Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Borderlands 2 for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Mac

I’ll open this review with a confession; I played Borderlands 2 wrong. One of the defining features of the franchise, perhaps the defining feature, is that it is heavily built around co-op play. However, I have absolutely no time for online co-op, only enjoying local multiplayer. While split screen is offered here, like most games of this generation, it’s terrible and not worth playing. Normally this would have just put me off buying the game at all, but literally everything else about the Borderlands series hugely appeals to me; the humour, the open world, the RPG elements and most of all the incredibly stylish graphics. These factors led to me taking the plunge and giving this game a go, playing solo. I expected to quite like the game, so I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that I absolutely adored it, loving every minute of it, cementing it’s position as one of my favourite FPS games I’ve ever played.

Borderlands 2, like its predecessor, is set on the world of Pandora, a planet dominated by arid wasteland which maintains a wild west-esque frontier feel. One of the major criticisms of the first game was that it’s environments were too same-y; really, there’s only so much you can do with desert, even through such a beautiful art style as Borderlands. This isn’t a problem in Borderlands 2, and while there is plenty of desert wasteland, it’s offset with some beautiful snowy locations, some striking underground locations, and even some areas filled with verdant greenery. There’s even a location which reminded me of Morrowind, and I really cannot give a higher compliment than that. The world isn’t truly open in the vein of the Elder Scrolls or Fallout, and is more like that of Fable in that it is a series of independent hubs. In terms of the lore of the setting, I confess to being lost, but this is somewhat to be expected when entering into a franchise with its second entry. I don’t get the impression that the Borderlands universe is teeming with narrative possibilities the way other gaming settings such as Tamriel are, with the immersion coming more from the striking vistas of the landscape and the beautiful graphics rather than from a feeling of rich and fascinating history, such as in the Mass Effect setting.

Apparently, the original Borderlands had a fairly bare bones plot, and thankfully this cannot be said for the sequel. I was able to discern that the original concerned a rumour of a Vault in the deserts of Pandora filled with unimaginable riches which led four hunters to attempt to seek it out. Upon opening the Vault they discovered that it instead contained a terrifying alien creature, and final boss of the game, before the revelation that Pandora was actually home to other Vaults, each likely containing another devastating biological weapon. Between the original game and the sequel, much of Pandora has been taken over by Hyperion, a huge arms dealing company, headed by the charismatic psychopath Handsome Jack. The player is one of four new Vault Hunters, who at the opening of the game are on a train which is bombed by Handsome Jack, leaving the player crawling from the wreckage in an arctic wasteland, before being rescued by the highly amusing little robot Claptrap. The player embarks upon a journey which brings them up against Jack, as well as intersecting with an incredibly likeable and amusing cast of characters, including the Vault Hunters from the first game.

Probably the first thing that you’ll notice about the plot of Borderlands 2 is how incredibly funny it is. This is without a doubt one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, both through a cast of hilarious characters and, even more impressive, an admirable integration of the comedy into the gameplay itself. One particular mission, named ‘Shoot This Guy in the Face’, had me in stitches. The game is filled with characters who don’t just say funny things, their designs are also top notch; I couldn’t look at the ridiculously proportioned Ellie without laughing, and the excellent character animations led to some decent physical comedy, something often lacking in videogames. Characters like the little deluded robot Claptrap and the psychotic pyromaniac child Tiny Tina charmed and amused me so much that just thinking about them makes me smile. Borderlands 2 did something even more impressive however; it actually made me care. I was invested in what happened to this bunch of ridiculous characters, and the moments in which the plot veered towards the serious and dramatic managed to not feel forced, with the transition working surprisingly well. Where many games build a great narrative out of their world, games such as Skyrim, Bioshock and Fallout, Borderlands is actually more traditional in how it constructs a narrative, by investing the player in characters they grow to care about, for all their strangeness. The villain, Handsome Jack, is a clear highlight; some villains are great because they’re complex and interesting, maybe even tragic (Andrew Ryan is a good example), and some have a strange sort of likeable charisma (think of the Joker or Hannibal Lector), and some are just stone cold, unbelievable pricks. Handsome Jack fits neatly into the latter category  and whilst it may be a cliché to say so, he’s a character you love to hate.

Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG, but unlike Fallout 3 and New Vegas the focus is very much on FPS, with the RPG stuff underpinning excellent gunplay. The player is given a series of missions, including plenty of compelling side quests which often transcend the ‘go here, kill x amount of y’ structure which can tend to pervade the genre (although there’s plenty of that too). The player isn’t given free rein of the world straight away, with new locations revealing themselves gradually, with enemies scaling at a good pace with the player. Borderlands 2 is class based, and it says a lot for this game that as I was researching which class to play as there appeared to be no clear consensus as to which is most fun/useful. I eventually picked ‘Axton’, which gave me a deployable turret which I correctly predicted would be useful if I was to solo the game. The player is able to level up their abilities throughout Borderlands 2, but a singular playthrough isn’t enough to gain all these powers the player may want to, which encourages replayability to unlock the most deadly abilities. There’s also a fun little side levelling system, in which the player is given small stat boosts for gaining ‘badass points’, gained for achieving…well, badass feats. There are thousands of potential weapons to choose from, with some randomly generated and some legendary items offering unique properties. For most of the game you’ll be swapping out your weapon set every few hours or so as new loot presents itself, but by the end of the game you’ll have gained a few favourites which  you can get nice and familiar with. My personal favourite was an acid shooting pistol which was incredibly useful against armoured foes. The game is fairly fast paced, controlling as something of a mixture between Halo and Call of Duty, with the ground speed of CoD and the floaty jumps of Halo. There are a few vehicles to help you get around Pandora, and they handle in a way similar Halo’s Warthogs.

The Fallout games are just as great in their own way, but they don’t really function as shooters, but Borderlands 2 does. It successfully manages to scratch the FPS itch whilst keeping the depth of an RPG. The progression is satisfying, although I’m not convinced that I like the need for multiple playthroughs to reach the level cap, but at least this leaves room for progression in the DLC. I suspect that after this game I’m going to struggle playing straight shooters without RPG elements; I grew too fond of seeing numbers pop up as I shot the enemy, and the ever so satisfying words ‘critical’ in bold red as I gained a head shot. Although this serves a natural gameplay purpose, to show the player how much damage is done, I also just love the aesthetic of it, making even the most robust bullet sponge fun to whittle down. The game handles so well on foot that it’s a shame the same cannot be said for the vehicles, which are floaty and lack weight. Borderlands 2 reminded me a lot of Rage, only with personality and charm where Rage was a largely straight faced and derivative, but the vehicle handling is really the only area in which Rage remained superior. Vehicles are useful for traversing the land quickly, but rarely actually fun to use, which is a shame. Luckily, the majority of the game is experienced on foot, and these sections are always incredibly fun. I generally loathe boss fights in FPS games; remember Fontaine in Bioshock, or the Nihilanth in Half-Life? Awful. The RPG elements save them here however, and the boss fights were genuinely some of the most enjoyable experiences of the game, utterly daunting in scope, so it’s difficult not to feel awesome as you bring some of the tougher ones down.

Borderlands 2 is an incredibly striking looking game, and in a sea of shooters all tending to look the same it’s wonderful to play something which is willing to get a bit colourful. I’m a big fan of the cel-shaded style, I still think that The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is the best looking game ever, and it’s a pleasure to see some developers still using it. The voice acting is a definite highlight, managing comedy and tragedy equally well. A large burden of the voice work is carried by the four Vault Hunters of the previous game, as well as Handsome Jack, and they all acquit themselves brilliantly. The more minor characters are all excellent as well, with particular credit given for the wonderful Tiny Tina, whose truly bizarre speech patterns never failed to amuse for all of her too brief time in the game. The production values are clearly very high for this game, and it all runs very smoothly as well; this has to be one of the least glitchy open world games that I have ever played.

I expected to like Borderlands 2, but I never expected to love it. This is all the more pleasing considering that I utterly ignored one of the major selling points of the game; if I hadn’t liked it, I’d have only had myself to blame. Borderlands 2 is one of the best games that I have played this year, and I highly recommend it to anyone, solo or co-op.



A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

There was only really one question on my mind when I started reading A Week in December; is it as good as Birdsong? Alas, it is not. I was utterly captivated by Faulk’s opus, but this novel didn’t quite have the same effect upon me. A Week in December is an ambitious novel, but never quite manages to live up to its promise, playing with some big ideas and dealing with such lofty themes as the financial crisis, Islamic fundamentalism and mental illness  but failing to offer a coherent message with any of them.

A Week in December takes place in London, sometime in the 2000s, all in a single week. The London which Faulks presents is one which is fractured, containing no kind of single community. Faulk’s London is one riven by divisions in wealth, religious conflict, and in which the majority of the population flee real life and society for meaningless reality TV and alternate reality videogames. The novel follows a large amount of characters, all centred around the guests of a dinner party at the end of the week, as well as their families. The varying lives of these characters offer many different perspectives of London, although the one noticeable lack is that of anyone of the working class. Many of the characters are fabulously wealthy, and those that are not are still from highly educated middle class backgrounds. As a portrait of a city therefore, A Week in December feels incomplete, with fantastical novels such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and China Miéville’s  Looking for Jake short story collection offering more believable visions of London than Faulks achieves here.

A Week in December tells many different stories, some more linked than others. These include the unbelievably cold and sociopathic banker John Veals, who plays a key role in bringing about the financial crisis within which the world is still struggling. Another key character is Hassan, a young fundamentalist Muslim who is part of a cell planning a devastating terror attack on London. Alongside these more serious plot lines, we have the amusing tales of pretentious and arrogant critic R. Tranter and the Polish footballer Spike Borowski. There is a genuinely rather sweet love story between the penniless lawyer Gabriel Northwood and the damaged young tube driver Jenni Fortune, as well as the amusing yet strangely tragic idle lifestyle of teenage stoner Finbar.

A Week in December, by its very nature as a fragmentary narrative following many different characters, deals with a vast amount of topics for all of its relatively short length. All of these are unified under one central theme however, misanthropy. Faulks seems deeply unimpressed with pretty much everything, with the once virtue celebrated being literacy, but even that can go too far through the portrait of the snobbish critic R. Tranter. Faulks portrays the common problem underlying London as a separation from reality. For Jenni Fortune it is in the thinly veiled Second Life parody Parallax, for Veals the banker it is in a financial market which doesn’t seem to deal with anything real and for Hassan it is in the Qur’an. There’s an interesting comparison between the actions of the bankers who bought about the financial crisis through reckless trading and Islamic fundamentalists, suggesting that both require a severance from basic reality to commit the awful acts they do. The difference in Veals and Hassan’s characters strains this comparison however; whilst Veals is a cold and calculating figure, well aware of what he is doing, Hassan is simply a confused young man whose insecurities were exploited by a charismatic Jihadist. Islam also receives some relief through the gentle and kind portrayals of Hassan’s parents, Farooq and Nasim Al’Rashid. Some of Faulk’s targets can be deeply amusing, such as the reality TV show ‘It’s Madness’, in which mentally ill people are placed in a Big Brother style house with the winner receiving expensive psychiatric care. It can be a bit wearying as Faulks embarks upon lengthy digressions about how terrible everything is, often through the character of Gabriel Northwood, a figure so bland that I suspect that he is essentially the authorial insert, a non-character who exists to allow Faulks to post his critiques upon society. Although certain aspects of the narrative aren’t as compelling as others, there’s enough in this novel to maintain interest, but I did find myself looking forward to certain character sections much more than others.

Faulks is a beautiful writer, and does an admirable job of capturing many different facets of London, although London never feels quite as vivid as First World War France did in Birdsong. Faulks doesn’t quite manage to capture a variety of styles as well as David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, or Dan Simmons in Hyperion, but he does well enough at varying from high drama to comedy to the marijuana hazed narrative of Finbar. A tendency towards moralising is possibly the most irritating aspect of this novel, as characters have repeated epiphanies which seem to sometimes simply be Faulks injecting his own opinions. At first I was somewhat put off by the slew of technical financial jargon thrown the reader’s way in the storyline of the sinister banker John Veals, but as time went on I realised that this was sort of the point; it does make no sense, it is a mess of meaningless and nonsensical practices focused only upon boosting the wealth of a few individuals at the top, leaving me with a sort of confused anger, which I may suspect is what Faulks was going for.

For all of their lack of screen time, Faulks does an excellent job of making each of the characters distinct and interesting in their own way. The moral quandary which potential terrorist Hassan finds himself in is fascinating to read about, as it the complete lack of moral consideration in Veals. Farooq, a billionaire lime pickle tycoon, is a particularly likeable character, devoutly Muslim but interpreting the religion in a much gentler fashion than his son. His storyline, in which he is given a crash course in English literature  by the acerbic critic R. Tranter so that he has something to talk about with the Queen when he gets an OBE, is genuinely funny and charming. Jenni is an interesting one as well, although as a gamer I’m not sure that I like that her gaming habit is presented as simply a symptom of how damaged she is. The weak point is Gabriel Northwood, the aforementioned vessel for Faulk’s authorial voice. It is possible to do this and keep the character interesting in themselves, but it’s bloody hard and the only successful case I can think of is Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Faulks does not manage this, and whilst I actually tended to agree with Gabriel/Faulk’s assertions, particularly on greed, it’s an irritating self indulgence which pervades the entire novel. Gabriel excepted, Faulks does a remarkable job of creating a large crowd of distinct and interesting characters, many of whom could have carried a novel in themselves.

A Week in December is a decidedly uneven novel, yet it’s strengths just about outweigh its weaknesses. What had the potential to be a mind numbingly dull novel actually ends up very entertaining, but I’m not sure if the messages of this novel are quite as complex and deep as Faulks thinks. The cartoonish villain John Veal is merely pandering to the stereotype of the greedy banker, and Faulks doesn’t say anything here that hasn’t already been said better. Criticising bankers these days isn’t interesting, it’s like criticising the BNP or Shell; blindingly obvious.

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

I was completely bowled over by Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmons’ so called ‘Hyperion Cantos’, after the unfinished Keats epic of the same name, to the extent that I was rather worried that the sequel could in no way live up to the original. Hyperion was a ‘Canterbury Tales’-esque story, in which a group of pilgrims exchanged tales from their past, but by The Fall of Hyperion all of those tales have been told, so there’s a natural need to change the structure which was part of what made the original so special. I’m therefore pleased to report that The Fall of Hyperion is every bit as wonderful a novel as the original, and in some aspects even goes so far as to surpass it.

The Fall of Hyperion follows two primary narrative strands, one on the titular planet Hyperion itself, following the pilgrims of the first novel around the Time Tombs of the Shrike, and one in the Hegemony capitol of Tau Ceti Centre, as well as appearances from other planets in the farcaster web. The Time Tombs are an incredibly evocative location, feeling mystical and ethereal, yet never losing the feeling of being based in extremely advanced technology rather than magic. They’re a truly unique location, which never feels like anything else in the genre. Simmons has done an admirable job in creating a large collection of human planets which all feel admirably distinct. We may only visit the Catholic planet of Pacem briefly, or the garden planet God’s Grove, but they all feel incredibly distinct, never homogenising. It would have been easy to let the planet of Hyperion do all of the world building heavy lifting, but Simmons avoided this potential for writing laziness and creates a fully fledged universe and filled with distinct cultures where it wasn’t strictly even necessary, to the incalculable gain of this novel.

The Ouster invasion of Hyperion has begun in earnest, and the pilgrims have reached the Time Tombs. One of the main plot strands follows the pilgrims, and their encounters with the terrifying Shrike, with most getting separated and encountering this creature in different ways and circumstances. We are also given the more grounded perspective of the Human Hegemony under the leadership of CEO Meina Gladstone, as she and the military scramble to respond to an attack for which they are woefully underprepared. Behind it all is the AI TechnoCore, long split from humanity, riven from the inside in how to approach constructing an artificial intelligence greater than any other, to, in essence, create God.

Wisely, Simmons sticks with a frame narrative in this novel, one which is even more interesting than that of Hyperion. The protagonist of this novel is ‘Joseph Severn’, in reality a replica of the ‘cybrid’ John Keats which featured in Hyperion. Severn, due to a link to his neural clone carried by the pilgrim Brawne Lamia, is able to ‘dream’ his way into the action of the pilgrims, observing their actions and even their thoughts. This creates a rather unique frame narrative; the frame narrative takes place at the same time as the story that it is framing. This is staggeringly clever writing, and I believe is the subtle triumph of this novel. My one criticism of Hyperion was that it resolved so little, leaving almost everything to its sequel. Thankfully, almost every mystery is explained, with enough ambiguity left to keep things interesting and to limit exposition. One obvious plot thread is left for Endymion, the next novel in the Cantos, but this definitely doesn’t leave the novel feeling incomplete.

Simmons achieves the remarkable feat of writing in an erudite style, heavily reliant on intertextuality, whilst still being fundamentally readable and compelling. The action scenes, something I tend not to enjoy in science fiction, are excellently depicted here, exciting without shaking a horror of violence. Simmons really knows how to pack and emotional punch without becoming mawkish, exhibiting a sentimentality which comes across as earnest and intellectually derived.

The characterisation is significantly improved in The Fall of Hyperion from its predecessor. Severn’s knowledge that he is an artificial intelligence in a highly advanced future, whilst retaining memory of his life as an early 19th century English poet creates a wonderful dichotomy. Bringing historical figures into a science fiction setting (unless played for comedy, think Richard Nixon in Futurama) is almost always disastrous. I’ll never forget how transcendentally terrible the exploits of the AI recreations of Joan of Arc and Voltaire were in Gregory Benford’s Asimov tribute Foundation’s Fear. It works wonderfully here however, perhaps by a conscious effort to distinguish Severn from Keats. Severn may have been created to be exactly like Keats, but he has developed his own (amusingly sardonic) personality upon the way, becoming a distinct and interesting character, rather than hagiographic hero worship by Simmons of his favourite poet. By far my favourite, and in my opinion most interesting, character has to be Meina Gladstone, the wonderfully competent leader of the Human Hegemony, part Abraham Lincoln, part Winston Churchill, with some Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton thrown in too. As you might expect, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Despite all of this, she is not an idealised portrait; she is human, plagued by guilt over the bold actions she must take, beset by doubts which she never reveals to the public. I could quite happily read an entire novel telling the story of Meina Gladstone, possibly the best portrait of a politician which I have seen in science fiction, and really one of my favourite characters in any novel which I’ve read. In Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, Simmons has crafted a host of main characters who are complex and human, and a group of secondary characters who are memorable and intriguing, which is exactly how it should be done.

Although The Fall of Hyperion is less obviously groundbreaking than its predecessor, it’s achievements are just as great. In many ways, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion read like two halves of the same novel and one cannot exist without the other. I’ve heard mixed things about the following duology in the Hyperion Cantos, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, but even if they do end up being disappointing, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion stand perfectly well  on their own as some of the best science fiction that I have ever read.

Embassytown by China Miéville

My only real experience with Miéville is within his fantasy Bas-Lag setting, and a few short stories set within parallel versions of London, so this was my first encounter with Miéville as a sci-fi writer. Embassytown strongly reminded me of Iain M. Banks at his best; complex and confusing, but not pointlessly obtuse (as Banks can sometimes be), with real philosophical depth and interest underlying a compelling tale. Embassytown is a novel fundamentally concerned with language, deconstructing a fictional alien tongue to allow us to examine our own. In most science fiction, no matter how bizarre the aliens are on the surface, or how difficult their language may be for humans to understand, there is still the possibility for translation and communication; no matter how bizarre these creatures are, we can still understand them by Earth methods of communication. Embassytown presents creatures who communicate in a method utterly alien to our own, something absolutely fascinating to read about.

The eponymous city of Embassytown is where most of the novel is set. In Miéville’s universe, long distance space travel is best achieved by sailing in the ‘immer’, a sort of parallel dimension which constricts distances which would otherwise make travel between the stars impossibly long. Embassytown is upon the planet Arieka, home to a race of creatures named by the humans as Ariekei, although they are generally respectfully known as ‘Hosts.’ The language of the Hosts differs fundamentally from that of humans to the point that communication between the species requires extraordinary effort. Ariekei can make two sounds at once, and so each Ariekene word is comprised of two parts, the ‘cut’ and the ‘turn.’ When said separately they are simply meaningless sounds to the Hosts, and other workarounds such as having the sounds spoken by a machine or by two humans at once failed as the language is fundamentally based upon conscious thought behind it, and without a unified mind expressing the language it is simply noise to them. To communicate, the human settlers bred clones, who are linked with a sort of quasi-telepathy, known as ‘Ambassadors’, who can make themselves understood to the Hosts. There are plenty of other fascinating elements to the Ariekene language as it is deconstructed throughout the novel, allowing us to gain a parallel understanding of human speech. This novel helped me understand linguistic concepts such as that of the connection between the signifier/sign better than the oblique writings of Saussure or Bahktin ever did during my university course. Embassytown itself is a wonderful setting, and steers admirably clear of sci-fi clichés. The Hosts specialise in a science known as ‘bio-rigging’, the growth of organic buildings and machines, and so much of the planet is covered with living structures. Although this is immediately grotesque, as the novel goes on a strange sort of beauty to this science becomes apparent.

Embassytown follows Avice Benner Cho, an ‘immerser’, one who has been trained to travel the ‘immer’ outside of stasis, a profession which bears a swashbuckling and romantic reputation. The story is initially told in a nonlinear fashion, but about half way through it catches up with itself and we are given a faster paced single narrative. We are told of her childhood in Embassytown and her involvement in a bizarre Host ritual as well as her travels in the ‘out’, away from Ariekene, and of her return to her birth town and involvement in the local politics and ‘powers that be’ in the city. The arrival of EzRa, a new Ambassador subtly different to the others, trained outside of Embassytown by Bremen, the human civilisation of which Embassytown is a colony, triggers a catastrophic upheaval in Ariekene and human society.

The actual narrative isn’t necessarily as impressive as the way in which it is told and the comments the book makes upon language. Not to say that the story isn’t great, it really is, but this is one of those rare novels in genre fiction in which plot does not rule. This is not something I tend to enjoy, and this tendency is one of the main reasons I tend to prefer genre fiction, but it works wonderfully in Embassytown. The story is told in Avice’s first person, and she has an interesting character arc, based upon subtle change and growth rather than vast revelations. Avice gradually shifts during the novel from simply an observer, someone who consorts with those of power and influence without necessarily wielding any herself, to one of vital importance to the entire planet. This is accomplished with such subtlety that it is difficult to appreciate how well plotted Avice’s arc is while reading, with the revelation of just how well Miéville has done only coming out when finished and the novel can be viewed as a whole. The gradual revelation of what is going on and the slow growing understanding of this universe is very reminiscent of Iain M. Banks, most particularly The Algebraist, although I must say that I feel that Miéville has pulled this off better than Banks often does. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll remember all of the details of the plot a year from now, what will certainly stick with me are a few incredibly powerful and revelatory scenes, scenes which managed to be both erudite and pack a real emotional punch, a difficult balancing act.

Miéville is just such a wonderful writer that it can sometimes take my breath away. Although I probably prefer Perdido Street Station and The Scar overall, this novel is probably the best written which I’ve read so far. Miéville’s talent doesn’t lie somewhere obvious; it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is which makes his work such a pleasure to read. Miéville is perhaps the only writer in the genre to allow his books to be confusing, but to not do so unnecessarily. Iain Banks at his worst feels as if he is being deliberately difficult, without it serving any real literary purpose. Miéville seems to know exactly what he’s doing, if the reader is confused that’s because Miéville wants them to be, and there is always a payoff as the reader comes to understand what’s going on, something which cannot always be said for Banks.

However, if I were to identify a singular flaw in this novel it is that the secondary characters are not quite as well established as they were in Miéville’s Bas-Lag books. There are no characters which appealed to me quite so much as Yagharek and Derkhan in Perdido Street Station, or Uther Doul and the Brucolac in The Scar. Perhaps this is down to the novel’s length, and a shift in focus from character and world building. By far the most interesting characters in the novel are the Hosts themselves, but by their very alien nature they are difficult to understand. Avice herself is an excellent protagonist, I just wish that those around her received as good characterisation.

Embassytown is a simply wonderful novel, which, in a way, returns to ‘big idea’ sci-fi rather than playing with clichés. Miéville uses science fiction for its most vital purpose, to offer a mirror to our own world and to allow us to consider ourselves a different way. I do not believe that Miéville has written any other straight sci-fi, but after this I would be delighted if he returned to it at some point, as he clearly has as much a flair for it as he showed he did for fantasy with the ‘Bag-Lag’ novels.

Dishonored for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I remember seeing an ‘Extra Credits’ video which was talking about bad games which can look like great games for the first half an hour, before flashing up a picture of the box art of Dishonored. Although this is a bit harsh (Dishonored is definitely not a bad game) it is a good game which looks like a great game at first. Dishonored makes a hell of a first impression, but as I played it became clearer and clearer that it was not the game I hoped it would be, creating a promise that the game never quite lives up to.

Dishonored is set entirely within the city of Dunwall, a sort of steampunk influenced dystopian alternate Victorian London. Dunwall has been ravaged by a rat carried plague, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing swarms of rats to become aggressive and strip  unwary citizens to the bone. The rats of Dishonored are probably the scariest enemies I’ve encountered in a game this year. Dunwall is a location full of potential, yet never manages to reach the immersive levels of Bioshock’s Rapture or Half Life 2’s City 17. In a way, I almost wish that the developers had gone to the whole hog and set this directly in an alternate history London. The broader fantastical setting of Dishonored is mostly explained in notes and books scattered around the world, and certainly sounds interesting enough, yet receives almost no influence over the main story. This is a similar problem to that seen in The Last Story, a desire to create a broad and interesting setting yet without the ability to weave this effectively into the actual narrative of the game. Dunwall doesn’t feel nearly as fresh or interesting as it should, which is a shame because the developers, the promising Arkane Studios, clearly put a lot of effort into it.

The protagonist of Dishonored is Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the Empress of Dunwall, a disappointingly silent protagonist. Upon returning to Dunwall after a foreign tour seeking aid for the plague ravaging the city, Corvo’s reunion with the Empress is violently interrupted by her murder at the hands of mysterious teleporting assassins, who then kidnap the Empress’s daughter Emily. Found at the scene of the crime, sword drawn, Corvo is thrown into jail for the murder, awaiting execution. A few months later, the former spymaster of Dunwall has seized power, ruling as a brutal dictator. After making his escape from the jail, Corvo meets with a group loyal to the former Empress who plot the downfall of the Lord Regent and the rescue of Emily. Corvo is also visited by a mysterious trickster god figure known as the Outsider, who grants Corvo supernatural abilities, popping up sporadically throughout the game. Like much of this game, the story contains lots of interesting elements which never seem to come to fruition. The potentially interesting influence of the Outsider feels detached from everything else going on in the game, with a great opportunity to establish some plot points for potential sequels squandered. Easily the strongest element of the narrative is the relationship between Corvo and Emily, which sadly is not explored as much as it should be due to Corvo’s nature as a silent protagonist. Very little that’s particularly surprising occurs in the plot of this game, which fails to live up to the potential of it’s incredibly intriguing first trailer.

Dishonored is a first person stealth game, taking cues from the Thief series, and with certain similarities to the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Corvo is sent out on a series of missions into large, fairly open areas with a target to hunt down and eliminate. Sometimes there are optional objectives to make your life easier, but how you get to your target is pretty much up to you. There aren’t many missions in the game, but if you’re taking your time and seeking out the runes and bone charms which boost Corvo’s abilities, each mission will still take you a while, ranging from around 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Armed with a sword at all times, the combat system is rudimentary and clumsy, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re in an open fight with your sword you have failed to remain stealthy, and an uphill battle is your punishment. Corvo is replete with gadgets and weapons, such as a pistol and crossbows  can shoot incendiary bolts for the pyromaniacs  and sleep darts for the pacifists. Most fun are the magical abilities granted Corvo by the Outsider, the most basic and useful of which is the ability to teleport short distances. This move was a stroke of genius by Arkane, allowing Dishonored to feel distinct from other stealth games and allowing Corvo a manoeuvrability at times coming close to Mirror’s Edge. Other powers include the ability to possess rats and fish to get through narrow spaces or waterways and the ability to slow or even stop time. You will not be able to gain every ability on a single play through, so it’s a matter of picking the abilities which you feel best match your playing style. The wide variety of moves are impressive, and there genuinely are a multitude of ways to approach each mission. For each target you can choose to simply assassinate them, or to go for a non-lethal approach, whichI found where generally more interesting, and sometimes amusingly sadistic.

Although the game holds together well, and teleporting around everywhere never gets old, the charm for much of the gameplay wears off quickly. Although we do have a lot of freedom in how we tackle the missions, certainly more than in most modern games, the player is clearly shunted along a few clear paths. Although we gain lots of cool abilities, after using them the first few times they just become another weapon in your repertoire, without the option for use in interesting or unexpected ways. Much has been said about this games length, but I honestly don’t feel that it is a problem. Everything this game has to say is said in those 8-12 hours of play, and any lengthening would have felt like artificial padding, something that this game is blissfully without. Although there are side tasks, you are always focused upon your goal, allowing a clarity of vision unseen in potential rivals such as Assassin’s Creed and Deus Ex.

Dishonored, for better or for worse, is at least an interesting looking game. I’m not convinced that the vaguely cel shaded style, which looks something like Bioshock put through a Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword filter, is the best for the environments, but they deserve some props for trying something different. There’s some truly atrocious texture pop up after loading, but that’s becoming par for the course for most AAA releases as we near the end of this console cycle so I can’t really blame Arkane for this. One area which thoroughly impressed me were the character designs, particular the faces. Although they are in no way naturalistic, they convey a huge amount of character, whilst remaining fairly static. The voice acting is something of a mixed bag, with some truly excellent performances surrounded by some unambitious and boring ones. The clear highlight is Susan Sarandon as the mysterious occult figure of Granny Rags, with Chloë Grace Moretz giving a performance as Emily which could easily have slipped into being annoying, yet manages to fall on the side of charming. Somewhat disappointing is the rather dull performance given to the wonderful Lena Headey, of whom I’m a huge fan, but in fairness to her she’s only working with the lines given to her, and the character she is playing is devoid of interest or charm. Something I loved however was the interactions between the guards, which sometimes made me feel slightly bad after I plummeted from the rooftops and stabbed them in the neck. Sometimes. The presentation of Dishonored is extremely ambitious, but like much of the game it falls just short of the mark of being something truly visually and audibly stunning.

Dishonored is filled with flashes of brilliance, and holds together as a perfectly entertaining few hours of entertainment. If you were hoping for something truly new or revolutionary, or even an incredibly polished experience, look elsewhere. With another six months, or even a year, of development time, I’m convinced that this game could have been great. As it is, it’s just good, and considering the glut of quality games on the market at the moment, good just isn’t enough right now. In a few months during the post-Christmas game drought and this game is costing under £20, buy it, it’s absolutely worth a purchase, but for now there are much better ways to spend your time and money.

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

One of the most common drawbacks of fantasy settings is how static they can feel. Surely the presence of great magic and power would lead to a more developed culture and assist in scientific and technological development rather than sticking around in the Medieval cultures which we have come to accept as the norm in the genre. The ultimate example of this is in the Harry Potter novels, in which the magical folk seem to live less convenient and connected lives than us mere Muggles. Brandon Sanderson return to Scadrial, the setting of his phenomenal Mistborn trilogy, 300 years later, with the twin magics of Allomancy and Feruchemy working in harmony with the development of skyscrapers, steam trains and electricity. It’s something that I have never encountered before, and it works so well I’m honestly shocked no one else has ever tried it.

Following the conclusion of The Hero of Ages, a vast metropolis known as Elendel has arisen, and it is here that most of the novel takes place, excluding an extremely fun prologue in the ‘wild west’ esque ‘Roughs’ outside the city. Although we don’t get a real feel for Elendel, this novel being relatively short by Sanderson’s standards, I got an impression of a cross between Luthadel of the earlier Mistborn novels and China Miéville’s New Crobuzon. Sanderson manages to combine the slightly steampunk-y setting of a magical world on the brink of a technological renaissance with the wonderful sense of mystery which made Luthadel such a cool location to read about. The protagonists of the original trilogy have faded into mythology by the time this book is set, and it’s a lot of fun picking over the novel for references to the original trilogy. This novel, having not been initially a part of Sanderson’s master plan, has probably the loosest connection to the wider ‘Cosmere’, which links many of Sanderson’s works, seen so far. Allomancy and Feruchemy remain entertaining magic systems, and made even more interesting with the discovery of new metals which allow certain Allomancers to manipulate the flow of time.

The protagonist of The Alloy of Law is an errant Elendel nobleman known as Waxillium Ladrian, who had left the metropolis for the all together more interesting and violent ‘Roughs’, where he and a few companions gained a fearsome reputation as lawmen, attempting to make the area safe for the innocent residents. Wax is a ‘twinborn’, meaning that he both an Allomantic and Feruchemical power. He is both a ‘coinshot’, able to burn steel and push metal objects, and a ‘skimmer’, able to  use his Feruchemical metalminds to make himself heavier and lighter. Called back to Elendel by family tragedy, Wax struggles to adjust to his life as a violent keeper of the law and his duty as a courtly nobleman. A series of robberies and kidnappings throughout the city from a group known by as ‘The Vanishers’ and the arrival of his former sidekick Wayne (geddit?) prompt Wax to come out of retirement and try to get to the bottom of a mystery underpinning the city.

Probably the biggest difference between The Alloy of Law and Sanderson’s other works of fantasy is that of scale. All of his previous novels have dealt with the massive conflicts between nations, struggles against ancient gods and other similarly lofty themes. The central narrative of The Alloy of Law, whilst hinting at a larger conflict likely to be explored in sequels, is very focused and tight, taking place over a relatively short time and disposing with unnecessary subplots. Sanderson had previously announced plans for another pair of Mistborn trilogies, one taking place in a setting technologically equivalent to the present day (and following an Allomancer SWAT team), and another going full science fiction in which Allomancy has fused with science to allow the people of Scadrial to reach the stars. The Alloy of Law exists outside these plans, with it and any eventual sequels existing as a bridge between the first and second Mistborn trilogies. The novel therefore very much feels like a spin-off rather than a full sequel, but that’s fine, and it’s nice to see that Sanderson can work just as well on a small scale as a large one.

Sanderson’s knack for dialogue is probably displayed at its best so far, and The Alloy of Law is the most overtly comic novel that he has ever written (although it still didn’t make me laugh as much as Warbreaker). There’s a natural crackle to his dialogue which makes it difficult to go back to the solemn pronouncements which accompany much of fantasy literature. One of the most impressive things about the original Mistborn trilogy were the truly exhilarating action scenes. Allomancer battles are relived from feeling too same-y from the original trilogy with the addition of firearms, which only serves to heighten the steampunk-esque vibe which underpins the novel. These action scenes are incredibly cinematic; if any of Sanderson’s novels were to make a great movie it is this one. However, Sanderson does not quite succeed in conjuring a coherent sense of place in Elendel. This has never particularly been his strong point, most notably in Elantris and Warbreaker, with significant improvement in The Way of Kings. It’s rare to criticise a fantasy novel of being too short, but a couple more chapters to help us gain a feel for what Elendel is really like wouldn’t have been amiss.

Sanderson doesn’t really have enough time to develop characters as well as he does in his other novels, but where he excels is in creating incredibly strong characters who stick in the mind. Wax and Wayne have an excellent chemistry, with Wayne acting as genuinely entertaining comic relief throughout the novel. If there is any weakness in the characterisation of this novel it has to be that of the villain, whose motivation is cliché and doesn’t seem to have much of a personality. Compared to such delicious complex villains as the Lord Ruler of the original trilogy, this villain is rather dull. Where the original trilogy were fleshed out with a cadre of interesting side characters away from the central duo of Vin and Elend, The Alloy of Law is very much Wax and Wayne’s book. This isn’t really a problem, considering the novels length, but I certainly hope that future novels bolster the cast or, better yet, develop the characters already introduced such as the demure Marasi and the amusingly socially awkward Steris.

Sanderson has done something rather special with The Alloy of Law in returning to Scadrial. The novel itself is a good read, but I didn’t feel that it necessarily eclipsed the original trilogy or The Way of Kings. I feel that The Alloy of Law is sort of the ‘Batman Begins’ of a new series, independently great, but with a superior sequel on the way. It is a great book though, and I’m glad that Sanderson took a little diversion from his master Cosmere plan to give us the adventures of Wax and Wayne. 

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