Thursday, 31 December 2015

Star Wars: Rey's Survival Guide (Book Review)

Star Wars has seen a major resurgence in its lore books over the past few years. With the success of Daniel Wallace’s books on the Sith, Empire, Bounty Hunter’s Guild and Jedi, it was only natural that we would see something tying into the new generation. With the new forces of the First Order and Resistance introduced and so many new worlds to explore, Rey’s Survival Guide had a ready-made audience awaiting new stories. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the book fans were hoping for, and it’s baffling an author as talented as Jason Fry didn’t produce something truly stellar here.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song (Episode Review)

So, most of you reading this already have one reaction: "Bellarius, where the hell has this been? You're five days late with this one!"

Welp, to those people I have to agree, you're entirely right but there is a good reason for that. I personally needed a few days to think this one over as it never seemed to gel together properly. Something always seemed oddly off-kilter about it despite having a very entertaining start and an admittedly wonderful ending, and it took a while to pin down what: Halfway through, the episode becomes an entirely different story, but tries to carry the same themes of its opening act. Let me explain:

The tale this time is a rather unusual Christmas one, as it basically has the Doctor sitting at home, minding his own business, but then being dragged into things. After a knock on the door, he's mistaken for a surgeon they're waiting for and brought before a dying warlord's wife: River Song. Out of his depth and wondering why in hell River is married to a mass murderer, the Doctor finds himself dragged along into River's life once more, for one final time.

Let's just address the elephant in the room at first: Steven Moffat can't let go of characters. This is the third time we've had River reappear since her damn near perfect send-off, and it carries many of the same problems. It's an extension, she practically hijacks the entire series so things can focus upon her, and she's in full Mary Sue mode. That's not a term I use lightly, she really is introduced as taking all attention away from the Doctor himself and outdoes him at practically everything. There's nothing she's bad at, nothing she stumbles at, and she's always got an edge or answer over him. The problem is that, this is one side to the character, her worst side, and the better more engaging half is never given room to breathe until quite a long way into the story.

The other issue, of course, is that this entire special is being used as yet another vehicle to try and promote a spin-off. No sooner do we have this finish than anyone with a Big Finish account is receiving multiple e-mails to grab a copy of her new series. Yeah, the ratings might be down, but this is two in a row we've had someone introduced, shilled as hard as possible and then a sudden spin-off launched about them. Say what you will about Torchwood or the Sarah Jane Adventures, but those only took a couple of episodes each to establish, and the writers never diverted the entire series to celebrate them.

Still, now that elephant has been covered, it's worth noting that this story actually gets off to a very entertaining start. For one thing, it's one of the few which really seems to know how to play Doctor Who truly as a comedy, and let's the audience know of that from the start. Between Matt Lucas showing up as a put-upon lackey and Greg Davies playing a ridiculously oversized killer cyborg warlord with a detachable head, it's established quickly as a humourous piece. To its credit, it also does this extremely well. While often seeming a little too much like an Eleventh Doctor situation, Capaldi himself is brilliant enough of an actor to work with the script. We see him playing his usual cantankerous self despite his surroundings, and even meeting River is something he pulls off with such familiarity you never realise the these two incarnations had never met before. Better yet, the meeting with River herself is played with near total incredulity as it becomes more ridiculous by the moment, rather than just accepting things. This helps to make the jokes all the funnier as it actually takes moments to point out how insane this is becoming without just letting it go or expecting the audience to just accept things.

The episode basically ties to keep to the older Matt Smith format, but it honestly seems to have learned from past mistakes. While brimming with wackiness, it's never over-saturating the entire story and the audience is given breathers between events. They're small, often so much so you'll not notice them, but it's enough to recover from one joke just in time for the new one to kick in. Two particular examples arise very early on, the first being when the Doctor and River moves away from the operating room, and the second being the moments right after their madcap escape via teleporter. They're hard to spot at first as there's still underlying humour present, but it's only toned down long enough to introduce the next big joke. It allows the story to peak at the right points (particularly Capaldi's faux reaction to the TARDIS interior) and have bits where the humour is simmering via quieter sections.

The energy on display and enthusiasm is at the right level where, even someone jaded over River's antics here, can still find plenty of entertainment in the story's antics. This hits its peak when River finally reaches what is supposed to be the conclusion for a successful operation, only for an entirely new problem to arise all around the pair. The even camerawork seems to reflect this, often opting for some extremely unconventional shots and angles which seem oddly out of place, not to mention more than a few wide angle views. However, that really seems to work as the story is wholeheartedly embracing the absurd nature of the setting and Moffat's version of the Doctor Who universe as a whole.

However, problems sadly come into play right after the story reaches its best moment, where Moffat suddenly decides he wants to be serious now. The audience is suddenly treated to a very emotional bit with River, which not only ruins half the joke of the first half but is entirely out of place. It would have been fine for a story in of itself, and the delivery is genuinely great, but it just doesn't match up with prior events leading up to that point. It would be like if a Monty Python sketch suddenly jumped to Roy Batty's famous speech, but played it completely straight faced and kept that way until the very end. They each work well on their own, but you can't have both slammed together like this.

Matters are only made worse as the episode tries to keep that same serious tone Moffat has abruptly set-up, but also ties to close out on a big bang. So right after the big character moment, all the while now treating itself as a more serious story, you end up with an ending Even Edgar Wright would be left fighting an uphill battle trying to maintain some balance between those two tones, and the dissonance is very notable here sadly. It was likely intended to help serve as a transition between the goofier first half and the more emotional last few minutes, but that sadly only serves to make the shift in gears all the more noticeable as they jump into a finale.

The worst thing though? The final scene is genuinely great. No, really, it's a wonderfully done conclusion to River herself despite being brought back and - if he decided not to come back - it would be a fantastic ending scene for Moffat's tenure. It really highlights the journey the Doctor and River have gone through, and closes things out on a great final note of happiness despite the often rough or tumultuous lives they have led. It's just a damn shame it wasn't either saved for a special or its own story, as it sticks out here like a sore thumb. In fact, it's so out of place you'd be forgiven for thinking someone had handed over the wrong script for the final days of shooting.

Even as someone who doesn't hold the character in the highest regard, and will be the first to point out the problems in this story, it's still hard to damn this episode. It's flawed, it is most definitely very flawed with more than a few bad decisions, but it's still better than the finale than anything given to Clara. There's still plenty of great gags and scenes, but the nature of the sudden turn means you're probably going to enjoy things more if you do watch them one at a time as isolated scenes rather than the whole thing at once. Give it a watch if you're interested, but don't expect anything truly great this year.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Is Batman & Robin Really Such A Bad Film?

The last five years or so have been tumultuous for the cinema industry, to say the least. We've had plenty of hits, plenty of misses, a few great classics emerge while failures derided by the public somehow endure, and nostalgia is mined for profit. Oh dear lord in heaven, is nostalgia mined for profit. Even ignoring the likes of Birdemic and The Room, Fant4Stic, a seemingly unstoppable tide of Chipmunks films and unwanted remakes seems to keep causing people to question who keeps watching these films. Personally though, it makes me question if things are really so bad. After all, the 1990s were something of a dark age for many franchises and retained the same problems. Oh, there were plenty of hits to be sure, but you had that same mishandling and nostalgia mining. Perhaps the quintessential example of this is a film whose name will sadly hang over its director until his death: Batman & Robin.

Despite Joel Schumacher desiring to make a darker film more in line with the Tim Burton films - based on Batman: Year One no less - Warner Bros. nevertheless mandated changes at every turn. Between execs demanding repeated changes and a more kid friendly direction, more than a few questionable decisions on Schumacher's part and an infamous script, it's one of three films blamed for the brief death of the superhero genre. Well, in films anyway, it was still doing fine in the animation department. Bombing so hard that it would be eight years before anyone could consider a Batman film again, it's hardly undeserving of this reputation, yet the most surprising film is that it's not without some redeeming qualities. Hell, by comparison to some of today's disasters or even successes (yes, Michael Bay, that was directed at you) it's positively tame. What's more it could even be argued that the film actually corrects many mistakes of its predecessors.

Let's take one aspect into account above all others first of all - Alfred. Now, say what you want about the prior three films, but just consider this: What impact did Alfred actually have on them? While he certainly offered moments of moral support and action here and there, for the most part Alfred seemed to be relatively superfluous. Unlike Batman Begins, there was little direct role in setting up the batcave or even technical support for him to offer; with perhaps his only prominent moment of action appearing in Batman Returns, when Alfred assists in the sabotage of the Penguin's political rally. It's a true testament to Michael Gough's skill as an actor that Alfred remained as memorable as he did, despite being bereft of any major role within the script. So, after three films of him largely remaining in the background, Schumacher opted to make use of him.

For starters, Alfred here has his own personal sub-plot, with his impending death thanks to the advanced stages of illness. This is tied heavily into the core plot with Mr. Freeze, giving him a distinct link with the main villain, but it also provides him more of a connection with the heroes. The Alfred we see here is given more moments to really communicate with the heroes, especially the new Batgirl, to offer advice and really depict his role as a mentor. When Bruce asks him for advice, really asks him in a moment of uncertainty, it makes his presence within the group far clearer than anything prior in the film franchise. That and, in all honesty, it helps to carry some real emotional weight for a film which is trying take hit a new world record for zaniness. Atop of this, we also find out far more about his personal history and ties to the rest of his family, giving him more substance than before. In all honesty, daft as it might sound given the film's reputation, he's far more of a character here than a cartoonist stereotype of a butler.

What's even more surprising is that Alfred himself isn't the only figure here to actually benefit from some surprisingly poignant writing. The other is actually Mr. Freeze himself, who proves to be one of the series' best written villains up to that point. 

No, this isn't a joke, please just hear me out.

Think of everyone seen up to this point as a supervillain and what history they really offered. The Joker had some history with the Wayne family but that was reflected more by Batman himself than really building a relationship. While certainly thoroughly entertaining and classically mad in a way only Jack Nicholson could pull off, he served as more of an obstacle than arch-nemesis. The same was sadly repeated again with the Penguin during Batman Returns, the script often seemed confused when it came to presenting his role. While often showing scenes or moments which seemed to warrant sympathy, the rest of the time he appeared as a grotesque, gluttonous savage without morals. Like before, the best thing about him seemed to be Danny DeVito himself, and some of the ideas Tim Burton was working with rather than their execution. After all, it's hard to feel truly sympathetic about a villain gleefully using a severed hand to prove a point, biting off the nose of an innocent man and even planning mass child murder. As for Batman Forever, well, Jim Carrey was being Jim Carrey and Two-Face was little more than armed muscle by the end. There was sadly little sympathy or depth to be found with either of them.

With all the past villains in mind, consider that Mr. Freeze here carried over aspects of his Batman: Animated Series self. Rather than being the foe with a cheap gimmick he had originally emerged as, Freeze here was driven by a past loved one being on the brink of death and the anguish of that moment. It's often hard to remember that in the face of the multiple ice puns on offer, and Schwarzenegger was clearly hamming up the role even by his usual standards, but that's all people focus upon. Between those moments, there were a few genuinely quiet scenes which are often overshadowed by the bombardment of ham. Notably, Freeze is often seen lamenting over his lost wife and more than once he's shown being unable to associate with normal human beings. There's a literal isolation to his role, and a driven commitment to fix the one thing he has left. This, surprisingly, actually gives him a little more substance than what we saw with most villains up to that point. It's just a damn shame that this is forgotten thanks to, well, this.

Even when it came down to the commentary upon the film, and you can find this in the behind the scenes moments, they don't focus upon the ham. The crew actually try to discuss how Freeze occupies a grey area in the Batman mythos and how the character himself was a shade different from their normal foes. Freeze is certainly no Loki, Ultron or Ra's Al Ghul, but beneath the cheesiness you could see the direction they wanted to go in. Given that Patrick Stuart was originally wanted for the role - and no, that's also not a joke - I personally have to wonder how much of his interpretation was mandated by the suits from Warner Bros. After all, following the tepid reception of Batman Returns followed by the safer and more marketable praise of Batman Forever, it wouldn't be surprising if they wanted to try and keep things on track with their prior outing. Sadly, going from what happened with Green Lantern, it looks like they've still not learned from that particular mistake.

So those are two characters which can be argued as improvements over past outings, but what else is there on hand? Well, for starters, there's the visuals. Again, this seemed to be trying to follow Batman Forever's example as hard as it could, but really stop and compare the two when you have a moment. Both are cheesy, both are overly saturated and extremely neon and far too entrenched in the 90s version of the Silver Age, but there seemed to be more focus with Batman & Robin. Whereas Forever seemed to be conflicted over Burton's established visuals with Schumacher's direction, the version of Gotham here is much more coherent. The environments are much more distinctly vibrant without relying nearly so heavily upon laser effects, and the neon glow tends to be a single consistent buzz rather than a cacophony against darker visuals. While still certainly not the Batman people wanted, it was at least a more refined version of the universe they were going for, cartoony effects and all. That and, let's be honest, at least this one could truly embrace what it was, whereas the films directly before and after seemed to be conflicted over what direction their visual aesthetic should take.

So, is this article saying that Batman & Robin is a good film? Far from it. It's still the weakest in the franchise by a full mile, and even the praise on offer here can only be based upon intent, underlying themes or planning rather than true execution. Yet, that is what the Burton films are often praised for, and really, do those sound like the qualities of one of the single worst films in cinema? In an age where a big budget blockbuster delivers the line "I am directly below the enemy's scrotum", James Cameron insults his audience for being human and supporting technology, and Adam Sandler is churning out terrible films by the truckload, it's positively unremarkable. At the end of the day, it's bad but it's certainly not deserving of its reputation. At best, you can call it a victim of its era.

So, what was the point in this article anyway? In all honesty, it was a chance for me to talk about the positives in something. In part due to planned works and in part thanks to reacting to current events, too many articles on here focus upon the negatives of certain works, even praised ones. Given what will follow in the next few days, it seemed like a nice opportunity to cover something positive for a change.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Why Are Warhammer Fans Obsessed With Malal?

As with every franchise, Warhammer 40,000 is a junkyard of old or forgotten ideas. From lost Black Library novels to retcons, every edition seems to lose something for everything it gains, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. You've no doubt heard of a few of these, but it's always the big retcons which stand out: the infamous Spiritual Liege declaration, the obliteration of the Squats from all books, the introduction of the C'Tan, and Malal. It's that last one which seems to have endured the longest and retains a surprisingly strong following among fans, but you'd be hard pressed to find out exactly why.

For those not in the know, Malal is effectively Chaos' self-destruction and internal conflict incarnate. Known as the Hierarch of Anarchy and Terror, his warriors were dedicated to the annihilation and destruction of other Chaos followers, hunting down and waging war against Chaos itself. It was for this reason he became known as the Renegade God, and his few followers consisted of outcasts, exiles and madmen deranged enough to follow in his pact. Often such warriors served as lone berserkers rather than the massed warbands of the other powers, seeking the heads of other champions.

If Malal sounds like the patron or origin-giver to a bad 90s anti-hero, you're sadly not far off of the mark. One of the big pushes to hype his popularity came into play with The Quest of Kaleb Daark, which followed the blood-soaked tales of a Malalite champion. Created by famed 2000AD authors John Wagner and Alan Grant, it ran for three issues with a fourth unprinted script resigned to oblivion. In all honesty though, it wasn't much of a loss. While rightfully acclaimed for their work on Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd, Daark was hardly a genre defining character. Woefully generic, broody and spiteful, he was akin to a bad parody of Sláine at the best of times. 
The unfortunate thing was that, with Wagner and Grant's departure, they took with them several rights to the god himself. As such the name and use of Malal  in future editions was barred to Games Workshop, preventing them from using one of their main Chaos Gods. They would again try to bring him back in several forms, but none have really stuck around all that well, and there's an obvious reason why: In the established pantheon, Malal was a third wheel.

Malal's ultimate role in the setting might seem awesome at first, but once you really break it down many of the elements which define this god are ultimately superfluous. Hell, some actually limit storytelling potential for the setting as a whole, especially when it comes to Chaos. The whole point of Malal is arguably that he gains followers via Faustian pacts, using the hatred of Chaos to recruit new servants to carry out his will. In this regard he could be seen as a twisted dark mirror of justice, seeking out those whose hatred or determination to hunt down Chaos overrides all else in their lives. This could either be victims of Chaotic raids or even Witch Hunters themselves, and it links into the idea that anyone touched by Chaos could be dragged into his service.

The problem with such a god is that Malal effectively runs a monopoly on the "He who fights monsters" storytelling tropes. In many regards this beginning is Chaos' bread and butter, as many of its monsters start of with either sympathetic beginnings or gradually turn towards darker tendencies as they embrace the Ruinous Powers. This isn't always true of course, and many stories have shown a deep shade of grey in the world lately, but at the same time the likes of the Horus Heresy, Eisenhorn, Trollslayer, and quite a few others show how well this stands out. It produces characters, heroes or villains, with a great deal of depth. If we were to limit this element purely to Malal, many of Tzeentch and Khorne's most famous turns would have never come about. Many other characters, major or minor, with surprisingly sympathetic histories or tragic fates would have never come into existence; the end result of which would have robbed many books of powerful one-shot villains or supporting characters.

Another, much bigger, problem is that Malal represents an aspect of Chaos which can all too easily be seen as outright heroic. There's room for heroes on every side of each setting, even among the most unlikely groups like the Dark Eldar and Skaven Clans, but every side needs a deep shade of black. In Malal's case, the fact his whole purpose seems to be to thwart Chaos itself just seems too heroic. While he might be a dark god, it's a goal which aligns far too closely with the likes of the High Elves or Witch Hunters. This is a problem which was exemplified by the comic, where all too often Kaleb happily joined forces with the Empire to defeat his foes, turning him into your common or garden hero with dark powers.

Even with all of the above problems in mind however (and i'm sticking to the big ones here to save on space) there's still one which thoroughly undermines Malal's very role within Chaos: His meaning. Say what you will about the other four powers, but each is distinct from one another, each opposes one another equally and you can see the role they play as a cornerstone within the Ruinous Powers. This is largely thanks to how they link into some primal force or another, from change to decay to euphoria and bloodshed. These are very grey subjects, dark ones once again but with streaks of positive elements such as Khorne's martial honour or how Tzeentch's core emotional force is thought to be hope. Destruction though? While that is certainly a primal force, it lacks some of the flexibility of other subjects here. Destruction and anarchy are simply that, a neutral force driven by the will of the person behind it, and there's little room for variation here. It proves to be remarkably shallow and, to make matters worse, too many distinct traits cross over with other gods. As such, rather than being a power unto himself, Malal can just seem like a tacked on addition.

So, with all that in mind, why do players still keep bringing up Malal?

The most obvious of these is the simple fact that he was removed from the canon. The odd sudden disappearance of certain factions and elements can drive fandoms crazy. It leaves those hungering to know more about the lore desperate to hunt down every shred of info they can. If something so massive as a Chaos god or faction is removed from the game, it will stick in their mind. Upon discovering it, upon learning that the universe is that much bigger than they first realised, it will help to stay in their minds. 

Chaos Dwarfs and Zoats continued to be talked about among groups of of lore obsessed fans, thanks largely to the sheer impact they should have had upon the world. Hell, if you want the quintessential example of how this can help an army live in infamy, just look at the Squats. Unpopular and relatively ignored (to the point where Games Workshop employees even called them out of place in the setting), their time in Warhammer 40,000 was hardly glorious, and they were seen as unremarkable creations. Yet after being hit with the retcon hammer so hard that their own creators refused to acknowledge their existence, they actually grew in popularity. This really is that one spark of a fan thinking "I wonder what they're trying to hide from us?" driving them to look into older ideas.

However, unlike the Squats or Zoats, Malal was not something willingly removed from the canon. It was merely an idea authors were barred from using again, against their own will. As such, Games Workshop and other writers kept trying to find ways to sneak him into the game. Ignoring the other efforts to directly replace him for the moment, many armybooks or codices kept giving the dark god shout-outs or even trying to insert him purely by altering his name. Perhaps the most famous of these examples was during the late Third Edition, with the introduction of the Sons of Malice and the Dreadaxe. The former were effectively a warband dedicated to Malal (now called Malice), driven by betrayal and famous for their viciousness while combating Chaos warriors. The latter, meanwhile, was Kaleb's infamous weapon. These hints didn't stop there either, and every new Edition brings with it some subtle hint or another. Even the Forge World books are hardly immune from the odd shout out:

The fact Games Workshop writers kept drawing attention to this forbidden god allowed Malal to retain the attraction of a major retconned faction, but kept it in general awareness.

Of course, Malal himself is hardly without his own benefits or appeal to hobbyists. While, as was pointed out above, many of his concepts were flawed or underdeveloped, there was no denying he retained some very interesting lore tidbits. The big ones tended to stem less from Malal's role within the setting or the nature of his followers so much as his power and realm. One of the more enduring images describing Malal's place of power was one of total torment to rival daemons; with tortures ranging from trapping a Changer of Ways in an immutable realm it could not hope to comprehend, to victorious armies marching past a crucified Bloodthirster. While he desired anarchy, focused upon destruction and desecration of others, the idea of Malal's home being a place of torment even to daemons was fascinating to consider. This was, after all, a place feared by the primordial night terrors of humanity, and a concept fascinating to behold. Atop of this, the idea of Malal's followers acting as individuals, spreading anarchy and destruction in their wake, suggested a very different kind of warrior. With so many other warbands gathering together, using their skills to venerate their dark gods however they could, allowed for the idea of a very different kind of warrior. One who, unlike the more structured hordes and forces of Chaos, truly embraced the anarchistic nature of the Warp itself.

Even the very images we were given of Malal's daemonic host was extraordinary different from the mobs of Screamers, Bloodletters and Unclean Ones seen before. Masses of gnarled bones and hollowed scales seemed to make up his Greater Daemons, and the others were equally disturbing, retaining an incredibly Gothic mixture of bone, scales and insectoid elements which surely would have given the developers of Bloodborne nightmares for weeks. Even the most basic of these, a giant tick with a skull's face, still looked oddly horrifying thanks to the artistic talents which had brought the creature to life. They looked different, weird and bizarrely out of place against Chaos, and in many regards that was Malal's greatest strength.

You'd be hard pressed to find a Warhammer fan who isn't aware of the four great gods of the Ruinous Powers. The mention of Khorne, Nurgle and the others instantly brings distinct images of certain daemons to mind, and certain characteristics tied into their very nature. While certainly versatile as a subject and open to interpretation, it's hard to shake that sense of familiarity. Quite often these days, Warhammer stories will gravitate back to the same variants of daemons and same powers for each of these gods. Even those which try to buck this trend will, ultimately, often gravitate back to the same core themes or basic elements. This leads to the obvious problem - The more we know of a great power, the more we see of it and the same traits, the less scary and less unknowable it becomes. This ultimately robs Chaos of its major edge and as a result the Warp becomes less like a sea of souls and more "that place daemons from from". Just look at Draigo to see how harmful that can be.

The big question, as a result of familiarity with the big powers, has always surrounded the rest of the Warp. Only small hints have ever been offered, but we know of elements not bound to the four gods. These have ranged from whale-like creatures the size of worlds to more bizarre things like the Enslavers, but there have also been hints of other gods. Prior codices mentioned (almost humorously) several by name and the Raptor Cult itself is known to worship a minor deity of Chaos. With that bigger world out there, with that vaster realm lurking just out of sight, Malal served as a glimpse into what lurked beyond. While he might have been retconned, he reminded others that even at the most basic foundations of Warhammer 40,000's lore there were still known, stranger realms to yet be explored.

Of course, this is all just opinion. While this is, admittedly, going off of more personal thoughts and observations of fans than any in-depth long-term analysis, but this seems to ring true no matter which fan I speak to. If you have your own thoughts, opinions or even ideas to throw into the hat however, please feel very free to come forwards and suggest a few ideas yourself. Given the age and obscurity of this subject, it would be interesting to see what people come up with.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Star Wars Vendetta - It Ain't Over 'Till It's Over

Some might recall a prior opinion piece on the subject of the Expanded Universe being resigned to total oblivion. Being a rather personal piece, that was intended to close out this whole thing, a metaphorical slamming of the door on the subject and franchise as a whole. After seeing the very thing which kept Star Wars itself alive for decades declared non-canon and promptly regulated to the sidelines as some obscure non-relevant part of the setting, I wanted nothing more to do it. At least, that was the case until Disney pulled something so flagrant, so morally goddamn repugnant that I am gobsmacked it has either been ignored or downright defended by most official media outlets. 

Still, tis supposed to be the seasons to be jolly, so rage can wait for the moment. I will be producing a few more pieces on Star Wars in the near future, but it will wait until after Christmas. For the time being we will be returning to our wheelhouse with a look into Chaos and the Warhammer fandom, and later an attempt to defend one of the most widely hated films in cinema. Because why not.

Still, for the time being, we have a few points to deal with. The first being a request for someone to basically summarize my problem with the new canon vs old. Well, while that's a tall order, there's two extracts you can compare side by side to show how things really went downhill for the franchise between now and then.

So, expect more Star Wars in the future, and hopefully a few more positive articles in the coming days.

Oh, as this has turned into a general announcement, i'm playing Iron Hands now.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Final Fantasy VI (Video Game Review)

Despite its long lauded history, there are several titles that seem to define Final Fantasy. While the others are by no means slouches in the writing or gaming department, VII, IX and X all seem to be held up as pinnacles of the series, but even beyond them we have VI. As the last hurrah of the SNES era, it was fitting that it ended on one of the biggest, broadest stories of the entire franchise, and arguably one of the best told. With that in mind however, it’s a damnable shame such a classic has been resurrected in half-baked, poorly programmed port, which pales before even the most basic ROM-hack.

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Eternal Crusader (Novella Review)

Following in the footsteps of any great man is always a daunting task, no matter the field. To have your works directly compared with another, critically acclaimed success, is always going to be an uphill battle, and it’s always going to risk leaving potentially good works in the shadow of something greater. This always has to be the fear of many authors handling the Third War for Armageddon these days, given the runaway success of Helsreach and then the Yarrick series. Both have rightfully been lauded for their deep narrative and perfectly executed themes, and they’re so entwined into Armageddon’s key figures that they’re impossible to avoid. This is, sadly, at work here with The Eternal Crusader, but perhaps not quite in the way you would expect.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Sigmund Freud Files 3 - Injury (Audio Drama Review)

As a series, the Sigmund Freud Files seem to be quite the rollercoaster ride in quality. After the awful opening audio drama we were rewarded with a tense, tightly written character piece promising a better series, but now it seems we’ve slid back into the mentality of the first tale. Once again the problem is that Martens seems intent upon using Freud as a borderline detective or police investigator, forcing him well outside of his element and resorting to many tired and overdone tropes.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Damocles: Mont'ka Part 2 - The Rules (Warhammer 40,000 War Zone Review, 7th Edition)

So, welcome back to the review of Mont'ka AKA Delays, delays, this is the Duke Nukem: Forever of reviews.

With the embarrassing level of Tau Empire bias on display from last time, you're probably expecting more of the same here. You're expecting a lot of brick-shithouse formations capable of annihilating the foe in a single volley of pulse weapons all the while the Imperial Guard get shafted. Well, you're half right. 

While the Tau Empire receives no end of goodies when it comes to the crunch, often the better ones in this book, the Imperial Guard aren't quite so badly shafted as you might think. More than a few of their formations still hold up well under scrutiny, and you can definitely see how the designers were considering the Guard's use of massed assaults and infantry rushes when it comes to the rules. Oh, it's definitely disappointing they focus upon this with as versatile and venerated a force as the Cadian Shock Troops, but at least it fits together without adding a rule like "If Tau Empire units are present, you lose in the most humiliating way imaginable."

... Oh come on, if they thought they could get away with it, you know the writers would have thrown it in.

Imperial Guard Formations & Rules (Plus Assassins)

Sticking with mentions of their infantry units, we first have the Emperor's Shield Infantry Platoon AKA Guardsman tidal wave. This really isn't much more than a massive blob of cheap infantry units, rushing forwards and trying to pepper their foes to death with an unstoppable mass of men armed with flashlights and t-shirts. It's big, very dumb and a little pointless, and in all honesty it's the kind of thing which should have really been saved for Apocalypse games. Oh, don't get me wrong, this looks like it could certainly be a very fun option, but once you get down to the specifics, it honestly just seems like a relatively flimsy bullet magnet.

The core essentials of this one are that Guard players can mash together five Infantry Squads without dedicated transports and supported only by Sentinels. It's likely to try and shill this formation that the Cadians were inexplicably sent in without Chimeras in the story, and there is more of a focus upon an unending tide here. The rules here basically focus upon the idea this group will be constantly on the march, with Marching Drill allowing a Platoon Commander to issue "Fire and Advance!" on any one unit within it in addition to other orders. In other words, they can keep running forwards but act as if they're stationary. Combined with this we also have the Forward Recon rule, which allows any unit within 9" of the Sentinels it's attached to to have Move Through Cover.

Now, the obvious problem with such a large infantry formation is that you typically don't want these guys running forwards. Running forwards typically means fighting orks in close combat, fighting Khorne Bersekers long past the point you've seen the whites of their eyes, and facing down Shrike at point blank range. While the unit can do a good job of bogging these forces down and keeping them distracted, the units here will all too easily break and run. This mean you're likely going to have to spend a lot of time ensuring these guys pass Leadership tests, giving each and ever one priests or Commissars to hold them in place. Hell, in all likelihood you'll have to pair them up with a Lord Commissar as well.

Things aren't made much better with the Emperor's Shield Infantry company. Yes, for some damn reason the book has two of these. This one is basically a "transform and combine" version of the old one, mashing together three of the previous formations until you're rushing in with one-hundred-and-fifty models! Obviously this makes putting these together extremely unwieldy to say the least, meaning your foe is likely going to treat this like shooting fish in a barrel. The only added advantage is that you can use "First Rank, Fire! Second Rank, Fire!" on up to any number of squads you want within this formation as a single order. That's all fine and dandy, but it's really not enough to justify an investment of this size. I could personally see it working in truly massive games, again (Apocalypse scale ones) but it needed something more atop of this, like Supporting Fire, to cite an obvious one.

The other formations past this one are thankfully largely vehicle based, allowing for a much more versatile unit selection. Chief among these is the Emperor's Blade Assault Company, which is something quite a few Guard players will really appreciate having. Consisting of Three units of Veterans, a Command Squad and up to three Hellhound Squadrons (don't let the name fool you, this can consist of Hellhounds, Banewolves, or Devil Dogs). Each of the squads is required to take a dedicated transport, namely the Chimera and Taurox. Now, this looks good on the whole as just a general mobile support list, but nothing too flashy until you get to the special rules. Clear the Area is a nice bonus which allows any unit with this special rule to have Preferred Enemy against all opposing units within 6" of an objective marker, and Objective Secured allows any unit to control any objective marker, even when contested. As a result, this makes for a surprisingly fun and useful rapid support formation, to rush in right towards the end and at least fight the opposing army to a standstill. While it could have used a few Valkyries or Stormtroopers (back when the Guard actually had those) it's a solid balance of firepower and mobility to help offset the army's usually static nature.

Still, if you want something truly mobile and fast moving, you'd probably be wanting to look into the Emperor's Talon Recon Company AKA Sentinels Galore! This is admittedly one of the less interesting groups on hand unfortunately, as it's really just a mob of two to four sentinel units of the Scout or Armoured designs. It's nothing especially great to look at, but like the Emperor's Blade, some of the special rules help make this one a surprisingly viable choice. Offering these units Outflanking and Dedicated Hunters (giving them all Preferred Enemy against one specific unit) they also have their own command choice, turning one Sentinel into a character unit capable of issuing orders. This basically means you can show up and quickly shred a very dangerous unit with heavy calibre rounds, but then promptly die from the returning fire.

The ultimate weakness of the Emperor's Talon sadly is the Sentinels themselves who, while certainly useful, are just too much of a glass cannon to last more than one turn. As such, test games tended to show that if you outfitted these units with the right weapon, the tended to wreck living hell against scoring units or broke them entirely. Masses of Autocannons tended to break units of Dire Avengers, Immortals, Crisis battlesuits and others, while Plasma cannons proved to be excellent Terminator maulers. Keep an eye on this one, but don't consider it to be an essential purchase.

Another one which seems fun but proves to be of surprisingly limited use at times is the massed Ogryn formation. Consisting of one Commissar, two units of Ogryns and two units of Bullgryns, it looks at first like a fun choice with Groundshaking Charge allowing units to pile on Strength 7 Hammer of Wrath attacks against squads which have already been charged. Equally, the Unquestioning Loyalty rule looks good at first glance, making them Fearless within 12" of the Commissar, but then you get to the overall points cost. To put it bluntly, you're rarely if ever going to make back the points you spend on this one, and most charging situations tend to devolve into an isolated melee. It's fun to be sure, but not exactly the choice you'd want if you're trying to win games.

Another expensive choice, albeit one which is a fair but more useful is the Psykana Division. Conspicuously missing from most of the story (almost as if the writers didn't want to acknowledge this edge) it's how most Guardsmen armies will be contesting psychic heavy foes in this Edition. To keep this one short, just one of these divisions consists of a Primaris Psyker, three units of Wyrdvane Psykers and three Commissars. With the Empyric Link and encouraging Presence special rules, they can quickly build power and focus energy to sudden strikes. Respectively, these allow for them to respectively build upon one another's powers and add one level to the Primaris Psyker's Mastery, and harness Warp Charge points on a 2+ rather than 4+. Admittedly that latter one can result in a quick death via Commissar if they fail psychic tests. Now, generating up to eight Warp Charge tokens at a time allows them to hit hard, but ultimately we're not going to see much of this. Why? Well, try to find an easy way to get enough individual models for this. Sorry, but it is a factor which needs to be considered here.

With the above done we can get onto the really fun stuff, namely the devoted tank regiments. First among these is the expected Artillery Company, nicknamed the Emperor's Wrath. Yeah, apparently someone felt the story didn't fulfill the "Emperor" quota, so there's kind of a theme in here. Well, consisting of a Command Squad, two units of Basilisks, Hydras or Wyvens, a single Manticore or Deathstrike and a few Enginseers it's what you'd expect. So, what makes this worth getting? Artillery tanks that get orders! With Artillery Command as a special rule, the squad leading them can offer up "Smite at Will!" "Suppressive Fire!" "Fire on my Target!" and offers a Leadership score of 8 per vehicle. Then, atop of this you get Target Sighted, which allows friendly units outfitted with vox-casters to target certain units, meaning all guns from this formation firing on that counts as twin-linked. Overall, not too shabby in the slightest and quite useful despite its cost.

The up close and personal alternative to the Emperor's Wrath is the Emperor's Fist Armoured Company, which is the Leman Russ spam you've all been expecting to see. Made up from a Tank Commander, three Leman Russ Squadrons and a trio of Enginseers, it's basically a somewhat bulked up armoured mob more than anything else. It's really just what you'd expect unfortunately, and the various special rules are, no pun intended, nothing special in the slightest. Offering +1 Ballistic Skill to each tank involved, you also have foes rolling twice on the damage chart to hurt the tanks, naturally choosing the worst, and you have minor bonuses to ramming and tank shock. Worn the t-shirt, shot the flashlight, we already know it's not very useful given how most people tend to only take one or two Russ tanks.

Next up there's the Emperor's Spear Aerial Company, which is simply a Valkyrie or Vendetta Squadron with a few bonuses. Truth be told it's the Valkyries which are going to come out of this smelling sweet as most of the special rules buff only them, with Low Altitude Drop benefiting only sudden troop deployments thanks to a non-scattering Grav Chute Insertion rule. Actually that entire thing only benefits troops piling out form them. Beyond this we only have Formation Flight, which assists in all three showing up at once from Reserve, or as and when you choose them to following that, anyway.

Now, finally, we have the big one here, quite literally. The Emperor's Goove Fury is is the expected Super-Heavy Company, with three big, bad tanks and a single Enginseer. Allowing you to take everything from Baneblades to Stormswords, the special rules here are really the bit where this shines. Along with Dedicated Servants allowing for the Enginseer to add +2 to any repair rolls on vehicles, you also have Devastating Bombardment, which forces any enemy unit hit by three primary weapons from these tanks tale a Leadership test on 4D6 to avoid going to ground. Oh, and thanks to their sheer dominating presence, any enemy unit getting within "12 of these moves as if they're going through difficult terrain. It's expensive to be sure, and could do with being toned down, but in all honesty this seems to be a more durable, heavy hitting alternative to the Guardsman blob we started with. You can hit hard, take shots, pin down enemy units and slows opposing forces so they can get picked off. Not bad all in all, though good luck fielding these.

So, what's next past the formations? The Cadian Detachment special rules. In order to try and give a little variety to the Ultramarines of the Imperial Guard, we have a little in the way of new rules and details to make them into the grim faced professional troops the planet is populated with. To keep this short, a lot of details come down to command bonuses, with +12" order range, better order reception among troops, and better lasgun accuracy. There's not much else to this, but do you know what they've done wrong? This is emulating the wrong army.

I was going to save this point for the third part - and yes, there will be three - but the Cadians here aren't acting like Cadians. Their rules, details and even basic factors aren't accounting for their versatility and flexibility on the battlefield, basically boiling down to highly disciplined troops following orders without question and sticking to massed infantry attacks. Yeah, if you don't know them, this sounds a hell of a lot like a lesser known army called the Mordian Iron Guard. Along with the Praetorians, they're one of two factions sadly all too often forgotten these days and were best known for the very aspects you just read, basally sticking to borderline Napoleonic tactics when it comes to warfare. Hell, even the psyker aspect here seems to be reflecting them, due to their high regard for psychic choirs and a famous battle they were involved in.

Even the lore behind the very wargear the Cadians stroll about with seems to have been taken from others, with their fabled legendary chainsword being a hand-me-down from the Ultramarines. Still, we've done the lore, it's just this bit really is irksome. That and, well, most of what we get isn't all that interesting. It's not all the usual mix as we do have a few more solid melee weapons this time, but it's mostly stuff we've seen before. Honestly, it's saying something when the most original thing here is that one melee weapon offers an Invulnerable save. Well, okay, that's not entirely fair, there are a couple here and there. The Standard of the Lost 113th is an odd one, as the unit carrying it can choose not to move for the rest of the game but offers Fearless to any ally withing 18", but that's not all THAT useful. The only really notable one here is that the Kabe's Herald (Leman Russ upgrade) offers a few bonuses as a command tank. Offering a few Tank Orders rules, it means you can use "Gunners, Kill on Sight!" to offer tank squadrons the Split Fire ability.

On the whole, there are most definitely some interesting and good ideas here, but there's not THAT much overall. Most of the formations on hand here you're either going to skip thanks to their impracticality in terms of sheer scale or thanks to simply not offering enough in the way of bonuses. While personally I can appreciate the effort not to go absolutely ballistic and pull yet another Strength D weapons on everything stunt we've seen all too often, they could have pushed things a little further. As a result, rather than a generally down to earth but viable list, we end up with something which is unwieldy, a little too overpriced while being underpowered, and doesn't really help the Guard face down current Edition threats.

The only other Imperial bit here, and probably worthy of its own sub-category, is the Imperial Assassins. Effectively the revamped rules for this Edition are a tweaked version of the last, altered and messed around with in order for them to take up a few pages here. In all honesty, given there was nothing really wrong with the effectiveness of any assassin on the tabletop, this really just feels like padding more than anything else. Oh, they certainly got a little more powerful and a few more special rules, but there wasn't even a big tweak or major step forwards which really helps to justify their inclusion here. Okay, there is one, which is the inclusion of an Execution Force formation, mixing together one of each variant of assassin. The problem is that someone really dropped the ball here, as rather than getting some fun unit combos, there's just a minor mention of some bonus which can give an extra Victory point if they kill one declared enemy unit before the game concludes. Really, that's about it sadly, and it makes their inclusion extremely superfluous. Oh, the individual aren't bad, not by a long shot, but it's hard to shake the question of just why this is actually in the book.

Of course, the failings here might have been acceptable and something you could just shrug off were it not for the opposing army. Oh boy did someone love the opposing army to death in this book...

Tau Empire Formations & Rules

We all know it's coming, and that the book is going to side with the Tau Empire quite heavily. There's nothing to really dispute this, after the story bent over backwards to kneecap the Imperial forces and hand the Empire a victory, crunch insanity was sure to follow. Let's face it, the standard codex was nuts enough as it was, and many of the formations on offer here are not exactly kind to the Imperials. If it came down to a fight between the Imperial formations and the Tau Empire ones, these ones would easily wipe the floor with them, and it doesn't take long to see why.

For starters, while the Imperial forces largely focus upon three things: Mass deployment of units, rapid sudden arrivals, and lots and lots of firepower. While that might sound solid on the whole, they aren't really set up to actually work in co-ordination with one another. As such, they're small bits of individual forces intended to fight their own battles, and only interact by shooting at people. By comparison, it honestly seems a lot more thought has been put into how the Tau Empire will operate in concert with one another, which is something to be praised to be sure. The problem is that, in all honesty, it's hard to praise something when its success comes at the cost of skimping on other content and ultimately putting less effort into how they join with one another.

One particular example which stands out very early on is the Drone Net VX1-0, which is basically a Gun Drone spam from hell. Now, Drones are a big part of any army. They go in, they take the brunt of most attacks and they tend to either protect, help or die in the place of your more expensive units. Here though, what you get is a mob of four Gun Drone squadrons or more, all seemingly controlled by SHODAN herself, and given Interceptor, Jink, Outflank, Precision Shot, and Split Fire. This is a light, disposable mob of Fast Attack units, and the sheer volume of raw, undistinguished cheese mounted upon them here is simply jaw dropping; it means that you can have a mass of twin linked pulse carbines capable of bobbing out of the way of gunfire, arriving out of an adjacent table edge, cherry tapping any arriving unit to death and targeting the exact person they want. Then, atop of all this, they can then divide their shots between targets as and when they wish.

So, yeah, what we have here is a formation which makes most Elites choices not only look tame by comparison, but makes Draigo look down to earth. The best part though? This isn't even the end of it. Seemingly working off of the Geth rule of more = smarter, if you have two squads or more in this formation still alive, all of them get +1 to their Ballistic Skill. So, yeah, they aren't even spamming anymore given they're hitting as hard and as accurate as Fire Warriors. If this reads like a bad joke, then it should because this is truly ridiculous. It basically takes the same ideas the Emperor's Talon, ditches the heavy weapons but then makes sure they have vastly more suitability and long term damage. As such, they make for less run-in-and-die mobs than they do the perfect band of scouts, harassers, assassins and interdiction units; a formation remaining a constant thorn in the enemy's side thanks to their sheer number of special rules. Even if you throw a good assault unit into combat, chances are this bloody great thing will serve as a bigger and better speed-bump than most mob units, tying them up until things are long over.

The versatility of the Drone Net VX1-0 formation means that it can serve in a variety of roles. These range from ambushing and picking out threatening members of enemy teams in acts of harassment to sudden ambushes, as mentioned in the prior paragraph, and drawing fire away from other units. This Swiss army knife approach means it can easily join up with most other formations, and keep pace with them. For example, their rapid and fast moving nature means they can easily link up with Optimized Stealth Cadre for a two pronged attack or an extremely mobile screen for a Retaliation Cadre. 

Now, Tau Empire formations operating together might sound very basic overall but compare this with some of the Imperial Guard alternatives. While certain ones have definitely been designed to work alongside others (the artillery piece for starters) there's a few subtle differences in how each one has been set up. As a whole, they can count more as individual strike forces or small army groups and rather than acting like cogs in a machine, they just seem to be ready-made assault lists. This means the Tau Empire formations here have an edge in terms of tactical flexibility and working as a part of a much larger army, and can be far more effective at countering opposing lists as a result. It's just a shame that they took such a great idea, a perfect example of using formations properly here, but ramped up their power until the book went to plaid.

Still, getting back to the actual formations in question, we next have the aforementioned Retaliation Cadre. This was in Kauyon as well, but the big difference here is instead that it's a core choice, something to build your army around rather than something to add onto it. To put this in perspective, it means that you have a Commander, three Crisis teams, a unit of Broadsides, and a Riptide as the basis of your army. Even before getting to how they have Relentless and automatically Deep Strike on turn two with +1 BS, that's just nasty. It's like having the Deathwing as the central point of your army if every Terminator was lugging two plasma cannons about with them. The big weakness is, of course, the sheer points costs required here, but if you can afford them this means you've got a highly mobile force of over thirty battlesuits. One who can arrive within rapid-firing range of any enemy units. Yeah, have to admire it in some abhorrent way, but it's hard not to wince here.

By comparison with a remarkably firestorm-of-plasma happy formation, both of the HQ choices are relatively basic. You have one which is just one Commander with a bodyguard in a Crisis suit, and it's a poor replacement for Ethereals or give a few cheap options. Of course, the only alternative to this is a high points killing machine AKA The Eight. You might recall these guys as being the only genuinely good bit of lore in Codex: Farsight Enclaves, and got a plethora of new rules to pack a punch. For starters, each has Fearless and Preferred Enemy (against everyone, which seems to be the status quo these days) but more importantly they can offer Supporting Fire to one another up to "24 away. Top that with the fact that, so long as even one is still standing on the battlefield all tau have Stubborn, and it's the HQ choice from hell for anyone on the receiving end of this formation. The big problem here, much like the Retaliation Cadre, is the staggering points cost involved. You have to take all Eight, and as such they're usually only going to be a viable choice in about 2,500-3,000 point games. Honestly, given their effectiveness, I personally think that's quite fairly priced.

The Counterstrike Cadre is next up, and it's the infantry heavy choice on here. The difference is that, whereas the Imperial Guard focused upon sheer weight of numbers, the Tau Empire are given a little variety to work with. In this case, they're three units of Fire Warriors and a single unit of Pathfinders. Given that all of them are riding Devilfish, they move and hit a lot faster than their Imperial counterpart, and also have a few bonus rules to make them more useful in objective based battles. Getting re-rolls to hit when shooting at anything within "3 of an objective, they can usually be counted upon to punch holes in most squads, and they get a speed boost during the first turn they arrive. Useful, hard hitting and relatively mobile, they're one of the more balanced examples here.

Allied Advance Cadre (besides leaving me questioning why the hell this is in a Farsight focused book) is a scouting force consisting purely of auxiliaries. Four Kroot Carnivore Squads and two units of Vespid Stingwings are on the list here, and it basically serves to boost their ability to start close to their foes. Along with giving the vespid Infiltration and Stealth special rules, kroot who are "12 away from them are offered Obscured instead of Stealth and get +1 BS. Unfortunately, most of these only work with forests, but the formation does allow them to gain supporting fire between each unit. This certainly seems fine, but given the abrupt upgrades each gained this edition (I.E. turning the kroot from guerrilla close combat fighters into dirt cheap snipers) it's hard not to wince at some elements here.

So,Firebase Support Cadre is up next and, well, you might as well have the tau player showing up yelling "That's it! Everyone dies!"
Two units of Broadside suits combined with a Riptide are going to hit hard unless you're intentionally trying to lose your game. Here though, not only do you get Tank Hunter and Monster Hunter (meaning your shiny new Imperial Knight can get six railguns and an Ion Accelerator to the face on the first turn) but they're more than competent focusing upon a single target. When they combine their firepower, they effectively count as a single unit with markerlights buffing every single last one as a result. Honestly, looking at this, it really seems like surprise back-stabbings with some very lucky Assault Marines is the only way to win, as any long-range engagement is going to wipe the floor with anything they so much as look at. Normally i'd add a little more analysis atop of this, but really, what else is there to say? You get within line of sight of these things and nine times out of ten your army is going to be reduced to Swiss cheese by these things. Hell, even if they don't roll in with railguns, their missile launchers will shred infantry units like there's no tomorrow.

The Rapid Insertion Force is up next and, as if to remind you that there is no end to the Tau Empire's cheese this edition, it's yet another battlesuit mob. Consisting of a Riptide, three Crisis teams (they really like combining these guys, don't they) and a Stealth unit, they basically serve as the "Surprise, motherfucker!" option here. In short, the Stealth team operates in the manner of an astartes Scout squad, moving in and having the rest of the army drop in about them. The thing is though, along with having the obvious durability, firepower and a big edge over Scouts, anything within this formation showing up within "6 doesn't scatter. As a result, they can practically pull a Creed by dropping a Riptide on your undefended flank at a moment's notice. Oh, and everything gets twin-linked the moment it drops in. So, yeah, outfit these guys with plasma guns and expect everything within "24 to die a horrible screaming death as a second front suddenly opens up on the battlefield. Tau fans are sure to love this one, everyone else (unless you're eldar) is probably going to be spitting blood over this.

Now, bad as these have been it's the next four which really yank the breaks out of the insanity train. Really, the sheer unrelenting cheddar of the following few will be the biggest point of contention for anyone looking to play against Farsight Enclaves lists for the next few years.

The Piranha Firestream Wing is something which seems, at first glance, to be relatively tame. After all, they're solid choices but hardly the full blown murder machines which tend to dominate most of the army beyond this, and tend to be relatively down-to-earth in terms of payloads. Well, this formation gives you four of them, and it promptly goes absolutely nuts. Basically, one unit of these acts as a spotter for the other three, targeting something within "36 inches. Everything within the formation then gets +1 BS and Tank Hunter, murdering the damn thing in all likelihood. This isn't the sphincter tightening part however, that instead comes when they get within "6 of a table edge. If they do so, they can opt to flee into reserves, and then return the following turn with everything re-equipped. So, you know all those Gun Drones and missiles tau players tend to spam? Yeah, they can have an unending stream of this by cycling squadrons on and off of the tabletop at will - The end result isn't so much an army as a veritable Gun Drone factory endlessly spamming high strength weapons which can one-shot a Predator. And they're firing these off fifteen at a time in some cases. That distant scream you just heard was from every Imperial Guard tank company commander on the planet crying out in terror.

Still, we couldn't have stuff involving the Piranhas without offering the Skyray a few bonuses, could we. Enter the Skysweep Missile Defense, sandwiching together three Skyrays and a Devilfish. Like before, one acts as the spotter to the other three, but they fulfill a very different role in the game. If enemy fliers get within "12 of the Devilfish, the Skyrays can fire as many missiles as they want per turn, and the entire formation gets a 5+ cover save against airborne attacks. In short, you've not got a massive interdiction force which is very difficult to dislodge from the air can can merrily rip just about anything you throw at them a new one. Normally I wouldn't call this too bad, but it basically just involves zooming the Devilfish to the right place at the right time, and then watching as the Skyrays turn whatever precious airborne transports you might have, or even fighters, into clouds of burning broken metal. The obvious solution, of course, is to nail the Devilfish from the ground. There's two things to note with this however, the first being that even without that the Devilfish is going to delay the effectiveness of fliers for several turns, and the second is assuming they won't have much in the way to distract you from doing so. Like dropping a Riptide atop of your forces or having a swarm of Gun Drones between opposing forces and that tank. Or, well, the Devilfish could just be kept out of sight as well.

The actual Tau Empire forces do have their own fliers, their own responses to any airborne squadron, via the Assigned Air Caste Asset and Air Superiority Cadre. Now, the first isn't much in all honesty, it's just a single added aircraft to support the army. The second however, that's three Razorsharks with some very nasty special rules. Now, they get +1 BS against all fliers, but by the standards of most armies that's relatively tame these days. What's not quite so reserved, by comparison, is that they can drop D3 markerlights on any target they want so long as one is still in the air, making them able to pick out and wreck living hell against any unit they feel is an affront to the Greater Good. Oh, and to top this off, they can also stroll in from reserves at a moment's notice if the army contains fliers, skimmers or jetbikes.

Ultimately the Air Superiority Cadre is dangerous for two reasons. The first are the markerlights, as a mass of those which can bypass terrain or only require a line of sight from the air these are dangerous as all hell. You can only imagine the hell these can cause within the formation itself, but then take into account the field day Skyrays or anything outfitted with one of those lovely "unlimited range" seeker missiles will have. In short, little to nothing will be safe from them. Second of all however, there's the case of that sudden arrival option. Their effectiveness against fliers is potent enough, but with the added option for them to arrive abruptly in the presence of other fliers skimmers or jetbikes, they're an entirely new deterrent. It's going to leave people questioning the very formation of their lists and will hold back forces which would usually serve as their mainstay, perhaps even blocking some of their greatest strengths. If a couple of these formations are used against a Saim-Hann or, well, most xenos armies, that's limiting their use of transports and any fast moving vehicles right out of the starting gate. Just as soon as that one unit of Shining Spears rolls in, death incarnate leaps out of the sky and starts annihilating everything in its path.

The last one is what people can only describe as the ultimate extreme of Broadsides meeting markerlights. A tau player would be mad not to use them in combination with one another, and right from their introduction in the Third Edition, these two have been used to make the lives of enemy tanks a living hell. Now though, it seems someone wanted the duo to annihilate anything and everything in sight. Known as the Ranged Support Cadre, this formation is a mishmash of three units of Pathfinders and three units of Broadsides. Sticking to the obvious advantages first, the Pathfinders gain a few bonuses to their durability, and so long as they're not shooting their guns or moving they gain and Shrouded. They can also Infiltrate now, meaning it's going to be that much easier for them to bottleneck a position or leave an army pinned down in its deployment area. Oh, and the Broadsides can offer Supporting Fire to them at full range, so anything going up against them is going to have several big heavy units weighing into that fight.

The Broadsides themselves don't get as many bonuses in this formation, but they do earn one very big and very beefy bonus. If the Broadsides use any markerlights from the Pathfinders to enhance their shots, the effectiveness of them is doubled. So, in other words, most people will be using one option to enhance the shot however they can, and the other to make every single last round ignore cover. With three squads on each side you can happily have six railguns firing in sequence with this at a time, again making things nightmarish for people with heavy armour. So, the big bloody great Baneblade someone spent all that cash and money on might as well just be a victory point pinata if someone takes this.

Overall, the Tau Empire bonuses we get here are definitely a hell of a lot more powerful than the Imperial Guard options. While a little more grounded than some stuff we've seen of late, it's most definitely up there in terms of sheer killing power and the variety on offer is astounding. There's no bad or truly limited option here, and at their worst these units are on par with the most useful Imperial Guard choices. Even the most implausible ones have a solid competitive edge and, while I would normally praise these elements, the writers' plan to keep them useful is to give them more and more power. There's some good ideas here to be sure, but it's very hard not to sigh at the thought of these guys going up against Ork WAAAGHs!, Sisters of Battle or certain Necron Dynasty armies and the curb-stomp which might ensue.

The only redeeming factor in terms of the killing power of these formations is their price. While there's some seriously brutal combinations on offer, most are quite highly priced, meaning a low cost game will lock them out of their choices. Unlike other armies, this one at least seems to recognize the fact that some of the truly insane stuff should be reserved for massive battles. It's just a shame that people can still happily get Satan's unrelenting seeker missile swarm within 1,500 points or so.

Also, as a final point, is anyone else put off by the constant use of cadre? Really, the widespread use of this would be like calling each and every Imperial Guard formation a "regiment". You can argue it might be accurate, but it's lacking a lot of the vital points to make this thing a full fledged army under that name.

Scenarios and Extras

Being a story based book surrounding key battles, it's naturally quite important for several engagements to translate well onto the tabletop. While it's always important to be able to have the lore distance itself to some degree from the legions of plastic psychotic annihilators, having a campaign so distanced from the rules that it's untranslatable is problematic at best. The problem is, of course, that the scenarios themselves need to be fun and interesting, with a few new ideas, otherwise they just become dull and repetitive. You can guess where this is going.

While the Kauyon review might have praised how the scenarios offered a little variety and some fun ideas, albeit despite a few flaws, Mont'ka proves to be a much more troubled book. Oh it's not entirely bad, and you could even argue quite a few here are an improvement over what we found in Kauyon, but it seems all the great and good new ideas are limited to a small handful of missions. The rest seem to slowly turn back towards some of the more tired and old tropes we've seen all too often. In particular, there are multiple missions, sent in over and over again, which just has the Imperial side surrounded and having to fight their way out, without much in the way of real variety. Multiple missions are, over and over again, based upon one army running away and the other trying to follow them, and the last few really just devolve into overly gimmicky concepts. Mass Imperial Knight vs Battlesuit brawl? Yeah, we had that last time and it was honestly a lot more fun there. Assassins sent in to hunt down a Tau Commander? It's less Kill Team than it is an Apocalypse game with a few flavour ideas thrown in, thus wasting most of its potential.

The real points where the book seems to shine is earlier on when it actually spends a lot more time experimenting and messing with some fairly cool concepts. Hell, the opening scenario itself is a void battle, something all too rarely explored in tabletop 40,000, and the writers seemed to go all out to take advantage of this. With random asteroid strikes and Low Gravity in full effect, the game turns into an extremely fast moving and extremely high risk engagement which is a true joy to play though. Equally, the astartes specific Killing Blow mission plays with how the astartes themselves act, and the Fire Caste's habit of hitting then falling back. Hell, in all honesty, even the opening armoured strikes prove to be a fun addition largely thanks to offering a wide variety of Tank Ace bonuses to each side. Okay, not very original bonuses, usually just the "this guy knows who to drive really well, so move "12 on average" but it's still something.

While personally it seems wrong to say there's a clear divide between the good and bad missions here, there's still no denying that it's an extremely mixed bag at best. Some of these are certainly quite fun, but you're definitely going to be left trying to stomach the bad in order to get to the fun stuff, with the latter becoming more notable than the former as things go along. Plus, atop of all this, it doesn't help that the actual campaign chart basically comes down to minor edits and alterations to initial army formations rather than anything more substantial.

Final Thoughts

You probably already know how this is going to go as final thoughts: This was too biased towards the Tau Empire. It's not the first book to do so, and it's certainly not the worst offender at least in terms of rules, but overall there's no denying how the book stacks up. When you judge it purely upon its merits, comparing the Imperial Guard with the Tau Empire, there's little to no balance here. While it's obvious that there are viable formations on each side, either favouritism or simply the determination to try and have each force heavily contrast with one another in terms of style didn't work out. There's the foundation of something good here to be sure, but this most definitely needed a better editor and far, far better play-testing on each side before this was put out onto shelves.

Still, for all its problems, flaws and issues, it's not completely bad. There's still some reasonable ideas in terms of the campaign, and even a few formations here to be had, which all stand out as interesting without pulling a Codex: Grey Knights. The problem is that Tau Empire players will need to actively limit themselves to ensure they can't just stroll through enemy armies - avoiding certain formations - while the Guard will be pressed to just limit themselves to the truly useful ones on offer. Unless you just want to conclude with an unrelenting curb-stomp of a campaign from the midway point onward, players will need to actively hold back in terms of dishing out power, and that's something few games should really have to do.

Ultimately, it's just disappointing. There was so much potential to be had here, but the writers blew that opportunity when it came to the crunch, just as they did with the fluff. If you're a Tau Empire completionist or seriously want to take advantage of a few specific formations, okay, this one might well be for you. Besides that though, Kauyon is honestly the better of the two books we've had recently.

Still, delayed as this has been, we have one more part to cover, looking into the book's storytelling purposes. Specifically, one very, very big mistake on the writers' part which came within inches of fixing half the book's lore issues.