Thursday, 30 June 2011

Doctor Who: mid-season musings

Well, we’ve fallen into the gap between the two halves of this season of Doctor Who, so it’s a pretty good time to consider what’s going to happen next. Naturally, spoilers for the first half of the season abound, and rumours regarding the future likewise.

The mid-season finale was slightly disappointing in that the rather lovely Lorna and the amusing Strax ended up mortally wounded. In a not-very-surprising twist River Song was revealed to be the offspring of Amy and Rory, and was probably the kiddiwink seen in the first two episodes of the season. She also has some Time Lord DNA and is able to, at least partially, regenerate.

The actual ending was slightly strange. The Doctor ran off in the TARDIS, leaving his companions and River behind, searching for young River. At the end of the episode it showed a skeleton at the bottom of a body of water, clutching a sonic screwdriver.

The Doctor’s ‘death’ in episode 1 also needs to be explained. The most obvious solution is that the ganger Doctor gets reconstituted and allows himself to be killed. That said, the real Doctor could do that, and fake Doctor could be made permanent (this could provide a handy get-out clause for the 13 incarnations limit Time Lords have, although this is more of a law of man than nature [see: The Deadly Assassin]).

The first half of the season was generally good, especially the excellent first two episodes, though the finale was a little lacking in tension. There are rumours that Rory and Amy will leave the Doctor at the end of the season, presumably to look after the young version of River.

Matt Smith should be around for another few seasons at least, (I think he’s guaranteed to be there in 2012, and maybe 2013). It’d be good if they got him a companion (or two) from the past instead of a modern day girl. Well. That, or Sally Sparrow, obviously.

It also appears that Moffat’s taking a different line to RTD regarding the daleks. Specifically, they’re going to be used less often, which I think is a damned good thing. They’re great villains, but were being over-used. I hope that the increasingly overblown season finales get binned too. Dobby the House Doctor was not a good look.

Lastly, 2012 is going to see fewer episodes. The BBC first claimed this was because Moffat, who also writes Sherlock, was too busy, a claim the man himself refuted in plain terms quite quickly :


Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review: Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe, by Brian May, Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott

Occasionally I veer away from my usual genres of classical history, fantasy and sci-fi and buy something completely different. One of my favourite science books is Bang!.

The three authors take the reader through the universe’s life, from its earliest beginning at the Big Bang to the present day, ending with the various theories regarding the death of the universe.

I’m not well-versed at all in this sort of thing, and was pleased to find that, with one or two minor exceptions, the contents were pretty easy to understand. It’s a good book for someone who isn’t an expert but might be interested in the universe and how it came about.

The book is hefty in size and festooned with excellent photographs and diagrams that either illustrate scientific principles or simply show how staggeringly beautiful the universe is.

The most interesting part of Bang!, for me, was the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, which was something I had no idea about and enjoyed reading. The mind-boggling strangeness of the concepts involved (such as time not existing before the Big Bang and the huge loss of mass our sun undergoes every second) are a little bizarre, as is the strange truth that we can literally see the past when we look to the skies.

Over the course of the book the focus shifts from the Big Bang through the mass of the universe to our particular planet. It’s a little odd to read about history in this way, but the three authors do an excellent job of combining high science with simple and understandable writing.

The copy I’ve got is a hardback, second edition, as the writers updated it to take account of fresh discoveries.

It’s not my usual sort of fare, but Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe is an easy-to-read and enjoyable foray into the mysteries of the universe strewn with excellent photography. And one of the writers played guitar for Queen. What more could you ask for?


Sunday, 26 June 2011

Physical versus eBooks

As well as prevaricating over what book to buy, I’m now prevaricating over whether to buy a physical or eBook next. I’ve pre-ordered the physical version of A Dance With Dragons, and imagine I’ll still get some historical books in physical form.

The problem, and the reason behind me getting a Kindle in the first place, is that I really do lack room and don’t want to get rid of any books I have now.

There are a few advantages to eBooks. Firstly, they do save a hell of a lot of space. Secondly, the screen is very good and does not detract at all from reading or cause eye strain. Thirdly, delivery is almost instantaneous. Fourthly, they’re often (sadly not always) cheaper.

So, why even consider getting any physical book?

I do still prefer the experience of reading a physical book. I’m not sure why, though I’m reminded of what Giles said in a Buffy season 1 episode when asked why he disliked computers. He said it was because they didn’t smell, like books smell musty. I’ve got a copy of Outlaws of the Marsh and the glue (I think) used is different to most others and always evokes memories of China and reading about Li Kui and Sagacious Lu.

Physical books are much better, I feel, as gifts. Like vinyl, the essential information is the same, but the physical copy somehow feels more fitting and meaningful.

Last, and most annoyingly, some eBooks aren’t that well formatted. Sometimes you get strange wide spaces between lines. The Night Watch is a good example of a well-formatted eBook. It does have slight gaps between paragraphs but they are clearly intentional, make reading it a little easier and at no point during the book do they became over-sized. OCR errors (OCR is Optical Character Recognition, I think, the scanning technique used to transfer the characters from physical copies to the eBook format) sometimes happen but in the few books I’ve read they’re rare. One exception would be in The Night Watch where ‘lie’ is mistranscribed as ‘He’. Fortunately, it’s clear what the word should be and I think there are only two in the whole book (so, no worse than the odd typo in a physical book).

The Kindle’s eased my problem regarding space, but hasn’t removed it completely.


Friday, 24 June 2011

Elite soldiers of the Ancient World

Following a similar vein to an earlier post on sieges, I thought it’d be interesting to have a look at some of the finest soldiers from thousands of years ago.

Leonidas and the 300

The 300 Spartans of Thermopylae are perhaps the most famous. Assisted by their usually forgotten allies for the first few days, they bought the Greek alliance time by staving off an enormous army led by arch-lunatic Xerxes. The Spartans defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae (Hot Gates, in Greek, I think). Unfortunately, some dirty swine told the Persians of a secret track that led behind the Spartan position. The defenders learnt of this, and almost all of them left, except the Spartans. They died fighting bravely and, although they lost, Thermopylae has the air of victory. It’s almost the antithesis of a Pyrrhic victory. In the end, the Greeks managed to defeat the hugely larger Persian forces, setting the scene for the Peloponnesian War.

The Theban Sacred Band

It’s sometimes assumed, wrongly, that fellows of a not entirely heterosexual disposition are not the best chaps in the world at fighting. The Theban Sacred Band would beg to differ. In a little window of history, Epaminondas, King of Thebes, won two victories (Leuctra and Mantinea) over the Spartans (inventing the oblique order of battle as he did so). The Sacred Band were the finest of his troops, and consisted of 300 (again) gay chaps (or 150 pairs). The reasoning was basically that you’re likelier to fight remorselessly and less likely to turn and run if your lover’s life is also on the line. They were an elite force, but the problem was timing. Thebes had kicked Sparta’s arse, only to find out Philip II of Macedon and his son (some chap called Alexander) were not so easily beaten. At the Battle of Chaeronea Philip’s brilliant tactics and Alexander’s (who was in his late teens) fury slew them almost to a man. Being ever so slightly vindictive, the Macedonians also totally obliterated Thebes. (One of the Diadochi later restored it, I think).

Alexander’s Companions

Companion does not just refer to his best mates (although they were), the Companions were the very best of Alexander’s cavalry, and led by the man himself. The Macedonian army was fantastic in every regard, but relied upon intelligent and bold action from its commander. The phalanx could pin an enemy down effectively, enabling the cavalry to storm in the flank or rear and massacre them. Countless times the Companions saved Alexander’s life and routed his enemies. However, the risks weren’t entirely from the opposing army. Cleitus the Black took exception to his leader’s increasingly Persian-influenced style of kingship and the two had a drunken argument that ended when Alexander killed him with a spear. Alexander wept for days afterward, perhaps recalling that Cleitus had saved his life at the Battle of the Granicus.

The above three loosely defined units have something perhaps unexpectedly in common. They all lost, ultimately. The 300 were slain, of course, as were the Theban Sacred Band. When Alexander died, the Companions split as the huge Macedonian territory was torn apart by the Diadochi. There was no grand, unified Macedonian empire. It was sundered into the Seleucid Empire, Macedonia itself and Ptolemy’s Egypt.

If Alexander had lived beyond the early 30s and marched west after reaching home, he would have smashed Rome to pieces. It’s an intriguing thought.


Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Review: The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko

A little while ago I mused on the Anglo-Saxon dominance of fantasy, and received a helpful suggestion (namely, The Night Watch, which is written in the first person).

It’s a very distinctive book in many ways, most of which I rather like. The story is set in modern day Russia, specifically Moscow, and Lukyanenko does a good job of painting a slightly bleak urban picture. Indeed, you might be able to pinpoint almost the exact year of its writing by the mention of Anton’s (the protagonist) mini-disc player.

The Night Watch, counter-intuitively, is actually an organisation of good. Light Ones can join the Night Watch, and Dark Ones can join the Day Watch. The Light and Dark Ones are people with special powers that make them more than human, whether magic or being a shape-shifter or vampire/werewolf.

Interestingly, the key difference between Light and Dark is not about yearning for dominion over the world (in their way, both sides want that) but a matter of perspective. The Light do what they can for others and are heavily bound by rules, the Dark emphasises freedom and self-advancement. Lukyanenko does well to make both sides seem valid perspectives. They live according to a Truce which has plenty of rules and regulations to help prevent an outright war.

The book is really three-in-one, and follows three relatively short stories about Anton over the course of roughly a year (in total). He’s a junior magician in the Night Watch, fairly new to the job (he’s been in it a few years but magicians can live to be centuries old) and still struggles with the brand of morality the Light employs.

I have to admit that I dislike the three miniature stories rather than one full one. I can’t really give anything about them away without spoiling them, suffice to say that I liked the first one the most, and the last the least. A single story would’ve allowed for a more fleshed out narrative.

However, it’s certainly the case that Anton and his relationships with a number of other Light Ones, particularly his boss/mentor Boris Ignatievich, are explored and progress over time.

There’s a lot I like about The Night Watch. The setting is immersive and the Light/Dark are a refreshing modern take on Good and Evil. Anton’s moral doubts and difficult relationships with the other Light Ones are also good. A single longer story arc, rather than three parts, would have been more to my taste.

I checked to make sure I’d spelt Ignatievich’s name right, and found that The Night Watch’s first story was made into a film so successful it made more money in Russia than Lord of the Rings.

Will I buy The Day Watch? It’s also a three-in-one type book. I think I may, but my reading list is of such ridiculous length it’s hard to say when I’ll get around to it.


Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Basket of Thaddeus

I’ve just finished the second of three volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and have gotten about three-quarters through a modern fantasy book I’ve been reading. I tend not to be without a book for long, so I’ve started looking ahead to future purchases and releases.

Found it quite difficult to decide on any immediate purchases. There are some good prospects, with Restorer of the World: The Emperor Aurelian by John White and Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual by Philip Matyszak standing out on the history side.

However, I’m not really in a historical mood, perhaps because I’m deeply ensconced in Gibbon’s excellent work and want a slight change. Already released are a large number of tempting tales of fantastical escapades, including Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies (the follow up to the slow-starting but thrilling The Lies of Locke Lamora) and lots of stuff by Brandson Sanderson (I haven’t read his work yet but it sounds good).

In terms of games, there’s one excellent future release (Skyrim, and here I must berate the filthy mind of a certain Joe Abercrombie for his unique take on the name) but a yawning chasm of a wait for it to come out in November.

The picture’s rather rosier for books. Next month (the 12th, specifically) sees the long awaited release of A Dance With Dragons, the latest instalment in the epic A Song of Ice and Fire Series penned by the delightful George RR Martin. I’ll be pre-ordering that in the near future.

After that, 20th October sees the release of The Iron Jackal, by Chris Wooding. This is a Tales of the Ketty Jay book, the third, and follows the adventures of assorted misfits, drunkards and psychologically unstable characters aboard the eponymous airship. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, which is a bit like epic fantasy mixed with Roman/Byzantine-style power struggles, the Tales of the Ketty Jay are in a more technologically advanced world with bullets and aircraft. Wooding does a great job of mixing arcane powers with a more scientific world and I’ll certainly buy The Iron Jackal at some point.

In November Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch, will be out. It follows The Lies of Locke Lamora which, after a somewhat slow and steady start, was a gripping read.

Now all I need to do is acquire the money with which to make the aforementioned purchases…


Friday, 17 June 2011

Review: The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds 1600BC to 1600AD (edited by Andrew Roberts)

This book takes a gallop through the ranks of excellent military commanders from the year dot to a few centuries ago. Sensibly, the approximate cut-off point coincides with the increasing development of gunpowder, which obviously had a massive impact upon warfare.

Roberts has put together a wide range of historians who each write about the commander(s) they’re most knowledgeable of, over about eight pages, on average. Artwork and tactical maps are common, and although each chapter is a quick summary they include one particularly important battle, with a handy battlefield map.

The commanders looked at are a motley bunch, ranging from the bleeding obvious (Hannibal, Alexander etc) to lesser known fellows, like Nobunaga Oda (who I only knew of due to Kessen III), Belisarius (more of him later) and so on. There’s also a reasonably wide geographical mix, from Africa with the pharaohs to Europe and Asia.

It was very interesting to read about the fellows I’d never heard of, such as the viciously effective Tamerlane (not necessarily the foremost advert for equal opportunities, given he was lame in one leg and one arm and prone to murdering huge numbers of people).

The chapters are long enough to whet the appetite for more information, and this was certainly the case with Belisarius. I won’t spoil the book, but suffice to say that the piece John Julius Norwich wrote about him prompted me to search for more on Belisarius himself and Byzantium more generally, happily leading me to the quite fantastic trilogy Norwich has written.

That is not to say, however, that I agree with everything that is written. I’m not a historian, but I am stubborn enough to need convincing if an opinion is offered with which I do not agree. The section on Hannibal lambasted him for the march through the Alps, attributing his ultimate strategic defeat to the high cost in men and equipment the epic march demanded. I would rather put the blame, if blame is needed, to misfortune (the unlucky failure to take the Tarentine harbour even when Tarentum itself fell, the immediate death of Hasdrubal when he entered Italy, the rise of the Hanno party who sent reinforcements to Iberia rather than Italy etc).

In addition to its undoubted excellent value in itself, the book offers a substantial reading list, which is very helpful if certain chapters/commanders have provoked the reader’s curiosity.

There is also a second book, I have yet to acquire, which deals with modern recent warfare. Not sure if I’ll get it, as I tend to prefer ancient history.


Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Knights of St John

Certain military actions ring through time, even amongst those disinterested in history or the military. Names like Cannae, Thermopylae and Stalingrad still have a very high level of recognition.

When I was reading about Byzantium and its latter era two such actions were a surprise and delight to read about.

The island of Rhodes has been the scene of many important moments in history. The Colossus was born there, Demetrius got his nickname (Poliorcetes “The Besieger”) having failed to take it and for a time it was the home of the Knights of St John.

In the 15th and 16th century the Ottoman Turks were expanding, and regularly inflicting defeats upon Christian Europe. The fall of Byzantium was a tragedy for the world, but it is the two sieges of Rhodes, in 1480 and 1522, with which this post is concerned.

In 1480 Ottoman power was waxing, and the island of Rhodes came under attack. The defending forces numbered around 3,500, with 70,000 men on the Ottoman side (however, far fewer than this actually assaulted the city itself). On 27 July, a vanguard of 2,500 made it into the city, and hours of relentless fighting ensued. The Grand Master, Pierre d'Aubusson, fought with his lance, despite being wounded multiple times. Weakened by the prolonged battle, the Turks began to withdraw, and an assault by the Knights of St John turned retreat into rout. Against the odds, the Knights had won, and Rhodes remained free of the Ottomans for almost half a century.

However, the story was different in 1522. The Knights were led by Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, with Suleiman the Magnificent the supreme leader of the Ottoman Turks. De L’Isle-Adam called for reinforcements from Europe but, perhaps reminiscent of the lack of support for Byzantium seven decades earlier, little was forthcoming. The Turks had 100,000 men, the defenders of the island less than a tenth those numbers.

Suleiman, if memory serves, loved his cannons, and they pounded the walls of Rhodes until part of the walls collapsed, filling in the moat and providing a handy bridge for the Ottomans. The Turks took control of the breach thrice, only to be repulsed each time by a vigorous counter-attack led by the Grand Master. The 24th of September saw a day of prolonged and intense fighting, but ultimately the Turks were again seen off by the Knights.

The end of November saw another massive assault on the city, but it was, yet again, repulsed by the resilient Knights. The Turks had suffered umpteen tactical defeats and failed to crack the Rhodesian nut, but the Knights of St John had been bottled up and besieged for months.

Suleiman offered the defenders generous terms of surrender, with peace, freedom and food on offer. The Grand Master was persuaded by the people to negotiate, and a second truce was implemented following a brief interruption of renewed conflict.

The Knights were granted 12 days to leave the island, taking weapons and valuables with them. No churches were converted to mosques and the remaining islanders (who all had a three year period to leave) got five years free of Ottoman taxation.

Rhodes was taken, and the Knights of St John sailed to Crete. They had lost Rhodes but they had put up stiff resistance to two sieges, seeing off hugely superior forces in 1480 and resisting an even bigger army for months in 1522.

It’s always interesting to read of smaller forces triumphing over larger ones. Such actions highlight the importance of morale, intelligence and boldness, whether the ancient victories of Cannae and Arbela, or the siege of 1480, or Wellington thrashing the Indians at Assaye.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Update on my book (untitled, as yet)

It’s always odd reading through my own stuff. A lot of things leap out as being a bit awkward or slightly contradictory (I am incredibly rubbish at continuity). It’s pretty satisfying when witty or sombre moments hit the right note, and there are plenty of those.

Right now it’s about two-thirds full size, part of which will be made up by a few new scenes. Most of those are necessary rather than for subplots or padding, and should provide good opportunities for character building and some comedy (Roger the Goat has a minor part, but is quite enjoyable to write about).

My Kindle’s been very helpful in this regard. Redrafting is much more tedious than writing first drafts, but the eReader has allowed me to escape using tons of ink and paper then making notes with highlighters. It’s also much smaller and lighter than a lever-arch file.

Redrafting is always less fun than writing a first draft, but I do have 3-6 new scenes to add, so that should make it a bit more enjoyable. I won’t be doing a map (95% of the story happens in a single city) but the cover’s a bit trickier. Drawing stuff is not a talent of mine, but I do have an idea for the cover and I’ll have to wait and see whether it works.

I’ve got a title in mind, and might go for a Latin version (helpfully, the Latin singular genitive and plural nominative of the first declension is the same, keeping a sense of ambiguity that would fit with the possible title but running the risk of sounding pretentious).

So, hopefully I’ll be able to crack on and get this draft done in the next month or two, and I think it’ll just need a final check after that.


Thursday, 9 June 2011

Lesser-spotted Queen songs: ‘39

I must admit, of all the songs about faster than light travel leading to the dilation of time, this is my favourite.

It’s a slightly lesser-spotted Queen track, from the fantastic A Night At The Opera album.


Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Skyrim: new gameplay video

A new 7 minute video of Skyrim gameplay has emerged. Huzzah! The video and some interesting observations are below, so if you’re wanting to minimise spoilers you should probably stop reading now.

The video is on the Xbox 360.

The third person protagonist seems to have more fluent movement, making that style of play (as opposed to the first person default) a real option rather than a slightly clunky poor relation.

The video also showed the combination of two identical spells (one per hand), which yields a more potent result together than singly. Staves are shown to be one-handed, so you can have a staff in one hand and a blade in the other.

Giants herding woolly mammoths (peaceful, unless you try murdering them) and a number of dragon fights are shown. The dragons look fantastic, and are dynamic in the world, attacking not only the player but other NPCs as well. Dragons are included throughout the game (not right at the beginning, but thereafter). Sometimes multiple dragons must be fought at once.

Landscapes included in the video are an alpine forest area, a snowy mountain and tundra. There will be seven major regions of climatic difference.

Todd Howard stated that the game has at least 300 hours in it. I suspect blogging may be light in November.

Main factions are:

College of Winterhold, for mages

Companions, for warriors

Thieves Guild

Although not in the video I’ve read elsewhere that the Dark Brotherhood make a return. I certainly hope so, as those quests were the best in Oblivion, in my opinion.

More than 150 dungeons confirmed as being in the game.

So, lots of nice footage and juicy info. I’ll leave you with a new screenshot, of a giant herding mammoths (naturally, it’s owned by Bethesda Softworks).


Monday, 6 June 2011

Review: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

This was originally a radio series which made the unsurprising transition to book form. The book itself is pretty hefty, a burglar-killer of a tome, in fact.

The objects are all taken from the British Museum, which has an extensive enough collection to allow for almost all of human history and a broad spread of geographical locations to be covered. There are one or more colour photographs of every object, which vary in size from a few inches wide to an Easter Island statue. The photography is well done, with one or two minor exceptions (an interesting shadow puppet from Java is hard to make out because the background and its head are both black).

Each object has around half a dozen pages dedicated to it, describing the item itself as well as outlining the context in which it was created. Some of them are perhaps expected, whereas others are less well known and all the more interesting for it. I especially liked reading about the astrolabe, which is a cunning device from several centuries ago that functioned almost like a watch and satnav.

The items are arranged in approximately chronological order, within little sections (the Enlightenment being from the latter 18th century to the start of the 20th, for example). The gaps between the first few objects are wider than later on, as might be expected.

In terms of selection, I think it’s excellent. Picking 100 objects, given that the whole of human history from across the globe has to be covered, must be a bloody difficult task but I think MacGregor does well. There are plenty of items from China, Australasia, Africa and South America, as well as the more familiar items from Europe.

Personally, I found the Chinese items to be amongst the most interesting. There’s Chinese jade, a very early banknote (unfortunately, they suffered inflation trouble and a loss of faith in the currency, something that would never happen today, I’m sure…) and, of course, china itself.

The objects are a mixture, with some political in nature (the Qianlong Emperor defacing/inscribing an ancient jade ornament with his message, Suffragettes doing likewise with a penny), some commemorating great rulers like Alexander or Croesus and others of religious or martial significance.

Due to the nature of the book (hefty and with 100 discrete sections) it’s ideal for reading in small doses over a long period, and is very enjoyable.

Reminds me, in that regard, of The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, edited by Andrew Roberts and with contributions from numerous historians. I’ll probably review that in the nearish future, actually.


Saturday, 4 June 2011

Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes To War

So, the final episode of the first half of the season is upon us. Big spoilers lie herein, as might be expected.

The previous episode gave us a fantastic cliff hanger, with Flamy (Flesh Amy) being disintegrated and Real Amy waking up to discover she’s heavily pregnant and has the creepiest midwife in the universe.

The story begins by setting the scene: Amy’s being held on Demon’s Run, a fortress on an asteroid, which is defended by an army of humans and some dodgy characters by the name of the Headless Monks. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Rory (back in his Roman gear) are busy rounding up old allies to help them rescue Amy.

The Welsh Sontaran (Strax, I think his name was) sentenced to being a nurse was hilarious and provided some light relief. Cockney assistant to the Silurian (I didn’t catch her name) was rather lovely, and I liked Christina Chong as Lorna. The pirates previously terrorised by the Siren also made a brief appearance.

Anyway, the Doctor thwarted the Headless Monks (whose description is gruesomely literal) and the human army and rescued Amy and the baby (named Melody). However, creepy eye-patch woman proved too cunning. The baby that was rescued was Flesh, leaving Amy and Rory bereft of their child. In addition, its genes were Human-Plus, with the effect of the TARDIS making it a human-Time Lord hybrid.

The Headless Monks launched a sudden attack and, although they were defeated, the lovely Lorna bit the dust and Strax was probably dying too, alas.

River Song appeared only at the end, revealing that “The only water in the forest is the river” referred to a gift Lorna had given Amy. Lorna was from the forest, and the TARDIS translated her language’s version of Melody Pond into River Song. So, River Song was Amy and Rory’s daughter all the time, and perhaps halfway to being a Time Lord.

It was a nice twist but not hugely unexpected given earlier pointers.

The episode had a large cast of secondary characters which were very good, especially the comedy Sontaran and lovely Lorna/cockney girl. The build up was good as well, but there was a certain lack of tension after the Doctor began the rescue. It didn’t quite work, but Amy’s safe, the Doctor seemed to know where to find Melody (quite possibly Earth, 1969) and River Song was there. For a moment I thought she was going to try and kill the Doctor, given the baby was stolen to be made into a weapon, but the only twist at the end was the not entirely unexpected identity of River Song.

Although not quite a five star episode, the first half of the series has generally been very enjoyable. Three months to go now until the latter six episodes.


Friday, 3 June 2011

Favourite Voice Actors/Characters

I’ve often said I love great voice-acting, so here’s a list of half a dozen or so that I think are particularly good, in no particular order. There are some spoilers for Metal Gear Solid, Dragon Age: Origins and Uncharted/Uncharted 2.

Cam Clarke and David Hayter as Liquid and Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid is one of those games that became a benchmark for the genre and something its rivals aspired to match. Part of the reason was the engaging and original characters, most notably the protagonist, Solid Snake, and his evil twin brother, Liquid Snake.

I’ve paired the two up because the two characters are partly defined in contrast to one another, and the plot is about their battle. Liquid is the more confident (and arrogant) of the two, whereas Solid is a hardnosed but essentially good man. Hayter turns in the first of several engaging performances as Solid Snake, which is tinged with vulnerability in both a military (he gets captured and tortured) and emotional sense (regarding Meryl).

In many ways I actually preferred Liquid. Whilst undoubtedly evil and a bit full of himself, he’s also the more confident and proactive of the two. It’s a shame Cam Clarke never (save for a brief cameo in MGS2) reprised the role.

Simon Templeman as Loghain in Dragon Age: Origins

There are a ton of great performances in Dragon Age: Origins, but none can match the nigh on perfect Loghain, voiced by Simon Templeman. Loghain is a great general and patriot who consider the King to be a bloody fool. Ambition outweighs his loyalty and he takes a strategic decision to leave the King to die.

Loghain’s a complex character, and it can be hard to tell whether he puts his own desire for the throne or his wish to serve and protect Ferelden first. He’s egged on by the black-hearted Arl Howe, a little like Grima Wormtongue to his King Theoden. Templeman puts in a stellar performance, lending Loghain a voice of authority, certainty and arrogance. He can become a companion, or be killed, and makes a cameo appearance in Dragon Age: Awakenings if the former is chosen.

Corinne Kempa as Leliana in Dragon Age: Origins

Excepting Wynne (who was a tedious nagging old woman), I liked every companion in Origins, but Leliana was undoubtedly my favourite. She has a rather lovely French accent and a sweet, flirty character. Kempa’s voice is as pleasant and relaxing as a long hot bath, and Leliana offers plenty of opportunity for fruity conversation.

She was originally a rogue in Orlais, but was betrayed by her lover and went to Ferelden to seek sanctuary in the Chantry, which is where the player finds her. As such, she’s dutiful and devout but with a slightly naughty streak.

Happily, I suspect she’ll return in DA3 (which is interesting, as it’s possible to kill her in Origins).

Claudia Black as Chloe Frazer in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Chloe’s an interesting character, and quite hard to pigeonhole. She’s a confident and saucy minx, but doesn’t fall into the videogame trap of being a stereotypical randy Mandy in a chainmail bikini (although that would’ve been an interesting skin option).

Drake, despite being the protagonist, is often bossed about by her, and she’s a sly she-devil. Black does a great job of providing her character with intelligence and complexity, making her a fully rounded and three-dimensional lady.

Nolan North as Drake in the Uncharted series

Drake is a hugely likeable character, reminiscent of Indiana Jones and an improvement on Lara Croft. He’s a tomb raider (ahem) with a penchant for witty one-liners, lovely ladies, shady associates and occasionally buggering things up.

North’s performances as Drake manage to balance the character’s competence and charm with a few weak spots. He’s not a two-dimensional superhuman, and does make bad judgement calls at times. I can take or leave the tomb raider genre, but the top notch voice-acting (aided by the excellent gameplay) is what draws me to Uncharted.


Thursday, 2 June 2011

Recipe for a great RPG

RPGs are my favourite genre of computer game. Old classics like Phantasy Star IV, Vagrant Story and Shadow Hearts made a lasting impression on me. I’ve been slightly less impressed with some recent offerings. I loved Oblivion, though its levelling system displeased me. FFX and FFXII had a number of flaws (the latter had a potentially great political plot that was never developed and half the characters were tedious) and lacked the charm of FFIV and FFVII.

However, whilst Final Fantasy seems to be plunging over the abyss of linearity (albeit with delicious graphics) there are some good modern RPGs. Dragon Age: Origins was flawed but enjoyable, and Valkyria Chronicles offered an intriguing mix of story and tactical combat.

The benchmark for the latest generation of consoles is Oblivion (until 11/11/11). But what makes a great RPG, and why has Final Fantasy gone from the great days of Cecil and Kain, Cloud and Sephiroth, to being second rate?


Long ago, when every character spoke only in text and games were on cartridges (or, and I feel ancient as I type this, cassettes) a lack of freedom to choose in RPGs was ok. It was ok because moving a little character of a few pixels on the screen was amazing and new.

Now, it’s unacceptable. There are a few ways to achieve proper RPG freedom. The Oblivion/Skyrim route is simple: create a massive world, cram it with quests, side-quests, random encounters and different ways of playing the game and levelling, and let the player do whatever the hell they like. In Oblivion, the main quest is entirely optional (I actually preferred the excellent Dark Brotherhood quests). So, you can be as evil as you like, stealing things and killing innocents, or very good indeed.

Then there’s the Dragon Age route. You aren’t playing solo, but in a team. However, you choose the members of your party, equip them as you like, change their tactics if you want and get a lot of moral options. So, if you want to be evil, that’s fine. Commit infanticide, enslave dwarven souls to make them mindless, obedient warriors and slaughter a tribe of elves led by Tuvok from, Star Trek: Voyager. It is undoubtedly more linear than the Oblivion way, but you do benefit from the intra-party interactions.

Both routes allow for the player-character to be created rather than pre-defined. Races (well, not in DA2), colour, gender, class are all tailored by the player. The face can be tweaked to try and make a character look beautiful or handsome, damned ugly, or rather evil.

The above two systems work because Oblivion offered literally hundreds of hours of playing time and Dragon Age: Origins enabled players to make different player characters with different parties and to make different moral choices when presented with moral questions.

In short, there’s a hell of a lot of replay value. FFXII offered a little as characters can be customised to fight in different ways and provided with different orders, as in DA:O. But, there were no moral dilemmas to be faced, and the characters were not exactly classics.

World-building and storyline

So, you’ve got freedom. But you need a world in which to be free.

An RPG is best served by a variety of epic locations, and a substantial number of NPCs (non-player characters) which whom to interact. Oblivion had this, but was also let down a little bit by the fact that the vast majority of the characters were voiced by a surprisingly small cast. The dungeons/landscapes were also quite similar generally, a slight problem that is to be mended for Skyrim.

The world also needs a strong history to provide it with an identity beyond Vague Fantasy World. I think Dragon Age has a tremendously strong identity and a great history, and hope that DA3 gets enough time in development to showcase this.

Oblivion felt a little bit too generic, there was not quite enough meat on the bones to make it stand out as distinctive and different. However, it did have a huge world to play in.

FFXII’s political plot could have been excellent, but it seemed underdeveloped, which is a great shame. The general backstory of two massive empires preparing for war was not the most original. I was also puzzled as to what exactly the point of Vaan and Penelo was.

Hmm. Turns out the recipe for a great RPG is shorter than I imagined. There are a lot of peripheral things (easy to navigate menus, great voice acting etc) but generally they’re icing on the cake rather than the chocolatey goodness itself.

I’m hoping for some more news and screenshots of Skyrim to emerge from the E3 Expo, which runs from 7-9 June. If anything particularly interesting comes out, I’ll be sure to post it.