Friday, 21 September 2018

Frostpunk (Video Game Re-Review)

You're probably asking yourself two things upon seeing this.

The first is simply "Wait, didn't you review Frostpunk already?"

And the other will likely be "Where the hell have you been?"

To answer those in turn - I did review it, but several free expansions (including yesterday's one) meant that the game deserved a second look, as it has undergone a few noted improvements. It's not quite a No Man's Sky style turn-around, but it is enough to warrant a second look.

As for where I have been: Life is still chaotic. I'm used to keeping multiple plates spinning at a time, but even I have some trouble when someone throws a kitchen worth of them at me. And then sets the kitchen on fire while they're doing it.

The ironic thing is, that last example can easily describe the experience of playing Frostpunk, only it manages to capture the fun side of things.

The Synopsis

The world is freezing over. The steampunk golden age that the world has enjoyed came to an abrupt end with the onset of an endless winter. No one truly knows the cause of it, nor even how to counteract this catastrophe, but humanity needs to adapt in order to survive. Abandoning their cities, refugee camps flee northward to where gigantic heat generating towers have been constructed. It is now your task to keep your small band of survivors alive, happy, and find a way to make your city thrive amid the wilderness.

The Good

The immediate +1 bonus Frostpunk gets is its thematics. Let's be honest here: Steampunk tends to be treated like a crutch. It's a great visual medium and a very distinctive style when done right, but far too often it boils down to someone sticking a lot of gears onto a top hat and saying it's done. The ones which do this far outnumber the few which try to execute something interesting with it, and even then they typically have trouble with the world-building here. Frostpunk avoids this at every turn thanks to its post-apocalyptic nature. While it could be argued that part of this is sidestepping the problem in question - by destroying the world rather than fully explore it - the game does offer a few substantial hints about the setting. We see indications of the technological level of the world, mentions of nations and even the odd technological marvel. What's more, steam itself is core to the game's very mechanics, and it manages to just about balance advanced technology against age-old aesthetics. Both visual and societal ones, of course.

Many of the problems you end up facing in Frostpunk stem from two societal issues above all others. The first and most obvious among these is the risks and issues of running a city on the verge of annihilation. The local population will make demands of you, have biases colour their influences and even cite your shortcomings as a major problem. Too few medical clinics? Someone's going to complain. Poor shelter? People will become unruly. If you seem to be failing in your duties or favouring one group above all others? People will riot.

The societal system is decided by two meters, one measuring the level of hope within your populace and the other the discontent with your decisions. This might sound like a basic X equals Y system, or something to encourage you to avoid becoming a tyrant, but it ends up being quite the opposite. In fact, how many of your choices tie into this heavily impresses upon the player the grey morality of the game. For one thing, pit fighting actually helps to placate your population, and despite the occasional death duel can do the same. 

The societal additions to your city are made through the Book of Laws, a spider-diagram of a system allowing you to implement new buildings or mechanics. This can only be implemented every few days, but your choices range from establishing a tavern to keep the population's hopes up, to child labour. The easy answers you would expect to see are entirely absent from this experience, as it reinforces the fact that a hopeful and loyal population is not always a good thing. You're perpetually short on resources, supplies and bodies, so while barring the use of child labour might seem like a no-brainer at first, in some scenarios it can become essential to your survival. You simply need more people in order to keep dragging up coal to fuel the furnace. This need to balance survival against morality was what helped This War of Mine stand out, and despite having a fantastical setting and larger scale, it works just as well here.

What further complicates matters is that your population has its own demands, from small-scale familial disputes to broader situational issues. What makes this so effective is that many of these can stem from any number of possible situations, each of which changes depending upon the scenario you play. There are a few basic ones - people will moan if you have everyone living in tents at hell-freezing-over temperatures - but then there are the likes of how you deal with the bodies of traitors, or people taking time off work to pray upon seeing their impending doom. You cannot wholly control this and there is only a rare third answer provided by the game's later choices of Order or Faith (police state or local church) options. However, if you go too far with these, you can easily cross a line from simply having churches to boost morale, to public floggings of those who fail you.

The actual scenario system itself was a point of contention among players on release. Many apparently wanted a free-roaming mode or the likes in order to explore the setting without being bound to a story. However, as time has gone by, it has been increasingly clear that these stories help to offer the game's strongest element. Each explores a different element in a city's life, and throws entirely new challenges your way as your population reacts to them. In New Home you have to establish your new city, and then quell an insurrection of people attempting to break from your city. In The Arks you have to deal with foreign affairs, and the last best hope to preserve your future. In The Refugees there is the issue of class warfare threatening to rip the city apart, while the Fall of Winterhome is about a populace attempting to drag itself back from the edge of annihilation.

While the scenarios themselves cannot be fully delved into without spoiling them, the Fall of Winterhome was the most recent, and highlights just how different these can be. Rather than merely maintaining resources and building up a city from the ground up, you have to rebuild it. You take charge of a failing city which has undergone a revolution, with its people having completely lost hope, and many of its buildings torched beyond use. Your task is to use decrees you would have otherwise ignored and the remaining facilities to make it thrive once more. In addition to this, you need to continually hit targets on the hope meter to ensure that the people trust their new ruler. Even if Winterhome is thriving, if you fail to hit these even once, you face being exiled into the wastes.

So, that's the crux of the good. Surprisingly, there is some bad to be found here as well.

The Bad

This first point is going to sound strange, but for a game based around a new ice age, the heat mechanics are surprisingly lacking. They certainly provide a challenge at first, especially as the temperatures continue to drop and if you only have a fairly low population. However, beyond those first few minutes, it can quickly become a simple nuisance. The furnace which is in the middle of your city is easy to maintain once you get a basic grasp of the mechanics, and there are multiple ways to easily guard your buildings against the cold. Of all the resources on hand, coal is the most plentiful and easy to acquire. Unless you completely botch any attempt to balance mining with a high output, you will never run out of the stuff. Unless the game drops the temperature to ludicrous degrees (I.E. past the freezing point of carbon dioxide) you're never going to feel as if it poses any true threat to you.

The issue of resource management is also somewhat undermined by other additions which undermine the sense of surviving against all odds. The big ones are how the game handles scouting missions and outposts beyond the city itself. Now, this addition is actually a welcome one for several reasons. It shows a broader map of the world, it allows you to gain some extra lore on surrounding locations, and opens up opportunities for new missions. With that being said, the system itself is overly automated. Scouts can march for days without tiring or pausing, and they never consume food. They practically stumble upon stockpiles of resources, and unique parts vital to constructing the more complex machine pieces within your city. As such, you can end up with massive resource booms which allows you to suddenly leap forward in terms of development. Outposts are the same, but they are an even more flagrant problem in many cases. You need to spend little to nothing on them, and they will constantly send massive stockpiles of supplies back to your city on a daily basis. If you play your cards right, these can replace your need for half the buildings in the game, and it makes the survival element obscenely easy.

Even without the issue of coal or supplies, there are distinct bits here which feel extremely superfluous. For example, everyone in this game has a name, from the children to your workers. You might think that this would have some Dwarf Fortress style element, where some people become much more prominent than others, but that isn't the case. They are largely interchangeable and, outside of one surprisingly meaningful difference between graveyards and corpse pits, you will overlook most of them. The stories focus much more on the general population, and the societal events impact the society as a whole rather than an individual group. There's no moment where you think "Oh, that's him!" and can be easy just to think of them as another resource in the end. It doesn't ruin the theme of the game, or even hold it back that much, but it repeatedly highlights how the game missed a trick by lacking a more individual element within the city.

Finally, there's also the technology here, or more specifically the way it develops. The way in which steampunk technology is handled remains one of the game's strengths. It really seems like the creators knew where to draw the line in terms of how far steam power could be taken without pinching things from other gimmick techs (So, no Tesla coils). The use of mini-airships, factories, automated mining rigs and four-legged automata all play a role within the game, and each looks fantastic. The problem comes from actually getting there.

It seems as if 11 bit studios truly wanted the city to develop gradually and to avoid a lot of the science focused min-maxing which could lead to easy victories. In doing so, however, the technological system ended up being time consuming, slow and problematic. You often need to unlock technologies you will never use in order to get to a few later ones you have some interest in. At the same time, the tiered nature of the technology screens requires you to pay out resources to get each on in turn. This adds another timed gate onto progressing forward, and slows any plans you might have. As a result of this, what could have been a very effective and direct system feels very over-engineered and cumbersome. The results are typically great but actually getting there is an arduous uphill battle. Then again, perhaps that was hidden message in all of this.

The Verdict

Frostpunk is still a very flawed game, but a deeply enjoyable one. Much like XCOM, you will walk away with a bucket list of problems, die many times and perhaps curse your luck, but keep playing. The scenarios are varied enough that the same old tactics don't always win out, and even with the resourcing elements mentioned above, the need to placate your city is always a challenge. As a result of the broader variety of stories and a few mechanical tweaks, there have been a number of vast improvements which makes it more than worth your time. If you were holding off on buying this on release due to its criticisms, now is the time to give it a second look.

Verdict: 7.5 out of 10

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Predator (Film Review)

At one point this could have been the sequel the franchise deserved. Then it decided to make changes, either through executive intervention or simply a few poor creative decisions. The result is that you end up with half of a good film trying to be true to the original and the other half weighing it down with mismanaged ideas, poor scenes and an insane final act. Simply put - This is a film which is a near perfect successor to the original Predator, right up to the moment where everything falls to bits.

The Synopsis

Another predator lands on Earth, seemingly seeking worthy prey and encounters a black ops group led by Quinn McKenna. In a one-sided battle, all but McKenna are butchered by the alien, and he escapes only by sheer luck. Yet this isn't simply another hunt. The predator crash landed, with his ship heavily damaged, and he has another goal in mind beyond claiming trophies. As McKenna is deemed insane for his story and prepared for transportation to an insane asylum, something else arrives in pursuit of the alien...

The Good

Whatever flaws might be leveled at the film, it has to be said that the film benefited from excellent casting choices. As Predator was recognised for its larger-than-life commando unit and infamous lines, each film has tried to mimic that same quality. However, The Predator is the first to truly follow up on the original and execute it well, perhaps even outshining its predecessor in a number of areas. While the group is thrown together, their exaggerated and insane lines could have easily devolved into irritating cliches or the wrong kind of macho competition. Instead, the dialogue is effective thanks to its more humourous style and the chemistry between the various actors. This even works with a number of secondary figures within the tale - civilian or otherwise - and frequently helps to make otherwise forgettable characters quite memorable.

Despite its jokey tone, the first act does continually add in threatening moments to keep the story on track. The predators themselves are supposed to be genuinely imposing, after all, and maintaining the same jokey tone would have undercut their menace. While it's definitely aiming to break from the more straight-faced style of its predecessors, this does still help to give the film its own identity, rather than feeling wholly like a sequel. Plus, whatever his flaws, Shane Black has a proven track record when it comes to juxtaposing humour with drama or terror, and the predators offer a multitude of moments for this. In fact, in moments where it might otherwise go too far, it keeps going until it comes back around to being hilarious again. The thumbs up scene - which might justify the price of a ticket alone - is easily the best example of this.

So, what about the predators themselves then? Good, at least for the most part. A few flaws will be cited in the below section - relating to one particular part of the film above all others - but the initial impressions the film offers are very strong. The use of practical effects when it comes to the initial villain is a particular strong point in the story's favour, as it emulates the imposing style and sheer mass of the hunters. Every time one shows up, it serves as a reminder that their use of stealth is due to their choice and culture, and that even without it they could simply outfight most humans. This leads to a number of quite stunningly one-sided fights, which nevertheless still prove to be highly entertaining. Oh, and bloody, can't forget that.

The cinematography and visual direction is what you would expect from this sort of production, as it does its best to avoid the sins of recent years. There is much less of an emphasis placed on rapid cuts and sudden visual gimmicks than solid imagery, holding the camera on a subject for longer than might be expected. While there are amateurish takes on this sort of thing, easily its best moments are when the camera uses slow panning shots to track a moment or a broad enough view to take in most of a scene at once. It helps to give the film much more of a sense of how ongoing events are playing out and a more natural feel for character reactions. Even when it does get into the action itself, this works in favour of the predators' sheer size, and it offers a better take on their visual designs. 

Finally, while The Predator isn't afraid of making call-backs to the original films, these are not nearly so ham-fisted as you might expect. A few in there do feel somewhat cheap, but they work in favour of the scene in question, and often seem like a nice bonus over using references as a crutch. Unfortunately, while it managed to sidestep that particular issue, there were other things it got very, very wrong indeed.

The Bad

The last act of the film is a mess. Yes, this was alluded to in the introduction, but from a very specific point onward, you will quickly begin to see poor ideas stacked atop of one another, leading up to the finale. The fact the final fight in question seems to be an effort to pander toward the Marvel crowd hardly helps matters, and it's in stark contrast with what made final fights so engaging. The whole point of the Predator franchise is the idea of humanity being hunted by an intelligent (if arrogant) opponent who outguns them physically and technologically, then overcoming them through determination or ingenuity. This one unfortunately makes the mistake of trying to level the playing field, and it's sadly the crux of the entire narrative.

Normally, the subject of the finale and the single greatest problem of the film would be left down to the final part here. Instead, it's bring brought up first for two reasons: A. It's so spoiler heavy that someone would complain if anything more than that was discussed. B. It's what most people will focus on the most. In some cases, it might be the only thing that they focus on, to the point of overlooking the film's other notable problems.

The big problem which runs throughout much of the film is that many scenes seem to be isolated. There's little in the way of true cohesion between them, directly linking one event to the next. On their own they work fine, until you notice that it isn't able to fully connect one to the other in terms of thematic presentation and pacing. The primary reason behind this is due to some remarkably choppy editing and the inability to fully examine some of its story elements. It feels as if whole scenes are missing at points - something the Black himself confirmed with at least one major subplot - and this disrupts both the character dynamics and main story. It's the counterpoint against Mad Max: Fury Road showing how, when mishandled, breakneck pacing can only serve to disrupt and undermine the film.

Even then, were everything handled correctly, a number of thematic elements surrounding the titular villains simply doesn't gel with what we are seeing. It's executed in a manner which starts to make a good deal of sense initially, especially in terms of what it implies, only for it to repeatedly contradict that point toward the middle of the film. The fugitive angle is an interesting one to be sure, but it seems like the writers simply didn't know what to do with these ideas, and it never takes the time to fully explore its implications. Even when one predator is bumped off in favour of the bigger and much badder one, not enough is done to present this as an upgrade. There's no escalation in terms of power, and not nearly enough done to show just why this new one is much more of a threat. If anything, his more direct methods makes him a more predictable opponent, as it lacks a few key elements of the guile his kind are known for.

Oh, and let's not forget the plot conveniences. Every story usually needs a few of these to have everything fall into place, and that's fine. So long as it doesn't break the suspension of disbelief or fall into cliches, this can typically be forgiven. However, almost everything surrounding Rory McKenna is questionable. It's not that the kid is a bad actor, he does a decent job with what he's given, but nine times out of ten he feels more like a walking plot device. Something only made worse when it falls into the "autism makes people savants" cliche which is rather insultingly handled and could have been easily avoided.

Also, the CGI is bad. These reviews rarely bring up such elements, as it's worth giving these productions some fair degree of leeway when it comes to them. Some age better than others, some might be limited by the studio, and a few might be just not as bad as people say. Don't believe me? The Star Wars prequels have been repeatedly mocked for supposedly low-grade CGI but, whatever their flaws, it has aged far better than a number of other films in following years. As such, you know things are bad when I have to bring it up as a serious detriment, especially when it starts to outright replace the excellent practical effects. This is especially bad during the (allegedly heavily reshot) third act, which devolves into some relatively well animated sequences that have clearly suffered from poor rendering.

The Verdict

As this is coming from someone who will defend most of the Predator related films - all save AvP: Requiem - this might be going a little easier on the film than it should. It certainly has its strengths, from a solid cast with good chemistry to the concept of an enhanced version of an old foe. Yet in its efforts to follow on from Predators' lost scenes with an Aliens style "tell my own story" break from the original, it just fails to tell a coherent story. As a result, it falls into the Aliens vs Predator trap of being fun, but deeply flawed and fairly forgettable.

If you do watch this, it will likely be Shane Black's usual thumbprints you end up recognising the most; such as the humourous tone juxtaposed with serious threats, solid action set-pieces and the use of practical effects at the right moments. It's more of a beer film, where it does enough right for you to enjoy, you can laugh at its stupidity and forget about it within days of seeing it. There's just about enough good here for it not to completely fail, but far too much bad for it to ever become a classic.

Verdict: 5 out of 10

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Dust: An Elysian Tail (Video Game Review)

Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of those very rare few games which lives up to the hype. By all means that's a term which should be derided, downright hated, but it does apply in a scant few cases. With Dust, the tight Action-RPG combat blended with a charming setting and surprising moments of drama delivered exactly what its audience (and developer) wanted: A culmination of the best 2D games of its genre can offer.

The Story

The narrative here starts with what should be a cliche - An amnesiac hero awakens, with no knowledge of who he is, where he is, or how he came to hold the sword in his hands. The sword's guardian, Fidget, soon arrives trying to get the weapon back. However, the semi-sentient sword, the Blade of Ahrah, has other plans and stays with its new owner. Taking the name Dust, the hero sets out to uncover the secrets of his past.

The Good

So, the story is one of cliches. Yeah, there's no denying it, as every part of the above point really brings to mind any one of a dozen games if not a hundred stories. This only becomes more prominent as the game goes on, but that is ultimately by design. In the wrong hands it could have been a crutch, or simply a sign that the writer didn't care for a substantive story, but it ultimately works out. Much of this is down to how it emphasizes theme, atmosphere and emotion over anything else, trying to offer a mixture of mystery and fine detail which made many past games come to life. It's something only a few other games in recent years have achieved, but it's a quality which made the likes of Golden Sun and even Journey so engaging.

The basic story is, however, undeniably enhanced by both the excellent ensemble of voice actors and glorious visuals that Dust offers. There honestly isn't a bad performance found in any character, as the actors typically find a way to give their roles more depth. Dust easily could have been a none-note "I'm Batman!" wannabe anti-hero, but Lucien Dodge's quiet tones and the varied writing helps to give him more depth. Equally, Fidget could have easily fallen into the same trap as Navi, but Kimlinh Tran is able to offer a more charming quality to her high pitched antics. While part of the praise on offer here could be down to the fact this isn't the same four or five voices found in most AAA games - Yes, I love hearing Steve Blum and Jennifer Hale, but there's sometimes too much of a good thing - even discounting that fact, the talent on display significantly improves many of the game's dramatic moments.

The visuals speak for themselves. Honestly, they're bright, bold, colourful and yet retain the capacity to be dark, haunting and remarkably grim at times. This is all done without changing the aesthetic or doing more than merely altering the lighting or basic tones, which makes it all the more effective. This isn't simply an effort to shift gears from one extreme to the other, either, as you wander through meadows, underground cavers, hellish fire pits and ruin dotted mountain ranges. Each has its own tone, its own emotion, but they blend together seamlessly without the same sense of distance or divide you might expect. It's a harder thing to pull off than you might think, especially given how many environments seem to intentionally clash with one another. Yet, for all their conflicting elements, the fine details have enough trace elements, and merge together so well, that it feels like a single cohesive setting.

With all of the praise leveled at the game's presentation, you might expect that the core gameplay would be a major shortfall. Well, it's quite the opposite. It's just that it works so well with the aforementioned elements that it really needs to be broken down in terms of its strengths. For starters, the nature of an Action-RPG game (or Action Platformer as a few have called Dust) typically comes down to a few core elements above all others. It places an emphasis on speed, a few rapid repeatable actions and basic scaling skill-sets. This is all true of Dust, but there's far more to it than just a merely competently executed system. The combat system itself is incredibly responsive, and even on a mouse and keyboard the fluid nature of its mechanics makes it keep pace with your every action. It lacks the usual mouse acceleration or interface problems you would expect of a game ported from a console, and offers an incredible amount of precision with each strike.

The combat system itself offers a few basic moves, with a spinning blade attack, a spell-spam move and basic jumping then slashing strikes. However, the addition of the combo system and how easily each of these blends together into a mixture of air dashes, downward attacks and room clearing homing spells. When you are facing off against a multitude of opponents, playing it feels less Diablo than it does Street Fighter and the addition of a parry system only enhances it further. You can certainly get away with button bashing, but you'll soon see that learning precision controls and attacks are the best way to keep advancing through the game. Part of the reason for the game's responsiveness is how it can interrupt its own animations, allowing for the player to respond to possible threats at a rapid pace. The fact that Dust can offer this without it ever seeming janky or out of place is a true testament to how well it's put together.

The actual exploration element of Dust offers a variety of challenges and surprises at each stage. While many easter eggs serve as shout outs to other releases (both classic and then-current) the nature of each environment always adds a twist onto its predecessor in some way. In one area you need to hack through enemies to reach higher platforms, but in the next you need to do so while fleeing a larger one. Then, in another, you need to trigger an avalanche to progress further, dodging about incoming projectiles to stay ahead. It's a good way of keeping a sense of progression without ever overwhelming the player with details or new ideas, while also offering reasons to re-visit older stages.

Finally, and quite prominently, we have the options menu. This isn't simply a good menu, it's one which puts those in most AAA releases to shame on PC. In fact, it does that with almost all of them. Just for starters, Dust features a mode which accounts for colourblind individuals, which is an extremely rare consideration. Then you have many elements which helps to fine tune your experience for personal preferences, such as completely re-working the HUD's size and positioning to the player's satisfaction. You can even re-work the visual quality of character portraits and details such as depth of field, post processing and weather effects. It's quite possibly one of the single most impressive versions I have seen in an indie game to date, and shows just what we should be getting with options to tailor your experience.

Unfortunately, with all the good comes some bad, and Dust has a few undeniable shortcomings.

The Bad

It takes quite some time for Dust's failings to become apparent, thanks to both its charming nature and strong start. The big one among these is the lack of comprehensive answers for all of the story's points, from the driving conflict to the villain in question. While it doesn't pull a Lost, it does verge on a Big O, as you have a definite end to the core conflict but there is so much left unanswered. In fact, the main villain's motivation might as well boil down to "Because I can" for all we know, and there are definite gaps within the narrative. The fact that this only becomes evident toward the end - during a very action packed finale - helps to disguise this somewhat, but you can easily reflect on the story and pick apart its flaws. 

The narrative really are the big one here, but it would be difficult to explore even a small fragment of the most pressing without spoiling the entire story. As such I will simply say that there are multiple times when the narrative seems disjointed, and certain elements are introduced only to be forgotten later on. For most sidequests this is typically fine, every game has its one-shot ideas. However, then you have characters whose role is implied to have a greater impact only to be forgotten for most of the game.

Furthermore, beyond the core story and side quests, elements of the game's content is notably lacking. The big one is the various challenge areas, Cirelian Trials, which prove to be more frustrating than engaging. These lacks the sort of presentation and reward which makes many such bonuses worthwhile in other releases, and it's difficult to feel any need to race through them. Well, that's not entirely fair. A few initial ones certainly work out well, but they are notably hit and miss.

Surprisingly, the other notable flaw stems from the very thing which might drive you toward the Trails in the first place - The game is incredibly easy. Even if you're someone who typically plays on the lower settings, you'll want to crank it up with Dust as you can easily breeze through the whole experience with little opposition. This becomes all the more evident if you plan on re-visiting past locations, as you quickly become so overpowered that dealing with enemies is more tedious than it is rewarding. You don't gain the sense of increased power, just time wasted when you need to deal with them. This is especially true of the haunted area of the world which, despite the developer's best efforts, is a breeze to go through if you have boosted any of Fidget's magical abilities.

Yet, most pressingly, is how tonally inconstant Dust is at times. You can be in a moment of serious drama or pathos only for it to be undercut by childish humour or an odd joke. This is typically down to how the game stages its side-quests and character moments, as both are well written but the two cross paths with a frustrating frequency. This is at its most obvious during the events in Aurora, but even later on there are odd moments of conflicting tones.

The Verdict

Dust has its problems to be sure, but the game makes it extremely hard to hold those against it. When the story works, it works incredibly well and the atmosphere, questions and characters all help to deliver a great experience. It's a credit to the game's execution that it doesn't leave you feeling cheated, but instead for a sequel to help fill in the gaps and explore what we missed. While it can be easy to get through, the higher difficulties do help to offset that, and the details of the combat system means you can often overlook this.

With all of its problems, it's still an essential addition to any gaming library and a shining example of what an indie developer can accomplish. With its recent port to the Nintendo Switch, I can't think of a better excuse to play through Dust one more time.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Remembering Jacqueline Pearce

Many acting legends have quirks of their era, and something which is especially true of those whose careers were kick-started in the 1960s is their eccentricities. It's the right kind of madness, the sort where you have someone professionally trained, classical and haughty, capable of working with the most ridiculous of premises. If that sounds back-handed, it's not supposed to be, as it's a quality all too lacking today. It's the sort of thing that Patrick Stewart benefited from in Star Trek, or helped make the films of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price classics. You could have them stuck on low budget sets, facing down stories riddled with plot holes and ridiculous monsters, and they would make it work. Unfortunately, today is when another of that generation has met their end due to lung cancer; the ever underrated Jacqueline Pearce.

Pearce was an actress who really should have been brought up before now on here. The only reason that she wasn't was due to the franchises she was associated with, specifically those of British science fiction. While we have dabbled frequently with Doctor Who, save for a few reviews these have focused on television over Big Finish productions, and the subject of Blake's 7 is one which is always difficult to approach. The latter especially is where Pearce shined, displaying the qualities of a villain which can rarely be fully matched. Across the series' entire run she played Supreme Commander Servalan, a calculating politician and gloriously traditional villain. Capable of returning time and time again, Servalan was a figure which could have easily come across as a cliched villain of the week, and yet Pearce's performance helped to elevate the role.

While she could be bombastic, over the top and exaggerated, there was a human element to her and a calculating quality. It was an ever present aspect which made her charming and engaging, but you could never write her off as an effective threat to the heroes. This was something which only became more evident as time went by and especially during the final season, where she was often playing the heroes for her own games.

Even without getting into Blake's 7 itself, Pearce was able to work herself into seemingly almost any role. It's why if you look through her IMDB page, you find everything from a Carry On film to (appropriately enough given that intro) surrealist horror films by Hammer productions. Even if her role was minor, there was always so much life and character to them, that they could elevate whole scenes. If you wish for a more eloquently put version of this, i'd strongly suggest reading through her obituary here.

It's a tragedy that we will never again hear Pearce playing Cardinal Ollistra or voicing Servalan in the Big Finish continuation of Blake's 7, but I'm glad she left so strong an impact on British cult science fiction.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Lords of Silence by Chris Wraight (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)

The surprising thing is that this book wasn't even on the review list. Really, due to extreme time and financial constraints, the next Ciaphas Cain novel was slotted in for today instead. I had been meaning to cover the series for years and the new novel was a chance to do just that, but it was unavailable at my local store. So, Lords of Silence took its place instead. You might expect the next bit to say "and dear sweet heaven that was a mistake!" but instead, it's quite the opposite. If anything, it's the Death Guard novel we've been needing for years.


Set during the more recent events of the Plague Wars, the events of the novel follow almost directly after the shattering of the Cadian Gate. Chaotic Warbands now race across the Imperium as the Eye of Terror stretches into a crack across the very galaxy itself, and the Death Guard are moving to answer Mortarion's call to war. Yet even as they answer the call to arms of their primarch, ancient secrets, mistakes and past battles haunt them. While the Lords of Silence warband move to battle across the Imperium Nihilus, an especially dark and persistent specter of their past haunts their every step...

The Good

Past reviews have typically been quite harsh of Chris Wraight, despite typically repeating that he is a talented author. Much of this is due to his treatment of the Space Wolves in their own series, with the mistake of emphasising failings and weaknesses to the point of ignoring strengths. While this might be true of that chapter, no element of it is present here and that drive has been used in a more creative means. The exploration of their character has shifted from failings to the subject of worship, corruption and age, as we see how the Death Guard have adapted through the centuries. While the mistake of linking modern and Heresy era events has led to some stories making it seem as if a few decades have passed rather than thousands of years, this is the opposite. There is a real sense of weight to how corrupt and warped the marines in question truly are, thanks to how they view Nurgle's influence and the subject of decay as a whole.

The nature of every marine's change is seen as much through how they describe the Warp, the nature of worship and even nearby daemons. There is a much more monastic sense of reverence within the warband, even by the standard of space marines. While they are certainly willing to show some of the macabre joy Nurgle is known for, it's a more straight faced example than you might expect. Furthermore, daemons are used sparingly, but this helps to further emphasise how they are viewed by this particular warband in question. Plus it helps to hit much harder, as when they appear s when Wraight's more creative descriptions truly kick in, and he offers some fantastically vivid images of things which simply do not belong in this world.

The book is also one of the few to share a protagonist role in the form of Vorx and Dragan. This isn't so much the usual protagonist and deuteragonist relationship as you might expect, as you're never wholly sure just which one is supposed to be star of the show. Well, at least until the end anyway. Each is a contrast to the other, reflecting a way in which the Long War has influenced their lives, and even how their memories colour their sense of loyalty. While Vorx is old enough to remember the Great Crusade and is wise in his aged nature, Dragan is a relatively more recent recruit and shows devotion to the Long War. It's an interesting dynamic, as it's not nearly so openly hostile as you would expect, but it reflects the shift in attitude. It leads to a multitude of interesting conversations and verbal sparring which makes for some of the book's most engaging moments, especially during the events in the Eye of Terror.

Given that history and ghosts of the past are a major subject within the story, it's fitting in a way that it's told through a non-linear structure, with frequent flashbacks and shifting chronological events. This allows the story to repeatedly hit the reader with a number of surprises, and several intelligent twists which makes re-reading the book all the more appealing. It's delivered in a different manner to your typical flashbacks through dialogue and overall structure, and the hints delivered of certain events carry much more impact thanks to this. They are not so openly forecast, and the fact that they are chronologically much closer together means that there is more of an interesting connection. Look, if you want it in layman's terms, it's less Lost than it is Reservoir Dogs.

Finally, while a character piece first and foremost, it does utilise its locations very effectively. We see much more of the Eye and the Imperium in contrast to one another than would usually be expected, but it does so very effectively. There isn't a lost sense of mystery to the Eye despite this fact, and the Imperium itself is shown as reeling from the new changes. While it does delve into a few lesser used tropes - notably that the Imperial characters in the book deny traitor astartes as even existing - it's seen as a farewell to those elements. They will be harder to justify in future works after all, and it's one last opportunity to fully explore them at this point in the timeline.

The Bad

After so many great elements, the negatives are mixed to say the least. Some aren't truly badly handled, but they fail to fully fit in with the overall narrative, or simply don't mesh with they key subjects. A big part of this is down to how the story is supposed to be very slow burning, and rather action-less book, with its focus concentrated on conversation pieces. Unfortunately, this just makes the action itself stand out like a sore thumb. While most Warhammer novels are typically able to work this into the story without issue, here much of it feels gratuitous. On its own it works fine, but there are only one or two fights which truly compliment the characters and work with the overarching story.

Furthermore, the villains of the piece were quite weak. Outside of the warband itself, both the intended antagonist and the Imperium lacks much in the way of real engagement, often coming across as bland or one-dimensional. While this could have been used for commentary or emphasis on the themes of corruption - as each traitor marine typically regards their move as an upgrade - it never comes across this way. As such, it feels as if the story only has a portion of what could be an excellent ensemble of characters. Ironically, those who do break this trend are Mortarion and Typhus, both of who we barely see in the tale.

A third major point which proves to be rather frustrating at times is how the story sets up certain elements, but never fully follows up on them. Some of this can be put down to establishing elements for future novels, or even as throw-away lines, but the way in which they are delivered sometimes makes it seem as if they were intended to be something more. Vrox's hatred of the Thousand Sons is a major one, as it's framed and delivered as if it were a point which was meant to have much more impact at a later date, but we get relatively little from it.
The Verdict

While flawed, Lords of Silence nevertheless proves to be another great addition to the Black Library, and easily the best Nurgle related book we have seen to date. With so many stories coming out on both sides, and the Death Guard's prominence of late, this could be the starting point to a great trilogy. After all, with the Iron Warriors, Word Bearers, Night Lords and (technically) Thousand Sons all having had their time in the spotlight, the sons of Barbaras are long overdue a decent trilogy. It certainly works as a stand alone, and I do strongly recommend it, but there's certainly potential for something more here.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

Friday, 31 August 2018

A New Blackstone Fortress, A New Threat?

So, yeah, it turns out that the new object is a Blackstone Fortress. After yesterday's announcement I did not expect so rapid a turn-around, but here we are. As part of the NOVA announcements, Games Workshop unveiled a large number of new releases from across all their ranges. I strongly advise anyone to read it here, as there is some damn good stuff, and I wouldn't be adding anything by simply repeating that information. Still, if you need a good reason to delve into it: There's not only word of new Sisters of Battle releases, but the continuation of a much believed 40K themed webcomic. Yes, Turn Signals on a Land Raider is back, people!

Still, onto the subject at hand. The Blackstone Fortress was fully unveiled in this trailer, where we are given a glimpse of the ominous ancient device:

The re-introduction itself is to be part of a game, a Warhammer Quest style experience in the same vein as Silver Tower. With the successes seen in Age of Sigmar and a Rogue Trader tabletop experience on the horizon, this is a further push to emphasize tabletop mini-games over large ongoing experiences. While we know little of the core rules themselves, the setting isn't dramatically dissimilar to the likes of Shadespire, as it's a vast mysterious object with a history linked to the galaxy's ancient past.

The big question surrounding this is if there will be a greater meaning behind this. The Blackstone Fortresses were (supposedly) a key part of Abaddon the Despoiler's plan to break the Cadian Gate and establish his own powerbase. This mostly boiled down to using them as an orbiting gun platform, but until now we thought that the few in the Gothic sector were all those that existed. Finding a new one elsewhere, even a single new station unclaimed by Chaos, opens up a number of new questions. The big one among them is just how many others there might be, and if this might influence future events relating to Chaos, the Necrons and the Imperium at large. After all, a C'tan Shard was concerned enough to manipulate Abaddon into destroying several fortresses and claiming others for himself, just to make sure they are out of the way. This isn't the sort of thing which can just be introduced and then left at that.

It might be a push to claim that this is a major story development, given that this is supposed to be a single one-shot game. However, I previously made that mistake of thinking the same thing when it came to Death Masque and that kicked off a major change within the universe. Yes, it was horribly written and the follow-up story was easily the worst part of the Gathering Storm, but the point is that it could be the start of something new. If you do think that this is hyperbole in some way, even ignoring the fact that these are ancient machines which are seemingly beyond even the technologies of the Eldar and Necron races combined, these things are planet killers. Once activated, they can chew through worlds, and blow up suns when working in combination with other ships. Just one like this could change the face of a battlefield faster than a dozen Titan Legions working in coordination with one another.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Games Workshop Hints At Major Warhammer 40,000 Story Development

Games Workshop has been on a roll of late, with no end of new games, rules and models arriving on shelves. Besides the smash hit of Kill Team, the new Titan game has gained no end of attention and the recent campaigns have proven to be supremely popular. The point is, the company has entered a new golden age, and a major part of that can be put down to their vastly improved use of social media. We've seen promos, we've seen trailers (including this glorious creation) and we've seen humourous tutorials, all to help build a sense of community. Well, now we have more hype thanks to posters like this one:

This is a recent development, offering little more than a simple message and some blurry images. However, there are enough general hints here to have gotten more than a few people hyped, especially with the timeline now moving forward. The suggestion of something new and big having been found in the galaxy is enough of a major revelation, but then you have the implication of this being "a" new subject rather than simply new, implying a number of things. The big one, of course, is the idea that this might well be a primarch. Most of the loyalists now have a backdoor to justify their reintroduction into the setting. With El'Jonson taking a nap inside the Rock and Khan possibly lost within the Webway it would be easy to work them into the narrative, while Russ' quest would carry a big impact. The traitors are even easier to work into battles, and people have been wondering when Angron might show up given the bloodshed going on.

However, while the general return of the primarchs is a major ongoing event, they seem like the sort of thing Games Workshop would use sparingly. They have a very limited number of them, after all, and there's only so many times you can build hype around the idea of their resurrection into the modern timeline. Others have instead looked to focus on secondary sources for inspiration, or generally the sort of elements which will cause just as big a splash but will come across as a major surprise. This has led to more than a few fans predicting that a Blackstone Fortress might have shown up. Given how seemingly important these ships were, and the fact one was gifted to Huron Blackheart, that is entirely possible. It's also a subject which was given more credence thanks to Janus Draik's name appearing on a to-be-released novel about those fortresses.

The idea of the Blackstones being a source of interest is the most likely of several rumours, but that's simply the tip of the iceberg here. The mention of rogue traders - a subject that the main Warhammer 40,000 series rarely uses beyond a few fluff mentions - has led to some wondering if we are about to see trader crews emerge as a new army. Ad hoc groups of marines, xenos, mercenaries and the like have been the subject of multiple fan codices, after all, and the last major nostalgic kick the company used proved to be very profitable. It was the Imperial Knights, so it was going to have an advantage, but the point still stands. Especially as, going by those blurry images, this lot apparently have some big walkers of their own.

Even atop of that, however, due to the name of the trader in question. Janus Draik is a newcomer to the setting, and has not been seen before. However, Janus Drake is a very old name associated with a dangling plot thread from a William King novel by the name of Farseer. In it, the aforementioned Rogue Trader operated alongside an Eldar Fareer by the name of Auric Stormcloud in a hunt to claim an eldar relic. By the end, Drake's body had been hijacked by the Farseer due to a spirit stone implanted within his body. Given the hints of a major conflict with the Necrons (both due to a mention during the Gathering Storm about several Craftworld Eldar and Necron battles, and a multitude of other suggestions in their own codex), and the Farseer's own zealous personal crusade, the re-introduction of the character isn't out of the question.

This is, as ever, simply speculation, and it will be only a short while until we get a few answers. Whatever the result, however, they should be quite interesting indeed.