Saturday, 30 June 2012

Warrior Brood (Book Review)

It’s been one year since we started. One year of all of you reading the seventy-five reviews written in that time. Between joining, branching out into other areas such as comics and refining reviews to be more focused upon the meat of whatever they are looking at; we’re come a long way.
To thank you all for following me in that time, and to sort of celebrate Warhammer 40K’s 6th edition, I’ve decided to choose something particularly entertaining to look at. A novel so infamous that the author has become a byword amongst many science fiction groups for utter tripe. Today ladies and gentlemen we will be looking into C.S. Goto’s Warrior Brood.

Now, his other more infamous work on the Dawn of War novelisations could be considered worse. It certainly ran for far longer and managed to find entirely new ways to break the canon which if Matt Ward read he would have been furious he’d not thought of them first. Warrior Brood however is where people started to realise he had no idea what he was talking about and was the cause of his nickname “C.S. multilaser”. This is a novel so bad that this review will not cover the whole thing. Trying to comment upon every failure as it comes would likely make this review longer than the novel itself. Instead we’re just going to look in detail into the first chapter, and believe me it’s clear to see where things start to unravel.

The book opens up on the astartes of the Mantis Warriors chapter engaging a tyranid swarm. There’s no listed reason to why they’re there, no comment upon their motivations, no introduction, nothing to flesh out or give substance to the conflict, it’s just BOOM! BUG WAR!!!

The Mantis Warriors themselves were one of the book’s biggest selling points: A chapter with a dark history, dwindling in numbers and a successor of the White Scars; something not often seen in 40K. They were a point of genuine interest, a good focus to be fleshed out and a reason for many to pick up the book. To those people: you have my sympathies.

It quickly becomes clear that the author had little to no idea of what he was writing about. While there are some details which were gotten right, there were vast numbers which were either gotten hilariously wrong or acts of such stupidity that I’m surprised none of the marines stopped and announced “you have to be fething kidding me!”

Take for example a few minor details like this: The battlefield is described as “nothing but arachnid forms, barbed scales, dripping claws and the glint of sharp teeth.” With the Mantis Warriors themselves being clad in “adamantite armour”, their entire company loosing endless streams of hellfire rounds in support from veteran Devastators who were “discharging volleys of laserfire from their multilasers.”

To save you a long winded rant: The author has given the marines en mass specialist equipment, guns their armoury doesn’t stock, armour of a non-existent material and made the world devouring alien horde a race of spiders. Even though there is little to nothing the tyranids have which has eight legs and on the same page winged gargoyles are mentioned flying around. And all this is told with the same narrative skill which produced these lines: “Theirs were the last human feet on Herodian IV, and theirs were barely human.” “[…] like glorious green and gold avenging angels.”
Within five pages this is beginning to make Mass Effect: Deception look like genuinely good storytelling. There are a total of twenty-nine pages in this first chapter.
The biggest crime of Warrior Brood is its presentation of the space marines. While the Mantis Warriors themselves aren’t using tactics they are known for, prolonged attrition tactics through multiple guerrilla strikes, that can be forgiven due to who they are facing. The tyranids would just overrun via sheer numbers if they tried it. What can’t be forgiven is the fact these just aren’t astartes. They also seem to have arrived on the battlefield drunk. There’s no skill to their actions, no discipline to their attacks and no strategy. One point specifically notes that the big creatures the tyranids are sending are effectively shrugging off bolter shells, yet the Devastator squads armed with tank killing weapons are blasting away at the fragile flapping gargoyles. No, really, they are:

“Gargoyles fell from the sky, where lascannon fire had ruined them or deformed into molten lumps were the squad’s multi-meltas had cooked them.”

Yes, that typo is actually in the book. Now, this might not be so bad if the focus space marines at least acted like space marines, but they don’t. There’s no steel to their words, no discipline or hints of them being the crusader styled superhumans of the universe. Worse still, they show less logic and discipline than the average Imperial Guardsman. And in case you missed it earlier the first page contains this gem of insanity:
“The Mantis Warriors, captain ducked under the claws of a swooping beast, firing off a volley of bolts into the advancing ground swarm as he did so. As the gargoyle overshot, Audin slashed blindly behind him with his power sword and rent the creature cleanly in two.”

This is the sort of unorthodox stunt which would be expected of a trainee at the most. In any normal book if this were seen, it would have the nearest marine slapping him over the head and taking away his weapon until he went through weeks of penance and learned to use it properly. Blindly slashing about with what is effectively a lightsaber, amongst a crowded group of allies at a flying enemy, when you have perfectly good bolters nearby, is an act of such sheer stupidity it is simply amazing it got past the editors. Then again that goes for this whole book. As if this weren’t enough, the best hope for humanity apparently can’t even remember basic mission details as we get one noting this:

“he could vaguely recall moments of Audin's briefing before the Mantis Warriors made planet-fall only a day earlier. Something about giant warriors and psychic nodes. Ruinus had not paid a great deal of attention - he had just been eager to get down onto the surface and start devastating some aliens.”

There’s also a scene in which a hormagaunt successfully pins one marine, causing him enough trouble to require help from others. Ignoring the mechanics of the game, which nerf and enhance the skills of factions to create a general balance between armies, usually anyway, this should be an easy fight. Instead the hundreds of years old power armoured doom bringer who can punch through reinforced metal is having trouble with one unassisted cannon fodder the size of a great dane. For the record, this is like a crocodile trying to pin down a full grown psychotic bull elephant in a fight and succeeding.

Now, admittedly the tyranids in this book are far more powerful than they should be. They utterly ream the marines with little effort with many units like the zoanthropes (called “tyranid sorcerors” argh!) being borderline unstoppable. The most notable part of this is where even the tyranid suicide bombers stop taking the Mantis Warriors as a serious threat and apparently start trying to have fun. A spore mine is fired into the midst of the marines’ command squad but rather than exploding it instead grabs the standard bearer’s leg, then drags him away. Despite being struck by multiple hellfire shells, stabbed and hit repeatedly, it successfully pulls him out of cover and into the swarm. Doing so with enough force to crush his “adamantite” armour.

However, this is quickly overshadowed by the two dumbest actions ever seen in 40K. Winning the Mantis Warriors the much touted “Least Tactical Sense In A Science Fiction Setting” award.

After finally turning their guns on the big monsters, yes there is dialog telling them “Use the lascannon!” and “bring that thing down!”, the Devastators turn their attention to the things they should have been shooting at to begin with. For some reason the Devastators can’t get a line of sight on it. Instead the Devastator squad heroically sprints away from their barely holding defensive lines. Rather than using the large heavy weapons which could have killed it with some concentrated fire, they charge into the massive tyranid swarm. Then we learn that they all so heroically died to buy time for their sergeant, who kills one biovore with a bundle of grenades and a chainsword.

This would likely be the dumbest moment in the chapter, for more reasons than can be counted, were it not for what follows it.

A group of Mantis Warriors in tactical dreadnought armour die fighting against a carnifex. This isn’t too surprising as even the elite of the first company would have trouble with a twenty meter tall death machine which is the living definition of “the last thing you want to meet in a dark alley”. Except, despite both being far better at close combat than they are shooting, they choose to enter a gun battle with one another. This is also despite only a few pages ago the novel itself stating bolters were having no effect on the bigger creatures. Were this not ludicrous enough, the carnifex is initially winning with a barbed strangler. A weapon which wraps around the Terminators, starts to break through their heavy armour and is so strong that matter splitting power weapons cannot cut through it!

Oh, but all this results in heroic sacrifice with the sergeant winning at the last moment. Again. Out of nowhere he produces a cyclone missile launcher and insta-kills the beast. No mention of this, no hint of him carrying the massive weapon, and suddenly he has it. Does he use it when they’re fighting anything else? No. Does he use it before his entire squad dies when they’re fighting at long range? No. What’s more is that this thing has supposedly has the force of a small nuclear device:

“Hoenir ducked his head towards the monster and activated the cyclone missile launcher on his back. 

In a flurry of power, the missiles seared over his head, punching deeply into the flesh of the carnifex. They bur­rowed their way deep inside, like giant maggots, before detonating. With an immense convulsion, the massive creature exploded outwards, sending chunks of sizzling flesh raining into the swarm. A huge fire ball erupted from the heart of the beast, blasting outwards in a wide radius, incinerating dozens of broods of tyranids and reducing the barbed tendrils to ashes, cleansing the dead bodies of the Terminators.”

And no, there’s been no hint of it ever being this powerful in any other material.

Admittedly the stupidity doesn’t get any worse than that in the first chapter’s final moments. We get lasers, apparently of the multi kind, mounted on a Thunderhawk gunship, some bad dialog, forced exposition and a visibly forecasted plot hook but nothing that quite exceeds those two moments. Bear in mind however, this is only the first chapter and that things get progressively worse as you read further into the book.

One small spoiler of an example of just how bad things get: Why is the great devourer seemingly unstoppable in this? Because of a chair made of tyranids.
So is it really as bad as fans think? Yes! It really is!

Avoid anything with Goto’s name on it at all costs. Having been reading Warhammer fluff and the Black Library for over a decade I can safely say C.S. Goto is definitely the worst person to have written a novel for the 40K universe. Worst writer overall? Perhaps not, unlike the other defiler of fluff he at least didn’t write codexes and his stuff could be ignored.

Between his other canon screw-ups such as of eldar tech apparently being widely accepted and deemed “safe” by the imperium, Terminators backflipping into combat, Land Raiders transforming into Razorbacks and Eldar Prophecy; it’s fairly clear to understand why he is so hated by the fandom. Why allows him to be cited as a source for pages, not so much.
Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut (Video Game Review) - What Has Changed?

You might remember a few months ago a “review” which devolved into a rant over the ending of Mass Effect 3. Well, this is the follow up to that, looking into the changes Bioware has made to the endings and how they have expanded upon them.

The previous ending contained so many problems, plot holes and outright betrayals of Mass Effect’s themes and story elements that it caused many fans to overlook the good in it, my own opinion included. There was an outrage, perhaps a rightfully made one, with cries of betrayal over the conclusion to one of the best video game trilogies of the past two decades. We’ve seen other EA based franchises repeatedly screw over their fans with betrayal after betrayal, the Command and Conquer Tiberium series to name just one, ignoring every criticism and outcry of their fans. Taking that into account I think the fact Bioware was willing to answer such a negative response rather than just ignore it speaks volumes about how the video game developer values its fandom.

Each of the endings have been expanded upon. Closure is actually given to events. Aside from the choice to reject the star child’s demands each ending is now a good ten minutes long and displays events around the galaxy. Along with the end to all fighting on Earth you also see Palaven and other places you have visited being hit by your coloured wave of choice and what happens there. While this isn’t quite the show of multi-species presence on Earth during the finale but it goes a long way to improve upon the criticism of the fact we only saw humans in the original ending. Furthermore, on these worlds you see rebuilding, worlds lost, Reapers falling and the long term consequences behind many of your choices. You assisted in the quarians and geth making peace? You get to see what Rannoch looks like under them. You helped the krogan cure the genophage? You get to see what happens to them.

There is still the Deus Ex influence people have discussed surrounding the endings, but rather than this influence making them overly nihilistic and telling you nothing of what happens it is a positive influence. Shepard, EDI, Hackett or Liara talks of the future. Their voice speaking over the events as you see them expanding upon the ideas behind the choice you made. I won’t reveal anything but many of them, especially the Synthesis ending, are vastly improved by this. With the character explaining the ideas and benefits behind the choice and what happens due to them. Plus that whole business with the Relays self-destructing is properly resolved.

Are there still some problems? Yes, there are one or two. A few plot holes have still been left open but these are not quite so glaring as before and can largely be excused by what we see. You never learn exactly what happens to the surviving members of the Normandy crew, but that can be excused by both not having them left stranded on some unknown world and seeing what happens to their species. Those most opposed to the endings might not like what they see, but it ought to appease most fans.

Some people have thought that the conclusion in which you reject the star child is an act of trolling towards the people who opposed them, but I honestly don’t agree. The battle was already being lost around Earth when the happened, and defeat was always going to be the only real outcome in a direct engagement. At least now you can make the character choice to say “go to hell” to the glowing Reaper kid.

Besides any option which did have you suddenly winning in that ending would have felt like an arse pull, plus what would you have done? Have Shepard declare “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings!” combine with the Normandy to form a giant robot and fistfight Sovereign as the final boss?
Okay yeah, that would have been glorious but let’s just accept the ending we now have for what it is: A well-made send off to an incredible game. Not one with an A A A choice of ending but one with visibly different conclusions.

With it Mass Effect 3 is definitely worth buying, even any copies still being sold at full price months after release. If you held off buying one due to the massive controversy and negative response to the endings, now is the time to get it with this DLC. Go out and buy it, you will not regret doing so. Though it is suggested you find a console copy to avoid downloading Origin.

Oh, and one final note: Would people please stop bashing Buzz Aldrin’s part in this? The guy did a good job in the short time he was in the game for and in spite of it being basically a “buy more DLC” message that scene had good symbolism behind it in terms of the storyline. If it was truly intended, as some people claim, as a massive insult to MEverse fans, they could have chosen a far worse voice to do the role. Just think for a minute what it might have been like with Captain Boreale saying those lines.


Mass Effect and all related characters and media are owned by Bioware.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Film Review)

Go and read the book. No really, go find the book, sit down for a few hours and read it. It might as well be a requirement for watching this film to put you in the right mind-set. Most people seem to think the film is an over the top borderline self-parody due to its subject matter and title, but to be honest with you it’s more Cowboys and Aliens than it is Van Helsing.

The plot behind the film is that the great emancipator waged a secret war against Dracula’s kin during his life. After witnessing his mother die due to one of the creatures he vows to enact vengeance upon their kind and halt their influence in America, allying himself with other forces who seek to bring them low. This does sound ridiculous but honestly the story is better than you’d expect it to be, it’s the sort of story which has a ridiculous concept but manages to tell a tale of surprising quality.

Think Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It might be a great film with interesting characters and ideas but when you sit down and explain to someone who has never seen it “anti-Alzheimer’s drugs trigger super intelligence in apes and they rebel” – they’re going to think it’s a terrible film. It’s the same problem Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has, just from the basic plot and name it looks terrible but the book is in fact very good. You’ve got to have that sort of thing in mind when going to see it rather than expecting a vampire B-movie, otherwise you’re just going to be very disappointed and possibly angry at the film. However, even taking this into account the film isn’t great it’s just okay.

The two biggest problems are that the book, while well-crafted wasn’t the best film material to stick to, and this adaptation did take a great many liberties with the plot. It’s written by the original author, but having read one and seen the other it does feel like a lot of these choices detracted from the overall quality of the film. What’s more is the addition of a single vampire to serve as a focus villain for Abe to fight might make sense, but it feels like a less noble motivation than what the novel had.

In addition to this they also got Timur Bekmambetov to direct, the guy who did the Wanted adaptation and Nightwatch. While he’s not as bad as some directors seeing this film did bring one problem to mind: All of his fight scenes somehow look the same. It’s hard to tell exactly what it is, though my money is on the Matrix style stunts and heavy editing, but no matter what he’s doing a lot of them somehow lack the individuality they should have amongst the stylistic flair. That being said these scenes are saved by some truly glorious 3D to help backup the brawls, but they likely won’t look anywhere near as good outside of it. Certainly a big problem when the film’s main attraction is the fights.

There’s really not much else to say than that. The acting is good all-around but without too much to note, the setting is as good as you’d expect for a film with this budget and if you’ve seen the trailers you already know the quality of the CGI. The only thing truly worth noting is that the makeup done in this film was extremely well done, especially as characters age with years going by, and whoever did this deserves a great deal of credit for their work.

All in all it’s just about worth seeing, it’s nowhere near as bad as some critics seem to be claiming but like Cowboys and Aliens you can’t help but feel there’s a lot of untapped potential in this film. If you’ve nothing better to see this week, try flicking through the novel; if you like what you see then go take a look at a 3D release. Just keep in mind that the “joke” behind the concept is played largely straight faced and it’s not visibly making fun of itself.


Abrham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and all related characters and media are owned by 20th Century Fox.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Transformers Armada Omnibus (Comicbook Review)

If you’re already a Transformers fan you probably already know the general opinion of Armada. If you’re not, the fandom views its overall quality as being mixed bordering upon dire. It was the first really big attempt to make a successful chapter in the franchise since Beast Machines went very wrong.  How wrong? Well long time comics writer Simon Furman, someone infamous for his high body counts in Transformers stories, famous for instantly asking “who can I kill?” upon joining the creative writing team to one series, and responsible for turning Unicron from mecha-Orson Welles into robo-Cthulhu; upon seeing Beast Machines effectively thought “this is a bit dark isn’t it?”
As you might imagine, Armada tried to correct this by going in almost completely the opposite direction. This ended up with it suffering under entirely new problems. Along with often poor animation, pacing and translation issues, it seemed to try to avoid being dark in as many ways as possible. For most of it anyway. The only reason it’s not regarded quite so badly as it deserves is that its follow up was far worse  in just about every respect, but surprisingly the comic adaptation is held in higher regard. Why? Well, for one thing one of the writers was the aforementioned Simon “kill ‘em all” Furman.
The story behind this one is more or less what you’d expect of any TF tale. Megatron forms the Decepticons, begins a revolt against the ruling leadership and proceeds to decimate Cybertron in a war until the heroes and villains end up on Earth for some reason. There are two slight differences this time:
The first is that Megatron’s reasons for this are not all that clear, sure he’s a power hungry nut job but he just seems to come out of nowhere and declare war on everything. It's a bit of a step down when you consider pretty much every modern version of him had some triggering motivation which seemed to have good intentions to begin with: Like the IDW series having him rebelling against a tyrannical government or War for Cybertron having him be a tank-transforming-Spartacus wanting to enact much needed changes to a stagnating society. In Armada all we get is suggestions of this: “I want power, Decepticons attack!” *boom*
The other difference is the presence of another secondary race on the planet separate from the much larger kind of robots: mini-cons. In the cartoon they were largely used as a toy selling gimmick, they could only communicate in bleeps, with most episodes focusing upon one side trying to get more than this other. Mostly because they could combine with them to form new upgrades, guns etc and were used more as equipment than anything else. This earned them the nickname Pokeformers amongst the fandom.
The comic actually made this treatment of them as a  plot point, using the idea of sentient beings being taken as weapons in a form of arms race to give the tale a grim theme. In it they were never originally intended to combine with other beings and were just smaller than average transformers, ones who could talk and were never intended to be used as combining weapons. When the Decepticons began their uprising, to give them an edge over the Autobot army, they began abducting them en-mass. Imprisoning them into Decepticon chop shops where they were forcibly experimented upon, taken apart and reassembled into living weapons. Using them as slave soldiers the Decepticons thoroughly curb-stomp the Autobots, dominate the planet taking thousands into slavery, and forcing the heroes to wage a guerrilla war from hidden bases. A running theme in the series became the fact the mini-cons far from happy about assisting either side and will often pursue their own agendas over the will of whoever they’re fused to.
Now, while this is a good setup in writing there was the first sign of the comic’s biggest flaw: It could prove to be frustratingly incoherent or feel like we’re only seeing a small fraction of a much bigger picture. Often things would happen without the comic explaining things or could outright contradict itself in a number of ways, even prior to changes in writers and artists. For example, one big complaint amongst readers is we only see the initial engagement between the ‘Bots and ‘Cons and it’s over in a few pages. That might not be bad were it not a fight between about ten characters in total, with no mention of any other battles or even signs of a prolonged conflict until much later on in the series. It just makes it look like four Decepticons were able to conquer an entire planet in a brief street skirmish and makes the whole thing look laughable.
This even extended to the art, with every single character being able to turn into human vehicles. Having them transform into something would be fine, but all of them can transform into vehicles which will not be invented for another four million years from a planet they’ve never heard of! The very first panel of the first issue shows a main character driving along as an Audi TT! It might look nice, but there’s small things like this which just keep throwing you off – The most erogenous example of this being the constantly changing designs of some of the more prominent mini-cons.
While these sorts of things would get better by the series’ end, they would continue to plague the comic throughout its run. The most frustrating part of all this is they could have so easily been avoided with just a much clearer direction behind them.
The series also suffered from a slow initial start. While the set up on Cybertron was dealt with quick enough along with the reason why the transformers would show up on Earth this time, it took five issues before everything was properly in place. The series only really started to get moving once Furman began detailing the comic’s story in place of the previous writer Chris Saraccini. Giving bolder more recognisable personalities to the characters, if not very complex ones, and spinning more engaging plots such as some of the mini-cons taking a more proactive role in rebelling. He even managed to make the inexplicably included pointless humans have some meaning to the story before thankfully side-lining them as the final arc began.
There’s unfortunately not much which can be said about the writing Furman did without giving away major spoilers, but he did make the effort to bring back a few fan favourites. Turning the comic in its final issues from a small scale isolated war into a reality threatening world shattering event worthy of a grand finale.
Transformers Armada is flawed. It contains interesting ideas but doesn’t really explore them enough, and while Optimus is as great as ever the other characters needed more focus. It was a series which needed more time to flesh out events and run for longer, giving more time to pace itself and avoiding the sudden shift in plotlines which takes place at the beginning of the final arc. Really, if nothing else it does contain some of the best artwork of the Armada characters out there and barring a few problems it is all incredibly well drawn, inked and coloured. The whole series has been collected as an omnibus, prices for which vary from £3.26 to around £20.00 but are available from for £13.29. An reasonable price for what you’re getting.
At the end of the day we’ve seen much worse from IDW in some of its collections and unlike most comics today this one was at least self-contained, so take that for what it is worth.
Transformers and all related characters and media are owned by Hasbro and IDW.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Men In Black 3 (Film Review)

To make this short: Not bad, better than the second, worse than the first, needed to be more focused.
To make this an actual review: Men in Black 3 is a film no one asked for and restarts a franchise which has effectively been dead for years but proves to be an okay film. It lacks the overall quality of the first but it seems that the people putting this together really looked at what didn’t work with the second instalment and tried to avoid those problems.
The plot this time revolves around time travel. Several years after the first film, with no mention of MiB2 so for all we know it’s been retconned, a powerful criminal known as Boris (the Animal) escapes from a lunar prison. Having rotted in a cell for forty years and the rest of his race wiped out due to K, the first thing on his mind is to correct everything which went wrong all in one stroke. Briefly trying, and failing, to get the satisfaction of personally killing K in the present Boris travels back to 1969 and changes events for his younger self to kill his old enemy during their first encounter. Despite all of time being changed J somehow remembers the original timeline and is sent back to correct it while Earth is being invaded and destroyed.
While the film could have easily failed, what saves it is its choice of actors and how they’re written. A most notable improvement over the last film is definitely how it treats J. Will Smith’s character actually feels a lot more like a seasoned agent than the outright rookie with a few years under his belt. He still makes mistakes, still acts the screwball at times, but he’s far more competent and doesn’t need K to win every battle. Better yet while Tommy Lee Jones is side-lined for almost the entire film, Josh Brolin makes a scarily good young K. There’s never a point where you think of them as separate characters but at the same time Brolin’s K has enough differences to show he hasn’t been grinded down by his job and can still crack a smile.
The supporting cast are all similarly well-chosen and well-acted. There’s no real weaknesses in performances, though sometimes writing, and all of them do fairly well with what they’re given – notably Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin. Unfortunately though, he can’t be talked about without ruining his first scene. One who can be talked about, and is probably the film’s biggest selling point is the film’s antagonist: Boris. Jemaine Clement‘s Boris, no really that’s who is playing him, is a vast improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle and is arguably the best villain of the series. While not as iconic as the cockroach guy, he has a direct connection to one of the protagonists, some genuinely interesting abilities and manages to effectively balance out humour and threat without the two diminishing one another. He’s also probably got the most unique design out of all of them, appearing as just a mass of claws when in his natural form, and while trying to pass himself off as human looks like a fusion between Batou and Hagrid with Tim Curry’s villain voice. He's definitely what helps this film hold up even if he has a surprisingly limited screentime.
Despite all these strengths there are some fairly glaring weaknesses. It’s clear that once you remove some of the time travel elements it is something of a retread of the second film; J still has things he doesn’t know about, there’s someone trying to destroy the world, a McGuffin is needed to stop this all and it’s the basic plot you already know. Not to mention one very questionable part involving K after the threat is over which feels out of place with the other films. Some of the effects also seem visibly sub-par, with the CGI paling in comparison to both of the previous films; especially when it comes to some of the environments. The physical props and effects are perfectly fine, especially the stuff used for Boris, but there are a lot of times when you see computer generated effects which look like they’re from the mid-90s.
Atop of all this the writing feels weak in a lot of places, things are just brought up and then abandoned in a few places. The most obvious one is where there’s a surprisingly aware moment in which someone does note that due to J’s skin colour he’s likely to be treated differently than he is today and should be careful – but this only ever results in one joke scene. Along with this there are some hints that the MIB of this time is more interested in protecting humans rather than aliens, but it’s never used. This is never really a big problem except for one point: it’s never made entirely clear why exactly J remembers the correct timelines, it is brought up but the reason for it is never properly explained even when the film ends. You get more of an answer on the Wikipedia article than you do in the film itself. The same goes for a lot of the humour; while it’s fairly good throughout there’s not as much laugh out loud moments as you’d expect leaving a lot of the film’s success down to its actors.
At the end of the day Men in Black 3 is okay. It’s an enjoyable film but it isn’t the return to form people wanted and doesn’t really justify restarting a franchise which has been dead for about a decade. You’ll not end up regretting seeing the film but with a lot of much better stuff still in cinemas at this moment you’d probably better spend your money on something like Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman or, hell, going to see the Avengers again.


Men in Black and all related characters and media are owned by Columbia Pictures.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Chapter's Due (Book Review)

And so we're at the end at last, starting from the beginning, looking through previous novels and even its spin-off series we've covered all of it. We're at the conclusion at last and it has been well worth the wait.
If there’s one thing which needs to be said about The Chapter’s Due, it’s that everything which takes place is on a grand scale. Right from the introductory chapter you’re made aware of just how high the stakes are and just how dangerous the foe the Ultramarines face is.
After spending his own series rebuilding his forces and preparing for the assault, Warsmith Honsou launches an all-out assault upon the home system of the Ultramarines: Ultramar. His opening attack completely devastates one of its worlds within hours and helps properly introduce the powerful ally he has gained: the daemon prince M’Kar. Honsou is utterly hell-bent on destroying Ultramar in the name of revenge against Uriel for his actions in Dead Sky Black Sun, and he easily has the power to do this. His forces outnumber the Ultramarines fifteen to one, he has an entire star fortress to use as his flagship, in depth knowledge of the codex tactics the Ultramarines favour and knows exactly how to bypass their best defences. Worse still, unlike many other Chaos warbands, his forces are both loyal to him and united in their desire to destroy Ultramar; removing the one major weakness the forces of the Imperium could exploit.
The scale and value of the book’s conflict is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. On the one hand while we were told the other worlds in the series were Imperial worlds, none of them were paramount to its survival. Tarsis Ultra and Panovis were both worlds the Ultramarines were honourbound to protect and while they might have been needed for nearby systems, their loss wouldn’t be a blow which would resonate throughout the whole imperium. Ultramar however, would be. As both one of the best defended locations outside the Cadian Gate and home to a First Founding chapter, its loss would be a sign of humanity’s growing weakness and inability to combat its foes. As Guilliman’s gene-seed is one of the most stable and the most commonly used for new foundings, losing the Ultramarines’ recruiting worlds would have disastrous consequences for the creation of new chapters.
To make matters worse, unlike other books this is set at the very end of the 41st millennium when the established timeline effectively ends. Meaning that if Ultramar was to be destroyed it would not contradict any previous events, leaving the possibility open for failure or a truly pyrrhic victory.
So why is it also its biggest weakness? The characters who are involved and the size of the conflict. Even spreading out the chapter’s heroes across multiple battlefields, the books simply wasn’t large enough to cover the whole war. Some conflicts either had to be completely glossed over or left to audiobooks like Eye of Vengeance, reducing them to a few pages of descriptions. The way their written does give the impression of a huge battle which fits in with what we’re seeing elsewhere, but it’s really a case of telling and not showing at times.
As for the characters; many of the important Ultramarines we see here are ones who’ve either never shown up before or have only featured in brief cameo appearances.  Chapter Master Calgar, who plays one of the most prominent roles in the whole thing, only made brief appearances during a couple of previous books. Others like Sicarius we’ve not seen at all in the past. The reason for this is because most of the older series tried to avoid featuring such major characters and left events to ones of the author’s own creation. I don’t know the exact reason for this but it was likely to be one of two things –
The first possibility is this was to maintain the seemingly legendary status of the characters and leaving them as the icons they were in the codexes.  The authors having far more creative freedom over their characters and the ability to show them on a far more human level without disrupting any outward presentation of power on the part of its best warriors.
The other, and more likely possibility, was to prevent future changes to the canon from causing problems. While, again until recently, new rulebooks and fluff tended to be loyal to their themes and source material they also tended to expand upon previous details. Either by including traditions, rituals or, usually the most problematic of all, new major characters. Keeping events close to the heart of the chapter tended to create massive problems in on-going series. One example of this is the Blood Angels saga which had author James Swallow being forced work his way around massive, usually very stupid, changes to the chapter’s background and act as if a lot of new characters had always been there.
With the final Ultramarines book being set on Ultramar, there was no real way to get around now having major characters included so there are a lot of key players who have not had prior appearances or characterisation in past books. In all fairness McNeill does write them very well and makes them feel genuinely human, a point I’ll get back to later on, but you can’t help but feel at least one previous novel should have helped to properly introduce them to the series. Giving them some establishing events or grounding prior to the massive war. When they show up in this it feels like they’re just “there” and you don’t feel quite the same connection as you do to the heroes of the fourth company. Their presence also causes the problem that they sometimes feel like they’re overshadowing Uriel; as while he does have a lot of the book’s focus placed upon his part in the conflict people like Calgar feel like they’re playing a much greater role in events. This isn’t helped by the books greater focus upon the villains.
Rather than just showing their named leaders enough to establish they’re the villains Tau in Courage and Honour, The Chapter’s Due spends a lot of time fleshing out its antagonists. Not so much Honsou or M’Kar but two who play a surprisingly large role in events – the Newborn and Ardaric Vaanes. In previous books, even during the Iron Warriors series, neither had that much time devoted to them. They were often just the henchmen and background characters. Here we actually get a lot of details given to their motivations for siding with Honsou, why they are traitors and some greater complexities to their personalities than you would expect. This is especially true of Vaanes, and while welcome it further marginalises the series’ main characters to the point where you can have problems remembering if they even did anything important after you’ve finished. Again it’s something which is as much a weakness as it is an asset to its tale.
One complaint which people have said in the past about the book is that it makes Chaos too powerful. That the Ultramarines are far too easily beaten back or have their security systems bypassed by the traitor marines, and the power of the Iron Warriors is boosted beyond credibility. This is something which always seems like an odd criticism to make for a number of reasons. The first is that the book makes it very clear that Honsou has spent a lot of time preparing for this, this isn’t some random group of traitors who have tried to single handily storm Ultramar. This is a horde of fifteen thousand Chaos space marines, supported by mercenaries, the Dark Mechanicus and all sorts of support troops – a force which eclipses even the largest loyalist chapters and is capable of taking hideous losses. Honsou himself has a further edge in his familiarity with the codex tactics, using it to predict how major counter attacks will be made and keep them “dancing to his tune” the exact sort of tactical genius he showed in Dead Sky Black Sun. And to top this all off the has an ace in the hole in the form of the Newborn, a creature which is shown to give him an edge no other invading force aside from the Word Bearers during the Horus Heresy ever had against Ultramar.
Now, even if you don’t buy into that consider something else: this is effectively a miniature Black Crusade. Ignoring all the jokes about “Abaddon loses 0-13 to Imperial Guard” these crusades are constantly hideously damaging even when the Imperium wins. Billions of Imperial Guard die each time, entire worlds burn, the Imperium is pushed to the very edge of defeat and assets which they might never be able to replace are lost. McNeill doesn’t suddenly make them capable of running rings around the Imperium, it’s simply dispelling the illusion of their incompetence. And honestly this dispelling of illusions behind the factions featured in it are what elevates it above the rest of the series, even more so with the Ultramarines themselves than Chaos.
The Chapter’s Due was first brought out in 2008, the same year as Warhammer 40,000’s fifth edition was introduced along with the new Codex: Space Marines. The previous two codexes had been written by several people; with Andy Chambers, Jervis Johnson & Gavin Thorpe writing the third edition codex and Pete Haines & Graham McNeill working on the fourth edition. This was always a good move to have as having several people working on a codex at once could, in most cases, prevent personal biases from coming too heavily into play and preventing anyone untested from having too much control. The fifth edition codex abandoned all this and gave it to one games designer: Matthew Ward. Someone who had been responsible in the same year for turning Daemons in fantasy into game breaking steamrollers who could walk through opposing armies with ease, and was involved in writing the background for the fifth edition rulebook in which he retconned almost all of the Sisters of Battle out of existence.
If this wasn’t enough to raise concerns an often quoted White Dwarf interview started to reveal incredibly heavy biases on his part:
"[The Ultramarines] are one of the hardest working chapters out there... The Ultramarines are the most focused, proficient, and tactically aware force in the galaxy..."
"The Ultramarines are undoubtedly the best Space Marines ever. Yes, really! Thanks to the heritage of Guilliman and their myriad heroic deeds, the Ultramarines are the exemplars of the Space Marines. With a few fringe exceptions... all Space Marine chapters want to be like the Ultramarines and recognize Marneus Calgar as their spiritual liege."
Believe it or not things only got worse from there. A ludicrous amount of the codex was devoted to the Ultramarines, or rather Ward’s warped bastardisation of them, claiming that all chapters worshipped Guilliman over their own primarchs, any who weren’t codex adherent were ineffective backwards fools and hyping the hell out of his favourite chapter. Inventing battles the Ultramarines won single handedly which supposedly were just as important as every other major imperial war. Even rewriting an Ultramarines loss into effectively a victory and devoting half the book purely to their “glory” and how much better they were than everyone else. One of the more infamous claims he made was that due to Toras Telion, one of Ward’s creations, was that “Ultramarines can boast the most skilled marksmen of any Space Marine Chapter” and also “even the rawest [Ultramarines] scout can achieve a level of expertise worthy of the most experienced Captain.”
To make matters worse, he started inventing flaws in other chapters to make them seem worse, like claiming the White Scars and Raven Guard had some massive distrust from one another and the previously genetically stable Salamanders suddenly gained very obvious, borderline racist, mutations. He even chose to start retconning chapters into being codex adherent such as the White Scars chapter. Every battle the Ultramarines fought was without assistance, with few casualties, massive feats like having Calgar slay an Eldar Avatar in single combat and never an outright loss. You can probably guess the space marine battles he listed were not quite so glorious for the other chapters. Then took things a step further and started to have his favouritism influence how he wrote other codexes such as having a passage crediting Guilliman for the Blood Angels’ survival and new leadership.
Now, this was a large diversion, and I do plan to review Ward’s bastardisations in depth someday, but you needed to understand how the fandom viewed the Ultramarines. That at the time of The Chapter’s Due’s release, the Ultramarines had devolved from by-the-book badasses into overhyped, badly written Mary Sues. Hated to the point where Ultramarines players were switching chapters, new players were believing that having an upturned omega symbol on your models made you better than everyone else, and the self-respecting remaining Ultras fans vocally decrying this nonsense. The Chapter’s Due wasn’t just an attempt to give a grand finale, it seemed to be a major attempt to return the Ultramarines to form, making them highly skilled but not completely wanked out invincible.
The Ultramarines in this book make mistakes. They take losses, they are pushed to the point where they almost lose and they are actually fallible. They win in spite of their flaws, in spite of being outgunned and with a real and obvious risk of losing to a stronger foe; not, as Ward’s ones would, casually stroll through Honsou’s army and crush him in five seconds. They don’t win single handily either, requiring help from the Inquisition, Mechanicus and a squad of Raven Guard to eventually win. Groups who, contrary to Ward’s portrayal, have skills which are beyond the capabilities of the Ultramarines in some areas. Even when the Ultramarines do win, it’s a bittersweet victory. Almost four companies worth of marines have been killed and several of Ultramar’s worlds are burning, but the chapter has the resources to recover. What is more is that it successfully drove the Chaos force out of their system, killing many of their leaders and completely destroying the daemon prince M’Kar – an act which is all but utterly impossible in 40k. Again, they’re good but they’re not completely invulnerable.
Best of all however, was the portrayal of the characters Ward turned into two dimensional jokes – especially Sicarius and M’Kar. Sicarius specifically was a briefly mentioned Ultramarines character introduced in the Medusa V campaign, helping to unite the space marine forces there and head after the Chaos forces on the planet. He needed more depth, but Ward’s distinct lack of skill turned him simply into a badly written figure with no personality nor anything which resembles a character. The only thing you learn about him every single time he’s brought up in the fifth edition book is that he’s supposedly better than everyone else. That he supposedly is capable of winning every victory, outdoing the Raven Guard at the very tactics they have spent millennia specialising in and refining to perfection and leads “the finest fighting unit in this (Ultramarines) or any other Space Marine chapter” – that’s all you learn about him. The Chapter’s Due gives him a personality befitting his level of skill: he’s an arrogant, self-confident risk-taker who seemingly buys into his own reputation of invincibility. He completely accepts a piece of propaganda boosting the Ultramarines’ reputation as truth until Calgar corrects him on it, resents Uriel for breaking the codex and when he performs a risky manoeuvre to attain victory he refuses to consider what would have happened if he had been wrong. It’s something which greatly helps to balance out his previous portrayal without retconning his victories out of existence.
M’Kar meanwhile is similarly a vast improvement over his presentation in the codex. This is again a character with no personality and a one note trait: he’s constantly used as a bitch for whoever Matt Ward needs to look stronger. Every time he’s turned up in a codex he has simply been used as a target to curb stomp by Calgar, Chief Librarian “I’m now corrupted because Ward says so” Mephiston, and Kaldor “monument which is all that’s wrong with 5th edition Warhammer” Draigo. Most of the fandom as a result looked at him as an utter joke, but McNeill actually manages to make him threatening in this book. One of the victories against M’Kar is actually noted to be a fabrication used as propaganda, with the Ultramarines being unable to overcome the daemon and instead were forced to imprison him. Some of the victories against the daemon prince are suggested to be lies produced by the Imperium’s propaganda. When he appears in person, he’s displayed to have considerable power – summoning vast hordes of daemons to completely overrun entire cities and manages to come within inches of slaughtering Calgar and the chapter’s greatest warriors.
This is true of many of Ward’s characters who show up in this book, they’ve given flaws, they’re given character, they’re actually written by someone who understands how to write something good.
So that’s The Chapter’s Due, when taking into account only what is seen in the novel it is a good read, definitely amongst the best in the series. When taking into account the attempt to correct the atrocious writings of the current codexes is becomes far better, a sign that there are writers who do want to maintain the quality of writing we saw in the fourth edition. Is it the best of the Ultramarines novels? No. While it is definitely one of the best there are one or two better such as Warriors of Ultramar, but if you are a fan or have been disappointed by the direction Warhammer has taken this is strongly recommended. It’s a fine send off to the Ultramarines series and while not a finale in the same sense as Phalanx was to the Soul Drinkers, that can be overlooked by the attempt to preserve what the space marines truly are.


Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Prometheus (Film Review)

When going in to watch Prometheus there’s a quote from Ridley Scott you need to remember: "while Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place. The keen fan will recognize strands of Alien's DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative.” While it is set prior to the original Alien and does expand upon aspects of that story, it’s a film in its own right more than it is a prequel. Rather than structuring itself upon setting up the plot to the first film, it takes the same basic starting point and then moves off in an entirely different direction. Prometheus isn’t about being Alien 0, it’s about telling its own tale and then heading off in an entirely different direction. And to be honest with you, it’s all the stronger for it.
The big problem with a franchise like Alien is that a lot of it has been tried and tested over and over again; it has become very familiar to us. We’ve had six films, countless comics and multiple games repeatedly showing the xenomorph’s life cycle; how they grow, develop and adapt to new threats. That familiarity removes a lot of the horror and the number of adaptations which have tried to expand upon new ideas have removed a lot of possibility for future innovation. What also didn’t help is that after James Cameron took over, the franchise became increasingly fight orientated. Now don’t get me wrong, Aliens was a great film but it caused the franchise to shift gears from one genre to the next. Sequels never quite managed to evoke the same terror seen in the original, and felt increasingly less like a horror film series so much as an action film franchise with horror elements.
Prometheus meanwhile is a purebred horror film, embracing the tropes and themes of the first without directly replicating them and avoiding battle-scenes in favour of body horror and tension. With emphasis upon the body horror, as there are some grotesquely Cronenbergian moments which makes the chestburster scene from the first film look tame by comparison. There’s only one battle scene in it and that serves mostly to remove a lot of the secondary cast more than anything else, to avoid a possible plot hole later on while giving the film a much needed visible alien threat. No pun intended. The rest of the time it has characters without weapons, without resources and no knowledge of their enemy facing a deadly threat to their lives.
What really helps the film is that most of these characters feel like human beings. Rather than throwing the monster at them at the earliest opportunity, having bold very stock personalities, or making them completely unlikable as so many modern horrors do; those in Prometheus act and behave like most human beings would. Think the sort of characters from John Carpenter’s The Thing or the better late 70s early 80s horror films, they’re given enough character and interaction to feel realistic without emphasis upon it strangling the plot. Two of the best examples of this are with the side characters. A few are uninterested with the fact they’re on an alien world on the brink of first contact/finding god and no interest in leaving ship because they’re just being paid to do their jobs. Another is that when a lifeform is detected one kilometer from two of them, it results in them instantly deciding to head in the opposite direction. The actors really sell the part and all of them really sell their roles perfectly both in open and subtle ways.
Now, we’re six hundred words in and there’s been no mention of either the plot or quality of the cinematography. There are two reasons for this; the first is that there’s little which can be said about the plot without divulging into huge spoilers. All which can be said you could probably find out from just watching one of the trailers. As for the cinematography, well, it’s a film directed by Ridley Scott. Even when he’s at the helm of sub-par productions like Robin Hood he still knows how to capture and set up scenes perfectly for the camera. What is worth saying is that he’s in his element working with this film and this really helps to compliment the alien environments. It probably also goes without saying that the effects and scenery are outstanding, but they really are with the film finding a near perfect balance between physical effects and CGI. While you can tell where certain scenes are pure CGI, it is often hard to tell in largely physical scenes where solid effects end and the computer generated ones begin – there’s no obvious blurring and it’s used sparingly enough to be applied only to scenes which need it. Not thrown slap-dash across the entire film or using purely CGI for everything, which gives a much greater sense of realism to the film’s events.
From all this praise you can probably guess that Prometheus is well worth seeing. Is it perfect? Not entirely, there’s one late revelation you’ll see coming a mile off, one or two things left unexplained and the scene where the heroine appears could have been removed with nothing lost; but it’s still one of the best films of this year. If not the best science fiction film of 2012 thus far. It does end with sequel bait but considering the quality of Prometheus it would be well worth making future films further exploring its ideas. While its characters aren’t quite as well developed or rounded as those in the first Aliens, it stands well above the sort of films we’ve seen in the franchise lately and is exactly the quality production people were hoping for.
Prequel? offshoot? spin-off? It doesn’t matter, it’s a damn good film and any horror or sci-fi fan should go see this while it’s on the big screen.

Prometheus and all related characters and media are owned by 20th Century Fox.