Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “November, 2015”

The Bees by Laline Paull

When I first read the synopsis for The Bees, I wasn’t exactly impressed. The story of Flora 717, a rebellious young woman in the ‘Hive’ sounded like generic YA dystopian nonsense. I was much more intrigued when I found out that it was about actual, non metaphorical, bees. I kind of love the idea of a book with a bee as the protagonist and Laline Paull genuinely pulls it off. I’ll still kill any bee which so much as comes near me, but I’ll feel a little bit bad about it now, so Paull has succeeded in making me empathise ever so slightly with the horrible little bastards.  
 
Flora 717 is a cleaner bee, of a type generally unable to speak and good for nothing more than basic hive maintenance. The hive is rigorously structured, with the Queen and her attendants at the top with Flora and her ilk right at the bottom. Immediately, it is clear that Flora 717 is different, demonstrating the ability to talk and think independently so she is whisked off to a new life in the larvae nursery. Whilst slavishly devoted to her Queen, Flora’s independent streak sees her take on a variety of roles in the hive, drawing attention to herself and putting her in danger. Meanwhile, the hive is threatened by a range of problems, from immediate threats like wasps to more esoteric concerns such as climate change. 
 
The biggest achievement of this book was the way that it manages to make you empathise with something so alien. It must have been a tricky balance to pull off; on the one hand, the alienness of the bees was the main draw of this book for me but without a somewhat humanised figure it would be difficult to latch onto this book as anything more than a curiosity. Flora’s emotions are recognisibly human, but her way of perceiving and interacting with the world is very different and compellingly drawn. The actual arcs of the story are fairly familiar, but expressed in such a strange way that it doesn’t feel in any way dull.  
 
Paull shows a lot of versatility as she writes, with many outstanding scenes. There are some wonderfully tense airborne battles with wasps and other creatures, with Paull evoking fighter pilots taking down enemy combatants. There are also some really spooky scenes involving spiders which manage to be genuinely chilling, although the most unsettling moment belongs to a lone slug. There are frequent and shocking moments of truly hideous violence, with Paull showing the sudden and unthinking cruelty of nature in an unflinching manner. One of the more bizarre passages involves Flora collecting pollen for her hive, which I can only describe as unsettlingly erotic.  
 
Flora is not a memorable character in of herself, with this being a story which avoids a focus on individual characterisation, which makes sense considering that this is about a hive mind. Probably the most entertaining figures of the book are the drones, rare male bees who exist only to find a princess and breed. They’re all addressed as ‘Sir’ and are amusingly useless, hedonistic and pampered yet spraying pheromones which make the other bees adore them. One in particular, Sir Linden, is one of the more memorable and engaging figures in the book.  
 
The Bees is a strange book which keeps just enough normality to justify its novel length. This is the kind of ambitious idea which could have been unbearable, but Paull pulls it off with aplomb. If the premise interests you as much as it did me, go for it.

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Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

Although I enjoyed The Alloy of Law, it didn’t bowl me over and I wasn’t necessarily particularly fussed about reading further adventures for Wax and Wayne. I was more into The Stormlight Archive and went into Shadows of Self as a Cosmere completionist, but I was more than pleasantly surprised. Shadows of Self is one of my favourite Sanderson novels and the best Mistborn book since the original The Final Empire.

Shadows of Self takes place not long after the end of The Alloy of Law, with Waxillium Ladrian now firmly entrenched as a semi-official lawman policing the city of Elendel. It is a time of great change; the first motorcars are appearing and technology is leaping forward, but the traditional structures of the city remain unchanged. The nobles still wield disproportionate power and the working class remains essentially trapped in their lower position. When the corrupt brother of the Governor of Elendel is murdered in bizarre circumstances, Wax and Wayne, as well as newly installed police officer Masari Colms, are put on the case. Events from the mythic past of Scadrial re-appear and assert themselves on the modern city, threatening to tear it apart.

The greatest achievement of Shadows of Self is that it manages to perfectly balance the intimate and the epic. This isn’t a grand end of the world story like the original trilogy, taking place entirely in one city and mostly over the course of a single night. There’s a relentless pace and build of rising tension throughout as events spin further and further out of control. The tighter focus makes everything much more exciting with this novel lacking any of the standard fantasy bloat. On the other hand, we have our fair share of the epic, with Shadows of Self tying itself much more firmly than The Alloy of Law into the wider history and future of Scadrial and perhaps even the Cosmere itself. Harmony, the God of this world who we knew as Sazed, now holder of the shards of Ruin and Preservation, hovers significantly over the events of this book and there are hints of something vaster lurking in the background ready to show up in later books. This combination of focus and hints of a wider epic narrative is handled pretty much flawlessly; this may be one of the most purely entertaining books that Sanderson has ever written.

I flicked back into my copy of Elantris as I was reading Shadows of Self and was surprised to see how far Sanderson has come. The biggest criticism that could ever be labeled at Sanderson is that his prose may be a little bland, competent and readable but lacking anything too distinctive. Shadows of Self feels like it possesses a more distinct voice than some of Sanderson’s other works, with his underrated ability as a rock solid all rounder still underpinning the whole thing. There’s also an element of social commentary in this one, which I hadn’t ever quite seen to this extent in other Sanderson books. It’s well handled and I hope we get more of it.

The characterisation is generally strong, with Wax being a compelling and enigmatic protagonist. We know enough about him to care, but enough mystery is preserved to make him interesting. The supporting cast really come alive in this one; to mention the best character would be something of a spoiler, but there’s a very well written female character who pops up about half way through and frankly steals the book. I’m not quite so sure about our secondary protagonists, Wayne and Marasi. Wayne is likable and entertaining, but he doesn’t quite gel with the darker backstory nodded towards. Marasi is similarly difficult to dislike, but a bit too perfect to be that compelling; her half-sister and Wax’s fiance Steris is less seen but probably more interesting.
Shadows of Self is a genuinely excellent book and Sanderson has outdone even his own usual pace with another book less than three months away, which is actually slightly ridiculous. I’m now was hyped for The Bands of Mourning as I am for the third Stormlight Archive book, which is the highest compliment I can give.

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Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for PS4 and Xbox One

Remember when Assassin’s Creed was one of the most exciting series in gaming? Although it was mired in flaws, the original Assassin’s Creed combined together a whole bunch of gaming elements which I love (stealth, open world, parkour) in a unique setting. Unlike a lot of people, I loved the modern day stuff and was genuinely excited for the future of the series. Now, I approach every Assassin’s Creed with a sort of weariness, barely able to raise any kind of excitement. Unity was pretty much a disaster, so my hopes were not at all high for Syndicate, but thankfully it’s one of the good ones. Well, decent anyway; in my Assassin’s Creed rankings it comes in at the middle point (II, Black Flag, Brotherhood, Syndicate, Revelations, I, III, Unity). 
 
Syndicate brings Assassin vs. Templar action to Victorian London. Jacob and Evie Frye are the twin children of a legendary English Assassin and have arrived in London following his death with separate aims. Jacob seeks to overthrow Crawford Starrick, a Templar leader who rules London from the shadows and does so by taking down Starrick’s gang, The Blighters, using his own, The Rooks. Evie seeks a Piece of Eden known as the Shroud, desperate to avoid letting it fall into Templar hands. There’s also a little movement in the modern day story, although not much. 
 
I had many many issues with Unity, but the plot was one of the biggest. It was utterly incomprehensible, with nothing to latch onto apart from a fairly uninteresting central romance. Arno was the worst Assassin protagonist of the series and it managed to sideline the French Revolution, one of the most promising settings possible. Syndicate is certainly an improvement, with a compelling and charismatic villain in Starrick and a clear sense of building towards a goal. Unity and, to a lesser extent, Black Flag simply felt like a whole bunch of things happening with little to connect them, but Syndicate does hold together, with everything being in some way tied to the loosening of Starrick’s Templar grip on London. That said, the shift is essentially from ‘terrible’ to ‘mediocre.’ There’s nothing surprising or interesting in the plot and the best that can be said is that it is functional. There are some hints towards traction in the Modern Day story, but at this point I don’t know why Ubisoft still keep it around. The people who hate the modern day story don’t care and the people who like it don’t want it presented to us like this.  
 
The use of historical figures is also pretty poor; we’re a hell of a long way from Assassin’s Creed II’s Leonardo da Vinci, or even Black Flag’s Blackbeard. Figures such as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Alexander Graham Bell show up, but are essentially caricature versions of themselves, containing no depth whatsoever and serving no more narrative purpose than for the sake of a lazy reference. Jacob is simply not a good character, being fairly unlikeable for most of the journey. I think they were going for a loveable Ezio-esque rogue, but he just comes across like an arrogant dick. Attempts at character development are clumsy, awkward and forced. Evie is the better character, but to be honest I think she’s been overhyped. We’ve all been so desperate for a female protagonist that I think that standards have been lowered when she comes up. She may be the first female character lead character in a mainline Assassin’s Creed and hopefully Ubisoft see the positive reaction to her and don’t make her the last as I think they could do a lot better. In classic Ubisoft fashion, the one story beat I actually got a kick out of was contained in some new game DLC PS4 exclusive bollocks. So, sorry Xbox One and PC gamers, you don’t get the best story moment of the game because of Ubisoft being Ubisoft. Modern gaming! 
 
Syndicate’s core mechanics are essentially a refined version of Unity’s. Unity, for all its flaws, made some decent strides, particularly in its animations and ability to move downwards as easily as you move up, but the jankiness was overall even worse than in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games. This isn’t the case now and on a purely mechanical level Syndicate is the most comfortable game in the series to play for years. It’s still got nothing on games like Metal Gear Solid V or even Shadows of Mordor, but it’s better. The stealth has reached a point of being functional, if not actively fun and the combat has been refined too. It’s a lot faster and scrappier and even if it does absolutely nothing interesting, essentially giving up and becoming a slightly worse version of the Arkham combat, it is bearable and at times actually fun, something I haven’t been able to say for the combat in an Assassin’s Creed game…well, ever. There are a few nice fixes, like tapping a button to enter windows after the nightmare that was getting inside in Unity, but this feels like putting a bandage over a problem rather than actually fixing it. The core mechanics are rusty as hell and Assassin’s Creed still really needs to take a couple of years off and reboot all of its gameplay systems. Since that won’t happen, Syndicate does feel like the best it’s going to get.  
 
Assassin’s Creed is a series known for introducing pointless new tools that you never use and marketing the hell out of them, but lo and behold the new tools in Syndicate are actually useful and fun. The most notable is the grapple launcher, which essentially allows you to Batman your way around London. I have mixed feelings on this; Ubisoft essentially admit with this tool that climbing, a core part of the Assassin’s Creed experience, has gotten stale. So rather than replacing it with something else of radically altering the mechanics, it simply eliminates the need for climbing. In practice however, it is fun and satisfying and it’ll be impossible to go back from this in future Assassin’s Creed games. You can also drive around carriages, which has been significantly overhyped as it’s essentially just an (even) more unwieldy version of the horseback riding seen in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games.  
 
One area where Syndicate excels is in its side content and general breadth of things to do. London is split into districts under control of gang leaders and completing side activities such as assassinating or kidnapping Blighter lieutenants and liberating child laborers in factories shifts the balance of power towards the Rooks. These culminate in street fights which eventually allow you to liberate a particular area, lowering Templar presence and generally allowing everything to get a bit more safe. This side content achieves where Assassin’s Creed games often fail; they’re satisfying to complete, make narrative sense and build towards a sense of progression. There are also more story focused missions involving real life figures such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, which are generally quite interesting if rather shallow. There’s an extensive leveling system for both Assassins as well as the ability to upgrade your gang. Unlocking new abilities is undeniably satisfying, although the economy doesn’t really work. Getting money isn’t a problem, but many equipment and gang upgrades require materials which are most reliably found in fairly mundane side activities, like hijacking coaches, races and fighting tournaments. You never feel like you quite have enough, which the cynic in me wonders was to nudge people towards the microtransactions. I won’t harp on about those; they’re so repugnant and pathetic they’re essentially beneath my notice. You can play fine without them and if you have a single mote of intelligence you’ll steer well clear.  
 
My major concern going into Syndicate was the technical side; the frame rate was probably the worst thing about Unity. Syndicate isn’t technically perfect, in fact it isn’t even technically good, but it has reached the minimum standard for acceptability, a relief after Unity failed even to hit that. The cost of that is that the crowds, so impressive in screenshots but unplayable in action, have been cut down. If you were to compare screenshots of Unity and Syndicate you’d probably think Unity the prettier game, but in motion Syndicate wins by miles. The frame rate dipped occasionally, but the flow of play was never significantly disrupted by the technical oddities prevalent in the genre. Syndicate actually looks bloody lovely and I’ll never get tired of the thrill of exploring a faithfully realised vision of world gone by. It’s the only real reason I keep coming back to this damn series. The voice acting is fine, with no real stand out performances. A pleasant surprise was in the music, which changes as you move through different London districts. I’ve never particularly noticed the music in Assassin’s Creed games (Black Flag sea shanties aside), but its actually threaded throughout in a canny and engaging way here. They brought in a new composer, Austin Wintory for this one and I really hope they keep him around.  
 
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is no masterpiece, but it’s a playable and generally enjoyable historical adventure which is good enough for me. Perhaps my standards should raise, but I keep enjoying these games just enough to keep going. Every time they release an Assassin’s Creed I don’t like they follow up with one I do (III-Black Flag, Unity-Syndicate), which means I am not getting my hopes up for next year. If, like me, you still feel an inexplicable fondness for this creaky old monster of a series, skip Unity and come back for Syndicate. 

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A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin

So…yeah, this book is, like last year’s A World of Ice and Fire, basically A Song of Ice and Fire methadrone. I mean, sure it takes the edge off, but it still isn’t exactly the full deal. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collects together George R. R. Martin’s three ‘Dunk and Egg’ novellas, which take place 100 years before A Game of Thrones, when House Targaryen still ruled Westeros.

Ser Duncan the Tall may have later become Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but early in his life he was simply Dunk, an uncommonly large hedge knight of no renown. Aegon the Unlikely was considered by many to be the last truly great King of Westeros, but as a child he was Egg, serving as a humble squire to Dunk. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collects together The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight. The Hedge Knight tells of how Dunk and Egg met and how a Prince of the Realm ended up squiring for a lowly hedge knight. The Sword Sword takes place in the Reach and concerns an old feud between two minor houses. The final, The Mystery Knight, takes place at a tourney where strange conspiracies are afoot. In the background of all three is the relatively recent Blackfyre Rebellion of 15 years before, which saw Westeros torn between the Red and Black Dragons. Although the conflict had ended many years before, the scars are still fresh.

These novellas are generally much more straightforward the main novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, focusing purely on the character of Dunk. The strongest stories are the first and a the third. The Hedge Knight is the closest thing that Martin has ever come to a genuinely courtly scene, although obviously some serious darkness does lurk in the background. It is a simple, charming story which introduces you well to the world of Westeros 100 years before we know it. The second, The Sworn Sword, isn’t quite so good with a core story which isn’t really that interesting and difficult to become invested in. The best part is some insight into what post-Blackfyre rebellion Westeros was, with some interesting parallels to the War of the Roses and the English Civil War. The symbolism of the Targaryen red dragon and the Blackfyre black dragon certainly mirrors the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York. The final story, The Mystery Knight, is easily the most complex, containing more of the scheming and plotting we expect from Martin. It deals moreso than the others with significant events in Westeros and begins to plot the path towards Dunk’s eventual ascension to Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. It is difficult to review these stories without thinking of The Winds of Winter, the book we all really want and I wonder if these stories would be easier appreciated if released after the series has concluded.

Although I may not have loved the stories as much as I had hoped, Martin’s prose is certainly not to blame. As frustrating as it is waiting for the next book, his work is so finely plotted and beautifully written it’s no surprise. A Knight from the Seven Kingdoms shows a more straightforward writing style, but one that suits well these more straightforward stories.

He brings humanity to his characters better than anyone else in the business and we’ve never really seen a character like Dunk before. He’s a sort of cross between Ned Stark and Brienne of Tarth and it’s a bit of a novelty to follow a character as fundamentally good as Dunk. I would have liked to get to know Egg a bit more; the idea of a Targaryen King who learnt compassion by actually meeting the common folk is an interesting one, but we don’t see enough of this fish out of water narrative. It would have been interesting if Martin had gone for a dual POV for these stories, alternating between Dunk and Egg. The supporting cast are filled with the utter bastards and creeps we’re used to, but don’t have the room to develop as well as we may like.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms simply isn’t going to scratch that Winds of Winter itch, but it’s a nice enough read regardless. I’m aware that this all sounds a bit negative and perhaps I’m being a little unfair; if Brandon Sanderson released a collection of Mistborn prequels I’d probably be all over it, but I’d be secure in the knowledge that the next Stormlight Archive book isn’t too far away. That simply isn’t the case for Martin and these had to be something exceptional to really get me in and they’re not. They’re good, at times great, but this is from an author that I think is the best in the business.

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Tales from the Borderlands for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

I wasn’t particularly excited for this one. I love Telltale games, particularly playing them with my fiance, but I only ever liked the Borderlands universe rather than loving it. I was much more interested in the Game of Thrones adaptation, but here I am, waiting for the final episode of Game of Thrones and barely caring whilst I cannot stop thinking about Tales from the Borderlands. This is Telltale’s best game, beating out The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.  
 
Tales from the Borderlands picks up following the death of Handsome Jack at the end of Borderlands 2 but with Hyperion still floating ominously above Pandora. Down on the planet a mysterious stranger with a shotgun has taken two people hostage and is interrogating them to discover their story. There is Rhys, a Hyperion middle man who betrays his company and his jerk boss to come into possession of an incalculably valuable Vault Key. The other is Fiona, a Pandoran con artist who takes part in a con involving a fake Vault Key. The two worlds collide on Pandora as Rhys and Fiona, alongside a wide cast of allies, work together to find the Vault and gain the riches they crave.  
 
I love when media refuses to abide by a single genre category. My favourite TV shows tend to be dramas which make me laugh and comedies which make me cry and Tales from the Borderlands is the first Telltale game to achieve this tone. The writing for the Borderlands games has always been on a teensy bit obnoxious for my liking, but the comedy is immediately smarter and more character driven than anything seen in the main games. The first episode was mostly played for laughs and I couldn’t really pinpoint the moment when the balance shifted and I was genuinely emotionally invested in these people, but I really was. The writing is genuinely top notch, with even seemingly straightforward characters exhibiting emotional depths and genuinely moving moments. A few characters from the main games appear; some of these appearance feel natural and vital to the story, such as an AI Handsome Jack and Athena, a character from a Borderlands 1 DLC and the Pre-Sequel. Some others feel a little shoe horned in, including some Vault Hunters from Borderlands 1 and 2. Overall though, the writing in Tales from the Borderlands is up there with Telltale’s best. 
 
There’s little in the way of gameplay differences in Tales from the Borderlands, but for whatever reason this was the most fun I’ve had with the actual mechanics of a Telltale game. There’s something about the choreography of the action scenes, particularly in the utterly joyful final episode, that makes you feel more involved than normal. I mean, it’s all an illusion, but it’s a mostly successful one. There’s a neat mechanic introduced earlier on involving kitting your Loader Bot out for battle which doesn’t make enough re-appearances towards the end and Tales from the Borderlands mostly abandons its new ideas as it goes on, which is a shame because it was aiming for something a little different. Let’s be honest though, no one is playing these for the mechanics.  
 
Congratulations Tales from the Borderlands, you’re the first Telltale game which isn’t a weird technical disaster! Sure, there’s the odd visual glitch, but this is easily Telltale’s nicest looking game ever. It helps that the art style of Borderlands transfers without a hitch over to Telltale’s signature style, but they also feel more expressive and human in their facial expression and movements than has been the case in the past. As you’d expect, the voice acting is outstanding; I have no criticisms and so little of interest to say there. The use of music is really interesting here, with some incredible intro sequences supported with some really interesting and effective music choices.  
 
Tales from the Borderlands may very well be Telltale’s best. Even if you’ve never played a Borderlands game I’d recommend this one; the storytelling is genuinely top notch with a story which varies compellingly between comedy, action and drama. This is not one to miss. 

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