on Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy (The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician's Land). The first season will consist of twelve episodes and will shoot in Vancouver in July, probably for a 2016 debut.



SyFy has also confirmed that its mini-series based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End will air in December. Surprisingly, they also confirmed that the first season of The Expanse, based on James S.A. Corey's novels, will also air in December. The Expanse started shooting in October 2014 and it was assumed would be a summer or early autumn launch. SyFy will either have to greenlight the second season before the first airs, or may envisage there being a long gap until 2017 until the second season can air. It's a slightly odd move for a show that looked ready and raring to go in the trailer released four months ago.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

BATTLEFLEET GOTHIC: ARMADA trailer

Focus Home Interactive has released a teaser trailer for Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, a strategy game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe focusing on space combat.


No release date has been set so far, but the game is expected in 2016 (although hopefully it might just sneak in at the end of this year).

Thursday, 7 May 2015

TV round-up: ORPHAN BLACK, JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL and SENSE8

A bit of news from the world of SFF television:



Orphan Black has been renewed for a fourth (and penultimate) season, following high ratings for the opening episodes of Season 3 on BBC America in the USA and SPACE in Canada. BBC3 recently confirmed they will be showing the series "later this year", although with BBC3 set to close at the end of the year they need to hurry up.




The BBC mini-series version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has finally gotten an airdate, with the seven-part series set to start airing on Sunday 17 May in the UK on BBC1 and on 13 June on BBC America.



Netflix has released the trailer for its new TV series, Sense8. Created by The Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and J. Michael Straczynski (the creator-writer of Babylon 5), it's a huge-budget, epic story following the lives of eight people living around the world whose lives inexplicably blend together in one moment, giving each access to the skills and knowledge of the others. Netflix will release all twelve episodes simultaneously on 5 June.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

New JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL trailer

The BBC has released a new trailer for its upcoming seven-episode adaptation of Susanna Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.




The series is set to begin on BBC1 (in the UK) and BBC America in May, with a DVD and Blu-Ray release planned for August.The series stars Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell, the last practising magician in England. With the Napoleonic Wars in full swing, the British government calls upon Mr. Norrell's magical aid. Norrell is soon contacted by Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a young, up-and-coming magician who wants to learn from Norrell. However, their relationship soon sours. In the meantime, the mysterious Gentleman with Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren) is inadvertently summoned to England and takes an unhealthy interest in events.

The novel was originally published in 2004 and was a massive best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Clarke published a related short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in 2006 and has occasionally hinted that she is working on another novel in the same universe.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

TOTAL WAR: WARHAMMER announced

Sega, Games Workshop and Creative Assembly have officially announced Total War: Warhammer, their new wargame which takes the Total War franchise into the fantasy arena for the first time.



The new game will depict a battle for control of the Old World between the forces of the Empire, Dwarves, Orcs and Undead, although if armies of Chaos don't show up halfway through the game, I'll be surprised. Creative Assembly have already said they are planning two major post-release expansions, so Bretonnian, Elf, Skaven and Lizardman fans can keep hoping.

No release date has been set, but I'd be surprised if we saw it before 2016.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

ORPHAN BLACK is given its end date

Orphan Black has just started airing its third season in the USA, but the producers have already disclosed that the show has a finite lifespan. Don't panic just yet, as we have another two years of the show to enjoy after this one.



Producers and showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have confirmed that Orphan Black will conclude after its fifth season, expected to air in 2017. That won't necessarily mean the end of the universe of characters, as they moot that a spin-off or sequel of some kind may be possible, but the story of Sarah Manning and her clones will end after the fifth season.

This is a good move, as the history of genre TV is littered with the corpses of shows that went on too long (hello, The X-Files) or were simply not coherently plotted out and ended in confusing and self-contradictory ways (neo-Battlestar Galactica). By going for five leaner seasons which are already planned out in some detail, Orphan Black's creators will hopefully be able to make for a much stronger and more satisfying story.

The third season of Orphan Black is airing in the USA and Canada right now, but oddly has not yet received a UK airdate.