Friday, 13 January 2017

Review: Rome and Italy, by Titus Livy

This is the third book by Livy I’ve read (the others being The War With Hannibal, and The Early History of Rome). The edition I read was published by Penguin, translated by Betty Radice.

Rome and Italy follows immediately on from the Early History, and covers the aftermath of the city’s recovery from the Gauls. After some minor wars, the meat of the book is concerned with the prolonged and challenging Samnite Wars (which occurred just before the Pyrrhic and Punic conflicts).

I knew practically nothing about this period of Roman history. Livy’s style, as ever, is engaging and easy to read, although it’s worth recalling he isn’t Captain Objective. The edition I read made good use of footnotes to explain certain points or remind the reader of minor inconsistencies in the history.

There’s a fascinating contrast between the ruthless pragmatism of the Romans, and their superstitious nature (repeatedly appointing dictators specifically to hammer in a nail to propitiate the gods). Likewise, asking chickens their opinion before deciding whether to engage in battle or not.

There are some broad themes that are actually quite in tune with the modern world, particularly the conflict (sometimes almost warfare) between the wealthy, privileged, aristocratic patricians, and the numerous but poorer plebeians. On an individual level, there’s heroism and sacrifice, bickering and selfishness, and some intriguing characters (Titus Manlius Torquatus, Marcus Valerius Corvus, Lucius Papirius Cursor and the first Quintus Fabius Maximus, to name a few).

The only real downside was that I found the maps rather iffy. Detail was swallowed by the spine and they weren’t particularly clear (cluttered, and the fonts are too small).

If you liked Livy’s other writing, you’ll enjoy this (NB if you haven’t read anything by Livy I’d advocate starting with The War With Hannibal, as it’s about arguably the most interesting war in history).


Thaddeus

Friday, 6 January 2017

And the preferred cover is...


Thanks to all those who voted either here, on Twitter or getting in touch another way for which of the two covers were preferred. It’s a pretty clear victory for B, with 75% preferring that to the A cover (I’ll probably slap a smaller version of the dragon onto the back of the book).

Not sure if I’ll stick with Lulu or use CreateSpace (there is a KDP [used for Amazon e-books] option for a print version but apparently that’s still working out the kinks). Things are a bit tricky at the moment so I can’t give much guidance as to an expected timetable.

In the meantime, if you enjoy bloody, grim, treacherous fantasy, do give Kingdom Asunder a look. If there’s a better story with a lesbian princess protagonist who has a pet man-eating lynx, I’d like to see it.


Thaddeus

Friday, 30 December 2016

Vote: Picking A Paperback Cover

January comes from the Roman god Janus, a two-faced deity of doorways. So, it’s fitting to end the Year of Doom with a post that looks back to the electronic versions of Kingdom Asunder and ahead to the paperback release.

I plan to use CreateSpace, but, as well as stressing over typos, I need to decide which cover to use. So, please take a moment to cast your eyes over the artwork below and vote on which you prefer. If you’re on Twitter, you can vote there, or you can vote using the poll on the upper right hand side of this blog, or you can just reply to this post with your preference.





Not made a paperback via CreateSpace before so giving a timetable is tricky, but I’d guess at least a few weeks will be needed to sort through the formatting pish.

But that’s not all I have planned for next year.

Forthcoming Stuff of Excitement in 2017:
January = Journeys, a fantasy anthology featuring Black Sails, by me
24 January = Saint Francis’ Day (will probably do a sale)
January/February = hopefully get Kingdom Asunder, physical edition done
Latter half of 2017 = Traitor’s Prize, the sequel to Kingdom Asunder, is anticipated

Possible extra stuff = I may well have stories in a couple more anthologies, and there’s just the smidgen of a chance that Sir Edric will return in Sir Edric’s Kingdom.


Thaddeus

Friday, 16 December 2016

XCOM 2 (PS4) Review

I really enjoyed Enemy Unknown for the PS3 (never played the expansion/DLC) and was delighted when the sequel came, after some delay, to consoles. I wrote this review right after completing a single playthrough on the standard (Veteran) difficulty, and amended it following the 1.02 patch (which makes some improvements I’ll mention below).

Gameplay

The doom counter of the previous game more or less makes a return, with the Avatar project. It’s an unknown project of alien dodginess, and if the counter fills all the way and the countdown hits zero, it’s game over for mankind. The counter can be reduced by progressing with story objectives and completing missions, and advances sometimes naturally over time, and sometimes in response to mission failures.

A second part of the overall strategy are the Dark Events. These are basically Bad Things (for example, doubling the cost of new recruits for a month, or rapid Avatar project progressions) that can happen. When you have a choice of mission you’ll need to weigh up the Dark Event that particular mission will avert, the potential rewards and how difficult it is. But you can only do one. The others (usually two) will go undone and those Dark Events will not be averted. XCOM 2 doesn’t give you a pain-free option.

Missions usually have a turn timer. Fail to complete it within that turn and, at best, the mission is chalked up as a failure and a Dark Event proceeds, or, at worst, your squad will not be evacuated and everyone still on the ground will be captured. I’m not one generally in favour of such things, but it does actually work very nicely because you can’t just crawl forward with multiple overwatches and one chap running forward. It creates stress between the need for safety (losing soldiers is very easy) and the time limit on the mission, so you need to take risks and use your limited resources wisely. Do you use a one-shot heavy weapon on the first enemies you meet to maximise the chance of killing them without suffering any damage at all, or do you save it in case more difficult enemies lie ahead?

Otherwise the mechanics are very similar to the previous game, with full and half-cover, multiple classes (four to start with, the Psi class requires a new structure in your base), and flanking bonuses. The skills have been nicely rejigged.

There’s a wide variety of customisation on both a cosmetic and gameplay level. You can alter the appearance, voice, name, nationality and biography of every soldier, and equip them with a variety of armours, weapons and extra items (grenades, ammunitions, medkits and so forth).

The classes (I have limited experience with the 5th, Psi) are extremely well-balanced. Not only that, but at each rank (past the first, which assigns class) there are two skill options of which one can be picked. Most of these present interesting choices, and can feasibly be used to create substantially different soldiers (you might have two Sharpshooters, and make one focused on pistol skills and the other on sniper rifle skills, both being very useful).

You can also create your own characters in the character pool, which means they’ll persistently appear in your games. So you can have Zhuge Liang, Nicephorus Phocas, Arthur Wellesley and Benjamin “Dizzy Rascal” Disraeli in your squad. Unfortunately, and unlike the PC version, it does not seem possible to either export your soldiers so others can download them, or to download any (excepting some the developers made). That said, still a cool feature.

The counterpart to the missions is, of course, base-building. This time the base is an old alien ship, but functionally it’s very similar to the old base. It’s been streamlined, which is usually code for dumbed-down, but here the streamlining actually works very nicely. Facilities can be upgraded, often by employing engineers (which may reduce research times on Proving Ground projects, or increase radio capacity), so you could choose to have two bog standard radio facilities or just one, but fully upgrade it. However, whilst facilities are affordable, getting everything is tricky so, as ever with XCOM 2, you need to prioritise.

One big advantage of the base aspect over the previous game is that the latter was a bit passive. You had to wait for aliens to do things. Here, there’s always *something* to do, whether that’s contacting new rebel groups, scanning for Intel, visiting the Black Market or doing missions.


Story

Surprisingly, Firaxis has managed to make the story both less linear and more interesting than the last game. The narrative’s a bit stronger and there’s a fair degree of flexibility as to the order you do things.

The basic story is thus: the aliens won. Earth is under their control and Advent (think a global version of Vichy France) is governing a cowed people subject to widespread propaganda campaigns.

You, the Commander, get rescued from stasis by Bradford (the only main character to survive from one game to the next) and set about building a resistance movement and slapping the aliens across the face with the giant haddock of righteous indignation.


Graphics

As you’d expect, these are a bit step up from the previous game. There are some graphical glitches, with the frame rate occasionally stuttering (not a major issue with a TBS game) and the camera can sometimes be dodgy when trying to throw a grenade (only for the roof to get in the way). Generally, a good-looking game without being ground-breaking.


Sound

The main characters are nicely voiced, but the soldiers are where the improvement really comes from. No longer does the vaunted world-wide organisation only recruit people able to speak in an American accent. Now they speak in American, British, French, German, Spanish and Italian accents. A few more (Japanese, Chinese etc) would’ve been nice but there’s substantial improvement.

The effects of weapons fire and grenades remains good, and there are now fire effects, so you can hear the sizzle as the building around you is consumed by flames (and might partially collapse).

Music is good but prolonged loading times can make it a bit wearing (see the Bugs section).


Longevity/replayability

I’ve only played it once (hard to guess play time because I took a long break in the middle, but it took me perhaps 20-30 hours), but I think the game will have excellent longevity. Even on the standard difficulty it can be a serious challenge, and with two higher tiers and the Iron Man mode (no loading, it auto-saves after every action) there’s a lot of replay value.

Maps are procedurally generated, meaning you can’t just memorise the layout of critical missions.

The first thing I did after finishing it was start a new game on the same difficulty, but Iron Man mode.


Bugs and Other Issues

There are numerous bugs. Most are minor. Sometimes when an alien arrives their appearance is a little glitchy. The old XCOM problem of shooting through walls recurs (although this seems to be true for both humans and aliens).

More seriously, the game does crash sometimes (I’d guess once every 8-10 hours or so for me). The auto-save is so frequent it doesn’t result in much, or any, lost progress but obviously it’s still not great. Load times are long. Very long. Early game it’s fine but late game you can be looking at 5 minutes plus. However, Firaxis have recently released a patch which reportedly fixes that problem. [Update: with the 1.02 patch this doesn’t appear as bad. I’m fairly far into an Iron Man campaign and the problem seems diminished or absent].

Also, if you get a free mini-DLC be aware at least one item (the ski-mask, I think it is. In appearance, a balaclava with mouth and eye holes) means you can’t use a character with it. [Update: the 1.02 patch seems to have mended this].

Most importantly, you can make characters from the UK. Or Scotland. But not England or Wales. This is clearly in need of correction.

After two very late missions (the game tells you when you reach the point of no return), there are cutscenes which are followed by a few minutes of black screen, then the scenes replay and all continues normally. Just be aware of this.


Conclusion

A fantastic game that improves in almost every way on its predecessor, but which is hampered by technical flaws mostly corrected by the patch. I’d say it’s a 9/10 with the patch, and 8/10 without.


Thaddeus