Thursday, 31 March 2011

Game music

A slightly unusual blog today, on the music in videogames. I love the audio aspect of games, both music and voice acting. Personally, I think the sounds of a game evoke a mood and build an atmosphere more than the graphics.

Voice-acting really took off a generation or two ago, before which RPGs were largely or entirely textual. Generally, this is a good thing, although it is worth pointing out that Vagrant Story (about which I’m going to write a retro-review soonish) was 100% text and is one of my favourite RPGs ever.

Music, however, has been around forever, although the sound quality’s improved dramatically. Likewise, the composition quickly evolved from tinny electronic sounds to some frankly fantastic scores.

I’m a casual gamer, tending to buy a smallish number of games and playing them relatively intensively, rather than buying tons. My first real system was the Megadrive, after which I’ve been in the Playstation camp. [Actually, I did have an Amstrad something or other pre-Megadrive, but cassette games that took 30 minutes to load are not exactly exciting].

I mentioned Vagrant Story above, for good reason. The music is very good throughout, and some of it is excellent. Here’s Lea Monde At Dawn, by Hitoshi Sakimoto:

Metal Gear Solid was and remains one of my favourite games. Along with fantastic voice-acting it featured the brilliant The Best Is Yet To Come, composed by Rika Muranaka and sung by Aoife Ni Fhearraigh.

Final Fantasy is quite often mentioned when people talk about great music. I think it’s usually overrated, but there are some good tracks. My favourite is from the first FF I ever played (VII), which is the boss theme of Sephiroth. One Winged Angel, composed by Nobuo Uematsu, has an original electronic version, and an orchestral one, which I prefer and have embedded.

Music, like storylines, is something that doesn’t necessarily get better as technology progresses. Graphics improve as time goes on, but an excellent plot or well-written piece of music is timeless.

Thaddeus

Monday, 28 March 2011

My basket overfloweth

Sometimes it can be tricky to decide what book to buy, but recently I’ve noticed my Amazon basket has been bulging like the boob tube of a 30 stone woman. There are several new authors whose books I want to read.

Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book is in there, as are The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Lynch is, so I’ve heard, a bit like Joe Abercrombie or George RR Martin, and I’ve been meaning to get that book for months now.

A pair of light but nevertheless intelligent history books are on my to-buy list too. I loved Philip Matyszak’s Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. It was concise, witty, intelligent and interesting. There’s a similar book about knights, written by Michael Prestwich, which I’m looking at getting. Matyszak has also written a pair of ancient travel guides, one about Athens, the other about Rome. The Athenian version’s in my basket, but if it’s as good as the Legionary Manual I’m sure to get the Roman one too.

Incidentally, it’s less than a month until the start of the Game of Thrones HBO series (available in the UK via Sky Atlantic). The adverts look pretty good, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Last of all in this rambly post I’ve already bought a new game. I wasn’t intending to, but I remembered I had some credit and instead of withdrawing money from an account decided to spend a whole £1.50 buying F1 2010 for the PS3. There are some bugs, I know, but I’m still hoping to enjoy it. A sequel, cunningly entitled F1 2011, is set to come out in September. I don’t know whether it’ll include Bahrain or not.

Thaddeus

Friday, 25 March 2011

Dragon Age 2 Review

This review is going to be pretty lengthy, and is based on extensive but not exhaustive playing of the game. I got it for the PS3, the same system I played Origins on. The review will be largely spoiler-free, and where I think a spoiler may be wanted I’ll asterisk it and put the information at the end of the post so that those who don’t want any giveaways won’t stumble over them.

Character Creator

Very similar to Origins, but it’s now easier to make a better looking character. There’s a wider range of hairstyles, though colours remain a slight problem (the only white/grey is rather bright and there’s not a good blonde, despite there being about 3-4 varieties of red).

There’s no racial choice, though gender and class can still be changed.

Faces generally throughout the game are better than in Origins. Beards are better and there are more options when creating characters.

There are two voice actors (Jo Wyatt and Nicholas Boulton) for Hawke, rather obviously. Happily, they both do a damned good job and any concerns I had about the voiced protagonist were answered by the very good performances of the leading pair.

Companions

It’s very hard to miss any this time, with one exception. For information on who this is and how to find the individual, see below*. The voice-acting is generally very good, and the banter (especially involving Isabella) is entertaining. Bethany is something of a let down, as she’s a goody two shoes wet blanket and her actress is not quite as good as the others.

There’s also a step backwards in terms of customisation. Weapons are heavily limited for companions which means each companion has a largely prescriptive role in combat. The lack of freedom to change armour does mean each character has a nice unique form but it also weakens customisation even more.

Every character can be given an amulet, belt and two rings, but, infuriatingly, these are often named simply ‘ring’ or ‘amulet’ and you cannot check the stats of the accessories when you discover them. It’s a minor but irritating point.

Throughout the game the companions take a more proactive role, generally, than those of Origins, and won’t hesitate to bicker, and support or condemn Hawke’s actions. Friendship has been improved, so that Rivalry is an equally valid road to take. Benefits come into force for achieving a certain level of Rivalry or Friendship.

Combat

The classes (warrior, rogue, mage) are better balanced than in Origins. Combat is faster and skilful use of talents/spells can make them much easier. Overall the game is less difficult than Origins, and I’d say the combat is slightly inferior. The very long cool down for healing (both through potions and spells) irritates me somewhat.

The classes have also been made more distinct. An archer rogue fires very slowly but does more damage than the ultra-fast but weak dual-wielding rogue. Likewise, a double-handed sword warrior can hit many opponents at once, whereas a sword and shield warrior gets a defence bonus.

Skill/spell progression has been improved markedly for both the protagonist and companions. Skill trees offer a variety of paths, each companion has one unique skill tree and the protagonist can select two of three for their own class.

The Story

I’ll briefly cover the framed narrative approach, then address the merits of the story itself.

The framed narrative is helped by the charismatic Varric and the rather tasty Cassandra. Coming from a point in the future gives some hints about the ultimate end of Hawke’s tale, and it works pretty well, without being spectacularly good or bad. It’s a nice change of approach from the standard.

The story is not something I’m going to discuss in great detail, for obvious reasons. However, I do think it worth saying that whilst the events in Kirkwall make sense and provide a coherent narrative there’s a certain lack of direction. Hawke just happens to be around when certain things happen. There’s not a single central thread to the plot, but a few separate chapters to the story.

Whilst Origins was rather clich├ęd, it did benefit from a certainty of purpose. DA2 does not have this.

Some people rather dislike the ending. It’s somewhat predictable, but it didn’t irk me.

It reminds me a little of my thoughts on FF12. The judges and nethicite and the political aspects of the plot were excellent, but it simply wasn’t developed enough or even finished properly. Inon Zur, the composer, has indicated the game was rushed, and in the story I feel this shows sometimes.

An unorthodox part of the game is the progression being based on time rather than place. It’s an interesting idea, but there’s a rather obvious setback. When you’ve run around Kirkwall for 26 hours (the time of my first playthrough which I did reasonably quickly) and start again as a new character, the city’s entirely familiar. In Origins there could be a 15 hour gap (if you played continuously) between visiting Orzammar with your old character and your new one.

The city does not change very much (if at all) as the years roll by, which is a shame as this could’ve helped. Kirkwall is left on a number of occasions, but a good 80-90% of the game takes place there.

However, even in the out-of-city experience there’s far too much repetition. The caves, warehouses and other dungeons are all based on a very small number of highly similar presets, pointing to a rush job.

Interacting with companions is as good, or better than, Origins, and the inclusion of Hawke’s family helps flesh out the character. The lack of direction and a central storyline does detract from the game.

One area of clear improvement is in the choices that Hawke makes. The safe middle option has been made scarcer, with real dilemmas being more common.

Music and voice acting

Many of the scores are the same as in Origins, which gives a nice sense of continuity. The music is of a good quality, and includes a track by Florence and the Machine.

Voice acting is excellent. I’m not sure if there’s quite a performance to match the perfect effort of Simon Templeman’s Loghain, but if there is it must be the Arishok. The companions and other main characters are generally of a high quality, though some minor characters and Bethany (who is inferior to Carver) were not quite as good.

There’s also an extensive cast list, as per Origins, which helps make the world (well, city) more immersive. I hope the makers of Skyrim are taking note in this area.

Bugs

The PS3 version of Origins had some problems. Freezing was top of the list, followed by a poor frame rate and lengthy loading (and saving) times. The codex was interesting to read but irksome to navigate as it was often hard to tell if you’d read a certain entry before.

Unfortunately, DA2 also features freezing. For some it’s quite common, for me it was around once every 6 hours, on average. I took a few measures and these have mostly solved the problem. I disabled auto-save, and stopped importing my Origins save. (I also disabled persistent gore but I don’t think that made a difference). However, the fact that this bug, widely known and complained about for Origins, featured at all is simply not good enough.

Until today I’d had no freezing since making the above changes, and there was around a 20-30 hour gap between my last two.

There’s less jitteriness and the frame-rate is greatly improved. The codex (and the item menu) has a helpful little flag for a new entry or item, which persists when you read the entry or select the item and then disappears when you move away. It’s a simple but welcome change.

Conclusion

I’ve got very mixed feelings about Dragon Age 2. I think it was rushed and suffers for it, but despite this it makes strides forward in some areas. I’m not sure it could be called better or worse than Origins, but as the Moon must constantly accelerate to maintain the same speed so games must constantly improve to be held in the same level of regard.

The combat is slightly worse, skill trees are better, the companions are more proactive but less customisable, the character creator is improved, the locations are repetitive and the voice acting remains splendid.

If Origins were 9/10, I think I’d give DA2 8/10.

There are some very good things. I like the fact that the plot, despite lacking a central thread, is not stereotypical fantasy but rooted in the excellent world of Thedas created by the writers of Dragon Age. The protagonist voices are excellent and there’s no prolonged Deep Roads tedium.

But, the freezing bug should’ve been caught and remedied pre-release. The serious lack of customisation for companions goes too far (even if you subscribe to the idea of giving them a single outfit or a very limited range of them the restriction to a single weapon group is excessive) and playing the game again is less appetising as the city is constant and overly familiar.

This is the end of the spoiler-free review. There’s only a single minor spoiler after this, so if you don’t mind seeing it, read on.







* Fenris can easily be missed. At Gamlen’s home check your letters, and accept the Bait and Switch quest (you may need to accept a preliminary letter from the mercenary/smuggler). Isabella may also be missed (not sure), but you just need to check The Hanged Man after finding Anders and doing his little quest.

Not sure what the next game I’ll be getting is. Perhaps Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, or Skyrim. Top Spin 4 is tempting but sounds like it’s been made a bit easier. I loved 3 and thought its level of difficulty was almost perfect.

Thaddeus

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Kindle Dilemma

I always intended to get a Kindle. Though expensive as a single purchase, it may well pay for itself through free books and cut price electronic versions of modern ones. The concept is highly convenient, allowing for instant purchasing and delivery of books, and there’s room for thousands which also saves tons of space.

And yet…

…there’s something I just don’t like about abandoning real books. I like having something in my life which I don’t need to boot up or load from a disc or charge its battery.

I also worry somewhat about the pricing. How much of the cut cost is just saved labour, and how much means a lower profit margin for authors? I might be worrying about nothing there, but there’s another more certain cause for concern.

When I was a kid, I visited a lot of second hand bookshops when on holiday. Some of my favourite books came from such places, including some Dr Who novels and Dragon Wing, the first part of the Death Gate Cycle. Independent bookstores are already struggling to compete against the might of Amazon. A world of electronic books and electronic readers is a place without any need for bookshops. I don’t doubt some would survive, and maybe real books would become more luxurious hardbacks with higher price tags, but a rush to electronic books and readers cannot be good for actual bookshops.

There’s also an issue over control: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8314092.stm

I’ve got the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on my desk, and very nice it is too. I could lend it to a friend, scribble notes in the margins, use it to steady a wobbly chair leg or find Ed Balls and thrash him about the head with it. It’s mine. But if I downloaded it (and I think it’s free or very cheap to download) it could disappear without my say so or knowledge. It’s rather ironic that Amazon accidentally deleted 1984, of all books, from Kindles a few years ago and highlights the point.

It’s not a one way street, though. The Kindle and similar devices could help break down the agent/publisher barrier between prospective authors and the book-buying public. Getting an agent/publisher is very hard, and acts as quality control but may also deprive the market of some real talent. Even highly successful authors are typically declined numerous times. With more and more people taking advantage of e-Readers we could see the market flooded with aspiring but less talented authors, or have the public, rather than agents, pick winners as almost anyone can publish for themselves electronically.

I don’t think the Kindle’s going away. But I’m also very unsure about whether I want to get one. I like technology, but the pervasiveness of it displeases me.

For now, I’m not buying an e-Reader. The next things I’ll be ordering from Amazon are three paperbacks.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Black Lung Captain review

This is the second in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding, the first being Retribution Falls. It follows the same collection of dysfunctional miscreants as they commit petty crimes and occasionally do the right thing.

There’s a lot to be said about the good things in the book. The pace is generally rapid and exciting, without veering into frenetic chaos. With the exception of the alcoholic doctor Malvery all the charismatic crewmembers (and Pinn) are developed significantly. Plot twists festoon the story like barnacles on an abandoned ship.

As well as the Ketty Jay crew the familiar faces of some Century Knights and the devious Trinica Dracken make a reappearance, joined by the new character of chain-smoking Captain Grist.

The pace is generally fast, although it slows to merely average speed in the middle, and the author does a great job of seamlessly dovetailing the main plot with a number of significant subplots.

Once again, the world of the Ketty Jay is a delight to read about. Rifles, airships, daemonism and the like make it more original than most fantasy worlds and there’s a nice sense of grubby realism.

The storyline focuses upon a downed Mane ship and the treasures laying in wait for those who brave the dangerous island it was wrecked upon. More than that I won’t say, save that the plot lets us learn more about the Manes.

I’ve checked Mr. Wooding’s official website and am glad to report that third and fourth books in the series are coming soon. The sooner the better, I think.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Blog news

Time for a bit of a rambly general update.

I’m shelving my plans to release an e-Book. I’m still going to work on it, but for a variety of reasons I’ve struggled to get much done recently.

Given the release and drumming up a readership for it were the initial reasons for blogging, I’m going to change the nature of the blog a bit. I’ll still post about fantasy/sci-fi as well as history and science, but might write on a wider range of topics. I imagine it’ll be updated a little less often.

Anyway there are two unrelated things I want to mention. Firstly, there’s no Black Lung Captain review yet because I’ve been reading it pretty slowly. Nothing wrong with the book, but I’ve been spending far too much time on ye olde PS3, and some pain in my neck makes reading a little less pleasant than it ought to be.

On Dragon Age 2 and the freezing issue: this seems to affect a minority of PS3 copies of the game, with varying frequency. (I do have the problem but it happens, on average, about once every 6-8 hours which is far less often than some others). I lurk on the Bioware forums and it’s been suggested that turning off auto-save and perhaps not importing an Origins backstory may help. If you have multiple platforms I’d get it for another system, or if you have a PS3 connected to the net it may be worth waiting a little while until a patch comes out. Given this was a major and well-known issue with Origins it’s frankly unimpressive that the new game suffers similarly.

I’ve completed the game as a diplomatic mage (Lady Hawke), and am presently playing two games as the evil Severus and the charming Tatyana. When I’ve finished with those characters I’ll post a proper review.

Thaddeus

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Modern morality and fantasy females

Hmm. The title looks a bit lewder than I’d intended.

Ahem. Fantasy tends to be set in either the actual past or a world at least partly based upon the past at some point in human history. This has all sorts of advantages (you get to copy or be inspired by what actually existed and people already know much of that, allowing readers to feel more in tune with the world more quickly).

Women pose a bit of a problem, though. Not only do they tend to get killed giving birth, they’re less physically strong than men and were usually barred from holding high office or warrior status. There are numerous notable exceptions (the favourite captain of Xerxes during the Persian War was a woman) but generally that’s how things were.

The reason for this was not really because they aren’t as strong as chaps, true as that is, but because women were far less expendable. I wrote something a while ago about a matriarchal tyranny that kept power by controlling pregnancy, births and survival of male babies. But when I thought about it more, something struck me. In a medieval country with a low proportion of men, most of whom are castrated, the effects of an epidemic or war would be far more serious than an evenly split society. The problem is that the limiting factor on reproduction is the number of women of the right age. If an army of men is decimated, the survivors could take more wives and the next generation would be a shade less genetically diverse but just as numerous. If an army of women is decimated, the next generation would be substantially reduced.

To put it more concisely: men are more expendable in a world of low life expectancy.

There are two big ways around this in fantasy: ignoring it and putting female characters into other positions of importance.

Modern morality holds the sexes equal (roughly). The writer is the creator of the world his story’s told in, so there’s nothing to stop him having female warriors or rulers. He could create a new race or amend mankind so that the women are the stronger (or even go so far as to copy the seahorse and have the man give birth).

The other way is to give women a measure of power in different ways. Religion and magic offer two means for female characters to hold important positions, and sorcery could also be used to help improve life expectancy and infant mortality.

As a rule, I dislike modern morality being shunted into a world that’s meant to be realistic in a historical/fantasy way. I don’t think it’s valid to try and create a world that has some elements of a medieval or ancient civilisation but crowbar in 21st century morality elsewhere.

Thaddeus

Monday, 14 March 2011

Outcasts, episode 8

The last episode aired last night. Bit of a shame really. The central premise (a lone colony on a new world, struggle for survival etc) is absolutely fine, but it was hampered throughout by clunky dialogue and gaping holes in logic.

The finale had some good bits in. Fleur being an AC was a credible twist, and Berger’s political shenanigans were reasonably well done. However, the latter was hindered by the fact that the council had never before been seen and there was no reaction shown to any of Tate’s problems (such as when it was revealed he’d ordered the ACs killed).

The use of DNA through the air was a bit puzzling. I don’t have an A-level in biology, but given that sound waves are just vibrations whereas DNA is a physical structure it seemed rather a stretch. Almost as odd was the fact that nobody seemed to make the A-T, G-C connection until the sound waves had been going on for a while.

The ending (the ship Berger had been in contact with throughout landing) obviously teed a second series up, but there was no announcement of a return next year. So, it’s either definitely not returning or possibly not returning.

Sometimes a series can dramatically improve (the first Blackadder series had some good bits but was not a patch on the second series), but Outcasts would need some changes and the nod from the BBC decision-makers.

If it were up to me, here are a few changes I’d consider making:

Retcon Mitchell’s death. Have it be a Noisy One (the unseen aliens), and have Mitchell return.

Sharpen up the dialogue.

Mystery is like a skirt. A little is intriguing, but the more there is the lower the interest of the viewer. Cut the unanswered questions.

Get a science chap to scan the scripts. DNA (should that be RNA, as it involves viral genetics?) travelling through sound waves, an ancient skeleton half-buried with the sea washing over it and so on stretch credibility.

Hugely increase the number of gunfights and build up a secondary cast, some of which can be developed and others of which can be culled in the inevitable AC/Forthaven/New Ship conflicts.

Anyway, I suspect we won’t see a second series. It’d be nice if we did, and there were some improvements.

I think the next sci-fi on TV is Dr Who, at some point in spring. For those with Sky Atlantic, the TV series of A Game of Thrones is due to begin in April of this year.

Thaddeus

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Beyond Elves and Dwarves

Certain fantasy archetypes are regularly used, for good reason. Everybody has an initial idea of elves and dwarves, so less explanation is required. The races tend not to get on, elves are graceful and slender with pointy ears and bows, whereas dwarves are short, stout, uncouth, tough and prefer axes.

They’re very well-known and can add variety to humans.

But why aren’t more intelligent races as common in fantasy?

There are a number that can be lifted straight from myths. Cyclops, centaurs, Amazons (admittedly, Amazons are human but can be classed as distinct, I think) all spring to mind.

One problem is that it can be hard to think of anything being quite so intelligent as a human without looking roughly the same (two arms, two legs etc). Dolphins, elephants and some birds are all very intelligent, but it’s hard to imagine them in a land-based civilisation.

An exception to this could be dragons. They’re a hugely persistent mythical creature, written of throughout history across just about every culture, and are still a favourite today. It’s really quite strange, as there’s no equivalent anywhere and even komodo dragons, whilst impressive, lack the wings (and fiery breath).

I’ve opted to have multiple races of humans. Neanderthals are the most famous example of this, but we have no real idea how homo sapiens and Neanderthals would get along together if they were not extinct.

The Felarians and Dennish are highly similar to each other and us (the main physical difference is the slightly darker Felarian skin). The Kuhrisch, however, are distinctly different. They’re very pale, have high resistance to the cold and are substantially stronger than their Felarian and Dennish counterparts.

The same issue exists in sci-fi, of course. I’d say there’s more freedom in sci-fi, though, as the technology level can make up for physical deficiencies or requirements (you can have a ship filled with water for an aquatic creature, for example), whereas fantasy tends to be pre-industrial, and it’s hard thinking of a Middle Age dolphin kingdom.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Dragon Age 2: first thoughts

Just a brief blog on my first thoughts about the game. I’ve played something like 8-10 hours and have gotten far enough in to offer some thoughts on some areas of the game.

The character creator offers slightly more variety in terms of hairstyles/colour, but the largest change is eye colour. It’s now much easier to make out than before. Otherwise, it’s pretty similar to Origins, except that you must be a human (class and gender options remain).

On a related note, the faces have been improved upon. I thought they were good in Origins, but they’re notably better in the new game.

A big change is that the protagonist (Hawke) is no longer a mute but voiced. The female version is played by Jo Wyatt, and I must say that she’s got a pretty good voice. I haven’t played as male Hawke yet, but Nicholas Boulton played Vaughn in Origins, and his voice was excellent.

I was uncertain whether I’d like a voiced protagonist, but I think it makes the character more real.

I’ve recruited most of the companions, and can report DA2’s banter is (from the sample I’ve heard) as good as Origins. The companions are far less customisable (you can give them accessories and weapons but their outfits cannot be altered except rarely), which is disappointing. They are, however, far more proactive. If the games had subheadings, Origins could’ve been The Warden’s Story, whereas DA2 is more like Marian Hawke and her Merry Men.

Assessing balance between classes is hard, but I do think they’re more equal than in Origins. It’s also not possible to spam potions or healing spells because of the lengthy (overly lengthy, in my view) cool-down periods.

Battles are substantially faster, but that’s the biggest change. Talent/spell trees have been nicely improved.

The battle menu is almost identical to Origins but the main in-game menu is radically different. It’s a bit less clunky than the Origins one, but still not quite as user friendly as it might be.

Regarding flaws: the processes of saving and loading are both much faster. There’s less jitteriness and very little (if any) combat lag. Sadly, freezing may be an issue that’s persisted. I’ve had one freeze, after 2-2.5hrs of continuous play.

There’s a very, very different feel to Origins. It’s more personal, more about development of Hawke, her companions and their relationships to one another and the numerous factions in Kirkwall. I may prefer it to Origins, but I’ll need a few completed games to find out.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Review: Serpent Mage (Death Gate Cycle 4), by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Although I’ll try to keep this relatively low on spoilers, it will inevitably have some for the first three books in the seven book series, so read at your peril if you haven’t enjoyed them yet.

The Death Gate Cycle is an old school series, studded with fantasy favourites. Dragons are frequently involved, and there are two races of demigods (the Sartan and Patryns) with three lesser races (humans, dwarves and elves).

The races populate a strange world, that was Sundered by the Sartan and split into four distinct realms, based on the elements. At the Sundering, the Sartan also sealed their enemies, the Patryns, in the Labyrinth. This was intended to be a kind of long term correctional facility, but became a hellish maze festooned with terrible creatures that killed huge numbers of the imprisoned Patryns.

Understandably, the Patryns were not best pleased about this.

Haplo, the protagonist of the series, is a Patryn sent by his lord to stealthily reconnoitre the four realms. In the fourth book, he visits the water world (Chelestra). To his surprise, the mensch (humans, dwarves and elves) get along in peace. Sly and vicious dragon-snakes of dubious origin have been terrorising the mensch, and Haplo plots to use them both to strike at his ancient enemy.

Much more of the Sundering and what went wrong is explained in Serpent Mage, particularly regarding the Sartan. I hadn’t intended to write another review so soon, but I read it all (just over 400 pages) in a day and if a book’s that damned good it deserves to be reviewed.

Serpent Mage is a great read, with a fantastical world that’s very well-written and it sees further unpeeling of the Onion of Knowledge. Haplo continues to struggle with his burning hatred of his enemy and the good nature of one Sartan in particular, and it’s a nice change to see the mensch getting along.

It does start a little slowly and I’d strongly advise potential readers to buy the first three books before reading Serpent Mage.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Review: Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay 1), by Chris Wooding

I read this last year, and have bought (but not yet read) the second book, The Black Lung Captain. Retribution Falls is a refreshingly high tempo book set in a world radically different to the standard sword and sorcery of fantasy.

Airships are common, there’s a more rational/scientific approach to magic and the weapon of choice is the gun rather than the broadsword.

The story follows the dysfunctional collection of waifs and strays that comprise the crew of the Ketty Jay, including an alcoholic, a dabbler in diabolical arts and a mighty metal harbinger of woe. The new navigator is probably the crewmember that most approaches normality, although normal she is not.

Frey, captain of the Ketty Jay, partakes of all manner of unsavoury pursuits, including smuggling and the like. When a tip-off he gets turns out to be a set-up, he ends up becoming the quarry of every decent, law-abiding chap. Using a combination of slyness, low cunning and blind luck, he and his crew of misfits attempt to evade capture and reveal the truth.

I raced through this book, and enjoyed learning more about the interesting crew. Generally, I prefer grey characters to ultra-heroic or cackling creatures of pure evil, and the crew of the Ketty Jay come with their fair share of vices, and the odd virtue.

All that stopped me from buying the sequel immediately was my ever-growing list of books-to-be-read. It’s a lighter book than most I read, and definitely faster, but none the worse for that. The characters are fun and interact well, the world is original and interesting, and it’s the sort of book that isn’t read so much as devoured in a day or two.

Thaddeus

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Can a story be too epic?

‘Epic’ can describe many things, whether classical history, Hollywood films about the fall of the Roman Empire or a fantasy series.

Fantasy stories often have some epic qualities. Lengthy and perilous journeys are commonplace, as is the potential end of the world and huge wars. The Lord of the Rings is a good example, with Sauron, the destruction of the One Ring and the various large scale battles in Gondor.

There are sound reasons for this. A big journey enables characters and relationships between them to develop, and gives the writer a great opportunity to show off the fantastical world they’ve created. The potential for the downfall of civilisation and the ultimate triumph of evil is a simple and effective way of introducing a driving force for the plot and dramatic tension.

There are some pitfalls, though. For a start, the world ending is amongst the least original of storylines, second only to the princess in need of rescue. It can also be challenging to create an entire world that’s not either a bit bland and too realistic or too similar to worlds written of by others. Certain archetypes can quite freely be copied (dragons, elves, dwarves, gunpowder just about being discovered), but if anybody started writing about a giant bull-fire-demon with a whip called a gorlab people probably wouldn’t be too impressed.

Fantasy often deals in trilogies, which is handy for something epic, as three books of (often) 500-800 pages is plenty of space to describe a world, ultimate peril and a big war.

There is, however, one series (as yet unfinished) which makes a trilogy, or even The Lord of the Rings itself, look a bit diminutive. A Song of Ice and Fire is brilliantly written, but the last instalment (A Feast For Crows) did make me wonder if George RR Martin had overreached himself. The scale is massive on any level (size/detail of the world, cast list, events, page/word count). The last book dealt with only half the cast and was widely considered to be a step down from the stellar quality of the preceding books.

The series has a very large number of significant characters and a spider’s web of inter-connected and fascinating storylines. But there’s got to come a point when a story just becomes too unwieldy, and the number of characters hinders rather than helps the plot.

My hope is that A Dance With Dragons, out shortly, will allay my fears and that Mr. Martin, who has a tremendous talent for writing, returns to his very best form. I suspect we’ll find out one way or another whether he’s over-egged the cake when it comes out in July.

Thaddeus

Monday, 7 March 2011

Outcasts, episode 7 (and other progs)

Hmm. It is quite odd to have a series with so many potentially excellent, or at least good, storylines which never seem to have a pay-off. Almost like watching an adult film which begins with the line “Hello, I’ve come to fix your sink”, features 17 minutes of plumbing and ends with the line “Your sink is now fixed. Goodbye”.

We’re 7/8 into Outcasts, and yet the writers still don’t want to let us know anything. Fleur discovered (through remarkably convoluted means) that Cass once went by another name, and has a horrid secret. Naturally, we don’t get to know what he’s actually done.

The unseen aliens want to destroy Forthaven and are communicating through high-pitched, ultrasonic means, but we don’t know what they’re saying.

At the end, Berger thanked the mothership for the information on Cass (he manipulated the situation somewhat), and found out that there’s something weird about Fleur. Of course, we don’t know what that is.

I don’t mind some mystery, but this is verging on Lost levels of annoying. It’s a shame because the ideas (a colony, XP/PAS conflict, political shenanigans) are all fine, it’s the execution that’s flawed. I’ll watch the final episode, but if there’s another series it’ll need damn good (p)reviews for me to tune in.

Mind you, the first series of Blackadder was the weakest of the lot, so maybe all hope is not lost.

Sunday also saw a much more enjoyable programme, a new series (8pm Channel 4) by historian Niall Ferguson regarding the West and China over the last 500 odd years. Except for the irritating ‘killer app’ shtick, there was no dumbing down and the first programme covered the advantage that international and commercial competition furnished the West with during the era of exploration and expansion.

I did tune into Brian Cox’s programme immediately afterwards, but 30 minutes in all I’d learnt was that time moves in one direction, the universe is quite old and the programme bored me.

Thaddeus

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Exotic books: The Outlaws of the Marsh

One of the most unusual books I’ve ever read was The Outlaws of the Marsh. Written hundreds of years ago in China, it’s available in a cheaper four volume box set (which I’ve got) or a five volume set of larger books that must be bought separately (I have the second volume, The Tiger Killers). The translations are both good, the latter is perhaps better (it uses the term ‘cangue’ rather than ‘rack’ and translates one character as Short Arse Wang instead of Stumpy Tiger Wang, but it would be substantially more expensive).

Well over 2,000 pages long and bursting with violence, The Outlaws of the Marsh is a strange book, a bit like Robin Hood in ancient China. The narrative style is very interesting, and features an enormous cast (there are 108 named ‘heroes’ alone). A given hero (say, Lu Da, my favourite) will be the story’s focus for a short time, and then it will switch to another character and the first character may not come back for several hundred pages. Many characters are picked up and dropped off like this as the outlaw gang slowly accumulates new members during the course of the book.

The vast majority of the cast are male, with a few rare exceptions (the well-named Ten Feet of Steel being one), and battle against injustice and overly officious bureaucrats (something we can all relate to). Some heroes, such as Song Jiang, are almost completely virtuous and good, whereas others (Li Kui, the Black Whirlwind, being a prime example) are, er, ‘wayward’. And by ‘wayward’ I mean ‘he kills large numbers of innocent people on purpose’.

One of the nice little quirks in the book is the setting and the sayings. Written ages ago and thousands of miles away, they’re totally original to eyes that have only before read Western books.

The Outlaws of the Marsh could almost be described as the fairy tale or legend that Quentin Tarantino might write. There’s a colossal amount of violence (mostly the righteous killing bandits and officials who abuse their power), and sometimes the book can seem a bit repetitive (although that may just be a side-effect of its vast size). It can occasionally be difficult to follow the names given the large number of characters and some common names.

Because of its huge size, this is the kind of book that could easily take weeks to read. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It’s not flawless but it is interesting, different and lively.

Other similar books include The Three Kingdoms (relating the downfall of the Han Dynasty around 200AD) and Journey to the West (relating the story of a monk and his companions travelling to find the Buddha). I did start a fourth Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone) but found it so tedious I stopped.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Dance With Dragons Waltzes Into View

Although it’s only March, 2011 could be a pretty tasty year for fantasy fans. The very long-awaited release of A Dance With Dragons (the latest instalment in the epic A Song Of Ice And Fire series, by George RR Martin) has been announced, for 12 July, with the UK release on the same date as in the US.

The book has been delayed for release many times, but it does sound likely that it will be out in July of this year. The series generally is tremendously popular, which is unsurprising as it’s brilliantly written and has the most immersive and detailed world I think I’ve ever read in fantasy. However, the last book, A Feast For Crows, did not live up to the high standards Mr. Martin had set for himself, and achieved with all previous books in the series. Fans will be very keen to see that he’s returned to his very best with A Dance With Dragons.

That’s not the only good news for fans of the series, though. In April, the TV series of A Game Of Thrones (the first book) is to air. I’m unsure how many episodes it’ll be, but given the US habit of making a score and the scale of the book I’d be unsurprised if it were 15-20 or thereabouts. It’ll be on Sky Atlantic in the UK, and if it gets good reviews I’ll probably buy the DVD.

In the future there will also be two A Game Of Thrones games released. One will be an RPG and the other will be a strategy game. Both will be out for the usual platforms (PS3, Xbox 360, PC), I think. It’ll be interesting to see whether they get the TV series’ stars to be voice actors for the games, and whether the games coincide more with the book or the TV series.

And that’s not all for 2011. In the next week or so, Dragon Age 2 (previewed here: http://thaddeusthesixth.blogspot.com/2011/03/dragon-age-2-preview.html) is coming out, and The Witcher 2 (only for PC, alas) is out on 17 May.

Probably the biggest fantasy game release of the year, however, will be Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game will sell in droves, and the early trailers already make it look pretty fantastic. Hopefully they can stick to the release date of 11/11/11.

This year’s going to see major fantasy releases in the form of books, games and TV. Here’s hoping they live up to the hype.

Thaddeus

Friday, 4 March 2011

E-Books: boon or bane for authors?

The Kindle was the number 1 bestselling item for Amazon last Christmas. It’s an e-Reader, one of a range that has recently sprung up and allows people to read books electronically.

The Kindle’s screen has improved resolutions, to stop people’s eyes going all fuzzy, sizeable memory and free internet access almost anywhere (if you buy the pricier version) enabling quick access to download new books.

Older works, due to copyright expiration, are free, which is pretty fantastic. I’m going to get one, probably in April, and look forward to seeing how good it is.

The Kindle and other e-Readers enable people to buy and receive books very rapidly, save on storage space and receive a huge number of older books entirely free of charge. If you’re a lover of classics, an e-Reader will probably pay for itself pretty quickly.

They do more than just speed up the process of buying, however. E-Readers enable writers to give away first chapters, or appendices, for free to help entice full scale purchases. They also make a chip in the dam of the agent/publisher barrier. Getting an agent, let alone a publisher, is difficult (perhaps especially so in sci-fi/fantasy). The advent of e-Readers and e-Books means aspiring authors can sell directly to potential buyers, through collective sites or their own blogs, or even through Amazon itself.

There are two problems with this, and they’re pretty big. The first is essentially identical to the digital music problem. Once information, whether musical or written, is encoded digitally and can be transmitted in that way it can be easily stolen and distributed free of charge (albeit illegally). The music industry struggled for years with this, but whereas musicians can perform live gigs to hundreds or thousands of people authors don’t have an equivalent outlet.

I’d like to think, being an avid reader, that people who love books and follow certain authors would not stoop (in large numbers) to theft. The best books are immersive and thrilling and often emotional, and if you take it for free then authors will take a financial hit and may stop selling e-Books altogether (although pirate e-Books may arise).

The second problem is an electronic version of the difficulty all aspiring authors face anyway. I’d bet a week’s wages to a dead mouse that Joe Abercrombie or George RR Martin could shift more copies of a new e-Book in a week than a new, unknown author could in a year. Getting the media attention necessary to sell books, in physical or electronic form, is very hard for new writers. I’ve been wondering about how to encourage more regular readers (beyond the obvious planting of shirtless photographs displaying my rippling torso) myself.

There’s also the question of whether the current model of writing fiction ought to continue indefinitely, be entirely replaced, or whether a new model can exist alongside. For example, an author (aspiring or published) releasing a new book tends to charge X amount for it. The money is paid, the download of physical copy handed over, and the reader gets to keep it.

But what if books became serialised? It’s often said that a book should have a certain number and regularity of exciting moments to keep people interested. The serialisation format (with either a smaller amount paid per episode or a certain total in donations needing to be raised before the next episode is released) could work well online, but it could mean that an author would only make a finite amount for their book (in the latter example it would become free after a certain total had been donated by readers).

Despite the success of the e-Reader and the potential of new technology I am certain physical books will still be bought. Even after I get my Kindle, I’ll be buying a smaller number of physical books.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Ancient authors: Theodore Ayrault Dodge

Classical history is something I love to read, and there are two writers who really got me into it. The first is Machiavelli, who makes numerous concise references to classical history in The Prince. The second is a more recent fellow, an American who fought in the Civil War, named Theodore Ayrault Dodge.

Dodge wrote books which could be described either as biographies or military histories. His attention was focused upon a select number of men who had shown the spark of genius and made a lasting impression upon history.

The old soldier visited a number of the locations in which the wars he wrote of transpired, and combined this real world knowledge with a thorough understanding of ancient authors and what they had to offer.

Three generals of antiquity were written about by Dodge: Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca and Julius Caesar.

Each book is pretty hefty, and bursting with detail. Little sketches of soldiers, weapons, fortifications, siege engines and tactical/strategic maps abound throughout these books (in Caesar’s I think it’s suggested his wife did the drawing, and it’s nice to think of the two touring Europe together). The maps are particularly helpful as they put marches and actions into context and help illustrate the importance of thinking on a strategic scale.

Dodge also excels at explaining the battles that took place, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of different units and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of battlefield tactics. Where there is dispute over a tactical manoeuvre (such as Cannae) he resolves the problem by simply including all the main possibilities.

The enthusiasm he felt for the brilliant men about which he wrote shines through, and does at times border on hero worship (I think at one point he calls Hannibal a Mars amongst men). However, it is worth remembering that the three ancient generals did achieve phenomenal feats, and if the price of detailed, exciting history is a small amount of indulgence on the author’s part I consider it a bargain.

It is important to recall that the books, although riveting and pretty easy to read, are quite old (over a century) and are thus denied the benefit of more recent discoveries about the subject matter.

One potential downside is that the huge amount of detail can mean that certain chapters can become a little too long. The discussion about Hannibal’s precise route over the Alps was something I skimmed over, unlike his conflicts with the barbarians who lived there.

At the back of each book are a number of appendices, with details regarding army numbers, historical marches and the like.

I did begin his first book on Napoleon. The political machinations of the French revolution were interesting, but the battles and strategy did not interest me nearly so much as the ancient history of war elephants and Numidian cavalry.

After reading the book on Hannibal, I checked to see who Dodge’s main sources were, and duly bought the relevant bits of Livy and Polybius. From there, I’ve just bought more classical history (some ancient, some modern) and branched out from the Second Punic War.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Spotlight on: Davros

People into Dr Who but who don’t know much about Davros and would prefer to find out by buying Old Who episodes should stop reading now, as this post will be crammed with potential spoilers.

Davros is an evil genius, and one of the Doctor’s most sinister and long-running enemies. He played a significant role in the very prolonged Kaled-Thal war on Skaro, acting as chief weapons scientist for the Kaleds. Very little oversight was paid to the wheelchair-bound nutcase and his ultra-loyal lackey Nyder (who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my teachers). This proved to be a bit of a faux pas by the Kaled leadership, as Davros gave away military secrets which enabled the Thals to destroy the Kaled city, and then used his newest weapon to annihilate most of the Thals as well.

Davros’ newest weapon was the dalek, of which there was quite a limited number. As you might expect, they rebelled rather quickly and shot their creator at point blank range, after murdering Nyder.

This happened during the excellent Genesis of the Daleks serial, starring Tom Baker as the Doctor. Davros was played by Michael Wisher (still my favourite actor to play him) and was shown to be an intelligent, thoughtful lunatic.

After this, Davros was at the heart of the dalek narrative and made numerous further appearances (of which one has been during New Who).

The daleks sought to retrieve their erstwhile master when they took on the Movellans (another robotic race, although not cyborgs as the daleks could be described), who found a logical impasse had reduced the two war-like sides to everlasting peace. Once again, the Doctor thwarted Davros’ designs and saw the Kaled reduced to a cryo-prison, locked in ice.

The organic element to the daleks (each one is basically a rubbish little organism inside a metal war machine) proved their undoing. The Movellans created a biological weapon which wreaked havoc upon the cyclopean pepper pots of doom, reducing the daleks to dire straits (in stark contrast to their superpower status in New Who).

The daleks resolved to rescue Davros, aided by some human mercenaries, from his prison (in Resurrection of the Daleks). The serial was a bit complicated but quite enjoyable. Davros set about reprogramming the daleks (and the odd East End bartender) to do his bidding. When the daleks decide to exterminate him (again) he releases the virus upon them, only to apparently suffer the same fate as his wayward creations. (This story saw Terry Molloy take up the role, which he then held until the end of Old Who, including some radio stories).

After this, Davros created a new breed of dalek, the imperial (white with gold spots). This began a dalek civil war (they’re big on eugenics and the new daleks were more extensively modified than the simpler ‘renegade’ daleks).

The Seventh Doctor used the Hand of Omega to destroy the imperial dalek mothership, but Davros (unsurprisingly) managed to escape to wreak more vengeance upon the universe and deliver some more enjoyable foam-flecked megalomaniacal ranting.

Although New Who has featured many dalek episodes, Davros has only appeared in a single two-parter at the end of season 4, when he was played by Julian Bleach. I did not like this portrayal, as it showed Davros content to accept a status of servitude, in exchange for his life. In the past, he always worked to escape the dominion of the daleks and reassert his own supremacy. In addition, the dalek leader was an ‘enhanced’ version, but was more emotional than the others (Davros had stripped the daleks of almost all emotions as he believed they were a weakness).

I’m sure he will return, but I hope it’s in a more conniving, megalomaniacal guise.

Thaddeus

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Dragon Age 2 preview

After a pretty short space of time, the next instalment in Dragon Age (cunningly entitled Dragon Age 2) is set for release. The game comes out on 8 March for the US and 11 March for the UK. It’s available on PC, Mac, PS3 and Xbox 360.

I really enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O), the first game in the Dragon Age world. This preview, in common with reviews I’ve done, will be as light on spoilers as possible whilst still offering quite a bit of information.

The areas covered are: character creator, companions, mechanics (battle/speech system etc), locations, DLC.

Character Creator

The DA:O creator was pretty good, but it did have the odd flaw. Beards on humans, for example, would instantly render the face gaunter than Grand Moff Tarkin. The new creator boasts an increased number of hairstyles, eye colours (which will be more discernible) and allow you to play as default Hawke (the protagonist, who can be male or female) with or without the trademark blood smear. However, gone are the options of playing as an elf or a dwarf. You must be human.

There’s also an indirect improvement with the creator, which is the effect upon Hawke’s family. In DA:O, there was the potential for, er, questionable parentage. (See http://www.peasanthovel.com/2010/10/life-is-awkward-for-ebony-cousland/).

In DA2, the change is twofold. Firstly, your family’s faces alter based on the preset face you opt for. It also takes account of the skin colour you choose, so there should be a pretty wide range of familial faces and Hawke should avoid any embarrassing doubts about his or her parentage.

Companions

The four-man party (including Hawke) returns. In DA2, a number of old faces make returns, alongside new characters. Happily, the excellent banter of DA:O is back, and when not in the party characters have lives of their own, living apart from Hawke.

Bethany and Carver: Bethany is a mage, and Hawke’s little sister. She and Carver (a warrior) are twins, and Hawke’s first companions.

Aveline: A lady warrior who fights with a sword and shield. Very much a goody two shoes.

Anders: Yes, the mage from Awakenings returns (though it’s unclear whether Ser Pounce-a-lot will be with him). I won’t spoil it, but he’s substantially different (in what sounds like a good way).

Fenris: The mandatory bisexual and rather violent elf, formerly a slave to a Tevinter.

Isabela: The same Isabela, but with a different appearance and voice actress, to the one seen in The Pearl during DA:O. As you might expect, she’s a bit nice, but also a bit naughty.

Merrill: Another DA:O returnee, she was a brief companion during the Dalish Elf Origin story (the Keeper’s assistant). This time elves have substantially different appearances and Merrill also has another voice actress, who may be familiar to those into British sci-fi.

Varric: A dwarf without a beard is blasphemy indeed. Oh well. He does have a nifty crossbow, and is the narrator of the story.

Sebastian: DLC character. An archer and a nobleman displeased by his declining fortunes.

Mechanics

There has been much grumbling about the altered battle system. I haven’t played the demo, but my understanding is this: it’s a bit faster. That’s the primary change, and a good one.

Cool down on healing potions/spells has been increased quite a bit, which will make killing foes quickly even more important. Mages are as strong as they were before and the other two classes have been improved.

Skills are now learnt along a web rather than in a linear fashion. So, you might buy a single spell and upgrade it twice, or you could buy three separate spells. There’s greater freedom and it seems like a good idea.

Some character items can be altered, and Hawke’s helmet-visibility can be toggled on and off, but the companion clothing/armour cannot be altered outside of the plot.

A big change is that Hawke is now a voiced rather than silent protagonist. This has led to a dialogue wheel, whereby a summary of what he will say is provided rather than the full text.

Another change for the better is that the companion relationship system has been improved. For a start, the days of giving tons of present to become more popular are gone. Gifts are still around but they’re fewer and companion-specific. In addition, you can become a friend or a rival to a companion, and the latter is not necessarily a bad thing. This should help get rid of the incentive to make decisions based on what will prove popular with your companions.

Locations

Aside from an early bit of the game, it takes place in the Free Marches (medieval England meets Greek city states), more specifically the city of Kirkwall. There are various parts to the city and occasional excursions beyond it. However, the way the story progresses is based on time, not geography. This is a radical departure from DA:O and most other RPGs, and could work brilliantly if well-executed.

It reminds me a bit of FFXII (the last FF I bought) when the excellent political storyline involving the judges and Archadia was not fully developed. Hopefully that won’t be the case in DA2.

An important shift is that the story progresses as a framed narrative (think Princess Bride). So, it’s told in distinct segments of time. I’ve read that it’ll be made very clear when a time shift is about to occur to stop people accidentally ending a chapter when they’ve still got stuff they want to do.

DLC

I must be honest and say I really dislike DLC. It’s not just that I don’t have a wireless connection, but the idea that parts of the game are held back and then charged for. If I buy a game, I want everything included in the box.

Admittedly, firms must try and prevent or reduce piracy, and this sort of thing may work. It also prolongs game longevity and player engagement.

Anyway, as I wrote above, there’s another DLC character (I especially dislike this kind of DLC), Sebastian the rogue. There are also a number of items available, and I imagine there will be some post-release DLC such as Awakenings.

One of the coolest DLC items is an in-game character editor, though I’m unsure whether this will affect the appearance of Bethany/Carver.



I’m rather looking forward to this game. Later in the year Hunted: The Demon’s Forge looks potentially very good, and Skyrim may just be trouser-explodingly fantastic in November.

Thaddeus