Friday, 26 December 2014

ELITE: DANGEROUS - Early thoughts

Nineteen years ago, David Braben released the third game in his Elite series of space trading games. First Encounters was released ahead of schedule by the publishers, still unfinished and riddled with bugs. Braben and his team at the then-just-formed Frontier Developments sued the publisher, eventually winning an out of court settlement. But the damage had been done. Despite some patches to help fix the game post-release, it had gotten a bad reputation and sales were disappointing.

Braben decided not to repeat the mistake and would only release a fourth Elite game if publishers could be found willing to give him the freedom and time needed to make the game right. Despite several meetings and some interest, none were willing to do so. The fourth Elite game languished on the back-burner whilst Frontier Developments worked on numerous other games.

That changed in 2012 when the company took advantage of Kickstarter to fund a new Elite game. They raised over a million dollars and, combined with their own resources, they were able to create and develop the game independently, with no outside assistance. They threw open the doors of development, posting frequent updates and releasing an early access version of the game to backers.  Through multiple development periods, hundreds of players were able to see the game in action and report back on it to others. Whilst other space combat games promised everything including the kitchen sink, Frontier kept a laser-like focus on the basics: space travel, exploration, combat, mining and dynamically-generated missions. Other things, like landing on planets and walking around inside ships, was left for another day. In a remarkably short period of time - just over two years - the game's initial version was completed and released.

A conventional review of Elite: Dangerous is not really possible, at least not yet. In just ten days since release, Frontier have already released three major patches for the game and more are promised in the coming weeks, adding new control schemes, features and options. The game's storyline is rapidly evolving, changing and expanding. A new expansion next year will add the promised ability to land on planets, and it is whispered that the alien Thargoids are due to show up in force in the coming months. A review of the game will only be a snapshot of what it's like at the moment, not what it might be a few months down the line.

Still, there's enough meat on the initial release of the game to come to an early conclusion: this is easily the best space simulator game to be released since Freespace 2 way back in 1999. Given both Frontier and Braben's haphazard reputation for the quality of their previous games - even the previous Elite games were blighted by one serious design flaw or another - some cynicism was understandable, but Frontier have surpassed almost every expectation of them here. Having experimented with a fully Newtonian flight model in Frontier and First Encounters and discovering it wasn't very much fun to fly (especially not at interplanetary velocities), they have created an interesting fight model for Dangerous that mixes Newtonian physics with more fly-by-wire, jet fighter-like controls from space combat games. You can still enact a full Newtonian model at sublight speeds (by turning off flight assist), although this is still limited in speed to prevent the confusing morass of thrusting and counter-thrusting that the earlier games suffered from. Hardcore space sim gamers may be disappointed by this, but for many players it hits just the right spot between realism and fun. It's a particularly good fit for combat, allowing for some satisfying tactics as you spin and fire at enemy ships whilst continuing to fly in a different direction, use afterburners to enact a sudden change of direction and side-thrusters to avoid collisions at the last possible moment. Sublight flight and combat is rock solid, which is essential as they are the foundations of the game.

 Slightly more awkward is the supercruise mode. This is the FTL drive that allows you to fly across systems in minutes rather than weeks, and is a compromise between the in-system microjumps of the original Elite and the time-acceleration of the second and third games. It's a cool feature to start with, allowing you to fly across systems quite fast, but soon the lack of an autopilot begins to get a little annoying. I get why they did this, as the autopilot in Frontier and First Encounters meant that the player pretty much had nothing to do unless combat erupted, reducing the player to a mere spectator for 90% of the game. However, constantly adjusting velocities (even within clear guidelines) and having to switch course to investigate nearby signal sources gets old after the first hundred or so trips. It's certainly not a dealbreaker, but it's an area Frontier probably should look at developing more to make less of a chore.

In terms of content, well, the entire Milky Way galaxy is in the same, with the 150,000-odd visible stars from Earth all in their correct positions. Stars with known planets have these in the correct orbits and enterprising players can even find the Voyager space probes on the edge of the Solar system in the position they really would be in 1,286 years time. The vastness of the game is both compelling and daunting. Using the galactic map is terrific fun, as you plot distances and courses, working out what route you should take to get to systems dozens of light-years away, and what trading runs and missions you can do along the route. There's a nice variety of missions and things to do in the game at the moment, from mining and courier work to mercenary contracts to the old favourite standby of trading. Unlike some of the previous Elite games Frontier have worked hard to make sure that whilst trading and mining are rewarding, you can do without them by simply doing the oddjob missions and still allowing you to get a lot of money relatively quickly. As you get richer you can upgrade to better and bigger ships (the most iconic ship in the series, the Cobra Mk. III, awaits you when you clear 300K) and take on more dangerous and challenging missions.

In terms of storylines, the game is pretty bare bones at the moment. There's a slave uprising going on in the Empire which players can support, and there's lots of dynamic storytelling possibilities in systems where the balance of power between factions is poised on a knife's edge. By doing jobs for one faction over another, you can even trigger wars and wide-ranging shifts in political power. A lot of this is more theoretical than actual at the moment, but if Frontier can deliver on the dynamic storytelling front the game will become a lot more compelling, not to mention justifying the last-minute removal of the offline mode.

In its current release, version 1.03, Elite: Dangerous (easily **** right now, if you need that score) is a highly compelling, gripping space sim game with a lot of content. I can see it getting a little repetitive after a few months if Frontier aren't able to deliver more new content on a regular basis, but if they can do that, then this could easily become the best space game of its generation.

Gotham: Season 1.0

Ex-soldier Jim Gordon arrives in Gotham City to take up his new job as a detective on the police force. Hoping to clean up the streets, he instead finds the police riven by corruption and in bed with the local gangsters. The brutal murder of the city's richest couple, Martha and Thomas Wayne, shines a spotlight onto the city's crime problem, giving Jim and his new partner, the grizzled Detective Harvey Bullock, a moment to shine. It also provides the impetus for the rise to power of a new criminal mastermind, Oswald Cobblepot (aka "Penguin") and spurs the anger of the murdered couple's son, Bruce.

Every incarnation of Batman starts in a similar manner: the young Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents by criminals. Years later, he takes up the mantle of Batman to deliver justice to the streets. Gotham asks the question of what would happen if you didn't have that jump forwards 10 or 20 years, and instead stay in the moment. Bruce Wayne is an angry, confused young child whose guardian, Alfred, has to console and help him carry on. The cops of Gotham are under pressure to catch the killers. And through it all a new wave of crazy criminals are rising to displace the more traditional old guard of Italian-descended crime families.

It's a rich vein to mine stories from, although it does also throw up a central problem: how to generate drama when we know that characters (good guys and villains alike) important to the later Batman mythos will survive, and the whole thing is just stage-setting for when the Bat shows up (presumably at which point this series will end)? Gotham doesn't really answer that question, but instead just settles for being relentlessly entertaining.

The main showrunner on the series is Bruno Heller, an experienced Hollywood writer who has been responsible for some standard procedural fare (like The Mentalist) but whose most outstanding moment remains the HBO series Rome, which depicted the ancient empire with a real sense of place and cultural identity, home to well-drawn, complex characters. Impressively, he brings these skills to Gotham. The city is neither the anonymous everycity of the recent Chris Nolan films, nor the baroque playground of Tim Burton. Instead it falls in between, with Gothic stylings and some very clever CG manipulation of real city backdrops to create something distinctive. This applies to the people and the factions feuding for control of the city as well. Delving into the comics for ideas and backstories, Heller isn't afraid to bring his own ideas to the table as well. Most impressive is the show's tone, which after a ropey opening few episodes in which it searches for its own identity, it settles down into pulp, walking a fine line between camp, action and melodrama which is quite enjoyable.

If the show has a weak spot, it's Ben McKenzie's fairly straightforward portrayal of Jim Gordon as an everyday hero of the people. Attempts to darken his character don't really work, but towards the end of this opening run of ten episodes he develops a grim sense of humour and the ex-military role is played up a little bit more to give him something to do. As characters go, he's okay and you can see him developing into the later friend of Batman, but the character needs a bit more fleshing out going forwards. Far better is Harvey Bullock, played with roguish charisma by Donal Logue, a once-good cop corrupted by the city and who clings onto Jim's idealism as a way of redeeming himself. Better still is Robin Lord Taylor, who brings the right air of intelligence and charm to the role of the Penguin. Taylor is great, the show's big find, but the producers need to be careful they don't overuse him and burn out the character before he's had a chance to achieve his destiny. Child actors David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova are also very good finds for the roles of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. The idea that Batman and Catwoman are actually childhood friends may induce much rolling of the eyeballs, but the writing and the actors sell it so it convinces, rather than becoming twee.

More established hands can be found with Jada Pinkett Smith playing new villain Fish Mooney with scene-chewing relish. Irritating in early episodes, she gets more interesting material to play with later on and rises to the challenge. The Wire's John Doman plays Don Falcone with charm and gravitas, but also a sense of palpable menace that makes him a genuinely threatening figure. The casting director also deserves massive props for hitting on the idea of casting the always-excellent Sean Pertwee as Alfred. He doesn't have much to do in early episodes, but later ones depict him as an ex-military bruiser with impressive resourcefulness.

The show stumbles in its opening episodes as it searches for its tone and identity, but finds itself pretty quickly. The developing ongoing storylines about Penguin and Arkham Asylum are well-handled and the show moves at a pretty strong clip, rarely flagging. There are other weaknesses: the relationship between Barbara (Erin Richards) and Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) is extremely unconvincing, and a late-episode story twist is clearly an awkward retcon. There's also the feeling of some Batman villains being shoehorned into the show long before they're really needed. Riddler is being well-handled, but Poison Ivy as a kid is completely pointless right now.

But these put aside, Gotham (****) is a very entertaining slice of pulp. It's certainly a lot more impressive and fun at this stage in its development than the other big superhero TV show, Agents of SHIELD, was at the same point. Whether the show can sustain or improve itself going forwards remains to be seen, but at this point it is certainly highly watchable.

The Walking Dead: Season 4

Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors of the walker apocalypse are still living in a prison, which they have fortified into a refuge and where they are growing food to augment their supply-raiding of surrounding, abandoned towns. However, they are unaware of growing threats outside the prison, including the return of an old enemy.

The Walking Dead continues to be one of the oddest shows on television. On the one hand, its a big-budget, crowd-pleasing depiction of the mass killing of zombies. On the other, it's a bleakly nihilistic portrait of people who seem to only ever be a few more catastrophes away from committing group suicide. More than once whilst watching a particular season, the idea comes to mind that the show is completely pointless, lacking as it is in any kind of long-term direction or plan for survival beyond holing up for a bit and seeing what happens.

If the show's lack of a long-term focus is a problem, it's one the writers manage to (mostly successfully) push to the back-burner by emphasising individual moments and the crisis of the day. A debilitating disease sweeps the prison in the opening episodes and no sooner is that burning itself out then a full-scale war is underway, after which the survivors are scattered across the countryside and have to fight their own battles to survive. This structure seems to have emerged after dissatisfaction with the previous season's main storyline, which in order to get to sixteen episodes had to resort to lots of cheap filler.

The show's overlong seasons are still a big problem, but the fourth season certainly handles it better by treating each of the two halves as its own eight-episode serial. The first half is tighter, with the characters more closely bound together and even confident enough to spend two full episodes on exploring the backstory of a secondary character in detail. The second half is more sprawling and more of an anthology series, with the characters divvied up into random teams and having to survive without the benefits of the larger group. This allows hitherto chronically-underdeveloped characters like Beth to emerge much more strongly as fully-rounded figures. The arrival of survivors from Texas on a mission which might actually tie into the origins of the walker plague, and the discovery of a new refuge accepting people in from a large area, also gives the show that much-needed sense of direction in its final episodes of the season as well.

There are still weaknesses. The show is prone to repetition, and the zombie-killing is now so routine that the characters seem as bored by it as the viewers are. The structure of the season is a big improvement on the previous one, but events are still too slow-paced and the producers could have done with cutting to the chase a bit more quickly.

Still, the fourth season of The Walking Dead (****½) emerges as the best to date. Entertaining, if at times bleakly so, and always well-acted, the show could still do with a bit more focus and certainly less episodes per season, but it seems to be on the right track. The season is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Breaking Bad: Season 2

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have made a deal with a local crimelord to distribute their distinctive blue-tinged crystal meth, but their associate turns out to be highly unstable and dangerously unpredictable. As they try to extricate themselves from their situation, Walter's medical treatment continues and his secret comes dangerously close to being exposed.

The second season of Breaking Bad picks up immediately where the prematurely-ended (due to the 2008-09 Writer's Strike) first season ended and continues the themes established there. Walter White is having the worst mid-life crisis ever, the bitterness and resentment built up by a lifetime spent achieving only mediocrity finally boiling over, catalysed by his cancer diagnosis, and fuelling his evolution into a surprisingly competent criminal. The show isn't interested in standing still and pushes White's development episode-by-episode whilst contrasting that with Jesse's descent back into drug addiction hell and showing the impact of these events on White's family and Jesse's strained relationship with his parents.

As before the show is darkly humourous and relentless in how it shows White trying to justify everything logically (if only to himself) and becoming at times speechless in disbelief when other people don't buy his selfish reasoning. The core of the show remains Bryan Cranston's committed performance and that's even stronger this season than before. Aaron Paul also deserves superlatives for the tricky balancing act of continuing to make Jesse sympathetic even when he is self-destructing so wastefully.

The greater episode count this time around allows for the deepening of the secondary cast. In particular, Dean Norris gets more to do as Walter's DEA agent brother-in-law, who moves from simplistic jock meathead to a more layered character suffering panic attacks after witnessing the real horrors of the drug war along the border. New and highly memorable characters also show up, such as Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a brilliantly slimy lawyer who becomes Walter's confidante by dint of no-one else being available. Krysten Ritter puts in a terrific performance as Jesse's arty new girlfriend Jane, with the excellent John de Lancie playing her father. There's also some fertile ground-laying for future seasons, with both Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) appearing in the last few episodes as Walter and Jesse's new - and hopefully more reliable - business associates.

Negatives are hard to find. There's an underlying air of implausibility about the show, such as Jesse's drug dealing associates doing their business in broad daylight on street corners with bling prominently on display, and the final episode strains credulity with unlikely coincidence building on unlikely coincidence before the final moments of the season which feel very random. But the subsequent season does a good job of selling these moments to make them work better in retrospect.

The second season of Breaking Bad (*****) is, by a nose, better than the first, written and acted with growing confidence and a more accomplished juggling of the different characters and storylines. Season 2 is available now as part of the Breaking Bad Complete Collection in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Sunday, 14 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Valkyria Chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BANNER SAGA 2 announced

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 December 2014


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

HBO confirm plans for THE WIRE in HD

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

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

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

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

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

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