Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It always feels a bit weird reviewing something considered a ‘classic’; I felt a similar way reviewing Flowers for Algernon a couple of weeks ago. How do you say anything that hasn’t been said before? You’ll be hard pressed to find any critic who won’t argue that The Great Gatsby is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century, and it’s wider themes are bold and interesting enough that it’s easy to see why. The failure of the American dream, a theme which I would argue is the prevailing characteristic of the American novel, is key here, but the actual plot is somewhat more lacking.

The narrator of The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway, a young bond salesman from the East who moves to the fictional New York suburb of West Egg, into a small house bordering the mansion of the enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is prone to throwing lavish parties and gazing broodingly across the Long Island bay, and Nick is drawn into Gatsby’s wake, becoming entangled in his life and discovering the secrets of his past.

Fitzgerald shows a great ability to conjure a beautiful sense of place; New York has been written about possibly more than any other city, and it’s amazing how different the city can feel in the hand of different writers. Fitzgerald’s New York is dreamlike, ethereal and not quite real, in part artificially constructed by its residents and part greater than those who reside there. Gatsby’s mansion itself is an artfully constructed location, vibrant and full but also curiously sad and lonely. Gatsby’s superficial success, but truly pathetic nature, is perfectly encapsulated in the empty and barely used rooms throughout his mansion.

Not a huge amount actually happens in this novel, and the passage of time isn’t particularly well conveyed. Nick’s friendship and respect for Gatsby happens unconvincingly quickly, but this is a novel more about atmosphere than plot. I suppose the primary flaw of this novel is the unconvincing central relationship between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin, and a highly unlikeable character. I do wonder if this was the point though; at the beginning of novel Nick, the obvious audience identification figure, is as enchanted by Daisy as everyone else, but as the novel goes on he begins to realise just how shallow and self obsessed she is. In the end, Daisy is just another facet of Gatsby’s aimless ambition; he surrounds himself with shallow displays of wealth to validate himself, and therefore seeks a similarly shallow woman to share his wealth.

It’s hard to deny Fitzgerald’s raw literary prowess when it comes to his prose. This novel has that effortless beauty that only the best writers can conjure; this is not a difficult book by any stretch, with Fitzgerald weaving his language with clarity and creativity. If this is the standard of his prose, I most certainly want to read more Fitzgerald.

Gatsby is an undeniably interesting character, but we don’t really get much of a feel for his personality, beyond a series of quirky character traits (I’m going to struggle to not call everyone ‘old boy’ after finishing this one). He’s more a symbol for blind American ambition, a symbol as relevant today as it was in 1925. The supporting cast is strong, such as Nick’s likeably sardonic love interest Jordan Baker and the violent power of Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan.

This is a short review, because there’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. The Great Gatsby isn’t a perfect novel, and I’ve read better dealing with similar themes, but it’s certainly worth a read, if only as an example of what truly great prose looks like. Gatsby_1925_jacket

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Fire Emblem: Awakening for Nintendo 3DS

I’ve played quite a few Fire Emblem games; two for the GBA, one for the GameCube and one for the DS, but I’d never completed one. I enjoyed them for a while, but then I’d hit a difficulty wall and give up; I’d generally got twenty or so hours out of the game and was ready to call it quits, but Fire Emblem: Awakening was the first that I followed through to the end. The simply reason is that this is the best in the series, possibly the best game for the Nintendo 3DS and one of the best strategy games which I’ve ever played.

Fire Emblem: Awakening opens as the Avatar, a figure who is named and designed by the player, wakes amnesiac in a field. He is found by Chrom, the prince of the Haildom of Ylisse, and several of his companion. Chrom head the ‘Shepherds’ an elite band of fighters charged with keeping the civilians of Ylisse safe. Incursions from the neighbouring land of Plegia draw Chrom and the Shepherds’ attentions, as well as the arrival of undead creatures known as the ‘Risen.’ Among all this a mysterious masked warrior arrives, claiming to be Marth, an ancient legendary Prince and a name familiar to long-time Fire Emblem fans, although most will know the name from Super Smash Bros.

The actual setting of Fire Emblem: Awakening is fairly generic, with a few ties in the wider mythology of the series providing some interest, but by and large there’s little in this Fire Emblem world which we haven’t seen before. I’d quite like to see a Fire Emblem game which gave a different kind of fantasy world a try, with the quaint medieval setting failing to offer anything which we haven’t seen before.

The actual plot isn’t necessarily particularly interesting either; it’s got a few enjoyable twists, but there’s little in the main narrative which we haven’t seen in other Fire Emblem games, or any fantasy game really. The real star of this game is in its massive cast of incredibly likeable and well developed characters. Whether it’s the clumsy Sumia, the sadistic Tharja, the goofy Owain or the terrifyingly creepy Henry, there are very few characters which fail to make at least some impression. These characters can be paired off and married to one another, and best of all even have children. Sure, I don’t want to lose Frederick because he’s a handy tank, but more importantly I don’t want to leave his wife to raise their child alone.

The true genius of Fire Emblem can best be summed up in the tale of a character by the name of Donnell. Donnell is recruitable in an optional side mission, and has the class of ‘Villager’, and is utterly and completely useless. Seriously, he’s a massive liability and keeping him alive is a constant struggle, but here’s the twist. Donnell has a special ability which means that he levels at a much better rate than other characters, so by the end he has gone from a painfully irritating waste of space to literally my most powerful unit. Seriously, Donnell was nigh indestructible and could take down almost any foe in one strike. This is a great example of building plot into the fundamental mechanics of the game itself, and Donnell’s character arc is one of the most satisfying which I’ve ever experienced in a game, all achieved through the actual gameplay itself.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening is a turn based strategy RPG, in which the player commands a small band of fighters against increasingly brutal foes. The series is best known for its ‘permadeath’ system; if you lose a character here, they’re gone forever. The game operates on a basic ‘rock/paper/scissors’ approach, with lances beating swords, swords beating axes and axes beating lances, as well as a few other twists, such as the colossal damage done by archers to flying foes. There are a fair few rules to always remember when you play, but if you keep these in mind the game is quite forgiving on lower difficulties. That’s not to say that the game is easy; this game can be very punishing, especially if you’re as bullish as I am on not losing any characters, but Awakening is certainly much more forgiving than its predecessors. The optional ‘Casual’ mode disables permadeath for the those who don’t fancy the stress (and I can’t say I blame them), but things have been improved for those of us who stuck with the more brutal ‘Classic’ mode. It’s much easier to access extra fights to level your characters than it was in previous games, where it was all too possible to find yourself underleveled in a tough fight with no way to rectify the situation. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a perfect example of how you can streamline a game, and make it more accessible, without dumbing it down.

The main addition to this game is the ability to pair your characters so that they may fight side by side. In previous games character could be paired, but this was very limited, and only for the sake of better transportation. Here, pairing characters boosts their stats as they fight, and the longer and more frequently characters are paired the greater their ‘Support Rank’ is, which is also how romances are determined. By the time characters reach the maximum support rank, S for opposite sex characters and A for same sex characters (no gay marriage here, which is a shame, but in Nintendo’s defence the children mechanic wouldn’t have quite worked otherwise) characters regularly block attacks to their partners or even strike alongside them. Working out which characters pair best together adds an extra layer of strategy to an already complex game, without making things convoluted.

There’s also plenty of game for your money here; there are 25 main missions, some of which can take up to an hour to complete, as well as an equal number of fully fledged out sidequests. Random roaming packs of bandits which can be fought add even more value to a game utterly bursting with content. If you’re interested in building the relationships between your characters, you’ll find plenty of entertaining conversations to reward you. Fire Emblem: Awakening requires you to give it a lot,  but you’ll get a lot out of it too. This is the kind of game which gets into your head, and can be a devil to dislodge.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is comfortably the best looking Fire Emblem game to date, with the battles looking incredibly cool and the characters looking excellent in their 3D battle forms, their anime style conversation forms and their tactical icon forms. The battles deserve a lot of praise, and definitely feel much more dynamic than they did in previous Fire Emblem games. The music has its moments, the main theme is as sweeping and epic as ever, but it’s not particularly memorable. There are a handful of fully animated and voice acted cutscenes which look amazing, but there aren’t many of them, and I’d like to see more of these in future Fire Emblem releases. The game isn’t fully voice acted, with each character having only a handful of vocal snippets which are repeated over and over again in combat or support conversations. These aren’t nearly as annoying as they could have been, and the actual performances of these snippets are solid and likeable.

Fire Emblem: Awakening could have been the end for Fire Emblem, but likely instead represents a rebirth for one of Nintendo’s lesser known franchises. It’s subtle improvements on the formula of the earlier games take nothing away, adding accessibility without dumbing down, as well as an incredibly compelling and likeable cast of characters which makes Fire Emblem: Awakening such a special game. I wouldn’t be surprised if, due to the success of this game, we get another Fire Emblem game for the Nintendo 3DS soon, and I for one cannot wait. Fire-Emblem-Awakening

The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was an odd book, and offered a fascinating and vivid alternate history which begged for re-exploration. Happily, Susanna Clarke does exactly that, with The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, which contains a few stories most certainly set within the ‘Jonathan Strange’ universe, and a few which may not be. I’ll take a quick look at each individual story.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

The title story of this collection is highly tied into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, featuring the titular characters themselves and actually embellishing upon an incident only obliquely referred to in the main novel. ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ follows the friendship of three young women in Gloucestershire and their dabbling in magic, something considered to be only within the realm of men. Women didn’t really play much of a role in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as Clarke herself stated that to preserve the authenticity of the work women had to be kept in the ‘domestic sphere.’ ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ makes up for this though, with a gloriously feminist tale about women gaining a potent and natural power over men. I really enjoyed this one, and it’s certainly one of the highlights of the collection.

On Lickerish Hill

This is one of the more forgettable stories of the collection, a variation on the Rumpelstiltskin story, telling the story of a young woman in the 17th century, who is compelled by her husband to spin an impossible amount of flax. She makes a deal with a fairy, who weaves the flax but threatens to take her away if she cannot guess his name after a month. The antiquarian spelling of this work offers some interest, but otherwise there’s not really much else to this story to distinguish it from other fairy tales.

Mrs. Mabb

This was a great improvement over the last story, and follows Venetia Moore, a young women whose fiancé, the dashing Captain Fox, has left her for the mysterious Mrs. Mabb. Venetia investigates this new woman, trying to find the secrets which she conceals. I liked this story a lot; the feminist statements of this collection are usually fairly bold, but here it’s quite subtle. Venetia is frequently characterised by her peers as hysterical, but actually has a better grasp of the situation than those around her.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse

It’s never nice when a story fails to live up to its own name, but that’s what we have here. This story borrows the setting of Wall from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but doesn’t use it in any particularly interesting way. The pompous and arrogant Duke of Wellington angers the proud folk of Wall during a visit and finds that they have let his horse free. The Duke goes forth to find his horse and finds a mysterious woman weaving the tapestry of his fate. I didn’t really understand what this story contributed to the collection; a lot of short story collections have a story like this, a lightweight one which falls in the middle between the more significant entries. It’s a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of Wall, but the setting is completely underutilised.

Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower

This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, told from the diaries of Alessandro Simonelli, a pompous and arrogant cad who’s sent from Cambridge to be the rector of a small village. There he encounters a strange house filled with even stranger inhabitants, and is involuntarily drawn into the mystery of this house, as well as his own lineage. Simonelli is a nasty piece of work, but a lot of fun to read about, with his conceited attitude providing a lot of laughs. There’s an interesting unreliable narrator element here too, and we have to wonder how much Simonelli is twisting events to present himself as a hero.

Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby

This was another story I thoroughly enjoyed; at its core it focuses upon the unlikely friendship between the fairy Tom Brightwind and the Jewish doctor David Montefiore. The relationship and banter between these two is delightful, and more than any other story in the collection I felt that there was a lot more I’d like to see from these characters. Tom and David are journeying to Lincoln, and along the way come to the village of Thoresby, which has fallen on hard times due to a series of misfortunes. Tom decides to intervene, in an unsurprisingly convoluted and bizarre fashion. This story was a lot of fun, and certainly stands as one of my favourites.

Antickes and Frets

Like the earlier story about the Duke of Wellington, the protagonist of this story is a real historical figure, in this case Mary, Queen of Scots. This story tells of her detention by the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her attempts to use dark magic to curse Queen Elizabeth and assist her political plotting. This is definitely a better story than ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse’, but it’s still not really a standout. Mary’s palpable vindictive fury is the highlight of this story, but there isn’t otherwise much else to recommend it.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner

The final story of the collection concerns itself with a figure absolutely key to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Uskglass, the Raven King who ruled Northern England for centuries. This story is presented as a folk tale concerning a time where Uskglass was defeated by a lowly charcoal burner, and an entertaining story it is too. Although written in a much plainer style than the rest o the stories, it has a lot of depth to it, particularly in regard to religion and class. It doesn’t necessarily seem like much at first, but I ended up thinking of this story as one of the most interesting in the collection; more stories about the enigmatic Raven King would be fine with me!

Conclusion

It’s a rare short story collection which is all hits and no misses, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories has its fair share of misses. That said, those misses tend to the shorter stories, so this is definitely a collection worth giving a go, especially if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There’s a lot of fantasy with women in it, but not much about women, so The Ladies of Grace Adieu at least offers something which feels fresh. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Susanna Clarke goes next!logabktitlepgblog

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon for XBLA, PSN and PC

I think when people were guessing where Ubisoft would go with Far Cry 3 DLC, no one would have guessed this. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon isn’t technically DLC; it’s a standalone download, but for all intents and purposes that’s what it is, and as a piece of DLC it’s remarkably ambitious. That ambition doesn’t quite transfer into a great game, but I’d like to see more DLC releases as audacious as Blood Dragon.

Blood Dragon has nothing to do with Jason Brody and his violent island adventures, and instead takes place in the desolate nuclear wasteland of 2007. The protagonist is Rex Powercolt, a ‘Cyber Commando’ who is sent to an island to investigate the rogue Cyber Soldier Colonel Sloan. Blood Dragon is a parody of 80s action sci-fi cinema, as well as gaming in general, with an overblown and ridiculous story wrapped in 80s cheese and nostalgia.

Sadly, the setting, so full of promise, doesn’t really work. The post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland is thoroughly unconvincing, largely achieved by placing a haze-y red fog over the existing tropical islands of Far Cry 3. I understand that a complete overhaul of style is a big ask, but it does lead to the open world of Blood Dragon being no fun to explore at all. Far Cry 3 motivated exploration by being beautiful, but it is possible to inspire exploration through desolation (just look at the Fallout series). Blood Dragon does not succeed here, with the red haze simply making everywhere feel this same, as well as providing an abominable draw distance. Still, I’m optimistic for the future of this setting; the lead voice actor Michael Biehn has implied that Blood Dragon may trigger its own franchise and get away from its Far Cry roots, which is exactly what it needs to do.

I wasn’t expecting a complex or nuanced story, but I was hoping for an entertaining one, and Blood Dragon is thoroughly lacking in that department. There’s that saying that any parody must be distinguishable from what it is parodying, and Blood Dragon really doesn’t succeed there. It doesn’t help that the majority of the story is told through, initially charming, 16 bit cutscenes. These gave a nostalgic kick at first, but they’re far too long and thoroughly outstay their welcome. The plot of Blood Dragon isn’t even funny; there are lots of laughs here, but they’re largely in moments unrelated to the plot, in amusing codex entries and a hilarious tutorial.

Happily though, Blood Dragon is a lot of fun to play. The mechanics of Far Cry 3 are subtly tweaked to create a fresh feeling experience; the main difference is that Rex Powercolt is much faster than Jason Brody, leading to a more ‘run and gun’ feel to Blood Dragon. Stealth is still an option, and generally nets greater EXP rewards for the linear levelling system, but running and gunning is just as viable an option. The most obvious gaming addition are the titular Blood Dragons themselves, which are essentially dinosaurs which fire lasers out of their heads. They function like a souped-up version of the predators in Far Cry 3, and can be lured into enemy encampments to wreak havoc. Although they’re not particularly well implemented, it’s hard to complain about any game which lets you summon laser dinosaurs to kill your foes whilst you watch on and cackle with glee.

Blood Dragon looks like it should be a decently lengthy release, but it really isn’t. The handful of main missions are fun, but it’s otherwise packed with short, underwhelming side missions. The side missions were weak in Far Cry 3 too, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. There just isn’t nearly enough bang for your buck here, although this package does show surprising value in other ways.

Although as I mentioned before I through that the physical setting was weak, almost every other element of the presentation is excellent. Michael Biehn’s rasp serves as a great double parody of both his own 80s film career as well as other videogame protagonists, and the voice acting is able enough for the supporting cast as well. The real highlight of this game for me had to be the soundtrack, filled with pumping synths and the odd hilarious power ballad. The music was provided by the videogame metal band Powerglove, and it’s their contribution which really sets this release apart.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is fun whilst it lasts, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. Still, you’ve got to respect a release as audacious, and even if Blood Dragon doesn’t work, I still respect the effort and care which went into this release. Blood Dragon feels like a prototype for something better, but as a product in itself I can’t really recommend it until it gets a price cut. far-cry-3-blood-dragon_1_pac_m_130412160904

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

After thoroughly enjoying The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, I was eager to jump into Jasper Fforde’s third novel in the Thursday Next series, The Well of Lost Plots. Happily, the standard remains high; even if The Well of Lost Plots is not quite as good as the first two, it’s still a lot of fun.

The Well of Lost Plots picks up right where Lost in a Good Book left off, with a pregnant Thursday Next laying low in the BookWorld to avoid the clutches of Goliath and SpecOps in the real world. Thursday is hidden in ‘Caversham Heights’, a detective potboiler set, somewhat hilariously, in Reading, whilst she also undergoes training with Jurisfiction, the BookWorld equivalent of the police force. On the eve of the release of the ‘UltraWord’ update to book technology, several Jurisfiction agents are murdered and it falls to Thursday to solve the mystery. Throughout all this Aornis Hades continues her assault on Thusrday’s memories, trying to make her forget that Landen, the father of her child, ever even existed.

This novel takes place almost entirely in the BookWorld, with the alternate universe setting established in The Eyre Affair appearing only briefly. I wasn’t at first quite sure if that was a good idea; the BookWorld is incredibly entertaining, but the best wacky science fiction/fantasy settings have a grounding in amusing mediocrity and believability as well; it’s this quality which I think gives Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork its charm. The lore of the BookWorld is thankfully built as well as that of the ‘real world’, allowing a whole new range of bizarre silliness to amuse and delight the reader. With every book of Fforde’s I read I become more and more convinced that his comic worldbuilding abilities stand alongside Douglas Adams and Pratchett.

Although the first two novels also followed the ‘seemingly separate plot strands all converging together at the end’ plot structure, it’s all a little bit too directionless here. It takes a good third of the book to really get a sense of narrative thrust, with the early sections largely involving Thursday being introduced to new elements of the BookWorld; don’t get me wrong, these scenes are entertaining, and I’m glad they’re there, but it leads to the novel having a slightly dodgy sense of narrative flow. The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book were a bit loose structurally too, but it’s more of a problem in The Well of Lost Plots. Still, when the actual plot properly gets going it’s a lot of fun, and this is still a great book, just not quite as great as the first two.

In terms of pure laugh out loud moments these books just get better and better. Being set in the BookWorld, there’s a massive reliance of literary references, and if you’re not particularly familiar with at least a decent chunk of the English canon that might lessen the appeal. That’s not to overstate my own knowledge, there were vast swathes of this novel that left me clueless, but you can’t study English literature for three years without picking up some stuff. The fact that this book is literally set inside the abstract concept of literature allows for all kinds of silly and fun little gimmicks; a section where Thursday travels into the footnotes, whilst the characters of the main text continue on unawares, was a particular highlight, but this book is filled with moments like that. Fforde keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, and techniques which would be awkward or obnoxious in a less irreverent author are always fun and entertaining here.

Thursday is a great protagonist, tough, stoic and incredibly likeable; she’s the sort of character that you want to go out for a drink with. The supporting cast of the ‘real world’ in the first two novels are largely absent here, with the literary characters introduced in Lost in a Good Book standing in as good replacements. Great Expectation‘s Miss Havisham is a standout, but this novel is filled with amusing literary cameos, with some of the best including Sir John Falstaff, Count Dracula, Prometheus and Heathcliff. Fforde is great at undermining our expectations of these characters, whilst remaining true to their source works to mine for some great comedy.

The Well of Lost Plots may be a bit of a mess structurally, but it’s an incredibly entertaining mess, and essential for anyone who enjoyed the previous adventures of Thursday Next. Fforde has written plenty of books about this character, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into this weird and wonderful world that he has created. thewell

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels ever written, and one which took me far too long to get around to. Intensely moving and beautifully written, Flowers for Algernon hasn’t aged a day since its original publication in 1966.

Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of Progress Reports by Charlie Gordon, a severely retarded young man with an IQ of 68. Charlie has been chosen to take part in an experiment aimed to raise human intelligence, an experiment which has already succeeded on the laboratory mouse Algernon. The experiment is a success, and Charlie rapidly rises to genius levels of intelligence, whilst remaining an emotional child, but as he sees Algernon begin to regress to his previous intelligence he realises the tragic fate in store for him.

This isn’t a novel necessarily concerned with big science fiction ideas, but is more about the philosophy of what makes us human. Throughout Flowers for Algernon Charlie rejects the notion that before his surgery he wasn’t completely human, that it his intelligence which gives him value. Flowers for Algernon is a meditation on how we treat the most unfortunate members of our societies, with kindness, but also condescension and a lack o f respect for their essential humanity and equality to ourselves.

Charlie’s intellectual journey is fascinating to follow, although things do get a little bit bogged down towards the middle. Charlie spends slightly too much time wallowing in existential angst, with the most interesting elements coming from the contrast between his extreme intelligence and his stunted emotional and sexual development. The best parts of the novel lie in its beginning and end, as Charlie travels from idiocy to genius and then his journey back. Flowers for Algernon is based on a much briefer short story, and as such there’s some stuff that feels like padding, but by and large the added length only serves to give us a deeper insight into Charlie, and that’s definitely worthwhile.

Keyes conveys Charlie’s good natured stupidity with compassion and restraint, resisting the urge to mock or to stereotype in his portrayal of gentle stupidity. Charlie growing grasp of English as the novel goes on is handled in a brilliantly smooth fashion, and it’s difficult to pin point the exact moment that Charlie transitions from the punctuation free naive rambles of his earlier self to the tormented genius he becomes. Keyes is equally good conveying genius and idiocy; this is the perfect way to tell this kind of story, and I cannot imagine it working in any other medium.

This is a deeply personal story, with the only real character of depth being Charlie. Charlie is understandably self obsessed, with his attempts to comprehend his life with an IQ of 68 as a genius standing as the most fascinating element of this book. The supporting cast is interesting, although I wasn’t crazy about the character of Alice, Charlie’s former teacher and future love interest. She’s a rather pathetic character, prone to sobbing, and it’s difficult to see what Charlie sees in her. Still, this is Charlie’s book, and Charlie is one of the most human, interesting and tragic characters to ever grace science fiction.

Flowers for Algernon is another novel which offers just as much to non sci-fi fans as it does to genre devotees. Whatever branch of literature you prefer, Flowers for Algernon is worth reading. Sure, the novel is a bit flabby around the middle and the romantic element fails to convince, but these are quibbles in an otherwise great novel. flowers-for-algernon-red

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I wasn’t that crazy about Dishonored, and I’m really not sure why. There are just so many elements that I feel that I should like, elements which I love in other games; a strong vivid fantastical setting, a clever story and crazy powers, what’s not to like? Yet somehow, Dishonored just didn’t come together for me. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it, but it just didn’t quite resonate with me the same way that it did for a lot of other people. Still, I felt that it was worth another look, and this new DLC, The Knife of Dunwall, was a perfect opportunity to try and find the core that made Dishonored so beloved. It’s a mixed success; there are three missions, two representing Dishonored at it’s very best and another at it’s very worst.

In The Knife of Dunwall we take control of Daud, the assassin of Empress Kaldwin. The plot takes place after her assassination, during the reign of the Lord Regent and Corvo’s imprisonment. We immediately find that Corvo wasn’t the only one contacted by the mysterious Outsider, as Daud is given a directive by him to solve the mystery behind the name ‘Delilah.’ Daud journeys into Dunwall with his cabal of assassins to find out who, or what, Delilah is.

Dunwall was a pretty great location, not up there with the Raptures and City 17s of the world, but great nonetheless. The first mission of this DLC shows us a side of Dunwall hinted at in the main game, but hitherto unseen. We know that Dunwall is a whaling city, it’s very existence hanging on power generated by whale oil, but the grisly reality of this is laid bare in the first mission of this DLC, which takes place in a slaughterhouse. Whaling is a key aspect of Dishonored’s lore, and it’s good to see it given a focus here, providing a nasty and vivid location which does a great job of inspiring disgust and a desire for righteous violence in the player. The second location is quite good as well, if not quite as far apart from the locations of the main game as the first, but still quite nice. The third is a massive disappointment, taking place in a map already used in the main game. This could have worked fine, if they’d done something to alter the style and feel of the map, but no effort is made, with this mission standing as a clear rush job. It’s a sad ending to an otherwise strong DLC.

The plot has some very interesting elements, particularly regarding the magical stuff linked to the Outsider, but it’s told in a clumsy and awkward fashion, with Daud failing to really come through as a character; it does make you realise that the blank slate approach, as taken with Corvo, is perhaps for the best in these kind of games. The best element of the plot if Billie Lurk, Daud’s right hand, who pops up regularly throughout the missions to offer violent advice. The fact that this DLC is the first in a two part story doesn’t help, as it ends just as things start getting interesting.

Gameplay wise, The Knife of Dunwall is broadly speaking more of the same, although there are a couple of cool and welcome additions. Daud can summon an assassin to fight by his side, a mechanic which reminded me slightly of the brotherhood in the recent Assassin’s Creed games. The most interesting new mechanic sadly doesn’t quite live up to its potential; at the beginning of levels Daud can purchase upgrades and items, but more interestingly he can also buy ‘favors.’ These favors can be a well hidden rune, the code to a safe or hidden explosives, and it’s a cool reflection of Daud’s greater position of influence to Corvo. Sadly, not nearly enough is done with this new, and interesting, element, and I hope to see more of it in the sequel to this DLC, and even in a sequel to the main game one day.

The new environments look very nice, and the voice acting is generally pretty good. The voice work was sometimes a bit hammy in the main game, but not so much in The Knife of Dunwall. We’re regularly told that Daud is torn and traumatised by his murder of the Empress, but the voice actor doesn’t really convey this at all, with Daud instead speaking in stereotypically gravelly tones. Still, at its best Dishonored had a pretty wonderful atmosphere, and the high production values get these across well in this release, at least for the first two missions.

The Knife of Dunwall is, for the first two thirds at least, a solid and enjoyable slice of DLC, with much better bang for your buck than average. It’s not perfect, with a rushed final act and clumsy storytelling, but it’s still fun, and worth a look if you’re fancying some more Dishonored. Dishonored-The-Knife-of-Dunwall

Lego City Undercover for Wii U

Some games surprise you, providing you with something utterly different to what you expected, and some games are exactly what you expected. This is the latter. This game is regularly, somewhat dismissively, referred to as ‘Lego GTA’ which is…er, exactly what it is. What is surprising is just how fun and charming the end result is, with Lego City Undercover standing as one of the most out and out enjoyable gaming experiences which I’ve had in a while, and probably the best exclusive yet for the Wii U.

Lego City Undercover opens with the return of supercop Chase McCain to Lego City following the escape of master criminal Rex Fury from jail, who Chase had originally put behind bars a few years previously. Chase goes undercover in the Lego City criminal underworld to find where Rex is hiding and put an end to the crime wave that he has orchestrated.

Lego City is in places a somewhat generic setting, but there are certain interesting, and surprisingly beautiful areas. First of all, Lego City is suitably huge, providing a massive environment filled with things to do. Open world games can sometimes feel somewhat empty, as the developers fail to find enough stuff to fill the huge world they created, but this isn’t the case with Lego City Undercover. You’re never far from a side challenge to complete, a ‘Super Brick’ to build new structures in the city, a new vehicle or new Lego minifigure to play as. Lego City feels packed with content and things to do, although it’s all somewhat skin deep. To criticise a game like Lego City Undercover for not being immersive seems a bit silly, but this is a key aspect of open world games, that element which made Skyrim, Fallout 3 and GTA 4 so brilliant. Some environments really stand out though, such as the gorgeous national park and the glitzy Time Square parody, and exploration of Lego City never gets dull.

I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but the plot of Lego City Undercover is highly entertaining. If loving the humour of games like this makes me childish then I guess I’m childish, because this game regularly had me in stitches. Chase is an endearing protagonist, part Zapp Brannigan-esque swagger and part genuine badass, I enjoyed following his story and the amusing characters which he encounters. As with many elements of this game, there’s more effort put into it than it necessarily really needs, but it’s these funny moments which will stick in my mind more than the gameplay.

The actual gameplay of Lego City Undercover will be very familiar to anyone who’s played a Lego game before. There are lots of simple puzzles, basic combat, collecting and building, with the twist lying in the open world. The puzzles are built around Chase’s eight disguises, each equipped with different abilities, and can be swapped around in an instant. It’s always obvious where to go next to solve a puzzle, but it’s oddly compelling, if fairly mindless, stuff. This being a GTA style game, there’s lots of driving involved, and most vehicles actually handle fairly well. The exception lies in motorbikes and quadbikes, which are cursed by floaty and lacklustre handling, but by and large driving is fun. The biggest flaw in the central mechanics lies in the highly dull combat; combat has never been a strong point in the Lego games, but wailing on enemies with a Lego Lightsaber or  zapping foes with a Lego wand was much more fun than this. The combat is based upon grappling and throwing enemies, with a simple countering system thrown in as well. It’s just so simple and dull that I wonder why it was included at all, the game doesn’t need it and it actually would have been rather bold to create a game like this with no combat, rather than tacking some on where it’s not needed. Still, Lego City Undercover is mostly a lot of fun to play, and Traveller’s Tales clearly have the mechanics of these games down to an art now. If there’s one element which holds this game back it’s the absolutely insane loading times. I’ve honestly never played anything else quite like it. I kept a book next to me so managed to avoid boredom during these, but the particularly impatient will hate this.

There’s a vast amount of content in Lego City Undercover, and a surprising amount of it is well designed and fun. Alongside missions taking place in the main Lego City sandbox, there are 15 ‘Special Assignments’ which follow a more tradition Lego game structure, basically big levels filled with puzzles and things to do. These are a lot of fun, and often involve some surprisingly epic set piece moments. In games packed with collectibles, as Lego City Undercover is, it’s important that these collectibles are hidden cleverly enough to be fun to find, and Lego City does this well. I don’t have nearly enough time to get even close to 100%, after completing the story and harvesting a decent amount of the collectibles I only reached 26%, but I suspect that doing so would be quite a fun and satisfying experience, and perfect for kids. This is the kind of game that I would have gone insane for as a kid (although I still have a huge amount of fun as an adult). There are plenty of side activities too, from the predictable such as bonus arrests to time trials and police chases to the amusingly bizarre such as finding pigs to launch from cannons and aliens to capture. Seriously, this is a game simply packed with content, even by the standards of a genre which doesn’t usually lack for stuff to do.

One of the most pleasant surprises of Lego City Undercover is the voice acting, which is charming and funny throughout. Fun turns from the likes of Peter Serafinowitz and Adam Buxton add to the proceedings, with the absolute star having to be the infectious energy of the bumbling cop Frank Honey. I’ll confess to being an absolute sucker for good naturedly stupid characters, and Frank had me chuckling at his adorable dumbness throughout. This being a Lego game there’s only so much you can do with character animations, but they manage to be surprisingly expressive. Super stylised games like this are often actually the best for conveying expressions; remember Wind Waker? Ok, this game isn’t visually amazing or anything, but it certainly looks nice, and certain set pieces are as stunning as any in major ‘adult’ gaming. Seriously, the final five minutes of Lego City Undercover is one of the most epic moments which I’ve ever seen in a game, all the more amazing for being so unexpected. Another wonderful surprise is the fantastic soundtrack; the licensed music, such as Katrina and the Wave’s Walking on Sunshine, is nice, but it’s the original score which truly stands out. There’s some truly epic orchestral stuff, as well as some cool 70s police show style funk. One tune in particular was one of the most uplifting and joyful pieces of game music which I’ve ever heard, instilling the kind of feeling in me which the Gusty Garden Galaxy theme is Super Mario Galaxy, the Great Sea theme in Wind Waker and Hyrule Field theme in Ocarina of Time gave me. This music played whenever you rode around on a pig, with the juxtaposition of the uplifting and the ridiculous encapsulating the charm of this game in a way which nothing else can. It feels bizarre writing this, but Lego City Undercover has my favourite video game soundtrack since Skyrim.

Lego City Undercover isn’t going to convert people who are already resistant to the Lego formula, but for those who are highly susceptible for charm and humour, Lego City Undercover will be an absolute treat. This is a game packed with content and effort, and is probably the best game released so far for the Wii U. lego-city-undercover-walkthrough

The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

The Desert Spear is the second in Peter Brett’s ‘Demon Cycle’, and the sequel to the enjoyable The Painted Man. I enjoyed the first novel, but it didn’t blow me away, and although The Desert Spear has built my interest in this series, I’m still not quite convinced. It’s certainly a more assured release than the original, and I enjoyed it more, but there are many elements which hold it back from greatness.

The Desert Spear continues the stories of The Painted Man’s main POV characters, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer following the battle of Cutter’s Hollow, now renamed Deliverer’s Hollow with many believing Arlen, the Painted Man, to be the Deliverer of legend. However, Arlen and co. don’t show up until about 250 pages of the novel, with the opening telling the story of Jardir, the Krasian Shar’Dama’Ka who betrayed Arlen in The Painted Man, stealing the Spear of Kaji and naming himself the Deliverer. Jardir has led a Krasian army to the north, seeking to subjugate the northern kingdoms of Thesa to prepare for the final conflict with the Demons. Another minor character from The Painted Man plays an increased role in The Desert Spear; Renna of Tibbett’s Brook, Arlen’s betrothed before he fled his hometown to become a Messanger, finds herself left alone with her bestial rapist father Harl.

Brett doesn’t expand his setting at all in The Desert Spear, instead giving us more detailed depictions of places already seen. This is actually very well handled as interesting, but poorly developed, locations from the first novel become much better fleshed out in this book. The martial cruelty of Fort Krasia and the parochial small-mindedness of Tibbett’s Brook stand out in particular. I had been concerned as to how much Brett could really achieve in the world building in this series, with the world failing to quite come alive for me in The Painted Man, but this depth rather than breadth approach serves the series well. Still, the world of the ‘Demon Cycle’ is really all about atmosphere, the atmosphere of fear created by the nightly rise of the corelings. We gain a few new hints about the very interesting sounding ancient past of this setting, not much, but tantalising nonetheless, and I certainly hope to learn more in future novels.

The Desert Spear doesn’t really forward the plot a huge amount from the much faster paced The Painted Man, although I don’t know if this is nearly as much a problem as some critics have suggested. It’s true that the focus upon flashbacks might alienate some, but I personally loved learning Jardir’s past, with these sequences standing as some of my favourite in the book. Again, many didn’t like the sudden switch to Renna’s storyline, and at first I could see their point, but as the novel went on and I could begin to see where Brett was going with this it all made sense. Renna’s character arc is probably the best of the series so far, and the one which I’m most looking forward to following up in The Daylight War. Brett’s writings are still somewhat problematic though, with the clumsy parallels to Islam in the Krasians in the original only getting worse in this novel. However, the worst crime of this novel has to lie in its depiction of rape; the rape of Leesha in The Painted Man was a shocking moment, largely because rape is something of a ‘no go area’ for writers of genre fiction. We can handle murder, but rape is just too dark to write about unless you’re going to do so with remarkable sensitivity. Peter V. Brett lacks this sensitivity. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a woman who manages to put her life back together after rape rather than falling apart, but just how easily Leesha recovers is somewhat nauseous.

Still, in terms of basic prose Brett improves from The Painted Man, with The Desert Spear possessing that easy readability which makes writers such as Rothfuss and Sanderson such a pleasure. Brett is seriously good at writing action sequences, but he has a decent skill with dialogue too. Brett may not have any particular literary style which sets him apart from others, such as Martin or Rothfuss have, but then again neither does Brandon Sanderson and he’s one of the best writers in the genre.

The characterisation isn’t perfect, but where it’s good it’s very good. I already mentioned how impressed I was by Renna’s story arc, and this character came alive for me in a way which the other main female character, Leesha, never quite did. Leesha is that most common type of female lead in fantasy, perfect in almost every way yet through this lack of flaws seeming utterly empty next to the better developed male characters. Leesha’s wit is a redeeming aspect of the character, but her bland perfection turns me of her; the selfish, volatile and not too bright Renna Tanner impresses me much more. Jardir goes from the intriguing enigma of The Painted Man to a well developed and complexly motivated anti-hero, with an interesting contrast between his genuine belief in his status as the Deliverer and his guilt over his betrayal of Arlen, the Par’Chin. I liked the character of Abban too, a ‘khaffit’ second class citizen who nonetheless rises to a position of power, and Rojer is every bit as likeable in The Desert Spear as he was in The Painted Man, although he doesn’t end up with a huge amount to do. The central figure of Arlen is very well handled; often, when the naive farmboy becomes a hero of legend, they lose their humanity and charm (just look at Rand al’Thor in the middle Wheel of Time books), but Brett does a great job of making Arlen incredibly badass yet still firmly human. Leesha aside, these are some very well drawn characters, and even Leesha isn’t beyond redemption.

The Desert Spear is another good book from Peter V. Brett, but it’s not good enough to call the ‘Demon Cycle’ great. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m definitely going to persevere with this series, but for every moment of brilliance, and there are plenty, there are clumsy elements which drew me out of the story, be it the depiction of rape or Leesha’s poor characterisation. The Desert Spear is a good read, but there’s better fantasy out there. All in all, if you liked The Painted Man, The Desert Spear is a worthy successor.DesertSpear

Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington DLC for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC

I was really, really disappointed by Assassin’s Creed III. It’s a glitchy mess, with mechanics which fundamentally don’t work, but with the odd redeeming piece of genius slotted in there. I wouldn’t have bothered with this DLC if the premise hadn’t intrigued me so much. This DLC was released in three parts, The Infamy, the Betrayal and The Redemption. I decided to review all three together when they were done rather than each individually, as the episodic nature of these releases interested me, and had potential to be something very clever; that was naive of me.

The Tyranny of King Washington begins as Connor awakens in a strange alternate reality. Here, George Washington had come into the possession of an Apple of Eden, and corrupted by its power, has declared himself King and rules as a dictator. On a more personal level, Connor is shocked to find his mother still alive in this reality, and responsible for enraging Washington to such an extent that he is wreaking bloody vengeance upon the entire Native American people. Connor is drawn into the rebellion against Washington, with his campaign against him bringing him back to the Frontier, then Boston and finally to New York, the seat of Washington’s power.

The Frontier and Boston are disappointingly unchanged, with the new missions taking place entirely in locations that we’ve seen before. New York is slightly better, with a striking pyramid under construction by Washington dominating the sky line and altering the feel of the city. The alternate history concept of The Tyranny of King Washington is an intriguing one, but all too much the world of Assassin’s Creed III seems unchanged. New York was a nice step, but it’s not enough.

There is an element of fun seeing famous historical figures either becoming patsies for the corrupt Washington monarchy, such as Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold, or parts of the rebellion, such as Sam Adams or Thomas Jefferson, but this is really the extent of the fun. The plot looks like it’s leading towards some interesting places towards the end, but it doesn’t really. The rich potential for this sort of setting just isn’t lived up to in The Tyranny of King Washington, which is a bitter shame as it was the plot which most drew me to this release.

Unlike a lot of DLCs, The Tyranny of King Washington actually introduces some new gameplay elements, and these are a surprising amount of fun. Connor gains access to three ‘spirit animal’ powers, earning one in each instalment. These powers sap Connor’s life, so they must be used carefully, and deciding when to use them introduces a rewarding risk/reward tactical element. The power of the wolf, introduced in ‘The Infamy’, allows Connor to turn invisible for a short time, making the interminable stealth sections much more fun, as well as to summon a pack of ghostly wolves to fight at his side. The power of the eagle is introduced in ‘The Betrayal’, and is my favourite of the three. It allows Connor to fly between ledges, as well as launch long ranged aerial assassinations, and it makes traversing the rooftops of Boston and New York much more fun. Sadly, the third power is by far the worst, the power of the bear, simply allowing Connor to smash the ground and send out a blast radius which throws back or kills nearby enemies, as well as breaking down barriers. It’s not particularly fun or interesting when compared to the wolf or the eagle. Overall though, these powers are fun and work well, but the whole experience is held back from being too much fun by the underlying flaws in Assassin’s Creed III’s mechanics.

 

The game is as clunky, unsatisfying and unintuitive as ever, and at times is actually worse. The plot requires Connor to be a constant target, but this means that Connor is relentlessly being chased or attacked by guards, with no way of lowering infamy as in the main game. A decent run across one of the environments is simply impossible, as you will be attacked along the way, with little way to avoid it. As I said, I’m aware that the plot demands this, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

This DLC is at least a rich feeling package, with well directed cutscenes, and decent voice acting. The voice acting for Connor is actually better and more human than in the main game, which is nice, with Washington coming across as suitably malevolent.

The biggest issue with this DLC however is that most common of issues; it’s shockingly overpriced, even by Ubisoft standards. Splitting the story into three parts isn’t a clever storytelling technique, it’s a way of masking how lacking the content of this release is. A purchase of all three parts will set you back 2400 Microsoft Points (or whatever your virtual currency), for about seven hours of gameplay. By comparison, each of the excellent Borderlands 2 DLCs offer twice as much content for a third of the price. This is a simply pathetic release, and I really need to learn to be more cynical. The debacle of the Darksiders II DLC should have warned me never to trust in a Season Pass, and I’m so utterly disgusted by the failure of this product to deliver value for money that I doubt I will ever purchase another one again. Sadly, this anger is the greatest impact that this DLC made upon me.

Like the vanilla release, The Tyranny of King Washington contains flashes of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity. Yes, the alternate history plot is interesting, the animal powers are fun and the ship battles still rock, but they can’t elevate the experience above the incredibly flawed mechanics, all whilst offering staggeringly bad value for money. Even at half price this would be too expensive.

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