Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “March, 2015”

Grand Theft Auto V for PS4 and Xbox One

There aren’t many games for which I’d shell out money for a remake less than 18 months after the initial release. The fact that I have is a testament to just how impressive I find GTA V and this remake. It’s funny, this game sold like hot cakes yet I don’t know a single other person over the age of 18 who actually likes this game. Call me a philistine; I love it and Rockstar have absolutely raised the bar when it comes to current gen ports of last gen games.

I covered everything about the game itself when I reviewed GTA V when it first came out, so I’m just going to focus on what’s new. There are a few new cool additions, such as peyote plants which let you play as animals and new songs for the radio. The game also looks much better. Sure, it still doesn’t run at 60fps but the roughness around the edges has been smoothed over. People often criticise games like these for the amount of time spent travelling between actual major content rather than actually taking part in missions. I can see the issue, but for me I derive a huge amount of pleasure in just getting around, even if it’s to the same places. I gained a pretty familiar understanding of the geography of Los Santos and the surrounding environs and it’s a genuine pleasure for me to just drive around and soak up the atmosphere. I enjoyed this on the Xbox 360, but everything looked just that bit nicer on PS4 and really brought the setting to life.

The biggest addition, and the one I appreciated most, was the inclusion of a first person camera perspective. Now, I’m not saying that it’s better than the third person mode, in fact if playing for the first time it almost certainly isn’t, but it’s also a huge incentive to replay. I played the whole thing in first person, on foot and driving. The whole thing is very customisable; for example, I had it so that when I went into cover it popped out into third person in the style of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The perspective that you play a game is one of the biggest design choices that a developer must make and it’s frankly astonishing that the first person mode for a game designed for third person isn’t just functional, it’s fun. This feature alone sold me on this remaster, with new first person animations showing the effort that Rockstar put in. They could very easily have buffed up the graphics and added in a few more songs then called it a day; it still would have sold like hot cakes, but they didn’t. They put in the effort to offer a new way to play the game, one which incentivised me to return to the game a little over a year later, something I have never done before.

GTA may be a behemoth of a franchise, but it’s also one I consider to be a victim of hipster disdain. In gaming circles, it’s really not cool to love GTA V, but…well, I do! It’s brash and unsubtle and I have serious reservations about how it treats women, but it all comes together remarkably well. GTA V was brilliant on Xbox 360 and PS3; now it’s a masterpiece. gta-v-next-gen

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

So, I’m really into historical fiction now. Yeah, that’s a thing. I liked Wolf Hall a lot, although I found the prose a bit frustrating at times and the pacing a little off, it was nonetheless a supremely enjoyable book. The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, improves on Wolf Hall in almost every regard, with irritating writing tics smoothed over and a tighter narrative.

Where Wolf Hall was, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, mainly the story of the rise of Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies is the story of her downfall and the rise of Jane Seymour. Thomas Cromwell is at the peak of his power, with the title of Lord Chancellor of England, his common roots still earn him mockery and plenty of enemies. An increasingly capricious and deluded Henry VIII has fallen for Jane Seymour, an inscrutable and plain young woman and, just as he had before with Katherine, he sets Cromwell to search for a way out of his marriage.

Where Wolf Hall was a bit listless in it’s pacing, Bring Up the Bodies is a tighter, leaner novel with a stronger focus. We all know that Cromwell isn’t going to be able to negotiate a bloodless end for Anne, but the manner of her death is still shocking. Everything in the novel is racing towards it’s inevitable conclusion, with almost every element of the story somehow tying into the eventual beheading. Although Cromwell is a maligned figure in history, we didn’t really get to see much of why in Wolf Hall, but Bring Up the Bodies begins to explore the darker side of Cromwell, suggesting that he is a man with a long term plan who counts the names of all who have wronged him.

The pronoun problem of the previous book is remedied in slightly clunky, but undeniably effective fashion. Now, I looked online and some people liked the confusing use of the word ‘he’ in Wolf Hall, arguing that it reinforced that this is Cromwell’s story. Whilst I appreciate that this likely was a stylistic choice rather than poor writing and see Mantel’s reasoning for doing so, the simple fact was that it made the book less enjoyable to read and now Mantel frequently says ‘he, Cromwell’ when describing an action. It’s a tiny change but one I noticed immediately and made lengthy scenes of dialogue much less frustrating.

As I mentioned earlier, further facets of Cromwell are revealed, but he remains a sympathetic and enjoyable protagonist. Whether the real Thomas Cromwell was like this I don’t know, but nor do I really care. Anne Boleyn is a fascinating figure, loathsome in some ways but difficult not to feel some sympathy for later on. Henry devolves further, with a favourite moment being where he writes a tragic play about his own life and then reads it to himself. Utterly delusional and repulsive, Mantel gives a fascinating insight into a historical figure known primarily in caricature.

I can proudly join the hordes thronging for the final book in the trilogy, with Bring Up the Bodies leaving me completely sold. Historical accuracy doesn’t matter; I don’t care if the real Thomas Cromwell was the monster history has painted to be or if Thomas More was a principled martyr. At the end of the day, I like this story and I can’t wait to see how we get to the inevitable grisly end.

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Terry Pratchett 1948-2015

Apologies if this is a bit rough around the edges; this was written very quickly and in an emotional frame of mind, so there may well be some dodginess in the writing or grammar.

Terry Pratchett has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of his lesser known ‘Johnny Maxwell’ series, which saw its titular protagonist thrown into mad events involving aliens, videogames, the undead and time travel. I still chuckle at the amazing description of the rotund child ‘Wobbler’ running and I last read it well over a decade ago.

As a teenager, I got seriously into Discworld. I’ve read them all and it hasn’t really sunk in that I’ll never read another one. There’s been another Discworld to look forward to for pretty much my entire reading life and now there isn’t.

What truly set Pratchett apart wasn’t his wit or imagination, although he had those in spades; it was his generosity of spirit. Yes, he could be acerbic and biting, with a particular disdain for small-minded bigotry emerging in his later Discworld novels, but fundamentally his writing was a celebration of the variety and range of the human spirit. Sure, they weren’t always called humans; they were called dwarves and trolls and vampires and golbins and orcs, but they were all united in the fundamental message that we can all co-exist, that we have more similarities than differences and that those who think differently can just bugger right off.

I’m worried that his legacy may end up being ‘funny fantasy man’, but he was so much more than that (he was also a very funny fantasy man). Let’s look at his most recent Discworld book, Raising Steam. It was a very funny book about trains, but it also contained a nuanced allegory for Islamic extremism and helped me to appreciate the agony of knowing that your entirely peaceful way of life can be twisted by others into something horrific by extremist forces. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy for fantasy’s sake (the early Discworld books were just that), but as the series went on the series became as much about our world as it was about a flat world supported by four elephants on the back of a giant turtle.

In the Discworld books, Death is a benevolent figure, sardonically chaperoning all to the afterlife with care and grace. I don’t often find myself yearning for the supernatural, but part of me truly wishes that there was a seven foot skeleton in a robe speaking in all-caps shepherding Sir Terry to an afterlife he richly deserves. This kind of immortality may be fantasy, but he has achieved the only kind of immortality truly available on this world; he has created art which has touched the lives of millions and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is in my top five all-time favourite books. I also really liked Ghostwritten, so I don’t know why I took so long to delve into David Mitchell’s other works. I suppose I liked the science fiction elements in those two novels and was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy his books so much without them; I still like the Iain M. Banks sci-fi more than the Iain Banks mainstream fiction. I was wrong to leave it so long; I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and am now energised to make my way through Mitchell’s back catalogue.

This novel takes place as the 18th century turns into the 19th, primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. The Dutch have sole trading rights with the isolationist Empire of Japan and Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk who has travelled to Dejima to make some money before returning to his home in the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart Anna. In Dejima he meets Orito, a scarred yet alluring young midwife, who is being controversially trained in the art of medicine by the enigmatic Doctor Marinus. Taking place over decades, Jacob eventually discovers a dark secret at the heart of the local Japanese power yet in his position is powerless to do anything about it.

Despite taking place primarily in one very small location, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet feels like an epic. As I’ve been finding a lot with historical fantasy lately, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tickled my fantasy bone. What Mitchell captures so wonderfully is just how mysterious and enigmatic a challenge Japan presented to the colonialist view of the East. English and Dutch attitudes to non-white people are made very clear in this novel through some truly nauseating treatment of African slaves and they speak with regular dripping content for Asian people as well. The English and Dutch were fairly used to conquering outside Europe with impunity, until they come to Japan and find a formidable nation that wants very little to do with them and could repel them without too much difficulty. Mitchell manages a fine balance between preserving a sense of mystery in Japan while avoiding the suspect Orientalist simplistic depiction of the East as a magical fantasy for Western consumption. There’s a strong element of magic realism in the whole thing, with Mitchell throwing a few very subtle hints our way that his universe isn’t necessarily one of purely rational science and that forces and energies exist outside our understanding. Mitchell is brilliant at confounding expectations about what a ‘mainstream’ novel should contain. I mean, one of Ghostwritten’s protagonists was an ancient incorporeal being. How cool is that? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t as brazen as that, but it’s possibly cleverer, managing that fine trick of managing to make a story feel both intimate and epic. This is my favourite way to construct a story and Mitchell does it with aplomb.

Another element of Mitchell’s writing I love is his willingness to vary tone and master a variety of styles. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet had some seriously moving moments, some moments or pure tension and yes, some laugh out loud comedy. Again, he does this in a less obvious way than the fractured narratives of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but this marvellously successful attempt at being a literary jack-of-all-trades is probably my favourite thing about Mitchell’s writing. There’s a description of Nagasaki towards the end that slips into poetry, but it didn’t feel jarring or pretentious, it just felt right, perfectly pitched.

Jacob de Zoet is a protagonist that it’s hard not to root for and he’s surrounded by an interesting and likeable cast. My favourite was the plain spoken Chief van Cleef of the Dutch trading mission; I enjoyed his lack of pretention and straight talking, with the Japanese characters also being well developed. The sinister Abbot Enomoto is a great character and Orito is an excellent love interest.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet moved, amused and entertained me more than I was perhaps expecting. For some reason I’d had it in my head that Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were flukes; I’m happy to be proven wrong. I think I have another author whose back catalogue I’m going to obsessively consume! Hooray!thousandautumns-horizontal

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