Thursday, 26 February 2015

The 100: Season 1

AD 2149. Ninety-seven years after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, more than two and a half thousand people live in refuge on an orbiting space station, the Ark. With life support beginning to fail, the ruling council of the Ark decides to see if Earth is survivable by sending down a hundred criminals. As adult criminals are executed to save food and air, this means sending down young delinquents.

As the hundred exiles fight to survive on Earth - and later against the other survivors they discover living in the woods - the inhabitants of the Ark also fall into an internal power struggle as it becomes clear that the station cannot support them for much longer, and not everyone can survive to make it to the ground.

The 100 is a post-apocalyptic drama that seems to take great delight in its inspirations: the show comes across as the result of a collision between Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Hunger Games and Fallout. The show adroitly fuses its inspirations in fun and original ways and ends up being a lot more entertaining than it has any right being, but it does take a little while to get there.

The show is the product of American network The CW, famed its glossy productions featuring preposterously photogenic young actors engaging in life-and-death struggles whilst also trying to straighten out their elaborately complicated love lives. The 100 somehow manages to turn this tendency up to 11: characters angst about their personal relationships almost at the same level they worry about starvation, dehydration, being impaled by spears and radiation sickness, all of which are constant and simultaneous threats. This would risk being silly, except for the odd hints that the writers are deliberately sending up this aspect of the network's shows. The series also gets away with it because it is also one of the most surprisingly brutal television shows on air. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have made shocking main character deaths more accepted on cable, but for a more youth-oriented series The 100 is startlingly bleak. We get population counts for both the exiles on the ground and the survivors on the Ark and both numbers drop at a rate of knots as the season progresses and the writers gleefully take an axe (or gun, or airlock, or plague, or in one highly memorable moment, a giant metal shuriken thing) to the cast.

The show gets off to a mixed start, being both unafraid to kill over apparently major players from the off but also unleashing some of the most ham-fisted, expositionary and clumsy writing you'll see on television all year. Characters initially come across as being very archetypal (or, if you're less kind, cliched as hell) and the actors initially seem unsure how to handle the material they are given. Henry Ian Cusick, in his first major TV role since playing Desmond on Lost, is both saddled with a dubious accent and some poor characterisation and can only respond by hamming it up for the first few weeks. Dialogue is poor and little reason is given for us to care about any of these characters.

Fortunately, that changes and fairly quickly. By the sixth episode the writers have added a lot of ambiguity and (relative) complexity to the characters, the actors have much more layered material to work with and the show becomes a bit more experimental, not afraid to ditch half the cast for a week or two in favour of flashbacks to add depth and backstory. The writers also become quite good at creating internal conflict within the characters, giving them more to do than just stand around and look pretty.

This is helped by some fairly intense pacing. The series is uninterested in adopting a format and sticking with it, with shifts in factions, locations and motivations taking place on a near-weekly basis. The initial split between the ground and the space station is well-handled, despite it occasionally feeling like you're watching episodes of Lost and BSG that have been fan-spliced together (the presence of actors from both shows - particularly BSG - not helping). When our heroes on the ground find a mysterious hatch in the forest (albeit one that opens immediately and not after a tediously-drawn out 16-episode struggle) and characters in orbit wrestle with their consciences as they have to ration supplies and blast a traitor out of the airlock, The 100 feels like it is risking becoming a parody of those other series. However, the show then moves into other territory, becoming more confident and forging its own path. The season finale, which not so much changes the premise as drives a bulldozer through it and then burns down the remains, is the most game-changing cliffhanger in a series in recent times.

The actors are, for the most part, likable. The younger castmembers bring enthusiasm and gumption, although some are more experienced than others (Eliza Taylor did her time in the trenches of Australian daytime soap opera). More veteran actors are used to populate the Ark and, after that initial writing hurdle in the first few episodes, are great. However, the show's flirtation with killing off Chancellor Jaha gets a little old. Clearly they realised that Isaiah Washington is too good to off so easily, but it'd be better if they stopped putting him in near-death situations every other week. The weak spot is the handling of romance, which is trite. Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Lincoln (Ricky Whittle) fall in love without exchanging a word (although later on they do manage to earn it back), whilst the budding romance between Clarke (Taylor) and Finn (Thomas McDonell) is hamstrung by the utter lack of any chemistry at all between the two actors. Fortunately the writers seem to cotton onto this and use it to their advantage later on. As the season progresses there is also less time for teen stuff as the prospect of all-out war rears its head and some new, more enigmatic enemies enter the fray.

For its first season, The 100 (***½) starts off pretty poor but improves rapidly to become a solidly entertaining show. The writing starts out clumsy and the dialogue jarring, but it gets better. The characters become a lot more interesting and conflicted and the show gleefully subverts audience expectations at almost every turn. Certainly worth a look, especially as the second season so far has been a big improvement. The first season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Monday, 23 February 2015

New cover art from Sanderson & Abercrombie

Tor have revealed the American cover art for Shadows of Self, the fifth Mistborn novel from Brandon Sanderson and the second of four books featuring the characters of Wax and Wayne. The book will be out in October this year and will rapidly be followed by its sequel, Bands of Morning, in January 2016.

Meanwhile, Del Rey have unveiled the American cover for Half a War, the concluding volume of The Shattered Sea Trilogy. This book will be out on 16 July in the UK and 28 July in the USA and concludes the story begun in Half a King and Half the World.

No word yet on if Abercrombie and Sanderson will ever collaborate on a novel, possibly one where swearing forms the basis for an imaginative magic system.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

New ALIEN film confirmed

20th Century Fox have commissioned director Neill Blomkamp to work on a new Alien film. The director of District 9, Elysium and Chappie had hinted he was working on ideas for a new film in the franchise a few months ago.

The new project is proceeding simultaneously alongside Ridley Scott's Prometheus II. Scott had previously suggested that the sequel to Prometheus would move away from even the vague connections to the xenomorphs the original film had in favour of the mythology and backstory of the Engineers. Whilst Fox is okay with this - Prometheus grossed almost half a billion dollars at the box office - they also seem to want to continue the core Alien franchise at the same time.

Little is known about the new film, although in Blomkamp's concept art it appears he was considering a 'proper' Alien 5 with Sigourney Weaver and possibly even Michael Biehn reappearing in their roles as Ripley and Hicks. The fact that Hicks died (controversially off-screen) in Alien 3 has hinted that Biehn might be following Scott's idea that none of the films after Aliens should be considered canon. I can't see Fox entirely being happy with that (it would remove no less than four films from the canon) unless they thought it would make them a ton of cash.

If work is only starting now, it's unlikely we will see Alien 5 before late 2017 or early 2018 at the earliest. This would make for easily the longest gap in the main series since the franchise started in 1979. It remains to be seen if Blomkamp can breathe some new life into this increasingly tired foe.

Wertzone Classics: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst  the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

Paul Kearney's UMBRA SUMUS delayed due to title clash

Paul Kearney's first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Dark Hunters: Umbra Sumus, was originally announced for publication by the Black Library for May of this year. It was then sneakily brought forward to the start of this month, meaning that it should have been out already. Unfortunately the book was pulled at the last moment due to a problem with its name.

Not Umbra Sumus, which is fine, but the series title, Dark Hunters. In WH40K lore, the Dark Hunters are a Space Marine chapter tasked with tracking down and destroying a Chaos Marine chapter known as the Punishers. Even by the grim standards of the setting, the Hunters are noted for being resolute and not much fun at parties.

The problem with this is that there is a quite well-known series by American  urban fantasy superstar Sherrilyn Kenyon, also known as Dark-Hunter (I'm assuming the hyphen and singular title is what BL missed when seeing if the term was already copyrighted). It began in 2002 and now comprises 26 novels, accounting for the majority of Kenyon's 30 million+ sales. Although not often discussed on genre websites, it's one of the biggest series in the genre with sales far outstripping that of the likes of The Dresden Files.

Even the mighty Games Workshop knows better than to take on the legal forces of an author so popular she can make a logo out of her initials.

Umbra Sumus and the previous Dark Hunters WH40K material has been withdrawn and will be reissued after a title change, hopefully later this year. It's unclear at the moment if the BL will have to completely rename the Dark Hunters chapter in all of the lore as well.

Paul is also working on a new novel for Solaris, The Wolf in the Attic, which is now looking like an early 2016 release.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE TV show gets full series order

Amazon recently aired a pilot for a TV series based on Philip K. Dick's SF novel The Man in the High Castle. Driven by strong reviews, it became the most-watched TV show in the history of their pilot scheme and one of the most highly-rated. Surprising no-one, Amazon has given a full-season order for the series.

It's not clear how many episodes will be in the first season, but it should air early in 2016.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Teaser Trailer for Season 2 of LES REVENANTS

The first season of Les Revenants (aka The Returned) was a surprise hit for Channel 4 in the UK when it aired eighteen months ago. Unfortunately, the show's return was delayed by production issues but filming has finally concluded and Canal+ are planning to air the series in the summer or autumn. Hopefully UK transmission will be closer to the French dates this time around.

The new series picks up six months after the events of the first season, with the authorities investigating just what the hell happened in the town leading to the flooding and crazy rumours of dead people coming back to life. It sounds like the second season may have a slightly larger scope than the first and will (hopefully) delve more deeply into the backstory of the series.

Meanwhile, A&E are debuting the American remake of the first season on 9 March.

It's a pretty faithful-looking adaptation of the original, almost to the point of pastiche.

Friday, 13 February 2015


Gearbox and Blackbird continue to discuss the re-release of Homeworld Remastered, which hits Steam on 25 February:

First D&D 5th Edition video game is a BALDUR'S GATE spiritual successor

Unexpectedly, Wizards of the Coast have announced that the first Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition video game will be a lower-priced RPG heavily influenced by classic RPGs Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights.

The game, Sword Coast Legends, will be set on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms (the new edition's default setting), like the Baldur's Gate series, and will allow anyone from 1 to 4 players to take part in an epic adventure. The game will also feature DM tools, to allow aspiring creators to craft their own adventures. The game will be a PC-only release, likely at a lower price point than normal. The game will be played from an overhead, isometric perspective but in full 3D, bearing more than a passing resemblance to last year's extremely successful Divinity: Original Sin.

The news is surprising but welcome. The gameplay looks solid and the developers, n-Space and Digital Extremes, worked on the pleasingly bonkers recent action game Warframe. Lead director Brent Knowles was also a veteran of BioWare's heyday, working on a number of titles including being one of the main creative forces on Dragon Age: Origins. He quit when EA mandated a quickie action sequel (which became the troubled Dragon Age II) rather than investing in a proper, large-scale epic sequel. His presence should hopefully mean that the game is quite epic and will feature more tactical combat (which already seems to be the case). Hopefully we should learn more soon.

Meanwhile, Beamdog, who recently updated the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games to modern standards, are continuing work on an all-new interquel set between Baldur's Gate and its sequel, using the original game engine. Both games are expected for release in late 2015.

SPACE HULK: DEATHWING and JUST CAUSE 3 trailers feature unusual music choices

Video game trailer music is heavy on either rock or graceful orchestral movements, so it's nice to see a pair of new trailers that are changing things up.

First up is Just Cause 3, set to a chilled-out, ice-cool rendition of Prodigy's 1996 hit single "Firestarter". SPOILER: this trailer confirms that the game will feature explosions.

Next is Space Hulk: Deathwing, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only Swiss mariach-influenced rap.

Both games will be out later this year. Next up: a trailer for the new Call of Duty game set to jazz fusion.

Red Eagle suing Robert Jordan's widow

Red Eagle Entertainment, producers of the widely-panned Wheel of Time "pilot" informercial, have decided to alienate the few remaining Wheel of Time fans who didn't despise them by suing Robert Jordan's widow for 'slander'. The text of their complaint in full:

Law360, San Diego (February 12, 2015, 8:08 PM ET) -- The producers of a TV adaptation of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” fantasy book series accused the author’s widow of slander on Thursday in California federal court, alleging she publicly ridiculed the pilot that aired days before the producers’ rights were set to expire.

Red Eagle Entertainment LLC’s 30-minute pilot for the series aired on FXX in the early hours of Feb. 9, at 1:30 a.m. EST, and was quickly derided by fans and writers for its low-budget special effects, slow pacing and stilted acting. Red Eagle’s rights to the series would have expired on Feb. 11 if it hadn’t aired anything.

Jordan’s widow Harriet McDougal released a statement Monday distancing herself from the pilot. She claimed that her company Bandersnatch Group Inc., which is Jordan’s successor in interest, had a deal with Universal Pictures to produce the show, not Red Eagle.

“I see no mention of Universal in the ‘pilot,’” she wrote. “Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan's estate, informed of this in any way. I am dumbfounded by this occurrence, and am taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence.”

Red Eagle alleges that it granted some rights to Universal but they reverted back to Red Eagle last year. McDougal knew Universal was no longer involved because she and her lawyers were told about the rights change, according to the suit. Her statement was meant to disparage the show and cast doubt on Red Eagle’s legal ability to produce the pilot, the company alleged.

“Instead of confirming the rights for which she has been so richly compensated for, McDougal sought to harm the business prospects of [Red Eagle] by making statements she knew to be false,” Red Eagle said.

Red Eagle’s dealing with Jordan dates back to 2004, when a subsidiary paid Jordan $35,000 for a one-year option to buy movie and TV rights for the first of 15 books in the “Wheel of Time” series. The company eventually paid another $595,000 to extend the option and buy the rights, which would revert back to Bandersnatch if nothing came of the deal, according to the complaint.

The subsidiary, Manetheren LLC, signed a separate deal with Universal in 2009, giving it an interest in making films or a TV show based on the book, but the rights came back to Manetheren in February 2014 because Universal hadn’t started shooting by then, the complaint said.

McDougal was invited last year to a series of meetings between Manetheren, Sony Pictures Television and Radar Pictures LLC about a possible TV series and offered to serve as a consultant, according to the suit. Red Eagle claims McDougal never raised any concerns about Manetheren’s rights to go ahead with the show.

Manetheren further claims McDougal breached a 2008 deal over comic book rights, with both sides agreeing not to make any negative or contentious public statements about each other. And contrary to McDougal’s released statement, Manetheren was not required to get her approval before releasing the show, the producers said.

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Red Eagle is represented by Jonathan D. Freund and Stephen P. Crump of Freund & Brackey LLP.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is Red Eagle Entertainment LLC et al. v. Bandersnatch Group Inc. et al., case number 2:15-cv-01038, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

What Harriet McDougal actually said:
"This morning brought startling news. A “pilot” for a Wheel of Time series, the "pilot" being called Winter Dragon, had appeared at 1:30 in the morning, East Coast time, on FXX TV, a channel somewhere in the 700s (founded to concentrate on comedy, according to the Washington Post).

It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this.

Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch.

I see no mention of Universal in the “pilot”. Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way.

I am dumbfounded by this occurrence, and am taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence."


Some interesting points to extract from this:

Red Eagle's 2004 deal was for The Eye of the World alone, not the entire series. The later extension to $595,000 does not state if the entire series was included in the deal, especially interesting given that at the time only ten (of fifteen) novels were available. $600,000 seems a rather low price to pay for a series that by then had already chalked up three #1 New York Times bestsellers and had already sold over 40 million copies in the United States alone, which suggests that the rights may not have been for the full series (or Robert Jordan was feeling extremely generous). If Red Eagle only own the rights for the first book, or even the first few, then the chances of them getting the whole series made would seem to be very slim given that Bandersnatch are (especially after the events of this week) highly unlikely to ever sell them the remainder.

This revelation does confirm that Red Eagle made at least a $405,000 profit by re-selling the rights to Universal. They did this in 2008 for a reported "seven figure" deal. If that deal was for a few million, then Red Eagle's profit would have been substantially greater.

The news does also confirm that Sony Pictures were interested in taking on the project. Given that Sony's best-known recent TV project was Breaking Bad, which they exerted considerable influence over and reportedly protected from the kind of executive meddling at AMC that had caused problems on its other dramas, this at least shows that Red Eagle was dealing with the big leagues. There are no indications if Sony remain interested in the project.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Dune (1992)

The planet Arrakis is the source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance in the universe. House Harkonnen is mining the spice, but the Emperor is keen to encourage competition amongst his subjects and sends the Harkonnen's blood rivals, the honourable House Atreides, to carry out mining elsewhere on the planet. Badly outnumbered by the Harkonnens, Duke Leto Atreides sends his son Paul to win over the native Fremen to their cause.

Video game box art c. 1992.

The Dune franchise may have begun as books (with Frank Herbert's original Dune, published in 1965), but it later enjoyed a lot of success as a series of video games released in the 1990s and early 2000s. No less than five games based on the series have been released, most of them strategy titles, but it's the very first that remains the most faithful to the novels and the only one that really tries to get to grips with the characters.

Dune was released in 1992, created by Cryo, the French purveyors of weird, atmospheric adventure games. In order to get the story working as a game it had to take significant liberties with the source material. For example, the Atreides and Harkonnens are mining different parts of Arrakis at the same time, there is no massive attack on the Atreides palace by the Harkonnens that leaves the family and retainers scattered over the planet and elements such as the Spacing Guild and Bene Gesserit (apart from Jessica) play no role. Significant characters from the books, such as Dr. Yueh, the Shadout Mapes, Alia and Rabban are also completely missing.

Immersion in character is not the game's strong point, as we can tell from the absence of the "What, I know, you've raised me over the past fifteen years," dialogue option.

The game is structured as an adventure. Playing Paul Atreides, you move around the Atreides palace talking to characters including the Duke Leto, Lady Jessica, Duncan Idaho (the novels' most enduring character, here randomly reduced to the role of a fussy accountant), Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat. These characters will give you odd jobs to do, but your main goal is to win over the allegiance of the Fremen. This is done flying around in an ornithopter and visiting various sietches (Fremen cave-towns). Early in the game the priority is convincing the Fremen to mine spice for you to send to the Emperor, but eventually you have to track down the Fremen leader, Stilgar, and begin building the Fremen into a military force.

At this point the games turns into a strategy title. You can train up Fremen troops (Gurney Halleck's presence speeds up training considerably), give them better equipment and send them out to sniff around for Harkonnen bases. One a Harkonnen fortress is identified, you can send your troops to attack. This is a bit uninvolving: whilst there are mechanics to take part in battles, they are completely pointless and can risk you getting killed, so it's better to stay out of it. Once a Harkonnen fortress falls, you can loot it for equipment, interrogate prisoners and rescue captured Fremen forces. Whilst the hands-off approach to combat may reduce you to a spectator, it also helps give the game much greater longevity than its more famous sequel, Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis. While the gameplay of Dune II has dated horrendously, especially considering the improvements in AI and interface made by its numerous successors, Dune remains pretty involving to play even today.

As in the books, Jessica seems to have more strategic nous than just about anyone else on the planet.

Later in the game you get to meet Liet Kynes, the planetary ecologist, who gives you the means to start transforming Arrakis into a verdant garden world. A nice balancing act proceeds to develop as you have to mine spice to keep the Emperor happy, keep your own military forces rolling onwards and keep the ecological work going to give the Fremen renewed morale.

On the plus side, the game has aged very well. The graphics are a bit basic by modern standards but still acceptable (especially the more advanced CD-ROM version with voice acting and animated sequences). The mix of adventure game and strategy remains fairly unusual and compelling, and the game captures the atmosphere and feel of both the novels and the 1984 David Lynch movie successfully. The game's approach to the film material is a bit odd: for some reason the developers only had permission to use the likenesses of certain characters, so Paul resembles Kyle McLachlan and Jessica resembles Francesca Annis, but Gurney looks nothing like Patrick Stewart and Feyd-Rautha certainly doesn't look like Sting. The game also uses the movie versions of the stillsuits and sandworms, but develops its own look for ornithopters (weirdly shortened to "ornis" rather than the book-and-film-preferred nickname of 'thopters) and harvesters. It's a grab-bag of styles that works better now, with the source material less fresh in the mind, than it did at release.

The Fremen are pretty happy to work for you, despite you being a total stranger who just showed up to ask them to work long hours to make money you can send to the despotic Emperor.

On the negative side, the game is pretty easy if you know what you're doing. I was shocked that it was possible to play a full campaign in a single afternoon. The military stuff is simplistic, with it being too easy to steamroll the Harkonnens as long as you make sure you keep the training up and re-equip after each battle. Some old bugs from the when the game came out are still present, such as your troops automatically losing a battle if you try to fast-travel or time-skip whilst the engagement is still going on. The writing is also atrocious. Okay, the game came out in 1992 and was translated from French, but this was the same period that LucasArts and Sierra were still producing tons of well-written games, so the hideous dialogue grates quite badly. The game also doesn't do a very good job of explaining basic concepts from the setting, so those unfamiliar with the source material may end up feeling quite lost.

Dune (***½) has, against the odds, aged far better than its more influential sequel and remains enjoyable to play right now. Unfortunately, getting it to work today is quite tricky. I still have a CD-ROM from the late 1990s which I was easily able to get working with DOSBox, but others may have to resort to tracking down cheap copies of the game online. Due to complex rights issues, the game is unlikely to be re-released on services like GoG. However it'd be interesting to see if it could come to mobile devices as they would fit the game quite well.


The teams at Gearbox and Blackbird Interactive are releasing a series of videos about the making of the remastered versions of the first two Homeworld games. Check it out below.

Homeworld Remastered, containing both the original and new, beyond-HD versions of Homeworld and Homeworld 2, will be released by Gearbox on 25 February. Blackbird are currently working on a brand new prequel, Homeworld: Shipbreakers. Expect to hear more about that once the remastered versions are out.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Meanwhile, over in the battle for the D&D film rights...

Whilst battle lines are drawn over the Wheel of Time rights situation, there is also the ongoing legal engagement going on between Hasbro and Sweetpea Entertainment over the Dungeons and Dragons film rights to consider.

Peter Jackson to swoop in and turn into an unnecessary nine-film epic starring Orlando Bloom as Legolas as Hank, and Andy Serkis providing mocap for Uni.

The two sides met in a Los Angeles courtroom last September for the first engagement. Hasbro, who own Wizards of the Coast, the current rights-holders for the D&D tabletop game, have been trying to get back the D&D film rights that were sold for almost a song back in the early 1990s by WotC's predecessors, TSR, when they were in financial trouble. Hasbro bought WotC in 1999 and seem to have been dismayed by the films produced by Courtney Solomon's Sweetpea Entertainment, which were low-to-zero budget disasters. The theatrical film Dungeons and Dragons (2000) was a bomb and the TV/DVD sequels Wrath of a Dragon God (2005) and Book of Vile Darkness (2012) were even less successful. Sweetpea contends that by getting movies in production every five years, they have fulfilled the terms of their contract. Hasbro contends that the contract does not include cheap-arse straight-to-TV/DVD projects possibly made for the sole purposes of holding onto the rights.

There are of course bigger names behind the scenes: Warner Brothers are working with Sweetpea on a new, big-budget film project whilst Hasbro has a deal with Universal. The Warner Brothers project seems to be more advanced, with a script in place and some production staff attached, whilst Hasbro and Universal's deal seems less detailed. However, Hasbro also has the rights to the various D&D worlds, such as Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance (which are arguably better-known and more popular than the D&D name itself which does not have any narrative value in itself), not to mention the numerous books published in those worlds. If Hasbro regains the rights, a movie based on the popular Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy or the popular Drizzt Do'Urden character become much more likely.

The legal showdown was inconclusive, with the two sides retiring at the end of September. The judge withdrew to consider a verdict, but urged the two sides to come to an out-of-court settlement. With both studios seeing the possibility of a massive Marvel/Star Wars/DC-style super-franchise encompassing many different films in the D&D brand, I doubt very much that will happen and so lawyers will clash again.

What is interesting is that under the terms of the deal, Sweetpea will apparently have to get another project into production this year or risk losing the rights to Hasbro by default. It'll be interesting to see if this happens, rendering the whole thing moot.

Even more interesting is Universal's role in both this and the Wheel of Time debacle. It may well be that Universal sees a larger brand value in the D&D name (which is much more famous worldwide) and no point in having two epic fantasy brands knocking around at once, so the fate of one of these situations may well impact on the other.

Monday, 9 February 2015

WHEEL OF TIME gets a TV pilot out of nowhere

There was quite a big surprise last night for Wheel of Time fans watching the FXX channel in the United States. Out of nowhere, they were treated to a 30-minute TV "pilot" for a possible TV series based on the books, entitled Winter Dragon. Behold:

The "pilot" was apparently made on almost zero money in just a few days a couple of weeks ago.

"But how?" you may ask, possibly after only a moment's pause to reflect on the gloriously demented decision to cast Billy Zane as Ishamael, the Betrayer of Hope.

Robert Jordan sold the film and TV rights to Wheel of Time back in the mid-2000s to Red Eagle Entertainment, a rights-handling company set up specifically to get the franchise expanded into TV, film comic books and video games. To say they failed spectacularly is an understatement. The Wheel of Time comic book was delayed multiple times and left incomplete. Red Eagle tried to crowdfund a mobile Wheel of Time game but asked for an obscene amount of money and then failed to publicise it anywhere, resulting in an unmitigated disaster. Red Eagle then won back some respect by commissioning Obsidian Entertainment, one of the best video games companies in the business, to work on a single-player RPG. However, they then failed to produce any money to fund the game. They somehow managed to sign a deal with Electronic Arts in which EA agreed to release the game but not fund it, one of the most inexplicably baffling failures of corporate dealing I've ever encountered.

Of course, the real money was in a film/TV adaptation. Red Eagle's initial attempts to produce a film script based on The Eye of the World were not successful, with a few people who managed to read the script declaring it unbelievably awful. With the company running out of money, Red Eagle re-sold the film and TV rights to Universal Pictures in 2008 in return for Red Eagle retaining a production credit.

Those rights were not forever, and on Wednesday 11 February 2015 (that's this Wednesday, people) the rights would have reverted to the Bandersnatch Group, aka the Jordan Estate, overseen by Robert Jordan's widow Harriet McDougal. During the last few months of his life Robert Jordan had become very irritated with Red Eagle's handling of the Wheel of Time project and one of his very last blog posts was spent castigating them. Fan appreciation for Red Eagle's efforts cooled noticeably at that point. At Worldcon this past August, I moderated a Wheel of Time convention panel with Harriet in attendance and she explained that a number of other Hollywood studios were very interested in the property. With Game of Thrones a huge hit, other networks were looking for a fantasy project and as the biggest-selling post-Tolkien epic fantasy series, WoT was clearly the #1 desired property. With less-successful works like Shannara and The Kingkiller Chronicle getting optioned, it's very likely that WoT would be snatched up by another (probably far more competent) company in short order.

This "pilot" appears to have been made specifically to forestall such a move. With this "pilot" made, Red Eagle (Universal's involvement is highly unclear at the moment) may try to argue that they have succeeded in getting the series made and thus can retain the film rights so they can, er, sit on them for a few more years and prevent a series getting made by actually competent personnel. That sound you can hear right now is that of several hundred lawyers reaching for their pencil sharpeners.

Harriet McDougal's response to all of this:

"This morning brought startling news. A “pilot” for a Wheel of Time series, the "pilot" being called Winter Dragon, had appeared at 1:30 in the morning, East Coast time, on FXX TV, a channel somewhere in the 700s (founded to concentrate on comedy, according to the Washington Post).

It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this.

Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch.

I see no mention of Universal in the “pilot”. Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way.

I am dumbfounded by this occurrence, and am taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence."
More news as I get it.

Update: The director of the "pilot", Seda James, passed away just a few days ago. Condolences to his friends and family.

Update #2: Red Eagle have commented on the "pilot", confirming that they indeed made it to avoid losing the screen rights. They also confirm that they are pushing ahead with a plan to make a big-budget TV show, apparently because Game of Thrones is a big hit. No further word is given on if a reputable network is interested, or how they may proceed without known producers or writers on board.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Far Cry 4

Ajay Ghale returns home to the country of his birth, the remote Himalayan kingdom of Kyrat, to lay the ashes of his mother to rest. He finds his homeland embroiled in a brutal civil war between the dictatorial king, Pagan Min, and the rebels of the Golden Path. Reluctantly recruited into the Golden Path, Ghale must help overthrow the tyrant, deal with the internal conflict within the Golden Path and fulfil his promise to his mother.

The Far Cry series has established itself over the past eleven years as one of the most reliably entertaining in the first-person shooter genre. The series has forged its own identity for setting its games in large open worlds instead of sequential levels (aside from the first game, which was a linear sequence of very large islands which allowed you to approach the objective however you wished). It has also experimented a little with narrative, particularly its focus in the second and third games on the nature of violence and the impact it has on people, particularly untrained civilians who turn into walking arsenals of death in order to complete the game objective.

The fourth game in the series is unusual in that it's the first game not to feature an abrupt shift in mechanics, tone or setting. Far Cry 2 introduced the large open world idea, whilst Far Cry 3 brought in radio towers, crafting and the notion of a free-flowing war going on outside of the storyline, with you able to fight in battles and take over enemy outposts at will. Far Cry 4 surprisingly does little to change this formula, instead refining what came before and, slightly awkwardly, stepping back from some of the things the previous game attempted. On paper the setting may sound very different, but a lot of the action takes place in the lower Kyrat valley which is extremely lush and you may forget which game you are playing until you look up and see the mountains.

In terms of gameplay things are less 'similar' than 'identical' to Far Cry 3. There is still a mix of focused story missions, optional side-quests and environmental challenges, alongside a whole host of other activities (like racing or escorting deliveries). It's just all happening in the Himalayas rather than the Pacific Ocean, so less sharks and more yaks and weaponised elephants. There's more variety in the design of the radio towers and enemy camps (which are now a lot more interesting and challenging to take on), and things are made more complicated by the introduction of fortresses. These larger, more heavily-guarded camps make for a more formidable challenge, introduced just at the point when your character is developing into an unstoppable one-man arsenal. All of this is still good fun to play, of course. If you want a really boring review, if you really liked Far Cry 3 you'll probably really like this. I wouldn't play them back to back, and there is a question if a glorified reskin of an existing game is worth full price, but Far Cry 4 is certainly enjoyable.

Kyrat elephants are unusually tolerant of people riding them into battle and firing auto-cannons from their heads.

There are several problems with the game, although they seem to stem from a genuine desire to make up for problems in its predecessor. Far Cry 3 took some flak for its use of the 'white saviour' trope and for its storyline about how the main character was corrupted by all the death and destruction he caused, which felt a little like the game having its cake and eating it. Far Cry 4 uses a native main character, which is a nice touch if one that has absolutely no impact on gameplay, and dials back the moral erosion stuff. It's been done before and would have been redundant to do it again, but it does remove any kind of emotional or character arc from Ghale's story. Jason Brody from Far Cry 3 may have been an utter tool, but at least he had a storyline to follow. Ghale spends the entirety of Far Cry 4 in a state of vague bemusement at what's going on and ultimately becomes a total non-entity. They may as well have gone for an unnamed silent protagonist.

In terms of characters, the game struggles to come up with any that are interesting. The Golden Path leaders are fanatics and Pagan Min is entertainingly psychotic but a pale shadow of Far Cry 3's Vaas. The game does break with convention by bringing in returning characters (CIA agent Willis and inept mercenary Hurk both return from Far Cry 3) and referencing others (Jack Carver is mentioned, placing FC3 and 4 resolutely in the same universe as the original game, surprisingly). There's also a really weird subplot set in the mystical realm of Shangri-La which features a magical remote-controlled tiger, exploding arrows and gigantic bells which transport people between dimensions or something. These interludes feel like a completely different game has suddenly rammed itself into Far Cry 4 for no reason, but get points for just breaking things up a bit.

So, Far Cry 4 (***½). It has less interesting characters, a duller storyline and rather less innovation than its forebears. It's also still quite a lot of fun and allows you to shoot honey badgers up the backside with arrows (although they don't care). Playable, enjoyable but the first game in the series which is almost completely disposable. Pick up when it's going cheap. Available now in the UK (PC, PS3, PS4, X-Box 360, X-Box One) and USA (PC, PS3, PS4, X-Box 360, X-Box One).

Elite: Wanted by Stephen Deas and Gavin Smith

The 34th Century. A routine bit of piracy goes badly wrong, leaving the crew of the Song of Stone wanted by both the authorities and the most lethal criminal gang in inhabited space. When a bounty hunter famed for being relentless and efficient gets on their tail, events rapidly spiral out of control.

The Elite video game series has always had a good relationship with its tie-in fiction. The original game, released in 1984, had very simple graphics so relied on the manual and flavour text to fit in a lot of the background. Key to this was The Dark Wheel, a novella written by Robert Holdstock (who won the World Fantasy Award the same year for his seminal Mythago Wood) which brought the setting to life with memorable characters and a focused storyline about revenge and family.

For the release of Elite: Dangerous, the fourth game in the series, a whole line of new books are being released from several different publishers. First out of the gate is Wanted, a collaboration between Stephen Deas (best-known for the Memory of Flames fantasy sequence) and Gavin Smith (Veteran, War in Heaven, Age of Scorpio). This novel focuses on pirates, bounty-hunters and the dividing line between the law and lawlessness, key features of the Elite games which can also be used to generate good stories.

Wanted has a simple but extremely effective structure: chapters alternate between Captain Ravindra of the Song of Stone and Ziva, pilot of the Dragon Queen and one of the most renowned bounty hunters around. The characterisation of these two leading figures is strong, with the authors setting up each captain's motivations (Ravindra's wayward son and Ziva's relationship problems) and using them to drive the story forward. For a tie-in novel the risk is always that the iconic setting will overwhelm the story and characters, but there Deas and Smith avoid that, putting the central characters front-and-centre.

That said, they do handle the setting pretty well. There's always been a conflict between the Elite universe being set so far in the future and the relative low technology of it all, with no artificial gravity and ship-to-ship combat being carried out at close range rather than with drones from thousands of miles away. The two authors do a good job of staying true to the game setting whilst throwing their own innovations and extrapolations of technology into the mix.

On the weaker side of things, some of the secondary cast could do with being fleshed out more. The motivations of the villains is also under-developed, especially as the maguffin the plot revolves around is never really explained. On one meta-level it's irrelevant, as it's simply the excuse for the story to happen, but on another it means that the stakes are never properly defined.

Still, Smith and Deas deliver more than what was expected here: a punchy, rip-roaring space opera with some clever bits of science, some nicely-handled character relationships and a book that leaves the reader intrigued to try both the game and the other books in the setting. Elite: Wanted (****) is out now in the UK and USA.


George R.R. Martin has released the cover art for the American edition of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. This is the omnibus which collects together The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight, the three novellas about Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, Egg, set 89 years before the events of A Game of Thrones.

This is the first time the prose editions of the three stories have been collected together in one volume. This edition will be heavily illustrated by Gary Gianni and will be published on 6 October in the UK and USA. The book is already available - minus the illustrations - in some parts of Europe.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

This early outline for A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is very different

Waterstones have tweeted something rather interesting and special: a letter written by George R.R. Martin to his agent, the late Ralph Vinccinanza, in October 1993 which contains an outline of A Song of Ice and Fire as then-envisioned.

Spoiler Warning: Although this outline deviates massively from the novels-as-published, it is possible there may be glimpses of future story elements here. There is certainly one confirmation which could be construed as major. Please do not read any further if you are really paranoid about spoilers.

A note on chronology here. Martin started writing A Game of Thrones in the summer of 1991, when the scene with Bran attending Gared's execution and then finding the direwolves in the snow popped into the authors' head while he was working on an SF novel, Avalon. That chapter led into the second, with Catelyn greeting Eddard ino the godswood, and things snowballed from there until Martin had written over 100 manuscript pages. Progress was halted when the ABC network commissioned a pilot script Martin had written, entitled Doorways. Much of 1992 was spent rewriting the script and prepping, casting and filming the pilot. ABC decided to drop the project in 1993 and Martin returned home to Santa Fe. Normally, long interruptions in writing a novel meant that the idea would go cold, but Martin had instead spent a lot of his time working on the pilot also rolling over ideas for the fantasy story in his head.

By late 1993, as the letter indicates, two things had happened. The first was that his initial idea for a purely 'historical' series, merely set in a fictional world, had been abandoned. Martin's original idea had focused on the civil war storyline alone with no magic, Others or other supernatural elements (reminiscent of some of K.J. Parker's novels). Martin's friend Phyllis Eisenstein talked him out of this and convinced him to "put the dragons in". The letter firmly has the dragons and Others in place. The second was that the story had expanded from a single novel into a trilogy, consisting of A Game of Thrones (focusing on the war between the Starks and Lannisters), A Dance with Dragons (focusing on Daenerys Targaryen's invasion of Westeros) and The Winds of Winter (focusing on the Others and their assault on the realm).

It's clear why Waterstones felt able to release the outline: it bears very little resemblance to the story we've ended up with. No R'hllor, no Stannis, no Renly, no Melisandre, no ironborn (the Lannisters instead sack Winterfell themselves) or Dornish, no Golden Company or Young Griff and no Slaver's Bay. The focus is overwhelmingly on the major characters from the first novel and remains on them throughout. The outline also seems to posit either the characters all being older at the start, or that the five-year gap is still in play: more likely the former, as GRRM later said that he came up with the five-year gap some way into writing the first three books, and of course abandoned it during the torturous writing of the fourth novel. Of course this is a brief outline, so many details are expected to be missing. It would be interesting to see if those original versions of those chapters are still around, and if characters like Theon are in them.

More interesting is that the Red Wedding is not present at all: Robb Stark dies on the battlefield, whilst Catelyn is killed by the Others beyond the Wall, having escorted Bran beyond. During the period when ASoIaF was a trilogy, Martin had said that he envisioned A Game of Thrones ending with the Red Wedding, but this outline seems to suggest that if was so, it was a passing notion during the brief period between the outline being written and the decision to split Thrones into two books (and later three). It's also clear that Martin massively complicated Daenerys's storyline by having her go to Qarth and Slaver's Bay. The outline shows Daenerys finding the dragon eggs in the wastelands beyond the Dothraki Sea and using them to rapidly conquer the Dothraki so she could lead them in an invasion of Westeros in the second novel. Speculatively, Martin introduced the Qarth and Slaver's Bay episodes to give Daenerys something to do when it became clear that the action in Westeros was vastly more involved, complicated and space-consuming than he'd originally planned. The complications between Jon, the wildlings, the Watch and Stannis would also appear to have served a similar function by giving Jon more story material to deal with during the civil war to the south.

The outline is fascinating and also something of a relief: it's not very good, or at least, not as good as what we've ended up with. Some fans have suggested that writers should create an outline and stick to it without deviation, but in most cases this would be an appalling idea. The ASoIaF outline shows that, along with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time outline (a very early version of which posited the Dark One as a human warlord from another planet and the Forsaken as half-demons) and J. Michael Strazynski's bonkers original arc for Babylon 5 (which lasted for ten seasons across two different series), refining and deviating from the arc when better ideas present themselves is often essential.

Can the outline be used to guage what happens in the next (final?) two novels? Maybe. Daenerys would seem to be about to meet/conquer the Dothraki with Drogon, so she's gotten back on track through a very circular route. But that was clear from the ending of A Dance with Dragons anyway. The Tyrion, Jaime, Sansa and Arya storylines have all gone in completely different directions as well.

Likely, there isn't much (if anything) left of this arc in the future books. But it's a fascinating look into the creative process and how ideas change over time.