The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.
Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.
The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.
As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.
Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).
The world is reeling from the revelation that the Nazi terror group Hydra has survived, operating in the shadows, for seventy years. Many SHIELD agents have defected to it and the two groups, both outlawed, are now at each other's throats. As the rest of the world struggles to deal with this conflict, the agents of SHIELD are on the back foot. Deprived of their normal resources and funds, Phil Coulson and his team are barely keeping their heads above water. But they have some aces in the hole, including an agent placed inside Hydra and a very unusual source of intelligence about the enemy.
Agents of SHIELD's first season can be summed up as "Pretty poor up until Episode 15, then it got good." This was a show running with its training wheels still on until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out and allowed the show to take some risks and go in some very interesting directions. The season ended on a high, but the question remained if it could continue on that path.
The answer is yes, more or less. The opening half of Season 2 has the series in a state of barely-controlled chaos. There are new agents on the team, but thanks to a between-seasons time gap we barely get any introduction to them. They're just there and we have to deal with it.
The first season left a lot of balls in the air which the show does a good job of catching and running we. We have the fall-out from Fitz's severe injury in the Season 1 finale which has reduced him to a shell of his former self (a superb performance from Iain De Caestecker). We have Ward's brutal betrayal of his former team which has left him their prisoner, being pumped for information by his old friends. There's the ongoing mystery of the alien symbols in Coulson's head, not to mention Skye's ongoing search for her father and her own origins. There's also the ongoing main storyline about Hydra's rise to power and the various world governments struggling to tell Hydra from SHIELD. It makes for a busy season with no time for interminable stand-alones, which is good.
On the negative side, there is still some repetition, with a few episodes showing Daniel Whitehall embarking on some plot only to be thwarted by Coulson's team. There's also the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe reliance on magical maguffins. Hydra and SHIELD spend this half-season battling for control of the "Diviner", a mystical key thingy to some secret city which could something bad, potentially. It's all a bit vague and the stakes aren't really spelt out. The show is better when it's pitting SHIELD and Hydra against one another (with Kyle MacLachlan's character as an effective wild card), fighting over clearer objectives and with the consequences made clearer. The decision to introduce the new characters in media res also backfires a little by not providing the audience with any reason to care about them: Lance is such an underwritten character that the decision to make him the focus of a couple of episodes is baffling.
It isn't plain sailing then, but Agents of SHIELD's second season (***½) is off to a reasonable start and has a powerful mid-season cliffhanger that raises the stakes again. It'll be very interesting to see where the show goes in the back half of the season.
A new family moves to South Park, Colorado, a town noted for its odd inhabitants, idyllic scenery and occasional tendency to become involved in the fate of the country/world/universe. The family's son becomes embroiled in a complex live-action roleplaying game being fought for control of the "Stick of Truth", but this soon escalates with alien spaceships crashing into the mall, government agents showing up and gnomes invading homes to steal underpants. Also, Al Gore arrives in search of a mythical creature. Basically, it's just another day in South Park.
South Park is no stranger to video game adaptations. The earliest appeared shortly after the show's debut in 1997 and were soulless cash-ins revolving around racing or first-person action games in a horrible 3D version of the game's distinctive art style. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, unimpressed, approached Obsidian Entertainment with the idea of making a new game that employed the show's signature 2D art style and was also faithful to its satirical, biting (and occasionally very sick) humour. Obsidian rose to the occasion, putting together an RPG design which would involve Parker and Stone as the main writers and voice artists.
The result is a game that is so faithful to the source material that, unless someone spots you controlling it or you get into a battle, it can easily be mistaken for an episode of the actual TV show. For a studio whose often amazing artistic vision is too often compromised by budget or time, Obsidian finally managed to hit it out of the park on their first attempt, rather than after a lengthy patching cycle. If you are a South Park fan, there is simply no further need for further discussion: get ahold of this pronto. If you find South Park crass or offensive, however, then there's nothing here that will change your mind so steer well clear.
For those still on the fence, The Stick of Truth is a heavily narrative-based game set in and around South Park. You control "The New Kid" (later dubbed Sir Douchebag by the reliably foul-mouthed Cartman), a new arrival in town soon recruited by Cartman into joining a roleplaying game. You can navigate around the town and surrounding countryside, all faithfully animated in the same style as the TV show, and undertake missions for other characters whilst getting involved in combat with animals or with the elves, the rival faction in the game. This being South Park, things soon escalate and then you're fighting aliens, giant rats and gnomes armed with magic that can miniaturise you for no particular reason. Combat takes place in a turn-based, Japanese RPG style environment, with you being able to use both magic (based around flatulence) and special attacks associated with your character class (Fighter, Mage or Jew). It's straightforward but the interaction between different weapons, armour, magic, items and the ability to switch between ranged and melee attacks delivers a satisfying number of options to you. In short, the gameplay is superb.
In terms of length, you can polish off the main storyline in 10-12 hours with ease. What is slightly disappointing is that there are relatively few side-quests. The main activity outside of following the story is based around collectibles, going around the town looking for Chinpokomon toys (I got very excited when I finally found Shoe) or little kids playing hide and seek. This is mildly diverting and can extend the playing time out by a few hours, but overall this is not a very long game. It's still a lot of fun, but you may want to pick it up in a sale rather than pay full price.
In story terms, it's basically South Park's Greatest Hits, with Parker and Stone revisiting almost every concept they've come up with in the past two decades. So Mr. Hanky and his martial problems form a subplot, Al Gore shows up to continue his search for ManBearPig and the player can meet Terrance and Phillip in a quest that takes them to Canada (rendered as a primitive NES-style top-down RPG). This could risk being derivative, but Parker and Stone instead seem to relish re-using previous ideas and fleshing them out beyond the confines of a 20-minute TV episode. It's a pretty funny game, but Parker and Stone also don't hold back on using jokes that they wouldn't be able to get into even on the TV show. An anal probing sequence on the alien mothership is particularly gross, as is a later section set inside another character's colon, and a sequence inside an abortion clinic complete with foetal zombies goes through the roof of offensiveness to some other plane of WTFery. Some of the more offensive sequences can be skipped (or are cut out entirely in international versions of the game) but others can't.
The Stick of Truth is, on the one hand, a superb game. It's a pitch-perfect translation of a TV show into a game (maybe the best one ever done), with some excellent gameplay and mechanics. The characters and story are appropriate to the source material and it's genuinely hilarious in places. On the other hand, it's rather short for its genre and the game is mind-bogglingly offensive at some parts. For those who like seeing the boundaries of good humour and taste being stretched to their limits, this won't be a problem. For others, it will be. In that sense, this is a game more for established fans than newcomers.
AD 3326. Nigel Sheldon, the originator of wormhole technology and the person responsible for the creation of the Intersolar Commonwealth, is semi-retired and planning to leave this galaxy for a new one. However, his plans are interrupted by the enigmatic Raiel, the powerful aliens who guard the Milky Way from the expansion of the Void, the mysteriously growing mini-universe hidden in the galactic core. The Raiel need Sheldon to go into the Void and help recover one of their ancient warships. Sheldon agrees...but soon finds himself on the wrong planet in the wrong time and the only way out is to support a full-scale revolution.
The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the first novel in a duology, to be followed by Night Without Stars. This series, The Chronicle of the Fallers, is the latest work in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth universe. Familiarity with the previous works in this universe (the Commonwealth Saga duology and the Void Trilogy) is recommended as this book contains spoilers for the earlier ones, but is not strictly essential.
As with the preceding Void Trilogy, this novel is divided into two sections and almost two distinct genres. In the opening sequence we have far-future SF, set thirteen centuries hence when humanity is immortal, can cross the galaxy in a matter of weeks and live any kind of life imaginable. The bulk of the book is set within the Void itself, where high technology does not work but the inhabitants gain the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Whilst the Void sequence was set on Querencia, which was more of a fantasy setting, the Fallers books are set on Bienvenido. Unlike Querencia, where a lot of history was lost after the human refugees settled on it, Bienvenido has maintained more of a history and identify, as well as a slightly higher level of technology. This gives the novel more of a steampunk feel, allowing Hamilton to mix up some more genres.
The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off by feeling a little bit too much like The Dreaming Void. One of our primary POVs is Svlasta, a soldier wounded in battle with the mysterious Fallers (hostile aliens who can assume human appearance) who soon becomes the architect of social change. The similarities with Edeard's story in the earlier books are uncanny. However, Hamilton is clever enough to subvert the reader's expectations and soon moves off in another direction. It's not long before we're meeting some clever (and very conscious) Russian Revolution parallels and seeing how all revolutions carry within them their own capacity for self-destruction.
As usual, Hamilton's prose is unornamented but highly readable. His characters are well-delineated, although they're all a little too prone to using British swear words and idioms. The book is structurally similar to the Void novels but this is deliberate and soon used to set up and then undercut expectations in an interesting way. There are a few complaints, however. One of these is how quickly the ending unfolds (bordering on the abrupt) and how rapidly one of our main characters descends into outright madness. Whilst foreshadowed earlier on, the actual transition feels a little too rapid.
Another is only an issue for long-standing fans. The Commonwealth universe is undeniably a fascinating place, but we've now spent four (out of a planned five) big novels on the subject of the Void. Given the size and variety of the Commonwealth, it would be nice to see more of it than this same bit of it. I can see the fascination, as it allows the author to experiment with different genres without having to fully abandon his SF roots to do it, but there is the feeling that it would be nice to wrap up the Void and move on. The next book in the series will hopefully do just that.
Otherwise, The Abyss Beyond Dreams (****) is a very solid Hamilton SF novel: big ideas, fun characters and affecting moments of gut-wrenching horror. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are continuing to work as meth-cooks for ruthless criminal Gus Fring, but they are now at loggerheads. As both sides try to find a way to get on top so they no longer need the other and can eliminate them, Walter also continues to draw his ex-wife Skyler deeper into his schemes.
The fourth season of Breaking Bad is arguably the one where it goes from being consistently excellent to staking a claim to the "Best Show on TV" title. Up until now the show has painted Walter White in - at least somewhat - sympathetic terms. White wants what is best for his family and has made occasionally ruthless decisions to back that up in self-defence, or when the alternative is the death of his family or Jesse. White has certainly been on moral slide (especially given his inaction in the Season 2 finale that led to a death) but he hasn't wholly moved past redemption. This changes dramatically in the fourth season, with White now pitted against a man far more ruthless and cunning than himself. This forces White to up his game, to close off his emotions and do whatever it takes to survive and to win.
By this point, it has become redundant to say that the actors are all spectacular, that the writing is tight, the dialogue quotable and the music choices all very strong. The show does have some near-vanishing weaknesses that continue: the tendency to completely drop story elements until they are needed and then bring them back abruptly later on is mildly grating. Remember Walter Jr.'s crowdfunding scheme which Saul co-opts as a money laundering operation? The writers don't, then do, then don't again. The writers also continue to be forever on the verge of giving Marie something to do and then pull back, so for most of the season (and indeed the show) she's just hanging around. Her interaction with Hank in the opening part of the season seems to be setting up a more interesting relationship between them and then goes nowhere.
To find even these criticisms some serious reaching is required. What the show does do brilliantly in its fourth year is finding ways of putting Gus and Walter at loggerheads and showing Walter 'level up' in villainy as he attempts to take on Gus at his own game. The establishing of Gus's own backstory in the episodes Hermanos and Salud (showing that Gus went through a similar process with his own nemesis, Don Eladio) cleverly adds depth to the character as well. The season then culminates in a three-episode run that is wall-to-wall tension, action and drama and ends on a note-perfect moment.
What is also well done is how Jesse becomes a pawn between Gus and Walter, with Gus discovering how to build up Jesse's confidence as a watch of stealing away his loyalty. Walter is forced into some pretty breathtaking and ruthless actions to get that loyalty back, and it's this relationship (sold by the actors with total conviction) that forms the backbone of the season.
The fourth season of Breaking Bad (*****) is the best to date and is the show at the very top of its game. It is available now
as part of the Breaking Bad Complete Collection in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).
Originally released by Relic Entertainment in 1999, Homeworld was lauded for its highly atmospheric soundtrack, cool visuals, the first fully successful depiction of 3D space in a strategy game and its compelling storyline. Its sequel, Homeworld 2, was released in 2003 and added some vastly more advanced graphics and a more comprehensive user interface. Released between the two was Homeworld: Cataclysm, a stand-alone expansion which is sometimes regarded, in at least gameplay terms, as the high point of the series.
Unfortunately, Cataclysm is not included in this release due the source files being missing and the rights to the game being in question.
Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were made by Relic Entertainment, by a team led by Rob Cunningham. Cunningham left Relic in 2007 to set up his own studio, Blackbird Interactive. He was joined by many veterans of the two Homeworld games. Blackbird have been assisting Gearbox in their remastering of the two games, by tracking source files and original audio and graphical assets. More excitingly, Blackbird are also working on a full prequel to the games. Homeworld: Shipbreakers will be based around ground combat and strategy as competing factions on the planet Kharak fight for resources. More news about Shipbreakers is expected to be released after the remastered games are out.
The remastered collection will feature both the original or 'classic' versions of the games as well as the new versions. The new versions will feature a remastered version of the original audio (including, where necessary, new voice recordings by the original actors), hugely updated graphics and a new multiplayer mode combining the maps and ships from both games into one competitive game. It's looking pretty great at the moment.
GoG have added yet more Star Wars titles to their store, just a few days after the last batch.
Up today is the incredibly slow and ponderous mega-strategy game Supremacy (titled Rebellion in the USA), which I found so boring that just looking at the box put me to sleep. However, other gamers swear by it due to its slow-boiling, long-term planning. Also the fact that you can have multiple Death Stars running around blowing up planets.
Considerably less dull, although still not great, is Empire at War. This RTS was released in 2006 and enables the player to pit the Empire and Rebels, Separatists and Republic against one another. It wasn't a great game, mainly down to some very stilted ground combat, but some of the space battles were passable. This version includes the Forces of Corruption expansion, and there are many mods out there to improve the game experience.
More well-known is action game Rogue Squadron. Whilst not a patch on the X-Wing series, Rogue Squadron is a much more accessible arcade blaster.
GoG will release four more Star Wars games on the 27th. These are the brilliant Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (presumably with the Mysteries of the Sith expansion included), the so-so Starfighter and the superb tactical FPS Republic Commando.
Rock Paper Shotgun have some more info on the upcoming Battlefleet Gothic: Armada game.
Briefly, the game will depict the struggle for the Gothic system. The game starts with the Imperium controlling the entire system and struggling against invading Eldar, Ork and Chaos forces. The game is dynamic, with fleets and ships being built and moved on a turn-based battle map before the game turns into a real-time tactical mode. The single-player campaign will only feature the Imperium as a controllable faction, but there will be skirmish and multiplayer mods featuring the other races. The game will also feature the ability to level entire planets from orbit (the dreaded "Exterminatus" order) and the AI of ship captains will develop, possibly leading them to rebel if you don't handle them right.
J. Michael Straczynski, the acclaimed creator-writer of Babylon 5 amongst many other projects, has been tapped to write Spike TV's adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.
This is an interesting match. The Mars novels came out at the sametime Babylon 5 was starting, and it feels like Straczynski may have tapped them for some inspiration, particularly with the subplot about terrorists on Mars fighting for independence. B5 showed that JMS 'got' Mars, even in the brief parts of the series set there, so if he can bring that same touch to this project that should be great for the atmosphere and visuals.
How much of Robinson's incredibly slow-burning narrative will remain intact or be sacrificed at the altar of action and more compressed character development remains to be seen, but Straczynski is a reasonably confident pair of hands to put the project in.
GoG.com has released an additional six Star Wars games to its library. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, X-Wing Alliance, Galactic Battlegrounds, Dark Forces, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Battlefront II are the new additions.
A non-optimum situation.
All are worthwhile purchases. Battlefront II is a multiplayer-focused shoot 'em up, with somewhat dated visuals but still fun gameplay. Knights of the Old Republic II is the far more conceptually interesting (but also far more broken) sequel to one of the greatest RPGs ever made. Incomplete on release, mods have repaired a lot of the damage and allowed the game to flourish. Dark Forces is Doom with a Star Wars skin, but still awesome. Galactic Battlegrounds is Age of Empires II with a Star Wars skin, but still pretty good.
The two X-Wing games are probably going to be the key draw here. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter is multiplayer-focused and the multiplayer is a bit flaky on the GoG version of the game at the moment. However, the single-player Balance of Power campaign is included and is very worthwhile. More impressive is X-Wing Alliance, the final game in the series. Released in 1999, the game is the most epic in the series and the largest, featuring a lengthy campaign culminating in the full-scale assault on the second Death Star at the Battle of Endor. It's the most visually impressive of the four games (and also the easiest to update to modern standards through mods), although hardcore fans will argue only the second-best, behind the more morally ambiguous TIE Fighter.
Apparently more Star Wars games are still to come, likely to comprise some or all of the remaining Dark Forces series (Jedi Knight, Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy), possibly the well-regarded Republic Commando or the more acquired taste of Supremacy (aka Rebellion). We may also get to see the flawed-but-ambitious Force Commander, with Rebel Assault also an outside possibility. Beyond that we are likely to see some more serious scraping of the barrel. It's also possible we will see some of the newer games, like the Empire at War strategy title or the two Force Unleashed titles.
It looks like between these old games, the release of Battlefront III later this year and of course the arrival of Episode VII: The Force Awakens in December, it's a good time to be a Star Wars fan.
Gollancz have acquired the English translation and publication rights to three further Witcher books by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski.
Gollancz started the process of releasing the books by publishing The Last Wish way back in 2007. They then, slightly oddly, jumped forwards to the third book (and the first volume in the informal five-volume series that forms the core of the franchise), Blood of Elves, published in 2008. There was then a five-year wait whilst complex rights issues were thrashed out before the series resumed, with a new translator, with Time of Contempt in 2013. Baptism of Fire followed last year.
The new releases will commence in May with the release of Sword of Destiny, the original second book in the saga. A linked collection of short stories, Sword of Destiny sets up the five-volume main saga and many cite it as required reading. The final two novels in the main saga will follow, with The Swallow's Tower out in 2016 and Lady of the Lake to follow in 2017. At the moment it appears that the recently-published prequel novel Season of Storms is not included in the deal.
Sword of Destiny will be launched alongside The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the forthcoming, eagerly-awaited third computer roleplaying game in the series. The Witcher (2007) and The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings (2011) have sold over 8 million copies between them and brought the original books to a much bigger audience.
I don't know how this one slipped me by, but Amazon Prime have filmed a pilot episode for a TV series based on Philip K. Dick's classic alternative-history novel The Man in the High Castle. Amazon have released it (US-only), along with several other pilots, for public consumption, and will later make a decision on which one to take to series.
The good news is that this pilot seems to have attracted by far the best critical response, so hopefully it will lead to a full series being commissioned.
Gollancz have revealed the cover art for Poseidon's Wake, the concluding novel in the informal Poseidon's Children trilogy. It follows on from Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze and will be published on 16 April.
I like this cover, as it is both retro and current. I do lament the loss of the actual shots of space and starships from the previous books in the series. Both Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze are also being reissued with similar cover art.
A new Thunderbirds TV series is set to debut in the next couple of months, so I thought it'd be interesting to round up all the info we have on the new series.
The new show is called Thunderbirds Are Go! and is the third television series in the franchise, following on from the original Thunderbirds that aired in 1965-65 and the animated Japanese homage series Thunderbirds 2086, which aired in 1986.
All versions of the franchise feature International Rescue, an independent organisation working from a remote Pacific island which maintains and operates several large vehicles which are used in helping out in dangerous situations, such as disaster relief or rescue missions. In the original series and the new reboot, International Rescue is run by the Tracy family, led by patriarch Jeff Tracy. His sons Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John pilot Thunderbirds 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively. Thunderbird 1 is a superfast rocket plane, capable of reaching any danger zone on Earth in a matter of hours and assessing the situation. Thunderbird 2 is a heavy lifter craft which can transport a variety of smaller, automated vehicles tailored to deal with almost any situation. Thunderbird 3 is a spacecraft capable of interplanetary travel. Thunderbird 4 is a deepwater submarine. Thunderbird 5 is a space station in geostationary orbit, constantly scanning for disasters and mayday signals so the team can respond as quickly as possible. Additional characters include Brains, the creator of the Thunderbird vehicles, and the Hood, a mysterious villain who wants to capture the Thunderbird vehicles and use them to develop weapons technology he can sell to the highest bidder. Also important are Lady Penelope and her chauffeur/bodyguard Parker, who are (sometimes surprisingly ruthless) secret agents working in an intelligence-gathering role for International Rescue.
The new show seems to retain all of this backdrop, along with adding new recurring characters such as Kayo and Colonel Casey. The new series has been described as a reboot, so it's assumed it replaces the original show in continuity rather than working as a sequel to it. The precise date of the reboot, or how it will accommodate new technological innovations like the internet, are currently not known.
What is known is that the show will drop the puppets of the original (too expensive, apparently) and will use CGI characters. Before you throw things at the computer, they are using real miniatures, sets and models (although I suspect they will be using both physical ships and CGI versions and switching between them as needed) and integrating the CG characters with them. How successful this will be remains to be seen.
The new cast includes some known names. The biggest coup is Rosamund Pike, recently festooned with awards and nominations for her role in Gone Girl. She will be playing Lady Penelope, with original 1960s Parker David Graham reprising his role. British comedian Kayan Novak, known for his TV series Fonejacker and Facejacker and his role in the comedy film Four Lions, is playing Brains, whilst Thomas Brodie-Sangster (recently seen as Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones) is playing both Gordon and John Tracy. Angel Coulby (Merlin) is playing new character Kayo, whilst Sandra Dickinson (Trillian in the BBC TV version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) is playing Grandma Tracy. Weta Digital, who worked on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, as well as Avatar, are providing the effects work.
The new show will debut on ITV in the spring. Its success will hinge on how well the CG characters go across (the initial design reveal above is not hugely encouraging, although the new vehicle designs are pretty solid) and what age it's pitched at. The original was successful partly because it was kid-friendly without necessarily talking down to them, the result of the show being expanded from 25 to 50 minute episodes necessitating the introduction of more character-building scenes, comic relief and dialogue. The new show will consist of half-hour episodes, likely to be focused more on action. If they can still put together good stories with that constraint, this should be a watchable show.
Focus Interactive have announced they are working on a Battlefleet Gothic real-time strategy game, subtitled Armada. Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Battlefleet Gothic pitches the starships, warships and massive star cruisers from the various factions against one another. The original miniatures game was very popular and there have been calls for a computer game version for years.
The board game line was suspended two years ago, leading to speculation that Games Workshop was putting the sub-franchise to one side. The video game news suggests it may have a future after all. The new game is being made by the same team behind the well-received Stellar Impact. No release date has been set, but Focus are pretty good at not announcing games until they are reasonably close to release, so a late 2015 release may be possible.
In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the starships fielded by the major races are huge, with the largest Imperial battleships exceeding 8km in length. Armada will initially depict ships from the Imperium, Orks, Eldar and Chaos factions, although if successful I imagine others will follow.
Creative Assembly have inadvertently confirmed that their next PC strategy game will be based on the Warhammer fantasy property by Games Workshop.
Expect the game to be set on a variant of this campaign map.
Strong rumours had been supporting this for a while, but the news was confirmed in CA's own Total War artbook, due out next week. Early review copies went out with the spoiling text still included, rather daftly. CA are owned by Sega who recently secured a Warhammer licence from Games Workshop. The licence is also expected to allow Sega's other strategy studio, Relic, to resume work on their Dawn of War IIIWarhammer 40,000 project which was put on hold several years ago when the previous licence-holders, THQ, went bust.
It is unclear if the new game will be called Total Warhammer, Total War: Warhammer or Total Hammer: War, which would clearly be best (apart from Total Waaagh!, of course). The game will probably involve men and possibly elves and dwarves smacking orks and rat-men and daemons in the face with metal objects, possibly magic. It's a bit of a departure for the Total War series, which through seven major titles in fourteen years has always been based firmly on real historical events. The move may have been inspired by Call of Warhammer, a very popular mod available for Medieval II: Total War.
War: Total Hammer Warhammer will likely be released in late 2016, based on the release and development times of the previous games in the series.
Obsidian have confirmed that their computer RPG Pillars of Eternity will be released on 26 March. The fantasy game, a spiritual successor to classic Infinity Engine RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, was partly funded through Kickstarter just over two years ago.
In addition, the PC version of Grand Theft Auto Vhas been delayed to 24 March. Rockstar, still smarting from the poor conversion of GTA4 back in 2008, has assigned the same team responsible for the excellent PC port of Max Payne 3 and has given them some extra time to polish the release. The PC version will be mostly the same as the recent PS4 and XB1 versions, complete with first-person mode, but will come with an added video playback editor and vastly superior graphics, with resolutions available up to 4K. The modding community is also getting ready to let rip on the game after it arrives.
Walter White's drug manufacturing sideline is taking over his life. He has separated from his wife (who now knows his secret) and has a new employer, Gus Fring, who is initially amiable but soon reveals himself to be ruthless and dangerous. However, Walter's colleague and friend Jesse is becoming unreliable, his lack of concern proving a danger to himself and to others around him.
The third season of Breaking Bad continues in just as confident and assured a style as the previous year. The show opens with the aftermath of the air crash over Albuquerque, a plot development that was a little too contrived and is quickly brushed under the rug (although not before Walter gives a startling and darkly humourous speech to his students about how it was "only" the fiftieth-worst air disaster in history). The following episodes set up Walter and a reluctant Jesse in their new "superlab" and show them now having a day job, with Walter even making himself his sandwiches before going to work. It's all funny stuff, contrasted with a more serious subplot in which two terrifyingly blank-faced assassins arrive in town to kill Walter.
The season takes a few episodes to really kick into gear, but then ups the ante with One Minute, when Hank is brutally attacked by the assassins in a parking lot, resulting in a stand-off and shoot-out that must rank among the more intense gunfights ever put on the small screen. Another episode, Fly, is remarkable in its attention to detail and character and moving the emotional stories of the characters along whilst being almost completely confined (for budgetary reasons) to the lab set.
But the season really triumphs with the last two episodes, in which Gus's relationship with Walter and Jesse moves onto a less friendly footing, an innocent man is killed and Walter's desperation drives him to increasingly ruthless and amoral acts. The writing is powerful and the acting is excellent, with Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks being promoted to regulars as Gus Fring and his highly capable fixer, Mike Ehrmantraut. Both actors deliver stand-out performances to match the already-established regulars.
The season also succeeds in showing the growing moral decline of Walter as he becomes more ruthless and starts the same process with Skylar, as she is initially disgusted by Walter's activities but later is happy to use his money to pay for Hank's medical bills, the start of her own gradual corruption by money. The way the subplots and themes all feed into one another and the characters so everything makes sense has become highly impressive by this point.
The third season of Breaking Bad (*****) improves on and evolves the story from the first two, becoming more epic and confident with every passing episode. Season 3 is available now as part of the Breaking Bad Complete Collection in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).
Several years have passed since the devastating events of God's War. Most of Nyx's former team have taken refuge in regions distant from the ongoing war between Nasheen and Chenja, taking up new lives, starting families and trying to move on. Nyx herself is still working on the sly for the Queen of Nasheen. When Nasheen is rocked by a devastating attack on the capital city and it becomes clear that the bel dame assassins are fighting amongst themselves, Nyx is forced to travel across the continent to consult her former allies Khos and Rhys. But her arrival in their new lives has horrifying consequences.
Infidel is the second volume in The Bel Dame Apocrypha, following on from God's War and preceding Rapture. As with the first novel, it's a hard-arsed book fusing fantasy to science fiction by way of a whole lot of attitude and a lot more smarts. It's also the rare middle volume of a trilogy that builds and improves on God's War.
God's War was a great book, but one that ended up being a little too confusing for its own good, especially at the start. Infidel is much more coherently focused on its storytelling, building a parallel narrative contrasting Rhys's new, peaceful life in Tirhan with Nyx's ongoing life of mayhem. This structure worked well in God's War but is even better here, with the different locations and circumstances for the two characters allowing Hurley to even more strongly define them. The two strands are held separate for a large chunk of the book, building up tension so that when they come together the results are appropriately cataclysmic.
Hurley's writing is tighter than in the first book and also more empathetic, building up the new characters and relationships so that when the inevitable gut-wrenching betrayals and deaths come, they hurt. Infidel is a brutal book - more than the first volume - but one that earns its shocks rather than relying on them for a cheap emotional fix.
There are problems: the ending is extremely abrupt, an epic final confrontation over and done with in a blink of an eye. There's also the age-old trilogy situation of the first instalment being more or less stand-alone (in case it bombs) but the second volume being left wide open for the story to continue into a third book. Whether this is a bug or feature of trilogies is up for the reader to decide.
Infidel (****½) is an improvement over God's War, being tighter, more strongly characterised and with a better structure, whilst the 'bugpunk' weirdness is carried through and becomes even stranger. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
In unexpected news, Beamdog have announced they are making a new Baldur's Gate game using the Infinity Engine, the old 2D engine used to create the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, along with the classic Planescape: Torment.
The new game is an 'interquel', set between the two Baldur's Gate titles, presumably in the few months that elapsed after the end of the first game and before our heroes are captured in the wilderness and taken to Amn to begin the events of the second.
This is a curious decision, likely driven by budgetary and licensing constraints. Beamdog are working with Atari (the D&D licence holders) and Wizards of the Coast (the current owners of the D&D brand itself) and apparently getting them to all work together has been a nightmare so far. Given they are working together on the re-releases of the Infinity Engine games, it may make sense to try to squeeze a new game out whilst there is a window of opportunity to do so and while the isometric RPG market is seeing a resurgence in popularity due to the high sales of Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2, not to mention the upcoming Pillars of Eternity. On the other hand, using the Infinity Engine in all is creaking glory is probably not the best idea, there is no real narrative gap between the first two games that needs to be filled and apart from its head, Trent Oster, Beamdog has very few personnel working for it who also worked on the original games. Certainly most of the major writers and creative forces are now with other companies, or still at BioWare.
Beamdog plan to release the new game later in 2015, so it'll be interesting to see what direction it takes. Meanwhile, Obsidian, who do have many of the writers and creative forces behind the Infinity Engine games working for them, are due to ship Pillars of Eternity, a modern 'spiritual successor' to the Baldur's Gate series, in the next few months.
The fifth season of Game of Throneswill debut on HBO in the United States on Sunday, 12 April. In the UK, the show will likely air on Sky Atlantic the following evening.
In the meantime, the fourth season will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 16 February. IMAX fans in the USA will also get to see an exclusive trailer for Season 5 of the show starting on 23 January, when HBO airs the final two episodes of Season 4 in IMAX cinemas. I suspect the trailer will very quickly appear online shortly thereafter.
The book has been written by Robert Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougall, with his writing assistants Alan Romanczuk and Maria Simons providing assistance. The book draws on the hundreds of thousands of words of notes Robert Jordan wrote during his writing of the series, detailing many aspects of the world and its cultures which never appeared in the books themselves.
The book will feature an entry for each named character, which with well over 2,000 named characters in the book series alone is quite some feat. Even Bela (Egwene's much put-upon horse) gets her own entry. There will also be an extensive dictionary of terms in the Old Tongue, featuring at least 1,000 words and their usage. There will be new portraits for most of the characters, and information on the histories and customs of the major nations. This is likely to be expanded upon the already extensive information presented in The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time (1997). There will also be information on the flora and fauna of the world, likely partially drawn from an article Robert Jordan wrote for Dragon Magazine back in 2001. Most intriguing is the presentation of a list of channellers and details on their respective strength/power levels relative to one another, something hardcore fans have been asking to see for years.
1956. William Masters is a doctor working at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Masters is a brilliant researcher in the field of fertility but is also working on a more pioneering project: the first-ever detailed study of the biology of human sexuality. With his superiors scandalised by the project, Masters recruits singer-turned-secretary Virginia Johnson to assist him.
Masters of Sex is a show based around an interesting, but surely limited, premise: what happened when the first American doctor tried to investigate the real biological processes involved during sex? Given this was the mid-1950s when homosexuality was still illegal, censors had a big problem with Elvis Presley's hips and society was dumbfounded when a woman expressed a desire to have a career, the answer is scandal, outrage and secrecy. It took a full decade for Masters and Johnson to finally publish their findings in the more liberal and free-swingin' 1960s, as they waited for society to catch up to the point where it could handle the facts their study revealed.
As the show starts that's a far bit off in the future. Instead, it initially comes across as a sexier version of Mad Men, with the furnishings, fashions and cars of the 1950s recreated with impeccable precision and the mores and limitations of society of the time evoked and then cast down thanks to the freedom of cable television, namely nudity and sex. You may have gathered from the premise that there's a lot flesh on display in this series and this is the case, although probably nowhere near as much as some were expecting. Masters of Sex is a show about sex and desire, but it's even more about the impact it has on people, its use as a motivation or goal and the hypocrisises of a society that is both defined by it but also likes to pretend it doesn't exist.
These complexities are realised fully by the actors. We already knew that Michael Sheen was one of the best actors of his generation, but just in case there was any doubt he completely knocks it out of the park in his portrayal of Masters. Masters is a buttoned-up figure who is a lot more complex and conflicted than it first appears. He proclaims his belief that sex is a purely biological process with scientific processes behind it and that love and emotion does not necessarily play a role, but he then expresses disgust with the notion of homosexuality (something the triggers some later self-analysis) and develops problems separating his own feelings from the work. He has a difficult relationship with his wife Libby (a soulful performance by Caitlin Fitzgerald), being cold and distant despite her warmth and attentiveness, but develops an interest in Virgina when she earns his respect through applying herself to the study in a serious manner. Sheen does sterling work throughout the series, making Masters constantly sympathetic and understandable even when he's acting like an insensitive fool (which is about two-thirds of the time).
Playing against him and more than holding her own is Lizzy Caplan. Caplan has been building up a good body of work in supporting roles in various projects over the last decade or so, but Masters of Sex is finally the big break-out role she was waiting for. Virginia Johnson is a modern woman trapped in the wrong time period: a young woman forced by circumstance (separating from her boorish, unreliable boyfriend and the father of her two children) and will into developing a career of her own at a time when this was extremely rare. Johnson's role is contrasted against that of Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), a woman who has made it in the male-dominated world of medicine but only at the expense of having any kind of family life and still struggles to get respect or her projects funded. Initially the two women develop an adversarial relationship, but later on find themselves joining forces, united in their exasperation of the world.
A galaxy of fine supporting actors prop up the central cast. Beau Bridges is the sort of actor you call on to appear as an avuncular authority figure, which he does well here as the university provost and Masters's mentor, but the writers then make him a closeted gay man struggling with his identity and with his relationship with his wife and daughter. It's a more angsty role than it first appears and Bridges plays it to the hilt, seemingly enjoying stretching his range. Allison Janney gives a terrific performance as his wife, who is initially horrified at discovering her husband's infidelity but then feels liberated by it to pursue her own life.
Masters of Sex (*****) is a clever show, exploring gender issues, social mores and how people are defined by their desires through the central premise. It's deftly-characterised and filmed with real attention to period detail. It's also extremely funny at times, gut-wrenchingly tragic at others and always fascinating to watch. It also ties with Game of Thrones for the best title sequence currently on television. It's available on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (USA only, for some reason) now.
No awards this year, as I fell way off the wagon in keeping up with new releases this year to even try. But still, an interesting year all round.
So totally over it.
Once a decade or so I suffer from a bad case of book burn-out and have to take an extended break from reading (the last time for two years, until Steven Erikson's books snapped me out of it) to refresh the batteries. That's what happened in 2014, exacerbated by my new working hours being really non-congenial for reading. Still, I got a few new books under the belt: the long-awaited World of Ice and Fire was a pretty solid guide to the world of Westeros and Essos for both Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones fans. Steles of the Sky brought Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy to a fine conclusion and Joe Abercrombie launched his "YA" epic fantasy trilogy in fine style. Words of Radiance was an enjoyable follow-up to The Way of Kings, although Sanderson could do with trimming back the word count on the novels in this series. Unfortunately a lot of other 2014 releases (including Assail and The Abyss Beyond Dreams) went straight onto the "To Read" pile. Hopefully the reading mojo will get back on track for this year.
2014 was a pretty strong year in gaming, although I had a different problem here: games so vast that they sucked up tens of hours without me getting into a good enough position to review them. Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall was a pretty stellar expansion to the original game which radically improved it, whilst the PC version of Valkyria Chronicles was excellent and brought a whole new audience to this hugely underrated tactical anime wargame. The Banner Saga combined gorgeous artwork and music with some compelling turn-based gameplay, but had some problems with difficulty spikes and too much of the game being based around random events rather than the player's action. Still, highly enjoyable. Thief (2014) was a bit of a disappointment for fans of the series, but for newcomers was a reasonably solid stealth game.
However, the year belonged the humongous open-world mega-titles and Kickstarter RPGS, each taking immense investments of time. I won't get to the likes of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Watch_Dogs for a long time, although Alien: Isolation, Far Cry 4 and Shadows of Mordor are incoming in the next few weeks, alongside the much-delayed PC version of GTA5. However, I also need to finish off Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2, huge and enjoyable games but so big I had to take breaks to play other things. Elite: Dangerous wins the award for most atmospheric game of the year. Also expect a review of the inventive South Park RPG in the near future.
A strong year and one that arguably broke the back of the Triple-A big budget gaming market, with crowdfunding and the indie scene providing some really interesting, ambitious titles that left the big-budget stuff looking a bit uninspired. Still, Alien and Mordor did show that even big budget games could develop new and interesting mechanics. Expect to see "hiding in cupboards for ages" and "procedurally-generated distinctive bad guys" to be in every other AAA game released from now until the end of the decade.
TV & Film
I've never been a massive film-watcher and this year was no exception. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel movie to date, but Guardians of the Galaxy wasn't far behind it. The third Hobbit movie wasn't a complete write-off, but still felt bloated and tired. The likes of Interstellar will have to wait for Blu-Ray or Netflix for me to see.
In terms of TV, this was a pretty strong year. Orphan Black's second season wasn't quite as inspired as the first, but it was still hugely enjoyable stuff. Agents of SHIELD somehow came back from a dull opening half to its first season to become something hugely more interesting, a rise in form it maintained into its second year. Gotham started stiffly but then very rapidly improved into a hugely enjoyable slice of pulp fun. True Detective was slightly overrated, but still a richly-drawn and brilliantly-acted drama. The Tomorrow People was very good "bad" TV, whilst The Strain was very bad "bad" TV, and Under the Dome was somehow even worse. I also watched most of Breaking Bad at the end of the year, because I like being late to the party.
So, 2014. In summary, it was very much a year with things in it. I suspect 2015 will also be a year with things in it (will one of them be wintery gales? Mayyyyyyybeeeeeprobablynot). What sort of things? Ah, sounds like that could be a separate post...