Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Divinity: Original Sin II (Video Game Review)

Divinity: Original Sin II can be best summerized as "Old thoughts, new ideas". You have the freedom, harshness and difficult decision making worthy of an Ultima game, bereft of the grinding and mechanical frustrations of old. Plus you have a fantastic story to back that all up.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Eight Lamentations: Spear of Shadows by Josh Reynolds (Age of Sigmar Book Review)

There are many differences between Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar no matter how you look at them. One was grimy apocalyptic Renaissance fantasy warfare while the other is high fantasy crusades among the stars. It's a Dungeons and Dragons vs Spelljammer situation at its core. This has led many people to argue one way or another in terms of their overall strengths, but one area Fantasy has always won out in was in its stories. 

While Age of Sigmar has featured ongoing series and dramatic tales, there was no Gotrek and Felix to them, no Chronicles of Malus Darkblade or Vampire Geneviève to give it real distinction. The novels and short stories we had sometimes featured good tales, but they often required either prior engagement in the setting or lacked the diverse characters needed to give a saga a real meaning. Eight Lamentations seems set to fix that, as it serves as both a solid jumping on point for many older fans still unfamiliar with the older lore while also broadening the setting to offer a truly distinct and unique saga among the tales.

The Synopsis

Like many elements of the existing tales, the story here links closely to ideas and relics from past ages. In this case it focuses upon a dark power forgotten by many until now. Weapons forged in the name of an ancient war have emerged once more, each worth more to a king than an entire legion of immortal warriors. While thought lost for ages, they have unexpectedly returned, and with them possible damnation for all involved in the ongoing war. Should the Ruinous Powers claim the first of these weapons for themselves, the Spear of Shadows, the lands would flow with an unending tide of blood. To halt this catastrophe, a band of mortal heroes have been assembled to recover the weapon and return it to its true owner: The smith-god Grungni.

The Good

Compared to many other works within this setting, it honestly seems as if this is a concerted effort by Age of Sigmar to step back and establish more ground for writers to work on. That is meant in the most literal of senses as, rather than demi-gods, ancient warriors or stormborn crusaders, the heroes we follow are very much mortal. They retain more than a few links back to the Old World in more ways than one, and with such a diverse cast of humans, dwarves duardin, skaven and even the odd vampire, the book is able to explore a multitude of aspects at once. We see more of how certain cultures have survived and adapted to their new home, how some races have even thrived in this hellish realm while others cling to the tatters of their old lives. It's certainly an interesting choice, as it helps to give more context to the figures on every side without making the book feel overburdened or reliant upon nostalgia for the forgotten world.

Another factor which definitely works in this book's favour is how it manages to still give many characters a unique face despite being used as a representation of their culture. More than a few times on this site reviews have been forced to point out how characters lean more towards being certain archetypes or examples of their faction than individuals. While this is partially true in one or two cases, you never lose sight of how they remain strong individuals. Volker, for example, does fit a few of the more commonly human traits of asking audience questions or serving as the outsider. At the same time, the story does push to set up a few details thanks to his role as a survivor, and his history with a few of the other races. Just because he needs to act as the audience surrogate doesn't stop him from being a solid primary character after all, and the likes of Roggen work well against them due to their contrasting natures. Much of that is down to their origins (one a knight, the other a gunsmith born in Sigmar's realm) but the book utilises them well.

The fact the heroes are mortal also helps significantly in terms of the book's tone. There's a very Conan-esque feel to the events thanks to the individuals, scope and figures involved. Not so much the cheesy if fun Schwarzenegger film but more the original novels, where you had heroes wandering through the towers or sorcerers or stumbling upon eldritch horrors. A place where much of the world was still uncharted, still wild and untamed, but built-up enough to feature a few hubs of civilisation, where people have adapted as best they can to life there. This is established early on with Grungni, standing over a forge made from the hissing molten form of a daemon and using its power to craft new weapons and each others his trade. It's the sort of thing Fantasy could rarely get away with, but the shift in setting and the ability to more actively depict such figures works in its favour when given to the right writer.

The actual world building on display is fantastic here, with some incredibly creative, surreal and generally fantastical details which truly hooks you in very early on. While previous works seemed set to largely leave the Mortal Realms as a craggy corrupted wasteland ruled by Chaos, Reynolds seemed to ask "How has life there changed?" As a result of this, the reader is granted environments such as a forest of spiders which makes Mirkwood seem tame, a duardin city in the sky, a city built upon a leviathan worm and a real population to work with. Scavenging demigryph riders, airship riding prospectors and the evolution of the Slayer cult (sort of) all show up here, and this is the real strength of the work. You're given a real sense of the scale of the conflict. Rather than being just a waste being fought over, the location has settings, people, histories and details to really work with. We know about the factions now, but this book gives us a real look into the actual battlefield itself.

If you don't quite understand how important this is, consider the following: When anyone brings up the Old World, you immediately have several key images come to mind. Cities, cultures, people and even historical events. The Mortal Realms have lacked that, and in trying to flesh out the factions and their homes, it seems that this was often overlooked. As was how it might have adapted over time. After all, the Fallout games were all set in lethal wastelands, but that didn't stop some people recovering and starting to rebuild in some places.

While this could have easily devolved into a sight seeing tour, many of the key events are thankfully mostly handled without it losing sight of the narrative. There's always a clear race against time involved, and even when it takes a moment to shift gears to move onto an Overseer city, it's always towards a clear end goal. It's in much the same way that - to bring up Middle-Earth again - the Fellowship of the Ring might have stopped at Rivendell and Edoras, but it was always to serve a purpose and an important goal. The scenes of the world offered thanks to it were always in service to that greater saga, with the villains never falling out of focus.

This being said, there are definitely a few problems despite these positives.

The Bad

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is how mixed the fight scenes really are. For someone as talented and well versed in Warhammer as Josh Reynolds, a few fights distinctly lacked the sort of punch and detail which truly benefits the brutal nature of melee battles. There are some truly great ones to be sure, but more often than not those emerged towards the end of the first act onward and often benefited more from the unique settings. A conflict against sky-sharks or the brawl against the skaven in a forgotten place stand out thanks to use of the setting or their sheer scale. These broader descriptions or more poetic elements tend to work in Reynolds' favour, and it's what helps him to truly give the setting such a distinct feel of uniqueness. Without them however, some conflicts lack the sort of grounding and impact that they truly need. Were this taking place quite late on it would be one thing, but because one such event emerges within the early chapters, it makes it difficult to initially get into.

The introduction to the story also lacks some of the establishment and slower pace which benefited works such as his Fabius Bile novel. While the opening chapter focusing upon Grungni is a fantastic start, the introduction of the villains seems disconnected. It doesn't stick with one place for long enough to truly allow you to get to grips with some of the scenes and elements, and the fact that we jump right from the "big good" of the book standing over a forge to the evildoer doing the same seems oddly repetitive. It could have been used to easily flow from one scene to the next or even to strike up beneficial contrasts, but the presentation and set-up lacks more than a few of the elements which would have helped in this regard. Instead it makes it seem as if the novel is jumping around from one scene to the next at a rapid pace without fully establishing a primary character to follow, and can throw you through a loop to start with.

Another issue which does crop up is how the novel only offers a few key moments for certain characters. Bits to truly slow down and let them shine, or even conversations to better reflect upon their world views. This does benefit the novel's brisk pacing, and what we get is still great, but in regards to some more recent works it's hard not to say that there should have been more. While it might be unfair to directly compare this with the Black Legion, a few slower paced moments or longer conversations to give them a bit more life. The fact that Grungni is granted the most such moments is what helps him to stand out above all others (and yes, this is a rare moment where meeting a god and showing him physically truly worked out for the best) but it can leave you just wishing to see more of him over the others present.

Perhaps the final point above all else is how this book feels a lot like the start of a greater story, rather than an individual chapter of a bigger work. It is very effective in laying down the ground work for future tales and serving as an introduction to a larger event, but it rarely seems to be its own story. While it certainly has a self-contained tale and three distinct acts, a great deal is left to carry over to future works or be ironed out later on. As such, it can leave you feeling as if there should have been more at the end. Even without just cutting the end or closing on blatant sequel bait to lead directly into the next story a-la Lords of Mars, it lacks the sort of pause for closure which can make a read satisfying.

The Verdict:

Honestly, most of the problems found here are more general flaws than definite scars that stick out in the narrative. Were it not for the fact that Spear of Shadows front loads several ones at once into its opening chapters, they would largely be unworthy of mentioning. Unfortunately, because it does, it can make the book difficult to really get into, and it can be problematic to absorb so much scattered information and details before it finds its footing. Despite that however, this is a definite success, and it is one of the strongest stories to come out of the Age of Sigmar line to date. 

This is the sort of book I would hand to any fan - old or new - to make them want to get involved in the game and learn more about the world. It gives so many wonderful details and new ideas that it's hard to give any solid reason not to recommend unless you are adamantly disinterested in the whole franchise. Seeing how the world has changed, what some people have been forced to do in order to survive, and offering shout outs to Fantasy without remaining completely beholden to the Old World makes this truly entertaining. Top this off with one of the most surprising (and hilarious) mentions of what appears to be Malaki Makaisson's creations, and it's difficult not to enjoy once it gets going. Mark this one down as a worthy purchase, and keep an eye out for future Eight Lamentations works in the months to come.

Verdict: 6.8 out of 10

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Embuggerance Continues

So, my PC just died. Just when we finally get the ball rolling and working on frequent articles again, it seems that life found a new way to kick the legs out from under me. How long this is going to take will depend heavily upon the damage in question - as it simply refused to switch on this morning - and when I can manage to set the time aside to actually speak with someone.

In the meantime, some articles will continue. I have a small stockpile I have been building up of Black Library releases (and Star Wars: Crimson Empire II) which will be sent out over the coming weeks. With luck this shouldn't disrupt the schedule too much, but I want it to be clear that these are going up on a timer - I won't be able to approve comments or reply to people in that time unless an alternative method can be found. So, if your comment doesn't appear for a while or you're still waiting for me to answer you, I am sorry, but it might just take a little longer to get around to it.

Here's hoping things finally take a turn for the better soon.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Sunless Skies (Early Access Video Game Review)

Combining the freedom of Wing Commander: Privateer with a setting that might as well be described as “Discworld as envisioned by Alan Moore”, Sunless Sea proved to be one of the surprise hits of 2015. While Failbetter’s success with Fallen London could never be denied, the shift in gears to a more mechanically heavy game was nevertheless a welcome surprise, offering a surprising level of narrative depth and freedom. Shifting away from the sea and towards the stars, Sunless Skies is set to expand upon this fantastic world further, with a few surprising changes.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

No Plans For Future Batman: Arkham Games, Claims Kevin Conroy

Above all others, the Batman: Arkham series has been the benchmark for superhero games. Even counting the buggy Arkham Origins and mechanically troubled mess of Arkham Knight, the series nevertheless left a mark upon the gaming world. While fans have speculated about its return more than once, unfortunately, it looks as if Knight will be the end to this saga.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Black Legion by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)

Do I really need to say anything? Really, just look at who is writing it. By this point, even on his worst day Aaron Dembski-Bowden is still offering B+ and A- level material to read. Even when you wholeheartedly disagree with his views of the setting or depiction of events, the character drama and execution of many key ideas makes it a stellar story. The Black Legion is no exception here and, honestly, it's another extremely strong outing from this author. 

Building upon what we were offered last time, this second book in the series offers up more than enough twists, introspective thoughts and historic conflicts to keep any fan happy. That said, it isn't without a few key flaws.

The Synopsis

Set years after the events which brought Abaddon to prominence once more, the Black Legion has incorporated multiple warbands into its forces. Gathering together the displaced sons of every primarch, it is slowly turning itself into the dominant force within the Eye. Yet, while he continues to build and expand upon his personal domain, Abaddon isn't without rivals. Another potential Warmaster, one who does not spurn the gifts of the Chaos Gods, stands in his way. At every turn Daravek, the Lord of Hosts, opposes him and seeks to claim the role of Chaos' right hand as his own destiny. Yet, as each of these warriors prepares to face one another in war, other minds are at work. As the Ruinous Powers attempt to force the two into a direct conflict, an oracle offering them a way to truly cement their power and claim dominance over the traitor legions.

That destiny awaited beyond them, outside the Eye of Terror, where a warrior king awaits the the traitor who escaped his justice centuries ago...

The Good

While Talon of Horus laid the foundations for the Black Legion to come into existence, we only see them acting as a true force within this book. While there is something of a time skip to have allowed them to go from a small force of depleted warbands to the largest united group in the Eye of Terror, you hardly feel as if you have missed a thing. The novel quickly catches you up on changes, new ranks and alterations (along with the new dynamic among the marines) but oddly enough without telling you too much about the past. While what is conveyed is enough, this leaves room for future stories to fill out the past and a much needed air of mystery to the legion for all that is depicted here. It's one of those odd events where we see everything and yet at the same time the book shows you so little that you still have many questions. Yet, somehow, it still manages to be satisfying.

The book handles many ideas, concepts and subjects in this oddly off-handed way, but it often serves to underline a number of points. For example, an early chapter features Iskandar Khayon commenting upon how the Black Legion celebrates its victories. This is in contrast to its more restrained loyalist counterparts, but also to offer a more distinct link to the older legions. Furthermore however, it also examines and displays how they react to failure, while at the same time building upon re-establishing the sense of brotherhood which was core to the previous book. There's rarely a point where it fully spells out anything, but even when it does, it's to more deeply examine the world in as few words as possible.

Khayon's commentary, as you might expect, remains a definite high point throughout the book. His opening monologue about the Ruinous Powers and his views on them quickly re-establish his typically grandiose,thoughtful and surprisingly human nature, which continues throughout the story. Often, especially during the quieter moments, his narration will paused to fully reflect upon how life has changed them in one way or another and of the state of the Eye. Unlike before a few of these aspects serve more directly as criticisms of the Black Legion directly, and yet for every time it does this he often comes back with an even greater strength to overshadow it. It helps to make him distinct now he has been offered the greater purpose he previously sought, while also allowing the tale to explore the Legion as it fully forms into the spearhead of the Black Crusades.

Interestingly enough however, Khayon's own direction and story here proves to be just as important as the major events he finds himself surrounded by. As you would expect from Aaron Dembski-Bowden, the character dynamics and personal stories take priority over the big events. The actual crusade itself is essential to the story, and the horrifically bloody battles you would hope for are there. However, as it's seen through Khayon's eyes, the story uses him to explore why the Black Legion remained standing. After all, the previous book established why it was formed and how Abaddon could so easily bring so many astartes together. This one then shows the sort of focus and drive which would keep them going again and again, waging their Long War to finally over throw Terra and claim the galaxy for themselves.

The actual character arc itself is largely defined through a few key scenes, but each is brilliantly handled. You can see it adjusting stage by stage, but you only truly realise its impact at the same moment Khayon does. This permits the story a great deal of legroom to add in a great many fascinating moments and environmental details (including a truly inspired moment involving Sangiunius) without it ever seeming to be truly broken up or disjointed. What's more however, it also allows you to re-read the book and pick out a few characters who came to the same revelation Khayon did well before his time. It's an interesting twist upon the usual story details we get, and it further helps to emphasize just why Abaddon is such an influential and keystone figure within the Legion.

Abaddon himself also remains a major part of the story. He is there from the very start this time, and we are offered many more scenes of him truly as Warmaster leading his crusade. As a leader, tactician and minister, he is given the same treatment as Yarrick in David Annandale's series - Building him up as a true legend and imposing figure of power. Unlike there however, Dembski-Bowden manages to fit in a few more humanizing moments without compromising this, which is a true skill unto itself. The story builds him up like a primarch but it manages to simultaneously display the man and the legend at the same time, until you can barely differentiate the two. The story even plays upon this quality a few times, especially towards the end. What's more, Abaddon himself even acts in a manner more akin to the Horus of old in this book,which adds another interesting layer to his character given the questions surrounding him.

Obviously every Warhammer 40,000 tale needs a big battle or three thrown in, and we get just that. Several times over in fact. However, the narrative goes out of its way to give a distinct flavour to the fighting on each occasion. This isn't simply a matter of a duel contrasting to a big army clashing either, as the opening fight proves to be one of the most creatively terrifying uses of telepathy in the setting to date. The others, meanwhile, vary in nature several times over, from viewing events through the eyes of a dead man to watching a full scale fleet battle play out. Interestingly however, like the points cited above, some of the strongest moments stem from how much it doesn't tell you. There are hints constantly used here, suggestions to allow your mind to build a bigger and better picture of events alongside the descriptions, and manages to often work out for the better. You see, while we do get some of the moments which do emphasize the sheer scale of vast forces engaging one another, the book doesn't bog itself down with them. Instead, it offers just enough to get the message across, before letting the reader's mind do the rest of the work.

This is even used in the final duel the blurb advertises, with Abaddon finally clashing with Sigismund. We are only granted brief moments of the battle, enough to show off each warrior's skill and establish events over several pages. Yet, much of the fight is passed over at several points to focus upon the larger conflict at hand. While at first this might come across as cheap, skipping out on the fight it advertises, the story makes up for it with Abaddon's later comments and flashbacks to the final blow. It's certainly a very unconventional take on this sort of storytelling, but it actually manages to work out for the best here.

So, that's the positives, now onto a few of the problems of the book.

The Bad

Oddly enough, a few of the "bad" elements which worked in Talon of Horus' favour are still at play here. The narration is still very unreliable but is carefully used to show the author's take on the setting and excuse a few questionable points. This might have been dialed back somewhat to give a more flawed (if still more optimistic) view of Chaos, but it is still present. With that being said however, the bad stems largely from how the book unfortunately steps back from a few key strengths of its predecessor.

Talon of Horus itself focused largely upon the very seed of what would become the Black Legion. It was extremely character driven, and much of the engagement with the book stemmed primarily from seeing those characters interact. It gave a look into what life was like within the Eye, how it had adapted, evolved and certain groups had progressed. It showed how so many clashing individuals could be used to forge a true brotherhood again, despite some extreme differences. Plus, and it has to be said, while Khayon might have been the protagonist, his counterparts remained key to the story, with remarkably well fleshed out backgrounds.

The reason I am making such a key point of this is that, for the most part, the book pushes them away. In order to focus much more upon the bigger scale conflicts, events and Abaddon himself, this is heavily dialed back. Lheor, for example, has only half the impact he and presence he offered in the previous book, while Telemachon and Ashur-Kai lack the same connection to Khayon we had previously. This is hardly to say that their moments are badly written, but there's and odd distance and fleeing nature to their scenes I would not have expected from this tale. Much of this is certainly done to also make room for the secondary characters being established here, but in this early stage there isn't enough to offer a real opinion on them. While I might have criticized Betrayer for turning the World Eaters into the "joke legion" people pass off as a useless non-threatening entity, Dembski-Bowden nevertheless did an excellent job fleshing each of them out. No matter who had only a few pages or paragraphs to them, they offered a strong and often fascinating insight into their nature. Here, that's sadly not the case.

Now, this isn't to say that I do not want to learn more about the new characters, far from it. The likes of Moriana and Vortigern in particular are figures which hold serious promise for future tales thanks to their presentation and a few very strong moments. That said, many others seem to be little more than window dressing, Telemachon's second in command offers little to the story beyond perhaps one argument with Lheor while many others perhaps only have a single page or two where they really start to stand out. It's clear that the book is starting to set them up for bigger things, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still feel like a step down from its predecessor.

This same feeling unfortunately carries over to the main villain as well. Daravek is set up to be this counter or dark mirror to Abaddon, and he is clearly a definite threat. That said, we end up seeing so little of him, and his life is ended so abruptly, that he lacks the impact you would expect of such a figure. As a result, he comes across as a cunning and skilled Chaos Lord, not someone who could have been a figure to launch the endless Black Crusades against the Imperium. 

Perhaps more so than anything else however, there is this clear sense of the book failing to reincorporate or use what is initially set up. Like everything else here, this is likely being done to set up for things later on down the line, but it's hard not to note how a number of secondary elements seem to lead to nothing or are left largely undeveloped. The characters are the most obvious ones here of course, but you also several major game-changing elements which simply show up and then disappear within one or two chapters. Perhaps the best example of this is Faylech, a former member of the Death Guard, who is noted to have a history with Daravek. There is initially one brief conversation between the two to suggest they have a history (and it features one of the book's funniest lines) but rather than fleshing out either character it's simply forgotten within pages of it coming up. As a result, rather than being anything truly substantial, these become more something to help build upon Khayon's commentary and serve as a entertaining secondary detail.

The Verdict

The Black Legion was always going to face an uphill battle to live up to its predecessor's expectations. This was always going to be the second blow to reinforce the series' potential and start truly expanding upon some of the Legion's own mythos. It does indeed accomplish this, and many of the concepts it deals with in terms of what drives the Black Legion and the hardships earned in setting themselves up as a dominant force do pay off. It's largely the fact that it was forced to abandon several key elements which made Talon of Horus such a spectacular work which brings the score down a few pegs.

However, this is still an extremely strong story which expands upon a keystone event in the universe's timeline, and it offers great insight into certain key questions. The story plays with the old lore and even keeps a few rumours alive, it sets the groundwork for new tales to follow and best of all it offers a fascinating (and brilliantly unreliable) look into Chaos. Any Warhammer fan should definitely give this one a look and, if you have yet to pick it up, Talon of Horus as well.

Verdict: 8.7 out of 10

Friday, 15 September 2017

Inquisitor: How to Ruin a Campaign in 40 Minutes

A few times on here we have discussed various horror stories, with games going incredibly wrong. Those listed so far have been largely unpleasant, thanks to a few unfortunate individuals being involved. This isn't the case here though. What we have here is a trainwreck of the best sort, where things went disastrously wrong on turn one. This is the sort of game where it all blew up in our faces, but in the single most spectacularly glorious manner possible.

Also, this was my introduction to roleplaying in general. Looking back on Shadowrun and the games which followed it, I think it left an impression.

Back in the early days of 2005, Fantasy Flight had yet to spark up interest with Dark Heresy. Specialist Games were still largely supported by Games Workshop, or at least tolerated, so long as we were buying their parts. Well, after one too many kill-team games, a few friends and myself decided to experiment with some of their more devoted skirmish outings. It was nothing truly long standing, a few games of Blood Bowl (thank god they brought that back) and Necromunda (expect a full review of that game upon release) campaign there; each was just enough to spark our interest before moving on. However, while for one reason or another each game was cut short, each of us was always interested in the in-depth narrative. Upgrading your players, building your army and truly customizing a small squad had always been fun. Inquisitor offered to take that to the next level. So, when someone brought it up and hinted at a highly in-depth campaign they had in mind, everyone was on board and quite excited.

There was just one slight problem. Everyone was excited, but as we were to later learn, not everyone quite understood how to approach the game.

After two weeks of character building, discussions, arguments and blind attempts and painting, everyone showed up with two or three figures for their warband. As we were intended to build upon these as time went by, this was mostly intended to be a decent start to experiment with the rules and an opportunity to make any early alterations. In addition, to help build up the atmosphere and introduce the drama aspect, we were to begin undercover. The local Imperial governor had suspected of trading xenos technology, which had led several Inquisitors to take great interest in his affairs. While he was hosting an ball for those of noble blood, several such agents of the Emperor's Hallowed KGB took the opportunity to sneak inside.

These consisted of:

Inquisitor Varrick Taldyran of the Ordo Hereticus, a talented witch hunter and expert investigator.

Inquisitor Alanah Hoth also of the Ordo Hereticus, a noble born powerful psyker and skilled swordsman.

Inquisitor Davian Lerod of the Ordo Xenos, an expert infiltrator and professional gunman.

And Inquisitor Tyrael of the Ordo Malleus, a figure with close ties to the Mechanicus and a near totally cybernetic body.

As the game opened up, each of us was given the opportunity to outline just how we had gotten into this place and our general approach. Everyone had a different mentality after all, and it was a chance to set up just how we were going to play these characters. Unsurprisingly, Lerod opted to sneak in through the back door while Tyrael used his connections to ensure he was on the guest list under the persona of a Magos. Hoth meanwhile opted to go for the full undercover treatment after taking the place of a lesser noble of questionable repute, while Taldyran passed himself off as a rogue trader and just waltzed inside. 

On the whole it was a good start, with a few challenges, decent opening roles and opportunities to decide just where to begin. Depending upon when and how we showed up, our characters were given different placements and opportunities. So, Hoth and Taldyran could get info by mingling with other folk, Tyrael used the security systems to his advantage and Lerod was given full access to the back rooms thanks to using the air vent trick. That last one proved to be a big mistake. 

You see, we were all new to this. Without a local D&D fanatic to learn from, the closest thing we had to a reference on how to act was a few Black Library novels and Necromunda. To most of us this meant an infiltration mission was an infiltration mission. To Lerod's player, it was a chance to get the first shot in. We had all entered with the Mission Impossible theme in our minds. He had X Gon' Give It to Ya echoing about his skull.

Once the rest of us were done mingling with the folks and actually investigating the place, Lerod promptly drew two pistols and shot all the chefs. Moments later, as the rest of his retinue swung into the building via hookshots (smashing several priceless glass mosaiques on their way in) and aimed guns at the partygoers, Lerod kicked his way into the room.

Everyone involved was given a brief glimpse of a wild eyed man in full leather with enough autopistols to arm a full squad. He then screamed the high Gothic equivalent of "This is the fuz! You're surrounded by armed bastards!" and promptly shot the governor. By shot, I of course mean he opened up on full auto with both weapons and then threw a grenade at him. We would later learn that Lerod felt that this was the fastest way to resolve things. He was right in more ways than he might expect.

As the rest of the governor's bodyguards were preoccupied keeping the crowd away from him, no one was in the right place to dive in front of those shots. Of all the threats present there, no one expected the catering staff to go nuts and attack their employer after all, or use explosives. So, the governor looked on in horror at the barrage of deadly firepower heading his way, and then just grinned. There was an eldritch pop, and the governor disappeared. In his place was a very tall, very spiky looking, daemon prince of Slaanesh. We would later learn that its presence here was supposed to be a big twist in the planned story. One of several which were rapidly ruined as the turns drew on.

As the giant thing-which-should-not-be soaked up the bullets and began striding towards the alarmed Lerod, the world went to hell. Most of the servants promptly began screaming praises to the ruinous powers as the bodyguards disrobed themselves, unveiling disturbing tattoos and a variety of bone-blade mutations. Yes, including the one you are thinking of, those whose minds are in the gutter. Apparently with the jig up, every cultist in the building decided they were just going to have some fun with us instead.

While most of us had gone in lightly armed to ensure our disguises, no good Inquisitor was ever without a few good weapons. So, while Tyrael activated a set of twin Optimus Prime style power swords and laid into the nearest cultist, Taldyran pulled an inferno pistol out of his rear and began roasting the daemon worshiping BDSM maniacs. Seemingly determined to keep a few of her newfound contacts alive, Hoth blew two of the mutating waiters to bits with biomancy before using the Will to try and force everyone towards the exit. A good plan, but it proved to be a remarkably bad move on her part. 

No sooner did she attempt it than the local Ecclesiarch - no, I don't know why a priest would be permitted inside in this sort of place either - looked at her in outrage. Oh, not at the use of her powers, just that a foul mon-keigh dared to try and use them on him. Dropping his own illusions, suddenly we were left with an Eldar Farseer in the room along with a small cadre of Aspect Warriors. Deciding that their mission - whatever it might have been - was not worth this, they decided it would be their best policy to kill any nearby witnesses. Namely us. 

As this entirely new and desperate fight broke out, Lerod was legging it for all he was worth. With a sword wielding being of hell bearing down upon him, he promptly started Errol Flynning it, swinging off of the chandeliers and across the room to stay one step ahead of it. Giving the code "Epsiolnia" to his comrades, they began blowing up to the support beams to the room via melta weapons. Yes, they brought melta weapons to an infiltration mission. Who wouldn't?

Tyrael meanwhile had apparently activated beast mode at this point, using his bionics to his every advantage. Leading a group of eight cultists up a flight of stairs in a running series of parries and strikes, he suddenly dived forwards and activated his jump pack. Most of those in front of him were quickly reduced to a red smear, and the few who were unlucky enough to live, he promptly turned into projectile weapons against the eldar. Said eldar were rapidly being swamped by Chaos followers and a rather angry Hoth. 

With the Farseer having fired off several mind bullets at her, the Inquisitor was fighting back with everything she had. Unfortunately, for all her fury, Hoth was losing badly and being quite badly smacked around by the much more powerful mind. Unfortunately for the Farseer, Hoth wasn't above cheating to win. Using her telekinesis, and several very successful rolls, she promptly collapsed the floor beneath the Farseer sending him tumbling down into the room below us. Several cultists promptly piled in after him, and six frag grenades later, Hoth had dispatched about half of our opponents. 

During this Taldyran was having one hell of a time. Despite being the least inclined towards combat, his player had opted to buff out his hand to hand capabilities. So, while most of us were fighting with psychic lightning and robot swords, he was turning this into the church scene from the Kingsman if it were directed by John Woo. Machine gun punching one cultist until his spine was almost blown free of his body, he somersaulted over another's head (snapping his neck along the way!), before bisecting another with a stolen power sword. Then, after punching a grenade into the hole, he kicked the corpse backwards, killing three others.

Yes, apparently everyone but Tyrael had brought grenades as well. We were all remarkably well armed for this sort of mission, even if Lerod was quickly taking the cake.

While a few nobles had managed to scarper free from the building, most were being caught in the crossfire and quickly culled. The GM's exact words were a "running waterfall of red" as the blood began to flood through the hole Hoth had created. Unfortunately for us, while this did not spawn a Bloodthirster, the sheer excess of pain was powering up the daemon prince. Shrugging off everything the Inquisitor was throwing at him - even after he switched to expanders and dum dum rounds - it was promptly tormenting the man with its powers. Sapping away his will and tormenting him, it was gleefully stripping away his sanity, toying with him before it went in for the killing blow. In fact, the reason most of us were likely alive was due to its fixation with him. This was working for the most part, right up to the point where most of the roof collapsed in atop of the daemon prince, smashing it to the floor.

Rising quickly, it stumbled about, only to come face to face with a henchman wielding an autocannon. Yes, he brought a fucking autocannon to a social mission. And guess what, it worked out for the best! As the daemon prince turned towards the others, it was hit full in the face with several melta weapon blasts and auto cannon rounds. Chipping away at his massive HP stat, the henchmen loosed enough firepower to level the entire building, but succeeded in only making him stagger backwards. Towards a window. At this point I should probably mention that we were at the top of an Imperial spire, right across from a second adjacent spire.

Seeing his opportunity, Tyrael sprinted forwards, activated his jump pack, and promptly slammed into the daemon prince with all his might. So, the group was briefly granted the glorious sight of a gothpunk Robocop unleashing a jet-propelled flying clothesline on Diablo-lite, smashing them through a priceless window. Tussling through the air, the two traded blows for several moments. The daemon almost killed Tyrael with one good hit, before he kicked clear of the monstrosity. With another blaze of fire from his back, he smashed through the window of the opposing spire, leaving the daemon prince to plummet to its demise. 

At this point, the original ball room was quickly being evacuated for obvious reasons. Between daemonic infestation, a large three way battle and blowing up its supports, the entire thing was ready to collapse in upon itself. So, making a brief truce, the surviving Inquisitors promptly legged it to the launch pad on the roof. One large bribe and loud threat to the pilot later, and they escaped the slowly collapsing building in the governor's gun cutter.

Within an hour, the starting groups had managed to single-handedly kill all the villains (including a few nobles we didn't even know were important), destroy their armies, and blow up their base of operations. Had he not been busy laughing at weeks of work going up in smoke, the DM would probably have attempted to strangle us at that point.

Suffice to say, we never did attempt another Inquisitor game on that same scale. Most of those we tried were usually one-shots or two or three session games from then on. Believe it or not though, a few of those were even more insane than this one.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Sunless Skies (Video Game Preview)

Combining the freedom of Wing Commander: Privateer with a setting that might as well be described as “Discworld as envisioned by Alan Moore”, Sunless Sea proved to be one of the surprise hits of 2015. While Failbetter’s success with Fallen London could never be denied, the shift in gears to a more mechanically heavy game was nevertheless a welcome surprise, offering a surprising level of narrative depth and freedom. Shifting away from the sea and towards the stars, Sunless Skies is set to expand upon this fantastic world further, with a few surprising changes.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

XCOM 2 - War of the Chosen DLC (Video Game Review)

Above all else, Friaxis is a developer that uses DLC as an excuse to completely change the rules of their games. While Bethesda and others might offer full scale expansions and weapons upgrades, they often feel tacked on in comparison to the complete dynamic shift the likes of Gods and Kings offered to Civ V or Enemy Within did to the prior XCOM release. War of the Chosen accomplishes this once more, adding such a vast wealth of new enemies, factors and things to keep track of; you can never rely upon the same old tactics that won past campaigns.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Tyranny - The Bastard’s Wound DLC (Video Game Review)

Obsidian Entertainment have long proven themselves masters of RPG storytelling. As one of the leading studios, if not the leading studio, in crafting detailed and complex questing narratives, their games frequently offer far greater moral ambiguity than almost any other release. Tyranny was one of the greatest examples of this, setting you up as a villain but giving you every opportunity to decide what sort of person you would become. The Bastard’s Wound takes these strengths and puts a twist on them, by having you decide the fate of a small refugee settlement on the brink of civil war.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Fall of Cadia - What Could Have been

So, a while back we covered the Gathering Storm trilogy, detailing both a number of major rules and lore changes. As per usual much of it was focused upon the latter over the former, with additional parts devoted to exploring the storytelling. Part 4 in each of these tended to veer between a "How I could have done it" and "What storytelling elements could have been fixed here" if there was nothing more positive here. In the case of the first book it was more of the storytelling elements we were looking into, but people have been asking of late how I might have written it. Unfortunately, I simply don't have time for that. 

While I have a basic skeleton of a story in mind, it would take a few thousand words to properly outline and explore. This was supposed to be supposed to be the big battle of the entire setting, after all, and to express that the story would need to be on-par with at least one Imperial Armour volume in detail and length. If that sounds outlandish, please keep in mind that the last time Games Workshop tried to explore it, they made certain that you knew that everything taking place was on a massive scale. you had campaign after campaign playing out across dozens of worlds. 

Rather than just a single decisive fight on Cadia itself, the entire Cadian Gate was pitched into a massive bloody war. To give you some idea of how big some things were, the single biggest tank battle of the last ten thousand years was little more than a footnote here. You had entire worlds devolving into partial daemon plants, astartes on both sides dying by the thousands and the Imperium breaking out superweapons to try and staunch the tide of blood. That takes a while to explore, and if given the time this would have been one of four to six parts used to detail the entire conflict.

As such, because the Fall of Cadia effectively skipped right to the fighting, consider this a step towards how I would have executed it. How I would have laid down some of the groundwork and built up towards that fighting, excusing some of the ill equipped efforts by each side.

Part 1 - Vanguard

It was in the final days of M41 that Abaddon would return for one final war against the Imperium. His final Black Crusade, his decisive blow in the Long War to shatter the Emperor's domain had been centuries in the making. Ever since his first return, since the day Sigismund of the Black Templars had fallen whilst defending the Imperium from the bastard son of Horus, the High Lords had dreaded his coming. While some attempted to convince themselves that his power had been spent in the Gothic War, most knew that his latest battle would come within a matter of years.

The first true whispers heralding the new conflict were little more than hearsay at first, the sorts of rumors peddled among sprint traders. Claims of worlds pelted by a perpetual rain of blood were traded between captains. Stories of a statue of the Emperor shedding tears or tarot decks marking the Cadian sector as damned emerged time and time again, so frequently that the local Arbites were forced to stamp out all knowledge of such stories. At first it was seen as some hidden act by recidivists to disestablish the sector, or even the efforts of Inquisitors seeking to politically distabilise their rivals. Yet, as the days drew towards 999.M41's end, none could deny the disturbances witnessed within the Eye.

Astropaths, Librarians and Navigators began witnessing strange stellar shapes within the boiling, writhing tide of the Eye of Terror. Piratical attacks strangely lessened within months of their last assaults, while those few who remained became more organised, focusing their efforts upon disabling essential system facilities over claiming glory and treasure. More chilling still, reports of half-seen vessels entering the Eye began to flood the naval offices, of few ever leaving that damnable realm but instead moving to plunge into its hellish depths.

For most of the Imperium's defenders this was proof enough of Abaddon's impending return. For all his bullish tactics and blunt assaults, the master of the Black Legion hardly lacked cunning nor skill at subterfuge. He wanted the Imperium to know of his impending return, to dread his coming and allow fear to shake their resolve. This was only further confirmed over the following days, as atrocity after atrocity rapidly came to light. On the frozen reaches outside of Kasr Kraf, a pyramid of human skulls was erected in the night, each one belonging to an Inquisitorial agent which had been tracking major Chaos cults. On the orbital shipyards over the planet, multiple power generators and life support systems abruptly failed, killing thousands of essential crewmen before the emergency systems could be brought online.

Knowing the threat they faced, the commanding Imperial forces reacted with speed. Several emergency councils were held on Cadia itself, between the commanding officers of the Cadian Shock Troops, Inquisitorial Lords and representatives of the Astartes Praeses. Quickly isolating and confirming the locations of several previous massed assaults, now considered to be strikes to test their might, the Imperials began to solidify their defensive lines. The call was put out to any and all chapters who could spare their forces in the war to come, Cadia recalled its sons and daughters to defend its homeworld, while the Inquisition stepped up its shadow war against the cults which hid among the populace. Others would soon join them, as Skitarii detachments arrived to defend Mechanicus interests within the local sector, and elements of the Segmentum Solar's battlefleets arrived to guard the outlying worlds.

While many of these assets were consolidated around the Gate itself, many were sent to guard secondary weak links within their fortifications about the Eye. A small picket fleet was sent to observe the small, often unstable, Warp corridor which had permitted Abaddon to launch his Twelfth Black Crusade. Several communications stations and secondary fall-back points were further guarded by battleships to counter any possible warbands dispersing and escaping to the surrounding worlds, as they had in past millennia. No single previous weakness was left unchecked, no past failing left unaccounted for as strategists poured over records of every bloody and decisive conflict since Cadia's true founding. It was this caution which would lead to the first true conflict of the war.

Mere months prior to then, the Boros System had been reduced to a burning graveyard by the traitor legions. In a daring strike, the Word Bearers had emerged from within the Eye and somehow isolated the system as they attempted to claim its unique treasures - The Boros Gate. One of a network of Warp gates capable of rapidly transporting troops across the system, it had been essential in turning back several incursions. While it had once been guarded by the White Consuls, the Word Bearers and a powerful xenos race had ravaged the system, reducing the chapter to a fraction of its strength. 

While no one fully expected Abaddon to try and claim the same objective after so many of his veterans had been lost in the previous conflict, others had seemingly taken interest. Having apparently learned of the system's weakened state, the Alpha Legion had launched a massed assault, infiltrating and slowly overwhelming the defenders. With their astropathic choirs somehow silenced, the White Consul remnants fought a pitched battle to reclaim control of the system. Bitter fights broke out as the chapter attempted to reclaim its remaining battle barge from Alpha Legion control while guarding the city populace.

Disaster was only averted thanks to sheer fortune, when reinforcements headed by Castellan Ursarkar Creed arrived in the system alongside contingents of Adepta Sororitas and Black Templars. Having been sent to reinforce such a vital location prior to the assault, they were surprised to find the planet in a state of apparent civil war but soon turned the tide by disabling two Alpha Legion controlled ships and converging on loyalist positions planet side. While several drop ships incurred heavy casualties thanks to Alpha Legion subterfuge and ambushes, the sheer firepower arrayed against them and Creed's own tactical genius. Forcing various Alpha Legion units into fighting multiple highly mobile detachments at a time, Creed was able to entrap and gradually isolate the traitor forces before cutting them down. Quarantining the remaining White Consuls and allowing the Inquisition to begin screening the populace for remaining infiltrators, others began to secure the surrounding battlements and defenses. 

Using psykers to interrogate the few Legionaries left alive, and searching the body of their dead nameless lord, the Imperials stumbled upon a horrifying revelation. The Black Legion had reverse engineered the powers of both the Hand of Darkness and Eye of Midnight, the terrifying relics which he had claimed in the Gothic War. While crude, the blasphemous creations had been altered to disrupt communications machinery and wither away the psychic potential of the Imperium's astropaths. With it, Abaddon's forces could rapidly silence any and all forces they encountered, cutting them off one by one. Leaving the Templars and Sororitas to further secure the system along with additional Imperial Guard units, Creed returned to Cadia to bring warning of these items.

Unbeknownst to the Imperial forces, this opportunity had been born of carelessness rather than true fortune. As the news reached his ears as he awaited within the Eye, Abaddon raged at the Alpha Legion's blunder. Their move in overcoming the Boros system was intended to be the last in a chain of assaults and efforts to isolate Cadia from its nearest allies. While he had been relying upon their typical need to outperform their comrades, and even fueled the idea by mentioning the failure of the Word Bearers, that same hunger had turned against him. By moving early, by enacting a needlessly complex infiltration plan and toying with their enemy over a single decisive strike, the Imperials were aware of his efforts. All of his plans to keep them focused upon Cadia, his suggestions and half seen threats to keep their attention away from the lesser threats, had been put in jeopardy. Of the twenty major astartes strongholds guarding the Eye, only six had been silenced, and only a small fraction of the Naval installations threatening his approach had been successfully turned to his side.

The lord of the Black Legion considered his choices. He was sorely tempted to merely allow the Imperium this victory and to conserve his forces for the greater battles ahead. Some warbands had yet to accept their rightful place within his massed force, and certain key leaders of the larger warbands were too ambitious for his liking, too willing to pursue their own agendas over his own. His efforts to quietly remove each one in turn while ensuring the loyalty of those under them was taking its time. The longer he delayed the greater the chance that the Imperium would know of his smaller victories. Worse still, as word had come to him that the thrice damned Archmagos Cawl among their number, there was ever the chance that they could uncover the science behind his new Hands of Midnight and counter them. The Archmagos was certainly resourceful enough to accomplish such an act, as his theft from the Black Legion's vaults had proven millennia ago.

With no other option available to him, Abaddon chose to enact part of his initial plans. Summoning Kharn the Betrayer and Typhus to his throne, Abaddon announced that he was granting them the honour of serving as his vanguard. Commanding them to take several warbands - specifically those of lords he did not yet trust - they were to test Cadia's defenses before their major assault. While Kharn himself cared little for the politics behind such intentions, Typhus proved to be much shrewder. First attempting to bow out of the crusade entirely over this "dishonour" and then almost refusing over Abaddon's choice of troops, the Warmaster almost lost the Traveller entirely. He was only able to secure his assistance through several veiled threats and promises of his assistance in ensuring that Mortarion would serve Nurgle's true will when the time came. With nothing else to discuss, the group departed.

On Cadia itself, the Internal Guard continued its sweep throughout the streets and battlements, rooting out even the slightest indication of heresy. Leading such efforts, Inquisitor Covenant had begun to realise the true scale of the incursions on the planet. While, in the immortal words of Inquisitor-General Neve, the planet "bred recidivists like a pond breeds scum" few had realised how fully organised the massed efforts had begun of late. Many offending cults were known to the Imperium, but their organisation and armament vastly exceeded even their greatest expectations. Thousands had died in the Inquisition's purges, driven out into the open or caught as they attempted to enact operations to harm Cadia's defenders. 

Having broadly distributed his own forces to mop up the remainder of their number, Covenant fought to keep the peace with as many troops as he could afford. Trusting no one and predicting that any of those at his back could betray them at any moment, he focused his efforts on guarding primarily against the most damaging of attacks. All but abandoning the civilian districts in favour of military and production installations, his soldiers began to operate in a series of shifting random patrols across the planet. This was enough to force several cults into acting too soon, forcing them into a desperate action as they tried to take a space elevator up to the main anchorage over Cadia.

Having predicted such a move early on, a small force of Tempestus Scions and Kasrkin lay in wait led by Covenant himself. Allowing them to reach the base of the elevator, Covenant abruptly shut down the generators to the main platform and launched a counter assault. While the traitors had the benefit of numbers and even a variety of daemons to augment their strength, the discipline and fire support of Covenant's troops gradually overwhelmed them, turning the tide in his favour. Yet, what he found shocked him to the core. Several members of the cult bore the markings of high ranking Cadian officers, and one even carred with him the full authority of a Castellan. Realising the threat was even worse than he initially thought, Covenant made his way to the planet's primary astropathic choir, ordering them to dispatch word to Terra for further reinforcements. Unknowingly, however, he played right into the enemy's hands.

With their plans foiled, the cultists had utilised the ethereal nature of their daemonic allies to carry a Hand of Midnight into the elevator where it lurked. Clambering up the structure at an inhuman speed, and claiming the flesh of a worker to hide itself from the more base level checks, Leeching the psychic energy of the choir as it was cast into orbit, the daemon activated the device, casting a wave of ethereal energy across the planet. Psykers screamed as their minds were boiled away, with their powers reflected back onto themselves or burned out entirely. Men died as they were caught in the backlash of the strike and in orbit, countless vessels suffered system failures. On every ship of every modern Imperial design, Warp drives and Gellar fields alike sputtered and died, each burned out by the device's power. In that one moment, Cadia was rendered silent, its last message to Terra reduced to fragmented nonsensical words.

Even as those left attempted to rally their forces and secure their orbital defenses, the signatures of over two hundred enemy vessels appeared on their long range sensors. Typhus' vanguard force had arrived and Cadia, it seemed, was destined to stand alone against them...

So, that's all I have for the moment, but I hope that gives some impression of a few of the changes in how I might handle it. It's certainly much less of an abrupt start and, while far from perfect, does try to cover a few of the opening events the book simply skipped.

Monday, 4 September 2017

"I'm not dead yet!"

You'll have to forgive the Monty Python joke, this is a rare opportunity for me to actually make them for once. 

So, you might have noticed things have been very, very quiet around here of late. Extremely so, and this is once again unfortunately thanks to life getting in the way, or to be exact, my new job. I recently shifted gears away from one career to another in the hopes of moving upwards in the world, but it has had the unfortunate side effect of leaving me mentally and physically burned out on a daily basis. Combined with longer hours, a vastly greater workload each day, other events such as the death of a relative and some of the more fanatical Disney Star Wars fan-groups leaving threats in the comments section (and at least one concerted effort to doxx me on Facebook apparently) has left me both drained and short on time to say the least. I am trying to get the ball rolling on reviews once again, but that is very dependent upon what is happening at what time right now. There are things in the pipe-line, I assure you, but I can't promise that we will be back up to speed just yet.

Also, to those leaving comment after comment demanding answers - and you know who you are - please stop. If I do not have the time to fully answer one point, then leaving six more demanding I reply to you is probably going to leave me just marking your every effort as spam. I appreciate the efforts made to communicate, but this isn't the way to go about things. Especially those whose only existence seems to now be to demand that I am wrong about everything, and that having an opinion on a subject they do not like somehow makes me an enemy of the free Western world. Or that their entire meaning in life is now to convince me that only they are right and I must somehow amend my ways. 

Yes, there has been a lot of these of late, if you had not guessed.

So, with that done, I am going to try and get things working again but I can make no promises. We are going to see a very rough few months I am afraid, and until I can sort everything out it is going to be a slow road to getting things back on track. Thank you for your patience in the meantime, and I hope you enjoy the future articles we will be bringing out.