Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “June, 2016”

The Walking Dead: Michonne for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

I’ll confess straight up that I’ve never watched The Walking Dead TV show or read the comic and so went into this with no idea who Michonne was. My experience is likely very different to someone who is familiar with the character, but I approached this as a fan of the games and Telltale in general. That said, The Walking Dead: Michonne made me more interested in watching the show than anything else has previously.

Michonne, a lawyer before the zombie apocalypse and now a machete wielding badass, has found herself with a group of survivors on a ship. When following a distress beacon, Michonne and Pete, the captain, find themselves taken to the floating settlement of Monroe. It isn’t long before things start to go wrong as misunderstanding and distrust begins to descend into violence.

There’s a feeling in the first episode of The Walking Dead: Michonne that it is going through the motions slightly. I felt like I was seeing a lot of familiar stuff and I’ve only ever played the games, much less watched the show or read the comics. There’s a frustrating predictability in how everything descends into chaos but things improve greatly in the second half, as the narrative focuses and becomes much more tense. When the cast narrows down in size and the stakes shrink this game provides some great examples of the unbearably difficult decision making this series is known for. One of the most interesting elements is Michonne’s haunting by the spectres of her (presumably) dead children. This builds throughout the episodes to an intense emotional climax at the end. In some ways the visions of the dead is a cliché, but it’s hard to complain when executed this well. All said though, Michonne grabbed me far less than Season One or Two did simply because none of the supporting cast interested me nearly so much as those from the other seasons.

There is little to discuss mechanically or visually, with it essentially playing the same and looking the same as The Walking Dead season 2. If you found the interactive story/gameplay-lite focus of previous Telltale games grating you won’t like this either.

The Walking Dead: Michonne is, for better or for worse, exactly what it says on the tin. I love playing these games with my fiancé so much that I almost always enjoy them despite their flaws. I’ll only stop playing when Telltale tell a genuinely bad story, which has yet to happen.

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Abaddon’s Gate by James S A Corey

Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in The Expanse and clearly represents a pivot in what the series is all about, shifting in an interesting new direction. Abaddon’s Gate is concerned with the pivot itself and in some ways feels awkwardly caught between what the series was and what it is going to become. That said, the quality of writing is strong enough that the flaws never stop this book being good fun.

After the events of Caliban’s War the protomolecule superstructure around Venus has transported itself to the orbit of Uranus, constructing itself into a vast gate with a mysterious starless void behind it. The arrival of ‘The Ring’ presents a crisis both practical and existential to the governments of Earth and Mars, as well as the OPA. All three major powers in the system send a group of ships to investigate. There are four point of view characters. The OPA have sent the Behemoth, a massive ship built from the salvaged Nauvoo, the Mormon ship which pushed Eros onto Venus in Leviathan Wakes. Bull is the head of security on the Behemoth and must keep the ship together under the leadership of an increasingly unstable captain. Anna Volovodov is a priest who has been chosen to join a delegation of cultural figures who have been sent to examine The Ring and what it might mean for humanity’s place in the universe. Melba Koh is an unstable and violent young woman who has hidden her true identity to get to The Ring and extract a personal vengeance at any cost. Finally, James Holden is back, being haunted by the protomolecule construction of Miller and avoiding The Ring at all costs. Events conspire him to bring the crew of the Rocinante there anyway and all four storylines collide and intertwine at The Ring.

Where Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War encompassed a variety of settings, Abaddon’s Gate is much more focused, taking place almost entirely at The Ring. Where previous books had multiple storylines which gradually converged, here all storylines are in the same rough place very early on. This means that Abaddon’s Gate feels a bit slower paced than the previous books. It hints at being the most epic of the series so far, but in the end it feels a bit smaller. There’s nothing wrong with turning towards being more focused, but considering the scales at play in the previous books Abaddon’s Gate doesn’t get quite as tense. It rattles along fairly well, but a fair bit of this book feels like stalling before we get to the interesting place the next book seems to be headed.

The two authors remain very good at straightforward, compelling and readable prose. The world building is less interesting by the simple fact that it primarily takes place on space ships, without the interesting sojourns onto planets or space stations. The setting doesn’t quite come alive and this make the closing action beats feel a little hollow. The good prose helps carry the, at times, slow pace of the storytelling.

All three of the new characters are interesting and good to follow, but I think it’s fair to say that none of them appealed to me as much as Bobbie and Avasarala from Caliban’s War, two characters who do not appear in this book and that I missed greatly. Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are as charming as ever, although I would have liked to see more of them spending time together. The easy relationship between the crew is a joy. I liked the priest Anna a lot, but Bull is a bit straightforward and I never really bought Melba’s motivation. They’re decent characters, but I can’t say that I’m left clamouring to see more of them.
This review likely reads quite negative, but that’s largely because the positives are simply those elements which build on the strengths of the first two books. There isn’t much to say about them that I haven’t previously. Abaddon’s Gate is a good book and an enjoyable read, but I hope that Abrahams and Franck do justice to the compelling place at which this book is left off. This may not be the strongest book in the series, but it sure as hell isn’t weak enough to make me want to stop.

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Doom for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I have no nostalgia for the Doom series. The original was a bit before my time; the oldest FPS I’ve played all the way through is Half-Life. I appreciated what Doom did for the genre, but a reboot was not exactly on my agenda. After giving it a go though, I ended up really liking it. It felt retro but with enough concessions to modern gaming to make it still feel accessible.

Doom has a story but you won’t be worrying about it much. Demons have overrun a station on Mars after a misguided attempt to harness energy from Hell as an unlimited fuel source. The player character is the Doom Slayer, a warrior who was imprisoned by the demons in a mythic sarcophagus who has now been freed to slaughter demons and close the portal to Hell. Doom has just the right amount of plot, rarely breaking up the action to talk to us. The story isn’t actually bad at all. That said, the player will mostly just be itching to reduce demons to lumps of flesh. The clever part is that the protagonist feels much the same way. He’s silent, but the way he moves makes it clear that he is mostly interested in killing demons and not much else. This creates what I can only call the exact opposite of ludonarrative dissonance; the protagonist’s desires and actions match pretty much entirely with the player’s. It seems obvious, but very few games have pulled this off as well as Doom.

Doom is a mechanically pure game; you’ll do very little that doesn’t involve slaughtering hordes of demons. Doom makes the rare choice to only do One Thing, but to do that One Thing incredibly well. This is shooting at its purest; no cover mechanic, run and gun. This type of shooter has almost died in AAA gaming; even Halo, one of the last bastions, is shifting away from this sort of thing. The first thing that a coddled modern FPS player will notice is that Doom is fast. The pace is frantic and you must be constantly moving; as a loading screen tells us, to stand still is death. You don’t need to reload the guns, meaning that you essentially never have to stop shooting. When you’ve done enough damage to a foe they begin to glow orange and at that point you can come in close for a violent melee ‘glory kill.’ I wasn’t sure how this would work, but in practice it’s wonderful. There’s a sense of rhythm to the core gameplay loop of Doom which I loved; shoot, get close, kill, shoot, get close, kill. Doom almost put me into the trance like state that rhythm games like Guitar Hero can bring about, which is pretty insane for a shooter. The best way to play Doom (at normal difficulty at least) is to turn your brain off and allow instinct to take over, giving Doom a sense of purity missing in many modern shooters. Doom has one of the most solid mechanical bases in any shooter I’ve played; it’s a shame that the bells and whistles on top didn’t quite appeal to me as much.

Doom is a decent length and has a good variety of weaponry. They fit within the standard mold of FPS guns, but are extremely satisfying to use and handle beautifully. Most guns can be modified one of two ways, allowing you a bit of control over your play style. Even after I started picking up chainguns and gauss rifles my favourite was still the trusty double barrelled shotgun. Doom also has a couple of platforming sections, which stunningly actually work rather well. Good platforming in an FPS, I never through I’d see the day. I found the level design a bit less inspired and it’s here where my lack of nostalgia may have affected the experience. I get that Doom is about Martian space stations and Hell, but I got pretty bored of the same-y environments. The Hell setting is open to some weird designs, but mostly it’s fairly conservative fire and brimstone or sinister tomb stuff. If this game gets a sequel (and I hope it does) I would like them to taken us to some more varied and interesting locations within which to reduce demons to their component pieces. All said though, when the core mechanics are this good any other criticisms feel like quibbles.

There’s a good level of attention to detail in Doom. The demon designs are brilliant, with a wide range of enemy designs all looking good and providing a unique challenge. The general feel of the guns are incredible, helped in no small part by excellent visual and sound design. The sound guns make when they fire is an underappreciated art in FPS design and Doom nails it. The soundtrack is classic obnoxious metal. In any other context I don’t think I could bear to listen to it for more than a few seconds but in the heat of the moment it just works. I mentioned before that I didn’t love the general design of the setting, which may just be down to personal taste. I think Doom achieves visually in what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do just isn’t particularly interesting to me. A choppy framerate would (ahem) doom a fast game like this so thankfully the game ran perfectly throughout, without a hitch.

Doom is a rock solid foundation that I hope is built on in a sequel, which the story does set up. Where violence in games can sometimes just be nauseating, Doom is so ridiculously over the top that it feels like a cartoon. Doom is a hell of a lot of fun and I recommend it to anyone who misses the purity of run and gun.

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The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Blood and Wine may very well be the best piece of DLC I’ve ever played. I’m not as dogmatically anti-DLC as some; there has been some wonderful stuff out there from companies like Bioware and Bethesda but Blood and Wine blows them away, offering an experience which I would have been happy to pay double for and an almost perfect conclusion to the Witcher. If this is the last time I get to play with Geralt then at least I’ll know he got a great send off.

Blood and Wine takes place in Toussaint, a small French inspired duchy in Nilfgaard. A series of murders by a mysterious beast have set off panic in the usually courtly and peaceful land and Duchess Anna Henrietta summons Geralt, an old friend, to find the beast and put it down. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem and the seemingly idyllic land of Toussaint is revealed to harbour dark secrets and a history steeped in blood and betrayal.

Toussaint is rather different to anything seen in the Witcher series so far. Some are populated war zones such as Velen and others are relatively untamed and wild like Skellige. Toussaint is a courtly land out of a fairy tale, where tournaments are fought for honour and monsters are only slain to gain the hand of a fair maiden. The arrival of the grizzled and sardonic Geralt into this gives Blood and Wine and entertaining fish out of water feeling. A great side quest sees Geralt having to deal with the bureaucracy in a bank; the sight of the hulking, scarred, twin sword wielding Geralt queuing impatiently is hilarious whilst remaining true to the character. Blood and Wine tells a brilliantly compelling story with a strong streak of moral ambivalence running through it. There are two figures who could convincingly be described as villains, but neither are true monsters and have been hurt greatly and most people would likely do the same as them in their shoes. The main weakness lies in the fact that the core antagonist simply isn’t given enough screen time. We hear a lot about what he has been through, but there’s a bit too much telling and not showing. This is a quibble though; the writing for Blood and Wine is as top notch as it always has been in this series.

Ultimately though, Blood and Wine mostly just reminded me of how much I bloody love Geralt. Most modern Western RPGs have you create your own character, which naturally results in a slight blandness in their characterisation. They can be fun and likeable; I particularly liked my Inquisitor in Dragon Age and my protagonist in Fallout 4, but the very nature of the design means they can never achieve any sort of complexity. Geralt is a deceptively brilliant character; someone hated and distrusted wherever he goes who has moved past anger into an amused sardonic looseness. There’s a feeling that he is gently mocking almost everyone he encounters. The phrase about the deepest waters being the stillest applies to Geralt; he may not show it, but we are given enough to see that Geralt is a man with deep wells of feeling and emotion, which rarely surges to the surface. More so than in many other games, I’m really going to miss Geralt. I suppose the time is right to read the original novels and get my fix.

Blood and Wine plays much the same as the main game, with the slight addition of a new levelling system tied to the Witcher mutations, which gives you something new to plough your points into. The bread and butter is the same, but there are some really cool, fun, interesting missions. I loved how almost every mission in The Witcher 3, no matter how trivial it seemed, had some kind of twist to make it feel special and Blood and Wine continues this. Some of the quests are scary, some are deeply tragic and epic and some are just plain silly. An example would be a Gwent tournament which is being protested by a group furious at the addition of a new deck (which I can only assume is a dig at irate internet commenters.) They didn’t need to do this; I would have been perfectly happy with a straightforward Gwent tournament (I bloody love Gwent) but CDProjekt always do that little more work than they have to. This is a massive expansion which would put many full priced games to shame with Toussaint being roughly the size of Velen from the main game, if more densely populated.

Toussaint is sickeningly picturesque and a true delight to explore and marvel at. It may not compare to the PC on top settings, but I was still bloody happy on my trusty PS4. The new monster designs are brilliant and the characters look appropriately silly; there are definitely a few visual nods to Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The voice acting is outstanding, naturally, with richly realised and complex characters. The Witcher 3 is confident in the willingness of its audience to simply watch its characters talk, which suggests that CDProjekt knew how good the writing is. There’s a bit on jankyness at times, in line with the main game, but nothing which ever drew me out of the experience.

Blood and Wine is a perfect end for an almost perfect game and the send of that Geralt of Rivia deserves. I’m truly going to miss this series. Sooner rather than later I’ll read the books; I’ve grown to love this world and need to spend more time in it. They may not have created it, but CDProjekt did an incredible job bringing it to life.

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Gods of Risk by James S A Corey

After taking a break to tackle new Malazan and First Law books, it’s time to head back into The Expanse. As I did for Caliban’s War, I decided to work up to book 3, Abaddon’s Gate, by reading one of the novellas. Gods of Risk is a much more substantial read than The Butcher of Anderson Station: I enjoyed it very much.

Gods of Risk takes place on Mars, a location we haven’t actually been to yet in the main series. David Draper is the cousin of Bobbie Draper, the marine who teamed up with Avasarala in Caliban’s War, who is now living with her family to recuperate from her PTSD. David is a talented scientist with a bright future ahead of him furthering the growth of Mars. He is also synthesising drugs and selling them to a brutal dealer to earn a little extra cash. It isn’t long before his worlds collide and David comes to understand the brutal Martian criminal underworld.

Novellas in an established setting, which tie into a series of novels, can feel a bit unsatisfying; I referred to some of the stories in Abercrombie’s Sharp Ends as ‘deleted scenes’. The Butcher of Anderson Station was a bit like this, but Gods of Risk certainly isn’t. It tells a neat, tidy, self-contained story and just so happens to include a character from another novel in a supporting role. The main two novels of the series so far have both dealt with the highest stakes imaginable; the extinction of humanity. Gods of Risk shows that the authors are just as capable of playing with lower, more personal stakes, with this novella feeling remarkably tense throughout. There are no major surprises or twists, but it all rollicks along at a nice pace whilst not forgetting to develop its characters.

Gods of Risk is a much more ‘essential’ read than The Butcher of Anderson Station, particularly if you liked Bobbie in Caliban’s War. I read it as a warm up for the next main novel but ended up really enjoying it in its own right. Next up Abaddon’s Gate!

James S. A. Corey - Gods of Risk

James S. A. Corey – Gods of Risk

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

In any year that didn’t contain Bloodborne, The Witcher 3 would be my game of the year. Open world fantasy games are my heroin and The Witcher 3 may be the best ever made. Elder Scrolls have wonderful exploration but lesser story and Dragon Age has wonderful story and less exploration. The Witcher 3 had the best of both worlds. I waited until both DLCs were out to play them back to back and have now finished the first; the smaller, more focused, Hearts of Stone.

Hearts of Stone throws Geralt into the path of Olgierd von Everec, a cruel and capricious nobleman who seeks Geralt’s aid for a contract and also happens to be immortal. After fulfilling his request, Geralt is aided by Gaunter O’Dimm, the mysterious merchant who set Geralt on Yennefer’s path right at the beginning of the main game, who brands Geralt with a strange symbol and uses him as a tool of vengeance against an earlier slight against him by von Everec.

The Witcher 3 did a wonderful job of spending extended moments exploring individual figures. The most lauded of these has been the Bloody Baron, but I also loved Sigismund Dijkstra and the Skellige royal family. Some of these characters were shockingly nuanced and revealed just how superior the writing in these games is to other RPGs out there. I love many of a characters in Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls, but is there a single character there as interesting and well developed as the Bloody Baron? Von Everec joins the ranks of these characters and this DLC is really about him. It’s a relatively focused, character driven story which is where much of the writing for these games is at its best.

There isn’t much new from a gameplay point of view and Hearts of Stone is literally just more Witcher 3. This isn’t a problem with me as the talk/examine/fight structure of this game never really grew stale in my opinion. The focus is on Oxenfurt, the college town in Velen which was perhaps a little underused in the main game. There are some really interesting missions, such as one which riffs on GTAVs heists and one which sees us exploring the memories of a trapped wraith. Hearts of Stone feels like The Witcher in microcosm and I couldn’t really ask anything else of it.

Hearts of Stone is a small, focused slice of Witcher goodness. It may not be as grand as Blood and Wine (review following soon), but it perhaps tells the slightly better story. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of stepping into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, although those days are soon to be over.

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Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

I don’t think Joe Abercrombie really gets enough credit. In a relatively short space of time he’s published 9 novels and all of them have been great, some of them genuinely outstanding. I really liked the Shattered Sea books, but I’ve been looking forward to seeing him get back to the world of the First Law. Sharp Ends, a collection of short stories set in the world of the First Law, doesn’t quite scratch the itch, at times feeling like a collection of deleted scenes, but it sure as hell does whet the appetite for more.

Some of the stories in Sharp Ends follow major and minor characters from the First Law, such as an insight into the pre-torture Sand dan Glokta, or an insight into the earlier lives of Bethod and Logen Ninefingers. The best stories however follow a pair of new characters, Styrian thief Shev and a hulking warrior priestess on the run from her sisters: Javre, the Lioness of Hoskopp. They cross over with other characters from the earlier books, but they stand much better on their own. The stories span a significant range of time, from a decade before The Blade Itself to following the aftermath of Red Country.

Some of the stories which shed a light on the other sides of the novels are interesting, particularly one which follows the collateral damage of Monza Murcatto during her bloody vengeance in Best Served Cold. Some of them feel a bit inessential, being basically little fun slices following familiar characters which don’t exactly stand on their own. That means that the most substantial feeling are those following Shev and Javre. In fact, I would love to read an entire comic fantasy novel following those two. Abercrombie has a greater gift for comedy than many others in modern fantasy and I would love to see him write a full on black comedy, rather than a tragedy with comic elements that has usually been his forte.

Normally I review each story in a collection separately, but I have a job dammit and no time to do so. I can only give a vague big picture overview and that is to say that Sharp Ends is a great collection, one which leaves me hungry to see more of the First Law. Abercrombie is a unique writer in the modern fantasy scene. He’s often classed as cynical, but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Sure, Abercrombie’s characters often revel in their basest impulses and desires, but many are unified by a genuine desire to be better. They don’t always succeed, in fact they usually don’t, but that desire to be better is the interesting part. That doesn’t sound very cynical to me. I’ve read everything Abercrombie’s ever published and don’t plan to stop any time soon.

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