Friday, 30 November 2012

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3)

So, I finished the game in just over a week. Partly that's because it's of moderate length, and partly it's because I played it a lot.

Aliens have invaded and are killing people, the extra-terrestrial scum. You are the commander of XCOM, which is basically an elite global army. Supported by a German scientist, a Chinese engineer, an American military adviser and soldiers from around the world (who all have American accents) you must defend Earth, defeat the aliens and try and keep all your financially supportive nations onboard.


The game has a strategic aspect, which takes part in the XCOM base, and a tactical aspect, which happens on the various battlefields.

The base has lots of scope of development. It's subterranean, but slightly less than a quarter of it has actually been excavated and built upon at the start of a game. Adjacent facilities of identical/similar function (power generation, for example) confer bonuses, so if you plan ahead you get essentially free stuff. However, the costs of excavation increase as you dig further down.

Just about every sort of facility is useful in one way or another, making it tricky to decide what to build, and as space is strictly limited (as are funds) these decisions will drastically affect your style of play.

The player also has to decide what to research, build and improve using the labs, workshops and foundry. This will affect how well equipped your soldiers and fighters are, and could make the difference between success and failure. Losing battles and having your planes/satellites shot down will only increase panic and could prompt your financial backers to pull out of the XCOM project.

There's a real sense of crisis management, as you'll often be presented with difficult choices. Keeping all the nations together can be hard when you're offered a choice of three countries, each verging on terminal levels of panic, to rescue from alien incursion. Even on normal difficulty this isn't straightforward.

The tactical battles are usually challenging and almost always great fun. After graduating from rookie status soldiers are randomly assigned one of four classes. Heavies have machine guns and rocket launchers, and support units are ideal (once they get some promotions and corresponding perks) for healing your soldiers. Assault units are frontline fighters and the sniper, perhaps my favourite class, can wreak carnage over long distances.

Each class has a secondary weapon (pistol for all save the heavies, who get a rocket launcher) and can be outfitted with an optional fourth accessory-type item, a main weapon and armour. This, coupled with the variable perks picked upon promotion, mean that units of the same class can vary somewhat.


The music of the game does a perfectly decent job without being especially outstanding. However, as its job is strictly to provide a backdrop that's not too bad.

Voice acting is generally good. The three individuals (scientist, engineer and military) you see back at base are pretty well-voiced, and the soldiers likewise. However, some more variable accents for the soldiers would have been welcome.

Sounds effects are good, and some are excellent. I love the sizzle of lasers as they cook aliens, and even the bog-standard assault rifles have a nice thumping bass as they rattle off bullets.


There could be a little more variety in battlefields, such as having desert, semi-arid, mountainous or snowy places to play Kill The Alien in. However, there's a decent mix, and they're all graphically sound. The graphics of characters, weapons, armour and so on is solid or good, particularly given that most of the time on the battlefield you're presented with an isometric view rather than close-ups. When you do get a close-up (when a soldier kills or dies) then the graphics are sharp enough without being spectacular.

Sometimes there are issues with loading in textures, particularly noticeable for the Skyranger (transport plane) and the distant background as the Skyranger lands.

Bugs and Other Issues

In addition to the sometimes slow or absent texture loading, the game could run more smoothly. Especially on battlefields with many aliens the picture sometimes became jerky and delayed.

It's also the case that the game (out of a single playthrough) froze on me perhaps half a dozen times. Certainly not game-breaking, but definitely a pain in the arse.

SHIVs seem slightly bugged. Most of the time they work fine, but if you put one in your squad for a mission and it doesn't show up, don't take it along. This happened to me once and on the battlefield it was a motionless humanoid shape. The game then froze. If the SHIV (or SHIVs) appear as normal they should work fine.

Longevity and replayability

A playthrough will only take something like 20 hours (it varies a bit because you can delay doing priority tasks). However, there is a constant feeling of progress during this time.

Replayability is very high, because the battlefields, even for key tactical missions, are randomised. So, no two battles are the same, and the difficulty is hard enough to be challenging but not so hard it's frustrating.


XCOM is a great game which offers good gameplay at the base and on missions, a strong challenge and the possibility of defeat (something often absent from modern games). It does have some bugs but these are relatively small and don't seriously detract from an addictive, entertaining and very well-designed game.

I don't usually give scores, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown would get 9/10 from me.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

The book takes the unorthodox approach of writing in the present tense about Medieval England (which, for the purposes of this book, means the 14th century). As the writer states he intended, this helps to make the description of the past more immersive and sympathetic.

Mr. Mortimer writes of a wide range of areas and whilst there's enough depth to give a good feel for a certain topic (travelling, for example) the book is not burdened with excessive detail and is easy to read throughout.

The writing style is light and straightforward, and, despite not knowing much of this period, I never felt lost with strange technical terms. Whenever an odd term or one which has a different meaning in the modern world crops up it's explained simply and concisely.

The only slight issue I had in terms of information was that there was very little about the armour of knights, or suchlike. The book is about life in England rather than war overseas (or at home), but it still felt like a small missed opportunity.

As might be expected I found some chapters more interesting than others. Travel was not my favourite, but the description of the physical and wider social/psychological impact of plague was absolutely fascinating. At its best the book was absolutely enthralling, and the chapters (including law) that I found less appealing were nevertheless well-written.

Overall, the book paints an intriguing and enjoyable picture of what life was like about seven centuries ago. I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to read about life in the Middle Ages, regardless of whether they know any history beforehand.


Monday, 19 November 2012

First Impressions: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3)

I didn't plan on buying this, but many people said it was fantastic and I happened to spy a copy for just £20, so buy it I did.

Even more surprisingly, it had the colour pack, or whatever it's called, in, which enables greater customisation of soldiers. Because of a wonky internet connection I played initially without that DLC, and can report that it's as DLC should be: it adds a little, but only superficially. To be honest, the colour and styles of hair don't add much, although it'd nice being able to colour co-ordinate snipers, heavies and so on.

So, in the four hours or so I've played XCOM, has it met those lofty expectations?

Yes, in a word.

Unlike some strategy games there is actual strategy as well as a tactical level of gameplay. XCOM is split between the base and the various battlefields you visit. Both aspects of the game are great, in very different ways.


The story is about as old school as they come. Aliens are invading, the swine, and the world has united to kill them. They've found a handsome devil (the player) to lead the charge and… that's about it as far as story goes. However, this isn't an RPG and the premise of the game works very well.

Gameplay - Base

The base is underground, and features a range of basic starting facilities (a lab, barracks etc). The base operates on a grid basis, with excavation and access lifts required to free up more space for brand new facilities or copies of existing ones (to speed up research or provide sufficient power for the base).

The base is the strategic part of the game. There's never quite enough resources to get everything you want, whether it's making new weapons, buying new fighters for the hangar or expanding the base itself.

In addition, the base is where you get given missions, when they crop up. Each country has a certain threat/panic level, and when this reaches the maximum they pull out of the XCOM project and stop supplying funds. So, when you have a choice of missions, as often happens, and can only attend one you need to consider the difficulty, the potential reward and the threat level of the country in question. Rewards vary, including scientist/engineers, a veteran soldier or money.

The base is extremely well-balanced. Almost every facility seems useful in and of itself and it can be very hard to decide just what should be bought. Keeping all the plates spinning regarding the threat level of the various countries is challenging too.

Gameplay - Battlefield

This is the tactical part of the game. A squad of 4 (initially) soldiers go on a mission to a specific battlefield. Most of the time the mission is basically kill everything alien, but occasionally you have to rescue civilians or a VIP, stop a bomb going off, or find an alien craft your fighters shot down.

The battlefields are quite small but this works well. Difficulty, on normal, is higher than might be expected and presents a challenge (although I must admit I had to replay one mission after my best soldiers got absolutely slaughtered).

Initially the aliens are pretty soft, but before long they start unleashing rather more fearsome units and the difficulty rises as the game progresses. I'm playing on normal and it's a nice challenge.

Units begin as rookies, but after their first promotion they get a specialisation (sniper, heavy etc). After each promotion, of which there are several, they get a new perk (most of the time you get to choose from two options) most of which seem useful and some of which are great. A small downside is that the specialisation is random, so if you've got a dozen heavies and would love a sniper, you might end up with heavy number 13.

The differing unit types seem well-balanced, and each soldier can be individually outfitted with four varying items (armour, main weapon, sidearm and an auxiliary item such as a grenade or medical kit). It's a very simple but very good way of making soldiers slightly different.

The tactical gameplay works brilliantly. The only minor downside is that if your best soldiers get obliterated bouncing back with rookies would seem to be very hard, as the difficulty of missions can often be Difficult, Difficult and Very Difficult.


Not the core of a game like this, but the graphics are mostly good and occasionally very good. The globe/hologlobe in Mission Control looks great and all the items, soldiers, aliens and characters (whilst not rivalling a Final Fantasy cutscene) look distinctive and good.

Textures can sometimes take a while to load, but I think that's the only graphical issue.


There are a handful of characters in the base (engineer, scientist and military chap) who are well-acted, but the range of voices elsewhere is limited to American accents. It seems a bit odd that the game goes out of its way to include countries from every inhabited continent as members of XCOM but then has just US accents. However, the soldiers' voices tend to be good or at least passable. Sound effects are very good, and it's always fun listening to a laser beam terminate an alien.

Bugs and Other Issues

Sometimes on the battlefield the game can run a little slowly. There's also a persistent issue with soldiers/aliens being able to shoot through walls, which is a little weird.

I've read reviews of the game freezing (either for a short term or permanently) but this never happened to me (for reference, I'm using a 40GB fat PS3) and it seems to be a minority issue.

Rebuilding a squad if your A team get slaughtered is perhaps harder than it should be. Apart from that, the game seems extremely well-balanced.

The only way to get resources is when aliens attack, which makes proactively getting alien alloys and other stuff impossible. It'd be nice if there were an alternative way to get resources or lure aliens down somehow.

Conclusion (after a few days)

In a world swimming in shooters and games so easy a health and safety executive could've designed them to ensure nobody failed and suffers hurt feelings XCOM: Enemy Unknown is both a welcome change and a cracking game in its own right. I'm really looking forward to see how the rest of the game goes and then playing it a second time without making so many schoolboy errors.

I'll write a proper review after I've completed my first playthrough.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Beta Readers, Alpha Writers

A beta reader is someone whom an author sends writing to be critiqued. The basis for doing this is pretty simple: someone else can look at the writing with fresh eyes and pick up things that the writer might miss, and it can be useful to have another perspective.

Very many authors, including top writers, make use of beta readers. I don't (or, at least, not yet), but might change my mind in the future. The potential downside is that a beta reader has to be critical enough to pick up mistakes, from straightforward typos to problems with tone or continuity, without being hyper-critical. There's also the need for the author to be able to take criticism and to have confidence in their beta reader.

Note that a beta reader is not an editor or proof-reader, although their suggestions and comments might include thoughts on editing and the spotting of typos. It's not a paid job, it's a helping hand from someone who loves to read for someone who wants some (hopefully objective) feedback. Authors, perhaps obviously, sometimes do it for one another.

I recently did some beta reading for someone (for the first time), and found it quite a refreshing experience. It probably helped that the writing was easy to read and good, but it was far more relaxing and enjoyable than critiquing my own stuff (I managed to read 16,000 words on the day I got the file and sent back my thoughts the following day). The hardest problem I faced was that when critiquing my own writing I'm relentlessly negative (because good stuff can be left as is whereas bad stuff must be identified and changed/deleted) and it was a bit odd trying to remember to say nice things as well.

So, if you're a new author why not consider beta readers? At worst you can ignore silly suggestions, and at best they can offer great insight.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Review: War in the Middles Ages by Philippe Contamine

I read a translation of Contamine's original book (which is in French), which was translated by Michael Jones. The book's a little pricey (£30), but I got a second hand copy for less than half that from Abebooks.

The scope of the book is pretty large, dealing with the military changes from the fall of the Roman Empire (in the West) until about the end of the 15th century. This is not a superficial book, as the social changes that underpin military capability and the clash between and within religions are also considered.

Reading of the way power dispersed and coalesced after the Empire fell and after Charlemagne was a revelation, and it was fascinating to read of how the Dark Age rulers sought to utilise the shattered remains of Roman thinking and structures to forge armies.

There is abundant detail, with every consideration backed up by a couple of examples (or more). Perhaps this is the Englishman in me, but it was striking to notice how the French author emphasised the importance of cavalry (specifically knights) in medieval warfare.

As society shifted from a feudal system with military service an obligation towards a world where mercenaries became more important and powerful the nature of armies changed significantly. There were also geographical quirks, with wealthy Italian cities preferring to hire mercenaries and the English having a large number of excellent archers.

The dominance of short-term, small scale raids over more prolonged wars was well-described, as was the nature of objectives. Rather than seeking to expand dominions most medieval warfare was about enriching oneself through pillage and ransoming off prisoners of war (obviously there were exceptions such as Charlemagne and the wars against the Moors in Spain).

However, the extreme density of the information and the various terms (understandable both because it's a translation and because French, English and Latin terms are all relevant for various objects and concepts) does not make it the easiest book to read at times. Certain sections (the weapons, particularly) were much easier to read but at times it did feel like something of a slog.

The back of the book has a mammoth bibliography for those looking for further reading.

If you're after a comprehensive and detailed look at medieval warfare and the society that underpinned it then this is a very good book, provided you don't mind wading through a dense level of information. It's probably only for the dedicated or those who already have a good working knowledge of the Middle Ages (I don't). Or, if knowledge were a mine then this book is a rich seam but the ore takes a bit of effort to work free.

Part of the reason I read it was to help me get more of an idea of how medieval warfare might work, and it definitely helped me get that understanding in social, financial, religious and military terms.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

KDP Select: is it worth it?

Amazon has a feature for authors who publish directly to the retailer called KDP Select. Basically, you must make your work exclusive to Amazon and in return your work gets promoted to increase downloads.

But is it worth it?

Disclaimer: I did not opt-in to the scheme for Bane of Souls (you can buy it on iTunes and elsewhere), but may do so in the future for other work.

To answer that the situation regarding the eBook market needs to be summarised. There are many retailers, such as iTunes (Apple), Kobo (WHSmith), Diesel, Barnes & Noble and so on. If you opt into KDP Select you are definitely restricting the potential customer base you have, because your work will be available only for those with Kindles who buy through Amazon.

The mitigating factor is that Amazon remains the 800lb gorilla of book sales. If you did have to limit yourself to one eBook retailer it's a no-brainer that you'd go for Amazon. Roughly 98-99% of Bane of Souls sales have been through the Amazon sites. In short, if I *had* opted into KDP Select it would've made a small difference through lost non-Amazon sales but would've added promotion which *might have* led to a significant increase (or at least balanced the lost sales).

Some people I've heard of have gained a few hundred downloads, others thousands, and there is the possibility of getting some great reviews which will help the book sell later on. When you release a second book, if prospective buyers can see you've got a highly rated first novel it'll only shorten the odds of them giving your work a shot.

It's also important to note that KDP Select auto-reaffirms, so you have to actively cancel it.

I'm not going to opt into KDP Select for Journey to Altmortis (partly because I want to run a voucher scheme on Smashwords to temporarily cut the price, and don't know if I can do that with Amazon), but I do think it could be a clever idea for a short story. That way, there's promotion but it's of work that takes a few weeks/months rather than a year or more.

So, for me, it's not a clear yes or no, (which is unhelpful but true).

I might consider writing a short story (or a bundle of two), such as Horst's first lessons with spells or the story of how Pierre became Pretty, but don't think I'll be putting a full length novel onto an exclusive programme.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Review: Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is a stand-alone book, and occurs in the same world as The First Law Trilogy and the stand-alone Best Served Cold and The Heroes. This book review will be as light on spoilers as possible.

The story occurs mostly in the Far Country, which is akin in tone to the Wild West, but with a far simpler level of technology. The protagonists are Shy and Lamb, the former being a very rough diamond and the latter an elderly and cowardly man who worked on her farm. The pair find themselves trekking across the Far Country to try and save Shy's younger siblings, who have been kidnapped.

There are fewer characters of note than in The Heroes, the previous book, but this does allow a tighter focus on those who are present and works very well. Shy and Lamb, and others with whom they travel, change and develop significantly during the journey as they're confronted with hard questions and bloody answers.

The world is very well-described, and has an immersive, realistic feel. The disintegration of law and order as people travel further from civilisation towards the unclaimed Far Country and the emotional volatility of hope, despair and stubborn resilience from various quarters fits the leap of faith (some falling, some landing safely) of travelling into the wilderness for a better life.

I must admit to absolutely loving lore, and although it's almost entirely in the background the latter part of the book will be especially interesting for those who love hearing more about the antiquity of the Circle of the World.

Red Country continues Mr. Abercrombie's grey morality, which I rather like, and has an added note of poignancy. I think the tone of the book's more balanced than the previous stand-alones, which erred on the side of darkness. It's still grim and gritty, but there's a bit more yang to balance the yin.

Some versions (happily including the one I got) have a very short story at the end, written by a biographer who plays a minor role in the book. It's very much an appendix sort of story: it's enjoyable to read, but doesn't add anything substantial to the story so those without it are missing a few minutes of reading pleasure rather than any critical information or a hidden plot twist.

It's probably quite clear that I think Red Country's fantastic, but it's not quite perfect. I think that a certain cameo character could've and should've had a slightly greater presence, and that he almost might as well not be there otherwise.

So, in summary: the characters are engaging, the story is simple for the first half but has numerous twists later on and the writing is excellent throughout. It's my favourite book by Mr. Abercrombie so far, and I'm struggling to think of a fantasy I like more.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Stand-alone or series?

When starting out writing there's an early question that must be answered: will the first book be a stand-alone, self-contained story or the initial part in a series?

Fantasy is perhaps renowned for its series, some of which are very sizeable. Lord of the Rings stands out, as does Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The First Law Trilogy.

A series, whether a trilogy or a longer series, enables the writer to use a more detailed world and larger cast to tell a deeper and longer story. Which sounds cool, although there are certain pitfalls. For a start, it's possible to write a trilogy all at once and release it together (to help promote sales of book 2 and 3, as people who have to wait a year or two for the second part may neglect to buy it) but that does involve a long delay to publication and cannot really be done for a mega-series.

There's also the problem of each book being worthwhile in itself. By definition, a stand-alone novel has to stand or fall on its own merit. With a series, there can be a danger of one book being more about tying up loose ends from its predecessor and setting up the plot of its successor rather than telling its own story.

Variable quality's another issue. If you've bought 7 books in a series, but know from the reviews of people you trust book 8 is a bit poor, you're faced with the unpalatable choice of ditching a series of which you've read thousands of pages or forcing yourself to endure gruel whilst waiting a year or more for the tastier next course.

So, given that, why would anyone prefer writing a series, long or short, over stand-alone books?

Simply this: a series means characters can be developed more, and have more complex relationships with others. Plots can be more intricate and numerous, the world described in greater detail and the emotional investment readers have can be increased significantly. In addition, some stories are just too large to confine to a single book without making it a massive tome.

It's not entirely an either/or choice, though. Lots of authors choose to write stand-alone books set in the same world (such as Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch) or trilogies set in the same world (Robin Hobb). This means the reader gets a nice sense of continuity and familiarity, and the author gets to explore and expand an already existing world without having to create a new one for every new book.

For Bane of Souls, and Journey to Altmortis (due out next year), I went for the stand-alone approach for a few reasons. It's much quicker than writing a series (if I chose to write a trilogy all at once I'd be about half done now), and both of the stories were enough for a single book rather than needing several. The trilogy which will follow Altmortis will be of lengthier proportions because the story, a civil war, necessitates it.

Not sure what I'll do after that (it'll take me quite long enough to get it finished) but I'm near-certain I'll never write a mega-series. They take too long, readers can understandably get frustrated if there's a prolonged wait between instalments, and I don't want to be tied down for a decade to a series.