Thursday, 24 May 2018

Warhammer 40,000 Children's Books - A Few Thoughts

By now you have likely all heard one particularly odd bit of news: Games Workshop is to start publishing books set in its universe which are written with 8-to-12-year-olds in mind. Titled Warhammer Adventures, the two announced books feature younger takes on typical Imperial characters across a variety of factions and settings. Thus far two have been established for readers to delve into - City of Lifestone for Age of Sigmar, and Attack of the Necron for Warhammer 40,000.

It sounds like a parody, doesn't it? Warhammer books for younger ages, the grim darkness of the far future for under thirteens, a tamer and more open take on many factions to make them more open to people. More than a few thought it was just this at first, and after they realised that this is serious things began to turn ugly. Very quickly. You had the usual pushback from the people who wished that this setting was as grim and dark as possible. Some had valid points, most were complete morons, and a few were stupid enough to try and bring up race because two characters were dark skinned. It's M41 folks, people have bigger things to worry about, or are more likely to regard the folks about too many angles or skulls with greater distrust than someone with darker skin.

Normally that would be it. An announcement is made, there is a mixed reaction and I wait until the full release to give my thoughts. However, it then it apparently began to attract outside attention of the worst kind. The sort of people who have not been in this franchise for over two decades, who think that everything after the Second Edition was wrong, and if anything story related is not 110% bold-faced satire then the writers aren't doing their jobs. Naturally, these people started yelling about "Think of the children!" and how they wouldn't understand the satire of the setting which has been lost since they last bothered to show any interest in Games workshop. They then tried to portray half the fandom as basement dwelling neckbeards, racists, and neo-nazis, emulating the worst traits of Disney era Star Wars fans. 

Oh dear. 

Yet, stupidity aside, there were a few relevant points raised amid the sheer venom spewed from these individuals. Trying to introduce a younger generation to such a setting can be difficult, and there is no shortage of more adult-themed concepts even in the most basic lore. While said criticisms typically fell into the old misconception that Slaanesh was the "God of Rape", there's no denying this. In one case the world is an absolute hellhole which was completely overwhelmed by things which would make Diablo their plaything, and who often twists their followers into abominations. In the other, there is no good faction and humanity only endures thanks to a mass slave trade, purges and constant warfare. While some of this can be written around, and there's no inherent need to focus on the worst of the setting, both are unavoidably dark. The trouble of introducing someone of that age to such subject matter goes beyond simple cries that they are not ready for it, and into the realm of misconceptions and problematic introductions.

For example, we already know that one character featured in the book is a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Even if you ignore their more ruthless streak, Machiavellian ways or their treatment of technology, their core ideology is typically problematic. It encourages adherence to dogma, typically shuns creativity in favour of replication, and then there's the whole issue of lopping parts off of your body to create machine bits. Worse still, if subjects such as the Warp are dealt with, that can easily lead to weapons-grade nightmare fuel. The description of even a relatively safe Warp jump can be harrowing, and some of its sights are utterly maddening to say the least. If it refuses to pull its punches, then you end up showing a child something their parents will have a hard time explaining. Especially when it comes to the actions of the "good guys". If it does pull things back and tries to soften the depiction to a supposedly acceptable point, then you give a child an impression of a much tamer fascistic nightmare state which the book tries to get them to root for. One that they have been raised in.

This is also without getting into the problem of how the reader might regard this. Children do not enjoy being talked down to, or being regulated to what they see as a lesser or lower tier version of the franchise. This is especially true after a certain age, and I would be worried that the older end of the intended age group is pushing things a bit too far. Diluting Warhammer too much for their benefit or even trying to explicitly utilise a younger group of characters might be a step too far. While this isn't universally true - and one such example will be cited in the later paragraphs - I can think of a fair few children's franchises which found success in bypassing this. Either by refusing to talk down to children about the subject matter in question - which loops back round to the problems cited above for in-universe reasons - or specifically using older characters to try and avoid this.

It's a difficult thing to manage to say the least, and even if you accept that Age of Sigmar might be able to step around the more obvious problems, it's still something of a minefield to manage. Plus, atop of this, you then have the whole issue of who they will face as an enemy and how they might justify the characters surviving it. Thinking of both settings for a moment, there are very few figures which can be easily singled out as something they can survive without it seriously underplaying the capabilities of a faction. The Necrons are the only defined ones we have thus far, and their armies, tombs and fleets are a near impossible challenge for centuries-old soldiers who were trained from childhood to fight against daemonic entities. In most situations, this would result in a very bleak and very bloody ending to say the least.

Yet, after some consideration, there is still certainly a few ways to execute this properly. It needs to be handled very carefully, and very directly, but even with a setting so grim and dark as this one there are ways around the narrative issues. Most of these boil down to making the story as self-contained as possible. Even with Guilliman's changes, the Imperium of Man is still a dystopia, and the government itself is certainly a tyrannical one. Yet, it has always been the case that more hopeful individuals have existed within this empire. There are no true good guys, but there are still good individuals, even factions within them. It's easy to see the Imperium as a despotic hegemony but still call Ibram Gaunt a genuinely good figure, for example. By following the characters over the factions that they represent, the book has far more leeway to tailor itself to a younger audience, and serve as a gateway entry into the universe as a whole.

Equally, the enemies presented in these books could easily serve as threats which are not at full strength. One focuses on a city, a possible abandoned location, prowled only by scavengers or what few defenses have survived the ravages of time. This turns it into more of an adventure story if this approach is taken. Equally, the book where we know the Necrons will be the main villain shows them facing off against Ultramarines on the cover. The children might be only on the fringes of a campaign, outside the direct combat, or even only a short distance from the true frontlines, but that doesn't mean that they need to face a swarm of scarabs on their own. Plus, let's face it, it's Necrons so there's a chance this could be set in a ruined tomb as well.

This is all besides the point many keep asking, however, as they wonder if this is right. The questions which arise are if this is too dark, if children should be encouraged to look into the franchise as a whole or that the material is too complicated even when lessened. My answer to these points is simply this: Go back and look at any past decade, and you will find successful franchises being sold to children which show far, far worse things.

Take my own experiences, for example. Even ignoring my Star Wars: X-Wing obsession of that time, there was the likes of Animorphs to keep me entertained. A franchise which not only focused on Invasion of the Body Snatchers attacks, but commonly delved into physical horror, threats and psychological damage. One which plunged a few teenagers into a guerilla war against a slowly invading alien race. By the end, it was clear that there were no true good guys, and more than a few of the heroes ended up dead.

Before that? Believe it or not, but older issues of 2000AD. At the time, I was more aware of Judge Dredd than I was Superman, and many characters I read about were quite happy to kill their opponents or even served as guns for hire. Oh, and when I did get into DC superheroes, that was through Batman: The Animated Series. You know, the children's cartoon known for this sort of thing. Even Warhammer Fantasy had its fair share of younger readers, and more than a few ten or twelve-years-olds I knew at the time spent their free time delving into Trollslayer or the Ragnar Blackmane saga. Oh, and that was when they weren't reading Redwall AKA A Song of Ice and Fire with rats. Or even getting themselves repeatedly killed in Ian Livingston's Fighting Fantasy stories.

As for gateway continuity, even for a decades-old franchise, it is possible to introduce children to it through well-written novellas. The Young Jedi Knights franchise alone is proof of that, which used many tie-ins to older stories and was steeped into Expanded Universe lore, but presented itself well enough to draw in a brand new audience. It did so largely by making things clearly explained, detailed and properly promoted to its readers. Even the late great Terry Pratchett once stated that "Writing for children is more a matter of tone rather than whether it's got drug references".

Because of all the points listed above, I honestly don't think that the content in question is the problem. Even without a softer looking series, you still end up with children walking into Games Workshop all the time, each invested in the models on display. It can be done, but it just needs to be executed in the right way, by only showing enough of the universe and perhaps offering a somewhat tamer take on things. It just needs to play it somewhat safe and not take too many risks to start with, while also depicting the right parts that younger readers will become hooked by. It still sounds like an odd joke, but there is a solid chance that this can be done well. Plus, anything which does open up this franchise to a new audience without sacrificing what makes it great is something to be celebrated.

As with all things, however, this is pure speculation. It's best to wait and watch for the time being, and then judge the end result. There's enough proof in nerd culture alone that this shouldn't be discarded merely out of hand, and there are definite risks present, but there is enough potential for me to wait things out to see how it shapes up in the end.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Horus Heresy: Wolfsbane by Guy Haley (Warhammer 40,000 Novel Review)

As events are finally tied up and plotlines close off, this series is at long last moving toward an endgame. Khan has shown up on Terra, the Imperium Secundus has been dissolved and the Blood Angels are soon on their way there. Yet, there are a few big ones still yet to be resolved. Chief among these is the presence of the Space Wolves. Rather than being tied up at Prospero as the original lore inspired, Russ' group arrived back on Terra with time to spare. This is their final chapter within the Heresy, and offers something the series has needed a great deal of in recent years: Closure.


Initiating one delaying action after another, the Space Wolves have not been idle since their arrival at Terra. With Khan's arrival, what little stood in their way is now gone and nothing has been left to slow down the Traitor Legions. Rather than wait for them, the Wolves decide to take the fight to them. This is it. For better or worse, the Space Wolves are set to gamble everything on a final opportunity to kill Horus Lupercal once and for all, and end this insanity before it reaches Terra's gates.

The Good

This is one of those books where you can very easily tell it's going to be a late series classic from the opening chapters. Rather than moving forward as so many previous books have, this one not only re-introduces some long forgotten figures but offers a glimpse into the history of the Great Crusade. The first among these is the meeting between Horus Lupercal and Leman Russ, directly after the latter has been found on Fenris. Through this we see Horus' initial thoughts, role and even jealousy of the apparent savage before him. It serves as an early look into the primarch offering some greater character examination, as he only has shades of the primarch we would see in Horus Rising. The scene equally serves both Russ, who is shown to already have a grasp of hiding guile behind barbarism, and the Emperor, who is a far cry from the cold, calculating tyrant seen in Master of Mankind or others. 

The introduction alone would have marked the book up by a couple of points, but it is immediately followed by the reintroduction of Garviel Loken to the saga. While he is only around for a short while, the scene offers a look at how the former Luna Wolf has changed. He is closer to his older self, less damaged than past depictions, but still carries clear scars from his experiences. While it's only a brief appearance, it allows him, Russ and a number of others to show how they have changed over the space of a few short years for better or worse. What is surprising is that almost every chapter is like this in many ways, taking far more time to delve into the quirks, strengths, and histories of those involved than other authors. While all novels have done this to some degree, Haley's efforts here are one of a relatively few which tries to do this to every single person involved. In doing so, it helps to offset the essential world building of the entire series with a few character studies before the end. Even Belisarius Cawl, young as he is, gets more than a few essential scenes to help truly flesh him out and show how dramatically he will change in ten thousand years. There's an essential spark which reflects his later life, a similarly self-assured arrogance, but little else.

More interestingly still, however, is how the book handles the Space Wolves. Prospero Burns is a contentious novel for many reasons, but at the time it was definitely needed. It granted the Wolves greater depth and curbed some of the more insane excesses that Edition's codex had brought about with some of its madness. Yet, an unfortunate downside of this was how many authors seemed to avoid or deride their more human qualities as a result. They were much more dour, grim and reserved, and lacked the bombastic joy we saw before. While the latter quality has started to make it back into more recent stories, this final chapter serves as something of a counterpoint to that depiction in the M32 era. All of them have regained more of the openly boisterous aspects they were originally known for. While it is never taken too far, and retains more of the general depth shown, it's built up as more of a core part of their culture and history over a guise they present to all outsiders.

Yet, for all the time taken to focus on the Space Wolves and their alone effort, there is a greater awareness of widespread events. For one thing, the book spends a significant portion of the opening showing the primarchs together again. Many of the loyalists have gathered on a single world for the first time in years, with Dorn, Khan, Sanguinius and Russ working together. While, frustratingly, they treat the Ultramarines as if they are equal to the entirety of the Imperium's remaining forces (to the point where it seems as if they can solo the Warmaster's entire battlegroup) it does at least address a few ideas. 

With additional Imperial forces still out there, Dorn is actively trying to communicate with them in order to buy more time or drive back the Warmaster's initial strikes. Through these scenes, there are some very good contrasts between the various legions and their leaders in how they operate. It's the sort of thing the Heresy definitely needed more of, and it offers a glimpse into what the later novels might offer. There's a definite effort to still make this book about the Wolves while also addressing the fact that few forces are isolated. As a result, it manages to maintain a broad scope without making Russ seem like a guest character in his own book.

Speaking of which, Russ himself gains a few interesting new revelations when it comes to his actions. A number of these openly and subtly relate to Norse mythology and its tales, setting up Russ as a combination of Thor and Odin in each one. While this could have easily been heavy-handed, what helps to significantly counter this is how it's very effectively dressed up in Heresy era iconography. Much of it surrounds the spear that Russ seems to hate so much, and the imagery conjured by it as he claims the weapon as his own. Unless you have a particular obsession with mythological tales, it's the sort of thing you won't notice first time around if at all. Add to that a few remarkable revelations surrounding Russ and Fenris itself, and it grants the reader some fantastic insights into the figures who make up this universe.

At least the first two thirds do. Once you get into the last bit, some growing flaws become very evident.

The Bad

Many of the negatives unfortunately only become apparent quite late on into the story. It's the final third where so many become evident, and while there are certainly a few issues prior to that point, it's there where it loses many points. Up to the actual battle itself the novel was shaping to be another Betrayer. A story so good that, even with my own criticisms of how it handled the World Eaters, the content remains a gold standard for much of the series. Yet, it's as if one approach was traded for another in the final moments and as a result of this it fails to fully mash together. In fact, it's as if the finale of the book itself was something the story only dealt with as a necessity.

Much like the aforementioned Prospero Burns, we are given a great deal of insight into the overall legion but from its source this time. Yet, as was the case there, this largely sacrifices the premise in order to accomplish this. When Horus himself shows up and the whole final battle begins, it's remarkably underwhelming. While the grand scale of it works and there's plenty of descriptive bolter porn to enjoy, there's not enough of an emotional link to it. Why? Because the Wolves are clashing against the Sons in overwhelming odds, and it just feels like another grand scale battle. 

The title of the book is Wolfsbane, this is featuring Lupercal himself fighting the Emperor's Executioner. These are two of the oldest primarchs, two of the Imperium's best commanders, a man who was expected to be second only to the Emperor himself against a warrior whose duty it was to kill any of them if they truly turned traitor. The opening establishes a link, and yet it then does nothing with it outside of Russ' own thoughts. Compare this to Praetorian of Dorn's treatment of the Dorn-Alpharius relationship. You have constant flashbacks comparing and contrasting the two, building their relationship and displaying their differences even as the main events play out. This means that their final battle carries so much weight. Here though? You have an excellent introduction which is never fleshed out. Short of a brief exchange between the two, there's never enough here to deliver on what the novel seemed to promise.

Many of the developments and promising ideas are sidelined or even outright abandoned in favour of a huge scale conflict here, and this leaves many sub-plots being quickly tied up. Usually by putting a bolt into the head of the character who it followed. This isn't true of everyone, but the overall response to resolving many ideas seemed to focus on outright murdering those it followed. There's the George R. R. Martin way of pulling abrupt deaths, and then there's just using murder to quickly wash one's hands of the finale. An obvious consequence of this is, unfortunately, throwing the Space Wolves under the proverbial bus. They fail, a move everyone expected, but why they fail undermines their very intended role within the Imperium. It does more damage to Russ' character than any other part of this series, and completely undermines his intended role within the setting. To give you some idea of just how poor a show this is, it would be like having Guilliman lose a battle due to him failing to account for logistics. Plus, even without that, this is yet another crushing defeat for the Space Wolves, which goes past "justified for story reasons" into "the primarch's actual name is Leman Worf".

This isn't even down to mishandled descriptions or writing. It's simply that the ideas driving them were horribly mishandled. Like so many things covered, the idea was good but the execution left a massive amount to be desired.

The Verdict

This one is very difficult to put down to a single score, as it both shows Guy Haley's talents at their best and worse. There are shades in here both of Pharos and Death of Integrity in its story structure, starting with the former and gradually shifting toward the latter. The final act of the book is truly where everything comes apart, and while the intentional goal is obvious, the means used in order to actually get there are unfortunately quite questionable. Even without getting into the fact that the Space Wolves are presented as losing yet another battle (marking them as just behind the Iron Hands in terms of their mistreatment), the reasoning just doesn't work. Even if what is implied might permit them victory, in the long run, does stem from this too much was sacrificed in the name of what was intended to be a clever twist.

The book is by no means poorly written, and Haley does still show plenty of the same skills we have come to know him for, but the actual plot itself is where it falters. The moment Horus himself is added into the mix, it upsets much of the excellent work done with Russ himself. Because of this, it seems as if it's baiting fans of this legion to have some hope before yanking the dog's chain. No pun intended. While it is worth it for its better qualities, you may wish to take a brief look at a synopsis of basic events before picking up the hardcover version. If you feel you wouldn't wholly enjoy it, wait for the softcover version or pick up a copy from a library instead.

Verdict: 6.3 out of 10

Friday, 18 May 2018

Octarius War's End & Other Xenos Threats

While subtle, there were a few revelations in Codex: Deathwatch that many seem to have overlooked. Many previous major points were hidden away in the codex timeline, or served to establish possible campaigns ahead. Some of these hint at a few substantial alterations from past books, while one big one heralds perhaps the single worst thing which might happen short of Terra falling: The Octarius War ending.

"Time Runs Out...

Vermillion-level alerts reach the Doombreak, Eye of Octos and Furor Shield watch fortresses as the unthinkable happens. Triggered by empyric shock waves from the opening of the Great Rift, swarms of enormous Tyranids and hordes of hulking Skarboyz break away from the Octarius War to attack neighboring systems. The Watch Masters of all three fortresses request urgent reinforcements from the wider Imperium, before surging into battle."

The Octarius War itself was always a gamble, using the sheer numbers of Orks to try and stave off a major Tyranid Hive Fleet without further damage to the Imperium as a whole. Chapters would occasionally cull splinter factions to keep them focused on one another, and even the Craftworld Eldar got involved to try and thin their numbers. The problem is that, what was intended to possibly buy time quickly turned into a steadily growing powder keg.

The Orks did not fall, and neither did the Tyranid Fleets here. Instead, each began fighting back against the other, growing steadily stronger with each passing battle and calling in further reinforcements. The Orks would grow tougher, looting everything in sight and becoming more powerful both due to the concentrated WAAAGH! energy and warfare. The Tyranids, meanwhile, would in turn create more and more dangerous bioforms in an attempt to overcome the greenskins. What made it such a fascinating battle was the fact this was effectively one side's perfect experiment and the other's Valhalla. The Orks were given no reason to ever stop as this was paradise to them, fighting against a strong foe who only grew stronger as they did, and that only became more notably when Ghazghkull decided to take matters into his own hands.

So, keep in mind that this war has been raging in this state for over a century now, so each side is the stuff of nightmares. A Tyranid and Ork horde on steroids, embracing the strengths of each and enhancing them to the next level. We have seen time and time again just what the unenhanced versions can do, so after so many decades of being forged in the fires of warfare, they will likely give the Primaris marines a run for their money. Assuming, of course, that they do not eclipse them in power. There are opportunities here both for new releases and a full campaign, and it would not be a surprise to see both in play. With Chaos having taken the spotlight or so long, save for a brief moment of favouring the Eldar race, players of other factions have felt overlooked. This would be a perfect chance to correct that with two of the more out-of-focus groups within the setting.

Yet, what is more interesting still is that the book takes the time to offer far more time to relatively minor powers. Xenos races which are typically overlooked or ignored in the grander scheme of things have been mentioned here. While this might be expected given the Deathwatch's intended enemy, but it's taken much further than you would normally expect. For one thing, those mentioned here are either minor parts of larger armies or even groups we have not seen since the Second Edition. Just take a look at this one for starters:

"An Ur-Ghul migration spills from the thrice-cursed ziggurats of Shaa-dom. It goes into the nightmarish Shardmaze, and from there to the Mirrored Palace of Plenitia. When the gangling predators prove strong enough to tear apart the Kill Team that hunts them, the Dreadnought Xenomortis is sent to reinforce its battle-brothers. Months later, the war machine storms from the ruins of the now-empty Mirrored Palace, every inch of its hull covered in Ur-Ghul blood."

The Ur-Ghuls are a species fielded by the Dark Eldar, and were typically depicted as a near-feral race kept as slaves. To see them actively migrating and moving out of the Webway makes them more of an immediate threat, and does leave a few possible story details to work within the future. It's not much, but you end up with questions of how the Archons keep them under control, or how one might sabotage such an instinct for their own benefit.

More interestingly still, the codex places a much greater emphasis on invasions from the likes of the Kroot into Imperial territories, along with Hrud migrations and Ambull infestations which need to be kept in check. This benefits each of them by shedding more of a spotlight on their actions, but also making them more of an active player in events. The Kroot, for example, have typically been depicted as more of an allied race to the T'au Empire rather than a truly integrated member. As such, seeing them act out on their own allows for them to have the impression of being more than mere hired thugs. 

The Hrud meanwhile, have typically been presented as a powerful force which never acted fully in the open, but this was often in supplementary materials. The closest we have seen to them participating in a true battle was against the Star Phantoms, when the astartes homeworld was caught in the wake of a migration and devastated. Given the state of the galaxy, it makes sense that they would now be acting more openly, with the Imperium weakened and often distracted fighting against the Traitor Legions. It is an opportunity to take control of further worlds to create dens. In fact, that goes for much of this. Past events from Old Night to the Horus Heresy depicted alien races as being ever ready to expand their powers. Several were even noted to have established small empires within the Imperium's heartland during the Collected Visions, while the Siege of Terra was taking place. By establishing this, it means that there are more obvious opportunities to break the usual Imperium vs Chaos status quo and explore to new events.

This is mostly highlighting a few interesting points from the latest codex more than anything else, but after the last review, they seemed worthy of being individually highlighted. Whatever the case, it certainly seems as if interesting times are ahead for players.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Codex: Deathwatch - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 8th Edition Review)

The Deathwatch are, ultimately, an unnecessary army. I understand the appeal of them, much of their lore is well written, and they do have an essential place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Yet, as an army, they seem at odds with their usual role. The entire point of the chapter cobbled together from various other chapters was to establish small strike teams. Elite units which could best serve to covertly attack, kill or capture xenos targets deemed as essential threats. The sort which needed to be actively opposed, with an even greater emphasis on their annihilation than even those found in other forces. As such, to try and build a full army out of them seems at odds with this starting point.

That little intro was to make it clear where this review is coming from in terms of its lore. If it seems far more critical than the few who bother to examine the stories behind armies in their reviews (actually examine not just an "It's all good, now onto the rules!" handwave), this is why. The review isn't going to bring up Fantasy Flight Games for comparison, save for one moment, nor will it slam it for opposing some more generalized depictions. However, it is fighting an uphill battle to justify itself and some of these do need to be addressed. With that done, let's delve into the positives and negatives here.

The Good

One of the big uphill battles this Edition has faced has come in the form of time. Not only have the writers been forced to repeatedly deal with a tangled web of end-of-the-world situations, but to keep things moving as well. So, just as it sorts out one major faction-destroying problem, it needs to add in a hook to bring you back. This is without even getting into things like more general bits and pieces like establishing how the army itself reacts to a setting which is in flux. However, Codex: Deathwatch might be the book where they have started to truly get a hand on all three at once.

The single greatest problem established at the end of the last codex was a growing shortage of recruits. Even as they attempted to put out calls for more marines to bolster their numbers, many were being recalled to assist with the increasingly overburdened chapters of the Imperium. The book quickly deals with this in the most obvious way possible - the Primaris marines - but it uses the opportunity to do more than simply brush the point under the rug. The book introduces new factors which need to be dealt with thanks to this. 

Guilliman is the most obvious one, as he seems to have taken a special interest in them and understands their importance to the Imperium, perhaps offsetting the influence of the Inquisition. The other is the Primaris marines themselves, as a large number have been given specifically to the Deathwatch. This means that the faction needs to contend with not only the issue of Mk. II astartes, but also that they have those of no distinct origin. Those who carry no past with them, no chapter cultures nor millennia-long traditions, and who only belong to the Deathwatch. Even the blackshields never offered this quality, as they had their own hidden agendas and histories. As such, it opens more than a few interesting points for future stories.

The importance of this fact is that it closes one door, and then opens several more. This sort of thing is essential to an ongoing setting with a timeline moving forward. Without it, you end up with a slapdash ongoing structure and stories which come out of nowhere. It's not definitive, not specifically binding it to a single ongoing story, but it pushes to have things evolve over time. It's a metaphorical rock thrown into a pool. It's now up to the fans and writers to see what ripples it creates in the setting.

So, what about the hook then? Well, this is going to be a major spoiler, but it's something many people will want to take notice of: Kryptman's Gamble has failed. Octarius War, that thing which pitted the orks and tyranids into a seemingly unending war against one another? It's started to break out of the cordon and groups have gone on the rampage:

"Time Runs Out...
Vermillion-level alerts reach the Doombreak, Eye of Octos and Furor Shield watch fortresses as the unthinkable happens. Triggered by empyric shock waves from the opening of the Great Rift, swarms of enormous Tyranids and hordes of hulking Skarboyz break away from the Octarin war to attack neighboring systems. The Watch Masters of all three fortresses request urgent reinforcements from the wider Imperium, before surging into battle."

Now that is a way to get the reader invested. It emerges right at the very end of the timeline listed and isn't the whole "THE UNIVERSE WILL DIE IF THIS FAILS!!!!" thing books used to favour. However, it is a harrowing thing to consider and it means that the Imperium is going to face some of the worst xenos threats possible in the next few years.

Speaking of the timeline as well, this is another good example of how to use this section of the codex. Many praises brought up in favour of the past few books resonate here, with larger text to fully explore the events themselves, and two pages for pre and post M42. Yet what proves to be interesting here isn't their quality - which is fantastic - but how they link together with the overall setting. In a previous Age of Sigmar review, we cited how certain books would only tell you so much, specifically contrasting the Daughters of Khaine and Deepkin works. Here, we don't quite have that. Instead, it has the book cite and tie up several concepts brought up elsewhere. They link up quite neatly, without resorting to an immense amount of detail, nor are they completely beholden to continuity.

These are small things like following up on the remnants of the massive Leviathan tendril which threatened Baal in the Blood Angels codex, to narrative threads which have run throughout several books. In one particular case, several brought up the growing interest the Dark Eldar have with the Imperium's genetically enhanced warriors. The Custodes were among these, but it was noted that a number of Primaris marines had gone missing. The book opts to follow up on this, citing one specific haemonculus who has taken a great interest in them, and that a Deathwatch team has been dispatched to stop them. It's a good battle and it creates a greater connection between books without being intrusive.

These moments are a few specific engagements which arise between wholly original ones, or even mini-narratives within the book itself. As such, it's enough to improve on a few ideas previous Editions dabbled with, while ensuring that most things remain coherent as the story keeps moving forward. Better yet though, it's never definitively expressed if what the reader sees is truly the finale. In just that last example, it's never said that these were all of the captive Primaris marines, just those taken in a certain skirmish. As such, it still leaves room for others to build on the subject or return to it if they consider it to be an interesting point.

Outside of a few key battles, the timeline also favours the use of the Deathwatch as a spec ops group over a full army. Their deployments often involve infiltration efforts, rescue missions and specific attacks to turn the tide of battle. For example, during a battle where the T'au attack a fortress world, the Deathwatch deploys two teams to inflict environmental damage on the surroundings. This causes the loss of several Stormsurges, turning the battle in the Imperium's favour, and the Deathwatch withdraw. It shows them being used as a precision instrument and the writing tries to offer them more than just "they show up, then kill everyone" as a story basis.

However, what I have noted is that the use of the timeline itself seems to have changed somewhat. Now, this is more of a personal theory, and there is a chance that I have missed something. With that said, the depiction of events in the timeline now follows a different style to some past outings. Previously, it often seemed to exist to give extra glory moments for the characters, victories for the armies, or to show off just what that army could do. There were exceptions, but this seemed to the core of it. Here, however, there's less of a focus placed on the battle itself and the units involved than the story behind it. How the armies got there, their objectives, the narrative arc they follow etc. Because of this, I am almost tempted to think that they serve as fodder for authors and fans alike. There are a multitude which could easily be adapted into short stories or full novels due to how they are described, with easily defined protagonists and goals. 

Equally, the sheer variety of them and the much greater varied number of environments, objectives and solutions seems fit for fan creations. It would be a good step forward, as it encourages fans to develop their own concepts and ideas without forcing it on them. At the same time, if these could be used as fodder for new stories - as a few previous ones were with the Space Marines Battles series - then it would be an easy method of having tales flesh out and keep up with the moving timeline.

The other sections of the book outside of this are, admittedly, somewhat mixed but there are good points among it. While we'll get into the negatives in a minute, the positives here are very notables and easy to pinpoint. The layout and depiction of the Blackstar is a big one here, which offers a semi-blueprint view of the gunship while also offering some more technically focused details in its blurb. Each one largely outlining its exact use in battles and essential contributions in engaging with missions. The same can be said of a few others, like the structure to a watch station's command hierachy and the brief listings of chapters. They help to give an impression of professionalism within the group, and their role less as crusaders than more typical wetworks troops of a sort. While it does mention the multitude of chapters which makes up their number, it only does it enough to make sure it's a key part. Not, as it could have easily been, defining various figures only by what heraldry they bare.

Finally, the codex does its best to address the point that many items are new to them now. The primaris marines and their wonderful toys are the big ones, of course, and the Repulsor tank highlights this. It cites its strengths, but also how Deathwatch captains are having to adapt to its use and innovate on certain older tactics. They're minor touches, but nice ones which helps to reflect on how the book is expanding on its points.

Unfortunately, there are a few very big problems which are still evident within its works.

The Bad

The big negative point which is immediately clear here is how many older flaws have been carried over into this new version. It retains the same basic structure and design of the past codex, listing unit by unit and leader by leader. In of itself, it's not too bad of a design choice, and it can work with such a segmented army as this. However, the actual prose and descriptions doesn't do them much justice. It's not badly written so much as lacking a lot of the bite needed to further cement the army's style, and to better reflect on the Deathwatch's unique status. Too much of it reflects on the crusader/Templar style of the space marines, and more than a few descriptions swing back to that style of writing. It robs the army of an opportunity to stand out on its own among the marines, and it's often frustratingly so.

A major highlight which better confirms the issue of treating them as a large army over a dedicated specialised force is evident on pages 16 and 17. These display the heraldry of the various watch fortresses, and the banners which signify victories, specialisations and accomplishments. The problem is that it's too close to what a chapter would have for companies, and not what you would expect the Imperium's anti-alien Inquisitorial force. If you don't see just why this is oddly out of place, then try to imagine MI5 having this sort of thing.

Worse still is how it handles a multitude of the new ideas. There's few points where the book actually stops and offers a few pages of solid lore as seen with previous positive reviews. The closest it truly get to this is the initial pages, but these are half-text and half images which are padded out. They do less to comment on the Deathwatch's overall situation than they do introduce them to new readers. That's an essential part of this, but without a more solid series of writings to build on what the book introduces, some of the changes feel skin-deep. It works to introduce them, certainly, but it never takes it the few steps further than that needed to really push things forward. This means that things like the Primaris recruits are commented on, and their presence is justified, but you get nothing more than these essential parts.

The style of writing on here is also notably bereft of internal details. With the Custodes we were given countless details on traditions, inner workings, and the structure of their organisation. There's nothing which even approaches that on here, and the overall depiction, as a result, is lacking in more than a few core details to really give the book some meat. The basics are present, but it keeps mentioning a multitude of key bits of information over utilising them to further give the reader something to truly work with when it comes to fleshing out their own versions. It's always a very basic outsider view more than anything else, giving enough to make it clear just why the Deathwatch are needed but perhaps not enough to ensure a potential player will remain invested in them.

In the points where the codex does start to offer a few more detailed elements, they're so bite-sized it's difficult to get invested in them. Mentions of a dreadnought which has lost its identity are conceptually interesting, but it only lists the essential components behind what could be an interesting story. It never combines them into something which could make it truly engaging. Others, meanwhile, tend to be always depicted in the midst of combat and focus on the violence over everything else. As such, it again doesn't offer much character to the book because of this and its short length.

Also, they still have leaders carrying Guardian Spears. That might sound a little petty, but one of the codex's problems stemmed from how it often favoured simpler and more direct variations of Fantasy Flight's lore. The big one it could not escape is the differences in how the Deathwatch was founded. One was a controlled response to the Imperium's xenocidal nature, and the other formed out of desperation during a conflict with the Ork WAAAGHs!. The issue is that the other group of writers seemed to have a better handle on the Deathwatch's role as a larger organisation, and the specifics of how it operated, while this is more of a general take on things. Even if you're not directly comparing the two, there's no denying that the RPG books had a better handle on the fine details of the chapter's operation.

The Artwork

This might well be some of the best stuff we have seen in a long time. The original Codex: Deathwatch featured some fantastic artwork and despite a few odd choices in places, there was no denying the work was spectacular for its larger pieces. This one takes that to the next level, offering a much more consistent aesthetic while also granting far more visuals of the enemies the Deathwatch fight. The massive combat sequence facing off against Craftworld Eldar in the opening pages is proof of this, and the newer Primaris pieces are often depicted in the style of an action film poster. It lacks the sketchier style of John Blanche's works to build on the gothic thematics, but it still works out extraordinarly well on the whole.

The Verdict

Codex: Deathwatch seems like an experiment in terms of its lore. It relies heavily on re-using the older skeleton of the previous armybook for much of its information or sticks closely to what was there before. When it does try to push beyond this or innovate on certain elements, it's highlighted only in areas cited above, and the majority of the works doesn't update itself fully to make use of this new era. As such, I can fully praise and welcome the alterations offered and a few of the very innovative ideas, but I do think more could have been done with the rest of the codex. When it's good its very good, and when it's bad it comes across as irritatingly miswritten for another army.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Rogue Trooper: The Quartz Massacre (Fan Film Review)

The last time we looked into one of these high production 2000AD fan films, I mentioned a personal holy trinity within its comic book settings. You have Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Rogue Trooper. With the former having benefitted from similar productions in the past, now it's Rogue's time in the spotlight. I don't think a more ambitious subject could have been picked. With Dredd it was more about showing his world through the eyes of the exiled Judge Minty, with Dredd only putting in a cameo. With Strontium Dog, it was a short series of gunfights against a terrorist group. Here? It's set in the middle of one of the series' single largest battlezones.

The Synopsis

The story takes place at the very start of the Rogue Trooper mythos. The Genetic Infantrymen are a superweapon built by the Souther armies to face off against the fascist Nort legions on Nu Earth. With humanity's home now long gone, Nu Earth is all they have left, and it has been ravaged by continual war, poisoned until the air itself is choked with pollutants. The GIs are immune to this, and their opening mission was to be a trial by fire. They were betrayed from within, by a nameless general, and faced a force which outnumbered their kind many times over. By the end, only Rogue will walk away from it alive. Yet he won't be alone, with biological chips recording the personalities of his squadmates Bagman, Gunnar and Helm implanted into his equipment.

The Good

There's a lot of baggage to get out of the way with Rogue Trooper, even more so than the others. While you can put some of it down to simply "he's a super soldier" other parts do need to be explained. As such, the film utilises an opening crawl to quickly bring the audience up to speed on the essential details. What I like about this is that it's brief, sticks to the bare essentials and does more than simply offer an opening crawl - using voice-overs and background footage to impart a greater sense of atmosphere. There's only so much that the film can show, after all, and it helps to convey a much greater sense of scale to the events.

Furthermore, the film opts to get right into the action, quickly cutting to the latest possible opportunity to offer an introduction to this event. Originally in the comic, the entire battle was shown in flashbacks, cutting from one moment to the next as Rogue's squadmates are gunned down, but there's simply not enough time to do that in this short length while allowing each to have an impact. As such, it instead cuts to the last of these, Helm, in his final moments with the others already dead. This initial act is used to get a multitude of essential points across in an extremely short amount of time, through Nort communications chatter, fleeting conversations and visual actions. Mere background things most people will miss, like a dropship which flies past as the Norts inspect Helm's drop pod are small elements but essential ones. Most people won't notice them on the first viewing, but they're enough to give the impression that this is more than just a few actors engaging in gun battles. Again it's the implication of larger events which works so well here.

The very subject of the bio-chips are dealt with neatly and clearly, without much fuss. Given that they are one of the much more unusual parts of the mythos, I could see writers on bigger budget productions spending far more time trying to explain and detail how they work. Instead, the film just shows the audience the basics, establishes their role in two lines, and then trusts the audience enough for them to keep pace. Better yet, they're used perfectly within the film, delivering much of the dialogue and showing how they can operate as a squad even when Rogue is the only one with an active body left. While it doesn't have time to show things like Bagman deploying micro-mines or working with computers, it does offer moments such as commenting on equipment status or making combat suggestions. More importantly Helm, who was all too often left with little to do in the comic's early years, has a more defined role here in locating and confirming the locations of inbound enemy troops.

The film frequently re-uses certain key shots to establish continuity and a better identity of the bio-chips themselves. It's done in the same manner that a film might repeatedly re-use certain shots to capture the faces of actors, and it's again a very nice visual touch. This is most evident with Gunnar's view when Rogue is using him to mow down waves of Norts, and it's so cleanly cut that you likely won't realise that the film is doing it until some way in.

Yet, for all this, the fighting was clearly meant to be the main focus of this work and it stands out extremely well. Above all else, Rogue Trooper was presented as an amalgamation of every historical war given laserguns, from Vietnam to the Second World War. This was effectively a commando raid which has gone horribly wrong, forcing those left to rely on their skills and superior builds to overwhelm greater numbers of opponents and heavy armour. Rogue here is constantly on the move, hunted and pursued by multiple Nort squads, and it's clear that he's only alive thanks to his enhanced reflexes and heightened skills. When he does kill them, it's often in the most direct and easiest way possible, constantly going for the metaphorical jugular and wasting no time with anything flashy. 

While the film holds back from having Rogue shrug off bullets or turning him into Neo, it does have him quickly gunning down opponents in controlled bursts. Thus thinning their numbers before drawing them into an area where they can best be defeated. This leads into the film using a faux single shot sequence which shows Rogue dismantling the Norts at close range through precision shots and then hand-to-hand engagements. The lack of perceived cuts makes the kills much more visceral as a result, and the few cuts made flow easily from one moment to the next. A personal favourite was how one blow landed against Rogue quickly transitioned into him drawing a knife.

Still, as with everything, there are a few flaws here. That and some pet peeves.

The Bad

This is going to vary from one person to the next, but certain cinematic choices here seemed at odds with the subject matter. The big one was the use of slow motion, which dominated much of the fights. While they did work at certain key moments, especially with a grenade, in others they seemed oddly gratuitous; detracting from the grittier edge and offering a more stylised take than what was usually seen in the comic. This wasn't helped by a few odd choices, such as Rogue's first appearance by having him leap onto the screen while firing in the air, followed by a dramatic reload. It's not that the sequences were badly done by any means, but they seemed at odds with Rogue Trooper's usual style.

Another definite issue was how the film doesn't quite carry the same visuals typically described of Nu Earth. Some changes can be accepted for the execution of a better film - such as the alterations made to the character designs - but Nu Earth itself is constantly described and seen as a choking wasteland. Coated in the worst kind of smog, filth and acidic rain, it is gaia's lament incarnate. The problem with this is that the setting looks too clean in many ways. The scenes are too well lit and lack the chemical tinge that made the world so visibly poisonous, and short of a few light misting effects there's little indication of the poisonous present in the setting.

Another noted issue is how the film abruptly ends. This was always intended to be an extremely short fan film, and there's nothing wrong with that. It would be wrong for this review to dock points for a lack of quieter or more character driven moments, when that was never the core focus. Yet it does feel as if there should have been more to this. The final shot of Rogue trooper leaping into combat as the war goes on certainly will work for some, but something more definite which reflected the Quartz Massacre's nature would have been more fitting. Perhaps even a brief shot of Rogue walking into the distance, confirming he was the only survivor, or even a brief closing shot to confirm that the GIs were wiped out. Without that, it seems to present the event as a battle that they will fight and likely win.

The Verdict

At best, the problems here are teething ones. Like the other fan productions mentioned in the opening, this is another very strong and excellently produced film showing a character at their best. It's the sort of thing you would offer to someone unfamiliar with the setting to get them interested in further works, or to fans who have been denied a Dredd level adaptation for so long. It's certainly the shortest of those covered, but it has a distinctive style and it's a great example of how a talented crew with the right vision can accomplish brilliant things. Definitely set a few minutes aside to watch this one.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Frostpunk (Video Game Review)

When you mention post-apocalyptic video games to most people, the likes of Fallout are what immediately comes to mind. RPGs with exploration, choices and mini-quests are plentiful in this regard, as is the survival genre it often ends up paired up with. Frostpunk seeks to take a new spin on things with a city-building and attempting to establish a new society in a world which is freezing over.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Cyberpunk: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth

Cyberpunk is a typically problematic genre in that it is both inherently singularly defined and yet still oddly nebulous. The same core tropes can be seen time and time again, from the dystopian environments to the themes to technology's renaissance having turned into a dark age, but for a smaller sub-genre of science fiction, it has proven to be oddly malleable. This isn't to say that most sub-genres typically have a single "proper" take to fit in with a constraining list of requirements to fit a definition. However, few can be reworked, revamped and completely remade so easily as cyberpunk, to fit into almost any setting or style. This is likely part of what has left it with such an enduring appeal, and a benefit of coming into being at exactly the right time. Something which allowed it to remain inherently linked to the mid-80s to early-90s, while still benefitting from the quality listed above.

To truly examine the idea behind the genre of cyberpunk, you need to seriously take into account the two words which make it up, especially the latter. While "punk" is easily applied to everything, from teslapunk to the ever popular (or over popular) steampunk, the term means more than a simple tacked on term to help define a gimmick genre. The innate themes within cyberpunk itself are anti-authoritarian, opposing a tyrannical governing force. Commercialism is out of control, corporations often hold more sway than governments themselves, while rules are enforced for the benefit of those above alone. The only ones who seem to escape this belong to fringe groups, a newer trend of those who refuse to be fully associated with the wider majority. Groups who are both bitter and cynical, and emphasize the "anti" in antihero, and often ditching the "hero" part entirely.

While there's no one-to-one comparison which can be fully drawn with the musical genre or subculture as a whole, it's easy to see how many ideas which inspired them were present here. It pressed to oppose what was seen as a lie, and to more aptly cope with the reality of the world before it. In the medium of science fiction, you can clearly see this thanks to how the genre developed. The much more optimistic and utopian futures seen in the forties, fifties and sixties had been born of a post-Second World War sense of hope and optimism. Those few which broke from this often only did so in order to comment upon the Cold War and the threats it posed, with the likes of Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cyberpunk, as a result of this, the perfect societies being threatened by outside alien threats or infiltrators from within were gradually transformed into more ingrained problems. The problems they focused on were not a perversion or corruption of a society, but were simply those created by it being exactly what it was intended to be. Or at least what those in charge felt that it should be.

The impact that new technology had no cyberpunk cannot be downplayed, however, as that first word "cyber" reflected this detail. While older science fiction had been inspired by the likes of the lunar landings and orbital flights, cyberpunk was encouraged by the development of software. The importance of computers, the wide scope of networked machines and their importance never could have been predicted. With this, cyberpunk had something of an edge to work within its science fiction elements - a new unexplored realm that no past story had truly delved into. It's why virtual reality, internet interfacing and other concepts similar to this often played such a prominent part, along with the greater emphasis on cybernetic augmentation. Some of this had been delved into before, of course, but it wasn't in the same gritty style. Stories which delved into such things as VR were often a grander or more high concept take which did not offer the same thematic choices. Think of it as the differences between It! The Terror from Beyond Space! and Alien, for all their similarities.

However, the last truly significant work of great significance within the genre was printed in 1992 with Snow Crash. There were exceptions to this, and it did hold on in other genres, but few epics ever matched up to its literary strength and sheer bold reworking of an environment. So, what happened? Simply put, society and technology moved on. While the 1990s themselves saw no end of strife and domestic problems, the same cynicism and contempt was moderated with more hopeful elements. For more than a few people, it was an idyllic change from the economic disasters of the 1970s or insanity born of the 1980s. The economy was better, Thatcher was gone and Regan's administration was a fading ghost, while the Cold War itself was rapidly winding down. Compared with what had come in the two decades before, it was practically a new golden age.

On the technology front, the new idea of computers lacked the same fresh fascination that they had benefitted from a few years before. Rather than being a truly new craze, a technology which was just within reach, they were rapidly becoming household appliances. Without that same sense of the unknown or fascination of what might come about because of them, the stories behind them slowly but surely became much tamer and more in line with what widespread audiences would generally expect. As a result of this, cyberpunk gradually lost a lot of its substance. It was more of a fashion, a craze and aesthetic choice over a more definitive sub-genre. Something audiences would prize for its aesthetic than how it would truly resonate with people. Hell, even the benefit of Orientalism which, had seen a resurgence with Japan's economic boom and the anime craze, had died away. As such the Western-Eastern corporations and the sense of cultures mashed together didn't have the same appeal as before.

The franchises which did continue to carry the torch greatly focused on a specific thematic choice within the cyberpunk setting at the cost of all others, or broke away from it entirely. Ghost in the Shell, for example, is definitely cyberpunk and an incredible franchise but its themes focus on transhumanism and identity theologies above all else. Many of the anti-authoritarian elements are downplayed or are typically depicted via factional infighting over the true opposition. 

Equally, Shadowrun's enduring appeal often comes from its hybrid nature and association with typical fantasy elements. The Middle-Earth meets Blade Runner descriptions are what often gets the attention of fans over its cyberpunk elements. In fact, the major successes of the past decade have heavily emphasized magic in its stories over technology. Each of the Shadowrun Returns trilogy games utilized fantasy enemies and magic based threats as their "big bad" and the tabletop game has largely done the same. While emerging AI has been a major game-changer in multiple points in the timeline, it frequently returns to the subject of the horrors or insect spirits for its ongoing narrative.

In order to survive, more the genre itself had to stop being true to what had fully inspired cyberpunk. This often happens with most genres, as trends take hold and are then subverted, deconstructed, and fade away in time. Pick any major individual franchise, let alone a full storytelling setting, and you can easily pick out a similar ongoing arc. Star Trek alone is a perfect example of this, depicting both a willing break from the ideals which founded it and, in the case of Voyager and early Enterprise, the sins which can even come from being unwilling to evolve. When the genre did attempt to return to its roots, the only creators who willingly did so were the ones who wished to parody its ideas. The sorts of stories and video games (hello, Far Cry: Blood Dragon) which either lovingly mocked the era which inspired it, or the aged aesthetic ideas which helped to identify and found the genre.

So, with that in mind, why has cyberpunk seen something of a rebirth of late? The answer is simple: The exact same qualities which inspired it in the first place have come back into focus. While cyberpunk itself still lacks the major blockbuster literature hit or masterpiece it needs to fully re-emerge into the limelight, we have seen the same aspects come into existence yet again. Technology is once more advancing into a brand new field which breaks away from most previous definitions, with the likes of VR and cybernetics being far more feasible than ever before. Corporations hold infinitely more power than ever, looking to benefit themselves at the cost of their employees with Amazon working people to death, and MacDonalds attempting to defend its "living wage" by offering a financial guide to employees. One which required them to manage two full-time jobs. Well, that and to not use basic living requirements such as heating.

Even if you ignore the constant issue of police brutality, the increasingly tyrannical nature of the USA and UK's governments, or the rise in neo-Nazi groups, more than a few general social trends are beginning to align with the dystopias of cyberpunk. As such, their stories carry more weight and relevance than they might have done previously, offering something which directly connects with those reading, playing or watching media on some level. This is only further encouraged by enthusiasts who remember the golden age of the genre - Shadowrun Returns itself came about thanks to this - and offered it the opportunity to return in a position of strength.

The question now is how cyberpunk as a whole will continue to evolve and develop. There are any number of ways in which it could experiment with its core tropes, and use old ideas in a new manner to experiment with ideas in this new era. With the likes of Cyberpunk 2077 on the horizon and the likes of Black Mirror emphasising the threat of technology developing beyond our control, there's plenty to work with. Let's just hope that life doesn't start to resemble fiction too closely.