Tuesday, 22 October 2019

A Temporary Retirement

So things have been quiet on this front for a long time. Given how long I have been writing on this, and how long many of you have stuck with me, it seems fair that you should all know why things have gone quiet.

I'll be blunt here - At this moment I simply do not have the time to write anything as of yet. While I have been reading plenty of novels, armybooks and ideas that I would like to put to paper, life has not permitted me to sit down and do anything. Part of this is my own fault I will admit, but a lot of it has to do with outside influences. I make plans, I set down back-up plans and I aim for long term schemes. Then someone decided to go through things by "winging it" constantly sets down new ideas, changes goalposts and directly makes life difficult for me. This has been the same song and dance for months now, and it has reached the point where I do not think I will be able to contribute any significant works until it is all over. That's the bit at home, but there are also other issues.

The other big problem is, as you might have guessed, the UK crashing out of Europe. While I have done my best to keep politics out of this website and focus upon other things, most of you will know that I have been forced to become increasingly active in protests. The efforts by our unelected Prime Minister May to shut down the internet 'cause reasons was the big one, but Brexit looks ever worse by the day. The UK makes nothing for itself, it's almost entirely reliant upon trade for everything, and yet despite that we have done little to actually make sure we can survive after leaving Europe.

I'm actually not against leaving Europe itself. There are many reasons to leave along with staying, but I always had one stipulation for doing so: A ten-year process of extracting the UK from the European Union by some very competent people to make sure we survive. We have instead had three years of extremely incompetent people with no oversight fighting one another. Our leaders are opportunists, career politicians who have earned their places through nepotism and incompetents who would have been sacked from any other job. Most of those backing this are either doing this out of a personal desire to have their own "Battle of Britain" moment, or because they stand to make a personal fortune through hedge funds. These are, after all, the same bastards who have been killing off the National Health Service because they have financial investments in private healthcare firms.

The top one percent stands to win everything, while the wider population looks ready to lose all that we rely upon to survive. And now we are set to have an orange-faced aging bastard fleece us for all we own at the beck and call of his Cold War relic of a pimp. I can't ignore that. I can't simply spend my time praising or criticising the grim darkness of the far future when it relies upon me ignoring the grim darkness of the present day.

This won't be the end for the website. I will be back, if it requires weeks or months for me to do so. But for the moment this blog is on hold. To those who kept reading over the years, I thank you for doing so and I hope that you will not be left waiting long for me to see new articles, and that I can read your comments.

Until that day, goodbye and have a good life.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

John Carpenter's The Thing - Who Died First?

One of the more irritating questions that keeps coming up about John Carpenter's The Thing surrounds its ending. Namely if any of the characters left alive at the end are even human. However, that isn't the right question to ask. In fact, the scene's major strength hinges upon the fact no one can be sure if anyone there is even the "good guy" anymore. However, so many clickbait pieces or theory videos have focused upon this at the cost of a much better question: Who died first?

This article will naturally be delving deep into spoilers from here on. As such here is your one and only warning to leave and watch the film now. Really, that's not an "If you wish to watch it" warning so much as a "Please go and watch this!" Even as someone who has a love-hate relationship with most horror films, The Thing is easily one of the single best productions I have watched. You owe it to yourself to see it. Because of this fact, this article is also being written with those how know the film in mind. We'll skip the recap here, and just delve headlong into it.

Alright, so, for everyone who is left, let's consider the following - We never see the film just who it was that the alien creature infected first. The entire premise of the film focuses on the idea of a hostile entity being able to perfectly disguise itself as a human being. Because of this, much of the early story leaves many details extremely vague. Even once an effective countermeasure is devised to pick out the creatures and pinpoint who is still human, we are still in the dark. Once you do re-watch the film however, one detail becomes clear: Those initially infected were likely either Blair, Norris or Palmer. So, let's break down how and why.

Blair is the most obvious of the three to comment upon due to his role within the film. After the point where it becomes clear that something is wrong, he behaves erratically, violently destroying equipment and attacking anyone in sight. This reaches the point where he is ultimately isolated within a shed and kept away from the others for much of the film. When we do see him toward the finale, it becomes clear that he has been infected, and he ends up serving as the proverbial final boss.

The main arguments in favour of Blair being the first to be infected boil down to several basic points: His knowledge, his skillset, and the result of his brief rampage. As one of the two primary medical experts on the artic outpost, he was a major threat to the alien and one of the two most capable of possibly devising a countermeasure against it. He was, after all, the one who performed the autopsies of the initial bodies and outlined how the bodies had been twisted entirely out of shape. Equally, he was also the one that came to the conclusion of just how rapidly the alien would spread across the planet, as seen with the computer simulation. Once he was tied up, that forced the remainder of Outpost 31's personnel to effectively restart from square one and go over his notes. This ended up giving the alien time to claim another of their number due to the delay.

The rampage - specifically the damage he deals to the radio - is typically the key point in all of this. Because of his efforts, Blair ends up doing so much damage to the equipment that it becomes effectively inoperable for the rest of the film. This leaves them isolated, and allows for any other nearby outposts to perhaps mistake radio silence from simple interference from the weather. As some have argued, this would leave the alien with the freedom it needs to quietly infect them all and to avoid wider civilization being alerted to its presence. Even if it was found out, as we saw in the film, it would leave more options open for it to succeed. There would be no way to call for help, and no way to alert the next outpost if its efforts there proved to be a repeat of the Norwegian cap.

The primary reason that Blair seems unlikely out of all of them comes down to several key reasons. The first among these is simply how much of a paper trail he leaves in his wake. Fuchs is able to steal a number of notes outlining how the alien infects others and overcomes their cells. This becomes the key focal point in understanding the alien and combatting it over time. If Blair was infected, it and a number of other elements seem like the first things that would have been quickly destroyed. Furthermore, while Blair's behaviour following his discovery is suspect, it is also one other thing: Attention-grabbing.

Blair could have acted in any number of ways to do the damage that he did. He could have convinced Windows to leave the room, or even waited until he was distracted, before sabotaging the equipment. He could have even just infected Windows in a quiet moment. Instead, he picked up a fire axe and decided to switch from calm and quiet to embracing a full-blown berserker rage. By the time that we see him, Blair has inflicted so much damage on the equipment that everyone has been drawn to his location. Then consider his other actions. Killing the remaining dogs? If anything, given how well adapted they were to the local environment, the alien would benefit from infecting more of them. Sabotaging the vehicles? What benefit would that give him besides robbing the alien of an easy means to reach the coastline.

Combined with how quickly Blair pulled a revolver on the others, it seems more likely that he was acting out of terror. Given how many of his methods ultimately ended up undermining the aliens efforts, it's more likely that he was driven half-mad with paranoid fear and trying to prevent it spreading to the rest of the world. Plus, even if you argue that he might have made for a good distraction, that would still require at least one more infected individual to be present at the time. Combined with how Blair was isolated for much of the film, and the chaos that followed later segments, and it seems more likely that he was infected at a later date.

Of course, one more thing to consider is also the production side of things when it comes to this detail. The scene in which the infected sleigh dog finds someone isolated and takes them over was only filmed from outside of the room. It was also left as an extremely ambiguous scene due to the angle that Carpenter chose, and also the shadow left by the person in the room. The room itself was intended to show Norris' shadow on the wall, but this was switched at the last minute, only for it to be switched over to what looks like Palmer's quarters in the final cut. As a result, this further diminishes the possibility of Blair being the suspect.

So, of the last two, who is the more likely to be infected first? The dog had plenty of time to walk about the station, judge each one and then find the person it needed most when it came down to it. These two seem like the most obvious ones as they were both quiet, kept to themselves quite often, and unlike with MacReady or someone else, it did not need to leave the base to get them.

Palmer seems like the obvious one due to his behaviour. Throughout the film he does many things which can easily throw suspicion off of him, such as his outlandish conspiracy theories and habit of smoking weed in his spare time. These elements give a reason for the others to just ignore him unless it is absolutely necessary. This is also further compounded by the fact that he also retained skills that would benefit the alien itself. He was a mechanic within the base, after all, and he had easy access to most of the machines. Furthermore, when it comes down to it, he could very easily invent any number of reasons just to walk around the base or head off at odd times without question. Perhaps he could claim that something needed to be repaired, or even that he was checking for supplies. This is given further credence by the abrupt nature of the blackout.

However, there are multiple circumstances which offer strong implications that he was not the first person to be taken. The strongest point in favour of this was how he shared a room with Childs much of the time. This left few points in which the alien could get Palmer alone for just long enough - at least during the quieter periods - to assimilate him and move on. Furthermore, the knowledge that he retained should have been enough to help him offset Blair's damage. If he was taken very early on, it seems likely that he could have found extremely easy excuses to begin repairing the various vehicles. This is to say nothing of the fact that - while Palmer might have had the know-how to sabotage the generator - its location was hardly a secret on the base. Everyone and anyone seems to know exactly where it is.

Perhaps a final point which seems to cement it more than anything else is how there were definite point where Palmer could have easily exited the film. Were he infected, the point in which they visited the UFO could have easily allowed for him to just take the helicopter and leave. Even if he returned to the base it would have left both Norris and MacReady stranded in the middle of nowhere, and unable to return to the base. This scene, in particular, is also a reason why I personally feel that both were not infected at this time. They could have easily killed and/or overpowered MacReady and then flown off together with no one being any the wiser. Even if you discount that, if Palmer was infected first, the alien could have easily used his mechanical knowledge to sabotage the flamethrowers which were used against it.

So, that just leaves Norris. However, there is more than merely a simple removal of possible alternatives to back up this point. Norris was quiet, was isolated and did keep to himself quite often. However, in addition to that fact, he also had weaknesses that the alien would find a hindrance. He was a geologist, which did not help the alien in any way beyond perhaps understanding the Earth somewhat more, and he suffered from a heart condition. With Blair and Palmer, there were at least skills it could absorb and then utilise in order to carry out its plans. With Norris it had no such luck, and the addition of a physical weakness it likely could not have detected before then only further limited its options.

If you think about it logically, the idea that it made a tactically poor choice early on only helps to justify its initially slow progress. It needed more time to consider its options, and to also single out people to help infect without its heart giving out in a physical struggle. Sure, that likely would not have killed the alien, but it would have been a weakness which could be used to turn the tables against it. It's for this reason that it seems unlikely that it would try to take MacReady even when they were alone at the UFO, or when it was alone against both MacReady and Palmer.

Finally, then consider Norris' responses to certain scenes. When Garry steps down, Norris is instantly offered up for a promotion to the leader of the group. He reacts with almost total surprise, and then outright refuses to take the position, claiming that his heart could not handle the stress. Keep in mind, this is someone who had just earlier climbed up and down a towering ice wall on a rope, raided a UFO and taken multiple helicopter rides. Sure, there might be some science to this, but it strains belief that this could be a justifiable reason.

Between all of this, Norris is the one who seems most logical. It would give the alien reason to keep infecting others to find a means to escape, and also to keep playing the long game as we saw in the film. Combined with the difficulty it faced in trying to overwhelm the Norwegian camp, it only further justifies a more cautious approach when it was in a more precarious form.

So, those are just my thoughts overall, and my verdict. This is admittedly a fan theory rather than a set-in-stone idea, so if you have a few issues with this logic or your own ideas, please feel free to list them in the comments. As always, I'm interested to read what others say in such subjective matters.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Fan Backlash & Accusations of Entitlement - A Brief Modern History

Well, this is going to be fun for the comments section.

The subject of fan entitlement has become one which seems to be brought up with everything at the moment. It was discussed with Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame and even Fallout 76 of late. In fact, it's to the point where it's as often rightfully brought up due to people demanding unreasonable things (like petitions to re-do Game of Thrones' entire final season) to deflections of criticism. It's a debate worth going into detail on, but this article isn't going to be focusing on that. Instead, this is going to be a short history looking into the events which led to this subject reaching fever pitch, and the serious problems which pushed it to this point.

The short answer to this is simple - The internet is responsible.

Yes, you might laugh at that, and yes it is a cheap answer. However, there is no denying that mass connectivity between fan groups has caused at least as many problems as it has benefits. It is something that has been discussed a number of times on here - usually in relation to the current fandom war which plagues Star Wars - and the echo chambers which are formed thanks to forums and the like. However, these are just the obvious answers. A greater emphasis needs to be made upon how it allowed for different forms of communication, not simply broader ones, both in terms of criticizing industries and altering the industries themselves.

One of the major things which is seemingly killing print media is the existence of the internet, and the addition of singular critics, journalists and the like. You know the sort, the people who have a one-man Youtube channel or even just a small network which was willing to go into detail on a single medium or even a single game. These have even come to overshadow more than a few of the major websites which have largely muscled out the major magazines over the years, and it has only snowballed from there. Part of what drew people to them was the convenience of it, and a preference for video over written word (yes, I am aware of the irony of writing this fact) along with a single unified platform. However, another defining factor was how the "by fans, for fans" approach earned far more trust among viewers.

The writers of major websites were always journalists and, no matter how much enthusiasm they put into a work, they would always be separated. In addition to this, the fact that they were so closely tied to the very industry they covered meant that there was a lack of trust among them. This only simmered and increased over time, and even various scandals among the Youtubers who replaced them - Projared being just the latest in a long line of these - has done nothing to reduce this disconnect. All too often, articles and pieces on the media we consume lack a critical edge of it. Instead, they come across as puff pieces and free marketing for many such pieces of media. It allowed one to seem far more trustworthy than the other, and because they were seen as being "fellow fans", it seemed to set a general mentality of following such examples and pushing for change.

To focus on gaming for a moment, you can see how this trend heavily impacted that medium over the better part of a decade. While there are no shortage of examples to find, perhaps the most famous among these can be seen in Bioware's games, specifically Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3. While the latter is certainly far more infamous than the former, Dragon Age II was where the cracks were truly starting to show for Bioware and even that gaming generation overall. The game was buggy, suffered from a rushed deadline pushed by Electronic Arts, and was so utterly on-rails that it abandoned everything which made its predecessor so engaging.

Every fan was ware of Dragon Age's flaws, and yet if you were to look into most gaming press or even basic reviews, it was treated as a near-perfect sequel. While it isn't a perfect measurement by any means, take a look at the differences in Metacritic scores here and here between those games. The difference in their treatment is obvious, and while one barely dips in critical reviews, in terms of fan reactions there is a far more negative response. This trend only continued in the months that followed, with article after article coming out to defend Dragon Age II against any scorn. A few were better balanced, but more often than not it lacked a willingness to actually call out the game for its own failings.

When Mass Effect 3 was released, the responses on both sides were only amplified due to the negativity surrounding it. The fans railed against it, and gaming journalism seemed to treat them as the great unwashed masses who wouldn't know a good product if someone beat them to death with it. This lack of trust at all only amplified the problems present, and it led to a feeling of the product being made to satisfy its creators over its customers. The "artistic vision" comment has become a joke due to how often it is brought up to defend poor decisions, from limiting a game to 30 FPS or poor colour choices. This was wheeled out again with Mass Effect 3 to defend its original endings, and every decision which ultimately undermined Bioware's own strengths.

Even once Mass Effect 3 was given a revised series of endings, the subject continued to remain a flashpoint. In fact, it might have even made the situation worse. You see, there is nothing wrong with listening to fans. In fact, listening to fans for general ideas is generally a good way to navigate your way about a minefield of possibly poor decisions. However, if you are actually seen to be openly caving to their will or - as was the case in previous months with FemShep - openly asking them "What do you want?" It does sow the seeds which can lead to toxic entitlement. 

This build-up toward negative fan traits could have been offset in any number of ways. A particularly good one would have been by better informing the public of the complications or issues within the industry. Make them understand how hard crunch hits studios, how complex it is to program a game, or even the demands placed upon teams due to those deadlines. Nada. Rather than actually fixing this or helping fans to better understand the issue, it led to decades of sniping that fans had "broken" the game by interrupting that artistic vision. In fact, the only one I have found which does try to outline this while mentioning Mass Effect 3 can be found here, from just last week. This is in the wake of multiple high-profile situations, and is years later than what we needed.

We won't be sticking to video games for much longer with this - do not worry about that - but they also provide how this has become a problem on the industry end of things. Why? Because, beyond anything else, they have embraced the mentality of "ship it, then fix it" that has come to overshadow so many titles. Honestly, how many games have you played now which are patched right after launch? How many suffer from huge bugs, game-breaking problems or even severe balance problem, only for the company to promise that it will be fixed later on? The answer, I think, will be a lot. It has become almost an industry standard among major publishers like Electronic Arts, Activision and a few of the other infamous nutters.

Whereas Nintendo once operated on the mentality of "You only get to release a game once, make it perfect" many of the others went with "get it out ASAP, we can fix it later". The sheer scale of so many fixes, how many updates, adjustments, and modifications helped to make it seem like anything could be done. So, as a result, the more that fans saw huge changes being made, the more they treated that this was something normal within the industry. This even gradually spread out over into others as well. Everyone who has played Warhammer 40,000 for the better part of seven years will know how erratas will completely change some books due to their modifications. The same goes for minor wargames, RPGs or anything tabletop based. The corrections can be churned out faster than ever, giving the impression that anything can be fixed overnight. The same is even true of ebooks these days, given how suddenly typos or the like can be picked out and then removed between reads.

However, the issue of having rapid updates and a lack of a more informed public is only part of this problem. Another one lies in how some creators will openly thumb their noses at fandoms, if not outright ignore them. While there are many examples of this, perhaps the most recent one was Rian Johnson's statement that he would ignore fans suggestions or the like under the justification that it would still lead to a bad film. There is a logic behind this, and I can even see it being one of the more reasonable justifications for this mentality. However, openly ignoring large chunks of what an audience desires to see is something which can only backfire on a company over time, especially those invested in the stories within that universe.

That particular example was only further compounded by events cited above. Whatever your thoughts might be on The Last Jedi, there is no denying that the media seems to be overwhelmingly on its side. The moment that there was any kind of noteworthy discontent, website after website, forum after forum, blog after blog, began churning out opinion pieces boasting of the film's accomplishments. When they weren't defending the film they were openly deriding those who disliked it, or treating them as if they were holding back the franchise. Each was little more than a glorified puff piece, and they came out so frequently that you could set your watch to them. Even before that you had those deriding the pre-Disney era, with a wave of articles continually mocking and outright insulting the Expanded Universe to whip up people into a frenzy; seemingly pushing a mob mentality of "Disney Star Wars = Good, non-Disney Star Wars = Bad". When you have the creative force openly stating that they will ignore fans, and the promotional side serving as little more than marketing, it only undermines any faith in a creation over time.

Perhaps the best example of how ignoring an audience could backfire badly on its company is Games Workshop itself. Under the tenure of Tom Kirby, fan complaints were repeatedly ignored, thrown out the window or treated as non-issues. There was a total lack of any transparency when it came to the fandom, and the few times in which they did engage with it, it was only to deride them with passive-aggressive remarks. This seemed to set a trend for the company as a whole, even when it came to their codicies. Complaints about the likes of Codex: Blood Angels and Codex: Grey Knights during the fifth edition were ignored entirely, along with problems in surrounding books as well. Their creators would seemingly plow on ahead, heedless of feedback, commentary or even the general attitude the fandom held toward their books.

The continued efforts to ignore fans only led to ever greater hostility among the fandom, and boiled over into coordinated efforts to see certain books fail by "buying around them". More than a few infamous statements such as listing "They can never be Ultramarines" as a failure of other chapters were treated as gospel, until it continued to alienate more and more of the fanbase. This finally culminated in a massive 42% loss in profit overnight, and Tom Kirby trying to escape like a rat feeling a sinking ship. All while the company had a near-monopoly over its medium and their franchise was a byword for the hobby itself. None of this was done with efforts to placate the audience, or even repeating anything outlined above. Just by ignoring them, and making the fans feel growing contempt, to the point of needing to yell ever louder. The fact that - with some occasional troubles - Kevin Rountree has been able to so rapidly turn this around simply by appealing to mass desires shows how terrible a mistake this truly was.

None of this is to defend the worst of toxic fan actions, nor even the stupidity of those who churn out petition after petition demanding things from their shows. There is no excuse for that, and all too often it's the result of spite as much as sheer blind idiocy. However, there is always a bit more than simple toxicity at work with these situations. I hope this article has outlined how some industries can all too easily cultivate the very backlashes which so dramatically undermine them. There are always two sides to every story after all and, even when it seems like a black and white situation, it always becomes more complex the more people that you involve. Combined with a lack of understanding or even problems with adjoining industries, and you end up with a mess. At best it's something like the Mass Effect 3 protest. At worst it's Gamergate.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Space Marine Conquests: Apocalypse by Josh Reynolds (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)

Most people will likely write this one off as bolter porn. Those people would be wrong to do so.

Oh, it's an understandable mistake to make both from the premise and also the fact that the name is synonymous with big explosions now. However, while the novel is undeniably direct, there is much more to offer in this one than merely a lot of 'splosions and some fodder to bump off. In fact, out of all the Space Marine Conquests books thus far, this is probably the one I would recommend to new fans the most. Why? Because it manages to be both elegantly simplistic and trope defying at the same time.

The Synopsis:

As M42 rolls onward, the Imperium continues to fight its ever more desperate battles. Short on men, ships, supplies and with its armies stretched ever thinner, the world of Almace has but a token force to defend it. As a growing force of Word Bearers encroaches upon the system, the Imperium is only able to spare three demi-companies of Imperial Fists, White Scars and Raven Guard to bolster its defenses. Led by Heyd Calder, Suboden Khan, and Sael Karros respectively, they soon begin fortifying the world against the oncoming storm. Fighting against both Almace's bureaucracy and severely limited resources, even their might seems unlikely to turn the tide.

Yet more than merely the desire to spill blood has brought the sons of Lorgar to this world. Something old and very rare resides upon the world, and they will stop at nothing to ensure that it falls within their power.

The Good:

To cite the first point before anything else: This book has seemingly been written to break past concepts. While this isn't some gigantic battering ram hell-bent upon breaking the setting for its own sake, there are multiple counter-arguments made against past depictions. Perhaps one of the biggest ones is in the form of Astartes failing to understand human niceties, or being unable to comprehend such a lifestyle. While they do not appreciate them, each uses them to their own advantage for diplomatic reasons, and it helps to establish Calder's versatility very early on. The book is littered with such moments, both highlighted and kept in the background to give it a surprisingly unique feel to any veterans. The benefit of this is that, even during the conflict's most straightforward moments, it always throws enough surprising curve-balls to keep you hooked.

Another definite benefit stems from the villains of the work. Apocalypse truly comes to life at any moment where Reynolds is given a chance to put any member of the Word Bearers legion into focus. There are many definite shout-outs to the ideas covered in Anthony Reynolds' Word Bearers stories, highlighting past concepts, but this is used to better establish their nature rather than being used as a crutch. If anything, it helps as the points covered end up being almost a commentary on the legion as a whole, and how their depiction in those novels has both helped and held them back. Amatnim, the main antagonist, is also a fantastic creation with a genuinely engaging background and outlook on the universe. He's someone who clearly deserves at least a novella to better expand upon his role, and is a stark contrast to many devout Chaos worshippers. These qualities allow the book to have one of my personal favourite examinations of the legion to date, even if I would not wish for this version to become the definitive one.

Character banter and interactions remain a strong point within the novel throughout it, and this is as evident in its moments with mortals as among the astartes. One great example is where Suboden addresses the naval Captains defending the world. It is a short sequence, but it helps to touch on themes of changing times, the state of the Imperium, and one or two reactions which could only be written with a mortal facing down a seven foot tall giant in white armour. There is a constantly human quality to the work which helps to elevate many scenes which would otherwise feel dead or dull, keeping them easy to read and engaging in a remarkably fun manner.

However, perhaps more than anything else, one major boon to the story is how it handles the ideas of its era. The subject of changing times is a constant focus, and it dominates much of the narrative. However, it's treated as more of a fact and acknowledged as a desperate state of affairs rather than dominating the entire script. Compared with how Spear of the Emperor seemed to be trying to drive a "THE IMPERIUM IS DOOMED!" theme into the reader's skull with the subtlety of a battering ram, Apocalypse acknowledges it. It doesn't downplay the desperation of current times, nor even the fact the Imperium may well lose the war, but it doesn't allow the theme to dominate the story at the cost of other elements. In contrast to some other tales, that kind of balance is extremely welcome.

The Bad:

So, for the bad. While this might sound contrary to some of the points above, the trio of primary loyalist marines feel as if they fit into their chapters a little too well. The Imperial Fist is stoic, the White Scar is a laughing Mongol, and the Raven Guard is sneaky git. While each is certainly given more than enough moments to help humanize them, and break a few tropes along the way, they never fully stand out as their own characters. I ended up enjoying moments surrounding them rather than their personalities and, while they were memorable enough to remember by name, by the end I was still remembering them more by chapter than anything else.

Another issue in regards to the work is how its faster pace leaves events being glossed over in a few key cases. While the system itself is clearly under threat and you can see in many places just how it is on the verge of a total loss, there are elements we learn about after the fact. Segments like the Word Bearers invading a world en mass is told more thought the eyes of its commander than through broader descriptions. The story also lacks the sense of momentum behind events I would normally expect to see, or a much bigger display of sheer carnage. While there is plenty of satisfying action, it is either told from a distance (or through the reactions or characters than direct visuals) or it is delivered via more squad-based combat. For a book called Apocalypse, it just doesn't have quite the bang that you would expect to see.

Finally, there is a somewhat rushed quality to the work. This seems hardly worth noting but, when compared with some of Reynolds' previous stories, it lacks some of the more poetic and nuanced descriptions which makes the atmosphere of his books so excellent. In a few chapters, the prose feels more akin to Graham McNeill's more direct style of presenting events than what typically makes Reynolds books work. However, the novel is still leagues above many other tomes and it only suffers when compared with the likes of the Fabius Bile books.

The Verdict:

Apocalypse is undoubtedly Josh Reynolds' most conventional Warhammer novel to date, but that is by no means a bad thing. As much of this review has covered, its shortcomings do stem from some of its focus on action, but it is far more than just the sum of its parts. This could have just been a by the numbers "marines shoot at one another" read and discard affair, but it instead proves to be a fun and insightful outing. At its absolute worst it's a reminder of some of the novels that dominated the Black Library a good fifteen years ago, but in the best possible way.

If you want to see more of this era, this is the book I would recommend the most alongside the Spear of the Emperor and Devastation of Baal to help explore the Great Rift era wars. It's a great counterpoint to both of those works and an excellent, yet easy to access installment overall. If you overlooked this one due to its title or sounding too unengaging, I would definitely recommend giving it a chance.

The Verdict: 6.7 out of 10

Friday, 5 July 2019

Blackshields: The Broken Chain by Josh Reynolds (Horus Heresy Audio Drama Review)

The Blackshields series has been one of the surprise successes of the Horus Heresy range, one which has continued even as the battle closes upon Terra itself. Quietly continuing in the background, the first two audio dramas offered a look both into the lifestyle of these renegades, and a legendary leader among them: Endryd Haar. The third installment of these audio dramas sees the series sticking to its guns, and offering the kind of action that only the Blackshields can star in. It's a good one, there's no denying that from the very start, but why it's good is an important thing to bear in mind here. In the next few hundred words, we'll be going into exactly why.

Also, as full disclosure: This story has yet to see a full release. In truth, I only gained my copy thanks to someone selling a copy via eBay so consider this an advanced look at the story, giving you a chance to plan purchases ahead of time.

The Synopsis

Having taken notice of Haar's continued actions, the Sons of Horus have deployed hunting packs to bring down groups of rogue legionaries operating behind their lines. Deeming them too great of a threat to fully overlook, one such group has found the Cicatrice Tyrannis and captured both of its leaders. With Haar entombed within the hold of a Sons of Horus warship and Erud Vahn, his second in command, undergoing interrogation this seems to be their darkest hour. Yet the Blackshields are nothing if not pragmatic, and Vahn soon begins brokering deals with his captors in exchange for their freedom. Ones which might damn the Blackshields entirely, or see them returned to glory...

The Good

As mentioned in the introduction, this is the sort of action that only the Blackshields can offer. Josh Reynolds has managed to maintain a steady set theme within his stories to help differentiate them from loyalist and traitor groups. This is evident in terms of plot structure, atmosphere and the general style of the stories, along with focusing less upon culture than the broad personalities which have made up their number. The few times it will comment upon their culture in any way is often only to highlight the absence of it, and show what even uncorrupted astartes of this era can be like when all trappings of brotherhood, loyalty or greater ideals are stripped of them.

The False War introduced this with its heist plot, while The Red Fief took it to another level, and now The Broken Chain adds a new twist on things. The continuity between these stories has been extremely well maintained, and there are enough general call-backs to give the audio dramas a greater sense of scale. It's somewhat akin to what James Swallow did with this Garro stories, but the emphasis upon the fallout of in-series events makes it more effective as a link between tales. In that series, as great as it was, there would normally be some comment upon who had just been recruited. In this one, the Blackshields' actions carry far more weight, and the Sons of Horus specifically cite a few key events very early on. This helps to both better emphasize the greater stakes at work, but also the impact the characters have had, even as they serve only a minor role in the greater war.

Haar himself has typically hogged the spotlight in the prior two tales, and with good reason. He's known as a legend within their ranks, and the stories have helped to fully emphasize the sort of figure that he was: Brutal, uncompromising, driven, uncertain of the fine details of his future and yet possessing a few rare qualities that similar warriors lacked. However, this took time away from the others, and the story offers a chance for Vahn to get a few moments to himself. After being sidelined during The Red Fief this is especially welcome, and it highlights both a number of qualities unseen before now, and shows how his seeming idealism works with the Blackshields' brutal nature. The scenes involving him help to reflect upon how this life has reshaped him, and just what acts it has made him capable of carrying out.

Another point worth mentioning is how the tale itself keeps you guessing, even with a relatively formulaic structure. You can half-guess how things will likely play out from some of the major twists in past stories, and some of the major character conflicts. This isn't a negative in of itself, but without an additional element, it could become predictable. In order to limit that predictability, the story plays up certain characteristics and ideas we have seen before. Haar's brutality has kept the Blackshields in line, but he rules with an iron fist and will shed his allies' blood without regret. The loyalty of his men is barely held in check by promises of victories and sheer desperation, as they are often deprived of vital resources. Vahn, meanwhile, has not only been constantly threatened by Haar directly but has actively encouraged them to follow goals beyond their current path.

The conflicting elements and ideals of the characters involved keeps their loyalty to one another always in question. It's this sort of hint of risk which makes this sort of series remain engaging, along with a willingness to keep pushing for new takes on its style of story.

Plus, and let's face it, you all knew this was coming - The vocal direction and audio design is as stunning as ever. You will notice more than a few familiar names among the cast list on the book, with Gareth Armstrong, Toby Longworth, John Banks, Steve Conlin, Richard Reed, and David Seddon all showing up.

So, with all that in mind, what does it do wrong?

The Bad

While the aforementioned section praised the series' willingness to keep experimenting and reworking its central concepts, it does retain a basic skeleton of a direction. After two deception/heist style stories, you can probably guess that this one will be the same. This is fine in of itself, but even when they are showing events as they progress rather than telling the plan, some people might become burned out on them. Personally, I see this as a way for the series to remain distinct from the rest of the Horus Heresy, but it is easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. It's in much the same way that someone might enjoy detective murder mysteries, but could be turned off by police procedural style versions which rely more on the same basic structure.

Equally, a few themes crop up here which were commented upon in the past, but are never fully built upon. Haar's past is the big one and, while it certainly offers several fascinating details into his origins, it is largely window dressing. While both prior audio dramas utilised this to further Haar's character, here it serves just as a conversation piece and goes no further. With so many hints and indications, it feels as if something should be done involving it by this point. Equally, Malcador's role is pushed back until it effectively has no impact on the overall plot. It's certainly there, but outside of a few mentions toward the end, it is something of a non-entity. This makes it seem as if certain stories are stuck in a holding pattern.

Another point worthy of mention is how the story itself is light on certain key details. The actual events surrounding the beginning of the story are heavily skimmed over, along with some of the broader details on the villains themselves. The Sons of Horus in this story are serviceable as the general bad guys, but they lack the staying power of prior figures. They largely come across as self-righteous thugs which, while being in-keeping with the Sons' character shift, isn't all that engaging.

The Verdict

On the whole, The Broken Chain has a few chinks, but it ultimately remains a solid and engaging tale. With a good mixture of character drama, the ability to build upon past tales and stick to what makes the Blackshields so entertaining, it's definitely one I would suggest buying. While you will definitely enjoy this far more if you did pick up the two prior stories, it is also still open enough to follow as a single stand-alone tale as well. Either way, it's definitely not one to be missed.

The Verdict: 7.5 out of 10

Thursday, 4 July 2019

2019 Steam Summer Sale: 11 Excellent Games For Under £7.00

So, here we are with the non-point and click one. This is a short list for this year, mostly because - for a lot of readers - money is in short supply at the moment, and as is my time. As such, the games here are a broad mix of old and new titles which tend to have been overlooked forgotten or have just been lost to time. However, each is well worth being a bonus purchase while you hunt through the sales for something engaging, and they are among the few indie gems which can surprise you.

Tanglewood is one of those bizarre passion projects which emerges only from the truly dedicated fans. Created as a modern puzzle adventure game for the Sega Megadrive and Genesis, it's intentionally classic in every sense. With colourful 16-bit graphics, some genuinely creative puzzles and a wide variety of maps, it's a good throwback to older eras. If you've been starved of platformers up until now, you could do far, far worse than this one.

This was Resident Evil 4 a little while before its time, to the point where it was mistaken as a quick cash grab due to similar release dates. You're stuck on a cargo vessel overrun with nightmarish creatures, and tightly enclosed environments to navigate. The ship itself makes for a very engaging setting thanks to its corroding and dingy interior, as does its mix of apocalyptic log books detailing how it all went wrong.

With a good blend of various weapons, some surprising new mechanics which can keep you on edge and genuinely scary enemies, it hits all the right notes. It might be derivative of other ideas, but it nevertheless still manages to be a respectable horror game in its own right.

If you're tired of zombies and want a new spin on them, this might be just what you are after. NecroVisioN: Lost Company shifts the undead into the world of the Great War, with supernatural creatures now infesting parts of the world. Held at bay only by superior firepower and technology, it's your job to endure and survive against them.

This is what Wolfenstein would have likely become if The New Order had arrived a few years early and kept the supernatural bend. It manages to be remarkably entertaining due to the distinct quirks of this era, with a massive emphasis on high-speed run-and-gun gameplay and a broad selection of weapons. Combined with some remarkably good vehicle segments, and it makes for a fast, cheap but very fun shooter between more polished releases.

It's John Carpenter's The Thing in video game form. Ironically, it's genuinely better than the actual The Thing sequel made twenty years back. While it doesn't delve into the whole body horror angle, the game emphasizes a lack of trust among the few members of an Antartic outpost. Using strange hostile lifeforms which stalk their moves, limited resources, and possible betrayals to keep undermining the players' efforts, it creates a constant tension which makes it an effective horror game even in co-op.

Distrust also opts for an isometric RPG style of play which keeps you on edge, especially in the darker areas. This makes for a far better impression than a first-person view as it gets you in the right mindset to make the most out of the game. It's not Amnesia so much as Divinity: The Horror Edition. Combined with a strong story and multiple endings, it makes for a great possible purchase during this sale.

Only Devolver Digital would be insane enough to pull a stunt quite like this. Devolver Bootleg is an effort to create a collection of bootleg variations of games that they have genuinely published. With rip-offs ranging from Hotline Miami to Enter the Gungeon, it turns each one into a cheap variation with dated graphics, smaller segments and a ramped up difficulty. Yet there is actual talent behind this, as each is well crafted with a substantial amount of thought put into how each rip-off would "fail" to emulate its predecessor.

The interesting thing is that the smaller scale combat and downgraded qualities of many games serves to only streamline them. While it's certainly not a method which makes one superior to the other, they allow for rapid and engaging five-minute experiences. It's the sort of thing which remains fun while you're waiting between events, or just want a short time-killer. At the end of the day, that's what some games just need to be.

Yes, it wouldn't be one of these lists without at least one RPGMaker game on here. This time we have The Sea Between which, much like past entries that we have covered, has sadly been buried beneath other releases. It's a damn shame as well, given that the game actually lives up to the old promise made by so many fan-created RPGMaker releases: It genuinely manages to capture some of the old sense of adventure in SNES era RPGs.

The story behind The Sea Between is a simple one which remains simple but has some surprising nuances to it. It's about survival, about the harsh need for change in order to continue living, and of the grey area between good and evil. Saying more would sadly be spoiling the story but, well, sometimes the characters just need to live with the choices that they are forced to make.

No, not that Bloodstained. While Ritual of the Night is an excellent game, that's not the one we're going into here. Curse of the Moon is its predecessor, both in terms of style and chronology. Developed as an additional bonus while working on the bigger game, this is a callback to older era Castlevania releases. In terms of map layout, graphics and even basic mechanical elements. No, not the ones you are thinking of, even a few of the old glitches and quirks people freely abused crop up here.

While it's definitely a game which requires a certain type of nostalgia and tolerance for old flaws, Curse of the Moon is nevertheless an excellent addition to any 16-bit fanatic's library. Honestly, were it not for the fact that its bigger, badder and more impressively budgeted sequel were overshadowing it, this would be a modern classic.

Ouroboros is the second RPGMaker game on this list and, like a few of them, it's ironically a parody of bad RPGMaker releases. Or at least it looks this way to begin with. While the opening cutscene reveals some hints about this, what is initially a shallow mockery rapidly evolves into something more. From there, it rapidly develops into a game which experiments with themes of essential gaming mechanics like save scumming, time loops and a Groundhog Day event.

The main caveat behind this is that the game delves into some fairly risque themes. Points surrounding sexuality and some rather questionable moves are present in the script, including one which made me seriously question the morality of the characters. Yet even with that being said, it's one that I would still recommend on the strength of its storytelling. 

So, that's all we have time for this year. It's a brief list by comparison to some others, but I was emphasising more for those which tend to be forgotten, overlooked or just lack the player base they deserved this time. All of these are winners and, if you have any money at all left toward the end of the sale, I would strongly suggest picking up one or two of them.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Taker of Heads by Ian St. Martin (Warhammer 40,000 Audio Drama Review)

Taker of Heads is probably the best example of how to handle a short and succinct story set in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future. It’s brief, focused, handles direct and engaging themes, and emphasises the qualities of the astartes without turning them into unstoppable god-monsters. Better yet, it’s a rare story which doesn’t throw Chaos into the mix, and instead focused upon the T’au Empire stirring up trouble.

Admittedly, part of the reason we are covering this today is due to the fact it focuses on the T’au Empire as a villain. Due to comments in the Spear of the Emperor thread involving its more nihilistic themes, it seemed best to bring out a story where the Imperium is losing. Even after the astartes get involved the outcome is still heavily in question. It becomes as much a study on the conflict between the techno-feudal mysticism of the Imperium vs the T’au technological enlightenment as it does the story of a Scout finding his place in the chapter.

The Synopsis

With the forces of the T'au Empire rapidly gaining ground among the steaming jungles of Aztlan, the Mortifactors are called in to even the odds. Only able to spare a small unit of neophytes and a single veteran, this battle is to be final proof that they have earned their place within the chapter. Yet it quickly becomes clear just how badly the Imperium has underestimated the T'au, and following a disastrous first engagement, Scout Adoni must find a way to combat his elite foes and return to his chapter in glory.

The Good

There are two major benefits to the book right from the start. Firstly, this is how you should write the Mortifactors. In fact it’s arguably a “how to” guide on how to write these marines. While I will admit to personally having a liking for this bunch for a long time, what we get is a general breakdown of how they work. We see through Adoni’s experiences how their recruits live on their world, the challenges they go through, and their odd association with mysticism and death. It’s a good blow-by-blow breakdown, along with a brief demonstration of their tactics. This is worked into the story itself, and it’s used as a means to bolster Adoni’s own development throughout the tale.

The other major benefit to the story is the T’au themselves, who are beefed up to be a major threat here. More than a few writers seem to struggle when it comes to balancing out the T’au Fire Caste and keeping them in check, with them either falling into cannon fodder territory or the author treats them as if they have a “god mode” cheat switched on. Here however, what we get emphasises their intelligence: They have limited resources, numbers and an advantage in tech over the Imperials. All of this comes into play, along with utilising their auxiliaries to bolster their numbers. While they hit extremely hard, and inflict a large number of marine casualties, it feels earned through prior planning to stack the deck in their favour. Plus, even when they lose, it’s only due to Adoni using prior knowledge to help exploit their blind spots.

So you have a well-developed hero faction, a cunning an engaging enemy, but also a solid protagonist. While Adoni comes across as something of a blank slate at first and something of an everymarine, there’s an emphasis on his nature as a quiet thinker. He needs to overcome himself to focus upon what the chapter needs, but ironically that same savagery gives him a desperately needed edge against his foes. It makes for an interesting contrast against the T’au, and helps to remind listeners of just how strange some elements of Warhammer 40,000 can be.

Much of this thus far has been devoted to individual elements of the story over the story quality itself, but they really needed to be specifically singled out. The story is extremely tightly written and incredibly well paced, allowing it to fit a novella’s worth of content into a relatively short timeframe. What we see are often brief glimpses of events with far wider implications, such as a very brutal moment involving a wounded soldier early on, which allows it to cover a broad range of subjects at once. When it does pause for a while on a single scene, the brisk nature of these other moments gives these segments more space to do their magic, and as such they lack the rushed quality which other tales sometimes retain. Given how the fight against the T’au rapidly turns into a cat and mouse affair shortly after their initial battle, it was a much-needed move to help benefit the story.

Finally, and most obviously, the sound design and voice acting is absolutely top notch. That should really go without saying by this point, as the audio dramas of Games Workshop’s products have rarely fallen short of being utterly spectacular over the past several years. However, it needs to be emphasised that the talent on display and vocal direction remains a vital and extremely effective addition to bringing these worlds to life. Without it, even the most talented author would struggle to match the same effectiveness.

The Bad

If there is one major point to cite against Taker of Heads, it’s that the tale really doesn’t offer enough time to engage with the other astartes. While Adoni himself has an obvious arc and one or two of his fellow neophytes share some decent moments, it’s really not much. This makes some of the losses taken lack impact, despite how excellently delivered they were. Furthermore, the actual moment itself felt as if it could have been more of a one-two punch to help really emphasise how badly things had gone. While there is something of a focus upon this, but the second “punch” is more of an afterthought which is lost in the mix of combat which follows.

A further issue lies in the T’au themselves here, who leave a decidedly mixed impression upon the reader. In terms of their competence, ability to utilise their auxiliaries and to overcome far more numerous foes, you couldn’t ask for a better story. However, the brutality of one particular method crosses a line into Chaos territory, and once their main plan is beaten they don’t have enough of a fall-back strategy. What is offered is still excellent, and a large chunk of the tale emphasises their best strengths. However, a little more of their adaptability would have gone a long way to boosting up the final score of this tale.

Finally, the story relies upon thematic a little too much for my personal liking. Warhammer has always used history as a starting point for many key ideas, and even with those twists you can usually see the inspiration at work. However, the ‘Nam 76 vibe of the story isn’t so much an inspiration as its whole defining feature, and the tale could have used more. A more diverse locale or even some more alien fauna would have helped it seem more alien. Without it, there is more time to focus on the story in question, but it lacks the sort of fantastical edge which so often benefits many tales. Say what you will about Gaunt’s Ghosts relying on historical call-backs, but the settings there rarely felt anything besides alien.

The Verdict

Despite a few grips here and there, Taker of Heads still remains a very solidly written and engaging tale. It’s definitely one of the best examples of how to write a low key and isolated event with an emphasis on small scale action away from bigger battlefields. What’s more, it also helps to show just how to make tense encounters work without resorting to bolter porn or clich├ęs. Combine that with a well-balanced treatment of both sides and makes for a story that I would suggest adding to your personal libraries.

Verdict: 7.2 out of 10