Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Gearbox provided what is arguably the best value Season Pass yet in its Borderlands 2 offering, with two excellent DLC packs and one mediocre. Thankfully, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is a vast improvement over Sir Hammerlock’s disappointing release, and is comfortably the best DLC of the bunch.

This DLC is all played within the frame of a Dungeons and Dragons-esque tabletop game, with the players being the original Borderland’s Vault Hunters, and the Dungeon Master role taken by Tiny Tina herself. Within the fantasy land of Tina’s creation, the Queen has been kidnapped by the sinister ‘Handsome Sorcerer’, and it’s up to the Vault Hunters to save the day.

After the swampy boredom of Hammerlock’s DLC, it’s wonderful to finally see somewhere so vivid and filled with life, although there’s something of an over focus on grim forests and nasty sights, with the rare moments of beauty actually being rather stunning to behold. Although this DLC naturally plays with and winks at fantasy genre clichés, the manic mind of Tiny Tina ensures that we’ll always have a fresh spin on established tropes.

The plot is actually surprisingly excellent, not just incredibly funny (which, oh my God, it totally is) but also with some genuine emotion and feeling. Gearbox recognise here, in a similar way to how Community did in its second season, the potential in DnD as therapy, with the entirety of Tina’s campaign overshadowed by the death of a major character during the main game. Although Tina’s obviously an entirely ridiculous character, if this DLC fails to genuinely tug at your heartstrings you have a heart of stone.

Naturally, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep is chockablock with references to other fantasy games, books and films, with the best ones being those which are tied into the very missions themselves. There’s an excellent parody of Dark Souls, as well as painfully hilarious Game of Thrones mission, and plenty more. The best parodies are those made by people who clearly love and know their source material, and it’s clear that Gearbox really know their fantasy geekery…and man,  is this DLC funny. Classic characters such as Mr. Torgue and Ellie make hilarious cameos, with the regular  interjections from Tina and the Vault Hunters also providing a lot of laughs. Gearbox also aren’t afraid to turn a mirror to the uglier side of the gamer community, with a great mission about MMO etiquette and a fantastic one in which Mr. Torgue is accused of being a ‘fake geek guy’ because he has muscles and likes sport.

This DLC is a good length as well, with a decent main campaign and plenty of funny sidequests which showcase Borderlands 2 at its best. If all companies offered as much value for money as Gearbox, DLC wouldn’t have as much of an image issue. The new loot is fun too, with the highlight having to be the gun which shoots swords which then explode, turning into four swords which then also explode (designed, unsurprisingly, by Mr. Torgue).

The production is absolutely top notch as well, with a surprisingly lovely soundtrack, excellent voice work and gorgeous visuals. Gearbox really pulled out all the stops for their final Borderlands 2 release, and that effort and investment really shows.

Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is definitely the best DLC for Borderlands 2, and one of the best pieces of DLC that I’ve ever played. Now that the book is closed on Borderlands 2, I cannot wait to see what the future holds for this unique franchise. Tiny-Tina-s-Assault-on-Dragon-Keep-DLC-for-Borderlands-2-Gets-Artwork


The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

The Big Over Easy is the debut novel of the ‘Nursery Crime’ series, a spin-off of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. Thursday’s introduction of nursery rhyme characters into the fictional Reading set potboiler ‘Caversham Heights’ during the events of Well of Lost Plots resulted in the creation of The Big Over Easy. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around, but you don’t really need to worry about it; in fact, there’s no real need to have read Thursday Next’s adventures to enjoy The Big Over Easy.

The Big Over Easy is set in a world in which real life detectives are pressured into appearing as eccentric and entertaining as possible, as with the fictional detectives of our world, so that their exploits can be chronicled in ‘Amazing Crime Stories.’ The test of a great detective isn’t really results or competence, but entertainment value, with alcoholism and broken marriages standing as definite pluses for professional development. It’s a really fun idea, and one that Fforde runs with well. Of course, the other major difference is that nursery rhyme characters exist in the real world, and Fforde does as good a job of making his weird setting seem strangely plausible, just as he does in the Thursday Next books. This setting is, by Jasper Fforde standards, more grounded in reality than his other works, but it’s a potent setting which begs for further novels.

Constable Mary Mary has been transferred from Basingstoke to Reading, and hopes to work with the legendary detective Friedland Chymes, but is instead sent to the NCD, the Nursery Crime Division. The NCD is headed by happily married, non-alcoholic Jack Spratt, and is reeling from the failure to prosecute the three little pigs for the murder of the wolf. Almost as soon as Mary arrives, Humpty Dumpty falls of his wall, and Jack suspects foul play.

Probably the most impressive thing about The Big Over Easy is how well it functions as a straight detective story, although being a tribute to the genre it’s difficult for it to not sometimes fall into the clichés which it is parodying. Still, I found myself getting genuinely intrigued by the case, forgetting that the victim was a giant egg. Fforde writes with a mixture of Douglas Adams-esque exuberance and Terry Pratchett’s sometimes po-faced presentation  of the ridiculous, and it comes together into something oddly convincing. The plot probably could have been a bit tighter, with The Big Over Easy following a similarly loose structure to his Thursday Next books, and it actually felt more noticeable and irritating in The Big Over Easy than in his other works. Fforde writes like an eager puppy, leaping everywhere and filled with infectious energy, which is sometimes a strength but often a weakness, leading to a lack of discipline. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer fun of Fforde’s writing; he clearly just loves his craft. You can always tell the authors who love the experience of writing, such as Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Iain Banks, and Fforde is certainly one of them.

Jack is similar to Thursday; he’s an understated everyman who, while not overburdened with personality himself, is a likeable mirror to the insanity around him. Constable Mary Mary never came alive as a genuinely interesting character in her own right, with the main cast being slightly underwhelming. The supporting cast make up for it though, with my favourites being Spratt’s well depicted family, as well as their lodger Prometheus (who readers of Well of Lost Plots will remember chose to live inside ‘Caversham Heights’) and some of the other officers in the NCD.

The Big Over Easy is fun, but it was still probably my least favourite Jasper Fforde so far. Maybe I just haven’t read enough detective novels to get the references, but I felt that this was by far the messiest novel of Fforde’s that I’ve read. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and worth a look if you like Thursday Next, detectives or nursery rhymes. 90490-doc2fb_image_02000002

Fire Emblem: Awakening: Scramble Pack DLC for Nintendo 3DS

The third DLC pack for Fire Emblem: Awakening is definitely my favourite so far, and actually shows a level of effort and polish which the first two utterly lacked; it’s also very very silly, and chockablock with that uniquely Japanese tradition of sexualised fan service towards popular characters.

Each mission in this pack brings Chrom and the Shepherds to an idyllic location, which is promptly attacked by monsters or bandits; a harvest festival, a beach and a hot springs.

The main draw of this pack isn’t the actual combat, but instead the charming conversations which can be started between certain characters. Not everyone can talk to everyone though, and I recommend looking up who can speak to who before starting each mission to make sure you don’t bring a bunch of characters who don’t gel together.

The beach DLC contains new swimsuit art for four characters, Chrom, Gaius, Cordelia and Tharja, but the translation team have a lot of fun subtly mocking this rather absurd Japanese tendency; to be fair to them, the male characters are genuinely sexualised as much as the female characters, which is something I’ve very rarely seen in a game before. There’s art for the hot springs DLC too, focussing on the younger generation of characters.

The Scramble Pack is actually remarkably well presented, especially compared to the laziness of the previous DLC packs. The beach mission in particular contains a completely ridiculous calypso rendition of the classic Fire Emblem theme, with this attention to detail showing up throughout.

This is a DLC for the people who love the characters and story of Fire Emblem, so those who are focused upon the series solely as an awesome tactical RPG (which it is) may want to give this one a miss. It’s still overpriced, so I can’t recommend this unequivocally, but it’s a lot of fun and definitely the best DLC of the first three.  FireEmblemAwakening1

Gears of War: Judgement for Xbox 360

I think that the Gears of War series is one of the most mechanically solid that I’ve ever played. Epic are one of those companies who just know how to make a game feel satisfying and fun to play, and I always enjoy a new release in the Gears of War series. The prequel Gears of War: Judgement is certainly fun, but it brings very little to the table, and fails to build upon Gears of War 3 in the way that Bungie built upon Halo 3 with Halo: Reach.

Gears of War: Judgement leaves growly voiced human tank Marcus Fenix for another growly voiced human tank, Damon Baird. Baird was always a better character than Marcus; he actually possessed a brain inside his meaty head, so he makes the transition from supporting character to lead well. Gears of War: Judgement is told in a frame narrative, as Baird and his squad, including everyone’s favourite stereotype Augustus Cole as well as a couple of newbies (whose personalities can be summed up as grumpy Russian and girl) are put on trial in the middle of a Locust attack for going against orders. As Baird and his squad explain their actions, we flash back to these events and see what happened. Judgement also contains a brief second campaign known as ‘Aftermath’, which takes place during Gears of War 3.

As much as I like this series, Sera isn’t necessarily the most fascinating or dynamic of gaming locations. Judgement is primarily set in the city of Halvo Bay; the urban setting means that we get none of the natural beauty that we saw a lot of in Gears of War 2, but we do get a few insights as to what a city of Sera may have actually been like before the Locust emergence. Still, I missed the geographical scale of previous Gears campaigns, and the environments of Judgement doesn’t feel quite as varied as in other games in the series.

There was potential for some interesting unreliable narrator plot stuff with the frame narrative, but nothing interesting is really done with it. The prequel nature means that there’s no real tension as to how the trial can turn out. The plot is very easy to forget about, lacking the interesting backdrops that the main series had regarding the nature of the Locust, instead telling quite a superficial story.

There’s little in the way of gameplay changes between Gears of War 3 and Judgement, but it’s so damn solid by now that it’s hard to complain. The gunplay is still flawless, the handling sublime. There are so many little mechanics that I love in Gears of War, but my favourite has to the active reload. It’s a small thing, but I adore it, and it’s this tiny mechanic which defines the series for me. Throughout the campaign there are optional challenges, presented as extra bits of testimony fleshing out the details of Baird’s story. These can range from the simple addition of more or tougher foes, to limitations to certain weapons, a time limit, obscuring dust or slower recharging health. This mechanic is pretty cool, and taking on these challenges is rewarded with faster gaining of stars, which are used to unlock the Aftermath campaign among other things. These stars are the other main addition, a Bulletstorm-esque kill ranking system, although Gears of War naturally can’t quite compare to People Can Fly’s earlier game for sheer insanity.

The final major addition is the integration of horde mode style defensive missions into the campaign, with the player generally given a couple of minutes to lay traps, set up turrets and collect ammo before a mob of Locust attack. Horde mode was one of the all time great gaming innovations, and it’s great to see it actually integrated into a campaign rather than kept as a discrete and separate experience.  All said though, whilst these additions are cool, but they don’t really affect the central Gears of War mechanics in any meaningful way, which is both a blessing and a curse. There’s an element of not messing with something that already works, but it can’t be denied that this is a very conservative release, and those hoping for an interesting shake up of the Gears formula will be left disappointed.

Gears of War: Judgement looks gorgeous, as all Gears games do, and the voice acting is perfectly fine. It’s a very sleek looking and playing package, with no corners cut in design, and an impressive level of detail throughout.

Gears of War: Judgement is…well, Gears of War. If you’re not a fan of the franchise, and lots of people aren’t, this game won’t convert you, but hardcore fans will lap it up. For me, I’m not so sure; as much as I like the Gears of War series, I can’t deny that I was feeling overwhelming deja-vu the entire time. It’s a great game, but not necessarily an interesting one. images (7)

The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

The third novel in Peter Brett’s ‘Demon Cycle’ has got some pretty damning reviews, so I was a bit nervous going into it. Although it’s far from a masterpiece, comparisons to the notoriously moribund  Crossroads of Twilight aren’t quite fair; Brett never manages to sink to middle period Wheel of Time levels of pacing. That said, the pacing is an issue, with all the best stuff crammed into 50 or so pages at the end to make way for reams of padding.

The Daylight War picks up immediately after The Desert Spear, just after Arlen and Renna took out their Mind Demon in the north and Jardir, Leesha and Inervera took out theirs in the south. The intelligences in the Core now know the threat the humans pose to them, and plan a terrible strike on Waning, the time when the moon is most dark and their power is most strong. Arlen and Jardir have a month to prepare their forces at Deliverer’s Hollow and Everam’s Bounty respectively , all whilst getting ready for the inevitable conflict between them. At the same time, just as we were with Jardir in The Desert Spear, we are given the story of Inervera, Jardir’s First Wife, a Machiavellian figure who seems to behind much of what goes on in the story.

The Daylight War doesn’t expand the world that much; in fact, we see almost nowhere new from the earlier books, but it does offer some wonderfully tantalising hints about the nature of the Core, and just how the magic of this world works. Brett is stingy with details about his world, preferring to tease them out, and although I’d like a little more clarity, it’s perhaps preferable to the info dumps we see in writers such as Steven Erikson or Brandon Sanderson.

The first two thirds of The Daylight War contain some of the worst excesses of the fantasy genre, with a staggering amount of lengthy travelling scenes whilst very little happens. The Inervera flashback stuff seems entirely unnecessary; it covers a lot of same ground as Jardir’s did in The Desert Spear, and even some stuff from back in The Painted Man. We’ve now seen Arlen’s betrayal by Jardir from three different perspectives. Thankfully, the last third is a grand improvement, with the actual battles at Waning being suitably epic, with a rare moment of joy in the latter third bringing a massive grin to my face. For all of its flaws, The Daylight War has one of the coolest endings that I’ve ever read in fantasy, and I can honestly say that the wait for the next book, The Skull Throne, is going to be quite unbearable. The ending is rushed, which is bizarre considering the padding out of dull bits at the beginning of the novel, but the brevity actually kind of worked for me.

Brett’s a capable writer, although with each book he finds another weird lapse. Where The Desert Spear had a gross overreliance on rape as a plot device, Brett instead makes a transition to ridiculously gratuitous, but consensual, sex scenes. The earlier books weren’t exactly chaste, but The Daylight War takes it to a whole, kind of gross, new level. I’m not opposed to a good sex scene, if done right they can actually be pretty beautiful (look at Jon and Ygritte’s cave scene in Martin’s A Storm of Swords to see a sex scene done right), but they just feel jarring and unnecessary here.

The characterisation was probably at its strongest here; Arlen is still a charmingly human and likeable lead, with his new love interest Renna Tanner standing as a much better character than the Mary Sue-ish Leesha Paper. Leesha’s characterisation is still all over the place, and I felt that Rojer took a bit of a step backwards in this novel. Maybe it was just because it was only here that I noticed just how similar Rojer is to Robert Jordan’s Mat Cauthon, but he just didn’t feel quite right to me. Jardir and Abban over on the Kraisian side are great characters, although Inervera’s flashback journey from timid young basket weaver to dangerous priestess sex goddess is very unconvincing.

The pacing for The Daylight War is bizarrely terrible, but I cannot deny that the closing pages had me utterly gripped. It’s ending leaves me very optimistic for the final couple of books, and hopefully The Daylight War simply stands as the mid series fatigue which hits almost every long running fantasy series. Brett still hasn’t quite refined his craft to Sanderson/Rothfuss/Martin levels, but he’s getting there, and I cannot wait for the next book in the series.  images (6)

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