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.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

BBC and Amazon join forces on GOOD OMENS TV series

The classic fantasy novel Good Omens, co-written by Neil Gaiman and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, is being brought to television as a co-production between the BBC and Amazon Studios, under the supervision of Narrativia, the production company set up by Pratchett before his death.

Gaiman will write the series and serve as executive produce and showrunner. Caroline Skinner and Chris Sussman will produce for the BBC and Rob Wilkins and Rod Brown for Narrativa. The series will consist of six hour-long episodes and will debut on the BBC and Amazon Prime in 2018.

The novel, originally published in 1990, tells the story of the Apocalypse, with the forces of good and evil preparing for the final showdown with Earth caught in the middle. However, both angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley have gotten used to life on Earth and decide to join forces to halt the Apocalypse. This means tracking down the Antichrist, who has gone missing. Much confusion and hilarity results.

Obsidian begins pre-announcing PILLARS OF ETERNITY II

Teasing announcements or pre-announcing things before announcing them or just plain announcing the announcement all seem to be the new thing, slightly tiresomely. The latest company getting in on the act is Obsidian Entertainment, who have begun pre-announcing Pillars of Eternity II, the sequel to their highly successful, Kickstarted 2015 computer roleplaying game.

Obsidian confirmed that Pillars of Eternity II was in development shortly after the game and it's two-part expansion, The White March, were released. However, that didn't officially constitute an announcement. They've now teased the game with a quote from the character Eder and some secret symbols in the game's fictional language. Sigh.

Pillars of Eternity II will, I strongly suspect, be an isometric, old-skool RPG like its predecessor. It's unknown if this game will be crowdfunded or not at this time. Their last game, the excellent Tyranny, was funded by a publisher, Paradox, so it'll be interesting to see which way they go this time.

I got about 20 hours into Pillars of Eternity (about halfway through the game) before I got a bit bored of it. I need to get back and finish it off. Unfortunately, the game suffered from being described as a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate but featured inferior combat and a less-interesting story, both a problem when it's very easy to just go and play the updated version of Baldur's Gate instead. Tyranny showed more originality and flair, so hopefully Pillars II will be closer to that level of quality than the first game.

Guillermo Del Toro teases new HELLBOY movie

Guillermo Del Toro has confirmed via Twitter that he is holding active talks with actor Ron Perlman and writer Mike Mignola on the possibility of a third Hellboy movie.

The news comes after Del Toro held a poll on Twitter asking for fans to tweet their support. With over 100,000 positive responses, he agreed to hold talks with Perlman and Mignola on the possibility.

The original Hellboy movie was released in 2004 and was a modest financial success, although it had a strong critical reception. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, released in 2008, was a much bigger box office success. Del Toro chose not to proceed with a sequel, instead directing Pacific Rim (2013), Crimson Peak (2015) and the forthcoming The Shape of Water (2017), as well as producing the TV series The Strain and the Pacific Rim sequel, Uprising, due in early 2018.

The decision to proceed with a further Hellboy movie may have been spurred by Perlman saying he'd be too old to play the role in a few more years, along with renewed fan interest and Mignola bringing the comic series out of retirement a few years ago.

Del Toro has said that a new Hellboy movie would require a budget of around $120 million and this may be difficult to finance, but clearly he thinks there is a good chance it may happen.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

James Frain cast as Sarek in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

British actor James Frain has joined the cast of Star Trek: Discovery as Ambassador Sarek, Spock's father. The role of Sarek was previously played by Mark Lenard in The Original Series, The Animated SeriesThe Next Generation and four of the movies, whilst Ben Cross played the role in the 2009 movie Star Trek.

Frain has become a familiar face in genre television, having played Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, Franklin Mott in True Blood, Azrael on Gotham and Eric Renard on Grimm. He currently plays the recurring role of assassin Ferdinand on Orphan Black, which returns for its final season in April. His past credits include Sleepy Hollow, The Tunnel, True Detective, InvasionThe Mentalist, Fringe and The White Queen.

The decision to cast Frain as Sarek is interesting for several reasons. Discovery, which is set about ten years before The Original Series, had previously been billed as more of a stand-alone story which would explore a conflict mentioned in the original series but not expanded upon, and the prospect for crossovers with The Original Series seemed unlikely. It's also interesting that the writers have chosen to recast the role rather than use Ben Cross again. Discovery is set in the original "Prime" timeline rather than the "Abramsverse" (or "Kelvin timeline") of the new movies, so it might be that this was a deliberate decision not to confuse the two franchises, opening the confusing possibility that we may get cameos by Kirk, Spock etc later on with yet more recast actors. Also, since Paramount own the movie rights to Star Trek and CBS the TV rights, there may be legal constraints on using the same actors in both projects.

After many delays, Star Trek: Discovery starts filming next week in Toronto. It will debut on CBS in May. Sonequa Martin-Grene stars as Lt. Commander "Number One" Rainsford, with Doug Jones as Lt. Saru and Anthony Rapp as Lt. Stamets, all crewmembers on the USS Discovery.

XCOM 2 to get revamped strategic layer

Firaxis have announced that their strategy game XCOM 2 is to get a revamped strategic layer courtesy of modders. The officially-sanctioned and authorised Long War 2 mod will allow players to take direct command of all the rebel cells on Earth, organising military strikes and recruiting new personnel directly.

This will make for a much more strategically involving game and makes contacting new rebel cells far more important than it was previously. It also means that everyone is involved in the fight against alien occupation rather than just your single group on board the Avenger. The mod will also introduce the Technical, a new soldier class who specialises in rocket launchers and flamethrowers, and Coilguns, a new weapons class that fits between the Mag Weapon and Beam Weapon layers. The mod will be released in the next few months on PC.

Based on the cliffhanger ending to XCOM 2, it is likely that we will see an XCOM 3 around 2019. Meanwhile, the original creator of the X-COM franchise, Julian Gollop, is developing a similar strategy game called Phoenix Point for release in 2018.

Friday, 13 January 2017

TWIN PEAKS relaunch gets an airdate

Twin Peaks is returning to TV screens on 21 May, after a gap of more than a quarter of a century. Showtime will air 18 new episodes picking up on the events in the mysterious town of Twin Peaks, Washington.

The new season has been completely written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, who created the original series, and has been completely directed by Lynch. This is Lynch's first dramatic, scripted project since the movie Inland Empire in 2006: his only projects since then have been the short documentary Idem Paris (2013) and the music video "Came Back Hunted" for Nine Inch Nails (2013). Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor in fact has a guest role in the new Twin Peaks, alongside Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. Original composer Angelo Badalamenti, who composed the show's infamous haunting theme music, is also returning.

The original show ran for two seasons and 30 episodes from April 1990 to June 1991. It opened with the murder of Laura Palmer, a young girl in the town of Twin Peaks, and FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called in to help investigate the crime. However, what initially appears to be a mundane if horrific crime rapidly expands to incorporate bizarre spirits and an other-dimensional location known as the Black Lodge. Cooper helps solve the crime - and other related cases in the town - by interpreting his dreams and communing with the spirit of Laura Palmer.

The first season was a titanic critical and commercial success, with massive ratings and critical acclaim, as well as appreciation for its tightly-serialised storytelling (highly unusual in 1990, when most shows were episodic with no long-running storylines). The second season, mostly helmed by other writers as Lynch and Frost took a back seat, was considerably less well-received, especially after the resolution of the Laura Palmer murder mystery halfway through the season and relatively few answers being given to the show's many questions. However, the ending to the season was better-received, especially the revelation that the Palmer murder was setting in motion a much bigger and darker storyline. Sadly, this was not enough to save the series from cancellation.

The series was, arguably, the first harbinger of today's big watercooler shows, and its mix of critical and commercial acclaim gradually giving way to disappointment would later be replicated in both The X-Files (which inherited David Duchovny, one of Twin Peaks' recurring castmembers and who is returning for the new show) and Lost. David Lynch himself frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the ending of the series and resurrected the franchise in 1992 for a prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me, which fills in Laura Palmer's backstory and hints at Agent Cooper's fate after the show's cliffhanger ending, as well as having David Bowie show up for no discernible reason. The movie was slated and bombed at the box office, but has seen a positive critical reassessment in more recent years.

Many of the surviving castmembers from the original series return, most crucially Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper. The 25-year gap since the original series will be acknowledged and will play a key plot point (helped by the ghost of Laura Palmer saying "See you in 25 years" in the final episode), and the Fire Walk With Me prequel movie will be considered canonical. Presumably the series will explain what happened to Cooper after the cliffhanger ending to the show's final episode, which appeared to show Cooper possessed by the murderous entity "Bob".

Twin Peaks has been a huge influence on everything from the aforementioned X-Files and Lost to more recent fare like Stranger Things and the Alan Wake video games.

Showtime have described the show as "the pure heroin version of David Lynch", which is both intriguing and terrifying. Whether the new Twin Peaks can resurrect the same kind of power as the original show remains to be seen, but we'll find out in May when it airs in the US and on Sky in the UK.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

The Storm King has been defeated, his army of Norns driven off and peace returned to the lands of Osten Ard. King Seoman and Queen Miriamele have taken the throne in the Hayholt and a new age of peace beckons. But for Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard the war is not entirely over. Along with the famed warrior Sludig, Isgrimnur has been given command of an army with orders to pursue the fleeing Norns back to Stormspike and ensure they are destroyed forever.

The Heart of What Was Lost acts as a bridge between the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams and its upcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The first novel in that trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, will be released in June 2017. This book is useful for laying some groundwork for that trilogy and wrapping up some loose ends from the earlier series that Williams was unable to address at the time.

The Heart of What Was Lost is short, focused, lean and mean. Just 200 pages long in hardcover, making it barely a short story by the author's normal standards, it moves with pace and energy. As a war story it has quite a bit of action, but also with some strong moments of character-building as characters reflect on what is going on.

The book is related from three different points of view. Porto is an ordinary soldier in Isgrimnur's army who yearns for an end to the war so he can go home, but is distracted when he befriends a terrified younger fellow soldier and tries to keep him alive. Isgrimnur, a returning character from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is the gruff general and old warrior, still charismatic and skilled at warfare but hurting from the death of his son in To Green Angel Tower. Viyeki is a Builder, one of the main orders of Norn society, tasked with maintaining walls and fortifications, and the first Norn POV character in the series.

This POV rotation is effective, although Porto's contribution to the story is limited. I suspect Porto, or maybe his offspring, will play a role in the upcoming trilogy otherwise I can't see much reason for him being in this book. Still, he provides an interesting ground's eye view on the battles. Isgrimnur is the same world-weary warrior we met in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, but fleshed out as he grapples with the fall-out of his son's death. Williams is successful in making Isgrimnur's grief raw and convincing, given he last wrote for the character some twenty-three years earlier. The most successful character is Viyeki, who gives us a much-needed "bad guy" perspective on events. Although the first trilogy successfully established why the undead Ineluki wanted to destroy the world, it was less clear on why the Norns would support him. This book goes much deeper into their motivations, backstory and histories, fleshing out an under-explored area of the original trilogy's worldbuilding.

The story is short, mostly concerned with moral concerns as Isgrimnur ponders the wisdom of trying to make the Norns extinct and the Norns' battle for survival and hope to leave something for future generations to build upon. But it is powerfully and effectively told. Williams slips back into Osten Ard like he's never been away, and the novel feels weightier than it could have been, as the author slips extra moments of worldbuilding and foreshadowing for the future books into the narrative. There's also some nice misdirection. At one point the Norns outline a plan which feels almost like it could be the plot synopsis for the next trilogy, but this is then abruptly undercut when a major character dies and the plot takes an unexpected 90 degree turn onto a different path. Ultimately, this makes the book more self-contained than I was expecting. Certainly there is pipe-laying for The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, but it's done very subtly.

The Heart of What Was Lost (****) is not just an effective scene-setter and palate-cleanser for the new trilogy, but a strong self-contained story in its own right, with more twists and turns than you might expect for its short length. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

HALF-LIFE 3 not in development at Valve

A new expose undertaken by Game Informer has concluded that Valve are not developing Half-Life 3, even on the backburner, at present. This contradicts Valve's position, taken since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007, that the next Half-Life game remains a work-in-progress.

To rewind, Valve released the original Half-Life back in 1998 to immense critical acclaim. A first-person shooter noted for strong combat and total immersion in the game's viewpoint character, Gordon Freeman, the game sold over 10 million copies and completely redefined the first-person shooter genre. Two expansions, Opposing Force and Blue Shift, followed in 1999 and 2001. Opposing Force launched the career of Gearbox, themselves now one of the biggest FPS developers in the industry for their Borderlands series.

Half-Life 2 was released in 2004 to even greater acclaim and sales. It was praised for its graphics and its pioneering use of physics technology. More importantly, the game launched the Steam digital distribution platform which is now the leading online retail store for PC games with over 125 million users.

Unhappy with the six-year wait between the two games, Valve decided to split the next Half-Life game into three distinct episodes. Half-Life 2: Episode One was released in 2006 and was followed by Episode Two in late 2007, which infamously ended on a massive cliffhanger involving the death of a major supporting character. Episode Three, it was speculated, would be released in 2009. Valve also improved their game catalogue by releasing Episode Two alongside two other games in the "Orange Box" collection: Team Fortress 2, a colourful and fun multiplayer shooter, and Portal, a sophisticated puzzle game using portals, physics and momentum to solve puzzles in a story with a very dark sense of humour and a break-out villain character, the evil computer GLADOS. Portal also took place in the Half-Life universe and fans had fun spotting the Easter eggs linking up the two storylines.

Portal 2 was released in 2011 and was a massive success. A far larger, funnier and more sophisticated game than its forebear, it gained immense acclaim. It also had much closer ties to the Half-Life franchise, including some elements that seemed to be helping set up Episode Three.

Since 2011 there has been almost blanket radio silence from Valve on the status of the Half-Life franchise, except for rumours that Episode Three was dead and the next game would be a full-blown Half-Life 3. Valve has since released Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012), Dota 2 (2013) and Portal VR spin-off The Lab (2016) but no more games, instead focusing on online content for Team Fortress 2 and experimenting with new hardware, particularly virtual reality.

Game Informer's investigation relies on an interview with an insider at Valve. According to them, the game never gained much traction due to Valve's way of working, where developers work on projects that they like and then take prototypes to senior management to approve and take to the next level. For whatever reason, Valve's senior management (and its overall boss, Gabe Newell) have never formally approved a Half-Life 3. Apparently some of the ideas and prototypes were pretty wild, including an real-time strategy game spin-off and a live-action movie with branching storylines based on player choice. It does look like that Episode Three did get off the ground after Episode Two's completion, but it was canned pretty quickly, possibly in favour of Portal 2, and the momentum was never regained.

Valve has occasionally released concept art for Half-Life 3, including this image of the Borealis, a ship which was heavily referenced in both Episode Two and Portal 2.

The idea that the Half-Life franchise may be dead was given greater credence when Viktor Antonov, the main designer of Half-Life 2 and its episodes, left Valve for Arkane, where he became lead designer on Dishonored and Dishonored 2. However, even more damaging was the departure of Marc Laidlaw last year. Laidlaw was the main writer on Half-Life and its sequel, as well as the episodes. His departure is a much bigger blow, since it was his influence that led to the franchise's signature laidback, subtle and environmental storytelling, as well as its nods to pulp SF.

Half-Life 3 is a difficult project to take on at this point. Gabe Newell seems to want a game that will redefine the FPS genre as the first two titles did with new ideas and technology, but no-one seems really to have come up with a viable idea. In addition, the Half-Life franchise may have sold over 25 million copies but its console ports have never been more than modestly successful, whilst a new game would also have to appeal to console gamers. The direction of FPS games on console has been to lowest-common denominator, cut scene-heavy and violence-focused titles. That's not to say that a smarter, more thoughtful FPS could not be successful (arguably the Fallout series has moved away from being RPGs to narrative and conversation-heavy FPS games instead), but the project has to be seen as being risky from a commercial POV.

On the other hand, there is no way that a new Half-Life game from Valve would bomb. It'd be a big success regardless of the mechanics it employed. The huge cliffhanger ending of Episode Two, not to mention the numerous storyline nods from Portal and Portal 2, have also set up expectations and questions that Valve should really answer, if not in a new game than perhaps in a novel or comic.

The one thing that might resurrect the franchise? A movie. Star Wars and Star Trek producer and director J.J. Abrams is a massive fan of the Half-Life and Portal games and recently confirmed that his company, Bad Robot, is developing movies set in both universes, although it sounds like the Portal movie will happen first. Whether Abrams would direct or just produce remains to be seen. But if something lights a fire under the franchise and gets a new Half-Life game going again, this might be it.

I Have No PC And I Must Scream

Well, not quite. Two days ago, after six years of leal service, my trusty and faithful desktop PC decided to say farewell to this mortal coil by suffering a Catastrophic Liquid Cooling Failure, which rapidly turned into an Overheating Processor Core Event and then a Total System Kaboom.

Fortunately, I long ago learned (from Steven Erikson's infamous "losing half of first of draft of Memories of Ice" incident, among others) to have an external hard drive hooked up and to back up everything I'm working on, so I didn't lose any vital documents or files. But it is certainly an inconvenience.

Thanks to the generosity of my friends, I have a borrowed laptop so normal blogging service will not be interrupted, but anything approaching modern gaming is out the window for a few months until I can get a new desktop. Hopefully this will also result in more time for reading.