Monday, 30 June 2014

EDGE OF DARKNESS to be repeated on UK TV tonight

One of the UK's greatest-ever TV dramas, Edge of Darkness, gets a repeat airing tonight at 10pm GMT on BBC4.

Part SF eco-thriller, part haunting descent into a psyche of a grief-stricken father and part outrageous satire on Cold War politics, Edge of Darkness is one of the barmiest things ever made by the BBC. It's also extraordinarily powerful, with a star-making central performance by Bob Peck. It's certainly well worth a look.


Peter F. Hamilton has revealed the cover art for his next big SF novel, The Abyss Beyond Dreams:

This novel is the first half of The Chronicle of the Fallers, a new duology set in the Commonwealth/Void universe. It will be released on 9 October this year. Hamilton has announced a lengthy UK book tour to celebrate the novel's release.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

A young boy, Naiee, is haunted by the drowning of his mother and his inability to save her. When his father is struck down by a serious illness, Naiee and his older brother Naia are told that the only thing that can save him is water from the Tree of Life. They must journey across the forbidding nearby mountains in search of the Tree, with only each other to rely on.

There has recently been a growing number of games that seek to challenge the traditional wisdom that video games must be confrontational and violent. Art games, for lack of a better term, have seemingly taken it turns to be incredibly violent but deconstructionist of that violence (as with Spec Ops: The Line) or by eschewing violence altogether in favour of the experience of a journey (as in, er, Journey). Brothers is one of these games, a title which places its emphasis firmly on cooperation and puzzle-solving. The only violence is in the past: at one point the horrific aftermath of a battle between giants is stumbled upon, with it being impossible to tell which slain behemoth was on what side.

Brothers is the story of two kids who set out on a quest to find the Tree of Life, which produces healing water they need to save their desperately sick father. The older child, Naia, is stronger and more intelligent, more capable of engaging in reasoned discussions with passers-by and giving his little brother a leg-up to hard-to-reach places. Naiee is more whimsical and stealthy, capable of slipping between bars to reach places his larger sibling can't reach. Naiee is also more trusted by animals and is artistically gifted, useful for winning over some of the suspicious folk they encounter.

The two brothers are, in the game's most-discussed distinguishing feature, controlled simultaneously from one device, whether that's an X-Box controller or a PC keyboard. You can play the game as a more traditional co-op title, if you don't mind sharing one controller between two people, but the game is designed to be a single-player co-op title which is both bemusing and refreshing. It works very well, with the developers sensibly restricting the controls to only movement and a single contextual 'action' button.

The puzzles are pretty straightforward - the only point I got stuck was due to a brief bug, not a puzzle design issue - and rely on common sense for the most part. There are a few times when the designers go to the same standby a few too many times (the 'alternating platform jumps' tactic gets really old before the game is halfway over), but for the most part they do a good job of keeping the puzzles fresh and not getting too stale. For such a short game (clocking in at around four hours or so), Brothers has a hugely varied world with the action moving from a medieval village to an elaborate underground cave system to a stunning mountain vista to a castle to an arctic wilderness. The graphics are stunning, with the game taking the time to show off some amazing vistas and level design. The music is also exceptional.

But the game's heart comes from the relationship between the two brothers. The dialogue is all in an imaginary fantasy language, so you only know what's going on via context, expressions or guesswork, but that makes it all the more remarkable that the game builds up such a strong emotional bond between the two characters and transmits that to the player. There are moments of humour, horror, drama and tragedy that are shared between the characters and in such ways that you are engrossed into the action. It may be a bit of a commentary on how cumbersome the controls for many games are when the simplicity of Brothers' allows you to even forget they exist and focus on the story and characters.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (****½) is short but well-crafted game which challenges the ideas of how we control and play games and uses that to build a terrifically-realised relationship between the two characters. There are moments when the game falters, such as a few bugs, occasionally clipping graphics and an over-reliance on one particularly tedious jumping/climbing mechanic, but for the most part this is an inventive and clever game that rewards patience and exploring off the beaten track. Brothers is available now on PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

The year is 2007. The world was laid waste in a nuclear exchange between the USA and Russia in the 1990s. As the survivors struggle to rebuild civilisation, the villainous Colonel Sloan goes AWOL on a remote island with an army of mercenaries. CyberCommando Sergeant Rex Power Colt is dropped on the island with orders to eliminate Sloan and wipe out his army before he can use some remaining nukes to wipe out the rest of the world. Or something.

Blood Dragon is the screaming bonkers stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3, with which it has very little in common apart from the game's basic structure of linear missions accessible through an open world. The game is a (somewhat redundant) mickey-take of 1980s action movies mixed in with more amusing deconstructions of the Far Cry series itself. The game opens with a terrible tutorial in which Colt is asked to do stupid basic tasks by his AI helper because of satire. This raises a brief laugh, before it goes on for way too long and ends up being really annoying. The game's 2D, 1980s-esque cut scenes are a bit like this as well: it's amusing to see these throwbacks to how narrative was handled back in the days of the Commodore 64, but then they go on for way too long and the dialogue goes from being deliberately corny to flat-out terrible. As a satire of 1980s action movies Blood Dragon doesn't really work, because the sort of films it is taking the mickey out of are beyond satire.

Luckily, the game itself hews closer to the traditional Far Cry formula, which remains fairly compelling. A lot of the more surreal makework from Far Cry 3 (like having to go on elaborate hunting expeditions in order to carry extra flamethrower ammo) is fortunately missing, with the emphasis more on exploration, liberating bases (helped by laser-armed scientists) and blowing a lot of stuff up. The game is really a neon-drenched reskin of Far Cry 3 with added laser-firing dinosaurs, and the illusion wears a bit thin sometimes, but it works pretty well. Unlike it's cut scenes and tutorials the game itself doesn't outstay its welcome, clocking in at well under 5 hours in length which is about when the joke starts wearing seriously thin.

Blood Dragon (***) is too superficial a game to really write much about: it's a very violent, vaguely amusing and totally disposable action game which raises a bit of a smile and passes a few hours, but you'll probably have forgotten it even exists in a fortnight. Enjoyable dumb fun, but for the love of everything that is holy, don't even think about spending more than a few quid on it. Blood Dragon is available now as a digital download for the PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3.

Friday, 27 June 2014

PACIFIC RIM 2 confirmed for 2017

Guillermo Del Toro has confirmed that Pacific Rim 2 will be released on 7 April 2017. He and Zak Penn will be writing the script, working from outlines and drafts by Travis Beacham (who wrote the first movie).

In addition, there will be more Pacific Rim comic books and a new animated series as well. It appears that Legendary Pictures have decided to go the whole hog in franchising the movie after taking their time to consider its modest success. The first movie, released in July 2013, made $411 million worldwide from a budget of $190 million. However, the film did rather poorly in the United States and was only a really big smash hit in China, where it made over $114 million.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the first film, I approve this news and will be there to see the sequel.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Yet another ELITE: DANGEROUS trailer

Elite: Dangerous celebrates the arrival of the next stage of its beta test with a new video. This shows off the Orbis-class space station (a redesign of a station from Frontier: Elite II) which will appear in the game alongside the more familiar Coriolis-class. This video is best play at 1080p in fullscreen.

The Orbis is a nod to Space Station One from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, hence the appropriate music (which was also the docking music for the original Elite).

Elite: Dangerous is expected for release at the end of the year, I suspect in October.

Thief (2014)

The master thief Garrett returns to his home, the City, after a year away. His last memories are of his protege, Erin, falling into a field of light during a ceremony conducted by weird cultists. As Garrett tries to get back to his old life of thievery, aided by his friend and sometimes-employer Basso, he is struck by visions of the ceremony suggesting that something is not quite right, something that could destroy the City if left unchecked.

Thief is a reboot and revival of the classic Thief Trilogy of video games: The Dark Project (1998), The Metal Age (2002) and Deadly Shadows (2004). These games were hugely influential in their introduction of stealth elements to video games, with importance placed not on combat and killing enemies but on the player sneaking past foes and 'ghosting' through levels to complete objectives with the enemy not even being away of their presence. The SF roleplaying game Deus Ex (2000) also followed a similar strategy, though gave players more tools to choose stealth, combat or other options as they wished.

When Eidos Montreal released Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011, they received praise for managing the difficult feat of making a game that honoured its predecessor's freeform choices and design whilst also making the title more accessible and approachable to modern gamers. Hopes were high that they could manage a similar balancing act with Thief. However, it is far more questionable if they have succeeded.

The newest incarnation of Thief is, at least superficially, similar to its forebears. You have a large hub area in the City where you can buy supplies, carry out opportunistic robberies or undertake minor side-quests for a number of different employers. There is also a main storyline that you can dip into and out of at will. Garrett is not very good at combat (although he does receive upgrades as the game progresses and can hold his own more effectively later on), so stealth is the order of the day. Hiding in shadows, moving quietly and making use of both the environment and tools such as rope arrows are all essential to avoid tedious fights which will usually end with Garrett's death. The game puts a large amount of importance on light, with enemies only being able to spot you motionless in well-lit areas. Water arrows can be used to extinguish torches and Garrett has a special 'swooping' move which can be used to move rapidly through lit areas whilst only briefly confusing guards, rather than fully alerting them to your presence.

All of this is theoretically good stuff, and the game is at its best in tense moments where you have infiltrated the heart of a dangerous location and one wrong move can spell disaster. However, it also feels a bit too stage-managed. Unlike the previous titles, you can only use rope arrows on certain, specific beams of wood, which makes no sense. The game also discourages you from using certain lit routes by making the light sources indestructible gas lamps (which inexplicably can't be smashed by any of the tools at your disposal, including explosives) or oil lamps instead of torches. Exactly how oil lamps in the City work when they have no external controls of any kind is something the game leaves a mystery. The game then goes a step further into hand-holding by allowing you to jump and climb walls in certain contextual circumstances, usually by sign-painting climbable walls in white paint or sticking very large and obvious grills on them. Thief seems to delight in giving you an array of options and toys to play with and then arbitrarily places restrictions on how and when you can use them.

There's still usually a variety of different ways of accomplishing each task, but these boil down into two or three approaches per mission that everyone will experience. The original Thief trilogy was more of a simulation, which let you run riot with the tools and abilities in the game in large, sandbox-like levels, with dozens of viable approaches for each situation at hand. The new Thief never comes close to replicating that experience, which is a shame. Sequels should expand and improve upon their forebears, so for this game to be more limited than what came before is disappointing.

Even worse for Thief, and something completely unexpected by the design team, was the release of Dishonored in late 2012. A homage and love letter to the Thief series (amongst others), Dishonored featured a mix of stealth, combat and magic in a weirdpunk world that felt more like the original Thief games than the official reboot does. Dishonored did place more emphasis on magic and combat, but it was also extremely atmospheric with a well-designed world, a reasonably well-written (if not particularly original) storyline and a well-defined supporting cast of characters. Thief, on the other hand, features a wafer-thin and superficial backdrop, a badly-written and corny storyline and a largely forgettable cast of cliches. If you haven't played or are not interested in playing Dishonored, such a comparison may be meaningless, but between the two games Thief definitely stands as the weaker.

None of this is to say that Thief is a terrible game. As the first title in a new franchise it would have gotten a much more favourable reception, and there is much to enjoy about it. The game is decently long: doing all the side-quests will take it well over 20 hours, and successfully 'ghosting' some of the trickier missions gives a real sense of achievement. There are a couple of missions, most notably the excursion to the lunatic asylum, which are chillingly atmospheric and well-designed. And, as superficial as they are, the game systems are intermittently effective at creating the illusion of being a master thief. It never really lasts very long, however, and in the endgame Thief loses whatever grasp it had on being a stealth title and turns into a linear action adventure with you dodging explosions, defeating your enemies in a series of boss fights and completing the game in the exact one way the designers want you to, to get a tediously predictable cliffhanger ending. I should probably also mention the mutant enemies who have super senses, can't be disabled with a takedown and have lights coming out of their eyes making it hard to hide from them, which comfortably lift from Far Cry's Trigens the title of "Most Pointless and Annoying Cheap Enemy Ever". A woeful game design decision.

Thief (***) is an enjoyable stealth game that fails to live up to the titles that came before it and is distinctly less accomplished than the similar Dishonored but, when taken on its own merits, is entertaining enough to merit a play-through or two. But the title falls way short of its potential, and fails to replicate the magic the design team brought to their Deus Ex reboot. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3, X-Box One, PlayStation 4) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3, X-Box One, PlayStation 4).

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Game of Thrones: Season 4

In the Seven Kingdoms, the War of the Five Kings is all but over. King Joffrey is poised to marry Lady Margaery Tyrell, placing the bulk of the military power of the continent under his command. Stannis Baratheon persists in his claim to the throne, but his lack of men, ship and gold forces his Hand, Ser Davos Seaworth, to seek allies in unusual places. Meanwhile, the forces of Mance Rayder advance on the critically undermanned Wall, whilst far to the east Daenerys Targaryen seizes the slaver city of Meereen, only to find that holding it will be more difficult than she thought.

The wildlings brought a keg to the party so big it needed a mammoth to drag it in.

The fourth season of Game of Thrones is the most ambitious to date. In terms of structure and plot it draws upon no less than three of George R.R. Martin's novels (A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons), features a battle sequence that dwarfs even the Blackwater from Season 2 and features much more extensive use of CGI for creature effects, establishing shots and even virtual sets.

In overall terms, it may be the strongest season to date. Previous seasons built slowly to massive 'Episode Nine' moments with an extended coda afterwards, but Season 4 features some massive moments and confrontations throughout its run. The Battle for the Wall in episode nine is indeed amazing and may be the best episode of the season, but there are other moments through the season which come close to rivalling it (the "Purple Wedding", Tyrion's trial and resulting duel and multiple moments in the finale). It's certainly a more compelling season than the preceding two, with more substantial moments of plot and character development in early episodes rather than just a lot of slow-building set-up.

Performances are, as usual, superb. The newcomer of note this season is Pedro Pascal as Prince Oberyn Martell, who brings all the deadly grace, measured debauchery, confident swagger and resolute vengeance of the book character to the screen. Other newcomers are less impressive, although this is more down to the writing than performances: the decision to reduce Mace Tyrell to a bumbling oaf only worth comic relief as Tywin ignores him is implausible given how badly reliant Tywin is on Mace's army and support. Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, Conleth Hill and Rory McCann continue to provide superlative performances, and as usual Aidan Gillen's acting is undermined by his ludicrous Batman voice. Sophie Turner steps things up in the last few episodes as Sansa gains some agency and power of her own, but, disappointingly, it feels like Maisie Williams is treading water a little as Arya. She has a few good moments (such as her outrage as the Hound mistreats a family who has taken them in) but she often makes inertness Arya's response to threatening situations.

The stand-out performance of the season, in my book, must go to Gwendoline Christie as Brienne. A little stiff and awkward in the second season (where it fitted the character superbly) and more confident in the third, Christie really comes into her own this year with a series of humourous exchanges with Pod, some human ones with Jaime and a brutal confrontation with the Hound in the finale. These all serve to complicate her character and the actress more than meets the challenge. In a much more limited role, it's also good to see Kristofer Hivju nailing Tormund more as the character from the books (part man, part force of nature), particularly in his final discussions with Jon Snow (Kit Harington being effectively surly and northern, as usual).

"That's the second-biggest statue representing the liberty of former slaves from tyranny and oppression I've ever seen!"

So the series is well-paced, with some great storytelling moments and some wise decisions on when to follow the books religiously and when to move away and do their own thing. There are a few missteps when it comes to translating iconic scenes from the books, with them generally being made less powerful and resonant than what was in print. This may be down to a limitation of the medium (Tyrion thinks about Tysha fairly regularly in the books, whilst in the TV show it's unlikely viewers will remember a minor backstory point made three years earlier) but it also feels like sometimes there are changes for change's sake, which hurts the TV show by reducing the full potential impact of scenes.

Another problem in Season 4 is that the ugly spectre of sexual violence rears its head more noticeably than ever before. In the novels, there are certainly unpleasant moments of sexual assault or threatened violence against both men and women, but the TV show takes this to new extremes in the fourth season with an inexplicable (from plot and character terms) sexual assault in the third episode and the disturbing use of 'rape-as-wallpaper' in the fourth. Whilst this is a harsh and ugly world and the urge not to sugar-coat it must be strong, the writers go way overboard in these incidents and seem to be using the very real and distressingly common crimes of sexual violence for the purposes of drumming up controversy and media coverage. The presentation of one of the villains responsible for these scenes, Karl, as a corny villain who drinks blood from the skulls of his enemies (a character and scene not in the books) doesn't really help with the idea that these scenes are meant to be realistic in any way, shape or form. It also doesn't help that the show does sugar-coat the antics of other, more fan-favourite characters so as not to offend the audience. The events of A Storm of Swords pretty much destroy Tyrion as a character, reducing him to a vile-spirited murderer in the finale as he realises how his attempts to be (in his own way) honourable and fair have backfired on him. The TV show doesn't hold much truck with this, making Tyrion a killer only in self-defence and allowing him to retain the veneer of heroism rather than complicating and darkening the character as Martin does in the novels. It's a lazy and obvious choice for a show (and series of books) that shines the brightest when not doing the lazy and obvious.

Still, whilst some elements are hard to swallow or excuse (and nor should we), the fourth season of Game of Thrones is, when it is on its game, still highly watchable, entertaining and the most epic ongoing TV series ever made. The problem is that the series isn't hitting those best moments with the frequency that it really could with some cleverer and more subtle writing, and sometimes lets itself down by chasing controversy which it really does not need to do.

401: Two Swords (****)
402: The Lion and the Rose (****½)
403: Breaker of Chains (***)
404: Oathkeeper (***)
405: First of His Name (***)
406: The Laws of God and Men (****½)
407: Mockingbird (****)
408: The Mountain and the Viper (****½)
409: The Watchers on the Wall (*****)
410: The Children (****½)

Forthcoming: Season 5 (March/April 2015)

The Tomorrow People (2013)

The next stage of human evolution has begun. All over the world, individuals are developing the powers of telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation. A secret government-funded agency, Ultra, is tasked with keeping these individuals under control or removing their powers altogether. However, a small group of 'Tomorrow People' has taken refuge under the streets of New York and is preparing for the day when they can escape persecution.

The Tomorrow People is an SF franchise with some history behind it. It originally aired from 1973 to 1979 as a zero-budget children's programme in the UK. Although almost forgotten today, it remains the second-longest-running British SF show of all time in terms of episode count (just beating out Red Dwarf). The series was then revived in 1992 for a three-season run. The premise of both shows was that humanity is developing into another form of life - homo superior* - and that the new 'break-outs' (humans who have developed these powers) need to be helped by the existing Tomorrow People to deal with their newfound abilities. Both shows also used more overtly SF elements like aliens and robots, with the Tomorrow People using an alien spacecraft as their headquarters and relying on a powerful AI named TIM to help them.

This latest reboot is from the American CW network and is surprisingly faithful to the original show. Character names are reused, original lead actor Nicholas Young has a cameo and even TIM (now a human-built computer) returns. However, the premise is complicated, darkened and made a bit less hokey. There are no aliens or spaceships and the struggle is now presented as being between the Tomorrow People and those humans aware of their existence and who see them as a threat, not a symbol of hope. There are also internal struggles within the Tomorrow People, between those who seek to use their powers for good, those who just want to get on with their lives and others who actively want to use their powers to commit crimes.

Our main POV character is Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell), who breaks out in the first episode and finds himself torn between joining Ultra (run by his uncle Jedikiah, played by genre-favourite Mark Pellegrino) and a group of rebels led by John (Luke Mitchell) and Cara (Peyton List). Relations are complicated by John and Cara's group having been founded years earlier by Stephen's missing father Roger (Jeffrey Pierce). Early episodes play up a cheesy love triangle between Stephen, John and Cara and rely on break-out-of-the-week plots in which Stephen, having joined Ultra to spy on it for the rebels, has to maintain his cover whilst also helping his friends. Some episodes show promise - Cara's back-story is surprisingly well-handled, with List playing the younger, more rebellious version of the character with more aplomb than the somewhat dull modern equivalent - but it's pretty disposable stuff.

The show shifts up a gear in the mid-season, when more people find out about Stephen's powers and the real main antagonist, the Founder (played with scene-destroying relish by ex-Spartacus actor Simon Merrells) shows up to complicate things. The ongoing story arc comes more to the fore and for a few episodes the show almost lives up to its potential. Particularly welcome is Luke Mitchell stepping up to the plate and impressing more in the role of John. The showrunners seem to be aware of this, with a move in the mid-season away from focusing on Stephen as the protagonist (despite bringing enthusiasm to the role, Amell's range is rather limited) and instead on the group as a whole. This works well until the last couple of episodes when the plot starts lurching in all kinds of random directions and the conclusion to the season-long arc ends up being a bit of a damp squib. The cliffhanger pulls it back a little by providing some interesting groundwork for the next season, but given there isn't going to be one (the show was cancelled after filming concluded) that doesn't really help.

The Tomorrow People (***) is watchable, cheesy and disposable fun which occasionally delivers some above-average performances and episodes. There's certainly a lot of mileage in the premise and it's a shame that the show won't be given a chance to improve with time and more episodes. However, the show is also predictable, frequently badly-written and some of the actors should really think about taking up other careers: Jeffrey Piece is particularly awful, over-acting to the hilt and making even his cornier young co-stars look amazing in comparison. Overall, the series is only worth a watch once you have exhausted the several dozen better series around at the moment.

* Believe it or not, original series creator Roger Price was discussing TV projects with David Bowie in the early 1970s and found himself detailing the plot of the in-development Tomorrow People with the singer. Bowie liked the term so much that he nabbed it for his song "Oh! You Pretty Things!" (from Hunky Dory). The term was previously used in the X-Men comics in 1961, long predating either usage, but apparently neither Price nor Bowie were aware of this.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Three more directors lined up to helm STAR WARS movies

Star Wars: Episode VII is currently shooting in the UK with J.J. Abrams in the directing seat, but Disney and Lucasfilm are already preparing the next three movies in the franchise.

Gareth Edwards, the director of indie movie Monsters and the recent Godzilla reboot, will be helming the first stand-alone, spin-off film. This is widely rumoured to be a film about the perpetual fan-favourite bounty-hunter Boba Fett. It's already slated for release in December 2016, a year after Episode VII. Josh Trank, the director of the low-budget 2012 SF movie Chronicle and the forthcoming Fantastic Four reboot, has also been slated to direct a stand-alone, possibly for release in 2018.

Not quite locked yet, but almost, is Rian Johnson, the director of the well-received 2012 time travel thriller Looper. Johnson is rumoured to be writing and directing Episode VIII, already slated for release in late 2017, and is also writing a story treatment for Episode IX.

Disney and Lucasfilm plan to release a Star Wars movie every year from 2015 to at least 2019, with Episodes VII-IX alternating years with stand-alone films.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Steven Erikson hints that a MALAZAN RPG might be on its way

In his regular Q&A over on, Steven Erikson has said (Q.21) that there are serious talks underway to adapt the Malazan universe to a pen-and-paper RPG game based on the D20 series (using rules similar to the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder).

"As for the encyclopedia, well, it seems that we might end up going through the back-door on this one, as we’re in serious talks with a RPG 20D group who are keen to adapt the Malazan universe to a game. If this goes ahead, well, it will of necessity involve a release of all the relevant maps and game-notes presently occupying a cardboard box in my garage, and those from Cam as well. Said project demands full disclosure, don’t you think? Although, that said, the eventual release of everything could end up as instalments, expansion packs, etc. Still, it does mark an opening of the flood-gates."

No deal has been signed yet, so nothing is confirmed, but Erikson indicated that he and Ian Esslemont would release all of their background material, including maps, for use with the game. No word was given on which company was interested in publishing the game.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014


Frontier Developments have released a new trailer for Elite: Dangerous.

The game has entered its premium beta phase and will be followed by a standard beta phase before release. Currently the smart money is on a release in October or November (unfortunately probably missing the 30th anniversary of the original Elite in September).

Monday, 9 June 2014

GAME OF THRONES infographics

HarperCollins has published the first of three infographics based on A Song of Ice and Fire. These were produced by some poor researcher (er, cough, me) going through the books and counting how many times people die/get married/get maimed/get tortured by Joffrey. I have no idea how many of the figures are going into the graphics (I came up with a couple of dozen), so any that aren't used I may post at a later date, if I'm allowed.

See the full size image here.

A note on methodology: I went through all five books (seven, in the UK editions) and made a note of every single time someone died, had sex, got married or was executed. I also tried to concoct an ultimate master-menu of every bit of food mentioned by GRRM in the novels, which caused my computer to crash and caused an Internet black-out covering much of the western half of Europe*. I also counted the number of times popular phrases (yes, even "Words are wind,") and unusual words ("Nuncle," natch) cropped up.

There was a lot of judgement calls in this. If GRRM describes someone getting smashed in the face by a mace and then ridden over by a horse into the mud, it's probably safe to assume he's dead. Someone with their hand cut off and is surrendering with the possibility of medical aid (if of uncertain quality; no Talisa in the books, remember) is a bit less certain and thus was not counted. The deaths include reported, accurate figures, such as the roll-call of how many knights and lords died on the Blackwater (the peasant soldiers were less lucky, obviously), and some prominent off-screen but reported deaths. Rumoured deaths which are not backed up by strong argument, and where strong theories suggest the person survived, were not counted. The death count also includes prominent animals (like certain direwolves) but not every dragon-roasted sheep or messenger raven shot down. The weddings count also includes off-screen weddings (Bronn and Lollys) and very minor ones (Tyrek and his toddler-bride).

I haven't seen these before, so I have no idea what's going to be on the next two.

* Possibly exaggerated for comic effect

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

New WHEEL OF TIME cover art for the UK

Orbit Books have revealed that they will be reissuing all fifteen Wheel of Time books (including New Spring) in the UK with new covers.

The new editions will be released in September this year. Follow the link to see all of the covers.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

RIP Jay Lake

Science fiction author Jay Lake passed away this morning. He was 49 years old and had been - very publicly through blogging and a documentary film - fighting colon cancer for six years.

Lake was the author of nine novels and three hundred short stories. John Scalzi has penned a memorial to him which can be read here. Unfortunately, I have not read any of his work - something I will have to remedy - but I've always heard of him spoken as a good guy with a tremendous work ethic (barely slowing down after being diagnosed) and someone who faced his enormous struggle with good humour. Condolences to his friends and family.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron

The war between the Autobots and Decepticons for control of their homeworld, Cybertron, has resulted in the near-ruination of the planet. Its energon stores are almost gone, with the last few scraps being fought over at tremendous cost. The Autobots realise they have no choice but to abandon their home and search for a new refuge amongst the stars. To this end they have built the Ark, an immense starship, but it is under the threat of Decepticon attack. The Autobots have to power up the ship, protect it from attack and escape, whilst the Decepticons try to stop them and engage in their own internal conflict.

Fall of Cybertron is the sequel to the enjoyable-but-lightweight War for Cybertron and is an improvement over that game in almost every way. Like its forebear, it's a linear third-person shooter which tells a large-scale story involving many characters, with you playing different Autobots or Decepticons on different levels. Unlike its forebear, it's a bit more generous and smarter in differentiating the characters and allowing you to use their full range of abilities.

Part of Fall of Cybertron's appeal is that it takes what is usually the starting point for the Transformers mythos - the launch of the Ark from Cybertron, the subsequent Decepticon ambush and the crash of the starship on prehistoric Earth - and turns it into the grand finale. The build-up to this event is depicted through a series of missions where the Autobots try to get the ship ready for take-off, secure new fuel supplies and fend off Deception attacks, with a series of side-missions depicting the search for the missing Grimlock and his team (the future Dinobots, who get probably their most logical-ever origin story in this game). From the Deception POV, there are a series of missions about trying to defeat the Autobots whilst - as usual - there are internal conflicts and attempts by the treacherous Starscream to supplant Megatron as leader.

The game is heavily focused around combat, although some of the characters (Cliffjumper and Starscream) have more stealthy options available to them. A lot of the time you are fighting in robot mode, diving in and out of cover to exchange fire with enemies, but the game also provides many larger areas where you can switch to vehicle mode for a more mobile experience. The first game was guilty of neglecting the Transforming mechanic (which is a bit stupid), but the sequel makes full and vigorous use of it. Indeed, the one level where you command Grimlock has you limited in being able to transform only when Grimlock gets mad enough (represented by filling a bar by defeating enemies) and then giving you a ridiculous number of overpowered abilities in dinosaur mode. Another sequence has you controlling the gigantic Decepticon Bruticus and smashing your way to victory.

The game also maintains interest by providing a series of massive set-pieces. The game is limited in the freedom it gives you to change or alter the storyline (you get two slightly different endings depending on whether the Autobots or Decepticons get the upper hand in the battle for the Ark but that's about it), so it makes up for that by making the combat fun and by making the levels as memorable as possible. One sequence has you alternating between the Combaticons as they work together to take down a bridge to block an Autobot transport. Another features you as Cliffjumper infiltrating a ruined party of Cybertron and taking down enemies through stealth attacks. Jazz takes part in a combat mission using a physics-based energy grapple, whilst Optimus Prime has to fight his way through enemy lines by lighting up targets for the massive Autobot Metroplex to destroy. The designers work hard to provide big, epic moments at every point of the story (some shamelessly cribbed from the comics, TV series or, especially, the 1986 animated movie) and generally pull it off. Long-term Transformers fans will likely play through most of the game with a big grin on their faces.

The game's biggest success is the depiction of the battle for the Ark. Ususally depicted as a one-sided massacre, the game turns it into a furious battle in space, on the hull of the ship and inside its decks. The POV switches rapidly from Soundwave boarding the ship with his cassette warriors to take down its main guns to Jetfire shooting down grappling hooks outside to Bruticus smashing his way along the hull to Jazz trying to take him down, and finally to a brutal slug-fight between Optimus Prime and Megatron. As final missions go, it's exceptionally good, despite the massive cliffhanger ending.

The game still has some drawbacks. Whilst the stealth sequences and the sequences where you play as overpowered killing machines break up the third-person shooter scenes, you still spend a lot of the game exchanging fire with distantly-glimpsed enemies down corridors. It's also highly unclear what half the weapons in the game actually do (due to some uselessly non-descriptive names). There's also an upgrade system which never really feels that necessary to use.

The drawbacks are fairly minor, however. The game is fun, makes much more interesting use of the licence than its predecessor and has a great, pulpy storyline. More recent fans of the franchise may miss a whole host of Easter Eggs, but old-school Transformers fans will enjoy the tons of references to the many different incarnations of the franchise. If there is a major problem, it's that the game ends on a cliffhanger which is not likely to be resolved any time soon: the planned third game in the series has been turned into a tie-in with the upcoming new Michael Bay movie and won't resolve the story at all.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (****½) is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).


Intelligence organisation SHIELD is on the back foot. Agent Phil Coulson has been kidnapped by an enigmatic enemy, their key ally Mike Peterson is presumed dead and the organisation is under threat from within.

How the fanbase feels after waiting fifteen weeks for the show to even start to get really good.

It is fair to say that Agents of SHIELD did not set the world on fire when it debuted last autumn. Some indifferent performances, ropey dialogue and over-cliched scripts made for an uneven series, despite some impressive production values and a large amount of potential in the premise. Upon its return it's initially the same deal, with the show teasing but ultimately refusing to give up any solid information about how Coulson returned from the dead and some lacklustre villain-of-the-week episodes standing in for real drama.

And then Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out and suddenly Agents of SHIELD got good.

I don't think I've quite seen a show spin on a dime and go from being so average to highly enjoyable overnight in quite the same way that SHIELD manages. In fact, it's clear that the writers were under strict orders to hold fire on their biggest plot revelations and surprises until the movie came out. From episode fifteen onwards, SHIELD becomes much more compelling, with some genuinely startling plot twists, much higher stakes and, for once, a built-in reason why the superheroes aren't sorting out these problems the team is running into. The sense of worldwide panic and chaos following the revelations in the movie and the team having to survive on its own without its normal resources is extremely well-done. Then we get the Patented Whedon Gut Punch Betrayal which spurs even the weakest actors in the cast (Brett Dalton's Ward and Chloe Bennett's Skye) to deliver some great performances.

The final seven episodes of the season are very strong, with the team having to recover from the massive blows it sustains and go on the offensive. This makes for some strong TV, enhanced by the presence of Bill Paxton (in fine scenery-chewing mode) as SHIELD agent John Garrett. The series even tries to redeem some of the earlier, weaker episodes by bringing back characters, weapons and elements established earlier on and giving them a reason for existing.

Unfortunately, this late-season improvement in quality doesn't quite last into the finale. Given the disastrous slump in ratings Agents of SHIELD suffered early on, it's clear that the producers were unsure if it would return and hedge their bets in the final episode, wrapping most of the storylines up (a couple of elements left possibly hanging for future films) a little too neatly. There's also some very grating and inappropriate humour in the finale (most noticeably Coulson making clever quips to the villain whilst standing over the dead body of a colleague). However, the show also does finally get a more definitive mission statement in the finale which should make the second season a little bit more interesting. The Fitz/Simmons relationship, which has been mainly used for comic relief throughout the series, also gets a much-needed shake-up with a terrific turn by actors Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as their characters are put in a no-win scenario.

The second half of Agents of SHIELD's first season (****) is altogether superior to the first. The fact that the producers kept treading water for no less than fifteen episodes before allowing the show to really cut loose is annoying, supporting the idea that SHIELD should have launched later (maybe with fewer, higher-budgeted episodes), but the show does finally manage to redeem its indifferent start by showing what it can really do. Whether this improvement in form will last into Season 2, or if the show will again switch back to a cheesy procedural that only takes off when the films give it permission, remains to be seen.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER reimagined as a 1990s adventure game

Artist Andrew Scaife has reimagined scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a 1990s LucasArts adventure game, and it's awesome.

Scaife has done seven scenes, one for each season. He's put a lot of detail into each scene, not just the characters and environments but also on such things as inventory (what Buffy is carrying in each scene) and what the characters are doing to get out of their predicaments.

If an enterprising modder doesn't go off and make a Buffy adventure game now, I will be disappointed. Check out all of the scenes over at Scaife's website.