Friday, 18 December 2015

Review: Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong

This is a work of historical fiction, based on the downfall of the Han dynasty in China (which lasted from around 200BC to 200AD). A word of warning: the book is hefty. There are various editions, the one I read (published by Foreign Languages Press and translated by Moss Roberts) was in four volumes and over two thousand pages long.

The plethora of names, some of which are very similar, can be a bit much to handle, but this also means that when you’re some way into the book the call-backs to earlier chapters allow for a complex, interwoven story (when a character saves another’s life, that may well have repercussions, good or ill). It also means a lot of characters get some depth.

Despite the number of characters, I never found the story too difficult to follow because the style is quite simple (and where things aren’t obvious, notes will explain). The large size of both the book and the period covered enables dramatic changes to happen both to characters and the kingdoms. Twists, treachery and death all happen with pleasing frequency.

It seems to follow history quite closely, and the notes make plain when this isn’t the case. Magic and supernatural things happen infrequently, more commonly supernatural explanations are given to natural phenomena (a helpful rain shower extinguishing fire, for example).

It could have done with a good proof-reading. The typos never caused me any confusion but, even given the book’s length, there are more than might be reasonably expected.

There are extensive endnotes, which range from the concise (explaining what date, in the Christian calendar, is being referred to in the text) to the lengthy. I generally found these to be useful and interesting (although I prefer footnotes to endnotes).

If you’ve read Journey to the West, or Outlaws of the Marsh, this should be to your liking (it’s more political than those books, however). If you’ve not read those, I’d advocate checking a sample just to see whether the style is something you like or not.

This is my second time reading the book, and I liked it rather a lot, more than the first time. The ebbing and flowing of power to and from the various factions and main characters, and the fact events occurred more or less as in the book, makes it deeply engaging.


Thaddeus

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer

I got this after being rather taken with a similar book about Medieval England, by the same author (reviewed here).

It’s history, Jim, but not as we know it. As with the aforementioned book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England adopts a present tense approach to the past. It can seem a little odd, especially at first, but the style fits a history that’s almost a guided tour of everyday life. Entertainment, food, the weird way that chimneys and glass revolutionise housing and the persistent social divides of the class system abound.

However, it’s the area of religion which marks this era as most alien. In certain ways, contrary to the common assumption that things tend to improve over time, the 16th century seems crueller than those before, perhaps due to a combination of bitter religious rivalry and the uncertain nature of what might come after Elizabeth.

On Queen Elizabeth herself, there are frequent references (and even some poetry written by her). These range from the personal to the politico-religious, as she enforces her will and dominates the political scene during a time of great change. It is not a biography or anything approaching that, however [nor does it seek to be].

The writing is detailed and immersive without being difficult (this isn’t my sort of era usually so I thought I might feel like a fish out of water, but this wasn’t the case). As is common with such books, there are two sets of glossy pages with photographs relating to the time [I checked some reviews on Amazon, and apparently these do not show up well on the Kindle version].

As with the Medieval version (although more so) I did skim the lists (often regarding the price of various goods). Here and there sections seemed a little long, although it’s to be expected that with a general tour approach to history some bits will engage a certain reader more than others.

Overall, an easy to read history that occasionally overdoes the detail but generally gets the balance of depth and brevity right.


Thaddeus

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade is arguably the single most stupid multi-lateral policy the West took since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Although it’s not very well-known (crusades conjure up images of Templars in the Holy Land, although crusades also occurred in Eastern Europe and against the Cathars in France), it had dramatic implications for the short term, and enormous implications in the long term.

For reasons of trade, Venice was not best friends with Byzantium, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the early 13th century. An ever-widening religious gulf between the Western Latin Church and Eastern Orthodox Church meant that there was also a great deal of rivalry within Christendom.

And so, when the Fourth Crusade appeared in financial difficulty, Enrico Dandolo, the ancient, blind Doge of Venice, played a pivotal role. In return for funding, he diverted the Crusade to Byzantium. Not only was this helpful for Venice, Byzantium, despite being on the ropes in the years leading up to the Crusade, was immensely rich. If it fell, there would be enough booty to satisfy every man who partook in the city’s conquest.

Byzantium, at this stage in history, was suffering. The Ottomans were making continual progress in the East, and the glory days of Nicephorus Phocas, John Tzimisces, Basil II, and Alexius and John Comnenus seemed very long ago. The ironically entitled Angeli dynasty had been steadily buggering the Empire’s fortunes through a combination of stupidity and ill fortune.

By contrast, Dandolo was a brilliant, persuasive, energetic man, despite his advanced years (he was over 90 at the time of the Fourth Crusade). Under his leadership, the Fourth Crusade did what no-one else (until the advent of gunpowder) ever managed. Byzantium, despite its invincible land walls, was conquered.

The leadership of the city fled to establish an empire-in-exile, occupying what remained of Roman territory in Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Meanwhile, the Latin potentates and Dandolo plundered the city and carved up the rest of the Empire between themselves.

It was a great success, especially for Venice. Or so it seemed.

In time, the Latin leaders set to squabbling. They didn’t understand the culture or religion of the land they were trying to govern, and their less than subtle approach did not universally endear them to the Byzantines. The empire-in-exile reclaimed the city. But it took several decades, and came at great cost.

During this time, the Turks did not sit about. They, naturally, took advantage of the situation to advance. The greatest (indeed, only) bulwark against their expansion from the east had been Byzantium, and the Empire, which rapidly diminished to a mere city-state, never recovered even a shadow of its former power. The Fourth Crusade had shattered Byzantium, and the next two and a half centuries were a lingering death.

When Byzantium truly fell, in the mid-15th century, it was not to the advantage of the Latin Church or Venice. Precious little help was given to defend the city (although a few men did heed the desperate plea). After it fell, the Ottoman expansion continued for centuries, halting only at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

As I mentioned, Byzantium had been on the ropes even before the Crusade. But it’s also worth noting that it had had dodgy moments and recovered before (between Basil II and Alexius Comnenus were many years and numerous unimpressive emperors). After the Fourth Crusade, it was in perpetual decline. And not because the Ottomans had struck a decisive blow. But because the Fourth Crusade had done so on their behalf.

Thank goodness we don’t make short-sighted decisions for narrow-minded self-interest any more.


Thaddeus

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Fallout 4 (PS4): First Impressions

This is an early review, (obviously, given the game’s only been out a few days), on my initial thoughts. I might do a more comprehensive review later on, depending how much I play the game if my opinion alters, and if I have the time.

I know spoilers have been all over the place. This review will have no story spoilers whatsoever. Gameplay mechanics will be discussed in a little more depth. For a comprehensive review, I’d include longevity and replayability, but obviously that section won’t make an appearance here.

For those wondering, I played the game after downloading the 500MB day 1 patch.

Character Creation

Bit of a change here. Instead of a list of sliders, you just move the cursor over the face and alter the part you want to.

As well as this, there are some slider-type options for make-up, hair, and imperfections (moles and scars). There’s also a basic body changer. It’s a triangle, with thin, muscular and fat at each point, and you move within that triangle to alter the body. It’s simple, but a nice touch. No option to change height, alas.

One thing I disliked about the new system was that there are now only pre-defined hair colours. A decent range, to be sure, but I liked the older system which allowed you to make your own colour as well. The styles may be appear fewer than before, at creation, but you can get the post-apocalyptic styles when you visit a barber in the game.

Overall, it’s pretty good.

Story/Quests

At the time of writing I’ve done a few main storyline missions, and perhaps a dozen side quests (I’m around level 14, and playing a sniper build). Because of that, and the zero tolerance of spoilers, this is going to be brief and vague.

There’s a nice premise early on, both on the global and personal levels. The initial mission or two feel a bit vague rather than compelling, but that may be intentional, so that people who want to wander off feel able to do so comfortably.

Side-quests can come about from overhearing conversations, wandering into range of radio distress signals or just stumbling across them. So far, and keeping with the minimal spoiler theme, they appear quite interesting and can yield opportunities to join new factions and gain legendary gear.

Gameplay

The atmosphere is tense, not just because VATS has become slow-motion rather than a total pause, but because of the way enemies appear. Ghouls lie dead, until they rise and attack in a horde, or they might creep through the walls. Mole rats burrow up through the earth, and you’re never quite sure whether a house might be mined or not.

The non-VATS shooting has been substantially improved, but VATS is still useful. A balance needs to be struck between using it for some enemies and not others (because action points are limited). I play as a sniper, so my approach is to take out the most distant enemies possible without VATS (this is more accurate at long range), shift to VATS for any charging medium range enemies, and then switch to a more rapid weapon and out of VATS when they’re about to claw my face off.

Weapon modding is intuitive and easy, likewise armour modding.

It took me a little while to get the gist of settlement building, perhaps because I’ve never played a game with that sort of aspect, but I’m enjoying it so far. I think tens of hours could easily be sunk into this, and am looking forward to how it develops.

Allocating your 21 SPECIAL points is tricky. It’s a good number, because it feels too low and forces the player to compromise. Incidentally, you can increase (by both bobbleheads and using up a perk point) your SPECIAL stats during the game, so I’d advise against setting anything at 10.

Levelling seems to happen faster than in previous games (as Intelligence affects experience gained, I should note that mine is set at 4, so I’m not playing a jacked up Intelligence build). This is good as, initially, there are at least half a dozen perks that all seem very useful but you only get one per level.

Companions are the biggest surprise for me so far. They seem much more three-dimensional than in Fallout 3 (or Skyrim), commenting when you see certain locations, praising or criticising your actions, and occasional joining in conversations you have with a third party (when it is appropriate). When I replaced one companion with another, he and she had a brief conversation about looking after me, which made them feel more realistic.

Graphics

The world looks nice. More vivid than Fallout 3, though not quite as beautiful as The Witcher 3. Weather effects are a good addition. I’ve seen dense fog, rain (unlike previous games, I think, your clothing does get wet) and glorious sunshine. Not encountered a radiation storm yet, but these do exist.

Faces are a bit ropey, and the facial animations/lip-syncing is somewhere between mediocre and poor (think comically bad 1970s kung fu film dubbed into English).

Objects, whether clothing, weapons or larger/smaller are generally pretty good.

The PipBoy looks better than ever, and now the icons are animated (a small change, but still a nice one). The Perk chart looks good too. You can also alter the PipBoy (or HUD, separately) colour to whatever you like.

Sound

The voice-acting so far is good, and I’m enjoying Courtenay Taylor’s portrayal of the female protagonist. I discovered early on that there’s a classical radio station, and when I get the time to properly dive into settlement building I think that’ll be my station of choice.

There’s also a pleasing absence of repetition, both regarding specific lines and the issue Bethesda had previously (especially in Oblivion) where one voice actor/actress has too many roles.

Sound effects are good, it’s nice to hear the thrum of bullets firing or the inane moaning of a ghoul trying to eat your face.

Music is very good, whether that’s the ambient sound track or the classical music station.

Bugs and other issues

I have had the game freeze once, and close a couple of times.

On a couple of occasions, conversations have had an awkward moment where my character stands there in silence when she should be speaking (uncertain if subtitles would partially remedy this, as I don’t use them).

Early Conclusion

Obviously much too early to give a definitive view (I’m a few missions into the main quest and have done perhaps a dozen side missions). At this stage, Fallout 4 has significantly exceeded my expectations. Combat is engaging, companions have greater depth, the new approach to perks/skills seems to be working very well, and the world is a great place to explore.

Preliminary score = 9/10


Thaddeus

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Macedonian She-Wolves

Alexander the Great’s death left a massive power vacuum, exacerbated by the fact his heirs were a foetus and a man with the mind of a child. Worse still, their guardians were a large number of bold, intelligent and fiercely competitive men, any one of whom would make a great king in his own right.

These men, the Diadochi [Successors], embarked almost immediately on a massive war, from the coast of modern day Albania to Pakistan to Libya, and all points in between.

But no less vicious were the machinations of the women Alexander left behind, most prominently Roxanne (one of his wives), Olympias (his mother), and Adea (AKA Eurydice, wife of Alexander’s half-brother).

When Alexander died, he was in his early thirties. The most obvious successors were absent (Hephaestion had died a short time earlier, and the greatest general, Craterus, had just been sent west). His half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, was a grown man but had the mind of a small child (it is suspected the jealous and ruthless Olympias had poisoned him to damage his mind, and remove him as a potential rival to Alexander [her son]). The only other credible blood heir would be the child of Roxanne, his wife.

However, Roxanne was only pregnant. There was no guarantee she would give birth to a son rather than a daughter. To make matters worse, she was only the daughter of a Bactrian satrap, and lacked the regal pretensions of Alexander’s other wives (Macedonian kings were permitted multiple wives).

To enhance her position, Roxanne took the brutal step of (along with the regent Perdiccas) having Alexander’s other two wives murdered. One of them, Stateira II, was the daughter of Darius, once ruler of the Persian Empire (and, therefore, of rather better pedigree than Roxanne).

As it happened, she did give birth to a son, whom she named Alexander. He and Philip Arrhidaeus become joint monarchs, although in truth the power lay (for a time…) with the regent, Perdiccas.

Two women, Cynane and her daughter Adea, who also had royal Macedonian blood, travelled east with the plan of marrying Adea to Philip Arrhidaeus. However, Perdiccas (allied to Roxanne) sent his brother Alcetas to remedy the problem by assassinating the two women. Cynane fell, but when the soldiers realised the identities of the women they had been sent to kill and that Adea still lived, their respect for the royal house made them her protectors rather than her killers.

Later, a botched invasion of Egypt led to Perdiccas’ death. After he was killed (by his own troops), Adea, backed by the sentimental support of the army, demanded a share of authority. She seemed to attain it, but only briefly. Antipater, the aged, respected veteran viceroy of Macedon during Alexander’s adventures, arrived on the scene. The army was in vengeful mood and very nearly murdered him, but Antigonus and Seleucus rescued the viceroy. Adea tried to provoke further mutiny, but in the end authority was settled on Antipater, Antigonus and Seleucus.

Antipater, a loyal servant of the Argead dynasty but understandably not well-disposed towards the now powerless Adea, accompanied her back to Macedon. However, he died shortly thereafter, and political turmoil ensued.

Adea made another bid for power, allying with Cassander, the son of Antipater. Against her was Olympias, Polyperchon (the rather feeble successor, as per Antipater’s will, of the viceroy) and Roxanne.

For perhaps the first time in history, two armies, both led by women, approached one another.

However, the same loyalty that had prevented the Macedonian soldiers killing her years ago, now worked against Adea. They couldn’t bring themselves to even fight the mother of the legendary Alexander, and surrendered to Olympias.

Olympias came to power. Adea, wife of Alexander’s half-brother, found her days numbered, and that number was very small. At first, she and her husband were strictly confined, but Olympias was concerned by the sympathy the Macedonians felt towards them. In line with her usual response to a problem, Olympias chose to kill those who might be a threat. She presented Adea with a sword, rope, and poison, to choose her own death. Adea first of all killed her husband, the unknowing, blameless Philip Arrhidaeus, whom Alexander had taken to Asia and protected, and then hanged herself with one of her own garments, shunning the rope Olympias gave her.

By contrast, Roxanne was protected by the violent, volatile and cunning Olympias (because she was the mother of Alexander’s son). However, Olympias’ uncompromising and arrogant manner lost her much support, and she faced perhaps the wiliest of the Diadochi: Cassander. Antipater’s son gradually built up his strength, even as it drained away from the bloodthirsty Olympias.

Eventually, he bottled her up in a port city, and she surrendered herself, Roxanne and Alexander. The surrender included the condition Cassander show her mercy. He did not, and had her killed by the relatives of her many victims.

Defeat to Cassander removed the shield that had protected Roxanne and her son. Cassander kept the young Alexander alive until he reached his mid-teens, at which point he became a threat, and was killed. His mother was also assassinated, and thus ended the Argead line of kings in Macedon.

For more reading on this, I highly recommend James Romm’s Ghost On The Throne, which I reviewed here.


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Three Open Windows

Writers without agents, there is good news!

Three major publishers have open windows coming up in the near future. So, if you’ve got a finished novel, prepare to submit. (NB Responses to submissions can often take a bit longer than the publishers intend, largely because they get a huge number of submissions).

Do read the guidelines, especially regarding the submission dates. If you’re submitting grimdark to a publisher after primary school stories, you’re wasting your time and the publishers. If your word count is a tiny bit off, you’ll probably be alright, but if you submit a quarter of a million words to someone after 110,000, they’ll just bin it.

Be aware the odds on success are smaller than a pixie’s tallywhacker. There are many reasons for rejection (beyond the rather obvious lack of quality). A book may not fit the market, or it may not fit the particular publisher. It might be seen as a bit unusual, which can be a positive for some publishers, but others may feel wary that it will struggle to make the necessary sales. Publishing is a business, so don’t take it personally if your book’s rejected.

On that note, always be as civil as possible. If a publisher says no to your book but thinks your writing is proficient and your manner delightful, they may ask you to send them other things you write in the future. If you pester the publisher and whine like a spoilt brat when, along with 99.6% of other submitters, you get a swift rejection, you may get a black mark next to your name. Your character can help you gain or lose traction, as well as your writing.

Anyway, it wasn’t my wibbling that got you to read this post, but the three open windows. Here are the links, and best of luck [don’t forget to sacrifice a goat to Apollo]:

Angry Robot:

HarperVoyager:

Gollancz (unusually these days, it’s physical submissions only):



Thaddeus

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Basil II’s Odd Childhood

Basil II, as mentioned in the previous post, was a bit of a hard case. But it’s quite surprising that he actually reached adulthood at all.

It’s not historically unusual for a trusted general/grand vizier/uncle of an emperor to seize power. What is unusual is for that to happen and the legal emperor to be not only allowed to live, but retain their (theoretical) position. And it’s double unusual with a side-helping of surprise when this happens twice to the same emperor, who ends up becoming a huge success himself.

The White Death of the Saracens is not the sort of nickname you earn by being a pansy, and Nicephorus II Phocas, Emperor of Byzantium, deserved it. The trajectory of Islamic military history is an upward curve from its founding to the siege of Vienna, but there were occasional blips (and a few serious ruptures) along that thousand year journey.

Romanus II died suddenly in his mid-20s, leaving a power vacuum (although both his children had been crowned co-emperors, they were five and three at the time). Proclaimed by the army as emperor, Nicephorus Phocas marched into Byzantium and became ruler of the Eastern Empire in fact as well as name, aided by his talented nephew (and fellow general) John Tzimisces.

He enjoyed significant success in the East, as might be expected from his nickname, and took the late Romanus’ widow, Theophano, as his lover. However, after a few years another man took Theophano into his bed: John Tzimisces.

Tzimisces had helped Nicephorus to the throne, but had, some time later, been deprived of military command. It proved a fatal decision for the Emperor. Conspiring with Theophano, Tzimisces and others entered the palace late at night. Finding the Emperor’s bed empty, he panicked, only to discover Nicephorus was sleeping on the floor.

Tzimisces kicked him to death, all the while berating his uncle’s ingratitude for the assistance given when he had sought to become emperor.

And then there was the question of Basil and his younger brother Constantine. Bizarrely, they survived a second usurpation of imperial power. They lost neither their lives nor their nominal status, although, being far off adulthood, they had no practical power. It is worth noting that Basil and Constantine were nephews of Tzimisces (and therefore also related to Nicephorus), but also that such a relationship has often failed to stop regicide.

On the battlefield, Tzimisces continued the policy of his predecessor (knocking the stuffing out of the Saracens), and enjoyed similar success. He also died suddenly, possibly due to poisoning. Upon his death, Basil II, just about old enough to become emperor in truth, took on the reins of power. Although he also fought in the East, it was his campaigns in Europe which earnt him his nickname: the Bulgar-Slayer.


Thaddeus

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Battle of Kleidion

It’s not a household name but perhaps it should be (along with Arausio, Manzikert and so on).

The Battle of Kleidion was the climax of a decades long struggle between not only the Eastern Roman Empire and the Bulgars, but a personal war between Emperor Basil II and Tsar Samuel of the Bulgarian Empire.

Unfortunately, Fawlty Towers’ success means that Basil tends to be seen as a silly name, but Basil II was perhaps the single most capable emperor the Eastern Empire ever produced, up there with Alexius and John Comnenus (and, of the Western, Aurelian and Trajan).

After a prolonged period of being emperor in name only*, he finally took the reins in his late teens. His first campaign, some years later, against the Bulgars ended in disaster and almost cost Basil his life at the hands of Samuel. After this events drove him to focus his attention elsewhere before, as a more mature and capable man, returning to the Bulgars.

Although, at this period of history, the Byzantines had been enjoying success against the Saracens in the east, in the west, the Bulgars, under Samuel, had been building themselves into quite the powerhouse.

Basil II, the last of three great warlike emperors in a row, put a stop to this. Contrary to the stereotype (often but not always deserved) of a Byzantine emperor being a remote, palace-dwelling creature, he led from the front, and usually lived there too. The devotion of his army was ferocious, partly because he adopted the orphans of men who fell in battle and with whom he shared a father-son relationship, and he created the elite Varangian Guard (think Praetorian Guard, but composed of loyal Scandinavians rather than treacherous Romans).

Led by their great emperor, the Eastern Roman Empire started taking the Bulgars to task, and the pivotal moment of the war was reached at Kleidion. The Bulgars were defending a pass in significant numbers (hard to be precise, unfortunately), and initially repulsed the Byzantine assault. When Basil II sent men around to take the Bulgars from the rear, the battle was won, and Samuel himself almost captured. The Bulgar army dissolved into a rout, so it was not merely victory, but a crushing victory.

A huge number of men were killed in the rout, and 10,000 were captured. And its because of those 10,000 that Kleidion is best known. Basil, hereafter known as the Bulgar-Slayer, had them divided into groups of 100. Of those, one man was blinded in one eye, and the other 99 blinded in both eyes. The one-eyed man then acted as shepherd for his 99 companions, and the 10,000 were sent back to Samuel.

The Tsar, by this time old, ill, and suffering not only knocks on the battlefield but politically, reportedly saw the ruined remnants of his army and experienced a fatal heart attack.

The victory ultimately led to the Eastern Empire’s borders extending all the way to the Danube, for the first time in centuries. But it’s not the territorial advantage or the battle itself that made the battle live on, but the cruel fate meted out to the thousands of prisoners.

It also cemented Basil II’s reputation as a brutally successful man, whose uncompromising ruthlessness made the Eastern Empire stronger than it had been for hundreds of years.

Thaddeus

*I may well write another piece on this, as it’s a rather interesting period.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter

Word that water may well flow on Mars (periodically) was met with great excitement by many people. Water makes it easier to land and live there, as well as dramatically increasing the potential for life on Mars.

However, a few people were dismayed by the hugely significant discovery, which seems a little odd. Until you learn about the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter [before yesterday, I knew of the former but not the latter].

Concisely, the Fermi Paradox wonders why we haven’t encountered any other aliens (yes, space is enormous, but species could have been developing for billions of years more than us, so where are they?). The Great Filter is a reference to a theoretical barrier that is very difficult to surpass, and prevents species reaching a certain technological height (hence why we haven’t encountered any).

A very interesting and lengthier explanation is available here [some fruity language so perhaps NSFW]: http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html

The issue with the Great Filter, as well as potentially not existing, is that nobody knows where it is. It might be an extremely early evolutionary barrier, at the unicellular level, or it could be in our distant (or immediate) future.

The human race is inherently unstable, to some degree. It might be that high intelligence (which, on an individual level, has high co-morbidity with many psychological conditions) in a species naturally coincides with instability. It’s not hard to think of the numerous wars we’ve made on ourselves. If we keep doing that, the chances of nukes or biological agents (or weapons yet undeveloped) getting used on a global level will shorten (perhaps to a terminal extent).

We’re also very near the Singularity, a moment when artificial intelligence will exceed that of ourselves. This is significant because we could create a machine, which then designs a more intelligent machine, and so on. As this moment approaches, we’re also developing ever more effective robotic forms of death, which has led scientists to call for laws governing autonomous killing machines.

Inventing autonomous killer robots with superior intelligence to our own would be a very human way to commit species-wide suicide.

Drifting back to Mars and the Martians: if there is life on Mars, then that removes the earliest instances of the Great Filter, and makes it a bit more likely the Great Filter (which may well be an apocalypse of some variety) lies in our future, rather than our past.

Cheery thought. And all because some salty deposits were found several million miles away.


Thaddeus

Thursday, 10 September 2015

777 Writer’s Game

Yesterday I was tagged by LK Evans, author of Keepers of Arden, to take part in the 777Writer’s Game.

The premise is simply to post 7 lines from a page number ending in 7 from a WIP (work-in-progress), and then tag 7 other writers to take part.

Picking which WIP was a bit tricky, as I’ve technically got three large ones on the go. I went for Sir Edric’s Kingdom, which isn’t quite done and won’t be out for a while (it’s the third of his adventures, with Temple and Treasure due for a release in early 2016). Hard picking which bit to use too, as it’s a bit longer and less episodic than the first two, and I didn’t want to give away plot points.

Anyway, here’s the excerpt:

“Good idea,” Sir Edric agreed. “You do that, and I’ll occupy myself getting thoroughly drunk.”

“That might dishearten the men, sir.”

Sir Edric popped his cork and took a long swig. “Dog, half the men already lack stomach, guts, spines and brains. One fewer organ won’t make any difference to their life expectancy.”

“Nevertheless, sir, I do have in mind a perhaps better use of the wine.”

Sir Edric lowered the bottle and raised his eyebrow. “A better use for wine? Unless there’s a foxy redhead around here you want to get squiffy, I find that hard to believe.”

My septet of tagged victims are:

I look forward to seeing what excerpts my seven tagged persons post.


Thaddeus

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Final Hybrid blog post, by Teresa Edgerton

Often, self-publishing precedes traditional releases. But in the fourth and final part of our series, esteemed author Teresa Edgerton explains why someone might choose to self-publish their backlist, after it’s been traditionally released some time earlier.



Thaddeus

Monday, 24 August 2015

Review: Ghost on the Throne, by James Romm

Ghost on the Throne is a history of the years immediately after the death of Alexander the Great, as the Diadochi (Successors) battled for mastery of the world. I have read a small amount on the subject, and was interested to see how this stacked up.

After Alexander passed on, it was as if the alpha wolf of a pack had died. But because he had so many secondary fellows, all of whom acknowledged they were his inferior but considered themselves equal to their fellows, suddenly there were a large number of would be alpha wolves looking to get as much power and influence as possible. No shrinking violets, the upper echelons of the Macedonian elite were (almost uniformly) personally brave, quick-witted, devious men hardened by decades of constant warfare. And the only man capable of reigning over them was gone.

There are ten chapters, each starting with an overview and then little sections of a few pages (sometimes less) focused on one individual or a small group in a given time and place. The approach is interesting, and effectively disentangles a fluid political and military situation that might otherwise become too complicated, enabling the various events to be kept track of more easily.

Whilst I was familiar with the general progression of events there was new information about the parts I knew (anecdotes about Antigonus losing his eye and trusting Demetrius), and a whole slew of completely fresh information regarding the situation in Athens (as well as bits and pieces elsewhere).

The level of detail was spot on. The progression of events was relayed in detail without getting bogged down in triviality, and the writing style was very easy to read without being dumbed down.

There’s a focus on the political (and personal psychology) rather than the military, which is partly because major battles and direct confrontation were relatively uncommon.

Another plus was the map at the start (there are a few others, and some illustrations/photographs, later on) which overlaid Alexander’s conquests onto a modern map of Europe/Asia/Africa. It really was bloody enormous.

So, down sides. Not many, to be honest. I would’ve liked the book to go on for longer, though it does end at a natural break point. The references to ‘old man Antipater’ do get over-used. There are notes, which was a surprise because there are no symbols/numbers to signify these and I stumbled across them at the back of the book when I’d finished it [I also much prefer footnotes to endnotes].

I would recommend this book to anyone after a history of the aftermath of Alexander’s death. I think it’s accessible for new history readers, but has a level of detail that would also satisfy people who already have some knowledge of the era.


Thaddeus

Doing It For Yourself

In the third of a four part series on self-publishing/a hybrid approach (mixing traditional and self-publishing), Jo Zebedee explains why a book that doesn’t easily fit into a category could be better off self-published.

So, if you’ve written a story about a cyborg bounty hunter space pirate with magic powers and a ghostly best friend, give the link a click and benefit from her wise words:


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

You Can Judge A Book By Its Cover

And lots of people do.

My second book, Journey to Altmortis, is better than the first, Bane of Souls. The writing’s tighter, pace is quicker and it’s got a better rating on both Amazon and Goodreads.

But Bane of Souls has sold quite a bit more. Which confounded me, but I think one of the reasons is the cover.

Now, I want to make clear that I chose what I wanted for both of them, and I really like the artwork that was produced by Tiramizsu, my excellent cover artist. The problem isn’t the art, it’s the choice I made.


The cover, and title, of Bane of Souls has been specifically mentioned as a reason for giving it a go. I’ve read elsewhere that covers with a single individual on the front often go down well. Sometimes a symbol/crest can work (perhaps if you don’t have a clear protagonist).

It’s also important to consider a cover that works both in real life and as a thumbnail. You need to get technical stuff like having the title and author name clearly visible right (NB if you’re a big time author like George RR Martin your name will be relatively larger. Otherwise, the title should probably be bigger than the author name).

Then there’s the title. I generally find picking titles difficult (I only chose Bane of Souls very late on. The book has many named characters die, and the plot’s twisty which meant I didn’t want to give anything away). Because of my own difficulty, it’s hard to offer much advice here. I’d just suggest ensuring it fits the genre and sounds fairly interesting.

It’s a little odd to think that years of writing might have less impact on whether a sale is made than the three words in a title or the cover, but I strongly believe that’s the case. So, don’t neglect the title and cover. It’s the first thing a potential reader will see of your book, and might also be the last.


Thaddeus

Monday, 17 August 2015

Stuff To Avoid When Self-publishing

The second in the four part series on self/hybrid-publishing (mixing self-publishing and more traditional routes) was written by EJ Tett, and covers pitfalls that are easy to fall into. So, click the link, dodge those elephant traps, and enjoy her wise words.



Thaddeus

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Guest Post: Why Elves Are Total Bastards, by Sir Edric

[This is a special guest post, written by Dog and dictated by Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska].

Greetings, foreign peasants.

Whilst in Awyndel it’s well known elves are vile (excepting the splendid Lysandra, of course), I was alarmed and surprised to hear that elven propagandists have infiltrated the realms of the United Kingdom, America, and other minor nations. As a purveyor of truth (and because of some small remuneration), I’ve chosen to enlighten you as to why elves are, in fact, utter bastards.

It’s easy to be deceived. Elves are very pretty, and elegant, and seem to be full of grace and solemnity. Don’t be fooled. Elves are bone idle, pathetic in war, self-righteous, cowardly, hypocritical and worthy of nothing except contempt (and occasionally lust).

Recall the famous Fellowship of the Ring. A quartet of irksome midgets, struggling to dispose of stolen jewellery, find themselves in Rivendell, a beautiful elven settlement. Elrond, the craven pointy-ear, berates the men and dwarves as short-lived and useless against the jewellery’s rightful owner, Sauron. But what is his elven solution to the threat?

Elrond’s people are running away. Very heroic. Even as he takes the piss out of scruffy ragamuffin Aragorn and manliest of manly men Sean Bean, his own approach is to wet himself and flee. Yet he’s still full of himself.

Or take Galadriel. What’s she doing? Hiding. Ooh, very brave. Even the midgets are doing more than that. So, there we are. The elven approach to danger is run the hell away or hide and pretend it’ll all be alright whilst taking the piss out of the humans trying to sort it out and teach the evil lighthouse a lesson.

But maybe that’s just one instance (well, two) of elven rubbishness. Maybe it’s an exception.

It is not. Geralt of Rivia has had many adventures. In his most recent, he’s trying to stop the maniacs of the Wild Hunt from catching Ciri (sort of his daughter. In a nice, rather than a Woody Allen, sort of way). And who are the Wild Hunt, the murderous, genocidal maniacs who want to kill Ciri and end the whole world?

Elves. Naturally.

What about in the fabled land of Skyrim, home to frisky Nordic maidens and that prick Nazeem? Here we have the Thalmor, elven scoundrels who run around incarcerating good honest human folk simply for not following elven religious doctrine!

Then there’s the story Dragon Wing. A lovely book, which features dwarves, humans and elves. And what are the elves doing? Monopolising the water supply and terrorising humans, whilst robbing the dwarves blind!

Or try the Terrarch Chronicles. The elves prove so useless they muck up their entire bloody world. Having ruined it, they flee to a human one and oppress the native population.

So, there we have it. Elves are total bastards. Cowardly, sneering, fearful, murderous, oppressive, mankind-hating, water-stealing bastards.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, this bottle of Andelic brandy won’t drink itself, will it?


Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska

Friday, 7 August 2015

How to self-publish

This is the first of a four part series by differing authors looking at self-publishing/a hybrid approach mixing traditional and self-publishing. I’ll update this throughout the month, adding links to subsequent related blogs by EJ Tett, Jo Zebedee and Teresa Edgerton.

There are several reasons you might choose to self-publish rather than go down a traditional route. If you do opt for it, here’s a rough guide, based on what I did.

First off, write the book. Rather obvious, but as over 90% of people who start writing a book fail to finish it, this is perhaps also the most difficult task.


Secondly, you’re not an island. Whilst writing’s a largely solo activity, your finished work won’t be down to you alone. A cover artist, beta-readers, perhaps an editor/proofreader are also needed. 

Cover artists can be acquired from many places, and one I used was Deviant Art. Do check their bio/guidelines and make it clear you want the art for commercial purposes (I very nearly had a different artist, until she revealed she’d only do stuff on a personal basis). Have in mind how much you’re willing to spend, and don’t be afraid to try negotiating (if you’re writing a trilogy or plan on writing more, it doesn’t hurt to point out the artist could be getting more work from you down the line). Also, this is a bit obvious, but be clear what currency you’re paying in and how you’re going to do it (both when payment [or payments if you split it into a before/after arrangement] is made and through what means). For obvious reasons, paying a stranger a large sum before they do anything is unwise. Finding a good cover artist can take a little while, but is well worth doing. I get along very well with Tiramizsu (http://tiramizsu.deviantart.com) my cover artist, and that makes it so much easier.

Beta-readers should be people you know and trust to tell you when your work’s rubbish (if they can’t, you can never know if their praise is genuine either). It’s done for free, and is often reciprocal in nature (I do it for others, but it’s not one-for-one, so I’ve done a lot more than I’ve received for some people, and vice versa).

Editors can provide a wide range of advice (at varying costs) so be sure you know what you want and what your budget is. Whilst others swear by their importance, I’ve got to admit I take a more territorial/independent approach, and do think the ability to self-edit is something that ought to be cultivated. J Scott Marryat http://www.jsmedit.com/ , a top chap who assisted me (as a beta reader) with Sir Edric’s Temple, charges a couple of hundred pounds for most services, and more for more extensive help.

I hate proofreading, but also would hate to pay/trust someone else to do it. Finding one shouldn’t be too hard (editors often offer the service), but bear in mind the odd mistake will probably remain whether you pay or do it yourself.


Thirdly, format. There are a couple of guides, both free, which I used for Smashwords and Amazon, and I’ve never had any problems (NB I was using Word. I haven’t tried with OpenOffice yet). There’s substantial overlap between the two (slightly) different formats required, and after the first time it’ll come more naturally. I am not technically adept, so if I can do it, you probably can too.


Fourthly, marketing. This can come in a variety of forms. Turning up on a new website/forum/blog and waving your work under the long-standing members’ collective nose is a good way to alienate people. Offering ARCs [advanced review copies] to blogs is better, but if they decline or don’t reply, don’t hassle them about it. Sometimes people are just too busy, or your book doesn’t fit their style (check guidelines ensure you get the technical aspect of submission right and to see if your book falls within their preferred genres).

Do not worry if you get bad reviews. This happens to everyone, and a bad review is still a lot better than none. Generally, do not reply to reviews on websites (although if someone writes one for you after you send them an ARC it’s fine to thank them for their time and feedback).

Other forms of marketing are interviews, revealing the cover, revealing a map (if there is one), and time-limited discounts (Smashwords has a very cool and easy to use voucher system for this).


Fifthly, choose distribution, and pricing. I went for Smashwords, which helpfully fires off the book to many other retailers, and Amazon, which is the 800lb gorilla of online bookshops.

There are alternatives to Smashwords, but for the sake of consistency I’ll refer to that site and Amazon.

Pricing is a merry hell. Personally, I love a bargain, but others take the view that you get what you pay for. If you’ve got several books out it can even make sense for one of them to be free, to draw more downloads and attract more readers. The $2.99 point is where Amazon’s 70% royalty rate kicks in (under that or over a certain amount the royalty is 35%).

I almost forgot about the ISBN. Before my first self-published book I was quite worried about this, but so relaxed now that I only remembered it for this blog when chatting with a friend who’s going to self-publish. You don’t need to worry about this at all, self-publishing avenues all (as far as I know) offer free ISBNs with zero hassle.


Sixthly, decide whether you want a hard copy version as well. Unfortunately due to the voodoo maths of self-publishing, you’ll make more on a $2.99 e-book than a $6.99 hard copy. However, lots of people don’t have e-readers. It’s especially important to avoid mistakes with a hard copy edition (you can modify an e-book to remove typos, though it’s still better not to have them).

There are a few options for a hard copy, including CreateSpace (Amazon), Lightning Source and Lulu.

Don’t forget to set up your author profiles on Smashwords and Amazon, and to add your books to your profile (via Amazon’s author central database). It’ll often take a day or two for your book to appear under your name on Amazon, so don’t worry if it’s not instant.


Seventh, a new feature on Amazon enables pre-ordering of self-published stuff. Wasn’t available when my last work came out, but if you can drum up pre-orders that should help the initial sales rank, which also helps more people see your book (through things like People Who Bought This Items Also Bought...).


Eighth, and last, don’t collapse in exhausted relief when it’s out. When you get great reviews (if you do), link to them, quote them, in Twitter feeds and the like. Don’t overdo it (once or twice a day is fine). Likewise, if you get comically awful quotes don’t be afraid to mention those (if Joe Abercrombie gets crap reviews, and quotes them [and he does], why not you?). If you break into a top 10 in a category or subcategory, you can mention that too. But try not to spam “I have a book, you should buy it” which isn’t very interesting and is very repetitive.


Well, that was a bit long, but I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll link below to future blogs when they appear (pencilled in for the other Fridays in August).

Part 2 - Things to avoid in self-publishing, by EJ Tett

Part 3 - Doing it for yourself, by Jo Zebedee

Thaddeus

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Decline and Rise of Mankind

There are two competing approaches to the state of mankind in Greek mythology. Basically, things are either gradually degrading and getting worse, or civilisation is improving the world.

The Golden Age, as Hesiod wrote, was a real concept in ancient myths, based on a blessed age of mankind when there was no war, the climate was splendid and food plentiful. Mankind then progressed through the Silver and Bronze Ages, ending with the Heroic and Iron Ages (Iron being current for Hesiod, writing about two and a half thousand years ago). In short, everything’s deteriorating over time.

However, there is a directly opposing perspective. Namely that mankind is civilising the world, and that as civilisation progresses so everything improves. There are a huge number of Greek myths related to monster-slaying, effectively taming the relics of vicious antiquity and making safe lands previously plagued by chimeras, the hydra and so on.

Have to admit I had to check this on Wikipedia, but another aspect could be technology. Prometheus was punished by Zeus for giving fire (technology/knowledge) to mankind, and some say this ended the initial Golden Age. By chance, Prometheus is also sometimes associated with Lucifer, and the knowledge of fire equated with eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. So, the ending of the Golden Age and the exile from Eden could be directly comparable or (if you choose to view things this way) even the same event.

The idea of industry as a bad thing is no stranger in fantasy either. The iconic images of Saruman having the trees torn down are pretty unambiguous, as is his treatment of the Shire (at the end of the book, the films take another path).

On the other hand, Red Country (by Joe Abercrombie) has new technologies advancing warfare and other spheres, and the opening up of new country as civilisation expands to reclaim land lost by a fallen/declining empire.

The idea of fading magic being gradually surpassed by improving technology is not a new idea in fantasy, but the deterioration/improvement of the world as entropy and progress clash is an interesting idea to explore.


Thaddeus

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Perseverance is King

There are many challenges to writing (as well as delightful moments), but perhaps the most difficult is the will to persevere, especially with the first book.

Self-doubt racks many writers. Writer’s block can be a problem for some as well.

Remember that the first draft isn’t meant to be a polished shiny diamond you can present to the world. It’s a roughly hewn lump of rock. The first draft is just about hacking the damned thing out of the earth (a good description I read somewhere or other was that the first draft is when an author tells him/herself their story).

Just keep going. If you can’t write a lot, write a little each day. You can improve the writing quality, expand upon some sections and cut others during redrafting.

About halfway into the first draft might be the most difficult time, especially for a first story. Initial enthusiasm has been whittled away, and the light at the end of the tunnel is barely visible. If you’ve written something before, just remember you probably felt this way then, and you got it done. And if you did it before, you can do it again. If it’s your first, remember that most writers go through an awkward phase when they’re far from the beginning and far from the end.

Redrafting might seem lovely or might seem horrid, but it’s vital to spend the necessary time cutting the chaff and allowing the wheat to shine forth. It’s usually a good idea to get some objective people to act as beta readers, and to take account of their views (if a beta reader points out a flaw you can correct it. If a reviewer points out a flaw it’s there forever, and even if you amend an e-book the review remains up).

Writing novels is a marathon, not a sprint. Just keep on going. Don’t be afraid of walking very slowly when times are tough. Slow progress is infinitely better than no progress.

Perseverance is the single most important quality for a writer. More than marketing ability, more than writing ability, more than being best friends with editors of major magazines/papers. If you give up, nobody will ever read your book. So, keep buggering on.


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Planned Versus Spontaneous Writing

It’s not a binary choice between planning and spontaneity so much as a spectrum, and there are advantages and disadvantages to writing in either way.

If you’ve got a very complex plot it can be easy to lose your way, even with planning. On the other hand, if you’ve got a simpler, single focus approach (such as Sir Edric) then spontaneity is easier to handle. Making stuff up as you go along can seem to save time (on planning) but it can also mean you spend more time redrafting (it’s important to get the storyline right first time, because correcting that takes ages. Improving writing quality or adding/cutting scenes is relatively simple, provided scene changes don’t alter the storyline).

The real advantage of spontaneity is that you can bring things out of left field, and instead of writing (even loosely) to a plan you’re writing in a more natural, less mechanical way.

Temple was the most spontaneous book I’ve ever written. I knew the premise and the final scene, and just about everything in between was made up as I went along (here and there I had vague ideas, but no more than that). This led to a not necessarily efficient or even use of time. Excepting one scene added later, I wrote chapter three in an afternoon. Chapter four took me something like a month (I massively rewrote it twice, completely changing the personality of one ‘guest’ character, and altering the identity of the second twice). That said, The Tower of Uz-Talrak remains one of my favourite chapters, and is proof that, even if you’re very dissatisfied with your initial attempt, redrafting can make a huge difference. If the basic storyline works, everything else can be polished after the first draft.

Journey to Altmortis was more planned. I had a brief outline of each chapter, using bold and underlining to ensure I had sufficient points of excitement and plot development (or both) throughout. Whilst I did deviate from the plan, particularly adding more scenes after the first draft, the finished story is very similar to the plan.

Kingdom Asunder (not yet released) is the first part of a trilogy, and presented a new challenge for me in that it has to work by itself, but also as part one of three. So, the end had to be both a conclusion, and open-ended enough for more story to occur. It reminded me of the first corner in an F1 race (you can’t win the race at the first corner, but you can definitely lose it).

I think it’s important not to nail everything down, and not to ignore a good idea that springs to mind because it wasn’t in The Master Plan. In Sir Edric’s Kingdom (not yet released), one chapter ended up being enormous, so I cut it into two. Likewise, one chapter’s pacing seemed a bit off, so I added a small scene which ended up including a reasonably significant character who made subsequent appearances in several chapters.

At the same time, knowing where you’re going enables you to write in such a way that can foreshadow future events, or exacerbate tragedy/comedy when you come to the climax. In short: it helps avoid the hell that is deus ex machina.

Temple was the most enjoyable book I’ve ever written, but the process was so slow and haphazard I can’t write like that for stories of any real size. A little planning, for me, does a lot to speed up the writing, and a plan can always be deviated from (or occasionally ignored). It’s very much a subjective matter, though, with no one rule that fits all writers.


Thaddeus

Monday, 29 June 2015

Blog update

After procrastinating for one or two years, I’ve finally (slightly) updated the blog. Axed a few links, and shoved in a few more (particularly recommend the ones to Goodreads, lots of lovely reviews there, Kraxon [which includes many free stories] and Chrons). There are also links to debut bestselling author Jo Zebedee, and LK Evans, who is both a top reviewer and writer.

I’ve also declunkified the Books tab. Currently my stuff’s only on Amazon, although I do plan to shove them back up on Smashwords at some point (probably with a discount as part of the run-up to Kingdom Asunder’s release).

Been posting a lot about videogames recently, but I will be swerving back towards books. Unsure if I’ll keep writing fantasy book reviews (bit worried about potential conflict of interest, if I write something positive it may be seen as back-scratching, if negative as jealousy/having a go at someone else) but history and other genres will definitely keep coming.

As far as book releases go, Sir Edric’s Temple should be re-released traditionally this year, and Sir Edric’s Treasure will hopefully also come out in 2015. Kingdom Asunder’s possible but not certain this year, and although Sir Edric’s Kingdom (which is larger than Temple/Treasure combined, at the moment) is quite close to completion it won’t be out this year.

Next post will be on varying writing approaches (spontaneity or planning).


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

E3 Round-up

Just a summary of the major points that interested me at E3 (mostly RPG-focused). There are minor gameplay-related spoilers, and very small plot spoilers (relating the premise of a story, not including anything I’d consider twists).

Not going into detail into all these games, but some which caught my eye were: Fallout 4, Mass Effect Andromeda, FFVII, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted 4.

Fallout 4

I had planned on buying this but waiting either until the price had tumbled or until a Game of the Year edition emerged. Got to say that it looked bloody fantastic, though. A warning: if you check out the videos from E3 about Fallout 4, you may well come across early plot spoilers.

Female protagonist is confirmed, as is the fact both genders are voiced. Courtenay Taylor (Jack in Mass Effect 2) will be FemSurvivor, with Brian T. Delaney voicing ManSurvivor.

Dogmeat returns. He’s also invincible [although M. Bison thought that about himself too], so he won’t get killed. Instead, he’ll get knocked out, and you will get killed. Glad to hear this.

VATS returns but this time it’s slow-mo rather than time-freeze. Probably makes combat more exciting, but as I have the reaction times of a drunk giraffe I’m not sure it’ll suit me.

There’s a rumour (based on Pip-Boy footage) that there will be no skills, just stats and perks.

Mods will be coming to consoles. How it’ll work is unclear (although a console gamer I know that PC mods can be massive, and a lot are a shade risqué, so I guess some at least won’t be transferred), but it will happen for Xbox One in the early part of next year, and come a bit later to PS4 [probably, not sure that’s 100% confirmed].

Crafting looks like it’s had steroids applied, crack injected into its eyeballs and nitroglycerin inserted in every remaining orifice. Not only can you massively customise weapons and armour, you can also build and decorate your own house. And, in fact, your own settlement. Or settlements, to be precise. Generators, lights, turrets, traders, it looks very extensive.

The release date is 10 November 2015.


Mass Effect Andromeda

Not Mass Effect 4. The title, rather than number, helps mark a clean break for the series. Andromeda is a nearby galaxy to the Milky Way, and is used in the title because the human race is looking for more real estate. It’s unclear whether this is to escape the Reapers, or happens long (or soon) after the events of Mass Effect 3.

Sadly, it seems the protagonist must be human once again, but the usual male/female gender option will be present (unclear if we’ll get 2 or 4 potential voice actors).

Release is around Christmas 2016, which is fair enough given people might just have finished with Fallout 4 by that time.


FFVII

Final Fantasy VII is being remade. Not remastered. As well as graphics being enormously improved, it seems the combat will not feature random encounters and turn-based mechanics but instead adopt a more modern approach. More surprisingly, the story will not be exactly the same. No idea if that means little tweaks here and there, or a full-blown re-write. Whatever they do with mechanics and storyline will cause some people to be annoyed. I just hope they keep the themes the same.

As an aside, it’ll be odd hearing Red XIII’s name. I misread it the first time I played, and have thought of him as Red Eight ever since.


Not Indiana Jones

Lara Croft and Nathan Drake both get new outings (the former coming to Xbox first, the latter a PS4 exclusive, as per usual). I may look at the new Tomb Raider when the price drops (enjoyed the reboot, but I’ve always been off-and-on with the series). Doubt I’ll bother with Uncharted. Liked the first two games but they didn’t grab me enough to keep my interest.


Not a videogame, but glad to hear Xbox is bringing backwards compatibility to its console. Shame that hasn’t happened with the PS4 (and probably won’t). I hope the next generation is another story, but that’s some way off. Backwards compatibility is not only great for gamers, it’s good for the firms because helps lock in loyalty from one generation to the next.


Thaddeus

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Review: The Witcher 3 (PS4)

Just finished my first playthrough of The Witcher 3. I left it a couple of days before putting up this review to try and decide just where on the scale of excellence this game belongs. Obviously I’ll be including some elements of the story, but I’ll keep spoilers to the absolute bare minimum.


Story

You play as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (professional monster hunter, and a mutant). Geralt’s searching for Ciri, with whom he has a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Unfortunately, the Wild Hunt is also after her, and your task is to both find and protect her.

One aspect that I really enjoyed was the secondary quests that branched off from the main storyline. They’re entirely optional, but by doing them (or not) you can affect the way the main story ends up going.

Geralt’s a neutral sort of character, and can be pretty harsh or relatively nice depending on the player’s preference (a small minority of dialogue options are timed, so you may need to decide quickly how to react to a situation).

There’s a strong cast of characters, including some potential romantic interests and old friends (such as Zoltan and Dandelion).

The side-quests are engaging and interesting, rather than escort/fetch quests (they feel like mini-stories rather than box-ticking or fetching X for Y). It’s quite possible to find yourself so preoccupied with side-quests you forget the main storyline for some time. I don’t think I’ve ever come across side-quests done as well as this.

This is my first Witcher game, and I imagine that’s true of many. A concern, given there are two prior games and a book series, was that I’d find it as incomprehensible as a cut-scene from Metal Gear Solid 4.

The initial part of the game starts in a good-sized area (which is nevertheless minute compared to the others), and you learn about the war and political situation through the interactions you have with ordinary people, rather than through lengthy exposition. It unfolds naturally, and avoids the videogame equivalent of info-dumping.

So, whilst I do think veterans of the series will get more out of it (particularly with minor returning characters), there’s no problem getting your head around the world if this is your first visit.


Gameplay

The combat has three major aspects: physical attacks, alchemical shenanigans and magic. You have at least basic abilities in all these areas and can develop them more as you wish. Combat did take me a little while to get into, and some enemies proved more troublesome than others (I’m rubbish against werewolves). Being able to customise your skills to match your fighting style (I went heavily for magic with a side order of melee) works well, but you will almost certainly use all three parts of combat to a greater or lesser extent.

The spells are powerful enough to be of use without making combat a doddle. Likewise, alchemical oils will help you, without being a silver bullet.

Difficulty (on the standard setting) was high enough for a challenge but I only felt overwhelmed (at the right level) a few times. Mostly against werewolves. Furry gits.

The levelling and skill allocation system is something intuitive to grasp, but a bit tricky to explain in a single line. Levelling is graded, so you only need 1000xp to level up to about 10, then levels 11-20 requires 1,500xp, and so on. Each level gets you one skill point. You can also acquire skill points from places of power (rare monoliths scattered through the world, a few of which you’ll encounter as part of the main story).

These skill points are then spent improving your melee, alchemical and magical prowess (or in a fourth, miscellaneous, category which has simpler enhancements like more health or faster stamina regen). Skills can be enhanced multiple times, and using a certain number of points is necessary to unlock the next tier of enhancements in a given skill table. For skill enhancements to become active they have to be placed in one of twelve slots (which gradually become available as you level). These skills can further be enhanced by use of the right mutagen (one mutagen per three skill enhancements). So, use a blue mutagen with magic to get a boost.

Quests are tagged with a recommended level and divided into main storyline, secondary, Witcher contracts and equipment hunting. It is possible to fail quests.

Crafting is entirely optional and you can get good gear without it. Crafting weapons/armour occurs only when you’re chatting to a smith. Alchemical crafting can be done by yourself, at any time.



Graphics

The world is beautiful. Not just in terms of graphics, but also in the way the mountains and hills, rivers and seas have been put together. Dozens of times, especially early on, I’d just pause the game to enjoy the view (and get a screenshot). Weather is dynamic, and a really nice effect is that trees/bushes will bend significantly in the wind.

Clothing mostly looks great. Textures are good, though there’s the occasional rough spot. Every piece of armour has a wet look, so if you go for a little swim and then come out, your clothing will be soggy.

The sea looks especially nice, although one of the first whales I saw did freeze, its tail forever sticking above the surface. Near the coast the sea is flat and calm, but further out the water gets choppier, especially in storms.

On rare occasions (a few times during the whole playthrough) textures took a moment to load, but it was just a moment. Pop-in did happen, but it was also rare.


Sound

Voice-acting is generally very good. Geralt’s probably got the best voice of a male protagonist since David Hayter was Solid Snake/Big Boss. Yennefer and Triss both sound great, and having Charles Dance as the Nilfgaardian Emperor fits very nicely.

The music’s brilliant, not just in that it’s well-composed, but each theme seems to really fit the situation. The fact that you get the music on a separate disc as a free extra for buying the game is just another bonus.


Bugs and Other Issues

In a game this size, there will be bugs. The question is whether they’re serious or comical. Mostly, they’re comical (I saw one dock-worker doing what appeared to be a river dance audition as he worked). Occasionally, they’re more serious. As well as floating characters and other minor issues, Geralt did once start jumping incessantly (which was amusing initially before it refused to stop). I eventually found that getting on Roach fixed the bug.

The initial load screen lasting forever (which has hopefully been patched and didn’t recur when I started a new game today to see if it was still a problem) was very tedious. I also came across two flying beasts that were invincible. At first I thought it might be intentional (I had to rescue someone and was thinking he might get the kills), but reloading solved the problem. And, once, the music just decided not to play (entering a cut-scene with music brought it back).

One thing which did irk me was that sometimes (but not always) it was necessary to be online to load my save (due to the DLC). I have no idea why it was sometimes needed and sometimes not.

There are some nuisances in there, but nothing game-breaking.

Not a bad thing but ‘another issue’ is the free DLC, which is still being released. There will be 16 in all (I think we’re up to about eight now). Some are toggled on/off in the main menu (alternate looks for characters/cards), most are quests or items purchased in-game (NB for game money, not real cash).


Conclusion

There are flaws, but they’re little niggles rather than persistent problems. When I look at it from another angle, seeking areas it could improve, there really isn’t anything.

The Witcher 3 offers the morality of Game of Thrones, the open world of Skyrim and the strong storytelling of Dragon Age in a game with around 200 hours of content. It’s a triumph of style and substance and may very well be the game of the year (I think only Fallout 4 may compete with it for the accolade).

Score: 9.5/10.


Thaddeus