Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Beginner's Guide to Board Games (from a Beginner)

Ah, the humble board game. For decades – centuries if you count games like chess – the board game did sterling work in bringing families together and providing entertainment and mental stimulation (before shattering them apart with arguments over how to spell words in Scrabble or Auntie Joan’s Dick Move in Monopoly which is still controversial ten years later). In the latter part of the 20th Century there was a drop-off in the popularity of board games, largely attributed to the rise of video games and television, but in the last few years board games have returned with a vengeance.

You'll never need to play this rubbish again,

There are several reasons board games have returned to popularity, some obvious, some less so. The number one influence, of course, is the Internet. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have allowed board games to be created, funded and sold in a manner and scale that was impossible under the old publisher model. The Internet has also allowed board game fans to find other players and set up gaming groups, as well as spreading the word about good games. YouTube videos and review sites like the excellent Shut Up and Sit Down and podcasts like The Game Pit have allowed players to see games in action before stumping up money for them. Message boards and websites also provide rules clarifications, cheat sheets, player aids and things to make the task of playing games much easier and reduce arguments. In rarer cases there are also digital, directly-translated versions of board games where players can hone their skills on the screen before deploying them against other players. Most notably, Pandemic, Blood Bowl and Space Hulk all have digital versions where you can directly translate the rules from screen to board and back again.

A slightly less obvious reason is the rapid and remarkable decline in same-room multiplayer video gaming. Back in the 1990s groups of friends could gather at houses to play Street Fighter II tournaments or Mario Kart championships. Split-screen gaming was a huge thing and, with no set-up time or time spent puzzling over rule books, a tempting alternative to board gaming. However, the last decade has seen a marked decline in same-room video gaming. Technical limitations meant that modern consoles struggle to depict two graphical displays of what is going on at an acceptable level of graphical detail, making it preferable for people to play their games from their own homes over the Internet. Although that’s still fun, it loses the social aspect and enjoyment gained from being in the same room as your friends.

The main reason for why board gaming is back, though, is also the most obvious one: there’s a lot of really good board games around, engaging in a variety of themes and ideas, ranging from very easy and quick-to-play and accessible titles for all ages to hardcore action games using lots of miniatures and complex rules taking entire days to play. Here’s a few games from the so-called “golden age” which might tickle your fancy.

For Beginners

Ticket to Ride
The ultimate introductory game for the new age of board games, Ticket to Ride is pretty straightforward: each player is a railroad magnate building new lines across the United States. The longer the lines, the greater the reward but also the risk one of your competitors might beat you to the pinch at the last minute. You score points for longer lines, but also achieving the secret objectives on your mission cards: the right combination of the right lines and cards can see someone storm from behind to win the game at the last hurdle, making sure everyone is involved right up to the last minute. A very simple game which gains complexity and replayability from the interaction of its different features and the mindsets of the players.

Ticket to Ride is available in numerous different editions, such as ones featuring a map of Europe or Britain, and others which add complexity by allowing you to set up shipping routes as well.

Cosmic Encounter
An old-skool game (originally released in the 1970s), Cosmic Encounter has the players portraying different alien races. Using a combination of diplomacy, bluffing and military might, players have to establish colonies on each other’s planets. Where the game becomes unpredictable is that you have no way of knowing what special powers the other players might have, or what cards (granting bonuses to attack, defence and diplomacy) they may be hoarding. Cosmic Encounter is extremely simple and fast to play, but with a huge amount of variety thrown up by the different alien races and cards.

Four viruses are threatening civilisation, so the Centre for Disease Control has to mobilise its best people to cure them and mop up the after-effects. Pandemic is a co-operative game where the players have to work together against the odds, and the odds can be quite gruelling. It’s not uncommon for players to have a few good rounds and think the situation is under control, and five minutes later be sobbing as most of Europe is engulfed in an explosive chain reaction of outbreaks.

Like Cosmic Encounter, the game’s base mechanics are very simple but the replayability comes from the interaction of the different characters (always pick the characters randomly, as otherwise the game can become quite easy as players work out optimal character combinations and just stick with those) and the ability cards they pick up. Pandemic has two expansions that add a lot of variety to the game, as well as its semi-sequel, Pandemic: Legacy, which is an altogether more advanced game (I’d recommend not even thinking of tackling that until you’ve mastered the original at its hardest difficulty level, with the expansions).

Flash Point
Flash Point is another cooperative game. The players portray firefighters who are trying to rescue people from a burning building. It’s important to get people out, but it’s also necessary to keep putting the fires out. Ignore a growing fire for too long and it may explode, causing a chain reaction that demolishes the building around you. But ignore the trapped people for too long and they may burn or choke to death. Expansions add more complexity (like multi-floor buildings), but this is a reasonably simple game which is much more addictive than it first looks. Watch out for players who insist on rescuing trapped animals at the expense of their owners!

Settlers of Catan
Some people hold this game – originally released in 1995 – as the forefather of the modern board game explosion. This is debatable but it’s certainly one of the most popular board games of all time. The players are colonists on an island and have to engage in diplomacy and resource-gathering to win an economic war of attrition with the other players. It’s peaceful but competitive, with excellent potential for humour revolving around how much wood each player has at any given moment.

King of Tokyo
A lot of players of King of Tokyo are disappointed when they discover the game isn’t about smashing up Tokyo like a board game version of Rampage. Instead, it’s about the monsters getting into fights with one another over who gets to smash up Tokyo next. An elegantly simply dice mechanic and premise belies the addictive replayability that comes from the different powers each creature has and the cards you can draw with extra abilities. An expanded sequel, King of New York, is also available.

For Intermediate Players

Axis and Allies
Another old-skool game (originally released in 1981), Axis and Allies has very simple rules. However, the ways those rules interact with one another and the diverse battle maps can give rise to extremely complex situations. The introductory game could even be said to be a better fit for the introductory section above, but the expansions raise the complexity of the game considerably.

The best achievement of Axis and Allies, though, is how elegantly it replicates the set-up and outcome of World War II, with the Axis players starting with enormous armies but poor resources and immediately forced to expand or lose, with the Allies’ long-term victory assured if they can weather the storm. However, the fun really kicks in when players overturn the results of history and start going off the wall (the German annexation of Brazil can be an unexpectedly effective move, for example). There are more diverse and arguably interesting World War II games, like Memoir 44, and certainly lots of far more complex and hardcore wargames, but Axis and Allies remains compelling for its grand vision of the whole war, particularly with its later variant rules focusing on individual theatres.

Blood Bowl
A spin-off of the Warhammer fantasy game, Blood Bowl is nothing less than American football but with orcs, elves and dwarves (among others) making up the teams. The result is a surprisingly rich and engrossing game of blocks, passes, counter-strikes and breaks which at times becomes as tense and engaging as an actual good sports game. The fact it’s all extremely funny, with Games Workshop’s traditionally beautiful miniatures, helps a lot.

The video game Blood Bowl II replicates the rules of the board game exactly, and may be worth a look for those wanting to practice their ball control without any friends around.

Star Wars: Rebellion
At first glance Rebellion looks like a wargame in space, except the Empire has Death Stars, Super Star Destroyers, normal Star Destroyers, AT-ATs and ludicrous numbers of TIE Fighters, whilst the Rebel player has a few X-wings and snowspeeders. But the cleverness of the design kicks in when you send your Rebel agents to sabotage Imperial production lines, halt fleets in their tracks by raising insurgences across the galaxy and generally win support for the Alliance. The Empire wins if it can find the Rebel hidden base, but this is much harder than it first appears.

The result is a wonderfully asymmetrical game of warfare, espionage and politics, all drenched in authentic Star Wars flavouring. The game’s key weakness is that it is strictly a two-player affair only.

A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame
Originally released in 2003 and based wholly on the books, A Game of Thrones replicates the mixture of warfare, skulduggery, treachery and diplomacy from the novels as five factions (six in the expansion) fight for control of the Iron Throne. Games can be tense as players make alliances with other players, offering military support in return for a mutual victory, but then the threat of a betrayal arises. The game can induce paranoia between friends, but the result is one of the tensest games in existence, a fine modern replacement for the likes of Diplomacy.

Arkham Horror
Some will argue this should be in the Advanced category, but I contend that Arkham Horror is actually a reasonably straightforward game that has been bloated to the point of near-lunacy by a galaxy of (mostly unnecessary) cards, optional rules and expansions. A kitchen table has not yet been built that can comfortably contain a full game of Arkham with all the expansions laid out.

Strip that away and you instead have a cooperative game where a team of investigators has to stop one of the Elder Gods from arriving on Earth through a magical portal in the town of Arkham. The setting’s theme is not entirely respected – this is more Die Hard With a Verichteraraberbuch than evoking Lovecraft’s atmosphere of Earth-shattering horror, with you more likely to punch a Shoggoth in the face than wet yourself to death – but with the right players in the right mood, the game can be a huge amount of fun, helped by the batty (and cheerfully unbalanced) characters you can play.

A more recent version of the game, Eldritch Horror, expands the threat to a global level whilst dialling back some of the unnecessary bloat of the prior game.

Forbidden Stars
A Warhammer 40,000 space strategy game, Forbidden Stars is no longer being made but there are a few copies still out in the wild, so grab one if you can. This is, similarly to Star Wars: Rebellion (with which it shares a few mechanical similarities), a strategy game with different races fighting to win. Unlike Rebellion, Forbidden Stars is suitable for 4 players and is less asymmetrical, with the races having approximately comparable abilities and skills. What makes the game more interesting are the hidden objectives which you have to race to achieve, sometimes requiring you to have to cross half the galaxy through hostile territory with opposing players unsure of what you are doing. Warp storms which close down routes across the board also add to tactical complexity.

But if you want to smash your friend’s Ork battle fleet and land your Space Marine legions (backed up by Titans) on his largest colony world for the hell of it, you certainly can do that as well. Forbidden Stars is also a fine, somewhat lighter alternative to Twilight Imperium for those who don’t have entire weekends they can sink into playing one game.

For Advanced Players

Twilight Imperium
The grand-daddy of big strategy games, Twilight Imperium comes in an insanely-sized box, takes a while to set up and sucks entire days away as players struggle to take control of a star cluster and fend off several other players. The board game equivalent of video games like Master of Orion and Stellaris, Twilight Imperium isn’t mechanically the most complex game around, but it is one of the longest (even a brief game can take 4-5 hours, and long ones can consume entire weekends). The time-destroying nature of Twilight Imperium and its massive size can be overwhelming and off-putting, but a single game of Twilight Imperium can also generate stories and anecdotes your players will be talking about for years. Rewarding, but not for the timid.

Space Hulk
A spin-off from the Warhammer 40,000 science fantasy universe, Space Hulk is the original game of tense, nerve-shredding horror. One player has to direct their squad of Terminator Space Marines through the creaking, claustrophobic halls of a derelict spacecraft, the other has to assault them with a seemingly never-ending flood of ravenous alien horrors. The game can be brutal and often unfair, but replays soon reveal clever strategies and tactics to win (although, of all the games listed here, this is the one that is most reliant on the luck of the dice roll).

The reason I put this in the Advanced section isn’t because it is mechanically complex - it’s actually pretty straightforward – but because it can be gruelling and unfair to the point of playing it can make you wonder if you are a masochist. This is certainly not a game for children or those with short tempers. But beating the game and achieving a tricky mission objective against the odds is an unbeatable high.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Descent is a dungeon-exploring game which, if you play it as a one-off adventure, is reasonably straightforward. The game’s complexity and addictive nature comes from its campaign mode, which unfolds over multiple games with your heroes and the bad guy, the Overseer, becoming more powerful and better-equipped between adventures. The beautiful miniatures and seemingly endless array of tokens are decidedly moreish and the expandability of the game is second to none. Many modern board games revel in the tactile, physical experience of having lots of tokens, models and things to play with and move around the board, but none have nailed that aspect quite as well as Descent.

Descent’s key weakness is that it attempts to replicate the appeal of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons in a boardgame setting, but arguably does not do so as elegantly as the much older Hero Quest or Warhammer Quest, and it does raise the question of why you simply don’t play D&D instead. Then you see the latest miniature your Overseer has bought and painted for the game for the next dungeon, which you need to beat to complete the campaign, and you realise why.

The games I’ve mentioned here only scratch the surface of what’s out there. There are also games like Quadropolis and Suburbia which can scratch that desire to build your own city, or Lords of Waterdeep which allows you to manage a fantasy metropolis. There are very quick-and-simple games like Love Letter and Cthulu Dice or more sprawling epics like Silver Tower. And there’s also zombie games, like Zombiecide and Last Night on Earth. In fact, there’s lots of zombie games, it’s a thing at the moment. If you’re not willing to splash out on a big board game (and to be fair they can be expensive, although rarely much more so than a video game), there’s usually lots of gaming groups around where you can drop by and see games in action and see what takes your fancy. It’s an interesting time for the field and surprisingly engrossing once you get involved with it.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content before it goes live on my blogs.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

Some months after their triumph over the renegade Kree warlord Ronan, the Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired by the Sovereign to defend their homeworld from a ravaging interdimensional monster. Unfortunately, Rocket manages to offend the Sovereign, leading to a sequence of improbable events culminating in Peter Quill finally meeting his father. Meanwhile, the Ravager faction led by Yondu has been outcast by their fellows for Yondu's dishonourable actions and he seeks to regain his honour in their eyes...which means tracking down and defeating the Guardians.

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's more laidback and fun movies. Free of the weighty continuity built up by the Earth-bound movies, it felt fresh and inventive. With a top soundtrack, some excellent humour and some great performances, it emerged as perhaps not the most dramatically satisfying Marvel movie, but certainly the most fun.

The second movie sees returning director James Gunn attempt a tricky balancing act of giving the audience more of the same - comedy, action, space battles, quips - and also doing something new that keeps the freshness of the first movie going. It can't quite stretch to do all of these things well and it stumbles a little more than its forebear, but it's still a brave attempt to do something more interesting than a by-the-numbers sequel.

The movie is certainly funnier. Baby Groot gets some great moments but it's Drax and new character Mantis, by themselves and as an unlikely double-act, who emerge with the best material. Yondu's Ravagers also get a bit more definition and the "tough"-sounding name of one of their number becomes a recurring gag throughout the movie. Chris Pratt employs his considerable comic talents better as well, such as his ongoing attempts to explain the dubious premises of mid-1980s action TV shows to his baffled compatriots.

More importantly, the film explores character better than the first movie. We find out why Peter doesn't just go home to Earth, more of what makes Gamora and Nebula tick, and more of what drives Yondu, who emerges as a more complex figure in this movie than the previous one. The film doesn't break new ground - the idea that the Guardians are a family and that's why they hang out even when they argue is hardly revelatory - but it does offer more food for thought about these people in the calm breaks between explosions.

The film does have a fair few explosions, and if the movie does have a weakness it is the protracted climax. The first movie had a long final battle, but that battle was divided into several strands with the goals, plans and motivations of everyone involved clear. The second movie's climax goes on too long, gets a little silly in places and risks being lost in concussive CGI overload. It's nowhere near as bad as, say, a Michael Bay Transformers film, but it does risk losing the audience's interest. Fortunately the climactic moment of the battle may also be the film's funniest moment, and the movie's actual ending is actually quite decent, if perhaps drawing a bit too deep on sentiment.

Remarkably, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does roll back a little on the scale from the first film. There's no Thanos, no Infinity Stones (although both rate mentions) and far fewer tie-ins with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the original movie. Instead, Vol. 2 is more interested in setting up the rest of the Marvel Cosmic Universe. The first movie teased it, but the second film opens up on the wider SF stylings of the setting, with more character cameos from obscure 1970s Marvel Comics then you can shake a stick at. One revelatory moment will have old-skool Marvel fans grinning from ear to ear, especially if it leads into the spin-off movie Marvel reportedly are very interested in making, whilst the apparent revelation of the villain for Vol. 3 will have fans nodding in approval.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (****) is a worthy successor to the original film. In trying to do more of the same and be different it perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew and the prolonged climax is messier and less interesting than the first movie's, but it wins those points back with more interesting character work, better laughs, yet more quotable dialogue, some great performances and another solid soundtrack (and the well-judged decision to do something different with setting up Vol. 3's). Oh, and it has maybe the most amusing credits Marvel has ever done (I mean the actual credits, not the mandatory during and post-credits sequences, which this movie goes overboard on).

The movie is on general release in the UK now and hits the USA on 5 May.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Eliza Dushku to produce and star in BLACK COMPANY TV series

Eliza Dushku, best-known for playing Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the lead role on Tru Calling and Dollhouse, is bringing Glen Cook's Black Company series of novels and short stories to the screen. The actress is attached to produce and star, with her taking on the role of the Lady.

Glen Cook's novel series began in 1984 with The Black Company. It is followed by Shadows Linger and The White Rose, the three books retroactively named The Books of the North (or The Black Company Trilogy). It was then followed a spin-off interquel, The Silver Spike, and The Books of the South, consisting of Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel. The series continued with the four-volume Glittering Stone series (Bleak Seasons, She is the Darkness, Water Sleeps and Soldiers Live). Cook is currently writing Port of Shadows, which is set between The White Rose and the later books in the series.

The Black Company is known for its strong moral ambiguity as the titular mercenary army is hired by the Lady and her Northern Empire to crush its remaining enemies. However, the army gradually realises the threat posed by the Lady and the Empire and betrays her, joining forces with the prophecised saviour figure known as the White Rose. A series of alliances and betrayals follow, until the Lady, reluctantly, is forced to lend her military and magical aid to the Black Company when faced with the threat of an ancient, greater evil known as the Dominator.

The Black Company was dark and gritty at a time when most fantasy was anything but, with a strong cast of memorable characters. Central to the saga is the complex and occasionally tortured relationship between Croaker, the chronicler and sometimes leader of the Black Company, and the Lady, a former arch-enemy turned highly redoubtable ally.

The series is also noted for its profound impact on later fantasy series: Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont have credited it as the primary influence on their Malazan Book of the Fallen series (and, indeed, they "borrowed" Cook's naming conventions for their series), whilst George R.R. Martin has credited Cook as one of several influences on A Song of Ice and Fire.

The TV project is being produced by Dushku and David Goyer (Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) and will be shopped to TV networks in the coming weeks.

This is interesting and unexpected news, but Dushku could make for an interesting Lady and the series is different enough from a lot of the fantasy genre to stand out from the crowd. However, the series gets more grandiose as it goes along, with larger battles involving more magic appearing. It'll be interesting to see if the developers can get a network interested who'll be willing to spend the money required to do the story justice.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

WHEEL OF TIME TV series picked up by Sony

Sony Television Pictures have confirmed that they are the company who purchased the Wheel of Time TV rights last year and are now actively developing the project for television.

The saga of the Wheel of Time TV rights is long and complex. Suffice to say, a company named Red Eagle Productions attempted to get a film or TV show of The Wheel of Time made for over a decade before their option was due to expire in early 2015. To keep the rights, they self-funded a brief TV pilot based on the prologue to The Eye of the World, the first book in the series, resulting in a legal tussle with the Robert Jordan Estate. Last year we were told this tussle had been resolved and the TV project was moving forwards with an unspecified production partner, now revealed to be Sony.

So far no TV network has picked up the series, but there will likely be keen interest from a number of sources. HBO, I am informed, are not remotely in the running, preferring to develop series of this magnitude in-house and are also not interested in developing internal competition to Game of Thrones and its rumoured, early-in-gestation spin-off series.

The network most likely to show the series is AMC. They have been developing an enviable portfolio of genre programming, spearheaded by the ratings-destroying The Walking Dead, and have previously worked with Sony Television on Preacher, Better Call Saul and, of course, Breaking Bad. They are also rumoured to be the frontrunners to air the Dark Tower TV series (a prequel spin-off from the forthcoming Idris Elba movie), also in development with Sony. The main concern over AMC being involved is that they are infamously frugal, with even the massively popular Walking Dead made on a relative shoestring budget (for its scale) of about $3.2 million per episode. The Wheel of Time would comfortably require $5 million per episode at the start and a lot more later on, which AMC would seem less likely to stump up for. However, AMC likely want their own Game of Thrones-challenging fantasy show and would know that this would come with a much higher price tag.

Starz are also likely a strong candidate. They are more generous with the pursestrings and have likewise worked with Sony Television on their breakout success, Outlander. Showtime are also possible, as Sony has worked with them on Masters of Sex and The Tudors, but are perhaps less likely to stump up the large budget required.

An intriguing possibility is FX. FX and Sony previously worked together on The Shield, Rescue Me and Justified. FX is probably underrated in the TV stakes, but their portfolio of shows is far more impressive than might be first thought: in addition to the above, FX have also produced Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, American Horror Story, Legion, Atlanta, The Americans and Fargo (the latter two both strongly claiming the title of Best Show on TV). FX also showed Red Eagle's self-funded pilot back in 2015. Although that was a self-funded advert with no creative input from FX, FX did pick up a lot of queries about the project and obviously would be aware of the ratings and other feedback.

More tantalising would be a collaboration with an online streaming service. Sony have worked with Amazon on Mad Dogs and The Last Tycoon and with Netflix on The Get Down. Both Amazon and Netflix would likely loosen the pursestrings for The Wheel of Time (Netflix is spending $7 million per episode on Altered Carbon, and that novel is all but obscure compared to WoT) and Sony are likely interested in exploring the streaming space further.

Sony have confirmed that they have already hired the writer and showrunner for the series. Rafe Judkins entered the Hollywood sphere in 2005 as a contestant on Survivor before becoming a writer. He has since worked on The 4400Chuck, My Own Worst Enemy, Hemlock Grove and Agents of SHIELD. Judkins frequently collaborates with screenwriter Lauren LeFranc, so it may be possible she will also write for the show.

The next step will be finding a network partner and beginning the process of developing scripts and casting. I suspect it will be 2019, at the earliest, before we see The Wheel of Time on TV. But although it will be a while before we see Rand, Loial and Nynaeve's Braid on TV, at least we now have a beginning.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content before it goes live on my blogs.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Thimbleweed Park

1987. A dead body has been discovered on the outskirts of the town of Thimbleweed Park. FBI agents Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes lead the investigation and soon discover that there are some very weird things going on in the town. Meanwhile, Delores Edmund has been banished from her family home and fortune after abandoning the family pillow-manufacturing business to become a video games designer, but is summoned back to hear the reading of her uncle's will. And, in an abandoned fairground, Ransome the Insult Clown, dreams of escaping his fate and removing his clown makeup after he was cursed by a mysterious voodoo lady.

Thimbleweed Park is a throwback adventure game, employing the same SCUMM interface as the classic LucasArts video games of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The SCUMM system was created by Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and David Fox and employed in their game Maniac Mansion (1987). It would go on to be used in a further seven games in its original form. LucasArts would release another four games with a more streamlined (but less versatile) interface before ditching it in favour of a 3D engine with very awkward controls and more limited puzzle-solving. Bizarrely, Telltale Games (founded by ex-LucasArts veterans) would find great success with an even more limited engine (which almost removes all puzzles and inventory use altogether), leaving fans of real adventure games with relatively slim recent pickings.

Until now, anyway. Gilbert, Winnick and Fox have reunited and created a new game using the SCUMM interface. In Thimbleweed Park you control five very different characters and have to direct them around the town, solving puzzles, picking up useful items and discussing matters with other characters. Early in the game your main focus is on solving the murder, but later on you also have to fulfil Delores' uncle's stipulations so the will can be read and then all five characters come together to try to break into a spooky factory and confront the darkest secrets of the town.

Like the LucasArts games, it is not possible to die and it is almost impossible to bring about a failed state where you cannot continue (and the one main way of doing that does have a warning that you should save the game first). As a result, playing Thimbleweed Park is a relatively relaxed affair as you move around the town trying to solve the game's various puzzles. The game mostly plays fair, with the solutions to the puzzles being mainly logical and straightforward (and of course walkthroughs are already available if you get really stuck).

The game is funny, although it does strike a few bum notes, and the characters are reasonably interesting, especially Ransome the angry clown and Delores, the game's main protagonist. These characters are developed to the point where it feels like the designers lost interest in some of the other characters as development proceeded: Ray and Reyes have relatively limited character development in comparison. Overall, Thimbleweed Park nails the atmosphere, humour and strengths of the LucasArts adventures and improves on them in several areas, such as the addition of fast travel and a "run" ability to move around more quickly.

There are several negatives. The game has a large number of fourth-wall-breaking gags and metacommentary on old adventure games. This starts off entertaining but gets a bit old later on. I also can't help but feel that some of the humour and writing - such as the continued digs at Sierra adventure games when Sierra haven't made an adventure game in that style for over twenty years - is a tad dated and self-indulgent. As someone who's played almost every adventure game LucasArts put out and therefore gets all the gags, I found this vein of humour a little too forced. For younger players and newcomers I can imagine it could get quite alienating. It also doesn't help that a couple of puzzle solutions are dependent on foreknowledge of older LucasArts game (such as the old "Navigator's Head" trick from The Secret of Monkey Island).

Another is a complaint I've had ever since playing Maniac Mansion way back in the day. These games, in my view, don't handle multiple characters very well. Your player-controlled characters don't speak or interact with one another very much (aside from swapping the occasional inventory item), and the puzzles sometimes involve telepathy which has no in-game explanation (one character doing something in one location to trigger an event another character can capitalise on elsewhere). It's also very fiddly to discover that three inventory items are needed to solve a puzzle and you have to manually gather the characters together to swap stuff around. It's not coincidental that the best-regarded LucasArts adventures, The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, feature only one controllable character and only one inventory to manage.

Still, Thimbleweed Park (****) is resolutely entertaining. The pixel art is gorgeous, the music is limited but excellent, the voice acting is pretty decent (and can be turned off if you really want to pretend this 1990 again) and the writing is mostly sharp (if occasionally self-indulgent). It's not as good nor as funny as the Monkey Island titles (Tim Schafer's absurdist streak is sorely missed), not as enormous and compelling as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but stacks up well compared to Maniac Mansion and Zak McKraken, and is far less obtuse and stonewalling as those games could be. The game is available now on PC, Mac and X-Box One, with a PlayStation 4 version to follow shortly.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Czech covers for China Mieville's novels are awesome

Behold below the Czech cover art for the novels (and one short story collection) of China Mieville:

On the top row, from left, that's King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council and Looking for Jake. On the bottom row, from left, there's Un Lun Dun, The City and The City, KrakenEmbassytown and Railsea.

You may recognise the cover art for Perdido Street Station and The Scar from the original UK editions from Pan Macmillan. The artwork is all by Edward Miller (a pseudonym for artist Les Edwards), also known for his work for PS Publishing (including on the Malazan limited editions and on Scott Lynch's books). After The Scar came out the UK publishers decided to switch to a more generic and standard art style before switching again for the dark, moody covers they are still using today. Although these are okay, the surreal and bizarre imagery from Miller was very appropriate for Mieville's work and it was a shame to see him go.

The Czech publishers clearly agreed, as they retained Miller to keep working on the cover art for their editions of the novels. I couldn't find any information on a Czech edition of Three Moments of an Explosion, This Census-Taker or The Last Days of New Paris, so it's unknown if they will continue to use Miller for their works.

Thanks to Outthere Books for spotting this intriguing development.

Lucasfilm confirm that STAR WARS: REBELS will end after Season 4

Lucasfilm have released the first trailer for Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels, their animated TV series set between the events of the movies Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One. They have also confirmed that the series will end this season.

Over the course of three prior seasons, we have seen the Rebel Alliance coalesce out of small guerrilla cells scattered all over the galaxy and the Empire expend considerable resources in trying to stamp out the movement before it gains momentum. But they have failed, with many worlds now in open rebellion against the Empire. The crew of the starship Ghost continue to provide support to the Rebellion whilst dealing with their own issues and being hunted down by the Imperial tactical genius Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The fourth season will focus on the Rebellion establishing the base on Yavin IV and will, presumably, explain the fate of the main characters and why they are not around during the events of the original movies. Producer Dave Filoni also promises that at some point we will see the flipside of events in Rogue One (in which several Rebels ships and characters either cameoed or were referenced). There will also be new cast additions, most notably perennial Star Wars favourite Warwick Davis as Rukh, Grand Admiral Thrawn's Noghri bodyguard and assassin (and, as those who've read Timothy Zahn's novels know, quite an important character in the old Expanded Universe).

Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels will debut in the autumn.

Friday, 14 April 2017

First trailer for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI released

Lucasfilm have released the first trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi is the direct sequel to 2015's The Force Awakens and picks up where that movie left off. The Resistance has won a victory over the First Order by destroying its Starkiller weapon, but the First Order remains very much intact. Kylo Ren, badly wounded in lightsabre combat, is being healed and tutored by his mentor, the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. Finn remains badly injured from the same battle.

The film's main narrative thrust, however, appears to centre on Rey and Luke Skywalker. Rey has located Luke on a remote planet and is learning the ways of the Force from him, but Luke appears disillusioned by the Jedi ways, declaring that it may be time for the organisation to disappear.

The Last Jedi will be released on 15 December this year.

David Morrissey cast in THE CITY AND THE CITY adaptation

Veteran British actor David Morrissey will head the cast for the BBC's adaptation of the China Mieville novel The City and The City. Morrissey will be playing the role of Inspector Tyador Borlu, a police detective in the city of Beszel who gets caught up in a murder investigation.

The City and The City is a cross-agency murder mystery with a twist: the twin cities of Beszel and Ul-Qoma coexist at the same point in space/time, with people, shops and buildings from the two cities jumbled alongside one another. People can transit from one city to another through special checkpoints, but any attempt to interfere in the operations of one city from the other results in a "Breach" with potentially catastrophic results.

It's a bizarre, dizzying concept to get across in prose and I'm curious how the BBC are going to handle it on screen. I've liked the idea of the "current" city being in colour and all the buildings, people and objects from the other city being in black and white, with it reversing when the characters cross over, but that might be a little too hokey (and expensive).

David Morrissey is one of Britain's best actors, first attracting notice for the 1992 mini-series Framed in which he starred with Timothy Dalton and Penelope Cruz. His subsequent roles included TV shows such as Our Mutual Friend and Sense and Sensibility. In 2008 he starred alongside David Tennant in a memorable Doctor Who Christmas special. More recently, of course, he attracted renewed fame and attention for his role as the Governor in the third and fourth seasons of The Walking Dead.

This is excellent news and raises interest for this already intriguing project. The City and The City is filming now and should air in 2018.