Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Sleeping Dogs: Year of the Snake DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I suspect that this is going to be the last Sleeping Dogs DLC, and thankfully it’s the best (and largest) so far. The DLC series for Sleeping Dogs hasn’t been nearly as disastrous as it has been for many games (I’m looking at you Darksiders II), but it also hasn’t exactly been particularly awe inspiring either, rarely raising above mediocre. Year of the Snake is certainly an improvement over Nightmare in North Point and The Zodiac Tournament, but is nonetheless a rather bland experience, which doesn’t live up to the potential for wacky fun that it offered.

Sleeping Dogs, unlike the proceeding two DLCs, picks up shortly after the main storyline of the original game. Wei Shen’s superiors, somewhat peeved at the death and destruction left in the wake of his take down of the Sun on Yee, have demoted him to the position of a standard beat cop. It’s not long however before an apocalyptic cult start to launch attacks around Hong Kong in preparation for the New Year, and it’s unsurprisingly up to Wei Shen to stop them.

Year of the Snake, unlike its brief, but fun, predecessor The Zodiac Tournament, doesn’t add anywhere new, instead returning us to Hong Kong for a whistle stop tour of major locations from the main game. It’s a bit of a shame not to see anywhere new, but this DLC wasn’t really about that, and manages to make up for it in other ways.

The plot is something of a disappointment. It’s initially quite fun to see Wei Shen, badass kung-fu supercop, reduced to giving parking tickets and chasing down muggers and flashers, but the eventual plot returns us to predictable territory. It’s a shame really; the DLC seemed to be leading towards an amusing self aware look at how incredibly inappropriate Wei Shen’s actions as a cop are, and the vast body counts of collateral damage he must have caused along the way. The plot is entirely forgettable, and lacks even the silly themes of the proceeding two DLCs. This is the best DLC so far in every other way, but in terms of the plot it’s easily the worst.

There’s a slight tweaking of combat mechanics in this DLC, with the addition of a taser and the ability to arrest people mid combat offering subtle, but fun twists on the ridiculous ultraviolent fun of Sleeping Dog’s combat. The combat in Sleeping Dogs is still leaps and bounds ahead of its rivals in GTA and Saints Row, and never really stops being fun. Since Year of the Snake is very much about recapping the best parts of Sleeping Dogs, we get to do a bit of everything in this DLC, from some fun car and boat chases, to fist fights to gun battles. It’s nice to have a bit of variety, something lacking in the previous two DLCs. This is also the most substantial DLC so far, with a decent number of story missions and a fair bit of side content giving this release good value for money.

The voice acting was never the strongest element of Sleeping Dogs, but it reaches new levels of ridiculous here. Whilst Wei Shen is still convincing, the voice acting for the villainous cultists is hilariously terrible. Whilst this actually contributed to the silly stylised charm of The Zodiac Tournament, it only serves to weaken this somewhat more grounded instalment.

All in all, Year of the Snake is an enjoyable, if disappointingly conservative release for Sleeping Dogs. There are a few really cool ideas floated which don’t really come to anything, which is a shame, and this release really is just more of the same. Maybe that’s what you want though? If it is, Year of the Snake isn’t a bad little purchase, and if you only buy one piece of Sleeping Dogs DLC, make it this one. 352971

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Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Bank’s novels have a tendency to be rather aggressively baffling, usually only revealing what’s going on right at the end if he does reveal it at all. I thought that The Algebraist and Against a Dark Background were confusing, but Feersum Endjinn reveals new layers of confusing to contend with. Is Feersum Enjinn worth the (substantial) effort that it requires? I would say yes. Just about.

Feersum Endjinn is set in a distant future on an Earth almost unrecognisable to our own. A wave of settlers had already left Earth to colonise the stars, but this novel follows the ancestors of those who stayed behind, living like parasites in the shell of the grand constructions of the humans who had come before. Most of the novel takes place in Serehfa Fastness, a castle built to the proportions of giants, the origin or purpose of which is shrouded in mystery, ruled by King Adijine. Almost all of humanity are linked into  vast computer network, a far flung evolution of the internet, known as the ‘cryptosphere.’ All human minds can have their states stored at the time of death, so resurrection is easy, although these resurrections are limited to eight in the physical world and then a following eight in the artificial reality of the ‘crypt.’ Time in the ‘crypt’ runs at a much slower pace to the base reality, with an hour in the real world corresponding to days in the ‘crypt.’ Humanity has stagnated, regressing into a feudalist social structure, with all this threatened by the Encroachment, a vast molecular cloud which threatens to dim the sun to the point of obliterating all life on Earth.

Feersum Endjinn follows four characters, with their independent narratives alternating with each other in a repetitive structure. First, we have a mysterious, unnamed young woman who awakens in the gardens of a noble family with absolutely no memory of how she got there, who she is, or basic social norms, to serve a mysterious and oblique purpose. Next we have Gadfium, the chief scientific advisor to the King, who is part of a conspiracy to find a true solution to the issue of the Encroachment, believing that the King and the ruling elite are holding back this revelation for their own purposes. After Gadfium we have Count Sessine, a military general who is assassinated almost immediately and sent into the ‘crypt’ to live his afterlife, in which we follow him for most of the novel. Finally we have the child Bascule, a ‘teller’ who communicates with elements of the ‘crypt’, and is recruited by them to try to find a solution to the Encroachment. These disparate plot strands begin to spiral together as the novel wends towards its conclusion, but are still largely separate for most of the work.

The setting of Feersum Endjinn is really rather fascinating, and breathtakingly original as Bank’s settings tend to be. The ‘crypt’ makes for an interesting setting as well, with the artificial realities allowing some truly bizarre and intriguing  figures and structures to exist. Feersum Endjinn can get somewhat self indulgent in its silliness at times; all of Bank’s best novels tread this line, but Feersum Endjinn teeters much more closely to the wrong side for comfort. There were plenty times that I felt myself rolling my eyes at the latest ridiculous vision Banks conjured, rather than enjoying them as I should.

The rigid rotating structure of the novel is interesting, but the plot is something of a mess. Feersum Endjinn feels at times like a melting pot of interesting and fun ideas all thrown together, but failing to cohere into a whole. It certainly doesn’t help that certain themes have been explored much more successfully in later novels, such as the issue of virtual afterlives in Surface Detail and time dilation in The Algebraist, which unfavourably colour this novel.

The use of language in this novel is…interesting to say the least. The young Bascule is dyslexic, with his entire narrative told phonetically in the first person. This is, at first,  rather difficult and actually quite off putting. I wrote it off as a gimmick at first, but I found myself warming to it before the end. There’s something of Holden Caulfield in Bascule, such as in his regular repetition of particular turns of phrase, something which is very Holden-esque. Although he lacks Holden’s complexity, he makes up for it with a charm and likeability which Holden never manages to attain. A whole novel written in this style would have been a struggle, but thankfully Bascule only makes up a quarter of the book, so it doesn’t gain an opportunity to wear thin. As interesting, and eventually enjoyable, as this style is, as with many elements of this novel, there isn’t really a point to it. Is the central thrust of the plot, or the themes, boosted by this addition? I’m not convinced that it is. As it stands, Bascule’s odd and charming narrative is another nice ingredient thrown into the messy stew pot, but it doesn’t all come together into the best of meals.

The characterisation is a bit of a mixed bag as well; Bascule is charming, but no one else seems to have much of a personality. I quite enjoyed the odd moment following the sociopathic and disinterested King Adijine, the sort of villain which Banks excels in writing. Bank’s villains aren’t usually full blown violent psychopaths (well, Archimandrite Luseferous from The Algebraist excepted), but cold, uncaring, yet oddly charming figures with absolutely no interest in anything approaching a conscience, almost innocent in the depths of their selfishness. It was nice to see a female protagonist who isn’t a highly trained/genetically modified warrior badass (Sharrow from Against a Dark Background, Diziet Sma from Use of Weapons, Lededje from Surface Detail), but she still doesn’t have much in the way of a personality. Characterisation often isn’t Bank’s strongest area, but when he gets it right he gets it very right, and Bascule makes up for the less impressive other main members of the cast. Bascule, you can stand up there next to Zakalwe from Use of Weapons. You earnt it.

Feersum Endjinn is an absolute mess of a novel, filled with great ideas and fun moments which never manage to come together to create something great. Feersum Endjinn is one thing though; fearlessly innovative and original, and many readers, myself included, will be able to look past the many flaws of this work to enjoy the good stuff. It all depends on what your tolerance for this sort of stuff is, and if it isn’t high, I’d give Feersum Endjinn a miss.IainMBanksFeersumEndjinn

Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I was very impressed by the first two Borderlands 2 DLCs, feeling that they offered a generous amount of content for the price, as well as fun new locations to explore, so it’s a shame to report that the third DLC, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt, is a colossal step backwards.

This DLC brings the Vault Hunter to the swampy jungle continent of Aegrus at the invitation of the eponymous hunter Sir Hammerlock himself to hunt some of the bizarre, and massive, game which populates this continent. However, tt’s not long before the villainous Professor Nakayama reveals himself to the player and Sir Hammerlock. Nakayama, an obsessive fan of Handsome Jack, seeks to clone him and it is up to the Vault Hunter to stop him.

Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt features three large locations, which sadly all feel visually incredibly similar. I almost never enjoy swamps in games; I can see the sort of oppressive atmosphere that they’re going for, but it just isn’t right for Borderlands. There are some cool elements in the backgrounds; I enjoyed a giant monster skeleton in one of the areas, but by and large Aegrus is a lacklustre location.

Where Captain Scarlett and Torgue’s DLCs were full of new, fun and entertaining characters, Hammerlock’s DLC feels oddly empty and dull. Nakayama fails to be intimidating or amusing, with Hammerlock’s shtick not working quite as well as it did in the main game. Most of the amusement comes from the return of Claptrap, but it isn’t enough to redeem the lazy plot of this DLC.

This DLC has notably a lot less content than the previous two (for the same price). There are only a handful of missions, which is a shame as there was real potential for the ‘hunting’ theme to lead to some great monsters to fight. Instead, we have a handful of giant monster fights, which are never particularly interesting , with only a couple of decent bosses in the entire run. Where Captain Scarlett and Torgue’s DLC felt like slices of Borderlands 2 at its best, Sir Hammerlock’s DLC very much feels like Borderlands 2 at its worst.

The effort put into presentation in the previous two DLCs is also curiously lacking here, with unimaginative character and environmental design contributing yet further to the lacking feeling of this DLC.

Gearbox, a company once with a strong reputation among gamers, have fallen fairly spectacularly from grace in recent months due to the disastrous Aliens: Colonial Marines and the bellicose attitude of CEO Randy Pitchford. If Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt is an indication of the path of future Borderlands products, they could be in worse trouble than they may originally seem. This DLC isn’t bad enough for me to lose all faith in Borderlands 2 DLC, but it denies Gearbox a hat-trick of excellent DLCs which offer good value for money. hammerlock

Spec Ops: The Line for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Spec Ops: The Line looks like exactly the kind of game I usually pass over. I mean, the box art contains a scowling white dude holding a gun in a desert; surely that tells you all you need to know? There’s something truly sick at the core of the modern military shooter, a genre perfectly happy to scapegoat entire races into cannon fodder and treat the modern military actions of the West as  boldly heroic with no consideration for wider ramifications. Spec Ops: The Line looks, on the surface, like part of the problem. This is not the case. Spec Ops: The Line is in fact an incredibly compelling critique of the modern military shooter genre, one which undermines everything from the narrative to the central gameplay mechanics of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor archetype to create an experience which is, in every facet of its construction, subversive.

The plot of Spec Ops: The Line is heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now, as well as that film’s literary basis, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Spec Ops: The Line picks up six months after devastating sand storms had ravaged Dubai. The wealthy elite of Dubai fled, leaving the less affluent behind to die, with the international community showing little interest in helping. Whilst returning for Afghanistan, the decorated American Commander John Konrad (subtle right?) volunteers himself and his entire 33rd battalion to assist in the relief efforts. When ordered to abandon the civilians of Dubai, the entire 33rd deserted and were disavowed by the US. Soon after, all radio broadcasts were cut off, so six months later a small squad of three Delta Force operatives, led by Captain Martin Walker, are sent into Dubai to find out what happened. Walker and his squad make their way into Dubai, finding it in a state of martial law under the control of the 33rd, with brutal justice being handed out upon the Arab residents of the city at the hands of their new American overlords.

The sand covered Dubai is an interesting setting, superficially similar to the generic Middle Eastern settings that we’ve come to expect from the ‘Modern Warfare’ genre, yet, as with most elements of this game, is in fact a satire of these locations. The Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t really hold together as a coherent location at all, with a ridiculous amount of time spent descending from the buildings, with very little spent ascending, heightening the sense of disconnected unreality to the whole thing. Dubai really doesn’t seem like a real place, becoming instead a series of linear shooting galleries, and given the context of the rest of the game this seems like this was entirely the point. Dubai therefore becomes a  symbol for the increasingly fractured mind of Captain Walker, whilst also satirising the propensity of the ‘Modern Warfare’ genre for reducing real locations to simple shooting galleries.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game which highlights the fundamental difference between narrative and story. There are many games out there with more entertaining stories to be told, but the story and the gameplay are often kept somewhat separated, and it’s a rare game which allows the fundamental mechanics of the experience to shape (and be shaped) by the narrative. Probably the most famous example of this was BioShock’s incredible ‘would you kindly’ moment, but there are plenty of other games which engage with this concept to a greater or lesser degree. If this game is watched by another, or was told in another medium, it simply would not have the same impact. This is the reason the planned BioShock film was such a bad idea; some games have narratives which only work in the medium of games, and Spec Ops: The Line is one of them. The growing disconnection between the player and Captain Walker becomes increasingly pronounced throughout, as Walker steadily transforms from the capable and competent soldier in the opening hours into a terrifying monster of a man, a monster that we nonetheless have had control of for almost the entire experience. We feel that we’ve lost control of Captain Walker; this issue of ‘control’, and the relationship between player and protagonist is a fascinating one, explored to great effect in BioShock, but even better here. So, is the story of Spec Ops: The Line remarkable? Not particularly. Nonetheless, Spec Ops: The Line potentially has one of the most compelling narratives that I’ve ever played.

During the course of Spec Ops: The Line the player will fight through 15 linear chapters of gunplay , with the odd set piece moment disrupting the flow, but not nearly as many as in other modern shooters. There’s some reward for taking your time through ‘intel packages’ spread throughout the levels, which shed more light on the story, but by and large you’ll be moving relentlessly in one direction the entire time. So, what is the actual gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line like? Well, it’s a third person shooter, and…that’s pretty much it. The combat isn’t bad, but it never feels as tight or controlled as rivals such as Gears of War. The gunplay feels oddly loose and lethargic, with a less generous auto aim than is standard in modern console shooters.

Spec Ops: The Line has many mixed reviews for one simple reason; it really isn’t that fun. Here’s the key thing though; that’s ok. There is no other medium within which fun is considered to be the only means of engagement. Can you imagine a film reviewer criticising Schindler’s List because it isn’t ‘fun?’ The primary engagement method of Spec Ops: The Line isn’t fun, but something closer to disgust, or fear. The mediocre gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line reinforces it’s narrative, and it’s biting satire of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor archetype. Some feel that this is simply making excuses, claiming that it is likely that Spec Ops: The Line was originally intended to be a ‘taken at face value’ modern shooter, but that the mediocre gameplay required the insertion of the incredible narrative to differentiate it from other games with which it couldn’t compete. I actually think that this is probably true, but I don’t believe this takes anything away from what Yager achieved here; this wouldn’t be the first time that something great was created by accident.

Although Spec Ops: The Line isn’t necessarily visually stunning, there are some really great elements to the game’s visual design which thoroughly impressed me. The physical transformation of the Delta Squad is shocking, with Captain Walker in particular becoming a gradually more frightening figure throughout. There are moments, as the player snaps into cover, that I swear that I can see the so called ‘thousand yard stare’ in Walker’s eyes. I found these moments immensely disturbing, and very powerful. Now, he’s sometimes used as a bit of a punchline by videogame fans due to his ubiquity, but Nolan North’s performance as Captain Walker shows that he deserves his success. He delivers a truly fantastic performance as Walker throughout the game as he journeys from competent and calm professional to a barking, expletive laden animal. Captain Walker is possibly one the most fascinating video game protagonists that I’ve ever encountered , and North deserves a lot of credit for making this the case.

Spec Ops: The Line won’t be for everyone. A lot of people do only want a game that’s fun, and that’s completely understandable; I won’t begrudge people that. If you want a fun game, then Spec Ops: The Line really isn’t the right place to look. Despite that, Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most remarkable gaming experiences which I’ve enjoyed in years, and one which I imagine will linger in my mind for a long time. specops_cityvista_1920x1080

Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

The phrase ‘fan service’ has a strongly negative connotation, to the point that any usage of the word is taken as derogatory, but Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC is proof that, sometimes, giving your fans exactly what they want is the right thing to do. Given the context of the vast backlash Bioware received over the ending to the Mass Effect series, Citadel stands out as an even greater achievement, a release which understands exactly what it is that makes Mass Effect great.

Shepard, on mandatory shore leave on the Citadel whilst the Normandy is being repaired, is gifted the apartment of David Anderson whilst he fights on Earth. With a new home base in the Citadel, Shepard begins to enjoy his leave with a spot of sushi with Joker before he/she is attacked by a mysterious crew of mercenaries and sent falling into the bowels of the Citadel. Shepard brings his/her entire crew together to fight off the new threat, a surprising and intriguing antagonist. This is only the first half the DLC however, with the second half largely revolving around a party at Shepard’s new apartment, which brings back almost every surviving squad mate from the entire trilogy in one final bash.

My main issue with the Omega DLC is that we didn’t actually get any opportunity to enjoy what made Omega great as a setting, and were instead treated to a series of shooting galleries in familiar locales. The first half of Citadel looks to be the same, as the player fights their way through a few linear locations, but after the main antagonist is defeated the player gains access to ‘Silversun Strip’ the entertainment district of the Citadel, filled with a casino and an arcade (full of playable games), as well as a surprisingly well developed arena combat ring. Rather than being rushed away from the new locations as we were in previous Mass Effect 3 DLCs, the new areas of Citadel can be returned to at any point. The Citadel is a great location, and one which I’m always happy to see more of. I’d like to see a Mass Effect spin off set entirely on the Citadel one day, perhaps following a C-Sec officer, and the location is done justice in this DLC just as Omega wasn’t in its titular DLC.

Citadel takes a notably lighter hearted tone than the majority of the game. Although it takes place before the ending of the game, the Reaper threat feels oddly distant from everything that’s happening, lending this DLC as ‘Christmas special’ feeling to it. That’s not a criticism; the pressing nature of the Reaper threat forced the plot into a more aggressive and action packed narrative which I felt was to Mass Effect 3’s detriment compared to its predecessors, so a DLC which doesn’t focus upon the imminent destruction of all galactic life is actually a nice change of pace. The actual plot of the first half of the DLC is quite good, and plays with some interesting questions, but it’s the second half of the DLC as Shepard talks to his crew members, past and present, and organises a party with them all together which I truly treasure. As much as I was laughing during the hilarious party scenes, I also felt somewhat heartbroken knowing that I would never see these characters again. Whether it’s a charmingly drunk Tali, Miranda and Jack continuing their bickering from Mass Effect 2, Grunt and Wrex trying to ‘out-Krogan’ each other, I was never less than entirely charmed throughout. Even characters who have died make appearances through audio and visual messages. Citadel offers an absolutely perfect conclusion to the trilogy, offering us a moment of happiness for us to treasure, a perfect balm for the weak and unsatisfying ending to the main game. There are just so many wonderful, beautiful moments in this DLC, which made me realise how truly special this cast of characters Bioware created are.

The shift of focus away from shooting is appreciated here, although the shooting is still fun, and culminates in one of my favourite boss fights in the series. There’s a fun scene in which Shepard and a companion infiltrate a casino, which involves no shooting at all, which given the action focus of Omega is a good change of pace. The new mini games on the Citadel are fun, as is the arena combat. Bioware made a lot of effort in this DLC, more than they really needed to, making Citadel really seem like a labour of love rather than a cynical marketing ploy.

The new environments look wonderful, with the decadent gaudiness of the Silversun Strip offering us the sort of location we haven’t really seen much in the Mass Effect series. We glimpsed this sort of thing in the DLC which introduced Kasumi Goto in Mass Effect 2, but we were never able to immerse ourselves in it as much as we are here. The real coup Bioware pulled here was the voice acting return of almost every major character, alive or dead, with the only real exceptions being Legion and Dr. Chakwas. All of the characters are as wonderfully performed as ever, with the return of relatively famous actors such as Seth Green as Joker, Tricia Helfer as EDI and Yvonne Strahovski as Miranda coming as a pleasant surprise. Every character is given a time to shine; I particularly enjoyed our favourite hipster Prothean Javik, who delivered some of the funniest lines. The thought of how much Bioware must have spent on the voice cast for this DLC easily makes the asking price worthwhile.

Mass Effect 3: Citadel is an essential for anyone who cares about the Mass Effect series. Skip all the other DLCs and you won’t miss much, but I implore you not to skip this one. Citadel is the perfect conclusion to the trilogy, and offers the catharsis which the ending failed to offer. Thanks to Citadel, when I think of Mass Effect 3 it won’t be with bitterness and disappointment; this is the most essential piece of DLC that I have ever played. ME3_Citadel

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

I really enjoyed The Name of the Wind, the debut release of Patrick Rothfuss and the first in the ‘Kingkiller Chronicle’ trilogy. The second novel, The Wise Man’s Fear, comfortably lives up to its predecessor, with the one downside being the now unbearable wait for the next, and concluding, novel in the series. Hopefully Rothfuss is more of a Brandon Sanderson and less of a George R. R. Martin and we get this novel soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Wise Man’s Fear follows the second day of Kvothe’s retelling of his life to Chronicler and his mysterious Fae companion Bast. Kvothe’s tale on this second day encompasses moments vital to his legend, such as his encounter with the mythic Felurian, his martial training with the Adem and his time at the court of the Maer of Vintas.

The geographic scale of The Wise Man’s Fear is much grander than The Name of the Wind. Where the vast majority of the latter took place in the Commonwealth, with the focus falling squarely on introducing us to Kvothe’s character rather than building the world itself, in The Wise Man’s Fear Rothfuss understands that we know Kvothe by now and that the focus can shift slightly to the world in which he lives. Although many elements of this world don’t immediately leap out as new or innovative, there’s always more to them than you might first think. For example, the isolated warrior people of the Adem may, at first glance, seem highly similar to Stephen Donaldson’s Haruchai or Steven Erikson’s Seguleh, but as we get to know them and their culture, we find that there’s more to them than we may at first be apparent. This novel gives us our first real introduction to the world of the Fae, merely hinted at in The Name of the Wind, giving us enough to satisfy without spoiling the mystery. Although I felt that Rothfuss’ worldbuilding could have been better in The Name of the Wind, having now read The Wise Man’s Fear I understand to a much greater extent what he was doing.

The Wise Man’s Fear isn’t a novel which rushes itself, and Rothfuss takes his time when telling the story. My biggest issue with this novel isn’t so much with the plot or Rothfuss’ writing, but with the structure. It’s quite clear in this novel that Rothfuss writes these novels as one continuous story, with the splits between the novels coming more from publishers than from authorial intent. This leads to an odd opening couple of hundred pages, which feel more like a climax to The Name of the Wind rather to an introduction to The Wise Man’s Fear. However, I suspect that if read right after one another this wouldn’t really be an issue, and perhaps this is Rothfuss’ intent. In many ways, the ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’ flow together into one continuous story to a greater extent than many other fantasy series, and I suspect that the real cleverness of Rothfuss will only be entirely revealed with the release of the third novel in the trilogy.

Some readers have felt that The Wise Man’s Fear does not forward Kvothe’s tale enough, and that it does not engage closely enough with the central mystery of the Chandrian and the Amyr. I honestly feel that these people are missing the point of the novel. Some who view a good story as being a largely linear route from point A to point B might feel this, focusing upon the central conflicts and nothing else, but I truly believe that these details are what makes a story great. The difficult balance, a balance which many fantasy writers don’t quite get right, is in ensuring that secondary story arcs are interesting and supports the central narrative, and don’t simply exist alongside the main story. Although it may not be in an obvious fashion, everything Kvothe does supports his journey towards glory, and later his inevitable downfall into the shadow of a man we see in the frame narrative.

The question of Kvothe as an unreliable narrator is floated to a greater extent in The Wise Man’s Fear than in The Name of the Wind. Kvothe is, fundamentally, a storyteller, and his conscious inflation of his own legend in his younger years is repeated throughout the novel. Although he claims that the story that he is telling Chronicler and Bast is the unvarnished truth, why should we believe him? There has been some criticism in this novel that almost every female character is a sexualised fantasy; here we have the intelligent and witty ‘girl next door’, here we have the sultry and experienced seductress from a foreign land, and soon we have the innocent young maid, attractive in her purity. Far from making Rothfuss as misogynist, as some have accused him, I’m more inclined towards the belief that Rothfuss is simply reflecting the mindset of a 16 year old boy. A divide must be drawn between Rothfuss and Kvothe. Rothfuss remains an interesting and clever writer, more so than he may first seem, which is particularly impressive given how early he is in his career.

Although the character focus is still squarely upon Kvothe, the secondary characters feel more vivid this time around. Of particular note is Elodin, the master of Naming at the University, as an incredibly amusing figure. There’s something of Albus Dumbledore in his whimsical strangeness, but also a darkness and a callousness which makes him particularly intriguing. I also enjoyed the noble brat Ambrose Jakis, a character who reaches Joffrey Baratheon levels of nastiness, and look forward to the seeing how much further his rivalry with Kvothe can be pushed. The new characters are interesting too, particularly the warrior-monk Adem people.

The Wise Man’s Fear is brilliant, annoyingly so, because now I must add the ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’ to ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and ‘The Stormlight Archive’ to my ‘series in which I impatiently await the next volume’ list. The reception of The Wise Man’s Fear wasn’t quite as rapturous as that of The Name of the Wind, but I actually believe that it is a stronger novel in many respects. Bring on book 3 Mr. Rothfuss!patrick-rothfuss-art-by-marc-simonetti

Far Cry 3: Deluxe Bundle DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

As much as everyone hates it, pre-order DLC is here to stay. Locked on disc content is an infuriating fact of the game industry these days, with very few companies remaining pure (please Nintendo, please remain pure). I normally don’t bother with such things, but decided to give this one a go, because from the sound of it, the content was worthwhile and fun to play. These missions don’t feel like they’ve been stripped from the main campaign to sell back to us; I’ll never forgive Ubisoft for their frankly offensive Assassin’s Creed II DLC which did just that, or Bioware for the DLC exclusive Javik character in Mass Effect 3. The Deluxe Bundle DLC for Far Cry 3 isn’t nearly as bad as that, but is certainly a…ahem  ‘far cry’ from a decent DLC package.

The Deluxe Bundle DLC is a packaging together of the different pre-order DLC available for this game, with the main attractions being the Lost Expedition package, which contains two missions, and the Monkey Business DLC, which contains four missions. The Lost Expedition stuff doesn’t really have much of a story, but is packed with some eye wateringly awkward and out of place gaming references to things such as Portal and BioShock, although there is an interesting tie to the Assassin’s Creed universe which opens the possibility of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed sharing a setting. The Monkey Business stuff introduces Hurk, a dumb, overweight American who pulls Jason into his attempts to join the Rakyat tribe by enlisting his help for a few missions.

This DLC doesn’t really add any new locations, and a disappointing amount takes place underground. Far Cry 3 was at its best in the open air, and these more constrained environments aren’t conducive to the open ended approach which made the game so successful. I’d love to see a DLC which added a new island, one quite different from the two in the main game, rather than being forced to fit into the constraints of the existing locations.

The Monkey Business pack is undermined by the fact that Hurk, clearly intended as comic relief, severely grates as a character. Perhaps if played alongside the main game Hurk would fit into the plot better, a naive and jolly idiot in a game filled with dark and tormented characters, but this character really does this DLC no favours. There’s not much plot to this DLC, certainly nothing which feels relevant to the main story, which is probably for the best as that would be a recipe for fan backlash.

The Deluxe Bundle is more of the same, but that’s not really an issue. I loved Far Cry 3, so more Far Cry 3 is something that I certainly appreciate. There are some really cool set piece moments, one during which you man a machine gun on a boat sticking out in particular, but by and large it’s just standard Far Cry 3 stuff. If you want something which adds something particularly new and interesting, perhaps you should  look elsewhere.

The Deluxe Bundle is, as these packages go, not that bad. There’s a decent amount of content here, but not enough for the price. For half the price this would be a decent package, but as is usually the case with DLC, there’s simply not enough content for the asking price. Far-Cry-3-Deluxe-Bundle-DLC

Halo 4: Spartan Ops Season 1 for Xbox 360

Spartan Ops was something of an experiment, something which hasn’t really been done before, and is therefore a somewhat mixed experience. Included for free alongside the already generous Halo 4 package, Spartan Ops offers a lot of extra gameplay, which varies from as thrilling and exciting as any moment in the campaign to a deadening  slog.

Spartan Ops picks up six months after the end of Halo 4, and follows the crew of the UNSC Infinity as they orbit Requiem. There’s no Master Chief here, as the members of the UNSC military scramble to deal with the ramifications of Halo 4. Whilst Spartan squads are scouring Requiem for remnant Covenant and Prometheans, they come across a mysterious Forerunner artifact and bring it upon Infinity. The artifact activates and sets in motion the events of Spartan Ops, which includes the return of the fascinating scientist Dr. Halsey, one of the most interesting characters of the Halo canon.

The first half of Spartan Ops has a lot of repetition in its maps, usually either poached multiplayer maps of little sections from the campaign. There are only so many ways that you can shoot your way through these maps, and I quickly got sick of these areas. Luckily, the second half of Spartan Ops is much better, taking place in maps built specifically for it. Whilst these maps are repeated throughout the 25 episodes that make up the second half of the Season, they are usually done so in interesting ways. You’ll never fight through a map the same way or with the same arsenal twice, which cannot be said for the first half.

I actually found the plot of Spartan Ops more compelling than that of the main campaign and I think I know why; no Master Chief. My favourite Halo plots are for Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, games which don’t star Master Chief. Master Chief is fine as a protagonist, but he’s too lost in his own legend to be an interesting figure in his own right, and his presence sometimes undermines the personalities of the characters around him. Figures who seemed somewhat bland in the main campaign such as Captain Lasky and Commander Sarah Palmer really come into their own in Spartan Ops, as they are allowed to shine. The story is told primarily through beautifully animated episodes released with each batch of five missions, compellingly directed and voice acted. As excellent as these episodes are, there is an unfortunate disconnect between what you see in the episodes and what you then play in the five chapters. The episodes generally follow Spartan Fireteam Majestic, but the player is a member of the unseen Fireteam Crimson, a blank slate Spartan of the players own creation. As is generally the case in Spartan Ops, things improve significantly with Episode 6, with short in engine cutscenes making what we do feel more relevant to what we watch. The disconnect still exists though, and 343 didn’t quite succeed in their (laudable) ambition to create a co-operative experience which also contains a compelling narrative. All said though, I enjoyed the plot of Spartan Ops Season 1, and I hope that 343 take the lessons they clearly learnt between the first and second halves of the season, then build on them for the likely Season 2.

Spartan Ops is a series of missions designed to be played cooperatively, split across ten episodes, with each episode containing five chapters. These episodes were released weekly, but are now all available. These missions can also be played solo, as I did myself, not being a fan of online co-op. So, what do the Spartan Ops missions actually entail? Since Spartan Ops is a replacement for the Firefight mode from Halo: Reach, it does largely involve massacring your way through hordes of Covenant and Prometheans and…not much else, at least in the first half. By the second half we actually get some great set piece moments, moments which come close to rivalling the set pieces of the main campaign. At this point in the review it’s redundant to state how much better the missions in the second half play, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Spartan Ops is a flawed experience, but a free one, which certainly makes this more forgivable! The first five episodes, 25 missions overall, are a slog. The basic mechanics of Halo are fun enough that it isn’t unbearable to play or anything, but these missions are obnoxiously similar to each other and utterly mindless. Thankfully, the final 25 missions really make up for this, all wrapped up in a compelling plot which actually deals with relatable humans rather than remote killing machines. Spartan Ops requires a large time investment; I spent almost twice as long completing Spartan Ops as I did playing the campaign, but by and large I’d say that it’s a worthy way to spend your time. Halo-4-Spartan-Ops-Episode-2

ZombiU for Wii U

ZombiU has drawn many comparisons to Red Steel, the seemingly promising Wii launch FPS which turned out to be absolutely terrible. Both games were made by Ubisoft and generated a lot of hype as a ‘mature’ game for a new Nintendo console, and both were held up as potential showcases for their console’s respective innovations; motion controls for the Wii and the tablet controller for the Wii U. Thankfully, ZombiU is not, despite what some reviewers have claimed, the Wii U’s Red Steel, and is in fact something much better than that.

ZombiU tells a fairly standard apocalypse story, taking place in a London swarmed by undead hordes. The player controls a series of random survivors, who are guided by a figure known as the ‘Prepper’, an ex-army type who has created a safe house in the London Underground and assists other survivors from  a remote location through radio. As the survivors journey throughout London, they are tied up into the question of the origins of the zombie blight, and how it can be reversed.

A huge part of my enjoyment of this game came from the London setting. I mean, sure, it’s very much a tourist’s vision of London, but I don’t really have a problem with this. I mean, when you’re fighting zombies inside the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace I’m sure as hell not going to complain. It’s actually in these big set pieces that the game most shines, with these locations genuinely rendered in an atmospheric, if entirely inaccurate, manner. When attempting to recreate the more normal streets of London ZombiU is less successful, and it just doesn’t ever quite feel right.  I almost wish that ZombiU had gone full tourist and bought us to Covent Garden, Westminster and St. Paul’s. Sure, it may have been a bit contrived and silly, but this is a zombie game for crying out loud, if that isn’t an opportunity for silliness I don’t know what is. All said however, the setting works. Although I imagine that the inevitable sequel will move elsewhere, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to them sticking with London, as there’s a lot more they could do there.

The actual plot of ZombiU is more coherent and interesting than I expected, but considering that my expectations were at rock bottom that’s perhaps not saying much. ZombiU is highly tied into the British monarchy, with the prophecies of the occultist and spy John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, playing a key role. Throughout the game, letters to the our Queen can be found, and she casts a long shadow over much of the game. It’s quite interesting, but never really goes anywhere. Now, there was no part of me that actually thought that we’d encounter a zombie Queen but…well, a man can dream right?

ZombiU is a triumphant assertion of what the Wii U is capable of, creating an experience which simply wouldn’t be possible on other platforms. Basic movement, shooting and basic interaction with the environment is handled gimmick free with the buttons, with the Wii U gamepad screen serving several different functions. When accessing the inventory the game doesn’t pause, with the TV screen pulling out into the third person view while the player roots around their backpack on the tablet screen. This creates some incredibly tense moments as the players gaze flicks back and forth between the screens, focusing on the necessary task on the gamepad whilst looking out for zombies on the TV. This mechanic is used in several different ways throughout the game, and works incredibly well. The gamepad is also used for aiming certain weapons with scopes, using the gyroscope controls to point and aim, offering a degree of accuracy which the Wii U’s predecessor never quite managed to attain, even with MotionPlus.

One of the most interesting mechanics of ZombiU is the way that it handles player death. When the player inevitably falls beneath a wave of zombies, their character doesn’t just respawn at the last checkpoint. Instead, the player awakes in the safe house as a new survivor, and must hunt down and kill their zombified former selves to reclaim their equipment. This is an incredibly cool mechanic, although the actual plot of the game doesn’t do nearly a good enough job of acknowledging this. It took around twenty survivors to get me to the end of the game, but the characters still spoke to me as if it had all been one person, rather undermining one of the central mechanics of the game. If the player dies again on their way to get their equipment back, all of the player’s hard earnt loot is lost, and it was this which caused my great shame. Here I make a confession. I didn’t finish ZombiU. I make a point of finishing almost every game I buy; I hate the feeling of not getting my money’s worth. I have to really detest a game to stop playing (I’m looking at you Dark Souls), so it’s a bit odd that I didn’t finish ZombiU. I ended up in a position in ZombiU is which there was no way for me to continue, however many approaches I tried, and I eventually gave up. Luckily this was right at the end of the game, just after the point of no return, so it could have been worse. It’s galling, but oddly appropriate for the bleak tone this game evokes.

The game is paced well, with a good balance between larger scale set pieces and tenser, more atmospheric sections. There are a few dud sections, such as a weak ‘arena’ action section, which requires quick shooting in a game which really doesn’t mechanically support this kind of gameplay. The gunplay is awkward and slow paced, but that’s normally fine, because you’re not a trained veteran, but simply an ordinary civilian. I was rather piqued by an irritating fetch quest towards  the end, which reminded me unpleasantly of Wind Waker’s Triforce hunt. Like with Wind Waker, this section felt like padding to artificially extend the game. However, also like Wind Waker, the actual experience isn’t horrible, as the world of ZombiU so compelling to explore. It’s just irritatingly lazy and contrived.

ZombiU isn’t exactly a technical marvel, but it’s functional. There are some irritations, such as the jerkiness and repetitiveness of the zombies’ animations, but by and large this game looks pretty great. Sure, the visuals are a bit murky and blurry but, why not? It actually makes things a little bit scarier! The voice acting, particularly for the intriguing ‘Prepper’ is surprisingly good,  and actually got me interested in some of these figures. The moans and snarls of the zombies avoid cliché and silliness to be genuinely unsettling, with the understated soundtrack really helping to raise the tension. ZombiU is quite uneven in places, but it does have a coherent style to it, respectful of classic zombie stories which came before it yet kept carefully distinctive.

ZombiU isn’t an unqualified success; there are a multitude of niggling flaws which persist throughout the game, but at its core this game just works. This is a terrifying, immersive and atmospheric experience, and one which stands as a perfect showcase of Wii U’s potential. Since Ubisoft made a sequel to the disastrous Red Steel (Red Steel 2 is highly underrated by the way), I think it’s very likely we’ll be getting a sequel to ZombiU, and I for one cannot wait. zombiu1

Sleeping Dogs: The Zodiac Tournament DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I admire United Front’s stated intent in their Sleeping Dogs DLC series to attempt to pay homage to different aspects of Hong Kong cinema, as the main game did with gangster movies. The first story based DLC, Nightmare in North Point, was successful in some areas but utterly lacking in others, and it’s pretty much the same story here. That said, The Zodiac Tournament in a  stronger  release than Nightmare in North Point, and cheaper too.

The Zodiac Tournament brings Wei Shen to an island just off the coast of Hong Kong which hosts an illegal fighting ring, where decadent millionaires pay exorbitant sums of money  to watch men fight to the death. Wei is sent undercover to infiltrate the fighting ring, and to fight his way to the top.

The island on which The Zodiac Tournament takes place is extremely pleasant, and a nice change of pace from the urban Hong Kong. One of my main issues with Nightmare in North Point was the way that it failed to offer any new locations, and although the island certainly isn’t large or even particularly explorable, a clear effort has been made to create a visually distinctive environment. There’s some exploration to be had to find statues which offer Wei new abilities, but your journey through the island will be largely linear. It’s a shame that we can’t explore this island more, but given the price of this DLC it’s perhaps not surprising that we don’t.

This DLC opens promisingly, with a classic grainy filter bringing to mind low budget kung-fu movies of the 70s as well as bombastic and cheesy music. The promise is of an endearingly ridiculous romp, but this never really manifests, for the primary reason that this DLC is just too short to tell it’s fun tale properly. That’s not to say that there aren’t entertaining moments, but it all feels rushed and the kung-fu vibe feels underused.

The Zodiac Tournament focuses almost exclusively on one aspect of Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay, and thankfully that element is the games strongest; the hand to hand combat. Yeah sure, it’s a blatant rip off of the combat from Batman’s Arkham games, but if you’re going to rip something off you should do it with style, something Sleeping Dogs had caboodles of. Where the boss characters of the main game were almost always less fun to fight, here they’re much better designed, and genuinely require faster reactions and more thought than the regular grunts. There isn’t really anything else to this DLC; there’s little in the way of driving, no shooting, although there are a couple of fun chase scenes, an element which I liked in the main game. Where Nightmare in North Point actually undermined Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay strengths, The Zodiac Tournament plays to them them.

As mentioned above, I’m a fan of the grainy filter image used throughout this DLC, although it only pops up in cutscenes and during some fights. I can’t help but feel that United Front should have just gone the whole hog and put the entire DLC in this style; it feels oddly underused. The voice acting is fairly dire, but this actually benefits the B-movie feel this DLC is attempting to evoke. The ridiculous pidgin English which the inhabitants of Hong Kong speak in Sleeping Dogs, whilst irritating in the main game, only serves to heighten the feeling that you’re watching a terrible Western dub of a movie intended to be in Cantonese. The style of this DLC doesn’t quite live up to its promise, but it makes a fair shot.

The Zodiac Tournament was a lot of fun, yet felt lacking as so much DLC does. There just isn’t enough content here. As I often recommend, this is probably worth picking up when it pops up on sale, but before then I’d hold off. What is here is fun and cool, there’s just so little of it. zodiac

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