Archive for November, 2011

The Gildar Rift

November 28, 2011 3 comments

Sarah Cawkwell’s debut novel, The Gildar Rift has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the Warhammer 40,0001 books, as the author’s previous short stories (which can be found regularly in the e-zine Hammer and Bolter ) have been very well received. Cawkwell’s style combines the over-the-top elements of the popular sci-fi setting with character driven plot and a keen eye on this heavily baroque world. This is the sort of thing that fans of Black Library2 books like a lot; the 40K fandom likes it’s big, power armoured super-humans to be actual people you care about, rather than just blobs of male-power fantasy.

So it comes as no surprise that, The Gildar Rift is pretty damned good. It’s another one of those Space Marine Battles3 stories, this time focusing on a conflict near the titular Gildar Rift, an unstable region of space prone to raids by Demon-worshipping space pirates known as The Red Corsairs. Defending this region of space are the Silver Skulls who are religious and steadfast space-knights, who rely on superstition for guidance. (Yes, that’s right. Demonic pirates in power armour in space. Wielding chain-saw swords. Fighting knights in shining power armour. In space. Who also wield chain-saw swords. This is why people love this setting so much).

Gildar Rift features Huron Blackheart, who is one of the more interesting villiains of the setting

The action splits three ways; we get starship battles, gritty land war and internal conflict from both factions. The starship battles are glorious, I do enjoy reading about big things going boom and Cawkwell4 mixes the vastness of space with the sort of edge-of-your-seat action usually reserved for the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean. The ground war element is very dynamic; plots and counter plans on both sides mean that the action is constantly rolling, and each leads to a dramatic conflict, rather than simply one long drawn-out fight. This gives us time to care about the heroes, adding weight to the narrative.

Running through these scenes of war are two subplots that give us stronger insight into both sides. The bad-guys get a tale of treachery and deceit, punctuated by evil cackles and barking-mad monologuing. Meanwhile, the heroes get a rather touching tale of hi-tech heresy and the search for one’s place in the universe.

The book is also filled with some lovely touches to the setting. From a subtle shout-outs to fans to pointed observations on the domestic side of the world, this book is a stunning debut, and also a good entry point for those looking to get into Black Library books.

1: Yes, it’s another review featuring 40K. You may have gathered by now, what with the retro-sci-fi game I’m creating, the Doctor Who love and the reviews of 40K books that I love British Sci-Fi.
2: The Black Library is the name of the book publishing arm of Games Workshop. Over the years, it’s nurtured a goodly amount of British genre writing talent, and has helped spawn a number of other British genre publishers. Or to put it another way, well done Black Library, keep up the good work.
3: I reviewed Nick Kyme’s Fall of Damnos a while ago.
4: I’m only aware of a handful of women who’ve written for the Black Library, and by utter coincidence, I’ve met two of them (Sarah Cawkwell and Debbie Gallagher) at LARP events. Both women tried to kill me, but that’s fair enough, people are always trying to kill me at LARP events. It’s a talent of mine.

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Marvel grants us Annihilation

November 24, 2011 1 comment

One of the endearing things about the Marvel Comics Universe is its scale. Not only is everything stitched together so tightly if Captain America waggles his winged helmet somewhere in the Amazon then it’d probably cause a tsunami in Tokyo, but also because this sort of attention to detail applies not only to Earth, but to the entire universe.

One excellent example of this is Marvel’s epic Annihilation series. Various rows of dominos set-up in previous comic books1 get knocked down all at once, in what can be only described as epic space opera. No real knowledge of the Marvel comics are required to enjoy Annihilation, but it helps if you know who the likes of the Silver Surfer, Thanos2 and Galactus are. Don’t expect to see Marvel heroes such as The Hulk or Iron Man here, this gig is strictly for the characters who work in space, and can cope with planet sized disasters.

Annihilation is a war story on an inter-galactic scale, so the plot is anything but straight forward, but here goes: Alien bug monster Annhilus decides that his own domain, the so-called ‘Negative Universe’ could do with some expanding, and thus decides to invade normal reality, with a space fleet composing of billions of horrible bug-eyed monsters. At the same time, Thanos3, intergalactic badass, is aiming to misbehave again, and cause mayhem and devastation.

This giant purple planet eater is called Galactus. He ends worlds. And wears purple pants.

Caught up amidst this apocalyptic nightmare are entire world’s worth of innocent lives and a small band of unlikely heroes. What’s fun about Annihilation is that some of the main protagonists are out and out villains, whilst others are good men doing bad jobs, or well meaning types in way over their head. We get a real sense of depth here, and the vibe that the galaxy is indeed a big place full of people. It’s a war story, pretty much, and focuses mostly of the efforts of the heroic few against impossible odds. Like all good war stories do.

It’s worth noting that Annihilation is written by multiple authors, and comes in multiple books. Though none if it is below par, the parts I enjoyed the most tended to be written by either Keith Giffen or comic book duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Abnett and Lanning wrote the sequel to this series, Annihilation : Conquest, which in turn lead to a reboot of the Guardians of The Galaxy series, which is also worth a look, but is more a book about a team of super-heroes than massive spaceships crashing into other big things.

If you don’t mind having super-heroes in your comic books, and you like big space battles, keep an eye out for the Annihilation series. It’s a pretty big story, but a very well realised one.

1: They are tonnes of stories produced by Marvel, and the company proudly boasts to have produced the largest shared world in the world. This means that stories like this, that bring together decades of back story can be massive amounts of fun. The trick is to do this without alienating new readers, which the Annhilation series does incredibly well, without boring existing fans with stuff they already know. Marvel understands that most people will dive in and out of their books, and have become good at not bogging down stories in continuity, whilst at the same time keeping the world consistent and strong.

2: Now, I’d be the first to admit that I tend to favour Marvel over DC, but in this case, Marvel wins, no contest. The DC equivalent of Thanos is Darkseid. Whilst both look quite similar, and both are cosmic level bad asses. The thing is, Darkseid’s schtick is that he wishes to suppress all free will. Thanos, on the other hand, wants to end everything. The entire cosmos. And why? So he can court the personification of Death. That’s right, the dude is in love with Death itself (who rarely appears as a cute goth girl, just so you know).

3: Another thing I like about Thanos is the fact that he’s typically ran as an incredibly savvy villain who always has a back-up plan in case one of the plans fails. (A feature TV Tropes calls The Xanatos Gambit. ) He always wins in some way, and every plan he has to destroy all things always ends in the cosmos losing something vital (though they may go unnoticed.)

Categories: Comic Books, Reviews Tags:

Oooh, Shock Treatment…

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Did you know that The Rocky Horror Picture Show1 had a sequel? Are you now wondering why you’ve never seen or heard about it? Perhaps, you suspect, there’s a reason this movie has been buried? Well, curious chap that I am and buoyed by a healthy sense of curiousity, I set out to investigate Shock Treatment.

Looking back, the fact that my local DVD merchant thrust the movie into my hand for no charge, with a slightly haunted expression should have been a sign, I suppose. Shock Treatment is one of those ‘sort of sequels’. Some of the characters are meant to be the same, but really there’s little to link one movie to the other, the term sequel in this case really meaning ‘by the same people who brought that thing you enjoyed’.

The premise is fairly straight forward; Brad and Janet, the couple from Rocky Horror are having marital problems, and show in an effort to fix their relationship, end up mired in a bizarre reality TV show. Now, what this movie almost becomes is a precursor to films like the The Truman Show. There is so much potential for it to be fantastic commentary on the rise of reality TV, on the perils of fame and the self-help industry. What we get instead is a disjointed mess. Many of the individual elements of the production work fantastically well. For example the cast features some great talent2 such as Jessica Harper and a surprisingly sinister Rik Mayall. Sadly, it fails to be greater or even equal the sum of it’s parts.

As visually arresting as it's sibling, but fails to be as charming.

Like its older, much better known sibling, it has some ace songs. Little Black Dress and Bitchin’ in the Kitchen are just two amidst a great selection of fun tunes this movie has, but both suffer from not being terribly well presented. Shock Treatment feels rushed and bitty, and makes you suspect that the producers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show just got lucky the first time.

It’s a real shame because Shock Treatment could be something much better than it is. I’d love to see it re-imagined and re-made, with a slightly re-worked story and better produced tunes. As it is, it deserves its place in the bargain basement bin. If you plan on hosting a ‘terrible movie night’, give this one a go, as it’s wacky and odd enough to entertain a room full of heckling drunks. But apart from that, isn’t really worth your time.

1: Often, when geeks talked about Rocky Horror, someone quotes the TV series spaced, which describes Rocky as “boil in the bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and 1st year drama students…”. I don’t entirely agree with this. Rocky Horror fandom is primordial cos-play, and we have moved on from dressing up like Riff-Raff to dressing up as anything from any movie. This is no bad thing, but is one of the reasons why the movie is ageing so badly. Dress-up is no longer as remarkable as it once was.

2: And also, sadly, Barry Humphries. AKA Dame Edna. Who has never been funny.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Doctor Who, the other movies

November 17, 2011 6 comments

With all this talk of a potential new Doctor Who Movie, I think it’s time to talk about the Timelord’s previous trips to the big screen. By which I don’t mean the 1996 TV movie featuring Paul McGann. I mean the big screen.

In the Sixties, Doctor Who was a new and exciting show, having first reached our screens in 1963. By 1964, Dalekmania was sweeping the nation. The pepperpot dictators where new, exciting and nothing of their like had been seen before, especially on national television. By 1965, Amicus Studios 1 had released Dr. Who and the Daleks and would later release Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. in 1966.

They planned to release a third, but it never got made. This is probably because the first two movies where terrible. They where panned by critics at the time and modern viewers have a lot of difficulty with them as well. When they were made, Doctor Who was still in its infancy as a show; The First Doctor, William Hartnell, played The Doctor as an unpredictable and crochety old man with a mysterious past. In the movies, the horribly underused Peter Cushing looks like Hartnell, but the character is entirely different. For a start, he’s called Doctor Who (as in his surname is “Who”), and he’s clearly cast as a kindly old white-haired genius.

All mystery is stripped from the titular hero in the first five minutes of the movie. To modern viewers, Cushing’s character is mortal and bland, and an elderly, doddery cliché at that. Action sequences are pretty much handled by younger characters2 , and we don’t really care about any of the cast. Compared to even the earliest episodes of the classic series, it pales in comparison. (This is quite a feat, as the movies are in colour).

On the other hand, the classic movie posters look fab

The plots are stripped down versions of Dalek stories from the original series. This improves the pacing, but also makes the whole thing less engaging. Even the pleasure of seeing multi-coloured Daleks and the oddly painted Thals does not make up for intense boredom the movies produce.

As family-friendly action movies made in 60’s go, they aren’t that bad. But because it features Daleks and a TARDIS, we expect more. I can remember watching both these movies as a child, and being very disappointed. They are the Doctor Who equivalent of being promised chocolate and getting carob.3.

If I was producing a new Doctor Who movie today, I would give these movies some repeated viewings. Their greatest flaw is that they imitate the elements of the original series without any of the charm. Even though there is now a greater body of lore surrounding the show, the Peter Cushing movies should serve as an example as to why one should not re-invent the wheel when one is playing in someone else’s creative sand-pit.

1: Interesting studio, Amicus, often mistaken for Hammer Films as they also tended to make movies starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is one of theirs.
2: Roy Castle in the first one, Bernard Cribbins in the second. They play characters of course, but it really doesn’t matter, because both actors don’t have any real chance how talented they are. Both Cribbins and Castle are charming of course, which is why both went on to become much loved celebrities. (In the UK at least).
3: Carob looks like chocolate, and sort of tastes like chocolate if you don’t have taste buds. It used to be billed to concerned parents a healthy, vegetarian alternative to chocolate, but I suspect it was actually produced to instil into children a deep seated mistrust of vegetarians

Categories: Geek, Movies

Doctor Who, The Adventure Games

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The BBC has always been keen to embrace new technology and media. If you grew up in the 80’s, you may remember BBC Microcomputers, TV shows like Micro Live and hi-tech schemes like the Domesday Project. These days, the British Broadcasting Corporation continues to experiment, and the fruits of this work include things such as iPlayer. One of their recent projects is to investigate the notion of video games as a way of telling stories. After all, Auntie Beeb produces some world class stories intended for TV and Radio, why not tell stories using mouse and keyboard?1

The latest result of these explorations are the Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, now in its second series. The games are first person puzzlers, you take the role of The Doctor and Companions (mostly Amy, though we also get to play Rory in the most recent series), and go on a limited adventure through time and space, fighting the usual sort of villains and saving the world in the process. Anyone who has internet access in the UK can download them for free, and they’re designed to run on most PC’s, the spec being rather minimal.

Quality varies depending on each individual chapter, and also on how much of a fan you are of the show. In each case, the actual graphics and interface can be best be described as average and adequate; these games are intended to be played by anyone , so don’t expect fantastic quality graphics or a radical departure from the usual conventions of games control; this can be a little frustrating at times but it does mean that if you’re rubbish at games you should be able to have a much fun as a seasoned First Person Shooter Champion.

The first series featured four stories. City of the Daleks was the first game they ever produced, and it really is there to make the geeks make happy little sounds; it begins in London, 1963, but oh no, the Daleks have invaded.1 . So is London the titular City of the Daleks? Well, not really, and that’s part of the fun. For a first try, it’s a pretty strong opener.

(c) BBC

Voiced by the shows actors, the voice work clearly improves over time.

It’s followed up by Blood of the Cybermen, which is set on an Arctic base where things have gone horribly wrong. Combining classic Cybermen stories with the sort of frozen paranoia you get in classic sci-fi horror stories, and also has some of my favourite (yet cutest) Who monsters.

Game number three, TARDIS, is the weakest of the series, which is a real shame as it’s written by James Moran3, who’s a favourite of mine. It promises a chance to sneak around the famous spaceship and really fails to deliver, mosyly because it’s too short and too small. I suspect it’s a victim of time and budget rather than anything else.

The first series ends with Shadows of the Vashta Nerada, which features horrible shadow monsters and giant sharks. Again, it could be much better, and it’s a little maze-like in places. It’s still fun, though the first two games stand out much more than the last two.

The first series also featured a series of collectable items, little Easter-Eggs that told you either a little about real world history or a little about Doctor Who. They’ve sort of been replaced in the new series, and I have to admit I totally missed them first time, and the reason why made me laugh and groan in equal measure.

The second series has begun strongly with The Gunpowder Plot; again, it features the sort of thing that will make fans of both the classic and new series do a little dance, and the voice-acting has gotten much stronger. There also seems to be a interesting division of labour in this one; The Doctor does all the thinking, Amy does a lot of talking to people and Rory does a fair bit of heavy lifting, which is works quite nicely. It also seems much more keen to talk to you about history, and I did wonder if they had a copy of National Curriculum to hand whilst writing it.4

The series in general suffers from being simplistic and the ‘puzzle’ aspect of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games can be a little literal in places. It’s also a little buggy, but nothing that would hurt your enjoyment. As a video game aimed squarely at a family audience who happen to be fans, it works and I am looking forward to seeing more.

1: BBC projects you may have missed include Ghosts of Albion and the The Torchwood Alternate Reality Game.
2: 1963 is the year the show first aired. They do like to do stuff like this, and I think it’s great that this sort of care and attention is obvious in the work.
3: The rest of the games have been written by Phil Ford, who did a lot of work for that other Doctor Who spin off Sarah Jane Adventures.
4: Hooray for engaging kids in education. And adults, for that matter.

Categories: Games, Reviews Tags:

The Avengers, assembled once again

November 10, 2011 1 comment

One of the fascinating things about Marvel Super Heroes is the way it constantly re-invents itself; for example, though the origin story of Spiderman has been told endlessly on the screen, stage and indeed in comic books, The House of Ideas1 likes to mix it up a lot, retelling the same ideas in different ways. In recent years, this has applied to Marvel’s foremost and best known superhero team, The Avengers2. Stories with teams in them are a bit of a bargain, you get to enjoy the adventures of multiple characters, rather than just the one, and if you’re promoting a brand3, it has the added advantage of exposing the audience to characters they may not have met yet.

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a recent cartoon TV series, that yet again re-invents the classic Marvel Super Hero team. We can see elements of previous versions within its structure; Iron Man resembles his recent movie incarnation more than ever (he even looks like Robert Downey Junior), Captain America’s origin resembles both the version seen in The Ultimates comic book and the recent movie. Each episode has been plugged together with a great deal of love and care for the mythology surrounding these heroes, and each one has been re-imagined in a way that’s fresh but also familiar.

(c) Marvel

The main problem with the show is that, in parts, it’s a retelling too far. Every time Marvel redoes a story featuring the Avengers, it always starts the same way; the band gets formed in a way that generates a lot of tension and then they unwittingly face a conspiracy of mystically manipulated villains, almost falling apart in the process but ultimately becoming stronger because of it. If you’d never heard that story before, then I’m sure it would be fresh and exciting, but for me, I’ve already been there, many times.

Part of the reason for my fatigue is actually one of the strengths of the franchise, as this particular story is one of human frailty. It’s an examination of what happens when you thrust power and responsibility into the hands of flawed people.4. This is great, but I want to see the character development go beyond the first handful of stories. I want to see this aspect of the myth evolve in different media as well.

I want to see other, more obscure, stories about The Avengers retold in different ways; the comic books are filled with amazing weirdness and fantastic ideas. I want disassembled robots, the scattered souls of twins, world conquering androids and alien war zones; some of this is hinted at in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes but I’m greedy and impatient, and am never sure how long a show like this will run for before it gets cancelled.

I’m sure it’ll get a lot of attention in the run up to the forthcoming movie The Avengers, and if you’re in the mood for cartoon action, it’s worth a look.

1: Marvel Comics prides itself on the creativity, hence the self-styled ‘House of Idea’ sub-title. After all, you take away the amazing stories that Marvel has brought us over the years and you’d have nothing.
2: Not to be confused with the classic British TV series of the same name, which features super spies with vengeance in mind. That’s a wholly different kettle of fish, and I’ll talk about that some other day.
3: It isn’t soul-less to to think of superheroes as brands, provided you remember that the story should come first. This is storytelling as a business, and Marvel has proven time and again that thinking about the money makes a story no less valid. Disney bought Marvel for $4.24 billion. A business founded on comic books. Frankly, anyone who doubts the worth of storytelling through the comic medium is woefully misinformed.
4: The battle cry of The Avengers is ‘Avengers Assemble’. I often wonder if that’s because so many of the heroes are so interestingly broken.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Reviews, TV

Hive of the Dead

November 7, 2011 2 comments

Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson1 have a lot to answer for. Their Fighting Fantasy game books are a prime cause for me becoming the sort of geek I am today, and a significant portion of my childhood was spent flipping rapidly from page to page, as directed by the text. To this day, the phrase “Turn to Page 400” is nerd-code for victory.2

Jackson and Livingstone also founded UK games company, Games Workshop. So it may come as a surprise to some of you that there hasn’t been an adventure game book set in any of the worlds of Warhammer. That is, until recently; Hive of the Dead is set in the grim darkness of Warhammer 40,000 and puts you in the shoes of an Imperial Guardsman who has lost his memory and who happens to be trapped in a zombie-infested command centre. From the get-go, the story is tense and action-packed, and filled to the brim with references to the zombie genre.

(c) Black Library

Fighting zombies with lasguns = buckets of fun

Let us all be honest here, anyone who’s played these games know that, unofficially, they come with three modes; Easy, Normal and Nightmare. Nightmare mode requires you to redo the book from start after every failure, following the rules strictly, rolling the dice and making a record of every item lost and gained. Normal mode simply requires you to use the rules as written whilst keeping your fingers in various pages in case you make a mis-step and die. Mostly however, we all play them on Easy mode: we ignore the rules that disrupt the fun, and aren’t afraid to back track to find more juicy bits of the game to play with. Or to put it another way, everybody cheats with these things.

I began the game in Nightmare mode, and quickly devolved into Easy mode after several tries. Your brave guardsman is quite squishy, and some of the battles you get into are quite brutal (and without spoiling the story for you, heroically difficult). That said, some of the scenes made me get the dice out simply to see what happens. It’s filled with fun little set pieces and references, and has the sort of pacing you’d expect from an action-adventure story.
It does have some flaws; it’s print-on-demand so it isn’t cheap (but is excellent quality), and you will need to download the errata (which is handily on the ordering page, along with a spare character sheet) and the combat system requires a lot of dice rolling. However, author C Z Dunn has made good on the fun the book promises. I got a lot of joy out of it and went back quite a few times to see if I’d missed anything along the way, and I hope they produce more.

1: The British one, not the Texan. Both wrote Fighting Fantasy books, though the British guy sort of invented the idea. Also, both have owned interesting beards.
2: Typically, page 400 was the last page of the book, and described your hard won victory. For those of you who don’t know what ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books are, they’re novels that require the reader to make decisions as to how the story will play out. The reader is presented with a list of options, and chooses their path by turning to the page relevant to their choice. They mix the joy of reading fantasy novels with the fun of gaming, and were a delight to young geeks throughout the 80’s.

Categories: Books, Reviews Tags: