Friday, 21 October 2016

Donald Glover cast as Lando Calrissian in 2018's STAR WARS movie

Actor, writer and musician Donald Glover has been cast as the young Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo-focused Star Wars spin-off movie, currently due to hit cinemas in 2018.

Donald Glover is best-known for his role as Troy Barnes in the comedy series Community. He currently stars on Atlanta, which he also co-writes. He is also a double-Grammy Award-nominated musician for his work under the moniker Childish Gambino.

Glover, a major Star Wars fan, has been long a fan-favourite for the role of the young Lando. He will also be appearing in the new Spider-Man movie, Homecoming, due next year.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

J.R.R. Tolkien to release new book, despite deceased status

J.R.R. Tolkien will release a new book in 2017, despite having died in 1973.

An illustration of Luthien by Ted Nasmith.

The new book is entitled Beren and Luthien and relates the story of the star-crossed lovers from the First Age of Middle-earth.

The news has caused brows to furrow across fantasy fandom. The story of Beren and Luthien is one of the central legends in Tolkien's The Silmarillion and Tolkien wrote several extended versions of it whilst he was alive, but nothing on the order of the story of Turin Turambar which allowed that story to be published as a short book in 2007, under the title The Children of Hurin.

Indeed, a more likely candidate for the same kind of treatment would be The Fall of Gondolin, the very first full-length narrative of Middle-earth that Tolkien wrote in 1917. Not only is there there original prose story (albeit in a very archaic form), previously published in The Book of Lost Tales, but there is also an updated (if incomplete), post-Lord of the Rings version from Unfinished Tales and the unfinished poem The Lay of the Fall of Gondolin.

Beren and Luthien will open with the Tale of Tinuviel, the very first version of the story written circa 1917-18 and previously published in The Book of Lost Tales. It is expected that the book will also contain The Lay of Leithian, a nearly-finished poem version (previously appearing in The Lays of Beleriand), the summarised version from The Silmarillion and the account that appears in The Lord of the Rings. It will still be probably quite a short book, but will be fleshed out with new illustrations by master Tolkien artist Alan Lee. As usual, Tolkien's son Christopher is on editorial duties.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

First footage from the new TWIN PEAKS

Showtime have unveiled the first material from the new Twin Peaks TV series.

This behind-the-scenes video sees the returning actors explaining how much fun the new series has been to make and, er, not a lot else. But given how secretive the project has been so far, that's perhaps to be expected.

The new Twin Peaks will air on Showtime in early-to-mid 2017. The series will consist of approximately eighteen episodes, although this is yet to be confirmed and could change in editing. David Lynch and Mark Frost have written the new series (after writing all of the original series and the Fire Walk With Me movie spin-off) and Lynch has directed the entire series.

It was also recently confirmed that the show's iconic composer Angelo Badalamenti will return to score the new series. It's unclear if the new show will use the original's haunting theme tune, but I'd say it's reasonably likely.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Quantum Break

Jack Joyce is called home to Riverport by his best friend Paul Serene. His brother William has created time travel technology, but in the process has apparently become unhinged. Paul wants Jack to help him complete William's experiments and calm his brother down. However, the experiment goes horrendously wrong, causing a fracture in the space/time continuum. As the fracture grows worse, Jack gains powers over time and space...but so does Paul, who has been flung seventeen years into the past. When he catches up with Jack he is now a different man, with enigmatic motivations...and the same powers Jack has.

Quantum Break is the latest game from Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment. Way back in 2001 Remedy released the iconic action game Max Payne, an epoch-marking title which transformed the action game into a balletic display of violence, bullet time and gritty, noir storytelling. Its sequel, Max Payne 2, remains one of the vanishingly few decent examples of a video game romance ever attempted (and pretty much the only one in an action game). Their 2010 title Alan Wake fused action with survival horror, again set against the backdrop of rich storytelling and a wry sense of humour. Remedy aren't quite like any other developer out there, which is why their games are Day One purchases for me (on PC, anyway).

Quantum Break is very definitely a Remedy game. It's action focused, combat-heavy and uses state-of-the-art graphics technology. The game's propriety Northlight Engine is a technological marvel, offering up both astonishing visuals, (mostly) fluid action and impressive optimisation. I particularly appreciated the fact that the game didn't make my PC run as hot as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided recently did, despite offering superior visuals.

Quantum Break is also a storyline-heavy game, telling its twisting narrative of time loops through both gameplay, in-engine cut scenes and, remarkably, over an hour of live-action video. These videos take the form of TV mini-episodes, filling in the backstory and narrative of what's going on with the antagonists at the same time that Jack is going through his adventures in the gameplay. To maintain continuity, the game features the same actors playing the roles in the live-action pieces as well as lending their appearances and voices for the in-game sequences. These aren't unknowns either, with Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire), Lance Reddick (Fringe, The Wire), Dominic Monaghan (Lost, Lord of the Rings), Amelia Blaire (True Blood) and Brooke Nevin (The 4400) all playing major roles.

The game unfolds through gameplay sequences where you investigate a scene or solve puzzles, which often segues into a combat sequence. Fighting consists of standard cover-based shooting (with a rather elegant cover system which simply sees you automatically take cover if you're standing behind something that can be used as such) and also the use of your temporal powers. Interestingly, given Remedy's pioneering use of bullet time, you can't use bullet time as such but you can create temporal shield to freeze bullets in mid-air, trap enemies in stasis bubbles (which you can fire into, so they're instantly hit by hundreds of bullets when time resumes) and set off temporal blasts to throw people through the air. Later in the game enemies appear who can generate their own temporal fields and gain some immunity to your attacks, forcing you to adapt new, more complex strategies. Combat is, mostly, tactical, satisfying and fun.

The game is very narrative-heavy, so if you're after fact action game with limited story, you may want to steer clear. The story is well-told, with a reasonable engagement with the complexities of time travel and temporal paradoxes. There are some plot holes if you think about things too much, but overall the story is an entertaining slice of pulp SF fun with characters you do end up caring about.

It's not a perfect game. There's some jankiness to the controls and occasionally dubious collision detection. The game also severely restricts where you can climb up walls and over obstacles but doesn't give you any way of differentiating these from the areas where you cannot, occasionally leaving you frustratingly bouncing up and down in front of a ledge you really should be able to grab hold of. The game also triggers your frequently-used "time surge" power (which sees you jump forward a dozen feet or so in one go) in the direction your character is facing, not that the camera is facing, occasionally resulting you in hurtling off in unexpected directions. Once you learn to leave a few moments for your character to turn around, it's not really a problem. The live-action TV sequences are also pretty decent - easily the best such things ever created for a video game - but whilst the main cast are excellent (especially Aidan Gillen, who turns in a better performance in the game than he's done in six seasons of Game of Thrones) some of the supporting actors are more enthusiastic than skilled. Oddly, it all fits in with the pulp B-movie feel of the piece.

The game also suffers a little from having a generally smooth difficulty curve, but then featuring several quite ridiculous spikes, with no information context or information being given on how to defeat boss enemies. The final battle with its insta-death enemy attacks, which is easily ten times harder than any other fight in the game, is particularly guilty of this. It's certainly survivable, but it does interrupt the flow of the game.

More impressively, the game has four different "junction" points. At each one of these junctions you have an important decision to make which will change the course of how the story unfolds. Using a temporal vision, you can see some (but not all) of the impacts your choice will make. The game signposts these moments quite clearly, allowing you to note which choice you've made so you can choose differently on a replay. For a linear action game with no multiplayer, such a system is vital to maintain interest and replayability to the game.

Quantum Break (****) is a visually impressive game with dynamic, fun combat and a reasonably good story delivered through sympathetic characters (even the villains are quite well fleshed-out). There's some iffy performances and occasional insane difficulty spikes, but overall this is a very impressive, atmospheric and well-made game. It is available now on PC and X-Box One (UK, USA).

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Wertzone Classics: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

The Bingtown Traders have grown rich from the use of the liveships, great, sentient sailing ships made of the fabled wizardwood. After three generations of captains die on their decks, they quicken into life. Epheron Vestrit's death brings the liveship Vivacia to life, but the jubilations of the Vestrit family are cut short when it is revealed that the ship will pass into the ownership of Kyle Haven, the husband of Epheron's eldest daughter, rather than to his younger daughter Althea. Furious at this betrayal, Althea vows not to rest until the Vivacia belongs to her again. This resolve only hardens when Kyle decides to use the Vivacia to carry slaves, to the horror of his family.

Meanwhile, an unusually eloquent and cultured pirate captain named Kennit schemes to become King of the Pirate Isles. His plotting involves liberating slaver ships, winning the hearts and minds of the people...and finding and capturing a liveship.

Ship of Magic is the first novel in the Liveship Traders trilogy, which takes place in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy but in the lands to the south. There's an almost completely new cast and setting (one major Farseer character does show up in disguise), with most of the action taking place on ships or in dingy port towns. This shift to a nautical setting is refreshing and makes for a very different-feeling novel to the previous books.

The structure of the book also changes. Farseer was told in a first person point-of-view from FitzChivalry Farseer, but The Liveship Traders is told from a rotating POV structure. The major characters are Kennit, Althea, her mother Ronica, sister Keffria, niece Malta and nephew Wintrow, but other POV characters include the Vivacia herself, the beached, mad liveship Paragon and Brashen, another crewman on the Vivacia. This immediately makes for a grander, more epic story as the author moves between different characters.
Whilst this loses the immediacy of the Farseer books and the deep connection with Fitz, it does allow Hobb to cover the story from more angles and explain things more clearly rather than filtering all of the exposition and information through Fitz alone. It's a good move, justifying the novel's impressive page count (over 870 pages in paperback) rather more convincingly than the Farseer books, which felt rather padded out to reach such lengths.

Indeed, although I've only to date read Hobb's first six novels, Ship of Magic is easily the best. The story is epic, but it feels tight with naturalistic character development of a large cast and events proceed at a steady clip. Hobb's main skill has always been in the development of a convincing emotional connection to the characters and that skill is in impressive form here. We share Althea's frustration and betrayal, Wintrow's shock and hurt at his relationship with his father Kyle and the casual betrayal of his calling, Ronica's uneasy dealings with the Rain Wild Traders as she tries to protect her family's holdings and Kennit's ambitions as he strives to make his people more than what they are.

Kennit is easily Hobb's most fascinating character to date. He is greedy, selfish and arrogant, but he also has a fast-moving intelligence and wit and altruistic outcomes see to flow from his self-centred acts. Kennit's ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances on the fly and ensure that he always comes out on top is impressive. Kennit clearly has negative characteristics, but it's not entirely clear in Ship of Magic if he is supposed to be a villain. Indeed, it is Kyle Haven who more readily fulfils that role in this book.

Ship of Magic (*****) is an outstanding fantasy novel, and an impressive return to form after the disappointing slog that was Assassin's Quest. The book moves with pace and vigour despite its length, the cast of characters is fascinating, the worldbuilding subtle but convincing, the background politics intriguing and the book moves with tremendous purpose. The ending will leave you eager to read the next book, The Mad Ship, immediately. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 14 October 2016

RICK AND MORTY arrives on Netflix UK

Adult Swim's hit animated series Rick and Morty has arrived in the UK thanks to Netflix.

This animated show - co-created by Darn Harmon of Community and HarmonQuest fame - starts off as a bemused and demented homage to Back to the Future, with the Doc Brown-esque Rick and the Marty McFly-riffing Morty teaming up using advanced science to solve problems. However, the similarities pretty much end there. Rick is a high-functioning alcoholic with a detached, almost amoral attitude. Marty is a 14-year-old kid who starts off being described as having learning difficulties, but later episodes establish him as a smart and resourceful kid who grows increasingly impatient with Rick's activities.

The show is anarchic and crazy, moving between stories set on Earth or in Morty's school and bonkers adventures set in outer space or in parallel universes. The series is funny and frequently gross, and occasionally does the South Park thing of suddenly becoming dramatically intense and uncomfortable as it tries to make a satirical point stick. The Week has a good assessment of the show here.

With an accomplished voice cast and some stunning visuals, Rick and Morty is an underrated and highly watchable gem. Season 1 is available on the UK version of Netflix now and Season 2 will apparently follow in the next few weeks. Season 3 is due to start airing in the US in December.

Luke Cage: Season 1

Harlem, New York. Following events in Hell's Kitchen, Luke Cage is laying low. He has two jobs, working in a barbershop by day and in a kitchen by night. A series of chance events lead to the murder of a friend and mentor, so Luke Cage reluctantly breaks out his crime-fighting skills to avenge his friend and find his own identity.

Luke Cage is the third of a planned six-series collaboration between Marvel and Netflix, following on from Daredevil and Jessica Jones and running ahead of Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders, which will see the heroes from the first four series (it doesn't seem that The Punisher, which was a late addition to the project, will cross over in the same way) join forces against a mutual threat. It's definitely one of the most ambitious TV projects that has been mounted in many years.

As a project it's been mostly successful: the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones were excellent, with brilliant acting and strongly-defined villains and thematic elements. The second season of Daredevil, whilst still very watchable, was a little bit more incoherent and lacked a decent enemy. In particular, its pacing was a big problem and the series was drawn out to a slow and meandering ending.

Luke Cage, unfortunately, is weaker still and for many of the same reasons: the story is far too thin to support 13 episodes (it should have been 6 episodes, or maybe 8 tops), the "big bad" of the season is monumentally disappointing and the show's thematic ambitions become muddled to the point where it's impossible to work out what the show is trying to say.

Backing up, the show has plenty of good points. The first half or so of the season is pretty tight, with Luke Cage (Mike Colter reprising the role from Jessica Jones) going up against local gangster Cottonmouth (House of Cards's Mahershala Ali) after his mentor Pop (The Wire's Frankie Fason) is accidentally killed in a shoot-out. At the same time, local cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is investigating Cottonmouth's criminal activities and his relationship with his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard). There's a nice, tangled-up moral mess to the situation, with Cottonmouth genuinely respecting Pop and losing it after a subordinate kills him unintentionally.

Mid-season things switch up, with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson reprising the same role from both Daredevil and Luke Cage) joining Team Cage. Cottonmouth's drug supplier Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) then takes over as the main villain after he gets annoyed with Cottonmouth failing to deal with Cage and takes matters into his own hands. It's at this point that the show goes off the rails.

Cottonmouth is an interesting villain, well-played by Ali and featuring a genuine degree of nuance. Diamondback is not. He's a dull thug, played with a near William Shatner level of hamminess by Harvey. The character is deeply boring and when he shows up in a special suit in the final episode to fight Luke Cage, it's unintentionally hilarious. By this point the show has also run out of ideas so it spends three episodes dwelling on the possibility that Luke Cage might die (hint: he doesn't) and two on a deeply tedious hostage situation that feels designed to spin wheels rather than tell a story or develop character.

The show also has a pretty incoherent attitude to format and structure. Most episodes don't have a cold open, but then several do for no real reason. Several episodes feature flashbacks immediately before the information in them become relevant in the present day, which feels lazy and obvious. However, the prison flashback episode is a big winner since it has structure and pacing and tells a complete story in 50 minutes, which none of the other episodes manage.

There are some other bright spots: Misty Knight's police bosses are obstructionist but never stupid, and expertly avoid being cliches. Alfre Woodard is excellent throughout the season, even when her plot turns are less than convincing. The music is brilliant (although Method Man's cameo as himself is completely bizarre).

But these good points only make the show watchable, never exceptional. The tone of the series is all over the place. One moment it feels like the show is making a serious point riffing off the Black Lives Matter movement and the problem of race relations in modern America, but then it runs scared from the idea (in one incongruous moment a white police officer explains his decades-long history of policing in Harlem in detail to make it clear he's not racist). It spends a lot of the time trying to stay "grounded" but then breaks out bazookas and super-powered suits that would have looked cheap on Agents of SHIELD. The police's attitude to Luke Cage also changes at random between episodes, veering from them trying to hunt him down like a dog after being framed as a cop-killer and being okay with them. It's also great to see Claire being given a lot more to do, but it's then a bit odd to see her being reduced to a damsel in distress in several scenes and her potential romance with Luke Cage feels shoehorned into the story for no real reason.

There is a fair bit to enjoy about Luke Cage (***) such as the performances, music and atmosphere, but the pacing is poor, the ultimate villain is deeply boring and the show can never quite make its mind up about what it's trying to say or do. The show is available to watch now on Netflix.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Release date set for Obsidian's TYRANNY

Obsidian Entertainment and Paradox Interactive have joined forces to create a new, old-school CRPG.

Tyranny is set in a world where the traditional battle between good and evil has taken place...and evil has won. The armies of Kyros the Overlord, helped by the powerful Fatebinders, have been victorious and are now restoring order to the world and ensuring the conquered nations know their place. You play a Fatebinder and can choose to enforce Kyros's will or seek to thwart it for your own purposes.

Tyranny uses an upgraded version of the Pillars of Eternity engine and has been completely funded by Paradox (without the need for a Kickstarter). The more robust funding and the fact that the game engine was already in place allowed Obsidian to both make the game much more quickly (Pillars of Eternity was only released eighteen months ago) and focus much more on character, writing and story. Obsidian have also sought to make the game far more reactive to the choices you make in the narrative, making it more akin to the excellent Planescape: Torment (although that has its own, more direct spiritual successor out in a few months from inXile, Torment: Tides of Numenera).

Tyranny has snuck in under the radar a bit, without the full glare of monthly updates and information that Pillars of Eternity got, but it still looks like a classic, interesting and atypical CRPG from one of the best studios in the business. I'll be checking it out.

The game will be released on 10 November, which is less than a month away.

New STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE trailer released

Lucasfilm and Disney have released another full trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One, the new stand-alone prequel movie to the events of A New Hope.

The new trailer expands further on the central storyline: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is recruited by the Rebel Alliance when they learn that the Empire has been working on a powerful new space station for twenty years. They discover that Erso's father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is the designer of the station's energy weapon and may know of a weakness. Erso forms an elite infiltration and retrieval squad consisting of blind spiritual warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), expert pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), heavy weapons expert Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), former Onderon rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), reprogrammed Imperial assassin droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) amd Rebel handler Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Their mission is to sneak into the construction site of the space station and retrieve its plans. Needless to say, things soon go wrong and Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is soon on their trail for his boss, an apparently mostly off-screen Darth Vader (James Earl Jones).

The trailer gives us some pretty cool new visuals, including our first proper look at Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso and our first (very brief) glimpse of Y-wings and AT-STs in the movie.

Galen Erso and his daughter Jyn, when she is a young girl. From their ages and the plot of the tie-in novel Catalyst: A Rogue One Story, this scene takes place about 20-23 years before the events of Rogue One, during the closing stages of the Clone Wars.

An Imperial-clas Star Destroyer hanging out over the planet Jedha.

Galen Erso at an Imperial facility, where he is presumably working on the Death Star's superlaser weapon.

Director Krennic looking villainous.

The Death Star orbiting the planet Scarif, where it is in the final stages of completion.

Bodhi Rook comes up with the "Rogue One" designation for the infiltration squad.

TIE fighters doing a flyby of the Death Star.

The Rebels learn about the Death Star and collectively freak out.

AT-STs are deployed to help detain the Rogue One squad.

Dudes hanging out, possibly on Jedha.

Chirrut Imwe schooling some stormtroopers with his marksmanship (he's blind but can apparently sense the location of living beings through a unique Force connection, although he's not a Jedi and does not use a lightsabre).

Rebel Alliance X-wings attack an Imperial space station above Scarif. I suspect this is during the extraction of the Rogue One team, after the Death Star has departed.

This X-wing pilot looks vexed.

X-wings continue the attack, taking out laser turrets on the station. The Rebel fleet has hyperspaced in behind them, with both Rebel Transports and Nebulon-B frigates visible. There might be a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser in the fleet and there's certainly Mon Calamari in the Rebel base, which will get timeline fans arguing about things (the assumption being that the Mon Calamari didn't join the Rebellion until after The Empire Strikes Back, given the lack of Star Cruisers in the fleet in that film).

Stormtroopers getting blown up. Must be Friday.

The planet Jedha has a very bad day.

Darth Vader turns up for a quiet word with Director Krennic.

Rebel U-wings attempt to extract the Rogue One team from Scarif. The big walkers aren't actually AT-ATs but cargo walkers adapted for defence. It's possible that this film gives the Empire the idea of converting them into dedicated war machines.

Cassian Andor, Jyn Erso and K-2SO sneak into an Imperial base, presumably on Scarif.

The all-important title card.

Star Wars: Rogue One (or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) will be released worldwide on 16 December.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Netflix acquires international TV rights to THE EXPANSE

In a surprise move, Netflix have acquired global TV distribution rights to SyFy's The Expanse. The exceptions are the USA, where the show continues to air on SyFy; Canada, where it airs on SPACE; and New Zealand, where another distributor has the rights. Netflix will begin streaming Season 1 of The Expanse on 3 November.

The news is surprising as a previous deal with Amazon had been mooted, with it sounding like a done deal. Clearly Netflix put up a superior offer to acquire the show, which has had a patchy international distribution pattern to date.

This is a canny move by Netflix to enhance their space opera programming. Netflix recently acquired the rights to all six Star Trek TV series outside of the US and will show the seventh, Star Trek: Discovery, starting in May 2017.

Meanwhile, Daniel Abraham, co-author of The Expanse novels (alongside Ty Franck, with both writing as James S.A. Corey), has posted an image from Season 2 showing fan-favourite new character Bobbi Draper in her power armour on the surface of Mars.

Season 2 of The Expanse is expected to air in early 2017. The sixth Expanse novel, Babylon's Ashes, is released next month.