Monday, 27 October 2014

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night (Episode Review)

Abandon all hope ye who choose to watch this episode.

After the trailers at the end of last week's episode displayed a lot of what hasn't worked in this past series, people were apprehensive. They had every right to be. The acting is wooden, the storytelling ludicrous, the twists insane, and the "threat" seems half existent at the best of times. This is to say nothing of how the story meanders from one element to the next with no clear direction in an effort to be clever, and solutions come out of left field with no actual explanation.

Returning to the Earth, the Doctor arrives in the middle of London only to find that someone has completely reforested the place. Despite his initial skepticism, he soon tries to find out what is wrong when a young girl by the name of Maebh hammers on his door claiming to be sent by Clara. Clara and Danny meanwhile need to keep not only one small class of students safe in this time but discover just what has caused this sudden upheaval.

If anyone saw The Caretaker they will know that Who's last attempts to have anything revolving around the school were dire at best. Wheeling out soap opera tropes with a mere veneer of science fiction, the episode seemed to abandon a good ninety percent of why viewers tune in to watch this series each week. Sadly this failing is repeated again here. 

The story's main angle is trying to evoke interest through a variety of characters and the relationship between the Doctor, Clara and Danny, but it's obvious that the series has no idea what to do with it. Any conflict here is subdued to the point of insanity, even after Clara is revealed to have lied to Danny about her still being in contact with the Doctor, and the entire core concept seems to be spinning its wheels. The few conversations the two have ultimately add little to their relationship nor their characters, and the one development made is spontaneous at best. The way it is treated seems to be less of a drive and more of an effort to pad out the running time, and this isn't the only occasion where this happens.

While thankfully not bringing back Courtney again, the story once again tries to make a significant part of the cast children for some bizarre reason. Just as before, it's woefully apparent just why this is such a bad idea. While the school children have time devoted to them in order to flesh each one out in turn, none of them contribute anything of real worth. At best each proves to be annoying in an entirely separate way, adding unfunny running gags (notably about diagnosed symptoms, something we'll get into later), and a fresh wave of insufferably with each line. At best they show Clara and Danny to be incompetent at their jobs, and at worst they prove to be a pointless addition which robbed the episode of time. Time it could have used to actually flesh things out, make sense, or give the story some real bite.

Ignoring the Seeds of Death for a moment, a forest spontaneously being created isn't that terrible a threat in terms of physicality. As a result, almost the entire tale goes without a single true threat ever emerging. It becomes so bad at one point that the script honestly needs to churn out a random wolf/tiger attack in order to try and gain some semblance of tension for a fleeting minute. Even that seems tacked on, and the entire story seems to avoid anything which might actually cause some degree of interest. Maebh goes missing? The episode keeps up with her to show the audience she's fine. The forest could be threatened? It's not. The forest could be a threat? Beyond a few throwaway lines it's never truly addressed. As a result, the entire story comes across as dead air, with little in terms of real interest or much offering the audience in terms of investment.

This lack of a definitive threat may have worked if the story had gone the additional mile to place emphasis upon just how strange London is with the trees. It might have even worked if it had simply gone for a bait and switch (and the story tries to abruptly swerve into at the last second) but no effort is ever made to really suggest any possible menace. As a result, audiences are left following some very dull characters walking about a forest with little to do, and the story as a whole is toothless with no conflict of note.

Things are only made worse by the gaping plot holes left in the wake of each revelation, which even if you switch your brain off are so blatant they cannot be ignored. Maebh's arrival in front of the TARDIS for example required her to break out of a heavily guarded museum without setting off any alarms. The Doctor claims that the Ice Age emerged effectively overnight, with some truly stunning logical leaps, even claiming he cannot stop natural disasters at one point. This is to say nothing of the treatment of science (no, not technobabble, science) as magic, with half the explanations leading to sudden solutions that even a middle-school child would know are insane. Well, that and the "lifeboat" scene.

The big defence here people will likely bring up is how the story was pitched and presented as a fairy tale and such failings should be ignored. Fair enough, but that isn't entirely true. The story instead incorporates elements and cues of fairy tales into itself from Red Riding Hood to the very title itself, but does not take that extra step to truly present itself as such. We've seen this done far better in the past, especially during Matt Smith's era, and once you strip away the references, the story isn't left with anything of real substance.

Now, this would make an episode bad, but then there's the aesop it not-so-subtly then tries to hammer in about mental health. While I might have been blind enough to overlook the rather questionable one found in Kill The Moon, this one was obvious enough even for me to see it.

Apparently a telepath for unknown reasons, Maebh is constantly hearing the voices of the aliens which created the trees. Being medicated for undisclosed issues, hearing voices and severe trauma, she's not exactly in the best state. The Doctor then berates anyone who encouraged her to have medication, scorning the very idea of such a treatment. This could have been put down to the wrong treatment for a problem, but one running gag is having an irritating child using various mental problems to excuse him acting like a raging jackass. Believe it or not the end message of the story effectively comes down to trying not to solve problems and trusting things will resolve themselves.

No, that's really in there.

This episode overall is extremely badly put together, with a bugled script and some truly terrible directing at times. While some scenes work, there are many points which are bungled by extremely choppy editing and bizarre shots which seem to be unconventional purely for the sake of being unconventional. Sudden wide angle lens shots, shakeycam effects, mad swinging about the scenes, when it's not textbook it's almost as if the director abandoned all she knew worked. Sheree Folkson has done solid work in the past, just look up her IMDB page, but this was just dreadful.

Look, skip this one. It's painful beyond words and for every problem I covered here, another four went unmentioned. I really have no idea just how this series can so continually leap from outstanding television to truly terrible science fiction from week to week like this. We can only hope this won't become a staple of this era.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Civilization: Beyond Earth (Video Game)

Effectively the Alpha Centauri to Civilization V, this latest effort by Firaxis to establish a sci-fi strategy title is a release fans will both love and hate. Set in the distant future and the collapse of modern society, humanity has flung itself out into the stars. Between fraying tempers, clashing ideologies and limited resources, the humans are just as likely to combat one another as the dangerous alien natives of the worlds they have descended upon.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Deadpool: the Wedding of Deadpool (Comic Review)

As you might guess from the title, The Wedding of Deadpool is a comic largely revolving around a single joke. Sometimes these gags are failures when the material isn’t good enough or the joke itself wasn’t that great the first time, but for the most part this one is a solid hit. Rather than being a single running narrative akin to Dead Presidents, what’s here is a series of short stories by a multitude of authors who have handled the characters over the years. Each takes time to give their own spin on what it would be like for the merc with the mouth to get hitched, and it allows the comic to make use of various big name writers such as Mark Waid, Gail Simone, Christopher Priest, Fabian Nicieza, Jimmy Palmiotti and a great many others.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Review Scores And Why We Need Them

Of all the problems in reviewing, whether it's done as a hobby or full time job, some of the biggest ones keep coming back to a single point - the final scores of an article. Their very presence seems to be something certain writers seem to consider a stigmata and many undeniably negative aspects surround them. We've seen many criticisms of Metacritic hinge upon how they judge and value these scores, sometimes inadvertently harming the lives of game developers. We've seen audiences expectations rise to ridiculous levels, where a seven out of ten is apparently considered a middling score, and people will complain when a title is only given a nine. 

The thing is though, for all they are derided and the problems they create, review scores are a tool. They are neither good nor bad, and it's only certain attitudes which have caused so many problems of late. There are already other works discussing this point or touching upon the more ridiculous aspects of fan reaction (notably the Jimquisition) but this is not what this article is about. Instead what we're going to look into here is why they are needed and why certain articles still benefit from their inclusion as a final point. This isn't so much "why they aren't bad" as it will be "what good can they do and why do we need them?"

Perhaps the single biggest example which can be brought up in their favour is that they work extremely well as a final point, tying up a review. A score brings about some considerable finality to a piece and it's a bold verdict which can hit harder than just words alone when used correctly. It sets a title up in direct comparison with other pieces of its medium and immediately tells an audience where the journalist thinks it stands. This allows a viewer to quickly compare this verdict with other titles and judge their personal biases, preferences and the like against their own. Rather than trawling through entire archives of their works, it can allow a potential viewer to quickly make an informed opinion of whether they think this particular journalist is worth following or not as a source of information. 

Atop of this it also allows reviews to have far more of a structure. Become familiar with certain routines, opening or closing lines and the like can make a frequent reader become more comfortable with a writer's certain approaches. This might seem like a minor thing, and is admittedly far more effective in videos than it is written work, but it's a minor element which can make people keep coming back. That degree of knowledge of knowing what will follow, that they will stick to the same styles and looks, adds some subconscious mental reassurances that the quality of a person's work will remain the same. 

Review scores also adds a great deal of finality to a piece and helps to tie together their entire point in a single conclusion, with a degree more finality than usual. This said, I personally believe that this is part of the problem when it comes to these scores, but mostly on the audience's part. With that final summery listed, certain readers can often find themselves skipping to the end to get an overall opinion. Without bothering to look at a reviewer's thoughts or reasons, they will then use that entire point as a basis for their response. This demeans a work and, combined with the opinions of certain readers that anything below an eight out of ten is not worth their time, it can lead to knee jerk responses.

This said, I think this only encourages their use in video media as that innately bypasses this problem while retaining its strengths. Videos are less likely to be so quickly skipped by these individuals as words, and a well informed piece using a score as a final culmination of their thoughts will likely be better received. It retains the strengths of a score without so many of the same risks found in writing. Yet despite this, it's also written works which benefit from scoring systems the most. 

Longtime readers will know that my reviews for Starburst Magazine tend to be very short. Often capping off at a little over four hundred words to fit in the magazine's print editions, these lack the same benefits as lengthier works. Sometimes certain points will need to be skipped or severely shortened in order to fit them into a word count, and a score can help to better re-enforce a writer's point. It can add greater clarity and better display their thoughts on how a title fares overall, giving greater range to their final verdict. To give a personal example, I considered War of the Vikings to be sub-par in its offerings while The Evil Within was a bloody mess of a title. Despite one being a cut above the other though, both reviews focused primarily upon criticisms and it is possible that someone missing points could consider them to be of equal quality. With an additional score at the end, it's far more clear what their thoughts are. The same can be true of other reviews, pieces a hundred or even fifty words long, without the space to full express a detailed opinion. A number can sometimes help to better fill for areas limited by a tight word count.

This is not to mention the obvious point that some scores can also go into greater detail and break down their overall opinion with multiple points. Some are built up across several catagories, covering a title's qualities one by one and then finally combining them to create a final score. These are traditionally supported by a single sentence, and tend to refer back to earlier parts of the review. This at least has the chance of making those who skip to the end go back for greater context and better examine what was stated, allowing them to appreciate the points made and better understand where the writer is coming from. This is especially important in this day and age where so many people seem to be too busy to actually sit down and read written reviews. Of course, it also might help to stave off that above problem where readers base their entire opinion purely upon the final score as well.

These are ultimately just a few personal thoughts off of the top of my head, from personal experience and prior examination. While further points could definitely be made in their favour, I hope that this does show why they do still have a place in reviews. This is of course hardly saying that all reviews need them, many of mine certainly lack final scores, but ultimately they are a tool. They are a instrument to help enhance a writer's points and at the end of the day there's still plenty of reasons articles can benefit from them.

Still, this is just a personal opinion. If you have your own thoughts on this matter, for or against their inclusion or wish to respond upon anything brought up, please reply in the comments section below. I'll be interested to see what people think of this.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Evil Within (Video Game Review)

Often “throwback” and “old school” are used to praise a title for bringing old ideas to a new generation. Now we have the game which exemplifies just why sometimes a genre should never attempt this. Appropriately for a game featuring zombies, The Evil Within is a shambling Frankenstein monster of successful game mechanics taken from other titles. Everything here screams of the developer trying to play it safe, with little to nothing left to give The Evil Within its own identity in terms of either gameplay or mechanics.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Doctor Who: Flatline (Episode Review)

After the smashing success of Mummy on the Orient Express last week, any episode following up that title was likely going to be left in its shadow. That's sadly the case here, as Flatline is a great episode with a truly creepy premise, but fails to quite equal last week's outing.

Returning to contemporary Earth, Clara and the Doctor immediately run into a problem. Not only is the TARDIS far more off course than usual, landing in Bristol, but the two soon find there are far bigger problems they face. The TARDIS is being drained of its energy from an outside force, shrinking its exterior dimensions and leaving the Doctor trapped within. With Clara investigating outside forces, she must find just what is tampering with the machine and causing the disappearances of so many of the city's residents. Unfortunately for them both, foe they face is a far less material villain than either realises.

The story's greatest strengths are immediately obvious and can be put down to three things: The pacing, the villain and the writer's use of Clara. All three are what make the story truly stand out, and above all this is an example of how to do each truly right. 

Going through each in turn, the story keeps up with the same sort of pacing and rapid (but not breakneck) deliver we've come to expect of the show, but it exemplifies how less can sometimes be more. For example, the teaser in question is a few scant seconds long. It lasts just long enough to show something truly creepy and disturbing to hook the audience in, and then goes right to the credits. Nothing drawn out, nothing overdone, but it's more than enough to truly be effective. This goes for more or less the entire episode, it only stays with ideas for as long as it has to. It never spends too long on any one thing, but the script goes just long enough to make full use of an idea before moving on. This gives it a real sense of energy and keeps propelling events onwards, without making quite the same mistakes which plagued the previous era.

The villain meanwhile is the type of antagonist which Doctor Who has been extremely proficient at creating without wheeling out the same tired old tropes. They're an unknowable enemy which can hide in plane sight, can quietly murder people with few ever seeing them and creepily warp time-space itself about them. While little can really be said without spoiling the best moments, every reveal hits hard and the episode presents a very frightening new idea for this enemy. One which could be as effective as the Weeping Angels in the right hands. While they only show true power on a few occasions, it relays their true power an menace, and the group only stays alive thanks to sheer intelligence and ingenuity. Mostly due to Clara this time rather than the Doctor per-say.

While the Doctor himself does have influence over events and assists them, he's working with limited resources and a confined space, with Clara ultimately saving the day. However, this is a rare occasion where it's shown why she's a good companion. Rather than trying to force her into being the single most important person ever to have traveled with him via overblown reasons, the story uses her intelligence, quick thinking and attitude instead. Qualities which have made many fan-favourites work in the past, as opposed to having someone save every single last Doctor ever to have existed all at the same time. She really does come into her own here, and this is a story which should be used as a guideline on how to write the character rather than many past tales.

While the episode does have many strengths beyond this, they ultimately hinge upon these three points overall. There is an exceptionally tense scene in a house infiltrated by the aliens, but the reason it works is thanks to the aliens' unnerving abilities and the solution used to escape alive. The story frequently falls back on these elements, but it tries to use them in different ways whenever it does, which again keeps things feeling fresh and exciting.

The humour is present to help balance out the horror element of the story, but it's reserved to controlled bursts. Both Jamie Mathieson's script and the direction of Douglas Mackinnon played off well against one another, especially in this regard. Much of the humour itself is put down to more background visual gags than anything else (well, besides Capaldi's ever fantastic lines), and there's the clear sense that each side knew what the other would attempt to be doing. Moments with the shrinking TARDIS in particular stand out well and are balanced against the truly terrifying scenes of the aliens gaining more power.

The only one or two real missteps either comes from when the script seems to be trying to replicate the smug overdose of humour which has failed in past stories (which is thankfully rare) or when the story has to carry over elements of the series' arcs. The sudden inclusion of Danny's relationship with Clara and Missy's nebulous "I'M HERE AND DOING SOMETHING!" moments are tacked on to say the least. Having no bearing upon the story, they're thrown in with little to no impact, only to be forgotten again a short while later. It's becoming a real problem with many stories and these elements have done more harm than actually added anything of real worth.

This isn't to say that the story doesn't have a few problems in of itself though. In particular, the tale suffers from a surprisingly weak supporting cast and dull location. Set in modern times, the latter is not too surprising but its attempts to blend the outlandish aliens with conventional suberbs doesn't quite work. Even when moving down into the dingier and more industrial areas, it just seems like a story set in environments we've witnessed done far better in past tales. 

This might have been fine, but the supporting characters here are just as unremarkable. None of the actors are bad per-say, but there's no time spent to really break them into the story or give them memorable backgrounds. Each effectively walks into the tale, stays until the end, and then leaves again. You'd be lucky to remember a single one's name and they leave very little impact by the end, something not helped when the script tries to make them seem important. Some suffer from spontaneous responses, driving the story onwards by sheer idiocy at times, and it barely skirts past completely destroying suspension of disbelief the tale at times. This is something of a trend with this writer unfortunately, as anyone who remembers how Cold War began can attest.

Perhaps the single biggest point which can harm the tale however is that this lack of real establishment at points makes some solutions seem like huge deus ex machinas. The sudden revelation that the TARDIS has a form of siege mode which could have been useful in a thousand and one other stories sticks out like a sore thumb. The same goes for how the aliens are defeated and how easily some characters just accept the arrival of aliens, time travelers and the like with few to no questions. It can be hard to accept at times and the story does seem to rush through the initial astonishment or even the questions people would naturally have. Combined with the sheer lack of answers in many places when it comes to the aliens, some viewers might walk away with this one with a few understandable gripes.

Flatline is far from a bad story, mixed certainly but with far more good than bad, and well worth watching. For all its flaws the story does work out well and fixes enough running problems this series to stand up on its own. That said, positioned next to Mummy on the Orient Express, the real concern is that this might suffer the fate of The Masque of Mandragora - Overshadowed because it was unfortunate enough to stand next to a giant. If you get the time watch it. If not save it for next week, as In the Forest of the Night looks like it's going to be a painful one.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Inquisitor Ascendant (Comic Review)

Of all the writers working at Black Library, few have been so long established and acclaimed as Dan Abnett. While by no means the sole talented writer producing work for the grim darkness of the far future, between Eisenhorn, Gaunt’s Ghosts, Titanicus, Bothers of the Snake and others, his impact is undeniable. If there was any person who has proven themselves many times over when it comes to handling the Inquisition and stories of downfalls, it’s Abnett, which makes the failings of Inquisitor Ascendant all the more baffling.

The comic follows the events on Nicodemus as Inquisitor Defay and his Interrogator Gravier are dispatched to investigate potential Chaos infestations. Soon after his arrival, Defay discovers that the Chaotic infestations run far deeper than anyone would have ever realised.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Alien: Isolation (Video Game Review)

Of all the horror games released this year Alien: Isolation was always going to be the big one. Even before getting into the obvious hype behind the trailers, even before getting into the competition with Evil Within, Alien: Isolation was going to be fighting an uphill battle. Aliens: Colonial Marines had been an unmitigated disaster, with promotional material outright lying about its quality and enthusiastic fans had been outraged about what they had been given. Worse still, Prometheus had faced an extremely divisive reception and it had been the better part of an age since we had last seen a truly great Aliens game. The franchise quite frankly needed a shot in the arm, and with The Creative Assembly being best known for their RTS titles (not all of which underwent the best QA testing, as shown by Rome: Total War II) , the hype behind this title was extremely tempered. Thankfully, Alien: Isolation is everything the fans were promised.

Set some time after the events on-board the Nostromo, Amanda Ripley is contacted and informed that Wayland-Yutani operatives have found the vessel's black box recorder. Wanting answers, she joins two other operatives from the company to collect it from Sevastopol station. Unfortunately for them, Sevastopol has an unwanted guest stalking its halls...

Let's be very clear here: The trailers did not lie about this game. Everything you've seen in the gameplay, even the bits in the CGI'd trailers, all of that can be replicated in the game. You spend nearly all the time running, hiding and scavenging for your life, and the xenomorph itself is effectively death incarnate. Facing down this thing directly is not an option. You need to run, hide or sneak about it however you can, and you will certainly die to it many times over. The creature has been elevated from its previous status in so many titles as cannon fodder, and entire levels can be depleted of all life by this thing working on its own.

The alien's programming is its true genius, following no distinct patrol patterns which can be predicted, learning from choices the player has made and even waiting to ambush them at key points. The monster never feels truly familiar or ever begins to seem like a threat which can be easily dodged with the right tactics, and every action about it has an element of chance. Shadowing its movements might allow you to stay safe for a while, but it might suddenly turn around and head right back down the corridor towards you. Throwing a sonic device to distract it might work or, if horribly botched, it could lead the beast right to your hiding spot. Managing the calculated risks of your each and every action is crucial to playing the game, and it never fails to make the xenomorph a terrifying presence.

The alien isn't alone however, and there are countless other threats present throughout Sevastopol which could bring Amanda to an equally sticky end. Panicked, frightened human survivors stalk the corridors in groups, driven to such heights of paranoia they often shoot first at anything in sight. A few bullets will take down Ripley just as quickly as a barbed tail, and their behaviour can be outright irrational at times. Even without seeing Ripley a few might opt to put shots into vents if they consider her to be hiding nearby, giving the xenomorph sound to zone in on. 
These are the last of the player's problems though, and they can be trusted to serve as a good distraction. The Working Joe synthetics on the other hand are an entirely different matter. Cumbersome and slow moving, their true menace comes from the sheer amount of damage they can soak up. Any fight against one will be an arduous affair, and even if you opt to flee, they will likely herd you into a location where the xenomorph can finish you off. With the added problem of never earning the alien's ire they remain a constant obstacle which can often be a bigger threat than the gribbly alien itself, often operating in groups to make up for their flaws.

As anyone who has seen any of the promotional material can attest, The Creative Assembly went the extra mile when it came down to replicating the dystopian design of this future. The late 70s sci-fi look has been praised many times over, from the minor quirks of the computer screens to the dated designs of so many environmental elements. The entirety of the station retains the oil rig look of the Nostromo and kudos has to be given for the sheer level of detail they went into here. While it does not feature quite so many human elements as fans might have wanted (signs that this was once a truly thriving station home to workers, families and the like), the deep shadows and curving designs force you to always remain on edge. So many of the pipes, alcoves and air vent systems allow for enemies to hide or blend into the background, turning them into true terrors. It becomes remarkably easy to stumble into a foe by rounding a corner too fast or mistaking them as a part of the environment, building a palpable sense of paranoia in any player.

This is a true horror game right down to its shriveled decaying heart, and the title revels in the ability to make players scared, vulnerable and ensure it's very clear just how hopelessly out of your depth you truly are. While this is something we saw done with great success in the likes of Amnesia, the title takes things to the next level in a very unexpected way: Giving the player options to fight back.

Amanda has the ability to pick up a few very scarce weapons here and there which allow players to hit or even shoot back. There's the odd pistol, scraps of ammo, even flamethrowers in places. However, these will have varying degrees of effect and using them is often a last ditch choice. Bullets will take down humans quickly but are loud, noisy and few in number, and it will take most of your stash to bring down a single Working Joe. The flamethrower is the same, but with an added short range to worry about. The real killer though? None of these work against the xenomorph, which is completely invulnerable to any harm. So while you have the way to fight back, doing so only makes things infinitely worse for you. In many respects this makes it far more effective than Amnesia or Outlast's own violence free approaches to gameplay, as the desire to fight back is there, but trying to do so will only damn you.

Now, let it be clear: This game is good. That said, it's also very flawed. Why? Because so many elements here are double edged swords, hurting the game as much as benefiting it. Alien: Isolation is definitely a high quality title, but for every step forwards it made, there was ultimately another problem it creates for itself.

The biggest point among these is the save system The Creative Assembly opted to use. With autosave completely gone, the player has to far more carefully manage risks and sneak from manual save point to manual save point. It creates greater tension, knowing that your every failure could mean sneaking through the station all over again and the loss of considerable progress. 

This is the good side obviously, the bad one is that it brings back the failings and reasons why these were largely abandoned in such games in the first place. More than once you can find yourself hung up on especially difficult sections or going through the same scene over and over again because the xenomorph opted to run into you on a whim. This is effective at first, but over time things can turn from terror to plane old frustration at this mechanic, especially towards the end. This might not even be so bad in of itself were it not for the additional fact that enemies can attack you while you're trying to save. So some players will run into moments where they are a second away from saving their data, only for some panicked scavenger to unload a revolver into their back.

The subject of being stuck and dying over and over again was a big concern with the build-up to the game's release, and it's unfortunately a failing Alien: Isolation doesn't entirely escape. To put it simply: The xenomorph is way too good at its job. The terror of its heightened intelligence, speed and sheer lethality are all major bonuses in its favour, but they can easily work against it. Knowing it can easily kill you at the drop of a hat and being taken down once or twice is fine. Being relentlessly killed over and over again because it's too good at its job can actually harm the game. It can mean the player stops seeing it as the xenomorph and more of an obstacle, as a result any fear is rapidly replaced by simple frustration.

It would be one thing to say this only happens on occasions, but there are a few distinct points where you'll just be banging your head against a brick wall. Difficulty is not a bad thing, but the frustration here sometimes came from elements which were completely out of the player's control, and could not be accounted for. Some of these also tie into another big problem - graphical glitches. While of a far better quality than Rome: Total War II, the game is plagued by a few aggravating graphical glitches. These will no doubt be patched out in time, but for the moment they remain a clear failing. These glitches range from immersion breaking moments such as the floor disappearing during the final area during a brief cutscene to ones which can kill you. How? By blocking off certain parts of the areas and blinding you to threats.

The creators say that the game should be played on Hard to properly experience the entire game in its full. While definitely a title well worth getting for anyone even slightly invested with the Aliens franchise or past survival horror successes, buyers should be mindful of the game's problems. so long as you're aware that there will be moments where you'll want to break your controller in half out of sheer anger at yet another unfair death, at having to fight a constant uphill battle, this is one well worth your time.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Kickstarter Spotlight: Gerry Anderson's Firestorm

Well this is certainly an ambitious idea. If you've looked at past crowd funding you'll have seen that everyone and everything has been tried with the growth of the site over the years. Video games, films, television, music and even potato salads have all been tried with varying levels of success, but over the years some of the fire has worn off. Many backers have been burned by some of the more pie in the sky ridiculous ideas and disappointing results from some of Kickstarter's biggest successes. It's caused a few new project pitches to lower their expectations, but with the opportunity for something bigger. Here's just one example, Gerry Anderson's Firestorm.

The idea is to bring back marionette shows to television by reworking an anime the late Thunderbirds creator had been a consultant for. The entire thing is to be made with the same practical effects, experienced individuals and minds which made the cult classics endure through the ages, and prove they can still be successful today. However, the Kickstarter itself is being used as much as a platform for proof of this interest as it is getting the series going. Rather than trying to fund the whole series, the project will be to help fund a minisode displaying what the crew can bring to modern television.

This is quite the intelligent move for a variety of reasons. The most obvious among these is that it simultaneously keeps costs down while at the same time proving to television networks that there is an audience out there. Petitions are so common these days that they tend to be overlooked. A large list of names willing to put cash behind something, and a short demonstration showing just what the series can pull off? That's definitely going to stand a much better chance of turning people's heads. Combined with the crew being able to work off of existing vehicle designs keeping the costs down further, and it's a surefire success. Hell, the thing is already funded right now.

So if it's already funded why is worth backing? Because of the stretch goals planned and clearly laid out. The current minisode planned is only a good five to eight minutes long, but that will increase exponentially with more cash given. With enough backing that will extend to a twenty-two minute pilot setting the scene for the series, and a forty-five minute feature length pilot going into greater detail atop of that. However, rather than having them set far apart, each stretch goal is added close together with individual additional scenes being added on as more cash is given. The most current one for example is to help show off the control room for Storm Force 9's Ocean Storm. Speaking of which we have the story outlined as well, largely keeping most elements from the anime:

"By the end of the 22nd century mankind has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. The wars and political disputes that were so common throughout the 21st century are long behind us, and man has finally taken responsibility for his own actions. The Earth in 2200 is very different from the one we worried about in 2014 - environmental, social and humanitarian crises are a thing of the past, and things have been that way for nearly 50 years. But in 2202 a new threat emerges.

Terrorist activity surfaces on several continents. At first the world governments deal with them quietly, without any real public awareness but the activity becomes better and better co-ordinated and more widespread. Soon the Continental senates decide to take action, and they invest vast amounts of resources into forming Storm Force - an organisation designed specifically to investigate and neutralise this new threat.

Supplied with the most advanced technology available Storm Force begin operation Firestorm to bring down the terrorist group known as Black Orchid. But as the 9th division of Storm Force (SF9) begin to make progress, they discover that Black Orchid is only a very small part of the picture, and that they themselves have had to make an impossible choice..."

Yeah, it's keeping most of the common tropes from UFO, Captain Scarlet and Stingray, but as Jamie Anderson has stated many times, the production crew is keeping the spirit of past successes close to heart. This is to say nothing of the production team itself. A few major names like Steve Begg are already attached, many co-workers from past Anderson shows putting in an appearance and voice actors range from Nicholas Briggs to other Anderson familiars. Those already slated for appearances as major characters and cameos are Nick Tate (Space 1999) and both Shane Rimmer and Matt Zimmerman (Scott and Alan Tracy, Thunderbirds).

The production is being transparent with its audience, knows exactly who to target and it has been met with great success so far. This said, there are a few notable issues which people might want to be aware of. The foremost among these is the designs of the puppets themselves, which are something of a departure from past creations. While they have the same proportions, the hair has been sculpted into their heads rather than using fake hair in the manner of older series. It's hard to tell how this will shape out on the whole, but both it and the eyes do give them an unusual look. A few people have noted this to be uncanny valley-esque but that's really down to individual opinion.

This said, while the show is also benefiting from Mark Woollard's direction (an old hand at marionette shows in this manner) the early teaser clip is somewhat questionable. The older shows were noted for some unusual quirks when it came to their direction thanks to the puppets, but here we have something truly odd. The early teaser footage displays a POV shot of one character working on a bomb, and it really only serves to show a few of the limitations of this work, especially the hands. The older series always used humans for such close ups to dodge any distinct problems, so having such an obvious mistake made by the footage promoting their work is eyebrow raising. Sure, it's likely this is not going to be repeated in the finished work, but this is the first real look into the show and supposed to entice people to back this.

The final thing of note which people should be wary of is that the pilot might not see some of these people behind it. This is openly stated within the project and there is an obvious push for total transparency to show backers just what they're getting into, but a lot is riding upon getting the right people in to do this work. Mighty No. 9 has already shown some of the problems having a key member of the team be someone backers did not necessarily agree upon. While the atomic explosion of controversy and accusations from that project is hardly likely to be repeated here, it does show some of the risks which come with choosing the right staff and the approval of backers.

Really though, on the whole this seems to be an interesting project which has been intelligently planned out. It's one fans of practical effects work and old Gerry Anderson shows should definitely get on-board with if this sounds at all appealing to them. They should just be sure to look carefully through the majority of the information available before choosing whether to back it or not.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express (Episode Review)

Mummy on the Orient Express serves as the culmination to one of the series' big storylines to that point, discussing the Doctor's potentially callous side of his new incarnation. Along with Clara finally snapping in the previous story and the Doctor himself often seeming to go too far in this tale, we see the Doctor's obsession with danger and his disregard for life being called into question. Thankfully, for all the ups and downs, the episode handles these themes admirably.

As a final send-off to their time together, the Doctor takes Clara to the Orient Express. Named after the famous locomotive from Earth's past, the starship has been created to resemble the train in every way possible and carries various important figures. Unfortunately for the both of them, this final dance is far more dangerous than either realises. An undead creature which can only be witnessed by its victims is hunting throughout the train, picking off targets one by one. Called into action, the Doctor soon comes to understand things may be far worse than even he realises...

This episode already wins a few points from early on when it does the right thing: Takes time to explain and establish the setting, details the environment, establishes a few of the characters, and then moves onto the big crisis. Jamie Mathieson clearly understood the weight behind the events of this episode and took the time to quickly remind people of them, balancing out character development with dramatic pacing and getting into the story. Sure, this is basic first act stuff, but given how often this was badly screwed up or even outright abandoned in the Matt Smith era, it needs to be praised.

Things are only made better as the momentum of this start carries through to following events, and multiple ideas, narratives and sub-plots are weaved about without any problems. Many of these are crucial to the episode itself rather than the series as a whole, but they never feel as if they are in the way of the longer ongoing stories, and in many respects they help to enhance them. There are quite clear parallels and relevant themes which can be drawn between them and the Doctor's current state, but it's not rammed down the audience's throat. The same goes for many clever hints and notable details. All too often in current Who it seems like writers try to make a big thing of leaving moments or turning points to make re-watching the episode seem entirely different. Here the hints are present, but it's without the same grandeur or bombastic treatment as others, slipped in here and there as comments or judgements of characters.

The monster itself is also a major strength of the story, least of all being that it's a proper classic callback to old style Doctor Who akin to The Robots of Death. The mystery behind the monster genuinely works here, and while it does have its own unique gimmick to try and make it stand out, the mummy does not quite resort to another "don't blink" ability. While it can only be seen by its victims, this is rightfully used to cause problems for the heroes rather than truly being a pointless add-on to try and capitalise upon the success of the Weeping Angels or Silence. The story itself uses its presence sparingly, but this is done in order for it to help give it far more impact on every arrival.

The supporting characters here are a mixed bunch on the whole, but there is enough to make them more memorable than many others of this season. Captain Quell and Perkins, in particular are well acted and sane enough to give the story a few interesting elements. While hardly the most well rounded figures ever to be added to the show, there's enough of a dimension to them to make their fates and involvement carry more weight than last week's characters. The core cast are as strong as ever, but given the talents of Capaldi and Coleman that should go without saying by this point. Admittedly though, Clara is far better characterised in this tale than many others. It does give an impact of her importance to the Doctor and shows what their friendship means to one another, but it never goes so far as to try and completely force her into being important.

The cinematography for this episode also is well worth mentioning as it adds some subtle suggestions leading back to classic Who again. Many shots, angles and positions about the rooms have an oddly reminiscent Hammer Horror vibe to them, especially when near crowded groups. This is paired with some more unconventional POV style shots, but at the same time they don't truly conflict with one another. If anything they help to blend together the more weird styles of the story with the more traditional fantasy horror vibes it was weaving into a science fiction episode.

Perhaps most interestingly is that the episode also managed to find a truly effective balance between comedy and the science fiction themes. A big part of this is thanks to Capaldi's deadpan delivery and comedic timing, but it needs to be made evident that the episode shows exactly how such scenes could be done. Horror and humour exist here in equal measure, often in exactly the same scene, but it avoids the failing of the latter completely overriding the former and shows the sort of jokes which work best in such a colourful setting. If anything it's the antithesis of The Caretaker's own attempts and shows exactly how the dark nature of this new Doctor can play towards a more varied form of humour as and when it's needed.

This said, there are some definite issues which do notably hold back the tale. While the acting and writing is well rounded, there are a large number of notably strange additions to the story which fail to really add up. Least of all of these is a moment where the Doctor appears to be talking to a prior incarnation of himself, and both Masie (set up to be a key figure) and Clara are sidelined. While both do play a core part in the story and Clara is given a great arc here, it's hard not to overlook they spend most of the tale trapped in one room.

Furthermore, the initial teaser and closing moments of the episode are oddly jarring in their own way. The former is shot in such an unusual manner that it's initially off putting. While intended to no doubt hook the audience's attention, the acting of the first victim, the unconventional way in which the scene is shot and the lack of a few later established factors can make it a jarring introduction. The closing moments meanwhile seem a little too neat and get rid of most supporting characters there and then, without answering a few big questions in the story. It's satisfying for the moment, but unless the tale follows up upon it, this could be adding yet another question to a small forest of plot threads hanging over the show.

The episode's main gimmick of the timer is also a little hard to take seriously at first, and it unfortunately only starts to truly hit hard by the third victim. This is primarily thanks to the way each scene is shot, with a few particular issues arising thanks to the timer itself being inserted into each sequence of clips. It's more distracting than a true addition to the tale and the story only takes real effect once it starts to play out in a more focused manner, relying more upon the cinematography and less a flickering series of numbers in one corner of the screen.

Despite a few questions left unanswered and some definite missteps in places, on the whole Mummy on the Orient Express is one of this series' high points so far. It offers everything a good story really needs, a great villain, great acting, decent payoff to running themes while taking them to the next level, and enough ideas to keep the audience guessing. After Kill The Moon, this is definitely the story Who needed to prove to audiences it could still deliver a great tale. Watch it without any regrets, if you like the premise this is not one to be missed.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Long And The Short Of It - The Future Of The Good The Bad And The Insulting

Evening all, just another update from me concerning activity and posts. Things are going to be slowing down, if only for a little while in order to focus upon a few other things for the time being. The big one is that, after a year of searching, I have finally found full time employment. The pay's good, the people friendly and it's something i've got a personal interest in, but adjusting there might take a little time. As such there won't be an article per day to two days for a little while yet, at least until i've gotten into the swing of things there.

Beyond that, there are a few ideas planned. There are going to be a couple of Kickstarter Spotlights to highlight some interesting crowd funding projects, the first ones in a while, and a lengthy review of a modern release. Fun as writing for Starburst Magazine is, this is definitely one which requires details beyond their usual word count. RPG sessions might be starting again, but Tattered Fates did leave a very bitter taste in my mouth in regards to those, so don't take that as a definite yes for their return. There will also be a few exciting things beyond that, but just keep in mind that this is going to be a little slow for a while.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Video Game Review)

Curiously lacking Lord of the Rings in its title, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a release which takes tried and tested ideas then puts its own spin on them.

With a story, which is already making fans of the lore froth at the mouth, the player steps into the shoes of Talion. A ranger tasked with assisting the garrison of the Black Gate at the time of its fall, he is saved from death when a botched ritual fuses him with the wraith of an elf lord of the Second Age. Out for revenge in the name of his dead family, Talion walks a very dark and dangerous path through the wastes of Mordor.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Doctor Who: Kill The Moon (Episode Review)

When writer Peter Harness started work on this particular story, Steven Moffat explicitly told him to "Hinchcliffe the shit out of it for the first half". It's probably the best order he could have given as the beginning plays out like an excellently well crafted classic Doctor Who tale, building up to something extremely creepy and with a few good ideas. It's dark, well paced and hits all the right notes, but it's a damn shame he didn't ask him to give the second half the same treatment. It's really there that the story goes completely off the rails.

Serving as something of a sequel to the events of last week's episode, Kill The Moon sees the Doctor trying to make reparations to Courtney at Clara's behest. Having told her that she was "not special" the Doctor refuses to take back his words, instead opting to trying to make her special by being the first woman on the moon. Unfortunately, they arrive at a time when humanity is on the brink of destruction. Something has gone horribly wrong on Luna and the last remaining astronauts on Earth have been sent on a do or die mission to ensure humanity's survival. Caught up in events, things prove to be more complicated than anyone realises.

Now, let's get one thing cleared up first - Yes, this is far better than last week's The Caretaker. Whatever else it might be, it's clearly making the effort to be science fiction and sticking to that genre. Atop of this, many scenes do work both in terms of drama and excellent acting. For the first half an hour or so, it's a very well done episode and it really works wonders with what's on offer.

The design of the spacesuits, the shuttle, the eerily silent surface of the moon and the creepy simplicity of the spider-like villains all came together perfectly in this one. While you might raise the odd eyebrow at a few background spacesuits being aged Cold War era pilot equipment, there's very little here to seriously criticise. 
A big part in this is thanks to the writing covering a few potential errors early on and using them to build a bigger world. Why is Earth using a woefully out of date space shuttle decades into the future? Because it is all they had left, having focused inwards and so much having been destroyed thanks to an impending disaster. Why does the moon have Earth-like gravity? No one knows, and that is what's causing so many disasters down there. It's that right mix of special effects and the unknown which can really hook in an audience.

Things only improve with the pacing and information balancing out here. The script still carries the breakneck speed Matt Smith era stories often went with. Yet rather than rushing through things without any info, there's enough here to really build and image of the world we never truly see. Combined with the sudden and very threatening introduction of the aliens, and it's the kind of rapid start that truly works, keeping up that momentum until the end.

Better yet the presence of Courtney, one predicted failing, was not nearly as bad as was expected. While largely unnecessary to the tale, her irritating behaviour and attitude was at least tolerable thanks to the characters treating her as such. It's a vast improvement over certain similar characters from past seasons, and is further proof that, whatever else people might say, the creative forces behind the programme do listen to feedback at least a little bit.

Sticking to the side characters, the choice of Hermione Norris to play the more cynical face of humanity in this era was clearly the right one from the start. While her character, Captain Lundvik, has few real lines to make her stand out, Norris adds enough of a human face to the figure to make her memorable. Of the lines and moments she is given, there's enough in her delivery and small inflections to give the impression of a person who has lived out their life in a very different time. Compare this to the wooden performances which helped torpedo Into The Dalek, and there's a truly staggering difference in the overall quality. It's almost enough to save the story when things start to go wrong.

The problem is that the narrative very quickly fails once the moral issue is thrown into the mix. How so? Because of one very basic problem: Half the episode's content is written to encourage the audience to think and consider about morality. The other half only works if the viewer has their brain switched off.

It's next to impossible to really go into why without delving into spoilers but, by the time the scene on the beach is done, you'll likely be banging your head against the nearest hard surface. The show is Doctor Who, leaps in logic and the abandonment of scientific fact is expected in almost every area. That said, it only works to a certain point and Kill The Moon crosses that line which shatters that suspension of disbelief. If you have any understanding of gravity, any understanding of biology, any understanding that space does not contain air, this story will hurt you for it, and hurt you hard. A fact only made worse thanks to the script reminding audiences of certain scientific facts early on, only to completely abandon them by the end.

Spoiler - The conclusion features a creature flapping its wings through the vacuum of space, then proceeding to lay an egg larger than itself within moments of its birth. 

Still, the bloody abuse of the laws of science even to such a degree is not uncommon in Who. Even when it starts mimicking Star Trek Voyager's most infamous errors, you might be able to sit through it for the dilemma itself. The chief failing is that said dilemma is not nearly as deftly handled as it could have been and simply tries to tackle far too many themes at once. Any one of these could have worked, the final one it settles on especially if it had given it real focus or properly set up the Doctor as a true chess-master, but it's instead weighed down by other problems. The hard decision supposedly made doesn't work because from the start it seems to be no decision at all, and then by the end the negative consequences of their actions are magically removed in an instant.

Things are not made much better thanks to it being Clara and two people the audience have barely seen sitting and focusing upon this, with the Doctor standing back for apparently no reason. While half of a reason is given, stop for a moment and consider his words, and the justification fails to truly hit home. It's more of an excuse to shift the show's focus towards the companions once more, and the whole discussion in question seems oddly half baked. It lacks the conciseness of the "Do I have the right?" speech so famous within the franchise, nor even the build we saw in stories such as Cold Blood. The sad thing is that, despite taking up the final act, the actual discussion over their choice is woefully underdeveloped.

Like so many stories from past eras, the true tragedy is that up to a certain point it was doing oh so well and it's hard not to appreciate the episode this could have been. With a clearer focus or perhaps even a few better re-writes this might have stood out as a fantastic outing, but it falls below the mark. Opinions of this episode have been extremely polarising across the internet, so there is a chance you might enjoy this one. Just be warned of the issues above and go into this one with some caution should you wish to watch it.

Plus, at the very least, no matter the problems in the script department, Capaldi remains as outstanding as ever as the Doctor.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Gleam (Book Review)

The start of the dystopian Factory Trilogy, Gleam proves to be an ambitious title examining the human condition in a world of extremes, set between the dictatorially ordered Pyramid and the barren wasteland Discard beyond its walls. The survivor of a town massacred by the Pyramidders, Alan is one of those truly resentful of his home. When his constant questioning of authority results in the governing power assaulting his family, he strives for a life beyond its confines…

Friday, 3 October 2014

Warzone: Damnos Part 1 - The Lore (A Warhammer 40,000 Apocalypse Supplement Review)

One of the big trends within Games Workshop is to use Forge World as much as a testing ground as a place to sell its really expensive stuff. Gradually, over time, designs and ideas from there will trickle down into stores with plastic versions of resin kits showing up on shelves. Sometimes this can be for the better, other times for worse, and with the success of the Imperial Armour books it was no real surprise to see Games Workshop trying to do something similar. 

We had already seen one extremely botched attempt to test the waters with the supplement codices. Many aspects which were a staggering success in the Imperial Armour volumes were carried over to here, from the narrative focus of the books to the greater emphasis upon certain characters and individual forces. These were nearly all bad and failed to really understand why the other books worked in the first place. 

While Games Workshop is today still soldiering ahead with the supplements, they then opted to try their luck with actual campaign books instead. One cannot fault their willingness to try and get something right, only their results. Warzone: Damnos' lore effectively hammers in every single mistake surrounding the Ultramarines over and over again, compounding their biggest problems and starting out this series with a real stinker.

You want to know what the premise for this one is? Erasing the one damn almost-loss the Ultramarines suffered in the Fifth Edition. 

No, really. 

In the Fifth Edition Codex: Space Marines, the closest the Mary Sue brigade was given to a defeat  was successfully evacuating from one world. Attacked by massive numbers of necrons, the Second Company showed up, successfully delayed the xenos for far longer than anyone would have guessed, evacuated the entire population, and retreated with about half the company still alive. Just for reference: the "victories" given to other chapters consisted of them being completely wiped out, suffering from frequent in-fighting, or taking heavy losses. The only truly successful ones were led by the Ultramarines, under whose "superior" leadership other chapters emerged victorious few to no casualties. 

Now we have the Ultramarines suddenly going back there in force, conquering Damnos all over again, and wiping the floor with the necron forces. This isn't so much a campaign like in Imperial Armour where one side may be favoured but the other will get a few good shots in so much as ludicrous smurf pandering.

The first twenty-five pages of the book are what truly outlines the full fluff of the book's events and it's also where the really big problems begin to appear. The first half of this story is given over entirely to detailing and explaining the original evacuation of Damnos from Nick Kyme's novel and the previous codices, detailing a massive amount of information the reader already knows. While on the one hand this would have been useful for anyone new to the setting, it could have easily been condensed down to a small fraction of the space. A brief introduction or even just a two page retelling of the frantic evacuation would have been fine, but instead what's given is effectively a complete retelling of Fall of Damnos and little else.

Why is this a problem exactly? Simple, this leaves far less space to actually have the Ultramarines come back and take the world. The chapter is coming back, defeating a well established and very powerful alien empire, and taking back a world they lost. That would be bad enough in of itself, but instead what we now have is effectively a speed run version of it, where the Ultramarines rush in, clobber everything in sight and declare victory. Without the same space, without the additional pages, there's no opportunity for real nuance or to show both sides fighting equally against one another to any real degree. Effectively the entire campaign just boils down to one side zerg rushing the other until they run away, and then the opposite side promptly returning to do the same to them.

Compare this to the gradual build, the hyper detailed events and progressive conflicts from the Badab War and there's an obvious difference right from the get-go. By comparison this book seems much shallower, as it lacks the same amount of information and excellent presentation, instead just rushing through the cliff-notes and allowing one side to utterly curb-stomp the other. While plenty of Imperial Armour books did feature just that, it was far more excusable thanks to the time and effort on the part of the authors to really sell the reader on the idea of one side winning. There was a vast amount of backstory building up each side, events were detailed for pages at a time and time was taken to give some real blow-by-blow events without making the story feel small. Here there's none of that.

Just for comparison, when the book finally moves onto the Ultramarines trying to retake the planet, the entire background to the campaign is breezed over in effectively two pages. All it really boils down to is the High Lords of Terra ordering the Ultramarines to take Damnos back for propaganda purposes and to establish the presence of a Deathwatch kill-team. While this could have been a very interesting take on the potential way the Imperium handles knowledge of its defeats, or even using the Ultramarines chapter as a propaganda tool, no risks are taken. It's skimmed over entirely and any opportunity for real depth is soon passed over in favour of going back to Damnos almost immediately and completely destroying the Necron Dynasty established on the world.

When I say "destroyed" I really do mean destroyed as well, as the book's bias really comes into full swing during this latter half. While the necrons themselves were winning in the first half, the problem is that little was really done to emphaise their own skills and fortitude. They did ultimately drive the Ultramarines off of the planet, but the way the writing did more to emphasise that they were winning through sheer weight of numbers and firepower. When it came down to actual skill, much like the Fifth Edition Codex: Space Marines, it was pulling out all the stops to show the Ultramarines effectively doing the impossible and holding them back. 

When the tables are turned however and the Ultramarines return in force, that same treatment isn't given to the necrons. What we get is just a lengthy slamming by the chapter, with Kelley going out of his way to show how nauseatingly "awesome" the Ultramarines are to an eye-rolling degree. Many of their victories aren't so much earned as punted towards them, with the astartes suddenly earning vastly easier victories or half the necrons' real defences being forgotten. That or they're intentionally weakened in some way. For example, one of the big terrain threats on Damnos are the Gremlin Guns. These are networks of Imperial fortifications which have been effectively hacked by the necrons and are described thusly:

"Over the twenty-five years since the initial invasion, the automatic defenses of the Imperial trench networks have been corrupted and completely taken over by necron nanoscarabs and canoptek autonomites. These long-dormant defences whirr to life whenever a heat signature is detected, thundering out battle cannon shells or gatling salvos until all is cold once more."

Now, this is half of a brilliant idea. Why? Because it's a perfect example of how the necrons are so much of a threat, they can turn the very weapons the Imperium uses to hold its worlds against them. The problem is that this seems more like something which would be a stop-gap measure, something to be replaced by the necrons as they overtake the world. Despite having two decades to themselves though, surprisingly few of these guns have been replaced by far more potent gauss weaponry defences which would help them better hold the planet. In fact, despite being given enough time to fortify most of the hemisphere their tomb complexes are located on, very little progress was really made. It's as if someone didn't want there to be too much opposing the Ultramarines and stopping them taking it back.

Things aren't made much better by the tactics of the Ultrmarines, who seem to be capable of running rings around the necrons and easily screwing them over. While there are some efforts made to show them actually learning from past mistakes, such as how they get down to the planet, once the battle actually begins it does devolve into having the innate skills of the astartes win the day. Just for example, the Deathwatch squad is able to infiltrate an active necron tomb complex with an obscene level of ease, then they start sabotaging the revivication engines to kill any who necron teleports back. There's no real security measures mentioned, no real difficulty and nothing here which even shows them having to slow down in their assaults.

This ultimately culminates in a moment which honestly had be give up on the book and refuse to pick it up for the better part of a month. Please read the following and weep when you realise this is above average writing for the company these days:

So, just to run down on the events from those bits:

  • Ultramarines Scouts (continuing the trend of giving space marine squads bad superhero team names) known as the 'Ice Talons' can run in, plant bombs on a vital structure and leg it without being noticed by a single necron warrior.
  • Calgar single-handedly kills entire squads of Immortals, hijacks a Necron Pylon by picking it up, and starts merrily gunning down necron warriors to his heart's content.
  • Necron tombs can be easily snuck into and their vital components replaced without detection or automatic repair cycles kicking in. This even counts for the Phaeron's personal reconstruction machines.
  • Necron Lords can be instantly killed by just being stabbed in the right bit.
  • C'Tan shards can now be one-shotted by vortex grenades.
  • The Ultramarines are so awesome yet more of their knowledge is sent to all of the Adeptus Astartes to learn, and Sicarius now has the deaths of multiple necron heroes to his already obscenely long list of victories.

It's one sided as all hell and none of really reads as if it's been earned by the book's characters. It's falling back into the old failing of treating one side as the heroes and the other as the villains rather than treating them as two armies on a campaign, and any losses on the Ultramarines' part are rapidly swept under the rug. Calgar's actions directly resulted in the deaths of three squads? No biggie. The C'Tan massacred retreating Ultramarines en mass, causing losses to multiple companies which they'll need to recover from? Not worth mentioning.

The book also really does highlight some of the massive problems which go hand in hand with forcibly humanising the necrons as they were during the Fifth Edition. Whatever side you stand on whether you favour this new interpretation or not, the removal of their old Cthulhu worshiping unstoppable threat nature has left them vulnerable to being jobbed like this. Give something a face and it make it too human, and suddenly it becomes less scary. When it becomes less scary, suddenly writers have more excuses to show them being punched around. The bit with the C'Tan for example, when they were still whole beings that sort of stunt would have never been viable in the writing room. Now they're shattered fragments, permanently killing off shards to beef up characters is now perfectly viable as there's others of that same being still about.

As you'd expect by this point, the old crime of lifting and repeating artwork from elsewhere is done at every turn. While the supplements have moved away from this, just about everything found here for both the marines and necrons consists of stuff from the original Damnos books or other bits from past rulebooks. It causes the same damn problem as before, as recycling so much just makes this look like a cheap cash grab and rather than making the reader feel excited or anticipating some new story, it just makes it look as if the publisher cut corners. 

While they don't stoop so far as to edit old THQ images in Photoshop, it's still one of the worst examples of late. The only thing which really excuses this at all is the option to include a twenty year old cut-away image of a Land Raider for the Galdius II. It's an excellent image which has rarely been re-used since an old White Dwarf issue, so that's more excusable than grabbing everything in sight from the last five years.

This certainly isn't the worst lore ever written in a Games Workshop publication, but it's definitely up there. Were it not for things like Codex: Grey Knights, Codex: Iyanden or Codex: Clan Raukaan, this would be a standard on how not to do things. It's sad to think that the old failings of favouritism, poor presentation and (to use a common TV Tropes term) 'Worfing' one faction are only excusable thanks to inhumanly bad writing in so many other books.

Perhaps the biggest crime however is that it's one more nail in Graham McNeill's series, completely pretending the Invasion of Ultramar never happened. This would be bad enough in of itself, but there's the bigger problem that the Chapter's Due actually did a far better job at depicting a war than this entire Warzone book with all the same elements. There was a definite turning point in the conflict where the Ultramarines start winning, multiple worlds were lost, Calgar, Tigurius and Sicarius were all given good moments to make them stand out, as were the villains, but the victory was actually earned. It addressed their losses, didn't have the big problems of the war having a gap between events and overall was a better thought out version of these events. It's just a damn shame they didn't look into that one for inspiration rather than the Fall of Damnos.

Still, there's the rules to be covered as ever. Join us next week when we cover that, but don't expect anything better than the lore here.