Monday, 30 November 2015

Who Are The Iron Hands And Why Should You Care?

One of the problems I have seen over and over again among the Warhammer fandom is the lack of awareness and understanding when it comes to the Iron Hands chapter. It's for this reason that Codex: Clan Raukaan was met with objections primarily among long-time fans, as few people seem to really understand their traditions and how they operate. It's not universal to be sure, but whereas the Imperial Fists can be put down to siege specialists and the Raven Guard stealth specialists, the same cannot be said of the Iron Hands. In fact, so much of their lore is scattered and varied it's hard to really piece together a full picture at times. So, new players, think of this as a brief outline of their best strengths and defining traits.

First and foremost, the Iron Hands do not follow any Codex appointed chapter formation. Instead they follow a decentralized structure which organizes them into a number of demi-chapters, each maintaining its own specialist equipment and wargear. Rather than petitioning other companies to lend them their troops, or spending time with negotiations, each company is a force ready to move, fight and act on its own. This often leaves them better prepared for individually combating certain threats, and any unexpected twists in their theatre of war. Because of this structure they are never without the units they require and, not being bound to the Codex Astartes, have greater numbers of marines on hand. Those seen over the years have ranged from sizes comparable to the Space Wolves Great Companies to (as shown in Wrath of Iron) just over 130 marines. More than anything else, this is a reflection on how the chapter prizes individual strength and its ideology of individual endurance.

The very use of the Iron Hands' bionics is a reflection of their own ideology and a psychological drive to never fail. During the Great Crusade and Horus Heresy, bionics were used in favour of lengthier means to preserve the flesh as it ensured an astartes would more rapidly return to frontline combat. Having a bionic enhancement was seen as a sign of respect, that they had survived a terrible injury an emerged all the stronger for it. Over the course of millennia this was enhanced by the reflections of the embittered survivors of the Drop Site Massacre, turning into a continual practice. The chapter and its successors began actively enhancing their warriors to increase their prowess by any mechanical means possible. Many of their combat veterans, their sergeants encased in Terminator armour, became closer to miniture dreadnoughts than full marines; becoming beings of sheer metal with a core of flesh, capable of shrugging of incredible damage and enduring blows which would kill an astartes many times over.

While favouring machinery over flesh is often regarded as an act of insanity or hatred by outsiders, it's more an extension of the chapter's zealous perfectionist streak. While they abhor weakness, while they deride failure and their battlecry is "Flesh is weak!", they do not simply hate non-astartes. Instead, it is their own overcome failings that they hate, especially when reflected in others. Failure is not accepted in any way, and each warrior (astartes or otherwise) is expected to fulfill their abilities in every way possible. Other chapters do this via training; some by building better blades or bolters; The Iron Hands do this by building themselves into better weapons of war, and by serving as the literal Angels of Death the Imperium requires. After all, humanity needs monsters to combat the greater abominations lurking within the Warp.

The Iron Hands' use of bionics goes far beyond simple durability. Ocular and audio bionics in particular have been used many times to show marines being able to see into a much broader spectrum of light, "see" harmful energies and pinpoint major sources of thermal power. Cranial ones have been used to show the Iron Hands much more rapidly adapting to shifting environments, acting with a single mind thanks to constant mental updates and running through countless simulated tactical outcomes. Despite often being built into their armour, many have even been shown to have incredible accuracy with weapons of all forms. Their veterans can calculate the exact timing, precision and strength of a sword blow, or even allow them to shoot a grenade out of the air within a split second of leaving an enemy soldier's hand.

The use of such widespread machinery has allowed the chapter to retain closer ties with the Adpetus Mechanicus and even share a few specific beliefs. This has manifested through their Iron Fathers emerging in place of their Chaplains. As a result of this unity, and their own practices, the chapter often carries more advanced weaponry and equipment than their contemporaries. This beneficial deal often manifests in the form of steady, continual, unending attacks backed by overwhelming firepower; along with the liberal use of heavier ordinance to quickly break enemy ranks. While this is their traditional approach to war, the chapter is not nearly as bound to a single stratagem as many others. Guerrilla tactics and stealth were used throughout the Horus Heresy by surviving elements of the legion, and in M41 elements of the chapter easily adapted to recon roles prior to crippling an entire force in a single strike. While sheer armoured might is certainly favoured in battle, it does not wholly define them and they do not limit themselves to any narrow tactical spectrum.

Finally, given its close proximity to the Eye of Terror, the Iron Hands are one of the few First Founding chapters depicted as understanding that sacrifice is needed in the name of victory. Saving every life is pointless so close to Cadia, where every deflection of a Black Crusade and annihilation of a cult is bought with loyalist blood. We have seen this many times over, such as the Purging of Contqual, where the lives of thousands were spent to ensure a rapid victory. This said, as much as the chapter spends lives it never wastes them. For the thousands that died at Contqual, billions more would have met their end if the Chaos portal at the centre of Shardenus had not been closed. This is even shown in their history prior to being reunited with Ferrus, such as the Battle of Rust where Imperial Army elements were used to draw out enemy forces before the Iron Hands could fully annihilate a WAAAGH! of orks many times their number and strength.

Ultimately, when the Iron Hands are deployed to war, they are not sent to save worlds. They are sent to ensure loyalty, to purge corruption in all forms, to wipe out any trace of xenos of Chaotic threat and burn any remnant of a foothold humanity's enemies might retain. They are sent to hunt down and destroy the worst of threats, to completely crush the forces who contest the Imperium's might and so thoroughly destroy them that their very names are reduced to ash.

The Imperial Fists are the Emperor's shield.
The Raven Guard are the Emperor's shadows.
The Iron Hands? They are the Emperor's annihilators.

This is merely a short version of course, outlining their basic defining traits overall. If you want an in-depth look at the chapter's lore there is a fan-made document here, reconciling most old and new lore elements while ignoring Codex: Clan Raukaan.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (Episode Review)

Oh this one was off to a brilliantly creepy start. From Capaldi's monologue to the unique, unsettling nature of the environment and the monsters, the fantastic horror show beginning held so much promise in a very Hammer-like way. It's certainly one way to get the audience immediately engaged, and keeps them guessing from the opening. As you might suspect from that, it starts strong but, in a nice change from the usual problems, it doesn't gradually weaken as the credits roll.

The best way to really look at this one is as a horror story. Oh, there's plenty of non-horror elements and mystery aspects to be sure, but the monster, the themes and the nightmare elements almost reach Hammer levels at times. This is in no small part thanks to the iconography involved and the setting, a very unconventional castle of 16th century design. Upon being teleported, seemingly right from the finale of Face The Raven, the Doctor finds the place abandoned. Bereft of all life save for certain cryptic hints of some prior struggle, his ever step is hounded by some mysterious being driving him towards its lower depths. It's a simple premise to be sure, but there is such an sense of style, such a bizarre twist in its presentation, that it's hard not to become engaged.

While you might not expect it at first, you could really put this down to Doctor Who attempting to pull off its own version of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You have the traditional setting, of course, a horrific and seemingly unstoppable monster and a hero constantly at a loss for what he finds. However, there's more to it than simply this. While the rather distinct plot elements would be spoilers - no, before you ask, they don't simply involve him losing his memory - the visual style just seems so in-sync with that flavour of horror. The slow panning shots, the bleak gloom of the environment, even a few iconic visuals such as the decaying paintings and mountains of skulls all play a part in this. These points are only made all the more evident thanks to the faceless horror hunting through the castle and the horrifying nature of the ending.

The story itself is sure to be a difficult one given that this features Capaldi on his own. While we've had stories utterly bereft of companions in the past, and Tom Baker even once suggested trying to run the show with him alone, this one is completely absent of people. Given that there is no human interaction, no contact, it could have easily caved in upon itself, but it succeeded. This is naturally thanks, in a big way, to Capaldi himself but also a few interesting tricks the writers pull. In order to give him more to react to, in order for his monologue to work into the narrative, the writers effectively use a "mind TARDIS" to have him retreat back into. In those brief moments before death, in those moments where brilliance is needed the most, we see just how he thinks. We see him rapidly piecing things together in his mind and how he calculates every second. It sidesteps the whole Sherlock Holmes thing Guy Ritchie made famous, but it ultimately has the same effect. It is, however, also in these moments where see just why the Doctor needs a companion so badly in certain adventures.

The whole mystery, much like Clara's plot in the last story, ultimately builds and gradually culminates in a final point. Admittedly, it's a twist you might well see coming from quite early on but it manages to work thanks to being delivered with such style. It's one of those few moments of recent years where Doctor Who embracing style over logic has been more awesome than it is facepalming, and the combination of acting, direction and the sheer scale of what the writers have in mind really pays off. Better yet, it builds up into a final moment which doesn't dominate the entire story or overshadows what came before. Oh it leaves you with questions to be sure, many, many questions, but there's still the hanging possibility for immediate answers the following week.

If there is one very distinct problem to be highlighted here, it's how often the story plays with the idea of time and the eternal torment of the place. Even after watching it, far too much seems to just conveniently fall into place over time. Even counting the episode's rather obvious justifications, given all that passed and how things played out, it just becomes increasingly questionable as to how many times things fell perfectly into place for the Doctor's foes. 

Still, when a minor logical flaw which the script mostly justifies is its biggest failing, it's clear we have a winner here. After the mixed qualities of last week and the constant ups and downs of the past series overall, it's nice to see the writers are still capable of pulling off truly fantastic episodes. We'll just have to wait until next week to see how they finish putting it all together and cap off this latest chapter in the show.

Doctor Who: Face The Raven (Episode Review)

Those already wondering, yes this episode does break the streak of mediocre to terrible stories we've had until recently. It remains surprisingly coherent, interesting and investigates a few new ideas we've not seen fully developed in an episode. There are niggling problems to be sure, but on the whole it comes together quite well. The issue here, the real issue, is that people are only going to be talking about the last five minutes of the episode. It's also because of this fact, because so much hinges upon the impact of what might follow, that I held off delivering a verdict on this one until the second part was released.

Serving as something of a sequel to Flatline, the TARDIS is suddenly called by Rigsy, the graffiti artist who assisted them in defeating the Boneless. While the Doctor is infuriated that Clara so willingly handed out the TARDIS' phone number to others, their attention is soon drawn to a tattoo on Rigsy's neck. It's a string of numbers and slowly counting down...

Now, part of the reason for that oddly conclusive introduction is due to one thing: To properly discuss this episode there needs to be spoilers. Normally this is a point we'd avoid entirely, but in this case so many elements here ties into the last five minutes. So, spoilers in three... two... one... The entire story is about Clara's departure. While it won't be clear at first, and it's a twist which shows up only upon repeated viewings, there are elements tied into the narrative which helps to enforce the tragedy of the ending. So much of it fits into place remarkably well, so while the episode is likely only going to be remembered for the last five minutes, much of that comes down to how well it set up the final part.

The opening establishes what we've come to know about Clara: She's confident, extremely independent and has a streak which few characters have pulled off. Notably, above all else, she's remained one of the few companions to take over the Doctor's role and genuinely pull it off. While Amy, Leela and others might have retained this independence, there was always a sense that they knew the Doctor was going to be running the show and tried to stick with this plan. Clara though, as much as people might complain about an apparent lack of character, has gradually evolved into someone willing to set up her own plans. We've seen time and time again that she's willing to break with his plans more over time. While this has slowly paid off, Face The Raven ultimately shows just what happens when that goes too far and she tries to effectively become the Doctor.

The idea of such risk-taking is established from the very start, as we see the tail end of another adventure, with the Doctor commenting upon a seemingly unnecessary risk he was unaware of. Clara herself is ultimately extremely flippant about this, and as a result she seems to have lost sense of the danger. We see this gradually developing more as the story goes by, with her pushing ahead with a determined efforts to put her own life at risk to save someone else. However, at the very end she pays the price for that, and we ultimately see just how badly such a determined effort can backfire. It's not that she wasn't heroic, far from it, but the episode retains an underlying theme of her having lost sight of the real danger when it comes to such actions.

Such a theme is remarkably subtle given how it's quickly pushed into the background and largely forgotten by the audience. In fact, the focus is placed so heavily upon the episode's own individual plotline that it remains hidden in plane sight, present in subtle ways but never completely disappearing entirely. It's usually found only in small, minor moments, such as Clara first finding the location they are searching for or her actions when facing the aliens, but you'd be forgiven for only recognising this as an afterthought. As such, when it concludes, the finale hits that much harder.

Now, the problem is that once you stop and take away the Clara plotline, the episode really doesn't hold up all that well. There's a great deal of logical failings which are evident from the start, and even when facing a ticking clock the story doesn't really seem to pick up the pace. Addressing that last one first, the point of someone's impending death is just treated like a hindrance. At best it's commented upon almost for humour once or twice but little else, and even when the character himself is facing death mere minutes away, the impending pressure of facing a horrific threat never just seems to hit home. This is most definitely a fault of the direction as much as the script, as searching about for hidden streets is effectively treated as strolling about London, not some rush to spare someone from the hangman's noose.

When it actually comes to the bolthole the aliens have found in London - effectively just a refugee camp - further problems quickly arise. Even ignoring small moments such as a cyberman being present (AKA those guys who inspired the Borg, those things who would be going around conquering stuff, not hiding in a back alley being fixed by someone) the very nature and rules established by certain aliens keeps shifting. Everyone there is supposed to look human thanks to a psychic worm field plot convenience device to save on the budget, but that's broken within minutes of being established. How so? Primarily thanks to one very specific alien having two heads when everyone there is supposed to look human. Besides even that, the actual ticking clock tattoo is somehow passed over to Clara without any problems. However, when it comes to returning it, the episode becomes remarkably vague about the exact reason why it can't be. Okay, it says that the terms of the contract changed meaning that Clara couldn't give it back to Rigsy. Fine, but the problem is that taking the damn thing in the first place seemed to change the terms without any issues.

As a final note though, the serious problem which arose here more than anything else honestly seemed to be how hard the episode was pushing for spin-offs. Doctor Who, while still strong, has been losing viewing figures since the end of Matt Smith's tenure. Atop of this, to equal the spin-offs we saw during David Tennant's era, many suspect that Moffat has been trying to force as many new ideas into the show as possible for returning tales. It's one likely reason why River Song seemed to so frequently hijack the entire show, Vastra's group kept re-appearing over and over again, and new ideas keep seeming to hang around. As such, this new idea of a refugee camp hidden out of sight just seems to have "NEW SHOW, BUY IT NOW!" plastered all over it, and when you actually stop, not too much seems to really figure into the overall story. At best it's a mildly interesting distraction, but nothing truly special.

If you've not guessed from that final bit, this doesn't quite work out as a part of an ongoing story. Okay, it retains a solid theme, but beyond the themes of loss and a few superficial traits, not much is carries over or really seems to register into Heaven Sent. As such, it's a distraction with some mild build-up rather than a true beginning.

I'll freely admit this review is going a little easy on Face The Raven for two reasons, the first being how well it handled the idea of consequences. The second is that the writer, Sarah Dollard, was dropped in at the deep-end. Asked to write her first Who episode both as a companion exit and the beginning of a three-parter - not to mention possibly spin-off shilling - it's a testament to her skills that we didn't end up with a complete disaster. Watch it for a few key moments perhaps, where the writing does shine through, but don't expect a classic from this one.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Star Wars: Battlefront (Video Game)

Some games are driven almost purely on fan-service, and this is undoubtedly one of them. Everything from fighting on Hoth to hearing the occasional Wilhelm scream has been crafted to entice nostalgic memories of the first Star Wars trilogy. This is hardly a bad thing of course, but what DICE seems to have forgotten is that you need real mechanical substance beneath that, something which Battlefront is sorely lacking.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Fallout 4 (Video Game Review)

The experience by now is an iconic one. An armoured vault door noisily grinds to one side as sunlight spills within the metal tomb for the first time in centuries. A lone scavenger sets out to accomplish their quest and we are told that, ultimately, war will never change.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Hydraulic Empire (Video Game Review)

Hydraulic Empire is one of those attempts to put a new spin on an old genre. Just as Bloodsports.TV opted to create a MOBA-esque experience sans some of the more alienating elements, this game is attempting to give the player greater control when it comes to Tower Defence releases.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Slowing Down For The Winter

Winter is an especially pressing time for many, but myself especially. Juggling between producing articles and working two jobs at the moment, time tends to be short and in these months it's hard to keep up to date on a daily basis. A few of my recent articles have already started to show signs of declining quality as a result of juggling these elements, and I would not wish for this to go any further. As such, i'm going to be slowing down with these articles for a while. Not stop, not cancel entirely, but you won't be getting them on a daily or bi-daily basis for a while. 

Until things change and I can balance this out with other, more pressing, matters this is sadly unlikely to change. I'll be responding to as many comments as I can and upload a few more reviews, and have a few planned works, but don't expect the unending torrent of work as with every other time this year.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Doctor Who: Sleep No More (Episode Review)

You know, by this point we might as well start on a "This Doctor Who episode could have been great but..." line, just starting to hammer in where they screwed up. Last time we had the staff letting a terrible writer beat a message over the audience's head at the cost of story quality. In this case we have a good writer trying to twist things up and be overly intelligent, only to have the story collapse under its own weight. There was so much here which could have easily worked, any part of this story's key elements, but it jumbles them together so badly you're just left with a confusing mess.

The story this time follows not the Doctor but a small military unit. With an orbiting research station having fallen silent, a team of marines is sent in to check it out and report for survivors. They find the power out, half the place in ruins, and also the Doctor and Clara strolling about the place. Unfortunately, it soon turns out they're not alone.

Now, from that small description you might have guessed this is Doctor Who's stab at doing an Aliens episode. You're actually not that far off overall, as with have the immoral businessman angle, a bit of bad science, a group of overtly confident soldiers and more than a little body horror. The problem is that, whatever his failings when it came to Avatar, James Cameron and co. created some very likable, confident soldiers who at least seemed to know what they were doing. In this case, you get half of that impression for a while, until all professionalism falls away entirely and you realise you didn't like any of these meat shields to begin with. Oh they do well to start with, but then it sort of all falls to bits on the writing end of things.

Up to about the end of the first act, the story is actually not all that bad in all fairness. It's more or less like another Kill The Moon where you're left with a hopeful impression. We see very little of the monsters, and what little there is sends the armed soldiers into full retreat in moments, or crumbles to bits in seconds. Even after meeting the Doctor, there's a good sense of mystery and real horror here. If the episode had just kept on track then it honestly wouldn't have been all that bad, but then it starts trying to be intelligent. You know. that kind of faux intelligence the series has become obsessed with, where everyone in the writing room insists that overly complex stories barely anyone can follow equates smart storytelling.

Still, you want to know the exact moment the episode goes to hell so badly it might as well be high-fiving Virgil on the way down? The monsters are produced by sleep replacement machines, and are made out of man-eating rheum. Yes, you just read that, and to make matters worse the episode goes so far as to suggest this might not even be mutated rheum. This might just be your common or garden rheum, and sleep is how we prevent eye-gunk creating humanoid abominations. On, and the same rheum serves as particles in the air which act as cameras for some bigger intelligence.

The story not only jumps the megalodon at the monster reveal, but it starts opening up plot holes as if its future depended upon it. Perhaps the worst offender in this regard is how the story never stops to actually explain a single damn thing and keeps abandoning stuff at a moment's notice. For example, in one kill the idea of a potentially psychotic or unstable station computer is introduced. Okay, fun idea, but then it's forgotten and abandoned in the very next scene. Right after that, a soldier breaks into a storage room to hide, only for the monster to somehow phase through a locked door between cuts and kill the guy. How did it pull this off? Couldn't tell you even if I wanted to.

We have about four or five different explanations for what created the monsters, several of which are all dropped in the last five minutes. To make matters worse, it then opts for a kind of non-ending which makes The Big O look conservative by comparison. Rather than simply being an apocalyptic log, apparently the entire found-footage documentary was being made by someone to beam a message into the audience's heads so they might become mucus monsters themselves and everyone will die. This would be jarring enough, but the story actually opts to completely abandon any kind of proper resolution in order to do this.  To make matters even worse, it promptly creates a raging cluster-fuck of plot holes and unanswered questions which rips the episode a new one. The most prominent of these is when the main villain, editing together the episode, somehow knows and picks out the names and identities of each soldier at long range. Oh and, for no apparent reason, picks out "DOCTOR WHO" in an electronic word search, rather than doing the usual opening credits.

You know what might have saved it? If this has been just a normal base under siege episode. Abandon the goo-monster angle, abandon the Evangelion level "WTF reactions equates intelligence" ending, and just tell a story with the Doctor and some monsters. This really shouldn't be all that hard, and when trying to make things complicated royally buggers up a story this straight forwards, perhaps the writers should stop doing it for a while. Doctor Who lasted decades without needing to turn everything into a David Lynch production written by M. Night Shyamalan. Perhaps its time the people running the show damn well remembered that.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Games Workshop Announces Specialist Games' Return - Hope or Damnation?

It's no secret that the relationship between Games Workshop and its fandom is strained at the best of times. Between balance issues with armies, the inexplicable ability to demolish the lore of whole armies, and half the fandom wanting a tournament game over casual fun, there's rarely a time everyone is happy. In the wake of Age of Sigmar, we've seen a few gradual concessions of late to help keep older games alive, starting with the re-release of Warhammer Fantasy rules on Black Library. This, however, is the first time we've seen something fully resurrected by the company since Space Hulk's fleeting revival.

Announced a couple of days ago, Games Workshop's news letter reported positive feedback from its recent Betrayal at Calth release. Sales have apparently been wrong with the game, confirming its continued production well into the future. However, old fans were much more excited to see the following paragraph:

"Our all-new Specialist Design Studio will even be tasked with bringing back and revamping some of our old favourites. Blood Bowl, Epic, Necromunda and Battlefleet Gothic are just some of the great games the team are already eyeing up."

It's a brief mention to be sure, but one which carries a lot of very positive possibilities for the future, and a lot of bad ones.

While the fan groups actively supporting these games might have been far smaller than the three big games, they were nevertheless extremely dedicated. Many were especially ticked off when Games Workshop first abandoned all support for them and then actively shut them down, to the point of wielding the DMCA like a cudgel against fan material and community websites. As such there is an understandable degree of enthusiasm to be found among many who missed these games in their heyday, but some understandable animosity from the old guard. How well they can win over these groups is ultimately going to be a deciding factor in their success. As they each held a smaller niche audience and community, it's those same hardcore fans who keep it going. If the company loses them then sales are not going to exactly spike overnight.

Another problem notably stems from the lack of Warhammer Fantasy games in that list. While it mentions every tabletop title set in the grim darkness of the far future, it's hard not to notice how Warmaster and Mordheim have been carefully omitted. This could simply be thanks to the company focusing upon the most prominent games first after all, but it's also hard not to consider how little support the company has offered anything set prior to Age of Sigmar. Almost all following video game adaptations of late have been set during or following the End Times, and some fear that the games might be revamped to reflect the new setting rather than embracing the old one. It may not be wholly true, Mordheim has been one of the bigger video game successes of late, but at the same time it's hard not to consider what the future might bring.

Another, bigger concern has been the mention of "revamping" each game and what that might bring with it. We saw the attempted revival of Man 'O War several years ago in the form of Dreadfleet, which was a single shot board game. Despite some fun mechanics, it was limited on several fronts, but primarily how a lack of overall balance would often lead the game to play out more or less the same way each time. It was certainly a solid way to test the waters, but some fear a repeat of that same incident torpedoing their own chances. After all, it would be a poor show to allow the future of games like Necromunda be decided by a single one-shot release, especially given how that would bypass so many of their strengths. It if failed to capture the audience, failed depict how it could encourage ongoing campaigns or simply failed to be mechanically watertight, that's a beloved franchise potentially gone for another decade or two.

Even without considering just how they might be brought back, there are naturally some concerns as to how certain games might be adapted. Some fear that, in order to help encourage mass participation, games like Epic or Battlefleet Gothic might start to see their own codex creep. These are games which encouraged campaigns and even tournaments even more heavily than the traditional big two, and an evolving metagame is a good way to encourage continued participation. However, Games Workshop hasn't had exactly the best track record in managing this, as most of their big plans have come down to bringing in bigger and bigger units from other games time after time. If Gothic were to go the way of 40,000, some fear that we'd see armies with at least two Planet Killers per fleet or some nonsense like that. Also, taking into account the size many 40,000 armies are expected to have and the over-saturation of super heavy units, it's hard to see what appeal Epic will have to new players.

Still, for all the potential issues, there are still plenty of good ones to consider. Foremost among these is that, in all honesty, many of these games couldn't simply be brought back without any changes. Sure, many had a good skeleton for their rules or a good basis, but in one way or another proved to be extremely wonky at best. Blood Bowl was infamous for its extremely unbalanced teams and - while that might have become part of the game's charm - many others were no better. Battlefleet Gothic saw ork brute ram ships dominating some games, and necrons were a unstoppable force no one could hope to even slow down. Epic had its own issues given how insanely fast certain specialist armies could be, particularly the Biel-Tan Swordwind, in running rings around their foes. Hell, arguably the one which needed it the most, Inquisitor, suffered from some truly infamous problems. Even without getting into the space marine issues, some problems found in the game could make Dark Heresy look tame on its worst days.

Another point to consider might be how current trends might actually allow for support these games were long denies. At the time the company was still trying to make a token effort to support these releases, they were not fully embracing the use of e-mails or social media. While the company might still find this to be something of a stumbling point, there's no denying it's better today than what we've had over the past few years. Facebook accounts have opened up, Twitter accounts have been re-activated and there is a push for community support rather than just shutting everyone out. Well, something of a push, we've still got a long way to go, but the point is they're improving. As such, whereas the magazine supporting these games - Fanatic - was shut down after a dozen issues or so, but survived as a fan work for years afterwards, the company might be open minded enough to replicate that success. It would be an easy thing to have even just a short digital magazine released every once in a while to keep people drawn in, after all.

Another point in favour of keeping the game going is, to be perfectly honest, the models themselves. Go onto eBay and you'll find everything from titans to strike cruisers going second hand at staggering costs, usually enough to buy most of a Firestorm Armada patrol fleet. Even if they're not playing, people love the idea of having a pocketable giant humanoid siege engine or even a small fleet purely for show, and as such it's enough to get certain people interested. Even if the company didn't fully commit to the game, like last time they'd want it around for a little while at least to keep making cash off of the builds exclusive to each game.

The final, and perhaps the biggest, point in favour of Games Workshop doing a good job with these stems from their direction. At the moment they're a company of extremes. We've gone over this in the past, and everything with them either needs to be insanely large when it comes to armies or easy to run. They want either smaller skirmish games or vast legions, and at the moment cracks are starting to show in both those approaches. Warhammer 40,000 is still drawing in people, but the sheer scale of some games is driving them away. Age of Sigmar is hitting the "beer and pretzels" approach the company wants, but the narrow focus upon the Sigmarines and high prices is preventing many jumping on. That and, well, a lot of other things. The point is that several Specialist Games could work to ease people into these, serving as a gateway drug to the hobby in the same way Mordheim once did to Warhammer Fantasy. If they can keep the prices relatively affordable, they'll have a number of iconic factions to work with, and a way to counter the draw other games are having over Games Workshop products.

At the end of the day, it seems best to remain hopeful but guarded. There's plenty of reasons Games Workshop would want this to succeed, of even to completely avoid the mistakes of the past. However, the real question which come from how well they have learned from prior errors and how far ahead they can plan. At the very least this is a chance for some of these older experiences to finally get some fresh blood, but it could easily go wrong. As with so many things, only time will tell what the future has in store for the Specialist Games franchises.

Friday, 13 November 2015

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

Welcome to part one, if you want to see an analysis of the lore then please click here.

One of the most interesting, and arguably beneficial points about Kauyon is actually one of its big selling points. The book is expensive to be sure, a full fifteen pounds more than the standard codex. Many would rather not just buy the book for some additional lore and a few bonus missions, no matter how good some of the formations might be. So, Games Workshop's choice was a rare moment of sanity - Include the entire rules' set for the Tau Empire within its pages.

Now, this might seem like a cheap cop out at first but think about it for a second. One of the big problems surrounding the Supplements was always its lack of rules. Rather than offering details on a full army, players were offered a bare basic skeleton to give their force some vague identity, and page upon page wasted upon rules no one was using. Plus, atop of all that, you needed to buy the codex itself, doubling your costs. Here, you're spending a little more, getting the full army but also a ton of new formations and rules to help bring it to life. Sure, you might be losing some of the background lore in the main codex and the book might be more of a single insular story, but in this case it works. After all, the lore in the main codex is sadly fairly thread-bare at best, skipping over many of the most vital points. In its place though, you get a full campaign story which focuses upon the entire Empire's latest efforts and single greatest campaign, along with substantially more work giving insight into this race. It probably wouldn't work with anyone else, but here you honestly aren't losing anything critical in the slightest.

Of course, with the book being so Tau Empire focused, some might be wondering about the space marines. With the entire codex present, they might seem like a secondary element or just an unnecessary addition overall. While with other armies this might have been true, the over-saturation of marines actually works in its favour here. There's a solid chance that anyone playing the Tau Empire will have at least a small batch of marines stashed away somewhere, and in some cases a full on army. As such, they're unlikely to go to waste with most players, and being two First Founding armies they'll cover a solid number of possible chapters. That and it's a chance to help further popularize some often overlooked long-established chapters on the tabletop. Really. besides the Iron Hands the White Scars are woefully overlooked by too many people.

Still, some of you are likely wondering about the rules themselves and a more detailed account of the crunch. Well, it probably won't surprise you to learn that most of its content is divided between a series of key missions which play out events from the campaign, and a a mass of new formations. The few elements which aren't devoted to these mostly come down to a few new bits of wargear and some unique tactical objectives. It's not too much to be sure, but given this is a book revolving around a single campaign rather than fully fleshing out an entire army, it's more than sufficient.

The missions themselves are mixed really, and with a few good and bad ideas alike. A lot of those here seem to be recycled one way or another sadly, so we end up with several variations on older concepts. The usual ones you'd expect, from one army deploying in the middle of the board while surrounded by the enemy to a "race" battle which advances onwards via recycling terrain as they move towards the edge. Some are nice to be sure, and even put something of a new spin on some older ideas, such as one "surrounded" mission's deployment zones; with the Imperial player having a semi-circle towards one board edge while the Tau Empire player can work from almost any area directly surrounding it. Equally, the special rules range from fun and interesting to just your common special mission goal. So, for example, the final mission has "Defend the Fallen Heroes" which turns dead characters into objective markers for the rest of the game. A nice bonus which can turn the tide of the conflict one way or another, but on the other hand you also have things like the constant re-rolling of reserves in certain missions while others require practically your entire army to come on in reserve. That one becomes especially tedious after the third or forth time it's wheeled out.

Oddly enough, the missions are actually at their most fun when they're at their most gimmicky. While it's certainly to the detriment of the usual statements you'll find on this blog - that the backbone of armies should not be forgotten because of the big, flashy units - there's no denying the sheer joy in playing the pure flier or pure super-heavy scenarios. Each has a series of special rules which are catered to models of their type, and it honestly seems as if the developers are having an immense amount of fun being as utterly insane as possible. After all, there's a rule which involves allowing a Stormsurge shooting at the ground beneath Knights, trying to force them to fall to their deaths while fighting their way down a sheer cliff-face. It's just a shame they didn't go the extra mile, turning the Thunderstrike Pimp Hand into a full blown Pacific Rim rocket punch in return.

So, some of you might be wondering just what the wargear and formations on offer are exactly. Well, for the most part, they're either adaptations of existing formations or more gimmicky variations which seem to fit the chapter a little better than most. So, starting with one of the marine chapters, the Raven Guard come with a specialist variation of the normal demi-battle company. It's the same as usual, but there's a greater emphasis upon the use of Scouts, with certain sergeants offering the ability to ignore cover to nearby units (thanks to recon intel. presumably). Another very useful bonus is Wayfinders, which can allow Scout squads or Bikes to lead other units onto the battlefield when emerging from reserve.

For the most part they're nothing truly exceptional to write home about, and even the most interesting ones tend to come down to bundling certain units together. Say, a mass of Vanguard veterans or even a mix of Sternguard, Dreadnoughts and Stormravens for a surprise, sudden arrival. Nearly all of those with the Raven Guard have a huge emphasis placed upon reserve roles in some way, and while understandable it makes some of this seem like too much of a cop-out. There's no push made to better explore some of the army's more interesting angles, and instead it really seems like many of the formations were made to be as easily interchangeable as possible. Okay, not an entirely bad idea, but it means there's not as much variation as you'd hope, even with a few notably entertaining or rather brutal variations here and there.

The Raven Guard wargear on hand falls into the usual categories we so often bring up, but has a few fun variations here and there. For example, the Armour of Shadows (is there a Raven Guard drinking game involving the term "shadow" being spammed? Because someone needs to invent that) offers a 2+ standard save, but atop of this it offer Stealth to the users or Shrouded if they remained still. Generic, sure, but certainly a little more fun than just the usual brick shithouse defences.
Long range weapons, meanwhile, come up a couple of tasty varieties, both expected and unexpected. The Ex Tenebris pistol - along with retaining some interesting lore, as it was originally built by Corax as a gift for Night Haunter - can best be summed up as a mini-assault cannon. While it has the stats of a basic bolter, the addition of Rending, Precision Shots and Assault 3 makes this useful for some general crowd control, especially when springing ambushes.
On the other hand we have the Nihlus, the rare example of a sniper rifle relic. Limited purely to Veteran Scout Sergeants (sadly) it's the ying to the Tenebris' yang. It hits at Heavy 1, but with Armourbane added to the mix it's blowing off head sin a moment, and the Shadow-Shot special rule allows it to A. fire independently from the rest of the unit, and B. hit vehicles at Strength 6. Not too shabby at all.

The remaining trio of items are good to odd. The Raven Skull of Korvaad is a useful, cheap method of adding an additional point to BS and WS, but its secondary effect seems limited. Should the hero carrying it fall, any Raven Guard unit will gain Hatred and Rage. That's all fine and dandy, but with a range of just 6" it's limited to say the least, and offers little beyond the direct melee which slew him.
Raven's Fury and Swiftstrike and Murder meanwhile are the close combat variants. They almost seem to have been made to work in synch with one another, given one is a jump pack with bonus effects in melee while the latter is a set of lightning claws. One allows for Hammer of Wrath attacks at +2 Strength along with giving the user Strikedown as an ability, while the latter offers the ability to double the number of possible hits. Every successful opening hit allows for another bonus strike against a foe, making it rather useful for carving your way through mobs.

On the whole, while a little generic, the Raven Guard remain strong here but do lack a little variety or pushes to explore new ideas. Then again, when that's the biggest concern, the writers are clearly doing something very right.

The White Scars are somewhat similar in many regards here, as they ultimately fall into the same rapid strike mentality the Raven Guard favour. That said, they nevertheless manage to stand out on their own fairly well, thanks in no small part to the fact they don't limit their approach to war. Rather than just giving every single last formation outflanking or hit and run related tactics, there's some serious variation from one group to the next. As such, while they fall into similar categories as the Raven Guard in terms of models, you at least have a little more flavour to work with. The bike squadrons in particular have a little more interesting elements as their speed and fury in melee gets a little more attention than just striking before falling back. That's instead left to a few other formations to full out that role, and you're left with more of an overall force you can tailor to your will.

By comparison, the relics here aren't quite as well balanced as some might like and some do pale in when put next to the Raven Guard's own items. You have most of the usual traits and tropes again but without so much originality. So, there's a banner which gifts Furious Charge and Fleet to any Scars unit within 12", and a master-crafted sword which adds +3 Strength and hits at AP 1. Even an advanced bionic eye with a mysterious past really only amounts to +1 BS and offering Ignores Cover to the user and his unit. None of these are useless or outright bad by any means, but at the same time we've seen these same ideas done time and time again. The names might change along with the armies, but these really are just cookie cutter designs by this point.

The more interesting or outlandish stuff only shows up with a legendary attack bike (which can move 18" while turbo-boosting and counts as a jetbike) and a Librarian upgrade. Even that last one doesn't amount to much though, just giving Adamantium Will and the Psychic Maelstrom power to the model. Really though, that's about it overall.

Naturally this just leaves the Tau Empire and its own formations. These often prove to be extremely powerful ones to be sure, sometimes more than a little broken, but nevertheless ones where there's been a clear effort to make certain units more viable. One very appreciated option was a formation focusing purely upon the auxiliary units of the army, the kroot and vespid. While sadly lacking the Gue'vesa or lesser known species, it's a chance to look into something besides the main forces and treats them like advanced scouts, giving a few bonuses to each. Notably making ruins easier to move through, and offering the vespid a few new bonuses to quickly move through difficult terrain.

Others meanwhile are mixed but often with the expected focus. Along with the aforementioned mass infiltration unit brought up in the review of Codex: Tau Empire, others are basically massed gunship support or mixed drone units. Working in a similar manner to the space marines formations, these are built around a single semi-company or forces, primarily infantry groups. A few actually operate in a manner akin to the Raven Guard, with a focus placed upon mass infantry and unit support. There's different variations upon this, but you have units of troop choices whose main rules basically revolve around concentrating fire upon certain targets. Okay, this does actually fit the overall style of the Tau Empire, emulating their hunter origins, with masses of warriors bringing down stronger foes. That said, given the use of markerlights within this army, it's a little difficult to look at this and not view it as overkill. 

Others found in here tend to range from generic to interesting, with the Air Caste Cadre simply offering the ability to ignore Shaken and Stunned rolls. The Firebase Support Cadre is another example, merely offering Tank Hunter and Monster Hunter. Most of the time it does try to mess with experimental concepts it works to be sure, such as the Heavy Retribution Cadre (AKA railgun spam) denying the enemy the ability to run, but it's just a little off at times. Like so much here, it's really a case of delving through the same old boiler plate guff to find the fun ones people have been messing with for a while.

Overall, for all the good and bad it offers, Kauyon is still a definite success. While it still has a multitude of problems in terms of general execution, there's no denying that there's still plenty of fun to be had here. It works well as an alternative to the standard Codex: Tau Empire, with vastly more lore and rules on hand, and little to really botch or undermine the army's overall effectiveness. If anything its main problem seems to be that it hits too hard and can win victories all too easily unless facing down a similarly nutso force with broken formations, and too flexible when it comes to unit variety. Still, Tau Empire players should have plenty of fun with this one. If you're after the deluxe version of the codex or want just a little more out of your crunch, you should be happy to know this book does the army justice.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Tau Empire Part 2 - The Rules (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 7th Edition)

Welcome to part two, to see some thoughts on the lore here's part one.

While they might have had their hits and misses, the Tau Empire are an army I personally regard with a good deal of respect. While best known for the infamous Fish of Fury tactic several editions back, for the most part they're relatively well balanced and require skill to properly wield them. Oh, they have their game-breakers, there's no argument to be had there. However, unlike some of the more infamous codices (Fifth Edition Grey Knights and Blood Angels, and the recent Craftworld Eldar and Mechanicus books) they're scaled in a different way. Rather than just handing the player the "I Win" button up front, practically on a silver platter, people had to look through each codex to find them. Plus, even the big infamous additions such as railguns, tended to be balanced out by being mounted on surprisingly fragile units.

Taking all of the above into consideration though, Tau Empire players are probably going to earn the ire of many competitors this edition. While they're not bringing an exterminatus to a knife fight, they are strolling in with a fusion blaster. The chief problem is that, in all honesty, they only have one core weakess - Close Combat. For everything else, they have an insanely adaptable army which can counter just about everything thanks to their sheer range, wargear choices and the ability to rob targets of cover saves. Honestly, if this were back in the days of Cron Air, I would have personally been calling this justice. Right about now though, it seems more than a little insane.

Just think of any generally gimmicky or spammy list you can generally form up, any one at all. Chances are that if the Tau Empire is prepared, they'll be able to wipe the floor with it.

So, massed fliers? Not a problem, the army now has Velocity Trackers, which can allow models to choose (turn by turn) whether they have the Skyfire rule or not. If that wasn't already sphincter tightening enough, it can be taken by almost all battlesuits.

What about entrenched gunline armies, you might be asking. Markerlights remove almost any and all advantages, cover saves and up the BS of almost anyone shooting at them.

Massed deep-striking armies of Terminators or Feel No Pain units? Tau Empire units can react in moments thanks to a few new items, gunning them down before they can react. Counterfire Defence Systems allow units to Overwatch areas at BS2 and Early Warning Overrides allow battlesuits to have Interceptor. Sounds useless to start with, until you realize the latter one is shooting down reserves at the end of their movement phase and can be given to Riptides.

This is the real issue here, in an attempt to focus upon their role as a highly mobile force of adaptable warriors, the writers have kind of turned them into the Craftworld Eldar on steroids. Well, sans the old pre-Strength D handguns eldar anyway. Rather than having a few distinct weaknesses or general shortcomings which favour a certain playstyle, you can instead more or less tailor each army to fight almost anything. Yeah, you might hurt them, but the Empire's still going to rip you a new one if they know what you're bringing to the table. As a result of this, most of its weaknesses are going to be player based rather than found in the rules.

Most of the general weapons this time around have not had any real changes to them. Burst cannons are still the light infantry maulers which can turn Crisis teams into Guardsmen shredders, Fusion blasters still make for some of the best short range transport poppers in the game, and the cyclic ion blaster is its usual glorious self. It's a good range on the whole and, while not annihilating everything in sight, they're still pretty damn powerful. In terms of basic stats they're fine, but they can seem more than a little wince-worthy once combined with some of the new items or stats. 

For example, multi-trackers (those ever lovable weapons which allow you to go guns akimbo with mecha) now come standard, giving you another slot to work with. So, those usual mixes of plasma rifles and/or missile pod or fusion blaster might now have the aforementioned big upgrades like Velocity Tracker. Flamers are also incredibly more useful now thanks to this same alteration, as loading up with two now means you can have two as a single twin linked weapon. Cue ork flambĂ©.

The flashier new additions this time largely stem from the new units such as the Breacher Squads. Outfitted with newer guns and drones, at their core they're effectively cheaper versions of vespids. Their goal is to get in close and muller the enemy via pulse blasters, which are really just short range marine killers, or something used to break up enemy assaults getting too close for comfort. It's what you'd expect really, but the bonus which interests many people are the new turrets and drones. Acting as a macro version of a common or garden shield drone, the MV36 Guardian offers either a 6++ or 5++ invulnerable save depending upon how much you spend on it. It's useful for that added bit of suitability and combined with the Tactical Support Turret, it gives you a more durable troops choice to hold certain objectives.

Speaking of troops, both Fire Warriors and Carnivore Squads have been changed somewhat. While the former are still the individually weak tissue paper soldiers with the awesome guns, they have a somewhat more manageable nine points per model now. It eases things up a little and allows players to spend a few more points on a Devilfish, easing things up for the mobile infantry approach the tau are supposed to emphasise. We'll get to the alternative in a minute. Kroot meanwhile are an interesting new breed as their best role now is actually as far from combat as possible. They're still a speed bump at best against most other dedicated assault forces, and will likely never make back their points against anything holding a sword or with a decent toughness. However, upgrade them with Sniper Rounds, and you have an incredibly cheap band of twenty infiltrating sharpshooters with 4+ cover saves in trees. In one fell swoop, in one addition after several Editions of mediocrity, all of a sudden kroot heavy armies become very viable to the right player.

Moving onto others which have had a brief overhaul, the Fast Attack choices have seen a substantial buff. Drone Squadrons and the aforementioned Vespid Stingwings are now surprisingly heavy hitters under the right circumstances.

 Drones are now a mix of Gun, Shield and Marker-light flavours, with up to twelve grouping together as a single unit. While this might still seem fairly useless at first, it can be wonderfully infuriating to certain players. With the Shields giving some substantial durability to the unit, you're then free to pester units with new Marker-Lights or Pinning Tests to keep them in line. While BS2 might not seem all that fantastic, bear in mind this can be linked up with other Marker-Lights for greater effectiveness. Even if you don't want to do that though, there's also the option of linking them up with your Shas'O or Shas'El. This seems useless at first, not to mention overly expensive; yet with the right buffs it can leave you with a flying detachment of Twin-Linked, BS5 drones which ignore cover and cause Pinning. 

Stingwings in the meantime are a little more straight forwards, with a greater emphasis placed upon their survivability. Rather than just jumping out, killing a few things and dying, they now have a new 4+ save which puts them on par with Scouts. Well, Scouts armed with 18" neutron blasters and with new bonus rules which give them movement through cover, stealth in ruins, and boosts their Initiative to 6. While still expensive, they serve as a useful group of outriders performing hit and run attacks on certain foes or harrying threatening certain forces. Not bad at all as upgrades go.

Of course, it's not just the troops which have seen a big upgrade but one of the more prominent HQ choices as well. The Ethereals in particular have been made surprisingly useful for a change. Rather than the guy you shove up front to get killed ASAP for some nice bonuses, he's now the one you want to keep going for his substantial buffs. Along with offering his leadership to any unit within 12" for some pressing tests, he now offers multiple invocations. Used in a manner akin to certain buffs employed by psykers, these can be employed once per turn, choosing one during the movement phase. They're far from bad choices either, with a 6+ Feel No Pain save, Stubborn, Snap Shots after moving or even bonus rolls from pulse weapons included among their rules.

It's a nice change of pace to be sure. On the one hand you've now got a new way to make the Ethereals genuinely useful, while on the other this is the rare example of a truly buff-focused HQ choice. It's someone who is built into the army and serves as a cog among them, rather than the other way around. Something also helped by their fragility to be honest, and this really is a unit you never want to be caught out in the open. That said, it is a little sad they resorted to turning them into the Tau Empire stand-in for psykers, but it's still a solid evolution from their past incarnation. 

So, that leaves only the final big two units: The Stormsurge and Ghostkeel. As the two big, new centrepiece units, you can guess that these are going to be part of the codex's focus. In fairness though, while the book does hype their use, it does so sparingly. They're still a part of a bigger army, and unlike some past releases don't just supplant half the units in this force. Believe it or not though, that's not purely down to them basically equating to Broadside and Stealth designs of steroids.

The Ghostkeel serves as a heavy infiltrator, effectively a gigantic armoured mini-mecha capable of quietly ripping your enemy a new arsehole. This is really what Raven Guard fans hunger for with their dreadnoughts, something big, beefy and powerful capable of ninjaing vulnerable threats way behind their lines. Along with having Stealth and Shrouded, these monsters have an Electrowarfare suite which doubles cover bonuses, meaning that the unit grants them 2+ cover against more or less anything outside of 12". Oh, and if all that wasn't enough, it can also more or less blind one target opening up on it, meaning they're limited to the odd snap-shot for the rest of the turn. Oh, and even if you get through all that, you're left with a multi-wound Toughness 5 model with 3+ saves along with multiple drones willing to take hits for it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the battlesuit which would not die.

After all of its defensive measures, its guns almost seem paltry by comparison. Offering a twin linked set of flamers, fusion blasters or burst cannons, it's easily optimised for anti-vehicle and infantry roles. However, those are just its shoulder mounted weapons, with the fusion collider and ion raker being its guns of choice. The former is fusion blaster with a small template, the latter an ion rifle version of a hurricane bolter with the option to overcharge its shots and fire out large blast templates. I don't want to call this thing downright broken, but i'm most certainly thinking it.

As for the Stormsurge... does anything even really need to be said? The sheer number of guns mounted on that mecha and the term "giant Broadside" speaks for itself. The big one tends to get people's attention at first, but the two gigantic missile pods can hardly be overlooked, especially given the sheer amount of damage the normal Broadsides tend to inflict with those things. Launching 4D6 smart missiles per turn, it wrecks living hell among light vehicles, heavy infantry and generally make getting near the damn thing an utter nightmare. Backed up by three varied support systems, you can give the thing anything from shield generators to velocity trackers, making the damn thing as effective against fliers as ground targets. Oh, and atop all this, that big gun on its back? It can fire twice normally (four times when anchored) and gets stronger the closer you get to it. Try to engage it in long range and you're being hammered by S9 AP5 shots. Get within 10" and you're being hit by Strength D weapons.

This is probably a codex which is going to dominate the tournaments for months to come, and it honestly seems like the big intention was to beef this up as an opposing force to the Craftworld Eldar. I can appreciate the intentions behind this one, the fact it doesn't rely purely upon sheer raw power and the lack of any useless units, but there's no denying the codex creep is in play here. If the guy with this codex knows you're coming, knows your strengths, and has the models to counter them, the only thing which will spare total defeat is sheer luck of the dice. Even without their rather meaty formations backing them up (Optimized Stealth Cadre, for example, offers +1BS to two Ghostkeels and a lot of Stealth Suits, ignores cover and automatically hits the rear of all vehicles) it's undeniably cheesy and all too easy to dominate many games.

If this seems less rage worthy than usual, it's because most of that rage was spent on the eldar. There are good ideas on hand here, genuinely great ones, but I do have to wonder if Games Workshop's new objective is to offer balance to the game by simply giving every army on offer as much power as possible.